‘MI5 were tapping our phones’: UB40 on starting out, falling out and losing millions

The Brummie reggae stars are back, but in two rival groups. They talk about clocking up 39 hits, partying hard and the bitter split

UB40 are remembering the days when they were dangerous. “MI5 were tapping our phones, watching our houses, all sorts,” says drummer Jimmy Brown. “We thought, ‘Haven’t they got criminals to catch?’ We were just a bunch of potheads, smoking weed and playing music. We weren’t planning the revolution, but if the revolution happened, we knew what side we were going to be on.”

The band are back this year – in duplicate. In contrast to the longstanding and bitter rift that divides the two factions, more of which later, the Brummie eight-piece once presented a united, staunchly uncompromising front. For those who remember UB40 primarily for lilting lite-reggae covers of Red Red Wine and (I Can’t Help) Falling in Love With You, the fact that they were considered a grave threat to national security might seem absurd. Look closer at the origins story of the band, however, and the concerns of the spooks – later confirmed by MI5 whistleblower David Shayler – make a certain kind of sense.

Formed in 1978 by a nucleus of schoolfriends who grew up around Birmingham’s multiracial Balsall Heath, UB40 were once the authentic voice of informed working-class disaffection. Setting street-level grievances and global political protest to a stoned stepper’s beat, they made music for the feet, head and heart, tackling apartheid, Thatcherism, racism, global poverty and social injustice head on.

“We were the real deal,” says original singer Ali Campbell. “We were eight people who had been unemployed since school, trying to wade through Thatcher’s quagmire of shit and then sing about it. We were politicised, we were disenfranchised, and we had a lot to say.”

“I went through the same rigmarole as most black people in the late 70s,” says the band’s original co-vocalist, Astro, recalling the “sus law” that allowed the arrests of people deemed to be acting suspiciously, often on flimsy, racist pretexts. “It was a weekly occurrence. We found it harder to write love songs than militant lyrics, because it was a lot easier to write about stuff you had witnessed or read about. It seemed natural to us.”

Breakthrough … UB40’s debut album Signing Off, with benefit form artwork.
Breakthrough … UB40’s debut album Signing Off, with benefit form artwork. Photograph: Record Company

When it came to forming a band, says Ali’s older brother, UB40 guitarist Robin Campbell, “there was no question about what kind of music we would make”. A love of reggae reflected a natural allegiance with the children of the Windrush generation. It provided the rhythmic backdrop to their teenage years, a unifying sound in the youth clubs, cafes, blues parties and shebeens. “It was the music of the streets,” says Astro. “You couldn’t go anywhere in our neighbourhood without hearing it.”

UB40 learned to play through imperfect imitation. Listening to records by Big Youth, Sly and Robbie, Lee “Scratch” Perry and King Tubby, they developed a “hybrid reggae” style, says Ali. “We were trying to sound like Sly and Robbie but we didn’t have the talent for that. We were never a Jamaican reggae band, we always sounded different.” We jammed in a basement underneath where [bass player] Earl [Falconer] and [saxophonist] Brian [Travers] lived. We used to stand on beer crates because whenever Brian had a bath the water would come pissing down the walls. We were very committed.”

A tendency to make rebel music was hardwired, says Brown, who recalls a teacher handing him the communist manifesto when he was 15. “We would sit around all day getting stoned and talking about solving the world’s problems.” The Campbells’ father, Scottish folk singer Ian Campbell, was a staunch communist who politicised his children. Although he had a hand in writing the lyrics to Food for Thought and Madam Medusa, Campbell Sr was not a UB40 fan. “He said, ‘You can’t have a band if you can’t play,’” says Ali. “I said, ‘Yeah, but we’re going to learn.’ He told me to fuck off. He just thought we were stupid. He was fairly disappointed in us starting a reggae band, but he was happy that we were writing lyrics that said something.”

UB40’s early songs pulled few punches, nor offered easy solace. The blunt anti-colonialist message of Burden of Shame – “I’m a British subject, not proud of it” – was too strong even for Ian Campbell, who questioned why they were ashamed of their nationality. King, written a decade after the assassination of Martin Luther King, lamented that the black leader’s people were still “chained and pacified”. For Ali, the song is proof “that you don’t change anything by singing about it, that’s for fucking sure. What a joke that King is still relevant 40 years after we wrote it. We all demonstrated against the National Front and supported Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League. Not a sausage changed.”

