Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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UB40: Reggae Reggae Source


We probably all know by now that the UK’s most successful reggae band have had a fair amount of brown, smelly stuff dumped all over them in recent years. With the much publicised departure of lead singer Ali Campbell, the subsequent media frenzy over his comments about his former band mates – which of course included his own brother Robin – and then recent turmoil when the whole band were declared individually bankrupt.

So it was a nice moment to find out that despite all this crap, they had signed a new record deal with Virgin, and have a cracking new CD out. I have had that album for a good while and was/am sure it was gonna go top ten, and put them back on top.

Then they announce a UK tour to promote the record. Great stuff. But I find out that despite the cash that will come in for the album deal and their slice of sales royalties, royalties from their own songs on the album x 5, and the tour revenue, they will earn bugger all from it. All proceeds go direct to the receivers. Ouch! Bet that hurts.

Ali has not spoken to his former colleagues since he left in 2008, and has nothing to do with his brothers either. Duncan Campbell replaced him as lead singer. The eldest brother Dave Campbell is a respected folk singer.

The UB40 lads are more than just a band. They were school mates who all grew up together in a working class area of Birmingham. Left school in the late 70s, when unemployment was at its highest, and all signed on the dole together.

They formed a reggae band and were discovered by Chrissie Hynde, playing in a London music venue. They got a major record deal, have since made more than 20 studio albums, sold circa 120 million records, had over 40 UK hit singles and scored hits in the USA. Toured the world playing huge venues to millions of people, over a 35 year period.

Their global fame and multi-millionaire status – owning their own record label, their own studio and having homes around the world – never once affected their relationship with each other.

Until Ali quit the band. Since then, the band’s business affairs have gone into meltdown and each member lost their homes and all their assets.

They have now been forced to sell their entire back catalogue and the publishing rights to their songs, to wipe out some of the massive debt.

Their new album aptly titled “Getting Over The Storm,” has already been selected by BBC Radio 2 as their album of the week.

It dropped on September 2nd and is creating quite a stir. For me, the aggro they have endured has made them a stronger unit. It has probably helped them to deliver their strongest and classiest album to date. You know what they say: “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” These Brummie boys are born survivors.

The album is a warm and affectionate tribute to country music, country artists and country music songwriters. I ask why country and not just another reggae album, lads? Over to founder member, sax man and main songwriter for the band, Brian Travers. “Country music is loved by Caribbean audiences. We’ve all spent a lot of time in Jamaica, and country music is very much part of the fabric. It’s an honest music, just like reggae. The two genres really sit together well.”

The album opens with Greg Allman’s “Midnight Rider,” and the band give us gems from George Jones (the title track), Vince Gill’s “If You Ever Have Forever In Mind,” Buck Owens’ “Crying Time,” Jim Reeves’ “He’ll Have To Go,” The Fred Rose-penned Willie Nelson classic “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,” The Randy Travis tune “On The Other Hand,” the 1929 Great Depression song written by Blind Alfred Reed; “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such times And Live?” - with modernised lyrics by Duncan Campbell.

Let’s get this straight. Duncan is not Ali, nor does he try to be. He holds his own on the lead vocals and does a really superb job. As a huge Sinatra fan, his diction is spot on (Note: He has recorded a big band version of one of his late Father’s folk songs, and tells me he hopes one day to do a full album of Ian’s songs in the same style.)

But he is not trying to sound like Ali or anyone else. He has been a singer since he was in short trousers. All the Campbell boys x 4, sang in a harmony group as children and performed with their Father on stage.

Their Dad, Ian Campbell was a respected folk star. Ian passed away last November. While Ali and Robin went off to become stars, Duncan sang in the folk clubs with his Father, and held down jobs as a croupier, owned his own catering business, held pub licenses, ran a casino in Barbados and ran a fish and chip shop in Australia. He worked as an extra on TV shows such as Dr Who, Casualty, Eastenders and Doctors over a ten year period. He recalls being offered a full time job on Doctors, which he turned down to join UB40 in 2008 when Ali left. This is the third UB40 album Duncan has sung on.

He actually rejected an offer back in 1978, to join the newly formed reggae band with his two brothers. Strange fact: He was a professional spoons player, and the only professional spoons player in the country registered with the Musicians' Union - until they re-registered him as a vocalist.

Duncan, 55, is not subject to a bankruptcy order. He still lives in a rented council flat in the same area he has lived since he was a child. He drives a Skoda and cares not about a flash lifestyle. “I was the other brother living in the shadow of it all, and it has been a joy to be part of it for the last five or six years. An honour in fact. I came into this business at this level overnight, and there were no transit vans and starting at the bottom for me. In my first year, I was up there singing in front of 18,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl. Crazy.”

But, this potential happy ending is not without its’ sour after-taste. The band is still packing huge venues overseas with 10,000 to 30,000 people. They have arena tour dates here in the UK soon, and may well achieve a top ten album if my predictions are accurate. But as explained earlier, they will earn diddly squat from any of it.

The media have had a feeding frenzy, having a pop at the “fallen stars.” Recently, the Sun newspaper put a shed load of spin on a nothing story, when Brian Travers guested with a UB40 tribute band in an Ipswich pub. They splashed him all over the ‘paper as a “skint reggae star” who could only get a gig in a tribute to his own band! Nonsense.

Back to the new album, Brian is excited about how it tuned out. “This seemed like the most experimental we could be. We are a bit dyed in the wool in what we do. The same things over and over, with different tunes and melodies really. Being able to move towards a country influence like this, is probably the most experimental the band’s ever been as a musical form. We all really believe in it and are all excited about how it turned out.”

“People may think country music is simple. But it is not. You get songs with 127 chords in there. It is really players’ music. It felt like we stretched ourselves. Country is all about expressing the emotion of the song,” Brian explained.

They certainly do that, on a perfect choice of songs, and even if you are not a huge country fan; if you love reggae music and want to hear something a bit different, give this a go. It is after all; “One Love,” as Mr Marley told us.

The album "Getting Over The Storm" is out now on Virgin Records.


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