Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1099

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UB40: One in a million

UB40 UB40 (photo - Jeff Widener)

This month finds Birmingham, UK-based reggae supergroup UB40 celebrating the 30th anniversary of their seminal debut LP âSigning Offâ with a âCollectorâs Editionâ 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 - âSigning Offâ (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 UKâs 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 âSigning Offâ 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 âFood For Thoughtâ and âI Think Itâs Going to Rain Todayâ 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 (1983âs âRed Red Wineâ; 1993âs âFalling In Love With Youâ) and overall .

Meanwhile, with the re-release of âSigning Offâ 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) UB40âs highly-talkative saxophonist - and founding member - Brian Travers calls up âBlues & Soulâ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis for a revealing and highly-interesting 30-minute chat.

The groupâs ideas on this monthâs re-release of âSigning Offâ as a â30th Anniversary Special Editionâ double-CD

âIt wasnât 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 âSigning Offâ... And though, as a musician, youâd always prefer to be getting into something new, we didnât 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 weâve 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.â

How UB40 feel about performing at more intimate venues during their current, extensive UK tour based around the albumâs re-release

âThe idea of taking the album back to much the same venues weâd played it in the FIRST time around really appealed to us. Because for decades now weâve 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 youâre WORKING with - apart from the occasional few that come backstage to say âhelloâ, whoâve 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 donât GET those big groups of friends. You know, itâs a different vibe altogether.â

The social and political climate that UB40, and their debut album, was born out of

âWe were basically just a bunch of lads who hung out together! You know, weâd all started secondary school together when we were 11, weâd 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 wasnât like the impossible, far-off dream that weâd once THOUGHT it was! I mean, weâd never had music classes and so we werenât what youâd call âproper musiciansâ. 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 âSigning Offâ was literally our first collection of songs that we could PLAY!â

Brianâs thoughts on UB40 as a political band, and political music in general
âWhen 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, thereâs a lot people these days peaking at 18, whereas, for example, Bob Marleyâs 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.â

How he recalls the actual recording sessions for âSigning Offâ

âThe albumâs producer - Bob Lamb - had been a drummer in a band called The Steve Gibbons Band, who did like real authentic rock & roll. You know, heâd never made it, he was struggling⦠But - because we couldnât 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 weâd booted the lock off it! And, with it being a bedsit and us being eight in the band, weâd 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 - weâd 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 weâd be shouting across the fences âKeep it DOWN! Weâre RECORDING!â... And whatâs funny is weâve 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!â

Brianâs thoughts on UB40âs former frontman, and fellow founder member, Ali Campbell - who obviously played a massive roll in âSigning Offâ - no longer being with the band, having left acrimoniously in January 2008

âThe split is only acrimonious from Aliâs side - I have to say that. You know, Ali had a problem about money. He wanted more money and basically said âIâm going solo so Iâll make l0 times as much money without you guysâ⦠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 thatâs the truth - and thatâs IT! He left, his other brother - Duncan - joined and took over lead vocals, and weâve carried on ever SINCE. Weâve toured the US a couple of times, toured Europe, done a couple of arena tours; weâre 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 doesnât 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!â

How Brian feels about Duncan Campbell now replacing his brother Ali Campbell as UB40âs lead singer

âDuncan coming in and being new to the group shook us all up a little bit - in terms of how much work heâs prepared to do, how many hours heâs prepared to put in... Which has in turn improved the tightness of the band, the harmony side of things... And so in that way itâs been a great thing. Plus, while Duncan was singing in pubs and bars as a folk singer for years, he hasnât 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, heâs ENTHUSIASTIC! You know, after singing songs in pubs and bars for years, he canât 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 didnât just JOIN the band, we WANTED him! Plus, with him being Robinâs brother, their tones match so well, their harmony singing is so nice... So yeah, while thereâs nothing good to say about the whole Ali situation, weâre basically just getting ON with it, Pete, to be honest.â

UB40âs âSigning Offâ UK tour runs from now up to November 19, taking in such venues as Glasgow Royal Concert Hall; Manchester Bridgewater Hall; Cardiff St Davidâs; and Southampton Guildhall

The album âSigning Off: Collectorâs Editionâ is out now through Virgin/EMI Records

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