Picture the scene. It’s another hot, sunny afternoon and the back garden beckons. But it’s my turn to make tea. Oddly enough, I can’t cook without some good sounds for company, and today I’ve chosen an old favourite, in honour of the fella I’m interviewing the next day.
The man in question is Brian Travers, sax player and songwriter with UB40, and the album I have in mind – soon blasting out of my kitchen, with the back door wide open – is that band’s 1980 debut, Signing Off.
It’s so evocative, and all these years on has certainly stood the test of time. A good honest, homegrown reggae blend. And while I was still two months off reaching teen-dom when it came out, it’s appeal remains three and a half decades later.
And I’m pleased to report from that next day’s conversation that Brian still has youth on his side too, enjoying a new lease of life in the latest incarnation of this Birmingham outfit, having recently rediscovered the joy of the smaller gig – at least by UB40 mega-standards.
Following a sell-out UK spring tour, the band are embarking on a second leg later this year, and Brian is understandably keen to put to one side some of the murkier aspects of UB40’s public and often caustic fall-out, one that has led to an ongoing legal dispute with former vocalist and front-man Ali Campbell.
Ali quit in 2008 in order to pursue a solo career, and was replaced by brother Duncan Campbell, a brewing situation coming to a head when the original singer reunited with Mickey Virtue and Astro and looked to tour under the UB40 name.
But while clearly upset by the feud and unable to say much during those proceedings, Brian is more than happy to talk about the past, present and future of the band – 34 years after their first hit.
And with fellow founding members Jimmy Brown, Ali’s older brother Robin Campbell, Earl Falconer and Norman Hassan also still on board, he feels he’s still at the heart of it all.
I put it to Brian that few of us would have lasted quite so long living in the pockets of old school-mates. The fact that five of the original eight still play together is quite something.
“Well, not all of us made it, but funnily enough all the songwriters made it. We split everything though – you won’t see a credit other than ‘UB40’ on all our records.
“All those royalties were shared, and guys who never wrote a single note or word earned exactly the same.”
Do you foresee a time when you can pick up the phone to Ali, chat about the good days and start again?
“I’m not so sure really. We’ve just carried on what we’re doing amid some very underhand stuff.
“I forgive them though, if you’re asking me, in a hippy sense – yeah. As for trust and some of the terrible stuff that’s gone down …
“Good luck to them though – I wish them No.1s and so much success they won’t have time to think about us, and we can just get on with it. I’d love that.”
The issue at the heart of the dispute is brand ownership, not least with the departed trio announcing their intention to ‘reform’, record a new album and perform live under the old band-name, something the original five-piece see as an attempted ‘hijack’ of their 35-year career.
Meanwhile, Brian’s more than happy with how things are going on the recording and live front, not least as they’re playing smaller venues – re-discovering a little intimacy.
They played 14 sell-out gigs earlier this year, and have another 22 planned, and it’s proved to be something of an eye-opener.
“Yep, venues on the street, where you can get a cab from your house or a local bus to the gig, rather than have to drive to the outskirts of town to some arena then get a bus from the car park and get past 75 lines of security.
“In towns, with a chip shop next door and a local bar, so you can have a beer before and after the gig. That for me is what I find exciting!
“We wouldn’t have got those gigs for the last 25 years. Promoters simply wouldn’t be able to resist the lure of filthy lucre, saying ‘I can sell 20,000 tickets rather than 2,000’.
“That forgot completely what it was really about, and we were trapped in that for many years. As a result a lot of little venues disappeared – lots of little clubs you could play.
“Now we’re on to the 02s and Academy venues – not the greatest places to work in, but better for the audiences I think.”
What’s more, Brian is proud of his recent creative output, not least latest LP Getting over the Storm – a reggae-tinged tribute to country music roots, its name no doubt a nod to those court battles.
After selling a phenomenal 70 million records, becoming one of the most commercially–successful reggae acts ever, which album or tracks are you most proud of from the last three and a half decades?
“Probably the latest stuff, because by the time you’ve recorded songs, smashed them to bits mixing them, rehearsing them into the ground and taking them out on the road, you’re ready to make a new record.
