As they prepare to celebrate their 40th Anniversary, UB40’s list of achievements is already impressive. The group from Birmingham – long time avatars of multi-cultural, working class Britain – have sold 100 million records worldwide and had No. 1 hits in many different countries including America and their native UK, where they’ve enjoyed forty Top 40 chart entries and spent eleven years in the national album charts.
We’d be forgiven for thinking they have nothing left to prove, but that’s not the case. Their last few albums, recorded after former singer Ali Campbell left, have heralded a creative rebirth for a band that’s rediscovered the joys of writing, playing and performing together.
UB40 have their mojo back and sound rejuvenated with the imminent release of their forthcoming album For The Many, which is hailed as their finest in years. Inspired by their anniversary and driven by a renewed sense of purpose, they’ve returned to making the kind of album that announced their breakthrough by writing songs with a social conscience, and which includes lengthy dub passages – ingredients that should immediately resonate with fans of Signing Off and Present Arms.
Band members Robin and Duncan Campbell make the point that the levels of racism and inequality in Britain have increased under the current Tory government, just as they did under Margaret Thatcher’s. The struggle is the same, and so it seems almost superfluous to ask if the album title was inspired by Labour’s slogan, “For the many and not the few.”
Robin: “Yes, absolutely. We’re nailing our colours to the mast as we always do.”
UB40 are renowned for their political songs – their last few albums contain plenty of them – and there are several more on the new album, two of them written by Duncan. Gravy Train and Poor Fool describe how the system has betrayed ordinary people.
Duncan: “That song refers to any one of those people no matter what they’re called or which party they belong to. We live in an era where someone can get a massive payout for getting it wrong but once you’re on the gravy train, then it really doesn’t seem to matter what you do.”
Robin “It’s about anyone who sets out to feather their own nest basically but Duncan came into his own on this album because those are the best lyrics he’s ever written, without a doubt.”
Duncan’s now been UB40’s lead singer for over a decade, and has performed to over a million people worldwide. Like his brothers he possesses the Campbell vocal style, which they honed in their father’s folk group from infancy. Duncan was therefore the perfect choice as Ali’s replacement, and could have been singing with them from the start.
Robin: “That was in 1978. Ali originally wanted us to be a dub band but I told him we’d never get anywhere doing that. I said, ‘the only way I’m joining this band is if there’s singing in it and you’re the lead singer,’ but he didn’t want to do it. He wanted to play drums and that’s when I first encouraged Duncan to join us, because the three of us had been singing together from childhood.”
Duncan declined the offer, Ali reluctantly sang lead and it would take thirty years for events to turn full circle. In-between times Duncan played the spoons for the BBC; ran a snooker club in Birmingham and managed bars in Perth and Barbados. He also lived in Jamaica for a year. Labour Of Love IV was his first album with UB40, and a major turning point for all concerned.
Robin: “Yes, because we were all there in the same room, jamming on the songs and we recorded the tracks live, without so much as a computer in sight and it was fabulous. We were definitely happy to be back as a band and reliving the kind of chemistry that comes from working together, and Duncan fitted straight in. He enabled us to keep that UB40 sound because of the brotherly blend and when he sings some of the older songs like Food For Thought or One In Ten, he sounds amazingly like a young Ali.”
The music’s fabulous too, but then UB40 always did have a great rhythm section and prove it again on this track.
UB40 were formed along democratic lines from their inception, with the members sharing everything equally, including songwriting credits. Is that still the case?
Robin: “Yes, totally. When most bands break up they blame it on musical differences, but it’s usually financial differences because when the other members see just one or two guys earning all the money from songwriting, then they’ll start fighting to get their stuff recorded. You end up accepting inferior songs so that’s why we said, ‘no matter who does what, we’ll split everything and every song will be a band composition.’ We may acknowledge that so and so wrote certain lyrics, but financially everything’s shared between the band members and still is.
“Remember, it took Ali thirty years before he started to say, ‘I should be earning more than anyone else’ and that wasn’t down to his composing, because he never wrote any lyrics. It was down to him being lead vocalist and thinking he was therefore more important than the rest of us.”
In addition to For The Many and the collection of collaborations, there are also plans to release a dub album masterminded by Brian Travers’ son Jamie, whose Dub Sessions series has already proved popular with UB40 fans.
Beginning in March, they’ll be embarking on a forty date UK 40th Anniversary tour that starts in Portsmouth and ends two months later in Guildford. Duncan will be making his 500th appearance as UB40’s lead singer during this tour, an abiding confirmation of the band’s legacy.
UB40 will be appearing at Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 18 May, 2019. They release their new album ‘For The Many’ on 15 March. Tickets are available from www.ub40.global