World-famous reggae stars UB40 are set to mark their 40th anniversary with a 2018 US tour and first album release in over four years.
The band will play many of their seventeen Top 10 hit singles, including ‘Kingston Town’, ‘Food For Thought’, ‘One In Ten’, ‘I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You’, ‘Don’t Break My Heart’ and ‘Sing Our Own Song’ and, of course, ‘Red, Red Wine’, amongst many other fan favourites.
Featuring five of UB40’s six founding members, Robin Campbell, Brian Travers, Jimmy Brown,Earl Falconer and Norman Hassan, and long-time members Duncan Campbell, Martin Meredith, Lawrence Parry and Tony Mullings, the group’s 40th anniversary concert will follow the release of the band’s first new studio album in over four years, which is due for release May 2018.
The story of UB40, and how this group of young friends from Birmingham transcended their working-class origins to become the world’s most successful reggae band is not the stuff of fairytales as might be imagined. The group’s led a charmed life in many respects it’s true, but it’s been a long haul since the days they’d meet up in the bars and clubs around Moseley, and some of them had to scrape by on less than £8 a week unemployment benefit. The choice was simple if you’d left school early. You could either work in one of the local factories, as Robin Campbell did or scuffle along aimlessly whilst waiting for something else to happen.
By the summer of 1978, something else did happen, and the nucleus of UB40 began rehearsing in a local basement. Robin’s younger brother Ali, Earl Falconer, Brian Travers and James Brown all knew each other from Moseley School of Art, whilst Norman Hassan had been a friend of Ali’s since school. Initially, they thought of themselves as a “jazz-dub-reggae” band, but by the time Robin was persuaded to join and they’d recruited Michael Virtue and Astro – who’d learnt his craft with Birmingham sound-system Duke Alloy – the group had already aligned themselves to left-wing political ideals and forged their own identity, separate from the many punk and Two Tone outfits around at that time. The group had nailed their colours to the mast by naming themselves after an unemployment benefit form. Their political convictions hadn’t been gleaned secondhand either but cemented in place whilst attending marches protesting against the National Front, or rallies organized by Rock Against Racism.
By the time Chrissie Hynde invited them to tour with the Pretenders during the summer of 1980 and their debut single “King b/w Food For Thought” had sailed into the UK Top 5, all the essential elements of UB40 were already in place. Their line-up will remain unchanged for almost thirty years, and they will continue playing a mix of original material and inspired choice of reggae covers in a style that’s instantly accessible with its bright melodies and sweeping horn arrangements – one that’s allied to a formidable rhythm section, capable of holding its own with anything from Jamaica.
UB40’s first album was released the following September, on Graduate Records. Their deal allowed them more creative freedom than if they had signed with a major label. The cover artwork memorably duplicated an unemployment benefit card, with the title “Signing Off” rubber-stamped in red, but it was the music that quickly worked its way into the affections of a young, mainly student crowd with its knowing lyrics, solid reggae rhythms and dubby, instrumental passages, offset by warm horn solos and Jamaican style scatting. There was nothing else like it at the time. As a multi-cultural band from Birmingham, UB40 weren’t drawn into trying to sound “authentic,” and there was considerably more depth to their music than that of many punk and 2Tone bands. “I’m a British subject, not proud of it, whilst I carry the burden of shame,” they sang on one of the tracks. Accepting the truth of their own situation amidst a sea of other reggae songs proclaiming black heritage gave us a valuable insight into where UB40 were coming from. They were unafraid to stand up and be counted, and British audiences instinctively loved them for it. “Signing Off” duly went to No. 2 in the UK and stayed on the nation’s album charts for 72 weeks.
At the end of 1980, the contract with Graduate expired and UB40 formed their own record company, DEP International, with all eight members owning an equal share. They also signed a licensing deal with CBS, which ensured them far better distribution.
“Signing Off” was still in the charts when they released their second album “Present Arms” in the summer of 1981. The sound was immediately brighter, harder and more professional, yet the spirit and commitment underpinning the band’s songs remained resolutely unchanged, as heard on “One In Ten,” written about the UK’s record number of unemployed. With lyrics like “Nobody knows me, but I’m always there. A statistical reminder of a world that doesn’t care,” “One In Ten” became an anthem of the British protest movement, and a genuine counterpart to the equally motivated songs being written by the likes of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh in the Caribbean. “One In Ten” will earn the rare distinction of being “versioned” by Jamaican reggae acts in future. Back in 1981, it formed part of the soundtrack accompanying the race riots erupting in places like Brixton, Handsworth and St. Paul’s in Bristol – hard pressed, inner city areas with large immigrant communities that had found themselves on the frontline in resisting the right wing policies of Margaret Thatcher’s government.
Four months later, and “Present Arms In Dub” became the first-ever dub album to enter the UK Top 40 – this 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 now assured. They possessed credibility, even whilst racking up hit records, and practiced true democracy by insisting that each member had an equal say in the band’s affairs.
Their next album, 1982’s “UB44,” was recorded in Dublin and featured innovative use of holograms on the ‘limited edition’ sleeve. Trips to Australia and Zimbabwe coincided with further hits in the shape of “I Won’t Close My Eyes,” “Love Is All Alright,” “So Here I Am” and “I Got Mine,” but none breached the Top 20. “UB44” did get to No. 4 in the album charts, but then CBS ended their association with the band, leaving them to negotiate a new deal with Richard Branson’s Virgin Records.
Soon afterwards, they opened a studio in Birmingham called The Abattoir. Now masters of their own destiny (and with legendary JA keyboard player Jackie Mittoo in tow), they decided to pay tribute to the reggae pioneers who’d first inspired them back in the blues parties and clubs of Birmingham, and from hanging out at places like Don Christie’s record store. The band became evangelists of a kind, introducing classic reggae songs and artists to new audiences from around the world as they embarked on three best-selling installments of “Labour Of Love.”
The first was released in the summer of 1983, and contrary to past record labels’ expectations, the change of direction worked magnificently. Labour Of Love became the band’s first No. 1 album in the UK, and would remain in the British charts for eighteen months. Lead single “Red Red Wine” also went straight to No. 1. In fact it stayed in the British charts for two years, thereby giving UB40 their first truly worldwide hit and, eventually, their first American No.1.
UB40 were now recast as Britain’s foremost reggae ambassadors. They have arguably fostered a love of reggae music in more people than any other artist, including Bob Marley, and it started just as soon as they’d introduced timeless Jamaican classics to contemporary audiences on “Labour Of Love.” “Please Don’t Make Me Cry,” “Many Rivers To Cross” and “Cherry Oh Baby” were the other hits from that seminal first edition, which went on to sell more than ten million copies worldwide.
UB40’s next single, “If It Happens Again,” went to No. 9 but the album it was taken from, “Geffery Morgan,” wasn’t a success by previous stan