'WE THOUGHT THE REGGAE WOULD ONE DAY RULE THE WORLD'
British reggae-pop band UB40 have been around for more than 35 years and sold over 70 million records. On the eve of their performance in Dubai, UB40 drummer James Brown tells Shiva Kumar Thekkepat that politics and Birmingham still inform their music
Those outside the UK who grooved to UB40’s versions of the perennial hits Red Red
Wine and Can’t Help
Falling In Love in the Eighties and Nineties wouldn’t have thought that the band came about because of the political situation in England in the mid-Seventies. “But that’s the truth,” says James Brown, the drummer and one of the founding members of the band.
Formed in 1978, UB40 wasn’t a name selected at random; it was a reference to a form used by the unemployed in the UK to apply for state benefit – support the nine original band members, unemployed then, were familiar with. “We were all out of work when we started the band,” says James, 56. “It was a depressing time.”
All that anger and disillusionment however took the shape not of rock or punk, which was the popular form of dissent at the time, but reggae. That may seem odd, but it was what was available on the band’s doorsteps.
“Reggae was always in the air in Birmingham,” says James. “It was a working-class area with lots of immigrants. You stepped out the door and reggae was everywhere – on the street, at a party, blasting out of radios. We didn’t listen to rock at all.”
With many well-received albums over the past three decades, UB40 are one of the most commercially successful reggae bands in the world.
“We thought reggae would one day rule the world,” laughs James. “Of course, it never did. But even though it’s a specialised music, it exerts tremendous influence.”
The band, which will headline at The Big Grill in Dubai today, emerged at a time when reggae’s influence was peaking, thanks to the likes of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh.
The loping groove of reggae can be heard in much of today’s
‘We don’t look back to a time when things were different… We look to the future always’
popular dance and hip hop music, and its socially conscious lyricism is particularly relevant in this age of political and economic upheaval around the world.
Though UB40 are best known for their cover versions of popular songs by Elvis Presley and Neil Diamond, their anti-establishment songs – including anthem for the jobless One in Ten, the anti-Thatcher tirade Madam Medusa and the nuclear-war warning
The Earth Dies Screaming – were the ones that got them noticed.
Today they are classified as reggae pop by critics, but James begs to differ. “I say the music we’ve always produced has been reggae,” he insists. “Maybe some of the songs were more commercial, but in the end the fundamental roots of our music has been and will always be reggae.”
Poor people’s music
Though James and his band members – Robin Campbell, Earl Falconer, Norman Hassan, Brian Travers, Duncan Campbell, Laurence Parry, Martin Meredith and Tony Mullings – hate looking back, they feel it would be difficult to form such a band now and keep it going for as long as they have in these times.
“Our initial successes came about during a multiracial atmosphere in Birmingham,” says James. “Times were different then. I come from an area of Birmingham which always had a lot of immigrants and we would all mix. But now you have more ghettos where [ethnic groups] tend to flock together and don’t mix like they used to.
“Reggae came to its own in the Seventies, and in the Eighties hip hop took its place. It’s poor people’s music for the masses – not elitist. It talks about simple things, simple ideas and simple problems – hip hop is similar.”
James has no idea how the band has kept going for so long. “We’ve been together a long time, and it’s a wonder. We just continued working – never stopped. We had success very early in our career, and it’s stayed with us through our 35 years.
“People still want to buy our music and [see us] play, so we carry on. I guess that’s the simple answer!
“We’re not nostalgic. We don’t look back to a time when things were different. We have new shows to do and records to make – that’s all there is to it. We look to the future always.”
And when they compose songs, the rule remains the same. “We look for something that’s going to have interest for a wide variety of people,” says James. “We are always looking for something that translates from one country to the next, so it’s an international approach.”
Over the years, UB40’s way of working hasn’t changed. “We play together, create a backing track and then simply write lyrics on a subject we want to talk about,” James says.
“Sometimes one of us will write a poem and just put it to music. We can’t predict how it’s going to sound, the only way to know is when it is finished. Since we have nine members, it’s almost impossible to please everyone, because in the end you are never 100 per cent happy. There’s always something that could be done better but if we are able to come close enough to make all of us quite happy, then it’s a good tune.”
There have been many instances of songs they were not really happy with that went on to become successful such as Food for Thought.
“On the one hand it can be a commercial reggae-sounding pop, but then on the other hand you can have an instrumental sound that’s kind of underground,” says James. “We try to do everything in between as well. Reggae can be political, it can be romantic, it can be heavy, it can be light. It can be different things and we try to do all of that.” UB40’s cover of Elvis Presley’s
Can’t Help Falling In Love, one of their biggest hits, almost didn’t make the cut. “It was originally recorded for a 1992 movie called Honeymoon in Vegas starring Nicholas Cage and Sarah Jessica Parker,” recalls James.
“The producers wanted different bands to do different Elvis Presley songs and we did Can’t Help Falling In
Love. Bono of U2 did a version of the same song for them, and that was the one they went with.”
