Ali Campbell: Dub been good to me
Heralded as one of the UK’s 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 ‘Great British Songs’. Which - produced by Ali himself and boasting Jamaica’s 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, ‘Great British Songs’ sees Birmingham, UK-born and-raised Campbell (who grew up surrounded by reggae in the city’s prominently-black-and-Asian Balsall Heath district) bravely putting reggae and dancehall beats behind classic songs ranging from 1964’s ‘You Really Got Me’ by The Kinks and The Beatles’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ right through to 1978’s ‘Baker Street’ 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 ‘One In Ten’, ‘Red Red Wine’ and ‘Can’t Help Fallin’ In Love’... As an ever-chatty, 51-year-old Ali gets on the line to discuss with ‘Blues & Soul’ 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 ‘Great British Songs’?
ALI: “Earlier this year Fun Lovin’ Criminals came to me. They were making an album called ‘Purple Reggae’, which was a cover of the Prince ‘Purple Rain’ 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 haven’t released it yet, everyone that’s heard it has LOVED it! So that in turn prompted me to think ‘I wonder how far I can take this idea?’... And to me the ultimate challenge was really to do songs that I wouldn’t naturally have listened to. You know, I grew up listening to reggae in Balsall Heath in Birmingham, and the stuff that people that DON’T 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 I’ve done a good job!”
PETE: So how did you actually go about choosing the songs?
ALI: “I was trying to go for songs that were iconic but hadn’t been covered by too many people. Which of course is difficult when you’re 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 Beatles’ tracks - one a Lennon track and one a Macca track; two Stones’ tracks... Plus I also included two Hollies’ 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 don’t really get the credit they deserve.”
PETE: And what did you want to achieve in terms of production?
ALI: “Production-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 Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’ has a ragga vibe and my version of (The Beatles’) ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ is like a techno-reggae track, ‘Baker Street’, for example, is a lot closer to the (Gerry Rafferty) original, but with a Sly Dunbar beat.”
PETE: Which of the tracks stand out to you personally?
ALI: “Well, ‘Carrie Anne’ is the one we’ve 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 it’s ironic - and fairly amusing - that I’ve done ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’! 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 ‘Alright Now’, ‘Love Is The Drug’ and ‘Squeeze Box’ - which was the only track by The Who I felt I could do in a reggae style - also stand out for me, because they’re the absolute least expected and are so far removed from what reggae is and where reggae comes from.”
PETE: Just after you’d completed mixing ‘Great British Songs’, you collapsed and were diagnosed with the Epstein Barr virus and advised by doctors to rest for two months…
ALI: “Yeah, it’s a bit of a bummer! Because, while I can still do phone interviews and radio stuff, I’m not able to do any actual SHOWS around this album release - because I’m 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, I’d 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 I’d been overdoing it! But then I got my blood checked, and was told I’d got the Epstein Barr virus. Which is basically like chronic fatigue, where you feel completely shattered... Though with me it’s 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!”
PETE: You and your new band - The Dep Band - are constantly touring globally. What have been some recent live highlights?
ALI: “Well, 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 I’m proud to say we totally smashed it! We went down a STORM! Then we’ve 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 Year’s 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 Bucharest’s 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 we’ve also recently been to places like Hungary, Austria, and South Africa - plus we’ve been doing a lot of the European reggae festivals... So yeah, we’ve just been all OVER the place!”
PETE: So what are your views on your old band - UB40 - this month re-releasing their classic 1980 debut LP ‘Signing Off’ (which you obviously played a massive role in) as a ‘30th Anniversary Special Edition’ double CD?
ALI: “I think it’s absurd actually. I mean, since I left UB40 I’ve made three albums, and they haven’t done anything at ALL original! You know, all they’ve 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 I’m still with them! So it’s all very underhand and completely crazy! I mean, I left UB40 nearly three years ago now and I’m very happy doing my new stuff with my new band. Whereas I think they’re just limping along! I mean, how many times are they gonna re-release the same thing?! To me they’re sort of squeezing blood out of a stone, flogging a dead horse, picking the meant off a carcass... You know, there’s 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 don’t think they were thinking clearly who was gonna write the MUSIC! Which is why I think they’re loathe to do anything original and new - which to me makes them kind of impotent.”
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: “Well, I’m already in the process of recording my next solo album, ‘Rhythm Method’. Plus I’d love to do a dub version of this ‘Great British Songs’ 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 I’m 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, I’m pleased to say that health-wise I’m very much on the mend, and there are lots of things in the offing!”
The album ‘Great British Songs’ is out now. The single ‘Carrie Anne’ follows on November 8, both through Absolute
Words PETE LEWIS