Uncork the red wine for UB40

They’re the self-proclaimed biggest reggae band in the world, and they’re coming to Norfolk tomorrow. UB40’s lead singer Ali Campbell told KEIRON PIM how the band just keeps travelling around the world.

Ali Campbell admits with a laugh that he feels like a traitor to his home city of Birmingham. While most of the other original members of UB40 still live in the Midlands city, Campbell spent years living in Jamaica before relocating to the south coast of England, from where he's speaking to the EDP in a Brummie brogue that remains entirely loyal to his origins. His reason for seeking sunnier climes is a pretty good one, anyway.

"I left because, being a sufferer of seasonal affective disorder, I have to be somewhere sunny. That's why I lived in Jamaica for 17 years, because I couldn't stand the dark nights.

"So now I have moved down to the south coast. I'm a traitor, I left Birmingham! Mickey Virtue (the band's keyboardist) lives in Spain. Everyone else is in Birmingham."

Given UB40's relentless global touring schedule, where they call home is perhaps beside the point.

They are in the midst of their 10th world tour. Their gig at Blickling Hall tomorrow comes on the back of a successful appearance at Thetford Forest last month, and the band are already familiar with this part of the world, as Campbell points out when asked how often they have played here before.

"Only about 40 million times! When we started, back in the day, we played everywhere in the country. We did exactly the same tour again and again, we've played in every venue in Britain you can play in.

Most Read

"There's only one place we haven't played and that's mainland China," he says. He is especially proud of performing in front of 60,000 people in Mozambique and of the band's achievement in pioneering a tour of the Pacific islands - "it was like being the Beatles, they were probably the last people who played in Tonga."

In fact, there's one other place that UB40 haven't yet played, though it's not for want of trying: Jamaica, the island that's home to the music they love. They're about to put that right, at long last.

"We are playing at the Jamaica Sunsplash festival on August 5. We have nearly done it so many times before, but we have always wanted to do it with our own gear and do it properly.

"We are the biggest reggae band in the world and the loudest, and pride ourselves on giving a great show; we never wanted to do it with a PA and three lights. We have been trying to do it for years because the sponsors usually fall through or the promoters run away with the money. This time it's being done with new people."

Some in Britain have sneered at UB40 as overly commercial, particularly after their initial run of politicised songs - Food for Thought, One in Ten, King - gave way to mass appeal cover versions such Neil Diamond's Red Red Wine and Sonny and Cher's I Got You Babe.

But it's telling that they are highly popular in Jamaica, where you'd imagine people know a thing or two about what constitutes good reggae. Therefore it's likely that when they appear there, as with most other places they go, the young fans in the audience will know all the words. "Most of them weren't born when we started, but they're always singing along, word for word," he laughs. "We still haven't had a bad gig. As far as audience reaction goes, we are still waiting for one. If that happens it will be time to knock it on the head." The ongoing tour marks UB40's 'silver jubilee', last year having been a quarter of a century since they made their recording debut amid more humble circumstances.

Their debut album was titled Signing Off, playing on the band's name, which was itself a reference to the unemployment benefit form of the time.

The band evolved in the late 1970s, forming around the partnership between Campbell and his brother Robin. Music ran in the family - their father Ian was a folk singer of some renown - and with his older brother on lead guitar and Campbell providing rhythm guitar and lead vocals, the pair formed the centrepiece of the group.

The line-up remains unchanged: Earl Falconer on bass, Virtue, saxophonist Brian Travers, drummer Jimmy Brown, percussionist Norman Hassan (currently resting from touring owing to illness), and toaster Terence "Astro" Wilson. They bought their first instruments with compensation money Campbell received after being attacked in a Birmingham bar, and then taught themselves to play them. By the end of the year, the group was invited to tour with the Pretenders.

"We formed in 1979, had our first hit in 1980," he says. "We had only played about a dozen dates when Chrissie Hynde came and saw us and put us on her tour. She was number one at the time with Brass in Pocket. We only did the hard slog for a year, going up to the Factory in Manchester in the back of a Luton van."

The band's entourage has grown a little since those days.

"Without any family and kids there's 42 of us. We all tend to travel and stay in good hotels… I've got eight kids myself, and if we took all the kids along we wouldn't make any profit!"

Campbell feels he owes a lot to the genre of music that has brought him and his bandmates global success.

"It's wonderful to be part of the reggae family, this fraternity around the world. There's orthodox Jewish reggae, Hawaiian reggae; all the islands have their own reggae. Everywhere around the world they love our reggae, especially now we are old legends, or leg-ends," he laughs.

But UB40 have given back as much as they've taken. Their trio of albums covering Jamaican classics, Labour of Love volumes One, Two and Three, have brought previously obscure music to a global audience, bringing its originators welcome attention (and royalties) in the process.

Recent years haven't seen them trouble the Top 40 quite as regularly as they did in the 1980s - their last single to register was Kiss and Say Goodbye, which reached number 19 last year - but their brand of reggae-pop remains a crowd-puller on the live circuit. The current set list focuses largely on the hits, with a handful of songs from last year's Who You Fighting For? album thrown in too. Expect to hear the familiar strains of Red Red Wine echoing round the sedate surroundings of the Blickling estate on Friday.

"Sometimes they feel a bit like millstones but when you are performing them, they are always worth playing because they get such a good reception," says Campbell.

"We are the loudest and best reggae band in the world, and if you're that way inclined you can't go wrong."

Tickets are still available for UB40 at Blickling Hall tomorrow night, costing £37.50. For details, see:

www.summernightsonline.co.uk/concerts/ub40.asp

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter