You probably know about the legal dispute rocking reggae behemoths UB40, two factions of the band at odds with each other over the use of the name. But while all that rumbles on, the show goes on for the five remaining members of the original group, and drummer Jimmy Brown has no doubt he’s in the right camp.
Taking time out before a late rehearsal ahead of the band’s UK autumn tour, Jimmy confirms there’s also a new LP on its way, promising something conveying the spirit of the first three UB40 albums, before 1983’s Labour of Love – their tribute to the reggae pioneers that first inspired them – took them to a whole new level of popularity.
A bit of recent history first – original lead singer and youngest Campbell brother Ali left in 2008, and six years later was joined on the live circuit by two more ex-members, performing as ‘UB40 featuring Ali Campbell, Astro and Mickey Virtue’. Amid a war of words between the camps, that prompted their old bandmates to begin legal proceedings to stop them using the name, with the dissident trio’s arguments that UB40 had ‘no real prospect of success at trial’ subsequently rejected at a court hearing in March.
In a bid to be balanced here, I’ll add a few lines from Ali’s group’s website, where we have, ‘We would not want anyone to confuse Ali, Astro and Mickey’s band with the band that carried on using the name UB40 after 2008 made up of other founding members and new members they tried to replace us with in their attempt to trade off the reflected glory of the success of the original line-up. Only with Ali Campbell, the legendary voice of UB40, reunited with Astro and Mickey can audiences get to experience the closest thing to the sound of the hugely successful original line-up of UB40 as all the hits are played.’
Unsurprisingly, that doesn’t sit well with the original five, older Campbell brother Robin feeling ‘morally and legally we are the only UB40’, not least having continued to record and tour after Ali left. Furthermore, he stresses the strength of the rhythm section – Earl Falconer (bass) and my interviewee Jimmy (drums) – who are for Robin, ‘the backbone of UB40’s sound’.
As it turned out, a judge ruled that brothers Robin and Duncan Campbell and the rest of the original band had ‘a realistically arguable basis’ for their claims, with the case now due to go to trial. But while all that simmers on, Jimmy is just eager to get the case done and dusted so the band can concentrate fully on the music again.
In the current line-up, he’s joined by fellow co-founders Robin (co-vocals, guitar), Earl (bass, vocals), Brian Travers (saxophone and keyboards) and Norman Hassan (percussion, vocals). Then there’s Duncan (lead vocals) and Tony Mullings (keyboards), who both joined in 2008, plus Martin Meredith (saxophone) and Laurence Parry (trumpet, trombone), each on board for the last two decades.
Having talked about the formation of the band and 1980 debut LP Signing Off in depth with sax supremo Brian on these pages in August 2014 (with a link here), I concentrated on Present Arms with Jimmy, 35 years after its release, suggesting UB40 were on a creative and confident high at the time.
“Well, some people think Present Arms was our best album, even though a lot love Signing Off. I think the second album was heavier and darker, and we really did go for the jugular. Then there was Present Arms in Dub, the first dub album that made the charts and the first taken by shops like Woolworth’s and mainstream record-sellers. In some ways, musically, that was our best work, I think.”
During a period when dub music was the exclusive preserve of grassroots reggae fans, accustomed to buying Jamaican imports, UB40’s stature among British audiences was as good as assured by that. As for the original album, Present Arms included the band’s fourth and fifth top-20 hits, the empowering Don’t Let It Pass You By/Don’t Slow Down double-A side followed by anti-Margaret Thatcher anthem, One in Ten. And Jimmy has no doubt, all these years on, a lot of the themes explored there remain just as relevant.
“I’ve said it many times – people who spoke against Thatcher at the time, they were right. You can see it. To destroy the welfare infrastructure of a country and put everyone against each other in this dog-eat-dog capitalism was never going to work. Now we have a situation where the whole global financial system is completely insolvent. It’s not working, and normal people have to pay the price. It’s wrong – simple as that. Yes, we’ve been vindicated over the years.”
There was a similar political awareness with the debut album and third LP UB44 in 1982, and the band remain loyal to their working-class, socialist roots, as seen recently when they came out in support of Jeremy Corbyn at a joint press conference with the Labour Party leader. And Jimmy has no doubt that the band remain in tune with their down to earth roots.
“When you keep your family and the people you knew close to you, that keeps your feet on the ground. I’ve been with my wife since before the band, and we have four kids. That’s the thing that’s important in your life. All the rest is superfluous when it comes down to it.”
Talking of family, I mention a photograph in Q magazine in the ’80s of the band’s touring party. They weren’t a combo to travel light – it was like a small nation on the move.
