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UB40

+ {UB40 featuring Ali, Astro & Mickey}

There is no doubt that at the turn of the 80s, with post-mod/new wave acts such as The SPECIALS, The SELECTER, The BEAT, DEXYS MIDNIGHT RUNNERS and UB40 turning up the ska, reggae and northern soul heat, that the Midlands was the place to be… down at the dancehall. As with the others (DEXYS by devotion), under a melting pot of multi-racial alumni, the cultural and cosmopolitan UB40 ensemble had also grown from the nation’s class divide that had blighted Britain from time immemorial. The fact that the self-taught musicians built a group around their own jobless status, as the country’s unemployment figures rose beyond control, it was indeed brave to name themselves after the unemployment benefit card, the UB40; that stamp of disapproval might not exist today, but its title still lingers and is still relevant.
UB40 – a group of friends from Birmingham – kick-started their reggae music manifesto in a pre-Thatcher-ite Britain in 1978; a few former apprenticeship-employed members learning their instruments as their first gig (on 9 February 1979) at the Hare & Hounds Pub in Kings Heath approached.
At the heart of the group were singer/guitarist Ali and guitarist brother Robin Campbell (sons of Scots folk singer IAN CAMPBELL), plus saxophonist Brian Travers, bassist Earl Falconer and drummer Jimmy Brown; they’d been in the same band while at art college in ’77, before teaming up with keyboardist Mickey/Michael Virtue, percussionist Norman Hassan and, last but not least, toaster/vocalist and trumpeter Astro (alias Terence Wilson) – all rock-steady for many years to come.
Signed to David and Susan Virr’s fledgling label, Graduate, UB40’s protest-style reggae was introduced to a wider audience as the group embarked on a prestigious tour early 1980 with The PRETENDERS; it was also to promote their debut Top 5 double A-side, `Food For Thought’ / `King’ (a tribute to Martin Luther King). Following on from a second Top 10 twinned A-side, `My Way Of Thinking’ (an exclusive cut) alongside a re-vamp of RANDY NEWMAN’s `I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’, UB40’s Bob Lamb-produced debut album, entitled appropriately enough, SIGNING OFF (1980) {*10}, just about scaled the charts. Complete with empty benefits card on photo shoot – their rhythms were of the STEEL PULSE motif rather than ASWAD (at this stage), while their re-imagined travels beyond Birmingham were emblazoned inside `Burden Of Shame’, `Tyler’ (fired up by the US judicial system), the instrumental `Adella’, `12 Bar’ (Astro’s toasting turn) and the curtain-falling ska-dub-tastic title track. The crisp and creamy vocal tones of Ali were sweeter than honey, but the lyrics – for example on `Little By Little’ – were far from easy-on-the-ear for politicians and governments, not just in the UK. Freebie fans were treated to a 12-inch Brucie bonus of three numbers, led out by the 13-minute `Madam Medusa’ (a seminal piece often overlooked), the dub-friendly `Reefer Madness’ and a take of BILLIE HOLIDAY’s `Strange Fruit’.
On the back of their final Top 10 single for Graduate (another non-album pairing of `The Earth Dies Screaming’ and `Dream A Lie’), UB40 moved into 1981 with their own label, DEP International, and a recording studio at The Abattoir, where they laid down material for a sophomore set, PRESENT ARMS {*7}. Boasting the Top 20 double-headed youth directives, `Don’t Let It Pass You By’ and `Don’t Slow Down’, the Top 3 album housed the socially-aware #7 hit `One In Ten’ (a remark to the ratio of unemployed people under Thatcher’s Britain). No way as close in passion and enterprise to their ground-breaking debut LP, the UB40 here were in slight experimental reggae mood, as `Lamb’s Bread’ and end-piece `Dr. X’ would testify; the cash-in PRESENT ARMS IN DUB (1981) {*5} – a Top 40 entry in its own right – was for the studio boffins and fans of LEE “SCRATCH” PERRY and de like.
Harsher and heavier in its political anti-government brew, the Top 5 UB44 (1982) {*6} – its title stemming from the benefits form sent by the unemployment office when one missed their “signing-on” day – hosted no less than three Top 40 breakers in `I Won’t Close My Eyes’, `Love Is All Is Alright’ and `So Here I Am’. As the nation waved high the Union Jack in jingo-istic awe of our boys returning from glory in the Falklands, led by the Boudicea Thatcher, UB40 disagreed in the futility of war and its consequences by way of `Forget The Cost’ and `Folitician’. In its wake, both the single `I’ve Got Mine’ and the concert LP, UB40 LIVE (1983) {*6}, failed to reach the target Top 40.
