NAMED AFTER an unemployment benefit form, pop-reggae band UB40 was formed in 1978. The original eight band members, all from Birmingham, appealed to dissatisfied youths with their very own style of Reggae. Today, moving into a third decade of success with the original, multiracial line-up still intact, apart from U2, it’s hard to think of a leading group with a career as long and unblemished.
The band, brothers Robin (lead guitar) and Ali Campbell (guitar, lead vocals), bassist Earl Falconer, keyboardist Michael Virtue, saxophonist Brian Travers, drummer James Brown, percussionist Norman Hassan, and Astro (vocals), consolidated their street credibility with their relaxed and sophisticated music concerning the social and political topics of the day.
Their introduction to the music world came after John Peel heard their demo tape on Robin Valk’s BRMB show. He was so impressed that he arranged a session on Radio One, broadcast in January 1980. Following this broadcast, they were asked to join The Pretenders national tour – UB40 were on their way to success.
Their first single, a double-A side Food for Thought and King was released while touring; it reached number four in the UK charts.
Only nine months after their first album, Signing Off, they released their second, Present Arms, and, in September 1983, UB40 released the album they’d been planning since the start. It was a direct tribute to the musicians who had inspired and influenced them – the title Labour Of Love said it all. It included the astonishingly popular single, Red Red Wine, the album was in the British chart for two years, gave them their first worldwide hit and eventually their first American number one. Future hits, I Got You Babe and Can’t Help Falling in Love continued to win them global success.
UB40 have maintained their recognisable, distinctive style and have achieved their goal of popularising reggae, or at least their own distinctive brand of the genre. Staying faithful to reggae, they have also remained true to their West Midlands roots. Their latest album, Cover Up, was recorded in their own Birmingham studio and continues to explore the blend of personal and political ideas, which has always been one of their hallmarks. UB40 have never been afraid of battling the big issues either, and they do so once again with the title track, a song about the AIDS epidemic in Africa.
For the group, the music they discovered in the late sixties and early seventies is as vibrant today as it was back then. From the moment they turned down the opportunity to release a one-off single on the 2-Tone label, UB40 have retained a down-to-earth view of the pop world, steering clear of musical trends and now, with music being more racially integrated than in the late 70s, it looks as if the rest of the pop world has finally caught up with this pioneering act.
• UB40 will be playing at the Coliseu de Recreios in Lisbon on July 21, at 9pm. Tickets are available from the Coliseu, Fnac Stores and ABEP agencies. You can also visit www.ticketline.pt