Arguably the most successful reggae band in the world, UB40 have enjoyed a triumphant musical career that has taken them all over the world, performing in countless venues to audiences of thousands. This year, to mark the band’s 40th anniversary, UB40 will release a much-anticipated new album featuring original tracks, and will continue to perform live shows around the globe. Since the band started in 1978, UB40 have impressively produced 39 UK Top 40 hit singles, spent a total of 6 weeks at number one, and have accumulated 238 weeks in the UK Top 40 charts. From the very beginning, the band has been renowned for creating music with a cause.

Famous hits such as One in Ten and Sing Our Own Song are but a few of the band’s songs that embody the collective and widespread feeling of the times they were created in. Today, the band remains at the forefront of the reggae music scene, creating tracks that reflect the socio-political climate of 2018. We caught up with original member Robin Campbell over a few games of pool, ahead of UB40’s new album release and the second leg of their huge tour. 

Firstly, how was the Cities & Towns tour last year? You’ve been all the way over to Australasia recently, haven’t you?

Yeah, we’ve been all over. We’ve toured throughout UK actually; we played shows in Birmingham, London, Scotland – the only place we haven’t been is Ireland.

Do you still enjoy touring?

I’d stop doing it if I didn’t. Yeah, I love it. It has become a way of life. We’ve never stopped touring really. We had a couple of years off in the mid-90s, but that was after a particularly long period of touring around the world. We toured for six years and went around the world three or four times. We were exhausted! But, other than that, we have constantly recorded and toured for the last 30-odd years. 

How do you create set lists with 40 years’ worth of music?

With great difficulty. It is really difficult. We have the luxury of having a lot of hits to choose from, but really people want to hear the same hits. It’s always the ‘Red Red Wines’ and the ‘Can’t Help Falling in Loves’. You know, the ‘Labour of Love’ tunes. We try to shuffle it around and change the songs to keep us interested by putting in a few that we might not have played in say…10 years. On the set that we’ve just done, I put in a few [songs] that people have always asked us for. It doesn’t matter what you play, someone will always say, ‘You didn’t play my favourite.’ Over the years you build a little mental list of popular songs. It’s me that puts the set together. 

Oh, do you?

Yeah, yeah. If we all tried to do it there’d be too many arguments, because there’s half a dozen of us. But generally, they leave it to me and then say, ‘That’s quite a good set that is.’ 

[Laughs] You have some new music coming - Earl [Falconer] has written a few tracks for the new album. How does the creative process within the band work?

Well, lyrically we work on our own stuff. Myself, Jimmy [James Brown] and Brian [Travers] are the three main lyricists. Earl has done a few tracks for this album, and Norman [Hassan] has done a couple before. So, yeah generally when it comes to writing lyrics we write our own. But, with the music, we don’t necessarily write it; we create music by jamming. We play together until we get something we like and then we’ll try to fit our lyrics to it. [Laughs] It’s that simple really. It’s a very long-winded process, I guess. In other bands people work separately and bring whole songs to the band. But, that tends to then be what one person wants, whereas we enjoy the collaborative effort. We like the end result that comes from us pulling in half a dozen different directions. 

How long has it taken to pull all of your ideas together for this album?

Too long. Because we are still working so hard on the road, we don’t get an awful lot of studio time. It’s taken much longer than expected. It’s been several years since we first started working on the album, but in reality we’ve only been in the studio for a few months because the rest of the time we are gigging. 

I guess when you get back from the road you just want to spend time with your families.

You just want to ‘veg’ to be honest. It really is hard to get people back into the studio when everyone gets home. Everyone is just shattered and wants to recharge their batteries. It’s been difficult…a bit torturous. That’s why it’s taken us so long – it’s never taken us this long to make an album. Ever. But we do love being in the studio. We love the creative process – that’s what keeps your juices flowing. It can enthuse and reignite you. 

It must be difficult to get the right balance between performing live and reaching the fans that way, and meeting the demands to create new music in the studio. 

Exactly, and you can’t really earn money from records anymore because of the ‘downloading thing’. Even if people download music legally, you earn very little per download. Most of the time, our fans especially, people seem to download them illegally. [Laughs] 


Which is not great for you.

No, we earn nothing. So, it’s sad, but you try not to spend too much time making albums because you know you’re not going to make the money back. In the old days, making records was how you earned money and you toured to promote the album. Whereas now, you make an album just to stay current, just to say, ‘We’ve got some new material.’ But the money is on the road now.

