Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1074

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Ali Campbell: Dub been good to me

Ali Campbell
Ali Campbell Ali Campbell Ali Campbell Ali Campbell

Heralded as one of the UKâs most distinctive and recognisable voices, as lead singer with world-renowned reggae supergroup UB40, Ali Campbell sold over 60 million records worldwide, toured across the globe, notched up four Number One worldwide singles, released 24 studio albums, and received an Ivor Novello Award for International Achievement⦠Meanwhile, this month sees the release of his fourth solo album âGreat British Songsâ. Which - produced by Ali himself and boasting Jamaicaâs legendary Sly & Robbie at the helm of its rhythm section - represents a collection of iconic British pop and rock hits from the Sixties and Seventies newly reinterpreted in a reggae style.

Indeed, recorded in both Jamaica and London, âGreat British Songsâ sees Birmingham, UK-born and-raised Campbell (who grew up surrounded by reggae in the cityâs prominently-black-and-Asian Balsall Heath district) bravely putting reggae and dancehall beats behind classic songs ranging from 1964âs âYou Really Got Meâ by The Kinks and The Beatlesâ âA Hard Dayâs Nightâ right through to 1978âs âBaker Streetâ by Gerry Rafferty - while taking in compositions from such other legendary UK mainstream acts as The Rolling Stones, The Hollies, Rod Stewart, Free and The Who along the way.

All of which prompts an interesting chat with the man whose highly distinctive voice a whole generation grew up listening to via UB40 classics like âOne In Tenâ, âRed Red Wineâ and âCanât Help Fallinâ In Loveâ... As an ever-chatty, 51-year-old Ali gets on the line to discuss with âBlues & Soulâ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis such pressing topics as his aforementioned new LP, his constant worldwide touring⦠Plus his outspoken, controversial views on his former UB40 bandmates, from whom he split acrimoniously - after 28 years of success - in January 2008.

PETE: What prompted your new, fourth solo LP âGreat British Songsâ?

ALI: âEarlier this year Fun Lovinâ Criminals came to me. They were making an album called âPurple Reggaeâ, which was a cover of the Prince âPurple Rainâ album but with all the songs done in a reggae style - and they wanted me to sing the title song! But, while at first I thought it was a weird choice, it actually worked BEAUTIFULLY. And, though we havenât released it yet, everyone thatâs heard it has LOVED it! So that in turn prompted me to think âI wonder how far I can take this idea?â... And to me the ultimate challenge was really to do songs that I wouldnât naturally have listened to. You know, I grew up listening to reggae in Balsall Heath in Birmingham, and the stuff that people that DONâT live in Balsall Heath were listening to - like Rod Stewart or Roxy Music - sorta went over my HEAD! So I thought that, if I could do an album of iconic Sixties and Seventies British songs done by iconic Sixties and Seventies British artists, it would be a lotta fun! So I set about making a list - and I guess the most interesting thing for me was to try and make these rock songs acceptable to ME! That basically was the challenge! And, even if I say so myself, I think Iâve done a good job!â

PETE: So how did you actually go about choosing the songs?

ALI: âI was trying to go for songs that were iconic but hadnât been covered by too many people. Which of course is difficult when youâre talking about groups like The Kinks and The Beatles and the (Rolling) Stones! But, because I was trying to do justice to all the right people from that era, I did end up with, for example, two Beatlesâ tracks - one a Lennon track and one a Macca track; two Stonesâ tracks... Plus I also included two Holliesâ tracks because, though they were very influential in the Sixties and made a lotta hit singles, I think they kinda get missed out a bit today and donât really get the credit they deserve.â

PETE: And what did you want to achieve in terms of production?

ALI: âProduction-wise, when I went over to Jamaica to work with Sly & Robbie on this album, I definitely had in mind trying to do some modern stuff as well as the older, rootsier stuff. Which is why I ended up either doing sort of steppers/roots-rock reggae versions of the songs, or going the other way and doing ragga or reggaeton... So, while my take on The Kinksâ âYou Really Got Meâ has a ragga vibe and my version of (The Beatlesâ) âA Hard Dayâs Nightâ is like a techno-reggae track, âBaker Streetâ, for example, is a lot closer to the (Gerry Rafferty) original, but with a Sly Dunbar beat.â

PETE: Which of the tracks stand out to you personally?