“That’s not only from touring in the States, where the radio stations change as you head up the highway, genres change and you know you’re somewhere new. But reggae’s always had a tight relationship with country.”
I suppose you’re right, thinking of records in my older sister’s collection when I was growing up, like those covers by Ken Boothe and John Holt.
“Absolutely – they all covered proper country songs, a lot of Jim Reeves songs as well.
“I wrote five original songs for this album, which was a great experience – writing country songs, bringing them to the band and them changing them into reggae tunes.
“We all stretch out a bit and find ourselves a bit more. And as you can imagine, it’s impossible for us to grow up. There are guys in the band who still think they’re 14 and I’m 13!”
So is that the key to a long and successful career – being in UB40?
“Maybe. A couple of the guys have gone over the years, and Ali wanted to start a solo career, so he’s gone off and done that. Maybe he had to grow a bit.”
Brian says this without any malice, but then laughs when he realises how it came out. A cue for me to move on.
Does it surprise you when people like me talk about it being 34 years and counting?
“It surprises me how fast that time’s gone and how quick the time is that we have, all of us, and to do what we aim to do.
“But then, if I start thinking about it, we’ve done such a lot, so it makes sense.”
It’s a mighty back-catalogue too, with the first 12 albums – up to 1998 – going either silver, gold or platinum, and 34 top-40 hits in their first two decades. Of those, 15 made the top 10 and three got to number one. And that’s just in the UK.
Heading back to the beginning though, I tell Brian how I equate that debut album, Signing Off, with so many good memories. Does that LP reflect a happy time in your life?
“Absolutely! Everything was starting to go right for us. We’d left school and there was no work in Birmingham or anywhere from around 1976 onwards, so we were at the tail-end of all that. It was a nightmare.
“These were the only songs we could play, all coming together by virtue of the fact that we’d all been in a room and that’s what we’d learned to play.”
Maybe that’s why it works, because it still sounds so fresh after all these years.
“I think you’ve got it there. We didn’t know the keys, what the right passing chords were, what a bridge was … there’s a lot to be said for knowing nothing about pop music!”
Thinking back – for a lad like me, born in the late ’60s – it was bands like UB40, The Beat, Madness and The Specials that opened up a love of ska, regaae, lovers rock and all that.
They also made me realise it could be home-grown, rather than just an overseas music from artists like Bob Marley and others from Jamaica. So how did this white boy from Birmingham get introduced to reggae?
“Good question! I’m 55 now, so have about 10 years on you, and in my early teens we’d already had the original Blue Beat thing going on. Not on the radio, but because we lived in a neighbourhood called Balsall Heath.
“We were right in the middle of Birmingham, by Moseley, with Handsworth over the other side of the city centre.
“It was a car city – with all those factories in Birmingham and a lot of West Indian people, so our youth club music was generally the records my mates had, their big brothers had brought over, or their Mums and Dads owned, or had sent over from Jamaica.
“We got the Blue Beat rock-steady thing, the original skinhead thing. It wasn’t fascist – it was about fashion and youth culture. We were part of that first wave.
“By the time The Specials – and those guys are my mates, I play in bands with most of them now – were doing that kind of punky, rock-steady Blue Beat thing, which everybody called ska, we were into reggae.
“We weren’t in the black and white check outfits. We were just into youth culture and the clothes that were in fashion then.”
It’s fair to say bands like UB40 gave this lad from the South-East a positive understanding of how multi-culturalism was a positive thing, despite the general Thatcher era ‘I’m all right, Jack’ ethos. And the band were ambassadors for their home city’s diversity too.
“We were just teenagers and all a bit political, and had to be unless there was something wrong with us. We were all socialist.
“We thought we could change the world and put to right what was wrong. It was exciting, it was cool.
“I think it was more by luck that people caught on to what we were doing. We were only the same as every other kid at that time.
“It just so happened that we were in a pop group, talking to the NME and on the telly. We were probably among the more normal pop stars that had ever been out there.
“There were no aspirations for Ferraris and all that. We had more interest in girls!”
Well yeah, and in many respects you were the lads next door really.