“We still are to some degree. We’re a big band, with a big crew, and we make a big sound! I don’t think about it, but we’re constantly surrounded by each other, like a proper gang. That’s really empowering. To get on stage with a bunch of grown blokes where we’re all 100 per cent focused on achieving the same thing, it’s a great feeling. And I feel very lucky and privileged to have been able to be in a band like that.”
Signing Off was still in the charts when the second album came out in the summer of 1981. And while UB40 were arguably more professional, harder even, the spirit remained. So, go on then, Jimmy – who was responsible for the words in One in Ten, not least ‘Nobody knows me, but I’m always there. A statistical reminder of a world that doesn’t care’?
“Erm … that was me.”
The reason I ask is that the credits always read ‘UB40’, despite Jimmy being one of the main songwriters from day one. In hindsight, would he have gone about that another way, particularly in light of recent legal headaches?
“Exactly the opposite. The only way you’re going to get any longevity as far as friends are concerned is if you share everything equally. We stick to that to this very day. Nobody gets any more than anyone else. It doesn’t matter what you contribute. Everyone has to share, because in the end we’re a bunch of friends, with some more talented than others, and everyone needs protecting. I think if you want to make a band last, give everyone an equal share in it.”
In fact, by the end of 1980 the band had formed their own record company, DEP International, with all eight members owning an equal share.
As it turned out, that following year saw major social unrest across the UK, including rioting not far from the band’s doorstep in Handsworth, and in London’s Brixton and Liverpool’s Toxteth – all inner-city areas with large immigrant communities. And amid volatile times, One in Ten was as evocative of that era as The Specials’ arguably more celebrated No.1, Ghost Town.
“People were more engaged, I suppose. Then again, perhaps they weren’t – a lot of people have been disenfranchised since. And for me those who are really engaged now are those supporting (Jeremy) Corbyn. They’re the new generation of those who want to engage again in politics. Retail therapy is over. People are suffering. There needs to be a big change, and one way or another there are going to be some profound changes over the next few years.”
While Labour of Love, the first of their three volumes of re-interpreted classic reggae song LP collections, saw UB40 take the music they loved to new audiences around the world, beneath it all the band lost little of their political bite – rallying against apartheid, for example. And the band’s world view doesn’t appear to have shifted since, perhaps still following Bob Marley’s ‘stand up for your rights’ ethos – and this from a band who were key components of many anti-fascist protests in their formative days.
“In the really early days, before most people had even heard of us, we did Rock against Racism, as they put on gigs all over. That’s where we got our name from. They’d advertise a gig and say ‘UB40s half price’. If you were on the dole you could get in for half. That’s where we picked up on it really.”
Furthermore, this was a band – like the city they grew up in – that was truly multi-cultural, rather than just a band of right-on white boys pretending to understand Jamaican culture and the struggle.
“Absolutely, and I realise now what a privilege it was to live in an area where you could sit on your front doorstep and see the four corners of the world go by. It’s transformed us. It always has been for me, and I’m proud of that aspect of Britain. We were right in it. The people next door had a blues (party) every Saturday night and we were just there – mates together. We’d play with the Irish kids and the kids from Antigua, St Kitts, Barbados … They were the people you were in class with. That’s what cemented the relationships.”
Jimmy knew fellow band members Earl, Brian and Ali from Moseley School of Art, but – as it turns out – from earlier too.
“We knew each other from the age of 11, and Earl was born in the same maternity hospital as I was. We had the same friends. Actually, there used to be a lot more arguments within the band than there are now. We get on really well now, and part of that was the negativity that came with Ali – which was quite damaging for the band. We’ve got a much more positive vibe now.”
I’d avoided talk of Ali until then, but it’s inevitable we’re heading that way. I carry on as we were for now though. Was Jimmy ever likely to go down the road of his artistic studies – lecturing in art or something along those lines?
“Not really. I don’t think any of us were particularly academic. But we were creative. It’s hard to tell if I could have held down a normal job. It would be a test!”
As I understand it, Robin Campbell worked in a factory. Did Jimmy ever have a job outside music?
“I had a couple of years where I did work, but hated every second. And I wasn’t very reliable.”
Was there a flashpoint when he saw a band or heard a record and thought, ‘That’s what I want to do?’
“I think because we were creative we always had the idea of doing something. We went to art school together, and if you can paint, chances are you might be able to play an instrument or write something.
“Possibly the catalyst would have been seeing Bob Marley and the Wailers at the local Odeon in about 1976. That was quite a profound experience. It’s like when you have a baby – you don’t really realise how profound the changes are until you can look back afterwards, seeing the effect it had. But it was such a monumental experience to see such class, dark and raw as well – that beautiful element of class players and a music that’s got such a rawness and simplicity to it.”
For all that, at one point they were just a group of young lads practising in a basement. Was there a point when Jimmy realised they were actually pretty good at what they did?