A change of course would be needed to steer UB40’s ship back to chartered lands – so to speak. The cosmopolitan conglomerate duly bounced back to the top with a reading of NEIL DIAMOND’s `Red Red Wine’ (a la TONY TRIBE style), one of ten tracks taken from their reggae re-vamp album, LABOUR OF LOVE (1983) {*8}, a chart-scaling record that marked their first real inroads into the lucrative American market. WINSTON GROOVY’s `Please Don’t Make Me Cry’, JIMMY CLIFF’s `Many Rivers To Cross’ and ERIC DONALDSON `Cherry Oh Baby’, each stamped their authority in the UK Top 20, while the set could’ve harvested several more, through BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS’ `Keep On Moving’, The MELODIANS’ `Sweet Sensation’, The SLICKERS’ `Johnny Too Bad’, TIGER’s `Guilty’, Joe Monsano’s `She Caught The Train’ and DANDY LIVINGSTONE’s `Version Girl’.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, the self-penned Top 3 GEFFERY MORGAN… (1984) {*7} returned UB40 back into the arms of their progressive reggae fanbase. One song very much treading a sound close to The BEAT, the Top 10 `If It Happens Again’ was head and shoulders over minor hit flop `Riddle Me’, although the twee-pop traits of `You’re Not An Army’ and `As Always You Were Wrong Again’ hardly matched the hardy subject matter.
Time then for another stab at the charts? Why not. UB40 had served their political apprenticeship long enough, so when an esteemed SONNY & CHER smash `I Got You Babe’, was chosen for UB40 & Chrissie Hynde (she of The PRETENDERS fame), it was no surprise when it struck the top of the charts (Top 30 Stateside). Available also on a bonus 12-inch for buyers of UB40’s “re-workings” dub set, BAGGARIDDIM (1985) {*6} – along with the group’s next Top 3 platter `Don’t Break My Heart’ – the combination of recent tunes showcasing the likes of PATO BANTON, DILLINGER, Gunslinger and the like, certainly had a marmite effect on fans and critics.
UB40 consolidated their position as Britain’s foremost mainstream reggae act with an impressive run of hit singles and albums, continuing to translate traditional Jamaican styling into more chart-friendly but edgy pop. This was never so prevalent when the tuneful `Sing Our Own Song’ Top 5 hit was turned into a 7-minute closer on parent platinum-seller, RAT IN THE KITCHEN (1986) {*7}, a record that also housed modest to major volleys such as `All I Want To Do’, the excellent `Rat In Mi Kitchen’ and `Watchdogs’; sadly, `Maybe Tomorrow’ was left to boost sales of the Xmas-aimed THE BEST OF UB40 – VOLUME ONE (1987) {*8}.
After a few collaborative hits alongside AFRIKA BAMBAATAA (`Reckless’) and CHRISSIE HYNDE (`Breakfast In Bed’) – the latter penned in the late 60s by Hinton & Fritts for DUSTY SPRINGFIELD – a temporary change in personnel was in order in July 1988 when bassist Earl Falconer was jailed for six months on an earlier drink-driving charge that tragically killed his brother Ray “Pablo” Falconer (UB40’s producer). The understandably low-key eponymous set, UB40 {*7} – released the same month – abandoned any political missives and concentrated on mellowing out the grooves; examples `Where Did I Go Wrong?’ and a belated minor hit, `I Would Do For You’.
Upon Earl’s return (Larry Bushell had depped for him on tour), UB40 went on to achieve further success with The CHI-LITES’ `Homely Girl’, one of 14 contrived covers from the cash-in, Xmas-targeted LABOUR OF LOVE II (1989) {*6}. Sanitised for the reggae housewives, or just a reminder on how sadly missed these songs had been, it did restore the group to the Top 3, on the strength of buoyant hits of AL GREEN’s `Here I Am (Come And Take Me)’, Kentrick Patrick/LORD CREATOR’s `Kingston Town’, The PARAGONS’ `Wear You To The Ball’, Keith “Honey Boy” Williams’ `Impossible Love’ and The TEMPTATIONS’ `The Way You Do The Things You Do’; others showcased included material from BYRON LEE, KEN BOOTHE, The KINGSTONIANS, et al. While UB40 took a sabbatical from churning out albums, there was at least time in hand for another collaboration late in 1990 with ROBERT PALMER, courtesy of a Top 10 take of BOB DYLAN’s `I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’.
On augmenting 808 STATE’s hit version of `One In Ten’ the previous December, the movie Slither unveiled UB40’s rendition of ELVIS PRESLEY’s `(I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You’; one of the tasters from the accompanying chart-topping set, PROMISES AND LIES (1993) {*6}. Easily the group’s best selling album, subsequently surpassing LOL, it sustained its longevity with further hits `Higher Ground’, `Bring Me Your Cup’, `C’est La Vie’ and `Reggae Music’.
Re-grouping after the solo sojourn of ALI CAMPBELL for his “Big Love” album in ’95 (UB40 also had another Top 20 entry with `Until My Dying Day’ from THE BEST OF UB40 – VOLUME TWO (1995) {*7}) 1997’s GUNS IN THE GHETTO {*4} was a pale imitation of a once-great group now going through the motions. Although Top 10, only two songs penetrated the singles market: `Tell Me It Is True’ – lifted from the Speed 2: Cruise Control movie – and dire and skanky `Always There’.
