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UB40: 'We're Still a Politically Driven Band'

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“I can’t wait to come to Australia!” proclaims UB40’s founding member Astro in his distinctively thick Birmingham accent, “It seems like forever since we were last there, I really really can’t wait. It’s the perfect way to end my year, Australia is one of my favourite places to visit.”

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The reggae collective has made many trips to Australia since they first formed in Birmingham in 1978. The band comprised a group of school friends who collectively found themselves unemployed. The bands name refers to the form you had to fill out to claim the dole, ‘Unemployment Benefit Form 40’.

“It was a bit of a fairy tale to be truthful,” Terrence ‘Astro’ Wilson shared, recalling the band’s early success, “None of us could read or write music, and most of us still can’t read or write music. we just learned to copy a few of our favorite records, we figured out how the drums work with the bass, and how the keyboards work with the guitars. Eventually we worked out to start writing our own songs.”

The collective of friends had a wide mix of ethnic backgrounds with their parents coming from English, Irish, Scottish, Jamaican and Yemeni backgrounds.  After locking themselves away for a year and practicing the band started playing it’s first gigs. The band got their first break very quickly when Chrissie Hyde invited UB40 to support her The Pretenders on their British first tour.

“The Pretender’s British Tour had more dates than we’d performed as UB40, I think we’d only done about a dozen shows, but we’d hyped ourselves by fly postering our city. we were lucky that we didn’t have to languish for years playing the club circuit.”

During the tour the band released their first single ‘Food for Thought’.

“When they signed us to record our first album ‘Signing Up’, we only knew thirteens songs, that was it.” Astro said. “By the time we finished the tour with The Pretenders our single was number four in the charts.”

The bands relationship with Hynde was a long one, she later joined them in 1985 for a cover of the Sonny and Cher tune ‘I Got You Babe’, which topped the British charts, and then in 1988 they joined up again to cover the Dusty Springfield tune ‘Breakfast in Bed’.

Cover versions have been central to UB40’s chart success. In 1983 they scored their breakout hit, a reggae take on Neil Diamonds ‘Red, Red Wine’. The tune was lifted off their first covers collection ‘Labour of Love’.

Throughout their career the band would return and record another installment of the ‘Labor of Love’ series, with 1989’s second volume providing them with the hits ‘Kingston Town’ and ‘Here I Am Baby (Come and Take Me)’.

The band’s highest selling release would come in 1993 when they transformed Elvis Presley’s ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love With You’ into a slow groove chant. The song was selected to be on the soundtrack of the Sharon Stone thriller ‘Sliver’, propelling the song to the top of the charts worldwide.

Despite finding their greatest success with other people’s songs, the bands own work has always had a decisively political voice with their early songs documenting the challenges of 1980’s Britain under the conservative Thatcher government. On their first few albums the band delivered protest songs like ‘One in Ten’ which was about unemployment and ‘Tyler’ – that highlighted the legal case of American teenager Gary Tyler, who had been sentenced to death row for a murder he may not have committed.

“We’re a politically driven band, and we still are.” declares Astro, “Some people only know us from the ‘Labour of Love’ franchise of cover versions. The only reason we’d done ‘Labour of Love’ purely and simply because it was the most asked question when we first came out. People used to ask ‘You all come from Birmingham, why do you choose to play reggae music?’ All the music on ‘Labour of Love, I, II, III and IV’ is the stuff that we grew up listening to, it’s the music that made us want to be in a band.”

“People might think of us as a covers band,” Astro said, “but the reality is we’ve got another 21 albums of other stuff and it’s as politically driven as our first album.

Comparing the band’s latest subject matter for songs to their earlier work, Astro notes that the landscape hasn’t changed significantly.

“We’re still harping on about the same things as we were back in the ’80s. Things haven’t changed really. There’s still mass unemployment, songs we wrote on ‘Signing Off’ are just as relevant today… thirty years ago there was a recession and here we are just coming out of another recession, everything is just as relevant and fresh now as it was then…we’re still on the same mission to popularize reggae music and get in on the airwaves.”

Since the band first set off on it’s journey it has had a fractured history. In 2008 lead singer Ali Campbell announced he was leaving the band, At the time Campbell said he was focusing on his solo career, but later admitted he was unhappy with management and business decisions. Sooner after fellow founding member keyboardist Mickey Virtue also left the group.

The band continued on with Campbell’s older brother Duncan taking over lead vocals. They released ‘Labor of Love IV’ and a collection of country songs given a reggae treatment. The band’s official website describes Duncan Campbell’s contribution as being ‘virtually indistinguishable’ from Ali Cambell’s vocals, but Ali Campbell’s has been quoted as describing his brother tenure at the front of the band as “five years of Duncan murdering my songs”.

Last year Astro also made the decision to leave the band, joining up with Ali and Mickey to form… UB40. It’s a confusing situation – with two versions of the band now touring simultaneously. Earlier this year both bands were booked to play the same festival in Dubai on the same day.

“It’s great to be back with Ali and Mickey,” Astro said, “It’s great to be back playing and doing what we do best. We’ve been through turbulent times, but that’s life. Families have disputes and fall-outs and why should eight friends be exempt. I think we’ve done well to be going for so long, and stuff happens.”

Ahead of their tour Ali, Mickey and Astro will have a new album out called ‘Silhouette’ which has been released as Ali Campbell, the legendary vice of UB40 United with Mickey and Astro.

“The album’s out on October 6th and it’s seven originals and some cover versions, I think it’s brilliant album,” Astro said, “I can’t wait to see the reaction of fans when they hear it.”

UB40 featuring Ali, Mickey and Astro are playing at the Red Hill Auditorium on Friday December 5th, Blue King Brown and Special Brew are supporting. Get tickets at Red Hill.  

Graeme Watson

 


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