‘I was betrayed by them all’ – says UB40’s front man Ali Campbell
AT THE height of their fame, UB40 topped charts across the globe as they sold more than 70 million records worldwide, cementing their position as Britain’s biggest reggae band. After forming in Birmingham in 1979, the eight-piece remarkably rejected the stereotypes surrounding bands of young musicians – not least those containing siblings – maintaining an almost identical line-up for nearly three decades.
But all that changed in 2008. Front man Ali Campbell quit in a cloud of animosity alongside keyboardist Mickey Virtue (later to be joined by Astro). Meanwhile the remaining five – including Ali’s brother Robin – replaced the frontman with another Campbell brother, Duncan, and a court case ensued as both claimed the right to use the UB40 moniker.
Look closely enough and you’ll see the rivalling groups taking small nibbles at each other. On June 25, team Robin (UB40) will play a 40th anniversary show at the Royal Albert Hall while next month Ali’s outfit (UB40 Featuring Ali, Astro And Mickey) will play the same venue as part of a Teenage Cancer Trust gig.
Coincidental, perhaps. But certainly for Ali, the dust still has not settled.
“I keep seeing Duncan singing my songs on YouTube and words fail me,” he says in a Brummie drawl.
Exhaling, he continues: “I think he’s destroying the legacy of the band and the worst and most embarrassing thing is that people think it’s me, that truly makes my skin crawl.”
He hasn’t spoken to either Robin or Duncan in almost a decade and can’t envision a future in which he would want to.
“F*** em… I was betrayed by them all,” he says.
“There’s not really any point in the me getting back in touch… too much water has gone under the bridge really,” he says.
“We try and ignore them in the hope they go away, it’s as simple as that,” he adds, keen to return to a discussion about his, Astro and Virtue’s new album, the provocatively titled A Real Labour Of Love.
It’s a continuation of the original band’s trio of Labour Of Love albums – reggae covers of big hits. While the last of the original three was released 20 years ago, the “dark side”, as Ali calls them, recorded Labour Of Love IV in 2010.
The first three were covers of songs they had grown up listening to. Think Red Red Wine (1967) and Jimmy Cliff’s Many Rivers To Cross (1969) whereas this record is largely about the tunes they enjoyed as UB40 in the Eighties.
The Everly Brothers’ Ebony Eyes is in there, as is Gregory Isaacs’ Once Ago and Barrington Levy’s Here I Come. But the Eighties formula isn’t rigid – there’s room for Stevie Wonder’s Sixties hit A Place In The Sun.
“Enough time has gone past that we could start covering songs that we listened to when we were in the band,” Ali says. “It’s just a continuation of the first Labour Of Love really because we’ve gone into the Eighties and the electronic reggae age.”
It was a joy for them to return to the Labour Of Love format, he adds, but acknowledges the extra pressure of trying to do songs you love justice. Most terrifying, he says, was recording Beres Hammond’s She Loves Me Now.
“For me he is like the Otis Redding of reggae. He’s an absolute genius. He has been a hero of mine, for 30 years to go in and do a Beres Hammond cover I’m like f***, you are sure?”
With almost four decades of performing in him, it would be easy to assume Ali had shaken off any nerves. But they were there when he covered Hammond, and he admits they still return now ahead of live shows.
“You’ll always find me in the toilets before the gig. You’ve got to be nervous if you’re gonna perform properly, I think if you just walk on and don’t give a sod you’re not going to give a very good performance, are ya,” he says.
A Real Labour Of Love puts Ali and Astro at the helm of an 11-piece band, including former Simply Red member and long-serving trombonist John Johnson, who died of cancer in 2017.
“Ironically he was the fittest bloke out of all of us, probably one of the fittest men I’d ever met really,” says Ali in words later echoed by Astro.
“He was 50 and he had the body of a 25-year-old, he didn’t have a spare ounce of fat, he spent all his time in the gym, his body was his temple, he ate all the right stuff, when we were in the bar he was in the gym.”
“Look, OK, at what is happening to pop at the moment, it’s all reggae,” he says, citing Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, Rihanna and Beyonce.
“Reggae is more influential now than it’s ever been,” he continues. “We’re not having a UB40, or a Sean Paul or a Shaggy moment… it’s bigger than that because the whole of contemporary dance music is informed by Sly Dunbar’s beats and Bogle beats.”
It is the type of conversation Ali could maintain all day. A true reggae fanatic, he claims part of his frustrations with his old bandmates was over the lack of interest they appeared to have in the genre they were working in.
“We were serious about our reggae and I’ve always been obsessed by it,” he says. “But with the dark side there’s several members who literally don’t listen to it.”
“That’s why we had two buses. My bus was the ragga bus where we just played it all day and all night. Then there was the librarian bus where the people who didn’t particularly love reggae, that’s where they sat and read books and did crosswords.
“There was a big divide in the band anyway and I’m happier now, we’re a more bona fide reggae band.”
A Real Labour Of Love is out on March 2.
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