Do you think that’s one of the major changes to have happened within the music industry since you began in the late 70s?

It’s the major change really – the destruction of record sales. In the old days, we could sell 100, 000 albums before an album’s release. If you did that now, you would have the biggest selling record for weeks. It’s just a different market altogether now. There are so many bands that are our contemporaries that stopped touring years ago. But, because their income streams have dried up (because there are no record sales anymore), they’ve got no back catalogue sales; they suddenly don’t have the sort of pensions they’ve been expecting. So, they’re thinking, ‘Err, we have to go back on the road lads.’ Suddenly you have all these 80s bands touring that haven’t been doing it for maybe…20 years. Even bands like Black Sabbath – I was talking to Toni Iommi a few years back and he said that their back catalogue sales have completely dried up because of illegal downloads. I think that was a band [Black Sabbath] that thought they never had to go back on the road again and then suddenly, like so many other bands, they’ve had to.

That’s the great thing about your collaboration with PledgeMusic.You’re publishing so many previews and video clips online to keep your fans constantly updated. Do you think you’ve reached a younger demographic by creating so much online content? 

I think so, yeah. 

You’ve got a huge age range within your fan base in general. 

Well, that never ceases to amaze me; how many young fans we’ve got. A lot of that is to do with the way our Facebook works as well. Matt [Campbell] runs our social media pages, and he’s a lot younger than we are, so he understands all of the ‘online stuff’. We get three generations of people at our shows - that’s fabulous! I guess that’s why we have the longevity, that’s why we’re still here. We not only have a very loyal hard-core fan base that are now in their 50s and 60s, but we have fans of all ages, right down to teenagers. When I was younger the last thing you wanted to hear was what your parents were playing, you know what I mean? You looked for something completely different. My father was a professional folk musician and the last thing I wanted to have anything to do with was folk music. [Laughs] It didn’t mean I couldn’t do it or didn’t enjoy it, but to do that as a profession felt alien to me. I wanted to be a musician and I wanted to play reggae, and my dad couldn’t understand that at all. [He would say] ‘Where the hell has that come from?’ And it came from the fact that I lived in Balsall Heath, Birmingham and I was surrounded by reggae and Jamaican pop music. I was listening to ska and it was the music that I loved, and that’s what I grew up on really.  

Was becoming a musician something you had always wanted to do?

Even when we were kids we always used to speak about it. We always sang, (there are four brothers in our family), and we always harmonised. We thought we were Balsall Health’s answer to the Jackson 5. I remember when we went to see Bob Marley in 1976 - basically that was when I decided what I wanted to do for a living. I said to my kid brother at the time, ‘If you’re ever serious about it just let me know.’ Finally, in the summer of ’78 he decided to give it a go. It was basically our social circle, our mates, which were in the band. We never advertised for musicians because we were self-taught. We all decided that whoever had jobs gave them up to give the band their full-time attention. We just committed to it and learnt to play together.

Is it true that you decided to form UB40 before some members could even play instruments?

Yeah! I think only two of us could actually play. I had been playing guitar since I was a kid and Brian had been having sax lessons for six months or so – he wanted to be a sax player from the start. That was the only thing that was decided; that I was the guitar player and Brian was the sax player. And Ali [Campbell] always wanted to be the drummer! We kept saying to him, ‘You can’t be the drummer, you have to be the singer!’ He kept saying, ‘I wanna be the drummer!’ Finally, Jimmy got the drums and Ali was forced, really by all of us, to be the frontman.

[Laughs] Earl has created a new track entitled ‘Bulldozer’ all about Trump. Your songs often have left-wing political subtexts - is this something that continues in the new album?

It’s always been there in our music, apart from the Labour of Love series that feature covers of love songs. We’ve always had a political element to our lyrics, almost every song features some kind of anti-establishment, definitely anti-right-wing, anti-Tory context and our nemesis was always [Margaret] Thatcher. And now it’s…any of them really. 

Maybe that’s why you’re reaching younger generations too, because in recent years youths are becoming more politicised and are attempting to have their voices heard. 

About time too! I remember a time when music wasn’t political; the protest element of music just seemed to have been lost, which was a great shame throughout the 90s. Pop music of the day was escapist. The recent surge in the politicisation of young people…a lot of it will be down to [Jeremy] Corbyn. He’s almost ‘messiah-like’ in the way that younger generations have received him - it’s fantastic. 

