Ali Campbell: My family values

The former UB40 frontman talks about disagreeing with his father’s communist beliefs and why he hasn’t spoken to his brothers for six years

My dad gave up his job as an engraver to form the Ian Campbell Folk Group and sort of spearheaded the Scottish Folk revival. He spent a lot of time touring round Europe – he was a communist and wasn’t allowed into America – so we didn’t see much of him. Most of the time it was just me, my three older brothers, Duncan, Robin and David, and my mum.

My dad’s dad was the patriarch of the family, David Gunn Campbell. There’s a plaque to him in Aberdeen. He was a big trade union leader. He’d moved down from Shetland to Aberdeen and then he got in some sort of trouble with the unions and had to relocate to Birmingham so I grew up in a staunchly communist, trade unionist household. My mum and dad had middle-class aspirations, even though they’d be horrified to hear me say that. They were very proud of being working class.

There were always musicians at our house. Dave Swarbrick, who later became part of Fairport Convention, was in my dad’s band, as was Dave Pegg the bass player who later joined Jethro Tull. Billy Connolly used to play my dad’s club, the Jug of Punch, and we had Paul Simon at our house once. Dad loved holding court but we always clashed musically. Before I got into reggae, I was crazy about the Jackson Five but my dad found a 13-year-old boy singing love songs abhorrent. He detested Michael Jackson and thought reggae was gibberish until a friend of his convinced him that Bob Marley was worth listening to.

Bringing up four boys must have been very tough for my mum. There were four of us under the age of eight at one point and in front of her we were impeccably behaved. When we were outdoors it was a very different matter. Balsall Heath was a sort of ghetto area, so we picked up bad habits. My wonderful bigger brother Robin, who was 12 at the time, taught me how to inhale cigarettes at eight. Another time, when I was eight, I got done for burglary when I broke into a builders’ hut with a couple of friends. My dad, who had no clue what we were up to, was away, so my grandad came down and sorted things out with the police.

I never agreed with my dad’s communist beliefs. When I went to Russia with UB40 in 1984, before Glasnost and Perestroika, I saw that the country hadn’t changed in 70 years. People were living in abject poverty. We got there on National Cabbage day. They were floating cabbages down the Volga and people were jumping in fully clothed, and coming out very happy with three or four cabbages. What I saw out there was revolting. Everybody we spoke to was beaten up in front of us and I said to Dad: “Explain yourself. How can you still be following this outdated antiquated crap? You haven’t even been to the place and you profess to be a communist.” I think he found his son talking to him like that quite distressing.

I haven’t spoken to any of my brothers for six years following a dispute about the band. I couldn’t believe the skullduggery. I don’t see any way back for things now. If you put us all in the same room it would end in a physical fight as there’s just been too much nasty water under the bridge. But the pain has all gone now. I’ve come to terms with it.

I’m a father of eight and I’m still useless at remembering birthdays and, just like my dad, I’m on the road a lot but, unlike my dad, I try not to have too much of a negative impact on them when I’m back. Everything changed when he came home and he was a grumpy ogre in the house but I don’t want to ruin the atmosphere so I’m probably a bit too easygoing. I’ve also just become a grandfather, which is terrifying and delightful at the same time.

Ali Campbell’s new album, Silhouette, is released on Cooking Vinyl


Interview by Nick McGrath

The GuardianTramp

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