UB40: One in a million
This month finds Birmingham, UK-based reggae supergroup UB40 celebrating the 30th anniversary of their seminal debut LP ‘Signing Off’ with a ‘Collector’s Edition’ double-CD re-release. Which - in addition to the original album remastered - also includes all the various dub mixes and B-sides, alongside a DVD featuring previously-unreleased Rock Goes To College film footage.
With its cover artwork famously depicting a replica of the bright yellow unemployment card from which the band took its name - Unemployment Benefit Form 40 - ‘Signing Off’ (the title itself also a reference to said unemployment form) was heralded as a landmark album upon its original August 1980 release. Considered by many as one of the greatest reggae albums ever released by a British band, its mix of reggae and dub struck a significant chord amongst a large portion of the UK’s then-disaffected youth. As, chronicling the times in which it was created, its lyrics addressed the plight of communities throughout the UK during the early Thatcher years, as well as wider social and political issues of the day.
Indeed, with ‘Signing Off’ going on to attain Platinum status while spending 71 weeks on the British charts where it peaked at Number Two (spawning classic Top 10 singles like ‘Food For Thought’ and ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’ along the way), the album significantly marked the launch of a trailblazing career that has seen UB40 become one of the most successful reggae groups of all time - boasting over 40 UK Top 40 singles; two US Number Ones (1983’s ‘Red Red Wine’; 1993’s ‘Falling In Love With You’) and overall .
Meanwhile, with the re-release of ‘Signing Off’ currently being accompanied by an extensive tour of intimate venues across the UK (where, in addition to performing the album in its entirety, the group will perform a second set each evening featuring some of their other, much-loved tracks) UB40’s highly-talkative saxophonist - and founding member - Brian Travers calls up ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis for a revealing and highly-interesting 30-minute chat.
The group’s ideas on this month’s re-release of ‘Signing Off’ as a ‘30th Anniversary Special Edition’ double-CD
“It wasn’t really our idea. But I think right now - with the music industry in such dire straits that they can barely sell ANYTHING - the labels are basically looking for any angle to hang something ONTO. And, with it being the 30th anniversary of I guess one of our seminal albums, EMI decided they wanted to re-release ‘Signing Off’... And though, as a musician, you’d always prefer to be getting into something new, we didn’t actually have too many objections. Because, with a tour being tied in around it, the re-release has given us the opportunity to do something we’ve never done BEFORE. Which is to play an album in its entirety, then go off for 15 minutes - before coming back onstage to play a SECOND set, comprising our hits in addition to more modern, contemporary stuff. All of which definitely appealed to us.”
How UB40 feel about performing at more intimate venues during their current, extensive UK tour based around the album’s re-release
“The idea of taking the album back to much the same venues we’d played it in the FIRST time around really appealed to us. Because for decades now we’ve been playing arenas and stadiums where you leave your hotel; get on the tour bus; the tour bus goes into the backstage of the arena... And the only people you ever see are the people you’re WORKING with - apart from the occasional few that come backstage to say ‘hello’, who’ve found out how to manoeuvre their way through the walls of security... Whereas the gigs we actually love playing the best are the ones with a chip-shop next-door or a bus-stop outside! Because the people coming to those gigs tend to KNOW each other more, or they may have travelled on the bus together, they may be from the same town… As opposed to when you play those out-of-town arenas, where people just come from everywhere in pairs and you just don’t GET those big groups of friends. You know, it’s a different vibe altogether.”
The social and political climate that UB40, and their debut album, was born out of
“We were basically just a bunch of lads who hung out together! You know, we’d all started secondary school together when we were 11, we’d knock about together after school… And, because we lived in the middle of downtown Birmingham, of course we felt the waves of immigration before MOST people did. In that there were lots of West Indian and Asian people in our neighbourhood. And, because in the Seventies there was no black television or Asian television, to these people - who were our neighbours and friends - music was incredibly IMPORTANT! To the point where you even dressed like your album sleeves! So through school all our ambitions were really pointed towards becoming musicians. And so, by the time we left at 16 and found ourselves on the dole, being a musician wasn’t like the impossible, far-off dream that we’d once THOUGHT it was! I mean, we’d never had music classes and so we weren’t what you’d call ‘proper musicians’. But then what we started doing was playing records and spending our time COYPING them - until we could play them note-for-note! And what we discovered from that was that we all had an ear for flat and sharp, and we could hear TONES! So, once we started realising we actually could DO this, from there we wrote our first songs that we could perform at gigs - and so ‘Signing Off’ was literally our first collection of songs that we could PLAY!”