“I suppose so, and now we’ve had a really long musical career. We were very proud of all that, and still are.
“I’m still living in Birmingham and still take part in the life of the city, playing in half a dozen bands here. Some of those can hardly play, being innocent, naive and groovy, but that’s nice too.”
Are you a gun for hire in that sense?
“I suppose in some ways, because I’m old … but I try not to be. And I try to let them find their feet. And let’s face it, there’s only 12 notes.”
That’s one thing that clearly comes over with Brian. He’s down-to earth to a point of being self-deprecating. And that’s a breath of fresh air.
When I say about his band being the boys next door though, I don’t reckon I would have got much sleep if UB40 really were my neighbours, what with all that stonking reggae bass.
“Well, we were the polite ones as well, to be honest. We weren’t bad lads, we were making music, we weren’t making hell for anyone.”
“That’s right, in a place called the Hare and Hounds, which is my local pub now.”
Well, there you go. And I believe there’s a plaque outside now.
“There is, thanks to the Performing Rights Society, an initiative which recognises where bands first played. I imagine they’re still doing that, and I hope so.
“I think that could be encouraging for young musicians in that environment where we are now, and it’s the hardest business to get into.
“If you’re not prepared to be an X-Factor guinea pig, and get humiliated – and there’s no winners in all that, are there.
“It’s about encouraging kids to have belief in their own self-expression. It’s an odd time for music. I feel for young kids trying to get into it now.”
The days where the record company might have bank-rolled you, seem to have gone.
“You’re right. You have one chance. You have a hit with your first record, and you might not get a second chance.
“If Bob Marley had needed to have a hit with his first record, we would never have heard of him. He made four albums before he ever got on the radio.
“That was the power of Chris Blackwell and Island Records. There were great labels and great music men and great promoters helping make music, and it’s all going by the wayside now.
“I can see music becoming a kind of hobby, and the people who have hits have got to have dresses made of sausages.”
That stopped me in my tracks, until I realised Brian was talking about a certain controversial New Yorker born Stefani Germanotta. He hadn’t finished yet though.
“I’m not putting down Lady Gaga or anyone else. Music’s not about putting people down. It’s led by freedom of choice, and the most abstract of all the art forms.
“You can’t see it and you’ can’t touch it, but it touches us and can make us feel powerful, sad or sexy. But it seems you’ve got to make a dress made out of sausages now.”
Well put, Brian. So did you have a clear goal of what you wanted to achieve when you started out?
“Me and Earl (Falconer) lived in a bed-sit in Trafalgar Road in Moseley, and it had a cellar which you could get to from outside, full of leaves and rubbish.
“We claimed it as our rehearsal room and lived over the top. We wrote all over the walls, and because we were on the dole we were in there every day rehearsing.
“If we weren’t there on time you got in trouble from the rest of us, for not taking it seriously. And we figured we had more chance of having a hit record than a proper job.
“Many years after we moved out, ITV’s World in Action made a programme about us and asked if we could get back in this cellar.
“We went down and got it all opened up, where it was boarded up. We’d written on the walls, practising our autographs, and had written this list of goals – to have a hit record, go on Top of the Pops, go on The Johnny Carson Show, which I guess was seen as the biggest show in the world at that point, and play Madison Square Gardens.
“When we went back, we’d done all that. I think they were our impossible dreams, things that were never likely to happen. As it turned out, we only really needed to have a hit record, and the rest fell into place.
“Now all those things are done, we really couldn’t care about having a hit record, going on a TV show or playing an ‘enormodome’ where you’re 47ft away from the audience and can’t see the whites of their eyes.
“That’s why when we come back this October and November we’re playing what I call real venues, for a couple of thousand people at most.”
Ever calculated just how many gigs you might have played over the years?
“I don’t know, but it’s more than The Rolling Stones, because I remember Bill Wyman being a bit anal about all that. When they’d played 2,000 or so gigs, some fans of our band who collect such facts calculated our own rolling figure.
“We’ve never stopped playing, and we’ve always seen it as an enormous privilege to play a gig. People get baby-sitters before they get tickets, buy them for birthday presents or spend their wages to come to see you.
