UB40 remembers the days when they were dangerous. “MI5 listened to our phones, monitored our homes, of all kinds,” says drummer Jimmy Brown. “We were like, ‘Don’t they have criminals to catch?’ We were just a bunch of potheads, smoking weed and playing music. We weren’t planning the revolution, but if the revolution happened, we knew which side we were going to be on.
The group is back this year – in doubles. Unlike the long-standing and bitter split between the two factions, whose later eight-piece Brummie once presented a united and decidedly uncompromising front. For those who remember the UB40 primarily for its lite-reggae covers of Red Red Wine and (I Can’t Help) Falling in Love With You, the fact that they are viewed as a serious threat to national security may sound absurd. However, take a closer look at the history of the group’s origins, and the ghost concerns – later confirmed by MI5 whistleblower David Shayler – make some sense.
Formed in 1978 by a core of school friends who grew up around Birmingham’s multiracial Balsall Heath, UB40 was once the authentic voice of enlightened disaffection of the working class. Putting street-level grievances and global political protests to the beat of a stepper, they made music for feet, head and heart, tackling apartheid, Thatcherism, racism, global poverty and social injustice.
“We were the real deal,” says original singer Ali Campbell. “There were eight of us out of school, trying to get through Thatcher’s shit quagmire and sing about it. We were politicized, we were disenfranchised, and we had a lot to say.
“I went through the same rigor as most blacks in the late 1970s,” explains the band’s original co-singer, Astro, recalling the “sus law” which allowed the arrest of people considered to be acting in a way. suspect, often on fragile and racist grounds. pretexts. “It was a weekly event. We found it more difficult to write love songs than activist lyrics because it was much easier to write about things that you had witnessed or read. It seemed natural to us.
When it came to forming a band, says Ali’s older brother, UB40 guitarist Robin Campbell, “there was no question about what kind of music we would make.” A love of reggae reflected a natural allegiance with the children of the Windrush generation. It provided the rhythmic backdrop to their teenage years, a unifying sound in youth clubs, cafes, blues parties and shebeens. “It was street music,” says Astro. “We couldn’t go anywhere in our neighborhood without hearing it.”
UB40 learned to play by imperfect imitation. Listening to the records of Big Youth, Sly and Robbie, Lee “Scratch” Perry and King Tubby, they developed a “hybrid reggae” style, says Ali. “We were trying to look like Sly and Robbie but we didn’t have the talent for it. We’ve never been a Jamaican reggae band, we’ve always had a different sound. We got stuck in a basement below where [bass player] comte [Falconer] and [saxophonist] Brian [Travers] lived. We used to stand on crates of beer because every time Brian took a bath the water would fall on the walls. We were very committed.
A tendency to make rebellious music was wired, says Brown, who remembers a teacher who handed him the Communist manifesto when he was 15. “We were sitting all day getting high and talking about solving the world’s problems. The Campbell’s father, Scottish folk singer Ian Campbell, was a devout Communist who politicized his children. Although he was involved in writing the lyrics for Food for Thought and Madame Medusa, Campbell Sr was not a fan of UB40. “He said, ‘You can’t have a band if you can’t play,’ Ali said. “I said, ‘Yeah, but we’re going to learn.’ He told me to fuck myself. He just thought we were stupid. He was pretty disappointed that we were creating a reggae band, but he was happy that we were writing lyrics that said something.
UB40’s early songs drew a few punches, nor offered easy solace. Burden of Shame’s brutal anti-colonialist message – “I’m a British subject, I’m not proud of it” – was too strong even for Ian Campbell, who wondered why they were ashamed of their nationality. King, writing a decade after the assassination of Martin Luther King, lamented that the black chief’s people are still “in chains and pacified.” For Ali, the song is proof “that you don’t change anything by singing about it, that’s for sure. What a joke that King is still relevant 40 years after he wrote it. We all demonstrated against the National Front and supported Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League. Not a sausage has changed.
