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Friday, Oct. 6, 2006

Beat is back

Two tone comes to Japan

Special to The Japan Times

Spawned by the energy of punk, a new crowd of British bands known collectively as the ska revival, or the two-tone movement, emerged in the late 1970s around the Midlands area. Unlike the mainly white punk groups, bands such as The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat were comprised of both black and white youths, and welded punk's angst to infectious Jamaican rhythms. Although from differing backgrounds, they forged a positive identity of racial unity at a time of prevalent racism.

News photo
Reformed for a world tour, The Beat play at UNIT in Daikanyama next Thursday.

"A lot of the problem was down to confusion," says Ranking Roger of The Beat in a phone interview from Birmingham. "People were confused by people of different races because they thought they didn't understand them. But we soon realized we are all different, regardless of being black or white. And we could form bands, and play well together."

Complementing the vocals of singer Dave Wakeling, Ranking Roger added a bubbly, rhythmic toasting style pioneered by Jamaican DJs such as U-Roy. In 1978, reggae was in the air in Birmingham, Britain's second biggest city, which was already home to the roots band Steel Pulse. That year saw the formation of two new groups, The Beat and another mixed-race band, UB40, who kicked off with sonic dub reggae experiments that backed sharp social commentary. Punk was still active and Roger, like many a youth, was swept up in the tide.

"I was the first black punk!" Roger says with a laugh. "I had dyed hair, ripped clothes and safety pins -- not in my nose, but everywhere else."

The bands first single, "Ranking Full Stop," coupled with a cover of Smokey Robinson's "Tears Of A Clown" came out in 1980 on the 2-Tone label run by The Specials' Jerry Dammers. It was an instant hit. With major labels chasing them in the hope of cashing in on the two-tone boom, "We could choose which label to go with," says Roger, "and part of the deal we got was that we have our own label."

Signing with Arista, the band launched Go-Feet in 1980, which, at first, allowed them more creative freedom and the ability to release untested bands of their liking. But the band also kept its ties to 2-Tone.

"I remember touring with The Specials, and one evening they would be headlining and we opened for them, the next night it would be the other way around. That meant we really pushed each other," says Roger. "If they played before us, we just had to be good. And we gave them a run for their money, too."

The Beat released three albums, starting with "I Just Can't Stop It," which shot as high as No. 3 on the U.K. charts, and featured original compositions alongside covers of Jamaican originals by The Pioneers and Prince Buster. One of the latter, "Whine and Grine," was morphed into the anti-Thatcher plea "Stand Down Margaret," a forthright political statement at a time of apocalyptic ones, coming as it did just after The Clash's "London Calling/Armagedion Time" and before UB40's "The Earth Dies Screaming."

"I don't think we were particularly a political band," Roger says, "but we did come out with some opinions. Still, I think we said to people 'this is what we think, we might not be right, but what do you think?' That way, instead of ramming something down people's throats, we hopefully got them to think about things."

Like punk, the two-tone movement didn't last long, with The Specials breaking up in 1981.

"That broke people's hearts, and when The Clash broke up too, I was heartbroken," he says. "I thought they hadn't completed their work, I really thought that they were on the verge of taking over the world."

Perhaps inevitably, The Beat went the same way in 1983, spawning new bands in their wake. Ranking Roger went on to form General Public with Dave Wakeling, while Andy Cox (guitar) and David Steele (bass) started Fine Young Cannibals. Although many bands, after splitting, have fought over the right to use the name, members of The Beat have been pretty easygoing and the band has since resurfaced in various forms. Forming for occasional gigs, The Special Beat, which includes former members of both The Specials and The Beat, have played in Japan at a number of festivals, and there is also another version known as The International Beat. Joining Ranking Roger in Japan will be members of both these incarnations, as well as original members Everett Moreton on drums and Blockhead on keyboards.

Also on stage will be Roger's 23-year-old son, Ranking Junior, picking up the mic like his father before him. Junior recently featured on the single "Boys Will Be Boys," by The Ordinary Boys, one of a number of young bands looking back to the two-tone days for inspiration.

Asked how he feels about the return of two-tone's hybrid style, Roger laughs again.

"Well, you know, things come around in cycles, maybe it takes 20 years and a new generation of musicians," he says. "It all goes back to R&B -- ska, rock, reggae, punk; it's all a variation on R&B, but it comes out as something else. If the new generation are doing something new and original, then it's great."

The Beat plays at UNIT in Daikanyama, on Oct. 12, doors open 6 p.m; tickets 3,800 yen advance, 4,500 yen at the door. For more information (03) 5459-8630 www.unit-tokyo.com

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