Rival band remains true to its roots in reggae

UB40 have had their ups and downs as well as a major falling out, but they are still performing. Duncan Seaman spoke to Ali Campbell.

ALI Campbell has just returned from Nigeria where he and fellow UB40 members Astro and Mickey Virtue have been performing.

It’s now three months since the trio caused a stir by reuniting to reclaim what they say is the “true sound of UB40”. Six years previously Campbell had angrily quit the reggae band he formed with his brother Robin and friends from Birmingham in 1979.

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His former band mates continued the UB40 name, bringing in his older brother, Duncan, as lead singer. But when, last year, they released an album of country songs, called Getting Over The Storm, Ali Campbell decided enough was enough.

A war of words escalated when a disenchanted Astro left UB40 last November to join Campbell and keyboard player Mickey Virtue in a rival band, which they also decided to call UB40.

Explaining the goings-on since 2008, it’s clear that Campbell, 55, is not about to forgive the “other” UB40.

“I had serious issues with a couple of band members and with the management,” he says of his decision to leave the multi-million-selling group. “I was not getting information that I was entitled to as a director of the company.”

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One argument allegedly centred on a scheme to buy repossessed properties and sell them at a profit. Campbell wanted no part of it. “I thought it was a disgusting thing, living off other families’ misery,” he says. “We are supposed to be socialists.”

In the six years since the break-up, Campbell has scored two further top 20 albums and played concerts all over the world. For the remaining members of UB40 there have been ups and downs. Four of them were declared bankrupt in 2011. “I started this band in 1979 to promote reggae music,” says Campbell. “I sat back for five years and watched my brother Duncan murdering my songs. I put up with that but when they released a country album with steel guitars... I knew Astro did not want to be playing Django Unchained with a cowboy hat. We’re saving the legacy. Let the fans decide if they want to buy a country album or a reggae album, a tribute band or me and Astro.” He likens performing again with Astro to “putting on a pair of old boots”. When he introduced him as a special guest at London’s Indigo O2, he says it “went down brilliantly – it spurred us on to do all these gigs now”.

Campbell had “really missed” his old partner’s skills as an MC, warming up the crowd. It’s a part of the job he finds difficult, he admits. “I mumble when I’m trying to talk. It’s been a learning curve for me. It’s nice to have him back so I can concentrate on what I do best.”

Rhythm Method, the solo album Campbell had nearly completed when the reunion happened, will now be a UB40 record. The original plan for a collection of seven originals and seven cover versions has been changed. It’ll now include “three or four” new tracks featuring Astro, he reveals. One key track is Silhouette, which he recorded at “Mickey Most’s place”, RAK Studios in St Johns Wood. “I knew it as a track by Dennis Brown, the crown prince of reggae,” Campbell says. “Trish, who runs the place, got all dewy-eyed and said, ‘I remember Mickey Most did this song with Herman’s Hermits in 1969 in this room’. I’d brought it home without knowing it.” It will be out in March or April.

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Reggae music remains close to the singer’s heart. “I grew up in a household full of folk music,” he says, with evident distaste. “My dad had the Ian Campbell Folk Group. He had the biggest folk club in Europe. I went the opposite way. We lived in Balsall Heath, and reggae was the music of the streets and in the cafes. I got my first reggae album when I was 10 years old.”

He’s proudest of “what we achieved with UB40 – we sold in reality 100 million CDs”. He also recalls with fondness playing to 80,000 people in Johannesburg shortly after Nelson Mandela had been released from prison. Hearing the crowd respond to the lyrics “Amandla Awethu” was, he says, “pretty special”. “Getting out of Balsall Heath, that was a bit of a high point,” he adds. “I’m still travelling the world. We’re doing what we do best. With Astro, we’re doing it even better.”

UB40 play at the Flashback Festival at Nostell Priory, on Saturday June 14.

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