Ambassadors: UB40

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, selling over 100 million records and spending over a combined 11 years in the UK album charts, is not the stuff of fairytales as might be imagined.

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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, selling over 100 million records and spending over a combined 11 years in the UK album charts, 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, like 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 the Campbell’s since junior school. Initially, they thought of themselves as an instrumental “jazz-dub-reggae” band, but by the time Robin was persuaded to rejoin and much later they’d recruited Michael Virtue and lastly 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 second hand either, but cemented in place whilst attending marches protesting against the National Front, or rallies organised by Rock Against Racism.

By the time Chrissie Hynde invited them to tour with the Pretenders during the Spring 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 thirty years, and they will continue playing a mix of original material and an 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 in James Brown (drums) and Earl Falconer (bass) 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 much 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 it’s knowing lyrics, solid reggae rhythms and dubby, instrumental passages, offset by warm sax 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, while 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, UB40 terminated their contract with Graduate and 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, among other things, 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, enabling 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 guesting), 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 four instalments of the “Labour Of Love” series of albums.

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 standards, despite a return to hard-hitting reality topics on tracks like “Riddle Me,” “As Always You Were Wrong Again,” “You’re Not An Army,” “The Pillow” and “I’m Not Fooled So Easily.” Recorded at The Abattoir, “Geffery Morgan” whilst not selling in the same numbers as “Labour Of Love” like “Baggariddim” – a collection of tracks recorded with leading British reggae MCs – awaits urgent, critical reappraisal. In the summer of 1985 UB40 joined forces with Chrissie Hynde for a cover of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe” that promptly flew to No. 1 in the UK. “Don’t Break My Heart” also went Top 3 shortly afterwards, confirming UB40 as Britain’s most successful reggae band.

In August 1986, “Rat In The Kitchen” became UB40’s sixth Top 10 album in the UK. The title track became the first hit off the album, whilst “Sing Our Own Song”, written in support of the black population of South Africa, became the second – this during an era when South Africa was still an apartheid regime, and Nelson Mandela regarded as a terrorist by Britain’s Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. In late ‘86 they were again breaking new ground by becoming one of the first western groups to tour the Soviet Union. Their watershed concert in Moscow was recorded and released the following year as “UB40 CCCP.” It was UB40’s second live album – the first, “UB40 Live,” had been released in February 1983.

The following November, “The Best Of UB40 – Volume One” began its two and a half year tenure on the UK charts, peaking at No. 3. The group were now a national institution, and yet still full of surprises. “Maybe Tomorrow,” a Jackson Five cover, went Top 20, and previewed an unlikely collaboration with hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa and the Family called “Reckless.” UB40’s next venture would prove a little more predictable. By early 1988 – still recovering from the death of engineer Ray Falconer, who was Earl’s brother, and had been highly influential in determining the band’s production sound – UB40 again teamed up with Chrissie Hynde, who joined them on “Breakfast In Bed.” The result was another Top 10 hit, taken from the 1988 album “UB40.”

By 1988 the band was now embarking on lengthy world tours, taking in places like Australia, Japan and South America. In July the same year, they played the Free Nelson Mandela Concert at Wembley Stadium in London – an event that was beamed around the world to millions of television viewers, and prompted renewed appreciation of “Red Red Wine” in America. The song had already topped the charts in many other countries, but UB40’s first US No.1 was certainly special, and especially since they received the good news whilst headlining a sold out Madison Square Gardens in New York! Its success reignited interest in “Labour Of Love,” which entered the Billboard’s Top 20, and led to a second helping of “Labour Of Love.” This album, LOL 2 – recorded on the road between extensive touring commitments – would yield three Top 10 hits in America alone, including “Kingston Town” and “Homely Girl,” both of which went Top 10 in the UK and throughout Europe, closely followed by “Here I Am (Come And Take Me)” and “The Way You Do The Things You Do.”

At the onset of the nineties, Robert Palmer duetted with them on their next UK Top 10 hit, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” and 808 State charted with a remix of “One In Ten.” Highlights such as these, whilst welcome, were then dwarfed by the release of “Promises and Lies” which became the group’s biggest selling album, selling in excess of ten million copies worldwide. The biggest hit from “Promises And Lies” was “Can’t Help Falling In Love”, which brought the band their third UK and second US No. 1 and would remain a favourite on American radio stations for years – especially after its inclusion on the soundtrack of the 1993 Sharon Stone film “Sliver.”

