UB40’s debut album Signing Off was released in August 1980 and is considered by many to be one of the greatest reggae albums ever released by a British band. It was the start of a career that led to 100 million record sales worldwide, 40 UK Top 40 hits and a run of albums that have spent a combined period of 11 years in the UK’s Top 75 album chart, establishing them as one of Britain’s most successful bands of all time. Here founding member Jimmy Brown talks racism, Thatcher and the 2019 UB40 tour with Sam Bennett.
I tell Jimmy Brown this is our Best of British issue, owing to the Queen’s birthday among other things. “Never been a royalist myself,” says the UB40 drummer, “but there you go.” He doesn’t need to be to answer my question: if you had to sell Britain to an alien from a faraway planet, how would you do it in these very complex times? “I think England – not necessarily Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland – is going through an identity crisis. We’ve got to decide: are we a bunch of knuckle-dragging gammons who hate foreigners, or are we a progressive, diverse, forward-thinking country? In the end, the progressive side has got to win because that’s the future. But we’ve got that old racist rump hanging on; it’s been there since the 60s.” Born in 1957, he remembers election campaign slogans such as, ‘If you want a coloured for a neighbour, vote Labour.’ Today’s “gammons are only a minority”, he continues, before saying he should perhaps refrain from using that term. “Old, white, racist people get upset when you call them gammons.”
Comprising reggae loving kids who went to school together, in 1978 UB40 formed in Birmingham, well known for its multiculturalism. “If you look at the ethnic makeup of the band, you’ll see there’s complete diversity.” Brown sat in class next to children of the Windrush generation. “Inner-city Birmingham – that’s where they settled and that’s where we lived. My school was a wonderful mix of Asian, Arab, Caribbean, Irish and working-class English. It was a very privileged upbringing.”
The band emerged in the years of prog and glam rock; music “inaccessible to most normal inner-city kids. Reggae was accessible because it was simple music, I’m not saying it’s easy, but there’s a simplicity to it that invites you in. It’s not keeping you at a distance with its virtuosity, it’s down to earth music people can relate to. For us it was a way into playing music. And most of our friends were from the Caribbean, or their parents were […] we were reggae fans.” Thus, their becoming a reggae group happened quite naturally.
It didn’t all come together musically straight away, did it? I say, having gathered there was quite a lot of practice before they took to the stage. “You say a lot, but really we’d only been playing our instruments six months before we started gigging, and then six months after that we were supporting big acts like The Pretenders and The Police.” By the end of the 1980 tour with the Chrissie Hynde-fronted former, UB40 had released their first single, ‘Food for Thought’, which reached number 4. “It was no looking back really from that point. I’m not sure what would have happened without Chrissie taking us on tour when she did, maybe we’d still be obscure.
“It was inspiring to have somebody to hate that much,” he says when I bring up Thatcher. “It inspired our songwriting, that’s for sure, and still does in some ways. It was a time of turmoil, and now that the dust has settled, I think we were absolutely right to say that the roots she put down have ended up with the situation we’re in now; expensive housing, a housing crisis, a banking crisis. Thatcherism came home to roost in the 2008 financial crash, and we haven’t recovered from it really. We said it would end in tears and that’s where we are now.”
Regarding where UB40 are currently, this year a 40th anniversary tour will take them to almost 40 UK venues. Brown will grace the stage with other founding members Robin Campbell, Brian Travers, Earl Falconer and Norman Hassan. Long-term members Duncan Campbell, Martin Meredith, Laurence Parry and Tony Mullings will also be present. It’s not exactly the original line-up. Their initial frontman Ali Campbell left about a decade ago to pursue a solo career. Working under his own name didn’t go as well as he’d hoped, Brown says. “Then he started using the name UB40 again to sell tickets. We don’t think that’s fair, it’s making it seem like UB40 are playing, and we’re not; it’s a completely different band. Yet he’s not really saying that on his posters and we think that’s misleading to the public. We’re the original musicians on every record, original songwriters. Ali just sang them – he wrote one in 40 years. We’re a little bit miffed, let’s put it that way. But in the end we’re quite happy where we are now,” he concludes, pointing out how miserable Campbell was prior to leaving UB40, “and he’s got to be happy where he is. So, I think we can all enjoy the fact that there are two different sources of music people can tap into. We just want to stop him using the name. We've been chasing him up, trying to get him into court, and he’s been wriggling for however long.”
They toured a few years back. This one’s bigger. “40 dates is quite a lot to do in England, it’s only a small place. We’re cramming them in. We love doing it, and we’re completely comfortable on stage, we know exactly what we’re doing, we have fun, we have a party every night.” They were always “a live band”, he says. Though unsure of how the music business operates these days, he reckons “in the end you will always be better off being able to play live. Anyone can make a record, but not anyone can just get up on stage and sound good. As far as I’m concerned, we sound better live than we do on the record.” It’s because there’s chemistry there, he points out. After all, “We’re a band of mates.”
7 April | Cheltenham Town Hall
27 April | Roundhouse, London
21 May | Aylesbury Waterside Theatre
Full tour list: ub40specialguests.seetickets.com