In their own quiet way, they’re one of the world’s biggest bands. Their albums have sold millions of copies. They’ve enjoyed number one singles globally, and their world tours sell out huge venues. And they’re certainly the world’s biggest reggae band, even though they’re not Jamaican. Re-introducing UB40, whose latest record, Who You Fighting For? (Rhino), marks a full return to the form that won them their reputation.
“We had a sort of mini-revolution in the band and decided to go back to the way we used to record, which is all together in a room, jamming, before we go into the studio. And I think the difference is there,” explains singer/guitarist Ali Campbell.
“It’s the first time in a long time that we’ve actually composed and rehearsed and jammed before recording,” adds his brother, guitarist and singer Robin. “We have our own studios, which can be a blessing and also make you record by numbers. That’s what had had happened on the last two albums.”
It’s one more stop in a career that’s lasted more than a quarter of a century, quite a journey for the sons of traditional English folk musician Alex Campbell.
“We started off listening to folk music, but as soon as we could make our own minds up, we started listening to the music being played in the area where we grew up,” says Ali. “We lived in Balsall Heath, just south of Birmingham, which was mostly West Indian and Asian.”
But at that time, Robin notes, “If you’d taken eight kids out of Balsall Heath, they’d have looked like us, couple of West Indians, Irish…it was a very multi-racial scene. Everything was totally mixed.”
Their father hated reggae. And, Robin laughs, “He hated rock, anything that was drum and bass, he didn’t like. But when reggae happened, it was the newest, freshest music I’d heard. It changed everything, and it’s never been any different. We have a Studio One tape we play in the dressing room, old backing tracks with new vocals, and we jump up and down to it the way we did 20 years ago. We’re elated by reggae, it’s the only music that elates me.”
Along with six friends, the brothers determined to form a reggae band, but it was a piece of bad luck that helped them make it happen.
“I got hit with a glass on my 17th birthday,” Ali recalls, “and lost most of the sight in my left eye. My older brother, Dave, was working as a legal executive, and he put in a claim for criminal compensation. Three years later, when the band was starting, it came through. We spent most of it on drink, obviously! Some of it went on second-hand equipment. We were sold lots of obsolete equipment that didn’t work well. It got us up and running. And after that we could steal from the musicians we played with!”
“We got the Cimmarons’ timbale,” remembers Robin. “We played with them and ran away with that, which of course changed our sound.”
Today, the original lineup remains intact: In addition to the Campbell brothers, they are bassist Earl Falconer, drummer Jim Brown, keyboard player Mickey Virtue, saxophonist Brian Travers, percussion Norma Hassan, and toaster Terence “Astro” Wilson.
They arrived as a band just as the 2 Tone ska movement, based in nearby Coventry, was becoming a big force. Robin admits, “We shirt-tailed it, and we were very conscious of it. We didn’t want to be on the label—they asked us—but we were trying to be a reggae band, and we weren’t interested in trying to re-create ska. The music had moved on for us and we were so in love with reggae.”
“It was either a brave or arrogant thing to do, to turn down the opportunity to record on 2 Tone, because anything on that went top 10,” considers Ali. “The [English] Beat, who’d supported us around Birmingham, had had a hit with their first single. We played with their bands all the time.”
Yet they stuck to their guns.
“We refused t
||5 From UB 40
Signing Off (Virgin, 1980)
An almost perfect debut that’s far more than white reggae. Every tune packs a fierce punch, with “Burden” looking toward India, and “25%” offering a taste of dub. Throughout, Ali Campbell’s singing is as liquid as cream.
Present Arms In Dub (Virgin, 1981)
A daring experiment that charted, although in retrospect it’s debatable as to how good the dub really was. Still, full marks to the boys for trying something, and for exposing a wider public to the delights of drum, bass and echo.
Labour Of Love (Virgin, 1983)
Now a classic, of course, but quite daring for the time. Their version of “Many Rivers To Cross” is a glorious anthem, and “Johnny Too Bad” is dangerous. “Red Red Wine” was the hit, but musically everything here is first class.
Rat In The Kitchen (A&M, 1986)
A very strong set of all original material, and understandably regarded as one of the best in their canon for pieces like “Sing Our Own Song” and the title cut. Proof, if it was needed, that six years into their career they were still a powerful force.
Who You Fighting For? (Rhino, 2005)
A full quarter-century after they began, UB40 still has the vibe. The Iraq war resonates through two tracks, there’s a great selection of covers from the Beatles to the Manhattans, and respect to British reggae with “After Tonight.” Amazingly, they sound virtually as fresh as they did when they began.