“I suppose we were always arrogant enough to think we could do something other people might be interested in. And we could really feel the vibe, locally, if anyone ever came to our rehearsals. Being so young, we had lots of friends coming in and out all the time, and it was obviously having an effect on people, coming to hear us play in this cellar. You could just feel we were offering something different.”
When UB40 got together, it was a happening time for British music, despite that difficult social climate, or maybe even because of that. As well as their homegrown spin on reggae, there was the Two Tone bands’ homegrown spin on ska, and the post-punk and indie ethos. In short, it was a creative era.
“Yeah, the punk era was really healthy, and it was during that time Steel Pulse had the very first (UK) reggae album to make the charts, Handsworth Revolution. We were never punks, but the whole environment around all that meant something. It was quite a middle-class movement, and we weren’t really part of that, but there was a generosity of spirit around that crossed over into other genres, and reggae really benefitted from that.”
Did Handsworth Revolution make Jimmy realise a bunch of working-class lads from Birmingham could actually make it?
“Absolutely! They were inspiring. You have to tip your hat to Steel Pulse as the original British reggae band. We couldn’t follow them, where they went, as it was more rootsy, but we wanted to as far as we could. We weren’t a rasta band and didn’t really have that spiritual element. But we admired Steel Pulse, and it wasn’t so much a Handsworth revolution as a music revolution.”
Were they good mates with other bands? Or were they in their own bubble?
“At the time, there was a reggae band on every street corner in Birmingham. But I think our multi-cultural aspect helped us stick out above the others.”
Time to throw in a question about the ‘change of jockey’, not least as current lead singer Duncan Campbell apparently turned down an offer to sing for UB40 in 1978, leading to little brother Ali stepping up instead.
“I think he thought he was better than the rest of us! He was always kind of middle-aged. You always have that old-fashioned mate who thinks he’s 50 when he’s only 15. Duncan was like that and I think he thought we were just a bunch of layabouts and wasn’t that bothered back then! But he was in my class at school, so when Ali left we didn’t have to go out of our gang to replace him. That makes us really, really lucky. If it had been a different situation maybe we wouldn’t have been able to survive. That allowed us to keep that integrity of the sound.”
It’s been three years since the last LP, Getting Over the Storm, and the extensive tour that followed, the band playing to around 200,000 UK fans and selling out all over the world. Now the next chapter’s on its way, is it likely that the new LP will be called Over the Storm or even 5-3 Victory (he asks, showing a red flag to the bull)?
“It’s hard to talk about music, as words aren’t very good when it comes to describing something you listen to, is quite abstract, and you either enjoy or you don’t. But I feel our approach to this album was to go right back to the beginning and make an authentic reggae album, not cross over into anything else. We wanted a pure reggae album from the original influences that brought us to write Signing Off and Present Arms, during that period, which creatively was our best period.”
It’s been a busy summer with festivals and so on, and now there’s a 22-date UK tour. Will you be airing a few new songs?
“I’m pushing for it, but some of the others are saying they’re not really ready. I’m hoping there’ll be at least one new tune though.”
Since 1980, UB40 have managed 39 UK top-40 hit singles and 26 top-40 albums, three of those singles and two of those LPs topping the charts, the band spending 238 weeks in the top-40 singles charts and 293 weeks in the top-40 album charts. And in selling more than 100 million records, they’ve become one of the most successful ever groups from these shores. That said, it wouldn’t be easy to get all those hits in one set and finish a show before midnight.
“Well, that’s the thing! We’ve got 500 songs we’ve recorded. It’d take days if we were to play all those. We have to whittle them down, but we don’t want to be like a cabaret band. We could just play hits, but I don’t think that’s wise. In the end we want to play new music and some of our more obscure material, rather than be dictated to by just crossover stuff.”
And does Jimmy think he’ll be able to have a proper chat with Ali, Astro and Mickey any time soon?
“I haven’t got a problem, and never really did. I can’t talk for anybody else but personally I haven’t got a problem. He f****ed up, but if he were to realise that and apologise, I ain’t going to hold a grudge. Life’s too short. It upset a few people, and obviously I can’t talk for his brothers. Also, Brian helped Ali write his solo album, having no idea he was planning to leave. He feels he was a bit conned by that.
“But it’s a big band and it’s just one of those things. If he realises he acted a bit of a tw*t, I don’t see any reason why we can’t at least talk.”
UB40’s tour started last weekend at Leeds’ 02 Academy and runs through to a finale at Southend’s Cliffs Pavilion on Monday, October 31. For ticket details head to www.seetickets.com/tour/ub40, www.alt-tickets.co.uk/ub40-tickets or www.ub40.global. You can also visit the band’s official Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages to keep up to date with all things UB40.