UB40 Monster basslines and family feuds
UK reggae band UB40 are heading to Nelson as part of a national tour, and lead singer Ali Campbell can't wait, writes Grant Smithies.
It might pay to put Noise Control on the speed-dial on your phone nice and early. Maybe buy yourself some earplugs, too.
British reggae veterans UB40 are playing Nelson as part of a national tour, and they’re intent on making quite a racket.
‘‘We are the loudest reggae band in the world, and that’s the truth,’’ says lead singer Ali Campbell.
‘‘That’s the way reggae needs to be, right? You need volume, because reggae is music you feel as much as listen to. The bass should hit you in the solar plexus, and the high-end should make your eyes hurt and your genitals tingle.’’
Blimey. Who could possibly resist?
Campbell is in an extremely jovial mood, his laughter echoing down the line from his home in Christchurch.
‘‘I mean the real Christchurch, though!’’, he says. ‘‘Not your New Zealand one. The one that’s down in Dorset in the South of England.’’
Righto. But tell me this: why is Ali Campbell so damn cheerful?
It’s been a strange few years for UB40, with so much arguing amongst members that there are now two versions of the group touring the globe.
Also, at the ripe old age of 59, isn’t he sick of the sight of his remaining bandmates by now? After all, this band first got together four decades ago.
‘‘I know! Forty years! That’s two life sentences here in England. You can kill someone and get out of jail, twice, in the time I’ve been in this band! It’s been my whole adult life, basically.’’
He heaves a big theatrical sigh and continues.
‘‘We all just started out as a bunch of unemployed kids together, teaching ourselves to play. Next thing you know, we’d become the mixed-race, workingclass zeitgeist band of Thatcher’s Britain. And since then, time has marched on.
‘‘But we’re still promoting reggae, just like we always did.’’
Campbell is chuffed to report that the band’s most recent album, 2018’s A Real Labour of Love, went straight into the British charts at No 2.
‘‘Even after 40 years, we’re still relevant. We’re still making albums and people are still buying them, and we’re still doing shows that sell out. Really, I feel blessed.’’
UB40 formed in December 1978 in Birmingham, naming themselves after the British unemployment benefit application form.
Packed with socially conscious lyrics and rough-hewn rhythms, their first (and best) album Signing Off was recorded in a tiny bedsit flat. The saxophonist was in the kitchen, because it had a nice echo, and most of the rest of the band were crammed into the sitting room. Percussionist Norman Hassan claims you can hear birds singing in the background because his percussion tracks were recorded in the overgrown jungle of a back garden.
The band have since sent more than 50 singles up the UK Singles Chart, and sold over 70 million records worldwide. And they are now the most travelled pop band in UK history, Campbell reckons.
‘‘A lot of bands jack it in after five or 10 years, or they separate for 20 years and then reform.
‘‘But I’ve been touring with a version of this band, continually, for 40 years, and I still love it. I kick up my heels at the star of each tour because I’m off on the road with me muckers, making music.
‘‘We get to go to all these beautiful places that other people save all their lives to get to, and we play music we love, and people pay us for that. What’s not to like?’’
All along the way, UB40 have been hugely popular here in New Zealand. When I was a teenager, their early tunes were unavoidable at parties.
‘‘Well, hippies and surfers and wastrels like that usually like our vibe, you know?’’, says Campbell, clearly having decided that I am one of the above.
‘‘And we turned up on your shores just after Bob Marley had been there, so there was a huge love for reggae at the time. We were the band of the moment back then, but we’ve been coming down to New Zealand and Australia since 1981.’’
Back in those days, he points out, reggae was only a decade old.
‘‘Earlier musical styles like ska and rocksteady had turned into reggae in Jamaica in the late ’60s, so when we started, it was the freshest new musical genre in the world.
‘‘And now, 40 years later, it’s more relevant than ever, because so many people, from Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande to a heap of current black American acts, are using Jamaican basslines and drum patterns and production techniques in their music.
‘‘Reggae’s influence has been enormous on contemporary pop music, so it feels great to be a part of that.’’
Campbell is, of course, aware that UB40 are disdained by many reggae purists. They’re frequently accused of cultural appropriation, making millions by bashing out pop-friendly covers of Jamaican classics, most notably on their gazillion-selling Labour Of Love series of covers albums.
But Campbell strongly disputes the notion that they’re just a bunch of mostly white British opportunists making a buck from watereddown Jamaican music.
‘‘First of all, this band was half-and-half black and white,’’ he says, also pointing out that the band members grew up in the poor areas of South Birmingham densely populated by West Indian and Indian immigrants.
‘‘People who called us a white reggae band were really insulting half of the band, and we’ll defend our blend to the end, you know.
