What happened to UB40?
Its not unusual for a band to lose its Mojo, Slade, Lindisfarne and Dr Feelgood all fell from grace in the 70s with the pressure of coming up with new product but they found new ways of keeping going and adapted to the changes in the music business. No one fell from artistic grace as rapidly as UB40 but only in an artistic sense, for decades they remained pretty much the same and were/are hugely popular.
A band in the very real sense, formed from a collection of mates who really didn’t have much going for them beyond an interest in music. The name UB40 reflected that as it was the card we all used for signing on for benefits. By the end of the 70’s business wasn’t exactly booming in their home town of Birmingham and the band learned to play their instruments at the same time that they we learning to play together. The two front men of the band were sons of Ian Campbell, a reasonably famous folk singer. Ignoring the dire forecast for bothers who play in the same band they gathered a multi cultural gang of reggae fans and practiced and practiced.
Reggae has huge potential having come to prominence as a respite from the first wave of punk. If you went to a gig it wasn’t unusual to experience your trousers flapping from the bass lines from the music played between sets. By the late 70’s punk had gone and reggae remained.
We had the fantastic Two Tone explosion with the Specials. Madness, the Beat etc, UB40 were far more reggae orientated, their music seldom broke sweat, but they were in the right place at the right time. Despite this the band weren’t really part of any musical scene, just getting them to fit onstage in the average pub must have been a challenge. The band approached the drummer in the Steve Gibbons Bands who was the only musician of any importance they knew. Luckily he had a recording studio at home and over the summer of 79 the band recorded there. Given the fairly basic facilities which sometimes meant the band had to do overdubs in the garden despite the bird songs the recordings sounded great. The band had been spotted by Chrissie Hynde at an early gig and had secured a support with the Pretenders as well as landing a recording deal with the Graduate label, it was a pretty meteoric rise.
The first impression for most of us was ‘Food for Thought’, lyrically its actually a Christmas song highlighting the differences between with West sitting down for Christmas dinner while a lot of the rest of the world is starving (take note Bob Geldoff). Luckily we didn’t make that link because the record was released after the festive season so it didn’t spoil Christmas at all. ‘Food for Thought ‘ was to prove an atypical track for the band. For a start its one of the liveliest tracks they’ve ever recorded with a bit of a shuffle feel. It was a double a side with ‘King’, a more representative example of their future work but FFT was the one we put on the Jukebox. Its not a great song but it’s a great performance, thanks in no small part to the Saxophone playing of the late Brian Travers. For a few months Sax was back, Lee Thompson was doing the same thing in Madness, simple saxophone hooks that were a significant part of the song rather than a bit of aimless noodling.
With their first single UB40 had patented their early sound. Ali Campbell’s voice, a bit of percussion and keyboards, a prominent catchy sax line and bass and drums who really understood the genre. The political stance of the band was also significant in a few singles we covered discrimination, global poverty and the environment .
And then something happened,
There was the breakthrough single, a cover of Neil Diamond’s ‘Red, Red Wine’ and a couple of years later the iniquities of racism seemed less important than the perils of a rat in the kitchen. Unfortunately, the 80’s were in full swing and on records virtually all the band seemed to have been replaced by soulless technology and everything that made the band unique, with the exception of Campbell’s voice had disappeared. Although they still made albums of original music the ‘Labour of Love’ recordings had started up and ‘I’ve got You Babe’ was to be a massive hit but there’s a whole lot more where Campbell sings virtually any popular song over a synthesised backing.
There’s a style of career management where ‘the brand’ becomes all important. Status Quo were notable exponents of this where creation of a new product becomes irrelevant. For years Quo recorded dull records but did loads of publicity and played loads of gigs and made loads of money. UB40 seemed to be doing the same thing where each new record just seemed to keep the band in the public eye enough to convince us they are a big name and worth purchasing concert tickets for. Like Status Quo they remained a huge live draw, often with people who didn’t go to a whole load of gigs as a rule.
As so the band became a kind of legacy act, away for the studio there sound was a bit more organic and they certainly delivered the goods but I couldn’t escape the fact that they could have been the next Clash. That’s me though, I expect too much and have no pressure to deliver anything, the fact the UB40 preferred to travel the world staying in first class hotels seems a no brainer these days.
But things were to get worse with Ali Campbell leaving to be replaced by another brother. He was critical of the management and seeing that most of the rest of the band have had to file for bankruptcy it looks like he had a point. Inevitably though leaving the family businesses is bound to have impact and one suspects Christmas dinners in the Campbell household could be a tense affair .
And now theres been two significant losses, Astro defected to the Ali camp but passed away last year not long after Travers who had remained with the original band. It would seem that the only chance of really pulling this together again would be some form of reunion but otherwise expect some version of UB40 to be playing some festival near you this weekend. Soulless music is easy to reproduce with session players and a bit of technology so I suspect most of the public wont miss any of the key players too much.
But lets not forget that once there was a band called UB40 who were unique and that’s the band I will choose to remember.