Rejecting openings from several majors, UB40 signed to Graduate, a local independent label based in a record store in Dudley. Released in August 1980, Signing Off remains one of the great debuts. The album was recorded on a four-track Fostex machine at a studio owned by local drummer Bob Lamb. Lamb’s bed was on stilts, with his mixer underneath. The hall was so small that percussionist Norman Hassan was playing in the garden. You can hear the sound of birds and traffic on some tracks. “I’m still very proud to have signed,” says Robin. “He has a great feeling and it was like no one else back then. I like its uniqueness. “
Backed by Chrissie Hynde, who took UB40 on tour with the Pretenders, the album and lead single, Food for Thought, became the top five hits – “and we never really looked back,” says Astro. Tested by money and success, their socialist principles have stood firm. UB40 has always shared songwriting equally and voted on every decision. They remained rooted in Birmingham and, after leaving Graduate, they created their own independent label, DEP International.
Despite being “the biggest party band of the 80s,” Ali Campbell acknowledges that they often presented themselves as an austere and slightly intimidating group. “We weren’t very friendly, we stood alone.” Rather than fostering an affinity with the Specials, another militant and multiracial Midlands collective, UB40 dismissed the two-tone groups as “revivalists.” They viewed their own music as more subversive.
“We did Madam Medusa about Thatcher and put it on the radio because the DJs didn’t know what we were talking about,” Ali says. “While the Beat was banned for Stand Down Margaret and praised for it. We were trying to be a little smarter than that. Every time we went to Top of the Pops we were bothering someone. We were smoking weed in the locker room, it bothered them. We didn’t care. We wanted to scream about politics and we wanted to introduce people to reggae. It was our mission.
The mission prompted the group to release a dubbed version of Present Arms, the stunning sequel to Signing Off. Although some confused punters sent it back to the store, Ali said, wondering where the vocals had gone, it was “the first dub album to hit the mainstream charts, and we were proud of it.” It is in the same spirit of evangelization that UB40 recorded Labor of Love, an album honoring the reggae tunes which had inspired them to form a group; Red Red Wine was originally written by Neil Diamond, but UB40 knew it thanks to the 1969 rocksteady version of Tony Tribe. The plan was to pay their dues – literally. Ali Campbell says the group has settled publishing contracts for many Jamaican musicians. Lord Creator, the artist who wrote and recorded the original version of Kingston Town, was able to build a house – “A pretty big house too!” – on the cover product of UB40 in 1989, included on Labor of Love II.
Nonetheless, the first Labor of Love, released in 1983, is when UB40 returned its anti-establishment kudos. “For some people, we sold ourselves,” says Robin. “We have become commercial, we have become gentle, have forgotten our politics. But it was not a permanent thing. The albums that followed were nothing like it. But you even get fans saying, “Oh they changed after Labor of Love, I quit listening. Your loss, buddy!
In an attempt to revive some of the old renegade spirit, Ali Campbell and Astro will host a signature show live next month. In a perfect world, the whole original line up would take part. Unfortunately, peace agreements between warring nations have proven to be easier to tackle.
There is not enough space to detail every grievance, just the headlines. In 2008, Ali Campbell left the group to pursue a solo career. Five years later, Astro joined them and they rebranded themselves as UB40, much to the chagrin of the original lineup. “It was an acrimonious split and it just stayed that way,” says Ali. “Too much water under the bridge and too many nasty things said and done.” He admits that debauchery played a part in his financial difficulties. “I can’t keep my hand on the money,” he admits. “I made millions and spent it all.”
The original five remaining members of the band – with a third Campbell brother, Duncan, now on vocals – still record and tour under the name UB40. Ali and Astro, supported by a group of eight musicians, also use the name. Both claim to be the real deal. Suffice it to say that each side is far from being complimentary about the merits of the other.
But the two factions agree on one thing: they remain proud of their accomplishments, even if they are a little wronged, the UB40 does not get more respect. “I watch the BBC’s 80s music shows, and I never cease to be amazed how few times we are there,” says Robin. “We had 39 Top 40 records. It never seems to be recognized. It pisses me off, but I’m used to it now. Guess we’ll all have to die first!