Ranking Roger: the ska dandy who danced to his own beat

When the Beat turned up on Top of the Pops in December 1979, they seemed to be the perfect two-tone band. They came from the Midlands, had their roots in a punk band called the Dum Dum Boys and played a fast, choppy, irreverent take on a 60s classic: Smokey Robinson’s Tears of a Clown rendered as post-punk ska. They had a multiracial lineup – vocals were shared between Dave Wakeling and the Dum Dum Boys’ 16-year-old drummer Roger Charlery, whose parents came from Saint Lucia – and at least one member who performed under a pseudonym: Charlery, who has died aged 56, called himself Ranking Roger, a name based on the old reggae MC’s boast that they were “top ranking”. They had an old ska hero in their ranks – saxophonist Lionel “Saxa” Martin, who was almost 50 when Tears of a Clown made the Top 10, and who had played with Prince Buster and Laurel Aitken in his youth – and a vaguely retro look. In his sharp suit and pork-pie hat, Charlery in particular looked as if he’d arrived at Top of the Pops direct from a 1960s Jamaican dance hall.

They ticked every one of the burgeoning movement’s boxes, but the Beat were not cut out to merely follow in the Specials’ wake. They released only one single on 2 Tone Records before starting their own label, Go-Feet, complete with a logo featuring Beat Girl, a beehive-sporting female counterpart of 2 Tone’s cartoon mascot Walt Jabsco. They were far too musically adventurous to be bound by the ska revival. For all Charlery’s on-stage charisma seemed to embody two-tone’s joyous get-up-there-and-do-it spirit, behind it was an artist bold enough to help break them out of any generic confines.

The Beat performing in 1980.
The Beat performing in 1980.

The Beat performing in 1980.Photograph: Gie Knaeps/Getty Images

Subsequent singles Too Nice to Talk To and Mirror in the Bathroom mapped out the Beat’s own musical territory: little masterpieces of angst and paranoia wrapped in a production style inspired by dub, where reggae and disco rhythm tracks crashed into guitars that sounded either muted and jittery in post-punk funk style or jangled under the same mid-60s pop influence you could hear in the melodies and vocal harmonies.

On albums, they seemed capable of assimilating anything into their sound. When Jerry Dammers attempted to steer the Specials in a direction influenced by easy listening, the debate and discord almost broke up the band. But on the Beat’s 1980 debut, I Just Can’t Stop It, they covered Andy Williams’ Can’t Get Used to Losing You as if it came naturally to them. Its follow-up, Wha’appen?, and Special Beat Service (1983) were more expansive still. The former bore the influence of world music – African rhythms, marimbas, flamenco, calypso – while the latter stirred jazz, tabla drums and zydeco-inspired accordion into the mix. Save It for Later was straightforward guitar pop, while Charlery’s showcase Pato and Roger a Go Talk pure reggae.

By its release, the Beat’s star had waned, at least in Britain. They had been a spectacular live draw, with Charlery their frantic, cheerleading focal point, but in the public imagination they were too tied to two-tone to survive the movement’s waning, however much their records suggested they had outgrown it long before the public did.

In the US, however, they enjoyed an unexpected commercial Indian summer, boosted by support slots with Talking Heads and the Pretenders and regular appearances on MTV. Wakeling and Charlery capitalised on this success when the Beat split up in 1983 by forming the more pop/soul-facing General Public, which at one juncture looked suspiciously like a supergroup. Ex-Special Horace Panter joined on bass, while the Clash’s Mick Jones briefly took up the guitarist’s role; during the Beat’s heyday, Charlery had also performed with the Clash, providing vocals for an early version of Rock the Casbah that went unreleased. General Public was more or less ignored in the UK, but scored a couple of hits in the US: their greatest moment, the effervescent single Tenderness, is still a staple of film soundtracks and TV adverts.

After General Public, Charlery embarked on a solo career. He performed with the reformed Police and recorded with Sting, and put out a couple of solo albums – 2001’s Inside My Head dabbled in drum’n’bass – but he seemed drawn to his past. He joined two-tone revivalists Special Beat and participated in a reunion of General Public – they scored another US hit with a cover of the Staple Singers’ I’ll Take You There, before he and Wakeling each formed touring versions of the Beat.

Related: The Beat's Ranking Roger – a life in pictures

He occasionally talked about retiring to Saint Lucia, but instead carried on a relentless gigging schedule: his version of the Beat released a warmly received new album, Public Confidential, weeks before his death. Its reception revealed a great deal about the regard in which the Beat were held: the fact that their influence outstripped their relatively brief UK chart career and spread far wider than the confines of two-tone or the ska revival was underlined by the tributes that have been paid to him since his death. “We loved the Beat,” said REM’s Mike Mills, “and opened for them on multiple tours just so we could watch, listen and learn.”