Would you say that political music is definitely making a comeback? 

Yeah! Definitely. I think it’s becoming acceptable again. I think to be politicised and politically aware is very important. The state of austerity and what it’s done to people…I think people are embarrassed. I think people have just been woken up, especially young people. And then of course you have the rise of ‘the Trump’ – it’s unbelievable he’s been voted in. The fact that they [America] are the most powerful country in the world means that people have genuinely been frightened for our future…and about time. 


You’ve always been involved in community-led projects – UB40 played a gig for the Rainbow Pub in Digbeth a few years back, for example. Obviously the band’s name itself is a political statement…

On a general note, at the very beginning in the late 80s, a lot of our gigs were Against Racism gigs. The Stand Against Racism movement was big. We played for the miners when they were on strike. We’ve always been involved in that kind of thing. We observed the South African Cultural Boycott for 20 years and refused to play there. We were even recognised for our stance, and got an award for not playing there! And then, when we did finally go in ’94, which was over 14 years after we started playing, we broke the live record. We still hold the live record there today. We played to ‘200-and-something thousand’ people in three days (sic). And that was three football stadiums, 70, 000 people each night. That record has never been equalled since. That’s because people were aware of our stance in South Africa and valued that. 

You’ve played so many gigs over the years at incredible venues with UB40. Are there any particular live shows that stand out for you?

Definitely playing in South Africa. It was the most moving set of gigs I’ve ever played. After having observed the Cultural Boycott for 20 years and to then go and play there with apartheid finished and Mandela president…there was an atmosphere of hope in the country – which, has unfortunately dissipated since – but at the time it was amazing. Sing Our Own Song was a song written for black South Africans, to have 70, 000 people singing the lyrics back to you is indescribable. Yeah, that turned my knees to jelly and gave me goose bumps. There are just so many highlights…playing Madison Square Gardens too. It only has a capacity of around 16, 000, but it’s an iconic gig. To have ‘the Gardens’ sold out and a number one record at the same time, that was pretty special. 

And what about Birmingham? How does it feel to be back playing in your home city after touring the world?

We played at Genting Arena back in December and we hadn’t played there for a few years, and it was just fabulous to be back there and have a brilliant crowd. Birmingham is quite famous for being a horrible place to play. 

Is it? I didn’t know that. [Laughs]

Yeah! People hate playing Birmingham because Brummie crowds are supposed to be miserable. But actually, our Birmingham crowds are fantastic. As I say we’ve got three generations of fans, plus we’ve got hundreds of family members and friends in the audience and it’s always fantastic to come back and play Birmingham. We have played thousands of shows, but Brummie crowds are always great. [Laughs] 

How does your new album compare to your previous work? Getting Over The Storm had a country vibe to it, is this reflected in the new songs?

[Laughs] Well, that was just a one off really, we gave it a try because we did a cover of a country song with Robert Palmer in the early 90s that was never released. Whoever controls Palmer’s publishing wouldn’t let us release the song with Robert’s vocals, so we had to re-record it. Our manager said, ‘Why don’t you do an album of country songs?’ And we thought it was a good idea, because we’ve all got a favourite country song. Then people said, ‘Oh they’ve turned into a country band.’ But it was one album with country songs. It’s still reggae; it’s still UB40. This album doesn’t have any steel guitar and it doesn’t have any country songs featured on it. It’s back to being standard UB40 material. 

It’s UB40’s 40th anniversary this year in June. Do you have any major events planned to commemorate this date?

We are playing a few shows at the Albert Hall in London, and we are just starting to think about these gigs actually. It would be nice to get some Special Guests for the London shows. 

Finally, I’d love to know who your musical influences are?

Obviously Bob Marley inspired me to want to become a reggae musician, but I’m inspired by all reggae artists. I listen, almost exclusively, to reggae. I do listen to R&B too. I tend to listen nostalgically; I listen to a lot of the stuff I grew up listening to. It doesn’t mean I don’t listen to new records; I’ve got a son who plays me current stuff all of the time. He’s constantly bringing new artists to me and saying, ‘Have you heard this?’ I’m well into (sic) contemporary artists like The Chronics. But, one single artist does not influence me. I’m wide open to everything. I like good music, and I listen to all sorts of music, but my true love will always be reggae. If I’m in the right mood I can listen to Nat King Cole or Michael Bublé though! [Laughs]




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