Brian’s thoughts on UB40 as a political band, and political music in general
“When UB40 started out it was very much a political age. The National Front were marching on the street; we came from a hugely multi-racial area of Birmingham; we were a multi-racial band; our friends and neighbours were from all over the world… So yeah, we were very active against The National Front, against fascism... You know, we were part of The Anti-Nazi League and played a lot of Rock Against Racism gigs - which were an incredible outlet back in those days, because you were speaking to like-minded people. And I think that, in turn, gave us the opportunity to be a little more political with our music - something I do feel is missing a little bit from music now. In that these kids today do seem a little more interested in fame than content, when what they need to realise is that, if they get the content right, the fame just looks after ITSELF. I mean, there’s a lot people these days peaking at 18, whereas, for example, Bob Marley’s first four albums - though beautiful pieces of music - were FLOPS! And the same could be said for a lotta great SOUL artists back then, who took years to get a hit… So yeah, to me a lot of the feeling and the human-ness in music has been lost with the POLITICS being lost.”
How he recalls the actual recording sessions for ‘Signing Off’
“The album’s producer - Bob Lamb - had been a drummer in a band called The Steve Gibbons Band, who did like real authentic rock & roll. You know, he’d never made it, he was struggling… But - because we couldn’t afford a studio and he was the only guy we knew who knew how to record music - we did the album in his bed-sit! I remember he had his bed on stilts. So underneath the bed was a sofa and mixing desk. And so we recorded the album there on an eight-track machine, with the same 50p coin going through the electric meter continually because we’d booted the lock off it! And, with it being a bedsit and us being eight in the band, we’d record the saxophone in the kitchen - because there was a bit or resonance off the walls, a bit of reverb - before putting the machine effects on it. While the percussion - the tambourines, the congas, the drums - we’d do in the back yard! Which is why you can hear birds singing on some of the tracks! You know, because it was in the daytime we’d be shouting across the fences ‘Keep it DOWN! We’re RECORDING!’... And what’s funny is we’ve actually taken lots of little bird samples on this tour WITH us - to play during some of the songs, just to remind people of that!”
Brian’s thoughts on UB40’s former frontman, and fellow founder member, Ali Campbell - who obviously played a massive roll in ‘Signing Off’ - no longer being with the band, having left acrimoniously in January 2008
“The split is only acrimonious from Ali’s side - I have to say that. You know, Ali had a problem about money. He wanted more money and basically said ‘I’m going solo so I’ll make l0 times as much money without you guys’… Which killed us ALL! Because his brother (Robin Campbell) is still in the band, plus we all grew up together… So, as I say, it killed us all that he would ever GET like that. But that’s the truth - and that’s IT! He left, his other brother - Duncan - joined and took over lead vocals, and we’ve carried on ever SINCE. We’ve toured the US a couple of times, toured Europe, done a couple of arena tours; we’re about to go back to The States, to Australia… And, while it was emotional at the time, we still do wish Ali the best of luck - even though the fact he still doesn’t talk to his brothers, or ANY of us, is incredibly sad... But hey, people change but life goes on - and you just have to get ON with stuff… Which we ARE doing!”
How Brian feels about Duncan Campbell now replacing his brother Ali Campbell as UB40’s lead singer
“Duncan coming in and being new to the group shook us all up a little bit - in terms of how much work he’s prepared to do, how many hours he’s prepared to put in... Which has in turn improved the tightness of the band, the harmony side of things... And so in that way it’s been a great thing. Plus, while Duncan was singing in pubs and bars as a folk singer for years, he hasn’t been doing it INTENSELY for 30 years! Which means his voice is very clear and very clean, his chords are good, his pitch is great… And more than anything, he’s ENTHUSIASTIC! You know, after singing songs in pubs and bars for years, he can’t believe he now actually goes round the WORLD doing it! I mean, we have fantastic meals, good laughs... Because you have to remember, Duncan went to school with us TOO! So he didn’t just JOIN the band, we WANTED him! Plus, with him being Robin’s brother, their tones match so well, their harmony singing is so nice... So yeah, while there’s nothing good to say about the whole Ali situation, we’re basically just getting ON with it, Pete, to be honest.”
UB40’s ‘Signing Off’ UK tour runs from now up to November 19, taking in such venues as Glasgow Royal Concert Hall; Manchester Bridgewater Hall; Cardiff St David’s; and Southampton Guildhall
The album ‘Signing Off: Collector’s Edition’ is out now through Virgin/EMI Records
Words PETE LEWIS