UB40: 30th Anniversary

Has it really been thirty years since UB40’s Signing Off? UB40 have become the best-selling reggae band in the world in the meantime, with more than fifty chart hits and sales of over seventy million albums to their credit. That’s an extraordinary achievement for a close-knit group of friends from Birmingham, who set out to make music they believed in and are still doing so all these years later. This autumn, to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of their bestselling debut they’ve not only reissued the album with all kinds of extras, but also decided to play the same size venues they did back in 1980 – this after decades of headlining stadiums and huge auditoriums around the world.

“I like gigs with chip shops next to them or a bus stop outside,” says Brian Travers, whose lonely sax was such a key ingredient of UB40’s early sound. “Gigs like that have a completely different character because the people who come to them tend to live locally. They can get a bus or taxi home afterwards, which they can’t when we play in these huge places that are out of town and are very sterile by comparison. There’s no sense of community. You drive into a car park, are searched coming in and have to pay a tenner for beer in a plastic glass. Those audiences feel a bit separate but at a gig in the middle of town, you’re playing to the back of the room and there’s a sense of us all being in it together. We love that.”

The band will be performing that first album in its entirety during this tour, as well as a set of latterday hits. To some, this will herald a welcome return to the band’s more political repertoire – UB40 having become synonymous with covers of Jamaican reggae classics in recent years. This is only part of the story however and their reputation for political commentary is still richly deserved, as Robin Campbell explains.

“A lot of people think we stopped being political in 1983 and stopped listening to us after that,” he says, ruefully. “We gained a whole new audience, but I think we lost a lot of people after Labour Of Love. Some of the hardliners became disappointed and thought we’d lost our edge, but if they listen to some of the later albums they’ll realise we hadn’t so it’ll be nice to see some old faces who bought the first album.”

Robin’s brother Duncan had replaced Ali Campbell as UB40’s lead singer by the time they recorded TwentyFourSeven, released in 2008, yet songs like End Of War, Securing The Peace and Instant Radical Change Of Perception left us in no doubts as to the band’s stance. Its predecessor Who You Fighting For, contained its share of uncompromising lyrics too, underlining how the band’s original remit remains undiminished, despite thirty years of unbroken success.

The first time UB40 played venues like Leicester’s De Montfort Hall John Lennon had just been assassinated, Ronald Reagan was US President and Britain was bracing itself for ten years of civil unrest and race riots under Margaret Thatcher. This was the climate in which UB40 emerged but their journey had begun two years earlier, when Ali, Jimmy and Earl had started up a branch of the Claimants’ Union. They, like Brian, had attended Moseley School Of Art in Birmingham’s Balsall Heath.

“When we started it was the beginning of Thatcherism,” says Brian. “We’d left school to no work but the choice of reggae was even more political because all of my black mates were forced to be part of white culture. There was no black television. There were no black role models and the only times you saw black people on television they were being made fun of and subjected to all kinds of racist behaviour. That’s why we were all a bit political as young men. You couldn’t help it because we had the National Front marching through our cities and we were all naturally opposed to that. The most political thing we could do wasn’t to write songs about how wrong-headed the right wing was, but to support black culture. That’s how it came to be ingrained in us. Everyone was doing something, and the Campbells were very political too. Their father was a Communist who belonged to the CND movement and so it was a natural thing for us to head down that route.”

Fortune smiled upon them when Ali was awarded £4,000 compensation for an eye injury he’d sustained in a pub brawl. He spent some of it on instruments and he, Earl and Jimmy started rehearsing at the Cannon Hill Arts Centre. Robin saw them, thought they were terrible and declined to join them! Next, they commandeered the cellar below Earl and Brian’s flat in Moseley. Brian had started to learn the saxophone; Jimmy Lynn joined them on Stylophone and Yomi Babayemi played percussion. Norman of course was already a regular, having been a friend of Ali’s from childhood. Anchored by Earl and Jimmy on bass and drums, the band gradually became more proficient and by Christmas 1978, Robin was impressed enough to buy a secondhand Fender Stratocaster and join in.

After a while, Yomi was deported back to Nigeria and keyboard player Mickey Virtue replaced Jimmy Lynn. The band then started playing their first gigs and recruited Astro, who’d been the MC with Duke Alloy’s sound-system. They were known by various names, including Jeff Cancer & the Nicoteenies before a friend suggested UB40, since most of them had those yellow unemployment cards by then. Their first proper gig was at the Hare And Hounds in King’s Heath, at a friend’s party. Word soon got around there was an exciting new band in town. This led to Jerry Dammers offering them a deal with 2 Tone Records, which they turned down as they wanted to explore their own brand of dub reggae, rather than rehash old ska numbers.

It was a brave decision, since money was scarce and most of their gigs badly paid. Local butcher Dave Cox lent them money to record demo tracks, which led Island supremo Chris Blackwell to declare that UB40 had “no commercial viability whatsoever.” Eventually they struck a deal with Graduate Records, who agreed to pay the costs of recording and manufacturing an album. The label and band would then share royalties between them. Graduate’s choice of producer was Bob Lamb, who’d been the drummer with Steve Gibbons and was well known in Birmingham for making demos with up-and-coming bands.