Roots in politics
The band moved on, but UB40’s reggae version of the song caught the fancy of the producers of the 1993 Sharon Stone film, Sliver.
“They wanted to include our version in their soundtrack, and what do you know, it became a huge success!” says James. “In fact, one of our biggest hits.”
Ironically, the film flopped, and about the only thing that made money was the soundtrack.
“We changed the song so much that it became memorable for the listeners because it was so different to the original,” says James.
Reggae-pop may have got them the numbers, but the band has not forgotten their roots, claims James.
“Most of our songs were political,” he says. “Our politics are not that much different now,” he says. “I don’t think it’s true that when you are young you are radical and when you grow older you become more middle of the road. It’s not true for me, and it’s not true for the band either.’’
The band still live and work in Birmingham. They hang out together, not in alleys as they used to while starting out, but in nice houses. “And we are not going to leave any time soon,” promises James. “It informs our music from the very beginning, is our inspiration for lyrics, and for our music. Even with our exposure to other parts of the world, it’s Birmingham for us.
“The thing is that it is at the crossroads of the world anyway because it’s an area with a high immigrant population, and these people come from all parts of the world,” he says.
“When I was small I’d sit on my doorstep and watch the world go by. Different people, different colours, different races and cultures. It was always part of what made us want to make music in an international way.”
Though they’ve been touring all over the world since the Seventies, the band don’t mind playing in small venues. “Sometimes we’ll play a club,
sometimes a concert in a stadium, it really doesn’t matter,” says James. “We play all around the world, probably more outside of England.”
The biggest audience they ever played to was probably the 250,000-strong crowd that roared along with them at the Live Earth concert near Johannesburg in South Africa in 2007.
Small gigs can be more of a challenge many times. “Sometimes a smaller gig can be more difficult because it’s more intimate,” says James. “You can see the eyes of all the members of the audience. If you don’t feel too confident that can be a terrible thing.
“But different gigs have different pressures. I really enjoy small venues rather than the big ones. Some guys like the big ones better.”
James has the reputation of ‘keeping time like a Rolex’ while drumming. “I get more of a kick out of drumming today really than when I started out because in the beginning we became popular really quickly, which meant that we were in front of a big audience and that made me very nervous and feel responsible,” he says.
“I couldn’t really enjoy playing, but over the years you lose that, and we enjoy playing now more than we did then. You get better as you get older, it’s not like some sports where you give up after 30. In music you get better with age. We enjoy playing more too, so it’s win-win all around.”
The aim is to break stereotypes, says James. And UB40 have done it right from the beginning. Multiracial bands had a formula for band composition: “Black drummer and bass player; white keyboard player, white guitarist,” says James. “We were one of the first multiracial bands to break that stereotype, with a combination of white drummer, black bass player; white guitarist and black keyboard player.
“We were all a bunch of school friends from Birmingham – black, white, brown, whatever – we were all brought up in the same circumstances, so we all had the same love for music. We all loved reggae, no matter what colour we were. And that was it.”
If James and his band have a pet peeve it is reality music shows on television like The X Factor. “You know, it’s all rubbish,” says James.
“In England we’ve always had something called a variety show on TV on Saturday nights. Shows like
The X Factor are the same thing. “The problem is in the end it has no variety. It is just one kind of thing, which is singing ballads – that’s all they seem to do. Occasionally, they might do a jazz or a rock number or a disco song, but really in the end you’ve got half a dozen singers singing ballads. And that’s so boring. It’s too repetitive. It’s not good for music. It’s killing it.”
Right now though, UB40 have something more pressing to worry about. Three of the founding members of the band – lead singers Ali Campbell and Astro, and keyboard player Mickey Virtue, who quit the band in 2008 due to artistic differences – have now regrouped to form a band… Called UB40! And worse, they are also performing in the UAE in April, soon after the original UB40.
James will not talk about them. “I’d rather not say anything, it’s in the hands of our lawyers as far as using the name is concerned,” he says. “These guys left the band and we don’t know what goes on in their minds or what their intentions are.”
Interestingly, Ali Campbell’s older brothers, Duncan and Robin, both play with James’s UB40 now.
He shakes it off and goes on to happier things. “We released a new album called Getting Over The Storm in September last year,” says James. “An album with country songs given the reggae twist. People really like it. Though it’s slightly different, but it’s still a pure reggae album.”
So, their fans can expect to hear some new songs along with their favourite old UB40 hits.
As for calling it quits, James has this to say: “We are quite happy to carry on with what we are doing, while we’ve still got an audience. It could go on for quite a while yet, I think!”
James (third from left) has no intention of quitting UB40 any time soon
James Brown says he enjoys playing small gigs
Astro (who has since left the band), Robin and Duncan Campbell, Earl Falconer, James and Brian Travers at an album signing in their hometown of Birmingham