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

Friday - - 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

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