By the end of 1994, the constant touring had taken its toll and the band was ready for a well-earned rest – this after playing to record crowds around the world, including South Africa, where they performed to more than 250,000 people over three concerts, a live record that still stands. Virgin would fill the gap by releasing “The Best Of UB40 – Volume Two,” containing hits like “Kingston Town,” “Here I Am” and more recent efforts such as “Bring Me Your Cup,” “Reggae Music” and “Until My Dying Day.” During their sabbatical from UB40, several of the members worked on their own musical projects. Robin and Ali were the singers on Pato Banton’s No. 1 hit “Baby Come Back,” whilst Earl would have success producing house and drum & bass tracks. Ali Campbell also released his debut solo album “Big Love,” which he’d recorded in Jamaica. Their adventures in Jamaica will result in several, celebrated encounters with various reggae legends. The first, UB40’s “UB40 Present The Dancehall Album,” featuring Jamaican acts like Beenie Man, Mad Cobra and Lady Saw, appeared in 1998, and “UB40 Present The Fathers Of Reggae” in 2002. Robin has described the latter as one of the highlights of their career, since it featured many of the artists who’d inspired UB40 (among them Toots Hibbert, John Holt, Ken Boothe, Alton Ellis and the Mighty Diamonds), singing the group’s own material. Were it needed, the “Fathers” set offered proof of the respect UB40 have always been accorded in Jamaica, and especially among the island’s artists and musicians.

The “Fathers” album had taken three years to record, and the follow-up UB40 set, “Guns In The Ghetto,” would also take longer than expected to reach fruition. The group had reconvened in 1996, when they appeared in the film “Speed 2,” starring Keanu Reaves and Sandra Bullock. UB40 perform “Tell Me Is It True” in the movie, which duly became the lead single (and a Top 20 hit) from the album “Guns In the Ghetto”, released the following year. It peaked at No. 9 on the UK album charts, and yielded just one further single, “Always There.” “Guns In The Ghetto” eventually sold over a million copies, but suffered from the band’s unwillingness to tour.

Such imperatives were soon realised with the release of “Labour Of Love III,” which became the band’s twelfth Top 10 album in the UK during late 1998. “Come Back Darling,” “Holly Holy” and “The Train Is Coming” were the hit singles from “Labour Of Love III.” The following year they played before estimated television audiences of one billion in India, and then celebrated twenty years of recording with yet another UK Top 10 album, the definitive “The Very Best Of UB40 1980-2000.”

Other landmark shows would soon follow, including concerts in South Africa, and a peace concert in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. One of them, in Switzerland, was later released as “Live In Montreux.” In 2003, they received an Ivor Novello Award for International Achievement and secured another Top 10 album with the “Platinum Collection”, a triple box set comprised of the then entire “Labour of Love” series. By now, UB40 had been favourites of the British public for well over two decades. It was therefore fitting they should provide the official anthem for the England rugby team’s triumphant 2003 World Cup campaign in Australia. “Swing Low,” taken from the “Homegrown” set, will become the group’s 49th UK chart single. UB40 have now had 51 chart successes, the only bands to have notched up more hits are Status Quo and Queen, but for UB40 to achieve this distinction by playing reggae music is nothing short of miraculous.

Two years later, on the 25th anniversary of their recording debut, the band released “Who You Fighting For.” Acclaimed not only as a return to form, but also an artistic triumph,” Who You Fighting For” was distinguished by UB40’s decision to record once more as “a live” band – i.e, playing all together in the studio. Its success was aided by a clutch of powerful message songs that wouldn’t have sounded at all out of place on their first few albums. The questioning of authority (including Britain and America’s decision to invade Iraq) and steadfast allegiance to working-class values was there for all to see, and yet the Grammy nominated “Who You Fighting For” also contained its fair share of love songs, such as “One Woman Man,” and winning covers of Matumbi’s “After Tonight” and The Manhattans “Kiss And Say Goodbye”.

At the beginning of 2008, Ali Campbell decided to leave the band in order to pursue a solo career. With a minimum of fuss, he was replaced by another Campbell brother, Duncan, who has a voice that’s virtually indistinguishable from a young Ali’s. Duncan had been invited to join the band at their inception, but declined. However, some thirty years later, alongside the other UB40 vocalists he made his presence count on the next album “TwentyFour Seven,” which received widespread acclaim on its release during the summer of 2008.

Following on from “Who You Fighting For”, “TwentyFourSeven” was again recorded “live” in the studio, and thus showcases UB40 at their best. Not for the first time, the choice of material was dominated by the kind of searching, political messages they’d long been famous for. Songs like “Rainbow Nation,” “End Of War,” “Oh America” and “Securing The Peace” rank alongside their best-ever reality tracks, except with guest singer Maxi Priest taking over lead vocals on “Dance Until The Morning Light” and a cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff”, the mood is celebratory as well. Freed of the need for hit singles (if not hit albums), UB40 sound rejuvenated, as if they’ve rediscovered the creative spark that inspired them in the first place. The results make essential listening, reaffirming their reputation as the world’s most successful reggae band as they continue to reach out to audiences that are impossible to categorise by race, age or nationality.

2009 saw the release of the compilation ‘Love Songs’, which made #3 in the UK album charts, before the band played a series of live dates in North America, Italy, Germany, Spain and Slovakia, to name a few.

2010 was another busy year for the group; in February UB40 released “Labour of Love IV”, the band’s first full album with Duncan Campbell on lead vocals, before celebrating the 30th anniversary of their debut album, ‘Signing Off’, by releasing a re-mastered Special Edition of the album. To coincide with the release, UB40 embarked on a sell-out tour of the UK where they played the album live in its entirety. This tour was preceded by a warm-up date at The Hare & Hounds in Kings Heath, the venue where the band made their live debut on February 9th, 1979.