“It’s such a great thing to be part of, and music never hurt anyone. If you don’t like it, turn it off. It’s really that simple.”
When I think of my love of the humble sax, there might be a little nod to Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay and the E-Street Band’s Clarence Clemons ….
“Well, of course. Hey listen – you’re talking to a guy who plays in a Roxy Music covers band for the soul purpose of playing Andy Mackay licks!”
Well, there you go! But what I was going to say was that it’s yourself, The Beat’s Saxa and Madness’ Lee Thompson I think of first. So who were Brian’s sax heroes (and now I already know Andy Mackay’s one!)?
“Well … I had pretensions of being a jazz player, listening to the likes of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, because I thought that’s what you were supposed to say …”
Sonny Rollins would probably sit comfortably on that list too?
“Oh yeah … Sonny’s great! But I like melodies and tunes you can whistle in your head. Bebop’s great … but it’s not something you can sing down the pub!”
Did you pick up any other instrument before the saxophone?
“No. Saxophone was my first instrument. We never had classes. We picked instruments before we formed the band, believe it or not.
“It was a great luxury of course, and it took us a year to get the instruments together.
“These days I play a bit of guitar and piano for composing, but only for chords and stuff. I can’t really express myself on anything else but a saxophone.”
Did you hear a certain Blue Beat track or single and think, ‘That’s what I want to play!’?
“Also, I always liked the idea of an instrument which didn’t need any electricity! You just take it out of the box and it works!”
Talking of electricity, ever think you could have stuck it out as an electrician, after your early days as an electical apprentice?
“Not in a million years. I wasn’t made for that kind of toil and hardship. The building site is a brutal environment. If you showed a millionth of an ounce of sensitivity, you were fucked!”
So where is home these days? Do you spend much time back among the old haunts around Birmingham?
“We lived in the countryside for many years, mostly to protect our kids. It can’t be easy to be the kids of people you see on Top of the Pops.
“They’d often get told, ‘It’s alright for you, your Dad’s a millionaire!’ It was unfair on them, so we moved out to the country.
“But now the chickens have come home to roost. We live back in the city, and we’re happier.”
What age are your children now?
“They’re in their 30s. We were Dads in our teens, like a lot of inner city kids. Not because of some kind of deprivation, but if you’re living in a little two-up two-down with six of you there, move out and are left to your own devices, you soon become Mummies and Daddies.”
There have been money issues in recent years, bankruptcy proceedings and all that, but that’s not why you keep playing live and bringing out new material, is it?
“I’ll be honest with you – we all made millions of pounds, and did incredibly well for ourselves.
“But it seems to be a tradition in the music business – you never get ripped off when you’re a kid, because you haven’t made any money. But when you get to our level where you’re earning money all around the world …
“That happened to us. I lost my house, a 10 million quid house in the country. Maybe it’s just karma and the way it should be. But it wasn’t easy.”
In a perverse way, do you think all the court battles (and I realise there’s not a lot you can say about all that) have brought the rest of you closer?
“I suppose it has in a way. It’s made us look a little closer to evaluate what it is that we do.”
On a more positive front, you’ve generally had a good reaction to Getting Over the Storm.
“We have, and I couldn’t be happier. That’s what gets me up in the morning.”
Will you be playing quite a few of the new songs on this leg of the tour, or is it a greatest hits package?
“Maybe three or four from the latest album, but we’ve had around 40 top-20 hits. If we just played them we could be on stage three hours!
“We’ll be playing new stuff, old stuff, stuff people aren’t expecting, keeping it a little eclectic, trying to take people as far as we think they can go.
“We have a lot of unspoken stuff on stage, because we’ve been together for so long. We use our ears when we’re playing – listening for each other.”
You must be very tight on stage after all these years.
“Oh God, yeah. Devastatingly handsome as well. Put that in your article. Lock up your daughters – put that in too. We’re musical geniuses, basically. That’s what we are!”
For ticket details for the autumn leg of the UB40 tour, and all the latest from the band, head here.
This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post. For the online version of that, head here.