Legendary 2 Tone artist, “Ranking” Roger Charlery, passed away Tuesday in his home in Birmingham, UK. The 56-year-old was best known for his work with The Beat (known as “The English Beat” in North America) and General Public.
Charlery grew up in working class Birmingham, one of five children born to West Indian parents. His stage name was derived from the Jamaican culture of “toasting”, a blend of talking and chanting over an instrumental track. “Ranking” referred to being a top-ranked toaster.
Dave Wakeling was the sole frontman when The Beat played their first show in 1979, but it wasn’t long before a 15-year-old Charlery was hopping on stage with the band. “We only had one mic and Roger would come up and grab it, start toasting,” Wakeling told The Quietus in 2012. “Basically, you had to stand there till he was done.”
The 2 Tone scene was unique to late 70s Britain, not just for the sound, which fused 1960s Jamaican ska with new wave and punk, but for the racial makeup of the bands’ members. It was a time when multiculturalism was facing a backlash in the UK and musicians of different ethnic backgrounds simply sharing a stage was considered revolutionary.
The scene never really translated to American radios, but The Beat managed to be the one band to see some success. Their records were picked up by stations like KROQ in Los Angeles and WLIR in New York, eventually leading to MTV, where “Save It for Later” was pushed into rotation in 1982.
It wasn’t until The Beat disbanded that its members finally went on to see mainstream success in the States. David Steele and Andy Cox went on to form Fine Young Cannibals, hitting it big in the late 80s with songs like, “She Drives Me Crazy” and “Good Thing”. Charlery and Wakeling formed General Public, releasing All the Rage in 1984. The single, “Tenderness”, was in heavy rotation on MTV and appeared in a slew of TV shows and movies, most notably Sixteen Candles and Weird Science.
When the band’s second album, Hand to Mouth failed to build on the success of Rage, they disbanded. Charlery went on to record his first solo album, Radical Departure, and worked on several collaborations, including a stint with Big Audio Dynamite.
General Public reformed in 1994 and once again found chart success with their cover of The Staple Singers track, “I’ll Take You There”. They went on to record one last album, 1995’s Rub It Better, but the two had a final, difficult spilt. Wakeling moved permanently to the US and began touring as “The English Beat” while Charlery stayed in the UK, touring as “The Beat”.
But as Wakeling told audiences earlier this month on The 80s Cruise, he and Charlery had reconciled and were looking forward to recording and touring together. The day before boarding, a phone call from Charlery made it known that the reunion would likely be impossible.
The Ranking Roger version of The Beat was touring Europe last summer with The Selector, their old 2 Tone label-mates, when Charlery suffered a small stroke. It was soon discovered that the stroke was likely the result of two brain tumors. Paired with a tumor in his lung, the diagnosis meant that the rest of the tour, including a long-awaited swing into North America, would have to be cancelled.
Charlery remained upbeat, promising to reschedule dates after he recovered from surgery and immunotherapy treatments.
The call to Wakeling in early March was to tell him the treatments weren’t working and the outlook was dire. During one performance, the usually upbeat Wakeling was visibly upset as he dedicated, “Never Die”, from the 2018 English Beat album, Here We Go with Love, to Charlery.
Ranking Roger was in one of his most prolific periods in the months leading up to his death. He finished an autobiography, I Just Can’t Stop It, due sometime this spring and The Beat put out a new album, Public Confidential, in January. The video for the lead single, “Maniac”, flashes back and forth between 1983 and 2018, showing two protagonists coping with eerily similar political climates. It recalls those early 2 Tone days when a divisive Britain spawned a musical rebellion and a Black teenager jumped on stage and grabbed the mic.