ALI: âWell, âCarrie Anneâ is the one weâve decided to go with as the single. Because it seems to be the track that Radio 2 are enjoying and will probably be the one that gets the most airplay. Also, sticking with songs by The Hollies, I do think itâs ironic - and fairly amusing - that Iâve done âHe Ainât Heavy, Heâs My Brotherâ! You know, given that my own brothers (UB40 members Robin and Duncan Campbell) have betrayed me in such an underhand way, I thought people might pick UP on that! Then, in terms of being a challenge to make, I guess tracks like âAlright Nowâ, âLove Is The Drugâ and âSqueeze Boxâ - which was the only track by The Who I felt I could do in a reggae style - also stand out for me, because theyâre the absolute least expected and are so far removed from what reggae is and where reggae comes from.â

PETE: Just after youâd completed mixing âGreat British Songsâ, you collapsed and were diagnosed with the Epstein Barr virus and advised by doctors to rest for two monthsâ¦

ALI: âYeah, itâs a bit of a bummer! Because, while I can still do phone interviews and radio stuff, Iâm not able to do any actual SHOWS around this album release - because Iâm not really supposed to be doing anything strenuous. I basically have to take it easy for a couple of months, so I can get better and have enough energy to do what I have to do next YEAR. I mean, at first I thought it was because, while making this album, Iâd been recording at Sarm Studios in the week and then doing shows in places like Hungary and Austria on the weekends. I thought I was getting too old, and that I was knackered because Iâd been overdoing it! But then I got my blood checked, and was told Iâd got the Epstein Barr virus. Which is basically like chronic fatigue, where you feel completely shattered... Though with me itâs not as severe as it CAN be - you know, you can be in bed for like six months! So, while I am laid low at the moment and I have had to postpone a few shows until January, I do intend to be up and running again soon and pretty much touring all around the world!â

PETE: You and your new band - The Dep Band - are constantly touring globally. What have been some recent live highlights?

ALI: âWell, playing Hawaii was a big thing for me. Because with UB40, Hawaii was one of our biggest markets - we actually held a few records there, in terms of audiences and filling out places. So I was obviously concerned to see what people would think of me with my new band... And Iâm proud to say we totally smashed it! We went down a STORM! Then weâve also done some barmy, out-of-the-way places like Bratislava, where we played at the Town Hall. And it was the WEIRDEST experience, because it was like a masked ball! You know, The President was there, and they were all in their big gowns sorta ballroom-dancing to my music - which I thought was hilarious! Plus we also did Romania last New Yearâs Eve at minus 12 degrees below! Which was like so cold that we were literally having to put hot cups of tea down the trombones and stuff, to stop them from seizing up! You know, we were in Bucharestâs town square in front of their National Heroes statue playing to about 100,000 people - and we did the whole show in full coats and mittens and balaclavas and scarves!.. Then weâve also recently been to places like Hungary, Austria, and South Africa - plus weâve been doing a lot of the European reggae festivals... So yeah, weâve just been all OVER the place!â

PETE: So what are your views on your old band - UB40 - this month re-releasing their classic 1980 debut LP âSigning Offâ (which you obviously played a massive role in) as a â30th Anniversary Special Editionâ double CD?

ALI: âI think itâs absurd actually. I mean, since I left UB40 Iâve made three albums, and they havenât done anything at ALL original! You know, all theyâve done is re-release stuff with me on it! And when they DO release stuff with me on it, they put their tour dates on it so that people think Iâm still with them! So itâs all very underhand and completely crazy! I mean, I left UB40 nearly three years ago now and Iâm very happy doing my new stuff with my new band. Whereas I think theyâre just limping along! I mean, how many times are they gonna re-release the same thing?! To me theyâre sort of squeezing blood out of a stone, flogging a dead horse, picking the meant off a carcass... You know, thereâs lots of ways you can say it! Whereas they should be trying to get on with making some NEW music! The problem of course being that, while they do write great LYRICS, I was the one who wrote all the actual TUNES for UB40! And when they let me walk out, I donât think they were thinking clearly who was gonna write the MUSIC! Which is why I think theyâre loathe to do anything original and new - which to me makes them kind of impotent.â

PETE: Moving on to more positive things, aside of promoting the new album, what is currently in the pipeline for Ali Campbell right now?

ALI: âWell, Iâm already in the process of recording my next solo album, âRhythm Methodâ. Plus Iâd love to do a dub version of this âGreat British Songsâ set and maybe get some guests on there like Vybez Cartel and Mavado. Which, trust me, would make for a wicked dub album! Then live-wise Iâm intending to do a pop-reggae tour with Sean Paul, Sean Kingston and Shaggy, as well as doing a more rootsy tour with people like Mavado and Morgan Heritage... So yeah, Iâm pleased to say that health-wise Iâm very much on the mend, and there are lots of things in the offing!â

The album âGreat British Songsâ is out now. The single âCarrie Anneâ follows on November 8, both through Absolute

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