Last week Jeremy Corbyn welcomed the endorsement of the 80s Birmingham band UB40, in front of a room of baffled journalists. But then a rival version of UB40 declined to endorse the Labour leader. The Corbyn narrative became collateral damage in the titanic battle of two warring factions of the once mighty pop-reggae pioneers, supposedly made funnier because UB40 are considered inherently ludicrous by metrosexual tastemakers.
But for me, the first two UB40 albums, Signing Off (1980), and Present Arms (1981) remain great slices of post-punk cross-cultural pop-polemic, and served as gateway drugs to the Jamaican source for a grateful and curious teenager. Then, rather like New Labour, UB40 abandoned their more extreme moments to pursue a populist course, perhaps at the expense of their core values.
But it was UB40’s crazed decision to invade Iraq in 2003, in defiance of public opinion, and as a desperate attempt to promote their poorly received Homegrown album, that finally sealed their legacy. The section of the Chilcot report detailing the eight-piece group’s bombardment of the city of Basra, with a barrage of covers of 70s Trojan label chart-topping pop reggae hits, was especially harrowing. And the leaked photos, of keyboardist Mickey Virtue forcing prisoners to balance on piles of unsold copies of the 2002 single Cover Up, remain burned into the collective consciousness.
As with last month’s film of Corbyn sitting on the floor in a train, which offered full-time professional satirists any number of seat-based jokes on a silver platter, anyone who had ever seen or read anything ever could have predicted how badly a photo-op with a version of UB40 was going to pan out for Corbyn.
Within hours Michael Deacon at the Daily Telegraph and John Crace at the Guardian had both used the same algorithm to spin satirical columns making parallels between UB40’s internal divisions and those of the Labour party.
And who can blame them? You can almost hear the clunk as the fully formed satires fall ready-made out of the satire engine and thunk down on to the content conveyor belt.
The next step for the Labour party should be to ape the production company Endemol, who made both the soul-destroying Big Brother and Charlie Booker’s zombie-based parody of it, Dead Set. Labour media strategists should create not only their own easily satirisable news stories, but also the satires of them that are inevitably to follow, thus monetising both, diametrically opposed, markets.
Meanwhile, instead of getting the backing of UB40, a prime minister who has never formally secured the backing of any of the electorate, not even Musical Youth or Aswad, steamrolls forward largely unsatirised.
Nonetheless, Corbyn has my sympathy. It is easy to engage mistakenly the support of a band you didn’t realise was divided.
In 2006 I participated in Pestival, a three-day event at Barnes Wetland Centre, which used art and music to celebrate insects. I performed an insect-based standup routine in an insect-themed cabaret.
Also appearing were the psychedelic magus Robyn Hitchcock, who sang a song about an aphid accompanied by a musical saw, and the saxophonist Ned Rotherberg, who used an amplified tank of crickets as unwitting collaborators in a freeform sonic extrapolation. The audience of entomologists lapped up the entertainment, having first vomited onto it to reduce it to an easily digestible protein soup.
Eight years later, as a result of an ongoing battle against the unlicensed use of an empty but newt-rich neighbourhood garden as a chemical processing plant, I became sympathetic to the ongoing struggles of all amphibians, and decided to set up my own amphibian-based arts festival, Frogstock.
As regular readers will know, I organise and perform in more charity benefit shows than any other British standup comedian, and have never received any public recognition for this. So this time around, as well as raising funds to fight on behalf of the frogs and newts, I decided, selfishly, to just book artists that I myself would like to see.
In the mid-90s the comedian Richard Herring and I hosted a daily mid-morning chatshow on the Edinburgh fringe, and our guests were usually light-entertainment figures like Nicholas Parsons, Annabel Giles or Frank Skinner. But in 1997, the unexpectedly re-formed early-70s German art-rock pioneers Faust were bringing their teargas and jackhammer noise party to town.
So instead of hearing Nicholas Parsons’s humorous quiz-show anecdotes, for one morning only the early-rising tea-drinking punters were entertained by an actionably unsafe duet for piano and angle-grinding machine, performed by clearly inebriated men, whose early-70s producer had once been a known associate of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist organisation.
The visually fearsome Faust were of course delightful in person, and after their performance drummer Werner “Zappi” Diermaier, who only moments before had been aiming splinters of hot metal into the eyes of scared old-age pensioners, told me he was hoping to find time to head into the sphagnum bogs of the Highlands to seek out natterjack toads and great crested newts. The two amphibians were beloved by the frightening percussionist and, though rare in Germany, were still clinging to life in Scotland. “If I can leave Scotland having held a natterjack toad in my fist then re-forming Faust will have been worth it,” Diermaier confided.
Remembering Zappi’s frog and newt fandom, earlier this year I contacted him and engaged Faust for my Frogstock event, and in November they will perform inside a giant floating piece of frogspawn mounted in a giant lake of pond water at the Roundhouse in Camden, to raise money for my ongoing battle with the amphibian-hating petro-chemists. Or at least that was the plan.
Sid Griffin, of the legendary country rockers the Long Ryders, once told me that in the mid-90s he had witnessed two different versions of 70s glam popsters the Sweet engaged in a violent fist fight at a Little Chef in East Anglia.
And of course, the existence of two rival UB40s is now well documented. But who knew, or even cared, that there are now two Fausts, in an experimental music market barely built to sustain one?
And who could have guessed that the second Faust, led by keyboard player Hans Joachim Irmler, would have publicly declared their loathing of all amphibians, after one of Irmler’s irreplaceable vintage transistor organs was ruined by over‑wintering salamander newts four years ago?
Needless to say, the tensions surrounding Frogstock have now thrown the event into jeopardy. Like all the other paid content providers, I wanted to laugh at Corbyn and UB40, but this time the story felt just too close to home.
Stewart Lee’s new show, Content Provider, is at Leicester Square theatre from 8 November and then touring. See stewartlee.co.uk for details