“David Girr [of Graduate] went to Bob Lamb and said if he recorded the album in his studio, then he’d pay the bills,” recalls Robin. “It was only later that we discovered he’d offered to share his split with him. That’s how Bob Lamb ended up with 25% of that record. Lucky man!

“Basically he’d retired from being in a band and set up his studio in this flat just off King’s Heath High Street, but he was a great engineer and absolutely loved what we were doing. We just went in there and recorded every song we had. We’d go in there in the mornings and him and his girlfriend would be still in bed. They’d climb down the ladder, she’d go and make everyone a cup of tea and he’d be sat there in his dressing gown…”

“Bob lived in a tiny flat in one of those old Victorian houses with tall ceilings and he’d built this bed on stilts,” adds Brian. “All his studio gear was kept underneath and there was an electricity meter that took fifty pence pieces. We used to joke how the album cost fifty pence to make, because we just booted the lock off and had it so the same coin kept going through over and over! Bob was groaning about it but we said, ‘don’t worry. When this is a hit we’ll sort it out.’ We were never in any doubt that our first record would be successful…”

The sessions started during autumn 1979 and despite Bob’s limited resources, the sound of the record has stood up remarkably well. The band had a full set of originals by now, although they’d still play the odd cover such as Randy Newman’s I Think It’s Gonna Rain Again and Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit. Burden Of Shame was among their first recordings and it’s probably the finest-ever song written about post-colonial guilt. “Bloody deeds have been done in my name,” they announced. “Our children will bear the blame. I’m a British subject and not proud of it, while I carry the burden of shame.”

Tyler was an appeal to the Governor of Louisiana on behalf of Gary Tyler, an African-American jailed for involvement in a murder he swears he didn’t commit. King was another highlight, and written in tribute to American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King. Food For Thought, deriding politicians who make money from other people’s suffering and Little By Little, which is a song about inequality, continued in similar vein. The rest of the album was comprised of instrumentals – mainly because Ali was a reluctant front man and had originally wanted UB40 to be a dub band. Brian’s jazzy sax playing gave this material a different sound to anything else around at that time, either in Britain or Jamaica. UB40 were unique, and a number of influential DJs were quick to recognise the fact.

Robin Valk was the first to play tracks from the album (on Birmingham station BRMB), and then Radio 1 favourite John Peel followed suit in December 1979. This session’s now included on the 30th Anniversary edition of Signing Off, which also includes UB40’s appearance on the Kid Jensen show from February 1980. Shortly afterwards the band embarked on a mini-tour of London, which is when Chrissie Hynde stumbled across them and invited UB40 to support her and the Pretenders on a forthcoming UK tour.

Graduate released UB40’s first single Food For Thought mid-way through that tour and it went to No. 4 in the charts. This was in March 1980. The band were now stars in their own right and so once the tour was finished, they rebooked the same venues with themselves as headliners and then released their second top 10 hit, My Way Of Thinking. To describe their debut album as “eagerly awaited” is an understatement. British audiences couldn’t wait for it to reach the record stores and when it finally arrived in September, Signing Off immediately became one of those albums you heard everywhere – in clubs, bars and at friend’s houses… First pressings were accompanied by a 12” EP containing three extra tracks – Madam Medusa, Strange Fruit and another captivating jazzy, dub/instrumental, mischievously called Reefer Madness.

The band had recorded these tracks at the Music Centre in Wembley, where they had access to 24-track facilities and would soon begin work on their follow-up album, Present Arms. Their inclusion on the 30th Anniversary edition – together with rare television footage, filmed by the BBC as part of the series Rock Goes To College – is guaranteed to delight long-time admirers, as well as shed light on the band’s early history for younger fans.

Signing Off would stay on the UK album charts for nearly eighteen months in total, peaking at No. 2. It sold 100,000 copies within the first few weeks and would soon sell over a million. All of a sudden, that 50% split with Graduate seemed over generous. By the end of 1980, even as The Earth Dies Screaming became their third straight UK Top 10 hit, UB40 and Graduate parted company; not over money disputes, but after Burden Of Shame had mysteriously disappeared from the album in South Africa.

“I was doing an interview with a South African journalist and he said to me, ‘how come you’ve taken Burden Of Shame off the album?’” Robin explains. “I said we haven’t and told him that no one would do that without us knowing about it and believe me, if there was one place in the world we’d want Burden Of Shame to be heard, it was South Africa. But what happened was, Graduate had sanctioned the track to be dropped without consulting us, and we couldn’t stay with them after that.”

UB40 was and still is a democracy, with each member receiving an equal share of the band’s earnings and having an equal say in the decision-making process. Whilst the world is a very different place to how it was back in 1980, it’s reassuring to know that some things never change except believe it or not, Signing Off sounds even better than ever…

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About johnmasouri
John Masouri is a long-time author and music journalist specialising in reggae and its many off-shoots including dub, ska, roots and dancehall. The author of Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley's Wailers, published by Omnibus Press in 2008, he is currently working on a biography of reggae singer Peter Tosh, due to appear next year. In addition to book projects, he continues to write articles and reviews for Reggae Vibes (France), Riddim (Germany) and Echoes - formerly Black Echoes - which is renowned as Britain's No. 1 black music monthly. His work has also appeared in Mojo, Music Week, the Guardian, the Observer and the NME, as well as magazines in the US, Caribbean and Japan.

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