While the Top 10 LABOUR OF LOVE III (1998) {*4} unfolded the usual reggae batch of cover versions (including hits from JOHNNY OSBOURNE’s `Come Back Darling’, NEIL DIAMOND’s `Holly Holy’ and KEN BOOTHE’s `The Train Is Coming’), a third instalment was perhaps milking the cash cow just a bit too hard. There were precious few moments of inspiration to refute that conclusion; cherry-pick from `It’s My Delight’ (The MELODIANS), `Soul Rebel’ (BOB MARLEY), `Good Ambition’ (The ETHIOPIANS), `My Best Girl’ (The PARAGONS) and `Legalize It’ (PETER TOSH).
After an extended break punctuated by a millennial “Very Best Of…”, detailing their 20-year career (and er… hosting a shock treatment of The DOORS’ `Light My Fire’), Birmingham’s veteran reggae revivalists returned with COVER UP (2001) {*5}, the title track a reference to AIDS prevention rather than an indication of just another covers set. In its grooves lay a few bright spots, mainly from lovey-dovey minor hits such as `Since I Met You Lady’ – alongside Lady Saw – (b/w `Sparkle Of My Eyes’) and the title track.
HOMEGROWN (2003) {*4} was notable mainly for the inclusion of UB40’s highly unlikely contribution to England’s Rugby World Cup hopes, by way of bonus track `Swing Low’ – featuring United Colours Of Sound – although there were hints at the brooding brilliance of old on the likes of `Young Guns’, a swipe at hip hop’s culture of violence.
2005’s WHO YOU FIGHTING FOR? {*6} saw UB40 get back to their observational best; the Top 20 set a mixture of self-penned numbers and reggae-fied covers such as DENNIS BOVELL’s `After Tonight’, The BEATLES’ `I’ll Be On My Way’, and the hit single `Kiss And Say Goodbye’, once a smash for The MANHATTANS.
If UB40 had thought controversy was in their past, then the promotional edited release of TWENTYFOURSEVEN (2008) {*6} – free for readers/buyers of The Mail on Sunday (4 May 2008) – caused a hornet’s nest of fan backlash, when a full 17-track version was issued that June. When retailers refused to stock the CD, sales were limited, and thus its lowly highest position of No.81. A few lessons to be learned from this no doubt, the full album itself – their first and last for Edel Records – highlighted a handful of collaborations, notably with MAXI PRIEST (on `Dance Until The Morning Light’), Maxi and son Marvin Priest (on a version of MARLEY’s `I Shot The Sheriff’) and ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT’s One Love & Rasta Don (on `Oh America’); note that these tracks were not on the tabloid freebie.
The thought of UB40 without their solo-bound talisman ALI CAMPBELL (or, for that matter, the departing Mickey Virtue), it was going to be tough to take for stalwart fans, but in Ali and Robin’s similarly-matched brother Duncan on smooth vocals (who’d been playing spoons for yonks!), there was little difference when LABOUR OF LOVE IV (2010) {*5} was unveiled by Virgin Records. Marking 30 years since they “signed off” (well… let’s hope they did!), UB40 played the covers card again by surfing the vaults for tunes by JOHNNY NASH, SMOKEY ROBINSON, JOHN HOLT, SAM COOKE, ERROL DUNKLEY et al.
Criticism for covering Caribbean versions of country cuts a la GETTING OVER THE STORM (2013) {*5} was probably unfair for a band that could turn any tune reggae. As Robin simply stated in a press conference: “It’s not a country album, it’s a reggae album. We’ve just covered some country tunes”. There was a tight interpretation to how it might be portrayed, but to paraphrase the band: “every Caribbean household has a Jim Reeves record looking out at them”. So, hardly a “Labour Of Love V” (we await that outcome!), but one could pore over material once the property of GREGG ALLMAN (`Midnight Rider’), VINCE GILL (`If You Ever Have Forever In Mind’), BUCK OWENS (`Crying Time’), JOE & Audrey ALLISON (`He’ll Have To Go’) – the jury was out on this melting pot of a record that will surely boil over another time. Astro was to leave the following year.
Causing consternation to their former buddies (High Court lawyers rubbing their hands at the though of a big pay-day), the rival act were to stretch its legs in 2014. Endorsed by Cooking Vinyl Records, “Ali Campbell (The Legendary Voice of UB40) Reunited With Astro & Mickey” issued the Top 20 album, SILHOUETTE {*6}. Topped up by a title track from doo-wop combo The Rays and covers from DYLAN, The BEATLES and The CHI-LITES, among their own songs (`Cyber Bully Boys’ as poignant as ever), this version 2.0 of UB40 was to many, a true reflection of the once-mighty UK reggae band. The jury was out so to speak.
While positive thinking enabled UB40 FEATURING ALI, ASTRO & MICKEY to unfetter their UNPLUGGED (2016) {*6} album, what was around the corner – court-wise – was anybody’s guess. Interesting in the fact that it showcased another Campbell, Ali’s 22-year-old daughter Kaya, on a re-vamped version of `I Got You Babe’, whilst further surprises were in their chilled-out cover of PRINCE’s `Purple Rain’ and The EQUALS’ `Baby Come Back’ (the latter accompanied by PATO BANTON).
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Jun2015-Nov2016

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