‘‘And really, it was mainly white, middle-class journalists who gave us grief, but we were embraced in Jamaica because we promoted reggae worldwide. ‘‘In fact, these days, we’re the biggest promoters of reggae music in the world, in terms of how many records we sell and how much touring we do.’’
He also rejects the accusations of being a covers band. ‘‘Mate, I was responsible for every single original melody of UB40, and we made 24 albums, only three of which were the Labour Of Love albums. And our biggest-selling album was Promises And Lies, which was a
Forty years! That’s two life sentences here in England. You can kill someone and get out of jail, twice, in the time I’ve been in this band!
self-penned record and sold over 10 million copies in America alone!’’
There have also been suggestions that Campbell’s band should more rightfully be called UB20 these days, as half the members are missing in action.
Campbell currently heads up one version of the band, which also contains original founder members Astro and Mickey Virtue. But another UB40 also tours, containing the rest of the original band, led by Ali’s two brothers, Robin and Duncan Campbell.
‘‘Well, we’re on a totally different level to those guys, know what I mean?’’ he says.
‘‘We’re doing huge arena tours, but the other band – I call them the Dark Side – are playing much smaller venues, for obvious reasons.
‘‘Our band has both the original vocalists, and that’s what people want to hear – me and Astro.’’
Campbell sounds more than a little miffed that such a weird situation has developed.
‘‘I started this band in 1979 as a little unemployed youth, and it was my dream to promote reggae music, because I loved it so much. So to see those other guys calling themselves UB40, doing crap tours, even putting out a country album – it just wasn’t right.
‘‘Once I left the band, it was like the lunatics took over the asylum. As Astro said, they were like a rudderless ship, and that’s why him and Mickey joined me in this new version of the band.’’
As far as Campbell is concerned, the other UB40 are a greatly inferior act, but the presence of two touring bands does at least lead to some unintentional comedy. In 2014, both UB40s were booked to play in Dubai on the same day.
Does Ali ever imagine burying the hatchet with his brothers? Can he imagine some future happy family reunion of the Campbell clan around the Christmas tree, with kids running around and some righteous reggae basslines booming away in the background?
‘‘Oh, God, no!’’ he wails, sounding genuinely appalled.
‘‘It was an acrimonious split when I left, and too much bad stuff has gone down since then!
‘‘Really, the reunion everyone wanted was when Astro left, those guys and came and joined me, you know? It feels like a revitalised band now, so I’m happy.
‘‘We’ve put out three albums since the split (Unplugged, Silhouette and The Real Labour Of Love) and do an entire world tour almost every year, and we call ourselves ‘UB40 featuring Ali, Astro & Mickey’ to differentiate ourselves from those guys, because the Dark Side often play and people go along thinking we’re still in the band, then there’s reams of complaints afterwards. It’s much clearer this way.’’
Campbell’s version of UB40 arrive in New Zealand in late January, playing five dates here before heading on to Hawaii.
Opening most shows are the Marley NZ All-Stars, an everevolving bunch of local musicians including Tiki Taane, Laughton Kora, Annie Crummer, Ria Hall, Anna Coddington, Boh Runga and Warren Maxwell alongside members of Katchafire, Kora and L.A.B.
Campbell says he can’t wait to get back down here.
‘‘We love it in New Zealand, and we’ve got a load of Maori friends that we met on those early tours.
‘‘Actually, the first thing we did on our first tour was join a demo. There was a demonstration about apartheid and the Springbok Tour, so we threw our suitcases in the hotel and joined the march outside. We met a bunch of great people, and some became lifelong mates.’’
Campbell even lived down here for a short while, and cropped up every week on local TV. He groans when I mention it.
‘‘I was unlucky enough to be a judge on New Zealand’s Got Talent for a while there, which was more about entertainment than really finding talent, of course.
‘‘But while I was doing it, I was only working Thursdays. I had this beautiful flat above Waitemata Harbour, and the family would take off around the country, down through the alps and down the West Coast so on. I’ve probably seen more of New Zealand than most New Zealanders!’’
Campbell has passed through Nelson several times on his travels, and is looking forward to getting on stage here this summer.
‘‘This version of the band is so much simpler, you know?
‘‘In the old days, there were eight of us involved in every decision, because we were good little socialists who believed our band should be a democracy. But that meant every decision took about two years!
‘‘These days, there’s three of us calling the shots, so we can make an album in just a couple of months, and we surround ourselves with great players, so we’ve still got the best touring reggae band in the world today.
‘‘And of course, the loudest, like I said.’’
Like both Ali Campbell and Mickey Virtue, original band member Astro, inset, has spent 40 years in UB40.
UB40 co-founder Ali Campbell proudly proclaims them as the loudest reggae band in the world.
UB40 saxman Winston Rose.