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Band members are Robin Campbell (guitar, vocals); Ali Campbell (guitar, vocals); Astro (saxophone, vocals); Brian Travers (saxophone); Michael Virtue (keyboards); Jimmy Brown (drums); Norman Hassan (percussion); Earl Falconer (bass). Addresses: Record company-- Virgin Records, Ltd., 9247 Alden Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210.
Almost like a pop-music testament to the postulate that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, the strength of UB40, the enormously successful British reggae band, lies in the strong communal bond that holds its multi-racial membership together. All eight members of the group--brothers Robin and Ali Campbell, who play guitar and sing; singer, trumpeter, and "toaster," or rapper, Astro; saxophonist Brian Travers; keyboardist Michael Virtue; drummer Jimmy Brown; percussionist Norman Hassan, and bassist Earl Falconer--were born and raised in Balsall Heath, a neighborhood in the English Midlands industrial city of Birmingham, an area that has always attracted large numbers of West Indians, Asian Indians, and working-class whites and blacks looking for scarce jobs.
Though times were tough growing up in that neighborhood in the 1960s, Travers told Time 's Jay Cocks: "Don't get the idea that we grew up poor, because we didn't. We didn't go hungry and have holes in our shoes or anything." And rather than being torn apart by large-scale unemployment or racial tension, the members of UB40 came together in those days with the help of music, specifically the charged rhythms of Jamaican reggae and the lyric melodies of Motown that were popular in Balsall Heath. "At the age when you start to form your musical allegiances," Robin Campbell told Rolling Stone, "we were hearing reggae. They used to play it at ear-bleeding volume, so you couldn't help but hear it."
Considering that at the time of UB40's inception none of its members could play an instrument, the birth of the group was somewhat curious. Then seventeen, Ali Campbell "got very drunk and upset somebody," brother Robin told Rolling Stone 's Parke Puterbaugh, "and he got a flying glass in his face." With the money he received from criminal injuries compensation, Ali went out and bought a guitar and drum set, and the others went out and bought instruments for themselves.
What UB40 lacked in musical talent in those early days, they more than made up for with self-confidence and ambition. Embarking on their "master plan," the group, which they named after the all-too-familiar unemployment benefits application form, had plenty of time to practice in a cellar, where they honed their sound and practiced scribbling their soon-to-be-famous autographs on the walls. To avoid becoming merely a local favorite, the band vowed to play its hometown only once every six weeks, and spread word that in the times between they were on the road touring, when in fact they were usually right back in the cellar practicing. The first producer to show genuine interest in UB40 was Bob Lamb, who played the group's demo tape for several influential DJs and eventually got them signed to the Graduate record label. The band's second single, "King," received extensive airplay, and when Chrissie Hynde, lead singer of the path-breaking group Pretenders, heard UB40 playing in a London pub, she invited them to join her band on its upcoming tour.
The exposure brought on by this popular tour catapulted UB40 into instant stardom. Their subsequent album, Signing Off, became the first reggae record to reach the British pop 30, and UB40 has since amassed more than 25 hit singles in the U.K. But in the recording industry, to achieve true stardom and, of course, financial success, the greatest test for a group is whether or not it can conquer America. Strangely, UB40's first foray into the U.S. pop world fell astonishingly flat. "No, no, no, it just doesn't happen this way," Time 's Jay Cocks sarcastically wrote of that ill-fated venture. "Smash Brit band, bedecked with hit singles and platinum albums from abroad, storms U.S. shores in 1983. Plays some concerts, manages to squeeze one hit onto the low midrange of the singles charts, then goes back home. Modest hit single, which had reached the Number 1 spot in twelve other countries, expires from widespread Stateside indifference."
The "modest hit single" Cocks refers to was "Red Red Wine," from the LP Labour of Love, a compilation of all cover songs taken from favorites the band had over the years of listening to reggae. Ironically, "Red Red Wine" was not, like most of the songs on the album, a classic Jamaican reggae hit; rather, it was penned in 1968 by the legendary Tin Pan Alley songwriter Neil Diamond and first covered by Tony Tribe. "Red Red Wine" was a Number 1 single in Britain and a smash hit worldwide, but U.S. audiences strangely shunned it when UB40's new label, A & M Records, released it in 1983. Meanwhile, in the ensuing years the group released two critically acclaimed albums of original songs, Rat in the Kitchen (1986) and UB40 (1988), which were both, again, well-received in the U.K. and hardly noticed in the U.S.
In fact, UB40's breakthrough in the American market did come finally in 1988, but it had nothing to do with either of these fine albums. Rather, it came with a lot of luck, by way of the whim of Phoenix radio station KZZP which, for some strange reason, put the five-year-old single "Red Red Wine" on its playlist in May of that year. By August, the song was the station's Number 1 requested single, and other album-rock stations around the country began playing the record with such success that A & M decided to re-release it. By October "Red Red Wine" was the Number 1 song on the Billboard charts. This belated success left some of the band members admittedly a little confused and ambivalent about the U.S. market, but as Astro told Rolling Stone, "Who cares? As long as it's a hit, I'll accept it."
Labour of Love received more belated honors when it was named among Rolling Stone 's Top 100 albums of the 1980s. The emphasis in making that record, Robin Campbell told the magazine, was to reestablish reggae as an enjoyable musical form in its own right, rather than merely a vehicle for religious or political messages as it had come to be known since Bob Marley's Rastafarian days. Campbell said that before Marley, reggae was simply a form of Jamaican pop music, meant for dancing and feeling good. "It's African and calypso rhythms fused together with American rhythm and blues. All it's ever been is homemade pop music, and it just gets up my nose when people start talking about reggae as a political or religious music."
But that does not explain the overtly political and social flavor of much of UB40's original music. Indeed, the band often targets the harshness of capitalism and racism and the injustice in South Africa. Perhaps this is why UB40 was extended an invitation to play a short tour in the Soviet Union in 1986, an experience that may have opened the band's eyes a little about life in that country. For instance, though the concerts were sold out everywhere, the fans, under the watchful eyes of special security police, were not allowed to dance to the music; and when the band members spoke directly to the audience about the meaning in a particular song, the Soviet translator often misconstrued their meaning to make it less "controversial." "There'd have to be some pretty strong persuasion to make me come back here," a frustrated Robin Campbell told Rolling Stone.
UB40 instead likes to make itself a little commune. The band members all still live in Balsall Heath, albeit in nicer houses, and the democratic make-up of the group has created only one strict rule: "Do what you do easiest." And in 1988 the group got together to realize the ultimate dream of all boyhood chums when they purchased 270 acres of land on an island south of Jamaica. "We thought, 'Why don't we buy a place and build ourselves a bunch of houses and a shop and a bar and just have our own little community?'" Robin told Rolling Stone. "Sounds like fun to me."
by David Collins
Reggae; group assembled in Birmingham, England, 1977; cut demo tape with producer Bob Lamb; signed with Graduate record label; toured with rock group Pretenders, 1980; single "King" made U.K. Top 30, 1980; parted with Lamb and Graduate to form own record label, Dep International, 1980; toured the United States, 1983; single "Red Red Wine" reached Number 1 on U.S. charts, 1988.
- Selective Works
- Signing Off Graduate, 1980.
- Present Arms Dep International.
- Labour of Love A & M, 1983.
- Geffrey Morgan A & M, 1984.
- Rat in the Kitchen A & M, 1986.
- UB40 A & M, 1988.
- Clifford, Mike, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Black Music, Harmony Books, 1982.
- Rolling Stone, October 9, 1986; December 4, 1986; December 1, 1988; November 16, 1989.
- Time, October 31, 1988.
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