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.

Nelson Mail - - Weekend -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.