On September 2nd, 2013, UB40 released their album ‘Getting Over The Storm’ on Universal/Virgin Records. The album was a Top 30 hit, and was made BBC Radio 2’s Album of The Week.

At the end of 2013 Astro decided to leave the group, despite the band having just announced the first leg of their 2014 UK tour. Regardless, every date on the tour went on to sell-out, with the band picking-up some of the best reviews of their career. Such was the success of the tour that a second 22- date leg was scheduled for autumn 2014, with a further 35 UK dates added over two legs in 2015, making the Getting Over The Storm tour the biggest and most extensive UK tour of UB40’s career.

To end 2015, UB40 played sold-out shows in mainland Europe, a sold-out tour of Australia and the Polynesian Islands, before finishing 2015 with two very special dates with fellow Birmingham reggae legends Steel Pulse at Brixton Academy on December 20th and a hometown gig at the O2 Birmingham Academy on Dec 21st – the first time the two bands have ever played together.

UB40 began 2016 by headlining the prestigious Raggamuffin Festival at Auckland’s Trusts Arena in New Zealand on February 20th, before touring across the UK twice to bring their Getting Over The Storm tour to a close.

2017 saw the announcement of a 14 date UK tour, scheduled for December 2017. The band also returned to the recording studio to begin the final stages of recording their as-yet-untitled new studio album.

May 2017 also saw UB40 fly out to India for the first time in 20 years for a sold-out tour, before embarking on a run of festival dates across the UK and mainland Europe. On the 27th of October 2017 the band played their 29th sold-out show at the Ahoy in Rotterdam, Holland, a record never equalled by any other act at that arena. They then toured Australia in November 2017, before returning back to the UK for their December 2017 tour.

The opening of 2018 saw UB40 return to Europe, for a tour which took them through Holland, Belgium and France. The band then returned home to work on their upcoming album, which the band had announced would be named ‘For The Many’ in their support of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader at the time. The band had a summer filled with festival performances, and in between their shows they continued to work on the album.

2018 was also the start of UB40’s 40th anniversary celebrations, which they kicked-off in June with a sold-out concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Fans at the concert were treated to a preview of two tracks from the upcoming album; ‘Gravy Train’, which features Slinger, who first worked with UB40 on the 1985 album ‘Baggariddim’, and Gilly G, another close friend of the band who performed ‘Moonlight Lover’ with Norman Hassan. Another surprise guest to join the band onstage was Paul Young, who performed ‘Love Of The Common People’ to a standing ovation.

Before the Royal Albert Hall show, the band were paid a surprise visit from Jeremy Corbyn, who came to wish them well before they took to the stage.

The band released their first track from the upcoming album ‘Moonlight Lover’ on October the 12th 2018. Followed by their second single ‘You Haven’t Called’ on January the 18th and that was followed by ‘Gravy Train’ which was released on March the 13th.

UB40’s latest album ‘For The Many” was released on March 15th 2019. There was also a double album version which included “For The Many In Dub”. Just days before the “For The Many” UK tour was due to start, The band had the devastating news that founder member, most prolific lyricist and sax player Brian Travers had been diagnosed with brain tumours and required immediate surgery for their removal. This of course meant he would not be able to join the tour and the subsequent recovery period would prevent Brian from touring for the whole of 2019. Saxophonist Ian Thompson was recruited to stand in for Brian by long time horn section members Laurence Parry and Martin Meredith. They quickly brought him up to speed, with only a few days to learn the entire set, which he admirably achieved for not just the UK tour but throughout one of UB40’s busiest years with 108 shows including Europe, Scandinavia and the USA.

The final concert of 2019 was the hometown Birmingham show where Brian was able to join the band for a few emotional numbers, to rapturous applause, during the encore.

2020, of course, saw the world struck by the disaster of Covid 19, a pandemic that closed down any hopes of concerts globally. What was due to be another very busy year for UB40 with tours of the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, Africa and The US was suddenly reduced to nothing. With no choice but to wait it out at home, UB40 took the opportunity to launch their own UB40 App as a way of keeping in touch. With exclusive content for subscribers, archive material, live weekly zoom sessions, new music and live streams, they are still connecting directly with their fans around the world. The band also continued work on their next release, the collaboration album Bigga Baggariddim.

Much like 1985’s Baggariddim, when UB40 invited other artists to voice over their rhythms, Bigga Baggariddim is a more international affair with contributions from New Zealand (House Of Shem) and India (Reggae Rajahs) and young up and coming, as well as more established, artists from Jamaica and the UK.

2021 continues in much the same vein as 2020 with Covid-19 still dictating that no touring can take place. UB40 will release Bigga Baggariddim in 2021 and look to live streaming concerts as the only alternative to touring until the vaccines enable the world to open up its doors again.