Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Revisiting Ranking Roger's 1988 Solo Record "Radical Departure"

I think it is fair to say that Ranking Roger's solo record "Radical Departure" was his attempt to be a full out pop star.  And to be honest, his record had some of the ingredients that were necessary in the 1980's for an artist to have a pop hit.  Was it radio friendly? Check.  Did it have a catchy MTV video?  Yup! It even debuted on 120 Minutes!  Did it have a marketable singer?  Indeed!  Did he have any hits with previous band?  You bet! Add Roger's winning personality, good looks and smooth vocals and you would asume that he should have had a hit on his hands right? Nope. And its a shame.

Though not a real "Radical Departure" from his previous work,  Roger did create his own unique sound, even if it has a bit of the kitchen sink approach to it -- a little pop, some ska, reggae and punk.  What comes to mind listening to it again after all this time is how much it has in common with the first Big Audio Dynamite record -- its funky, urban, cross-cultural, socially aware, political -- just check out my favorites "Mono Gone To Stereo" and "Time To Mek A Dime" and "One Minute Closer" for proof of the B.A.D. link.  Lyrical themes included the tragedy of heroin addiction, the desperation of poverty and the breakdown of community.  They were grim topics set to upbeat music -- something that had worked for The Beat and General Public.

After the second General Public album "Hand To Mouth" failed to meet record company expectations, both Roger and Dave Wakeling dissolved their musical partnership in 1987.  Wakeling recorded and released his solo record "No Warning" (read the story about that record here) and Roger decided to do the same.  He'd been learning his way around keyboards, bass and drums, had bought a computer to sample the sounds, and set up a home recording studio. Roger played most of the parts on "Radical Departure," bringing in Bobby Bird to play guitar and using a few other notable musicians including Saxa and Micky Billingham. Then he assembled a group -- featuring Bird, ex-Specials/General Public bassist Horace Panter and drummer Fuzz Townshend -- and hit the road. He also had a little help from Wakeling too -- both "In Love With You" (which garnered a good deal of airplay on WLIR here in New York) and the most well known song from the collection "So Excited" have the guitarist's melodic and vocal handiwork all over them and could have been lost tracks from the first General Public album. They should have been radio hits too.

Roger provided his perspective on the break-up with Wakeling and his decision to release a solo record during an interview with the Boston Globe during the summer of 1988:
"Well, I was working at home one day," he says on the phone from his London home, "making the General Public album, or what I thought I could contribute toward it, and Dave Wakeling rang me up and said, 'I don't want to do it anymore. I want to make records, but I don't want to tour. I want to stay at home, spend more time with my family.' That was it. I knew it was time to move."
Roger has no real animosity about it. "Two bulls can't reign in one pen," he reasons. "The only reason we drifted apart was because the conscious decisions were made more by him than me. I noticed on the first album I wrote 60 percent of the music; on the second I wrote something like 20 percent of the music. I kind of felt like I was being shoved away. In reality, I would have carried it on if he would have carried it on. We got ourselves in debt and I was willing to work to get us out of debt -- we'd both been so dedicated. But I'm a lot happier now. It's a big weight off my head."

Wakeling shared his take on the split with Roger and how he ended up with a song writing credit on the album's first single "So Excited."
"He'd (Roger) end up giving me demos with all the vocals done, and backing vocals, and percussion, and he'd say, "Have a listen and tell me what you could do with this." So I'd have a listen and tell him what I thought we could do. And he'd say, "Oh, no. Well, I like that bit." I think this is your chorus here and this is your catchiest bit, and you should stick... "No, I like it the way it is." So he'd give me some new demos and say the same: "Have a listen, tell me what you think you could do."  
And eventually I said, "Well I know what I can do." And he's like, "What?" And I'm like, "Well, I can bloody well listen to them, give you them back and tell you they're great, 'cause you don't want me to do nothing anyway." But I said, "Why don't you give me a go with an instrumental?" And there was one tune. I said, "Give me that instrumental, just let me have a go with that, see if I can come up with something, and then you add around it," which is how we'd written "Never You Done That." And so he gave me the instrumental and I wrote "So Excited", and it was about condoms. (Singing) "You got me so excited, you got me, I'm going to wrap it up and give it all to you, Ha-ah!" 
It was meant to become humorous and light and stuff. And then he sort of ran off with the song, and I think he thought it was really good anyway… and so he ran off with it for his solo record, and poetic justice, the record company picked it as the single. Ha ha! So his record's called "Radical Departure" and the first he had to do is sing a set of my lyrics just the same as he always had done."

Roger took his band and record on the road emabrking on a coast-to-coast U.S. tour during the summer of 1988 (read a review from the Los Angeles Times of his very first show in Los Angeles). I saw this tour when it came to City Gardens in Trenton, NJ and I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Roger's solo record and his band.  In fact, it was a chance meeting that Bigger Thomas singer Roger Apollon and I had with Steve Meicke (our original sax player) at the show that took our band (then known as Panic!) from the planning stages to reality. Even better, Roger and I had a chance to meet and speak with Ranking Roger. He was playing pinball in the back bar of the club and we said hello and started speaking. We told him we had started our own ska band and he was very supportive. A few years later when we toured with Special Beat he remembered us and said we had come a long way! So had he.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for highlighting this, was completely unaware of this one. I'm lucky enough to have supported Roger's version of the Beat and can confirm he is a top bloke too.
Recently I saw Wakeling's Beat and no disrespect to Dave but in my opinion Roger's Beat leaves them for dead - there's an energy about Roger that is most infectious!

Josh said...

Great post Marco! I was bit young in the golden Two Tone era, but it was great fun slowly putting the pieces together in my own time; even in my 30's I'm still learning about the music I love, thanks to you.

I caught the Special Beat sometime in the early 90's, when they were opening for Steel Pulse. It was one of my first concert experiences, and I'll never forget the raw energy... Neville and Roger running across the stage, climbing speaker stacks, and so on.

It was a trip doing independent research back in the day, with no internet, and no local independent record stores; I'll never forget the ladies face at The Wherehouse, when I asked her for help finding "The Special Beat!"

By chance, I found "Radical Departure" in the bargin bin at Woolworths, only a few months after the show. I didn't know it when I bought it, but as soon as I heard Roger's unmistakeable voice, I was instantly brought back to the concert. I remember being a bit confused over the different pace of the music on the album, but eventually fell in love with "Time to Mek a Dime." Before long, I found a cassette of Dance Craze, and the rest is history!

Anyways, thanks for all the thought you put into your research... you blog is truly a great read and a wonderful resource.

Gibbo said...

So funny you mention the show in Trenton. I got to the City Gardens quite early and was playing pinball myself when RR came up and asked to play with me--can't believe I played pinball with him for a game or two!!!

Jh.mn said...

ranking def. had that positive vibe... dave and the beat mixed that with the harshness of politics and relnsps... and that still cooked with saxa and the gang.... i recommend the jamaica live concert on youtube.... also there's a 15 min bit on 120 minutes that you may be able to track down...