Will the real UB40 please stand up
How did it feel being replaced by your brother [Duncan] in your own band?
Ali Campbell: It was ridiculous. I was a founding member in 1979 and Duncan was never interested in being in the band. When I left UB40 it was on his advice. I was trying to get information out of the management and Duncan’s advice was “down tools and they’ll have to give you what you’re after”. When I took his advice Duncan joined the band.
Did he let you know beforehand?
AC: No he phoned up after the fact, very drunk, and asked for my blessing which I didn’t give him. I said, “I can’t tell you what to do. I’m very disappointed in you, Duncan”. That was the last time I spoke to him.
Mickey, do you regret following Ali out of the band?
Mickey Virtue: I know what Ali’s trying to achieve and I’m 100 percent behind it. When we left the band we thought we were forcing their hand and they’d come to their senses. Sometimes you have to get out of the forest to see the trees and now that we’ve seen them it doesn’t look too nice. The one thing that was unifying us all was our love for reggae music.
AC: That’s why it was such a blow when the oldsters did a country album. They were destroying the legacy of my old band. That’s why now that Astro has come with me.
Astro, how difficult was leaving the band to join up with Ali?
Astro: It was like falling back on dry land. It made it easier that the last album UB40 released was a country album. That’s just not what I’m in to. When we started out it was to popularise reggae music and we’re still on that same mission.
AC: Personally, I think it has been horrible watching Duncan sing my songs – the songs that made UB40 famous – I’m not being horrible it’s just a fact. He doesn’t know or understand reggae.
Do you feel angry or bitter or sad about it… or accepting even?
AC: Well its old news now. The new news is that Astro is back and we’ve taken the name UB40 back. I’m over the whole split. Ultimately all that matters is the music.
When Pink Floyd split there was a legal battle about who owned the name. Was that something you considered?
AC: The thing is, UB40 is a government registration form you need to keep your dole money, not a name. We own a few trademarks and the other lot own a few so they haven’t got a leg to stand on. The fact that I’m the original lead singer means we’re UB40 as far as I’m concerned – and the fact that we’re still playing reggae music.
MV: I think you’ll find that they’re not gonna do anything with the law because they’re hiding stuff and they don’t want it to come out.
It’s astonishing that after your success, UB40 got to the stage where bankruptcy was declared. That’s some bad business.
AC: That’s bad management.
MV: I call it fraud.
Do you get much critical acclaim from within the reggae community?
AC: Yeah! We always have done. UB40 was always accepted by Jamaicans and Jamaican musicians. It was only white middle class journalists that had a problem with us.
Did that frustrate you?
AC: Well we were on a mission to promote reggae. We’re still on that mission.
What was it that made you so passionate about the music and about taking it out of Birmingham to the World?
A: We all grew up in Birmingham where there’s a large West Indian community and there were always blues house parties. We’d sneak out of our bedrooms, run down the road, listen to some music for a couple of hours then sneak back in. Sometimes we got caught but it didn’t really matter because the music was so infectious, that to me, it was worth getting told off or even having a beating. We always believed that if the general public could listen to the songs that we grew up listening to they’d fall in love with reggae music the same way we did.
Back then, Mickey and Ali, being skinny white guys, was there any issue with being accepted as real reggae fans?
AC: Because I was only 10 or 11-years-old I was tolerated. I was a little kid running round dancing to blues music. I was never a threat to anybody.
Do you talk much about the old days?
MV: Not really ’cos we’re still living it.
AC: We didn’t grow up… It’s very strange.
You haven’t had to slow down a little?
AC: Now we go to bed at a decent hour because the body doesn’t bend like it used to. Other than that nothing has really changed. We’re still the same people with the same interests… still drinking like we used to.
Internationally, Bob Marley’s probably bigger than the Beatles, would you agree?
A: Not everybody understands English but a bassline can contain more than a thousand words. Reggae’s a universal language that everyone can understand.
AC: It’s the music of peace and love and unity.
What current music can you recommend from the reggae world?
AC: I absolutely love Snoop Lion’s ‘Reincarnated’. It’s great that a hip-hop giant like him is discovering reggae music.
MV: I quite like Shaggy.
Why do you think that rap became so big in the US and reggae stayed more niche?
AC: Black Americans couldn’t really identify with Rastafari. It’s only now that people like Snoop are saying, “We get it now”.
So when you think about it, it’s incredible that UB40 lasted this long
AC: We’re just starting out.
The story of how a band split down the middle
In 1978 the eight original members of UB40 formed around brothers Ali and Robin Campbell in Birmingham. The band had untold success, selling 70million albums worldwide with hit covers of ‘Red Red Wine’, ‘I Got You Babe’ and ‘(I Can’t Help) Falling in Love with You’. But in 2008, front man Ali and Mickey (on keyboard) split from the group to work on Ali’s solo career. Duncan – Ali and Robin’s elder brother – then took Ali’s place as lead singer. Five years later, trumpeter and vocalist Astro defected to Ali and Mickey’s band. As three of the founding members of the original band, they began touring also under the name UB40. On February 4 this year both bands announced gigs in Dubai that would take place just one month apart. The UB40 fronted by Duncan played The Big Grill, at Emirates Golf Club in February, while Ali’s UB40 will play at the Irish Village this week on April 3.
By Jeremy Lawrence/ Milo Johnson
UB40 at The Irish Village, theirishvillage.com