Songwriting guitarist Robin Campbell is one of UB40’s long-standing members, steering the group through its varied and various permutations, with singing brothers Ali and Duncan Campbell in tow. Their backdrop fused reggae beats with lyrical presentation, showcasing a contentment for the genre seventies peers The Police and The Specials shared. When we congratulate him on forty triumphant years, he immediately corrects us. “It’s forty-one actually.” he chuckles. “Forty-one years, we started in 1978, that was when we formed the band. It’s been hectic recently celebrating. We did that Albert Hall show last year to celebrate the forty years, and then there were more shows to go. We did forty-odd shows on the road, in America. Hectic, exhausting and busy.”
Reggae progenitors UB40 hold a distinguished record. Fifty UK hit singles, four Best Reggae Album Grammy nominations and two Billboard number ones have provided the band an impressive trajectory, an orbit punk star Chrissie Hynde could work with. “She claims it was her idea, Ali claims it was his, I don’t who it was,” Robin chuckles. “People always say she’s difficult, but really she’s a pussycat. I’ve never had any problems with her. She was the one who exposed to the world, she’d just had Brass In Pocket. It was the beginning of the tour, we produced and recorded the music, she added the great vocal performances [‘I Got You Babe’]. When we did ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’, it was for a Nicolas Cage film. It was Honeymoon In Vegas, the soundtrack was all Elvis songs. They didn’t use ours, Bono sang it in the end. We weren’t raving Elvis fans, but we released it anyway and it made number one in something like thirty countries. They used it in a Sharon Stone movie, I can’t remember the name of.”
It all started in Birmingham, a Midlands city which gifted W.H. Auden a lyrical muse, Daniel Bond a pictorial muse and entrusted a musical history which singers Denny Laine, Robert Plant and Simon Le Bon brought to national and international success. The Campbell Brothers imbued this musical history, following the pathway father and folk singer Ian Campbell laid for them. “As you say Birmingham, all different kinds of music. Jeff Lynne is another, the guy from Spencer Davis, Stevie Winwood. A melting pot of cultures, a mixture of all different cultures. On another street, you’d be in a heavy metal band. Where we were, it was a multi-racial area. There were black, Asian, Jamaican and Indian people. When reggae music was invented, it made total sense to me. We grew up in the same streets, the same areas we came in and that’s what we played.”
UB40 released their newest album For The Many in March. If the title sounds familiar, it should be. It’s a common maxim these days, depending on your political persuasion. “Of course it is [to do with Labour], we really liked the slogan, he [Jeremy Corbyn] said he’d be delighted if we used it. Fans say its a throwback album, the last one was more country. We love music of all kinds, reggae took over growing up, but we listened to R&B, soul music. All my Jamaican friends got the connection with the country. In the eighties, it would probably have gotten loads of airplay, but we see the massive views on YouTube for the songs. We did that song with Robert Palmer in the nineties [On The Other Hand] which we never released, so we resurrected it for Getting Over The Storm.”
Longtime vocalist Ali Campbell left the band in 2008. There are backstage politics that we choose not to go into, though the interview momentarily stumbles when we say For The Many is the first UB40 album that Duncan Campbell has sung on. “It certainly is not,” Robin replies. “Whoever wrote that should be shot! Duncan sang on Getting Over The Storm, he sang on the last album with Ali. What it is, it’s the first album he’s fully sung on and contributed to. He was really fired up writing on the songs. It wasn’t really something we asked him to do, the nucleus was me, Jimmy and Brian. We had already done the music, but he brought songs that suited them.”
It was a reinvention that comes at a time of reinvention. As autumn turns to winter, thoughts turn to Christmas, as merchandising and markets open their gates to Santa filled decorations and designs. Many people turn to their homes come December and that’s exactly where UB40 are headed. “We’re doing the Christmas show in Birmingham, always great to go back there. They were the first fans and they still come. Always amazing to play there.
“There are millions of friends and relatives who come to see us. It’s amazing, the new stuff doesn’t get much airplay, but we have huge amounts of fans who want to see us play. Unbelievable! We’ve recorded a collaboration album with reggae artists, we have about sixteen tracks. It’s ready for immediate release, but we don’t have a fixed date yet. We want to record another one, we don’t want to turn into a Cabaret act!”