Champion … the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde performs with Ali Campbell.
Champion … the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde performs with Ali Campbell. Photograph: Eugene Adebari/Rex Features

Rejecting the overtures of several majors, UB40 signed to Graduate, a local independent label based in a record shop in Dudley. Released in August 1980, Signing Off remains one of the great debuts. The album was recorded on a four-track Fostex machine in a bedsit belonging to local drummer Bob Lamb. Lamb’s bed was on stilts, with his mixing desk underneath. The room was so small percussionist Norman Hassan played in the garden. You can hear the sound of birds and traffic on some tracks. “I’m still really proud of Signing Off,” says Robin. “It has a great feel and it was like no one else at the time. I like its uniqueness.”

Championed by Chrissie Hynde, who took UB40 on tour with the Pretenders, both the album and debut single, Food for Thought, became top five hits – “and we never really looked back,” says Astro. Tested by money and success, their socialist principles remained firm. UB40 always split the songwriting equally and voted on every decision. They remained rooted in Birmingham, and after leaving Graduate they set up their own independent label, DEP International.

One in Ten, from second album Present Arms

Despite being “the biggest party band of the 80s”, Ali Campbell acknowledges that they often came off as a dour, slightly intimidating bunch. “We weren’t very friendly, we kept ourselves to ourselves.” Rather than foster an affinity with the Specials, another militant, multiracial collective from the Midlands, UB40 dismissed the two-tone bands as “revivalists”. They regarded their own music as more subversive.

“We did Madam Medusa about Thatcher and got it played on the radio because DJs didn’t know what we were talking about,” says Ali. “Whereas the Beat got banned for Stand Down Margaret and got lauded for it. We were trying to be a bit cleverer than that. Every time we went on Top of the Pops, we annoyed someone. We used to smoke weed in the dressing rooms, that upset them. We didn’t care. We wanted to shout about politics, and we wanted to introduce people to reggae. It was our mission.”

Ali Campbell on stage in California, 2017.
Ali Campbell on stage in California, 2017. Photograph: Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The mission prompted the band to release a dub version of Present Arms, the superb follow-up to Signing Off. Although some confused punters returned it to the store, says Ali, wondering where the vocals had gone, it was “the first dub album to get into the mainstream charts, and we were proud of that”. It was in a similar spirit of evangelism that UB40 recorded Labour of Love, an album honouring the reggae tunes which had inspired them to form a band; Red Red Wine had been written by Neil Diamond, but UB40 knew it through the 1969 rocksteady version by Tony Tribe. The project was about paying their dues – literally. Ali Campbell says the band sorted out publishing deals for many Jamaican musicians. Lord Creator, the artist who wrote and recorded the original version of Kingston Town, was able to build a house – “Quite a big house, too!” – on the proceeds of UB40’s 1989 cover, included on Labour of Love II.

Nonetheless, the initial Labour of Love, released in 1983, is the point at which UB40 surrendered their anti-establishment kudos. “For some people we had sold out,” says Robin. “We went commercial, went soft, forgot our politics. But it wasn’t a permanent thing. The albums that came after were nothing like it. But you get fans even now saying, ‘Oh, they changed after Labour of Love, I stopped listening.’ Your loss, mate!”

In an attempt to revive some of the old renegade spirit, Ali Campbell and Astro will perform a live stream of Signing Off next month. In a perfect world, all the original line up would be taking part. Sadly, peace accords between warring nations have proved easier to broach.

There isn’t sufficient space to detail every grievance, merely the headlines. In 2008, Ali Campbell left the band to pursue a solo career. Five years later, Astro joined him and they rebranded themselves as UB40, much to the annoyance of the original lineup. “It was an acrimonious split and it has stayed like that,” Ali says. “Too much water under the bridge and too many nasty things said and done.” He acknowledges that profligacy has played its part in his financial woes. “I can’t keep hold of money,” he admits. “I’ve made millions and spent it all.”

Family business … another Campbell brother, Duncan, now fronts UB40.
Family business … another Campbell brother, Duncan, now fronts UB40. Photograph: Peter Dewhirst/Alamy

The five remaining original members of the group – with a third Campbell brother, Duncan, now on vocals – still record and tour as UB40. Ali and Astro, backed by an eight-piece band, also use the name. Both claim to be the real deal. Suffice it to say each camp is less than complimentary about the merits of the other.

But both factions agree on one thing: they remain proud of their achievements, if a little aggrieved that UB40 don’t get more respect. “I watch the BBC programmes about 80s music, and it never ceases to amaze me how few times we’re on them,” says Robin. “We had 39 Top 40 records. It never seems to be recognised. It does piss me off, but I’m used to it by now. I guess we’ll all have to die first!”

Contributor

Graeme Thomson

The GuardianTramp

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