After forty years of great reggae music, UB40 is still going strong. The British reggae band is known for their many original hit songs as well as their covers, (they’re classic cover “Red, Red, Wine” can still be heard playing on the radio to the enjoyment of many). With yet another jam-packed tour, the band is on the road from city to city, pleasing crowds of three generations. All singing back to them, every word of their classic songs.
Producing original music like clockwork every decade across over two dozen albums, how does the classic band continue to do it? Well, I got a chance to interview the legendary British reggae band to discuss their music, favorite performances, and what keeps them winning fans over with great music after forty years.
HC: Not a lot of bands can continue with the success that you guys have had. UB40 is still going strong for over 30 years. It seems you guys really love the music. Does your passion for performing live keep you going? Songwriting? Or are you all just soul mates?
Jimmy Brown: “Yeah well, ya know it’s all those things. Really ya know obviously you get a certain amount of pleasure from getting up on stage and performing. I’d miss that I think if we weren’t doing it.
Duncan Campbell: “I don’t think anybody has any aspirations to do anything else. As long as people, if you’re lucky enough to have people still wanna come see you, you’re gonna carry on aren’t you? Mostly.
JB: “I mean and that’s what happened to us really over the length of the band is that we got up on stage February 1979 or whatever it was, and we got a great response from the audience. And we’ve been doing that ever since, ya know. And if the response stops being great, then I suppose we’ll stop doing it. But it hasn’t stopped yet.
HC: Your band is still going strong today, and I still hear your songs on the radio all the time. (Specifically, your hit Red, Red Wine.) Your songs are such a wonderful mix of Reggae and Pop. Did you always know you wanted to be a reggae band?
JB: Yeah, Yeah there was never any consideration of doing anything else. We were always gonna do reggae. But of course you have to go back to the history of England at the time. We’re talking early 70s, which was our formative years, and you had, on the one hand you had a Glam rock and Prog rock ya know? But for us, young kids in the city kids, that wasn’t really anything that was of any interest. Ya know, Reggae was really something we could latch onto.
DC: Yeah only because we were in a very multiracial city. UB40 aren’t a strange malformation of people. They’re a normal handful that you would have scooped up where we came from. Ya know any eight kids would look pretty much the same.
JB: We’re brought up in the inner city and in those days it was a melting pot rather than a kettle. You had a lot of different people, as you can see by the make-up of the band.
HC: That’s wonderful.
JB: We went to school together that’s the point. It’s not forced ya know? We’re just a bunch of mates.
HC: Do you have a favorite moment on tour? Or a favorite performance?
JB: There’s loads ya know. Doing South Africa as soon as the culture boycott was dropped. We were one of the first bands to go over there to play in the post culture boycott South Africa. I think we still hold the record for the biggest show ever. I think it [was] a hundred thousand people, and that was singing our own songs back to us. It was obvious there was some resonance for us in South Africa, we had no idea but it turned out we were really popular ya know so. And we wrote a song for the ANC called “Sing Our Own Song”, which we’ll be performing tonight, and that was like an anthem that was adopted by progressives.
DC: And they were all singin’ it back too.
JB: And they were all singing it back to us. Yeah, yeah.
HC: So they knew you at heart. They really did.
JB: Yeah, absolutely, and also, there’s the- (he stumbles his words a bit) -I’ve been with the– (touches Duncan’s shoulder, joking) -Duncan’s only been with us for twelve years so, so we haven’t got the same amount altogether.
(Duncan laughs, and leans forward from his relaxed position)
DC: (Sarcastically) Only twelve.
Me: Oh no! That’s a lot.
JB: There’s also ya know, playing sold out Madison Square Garden when we got a #1 album and #1 single in America. It doesn’t get much better than that. Ya know? That was a nice experience.
Me: Perfect. So, how do you think your music has evolved since the band first started in 1978? It’s still reggae pop.
DC: Well we’re congratulating ourselves on having made a new album that sends – that sounds very similar to, if you think of it, a follow-up to the second album (he turns to Jimmy) you ever made. It fits in just nicely. Which was exactly what we were going for; we wanted to do exactly that. So no, it hasn’t developed at all really.
(He leans forward and lets out a big laugh)
JB: It hasn’t really. Well it’s developed in as much as, we’re better at doing it now when we started. We were kind of enthusiastic amateurs. Were as now we tried them all and we’ve learned our trade. We know what we’re doing.
HC: And you guys are sort of keeping the classics alive in a way. I mean you have your covers too.
DC: Yeah, that was a project that ran through the groove of the band and ya know. But it doesn’t represent what, ya know, what the band we’re about initially. But yeah, it’s another string to the bow isn’t it? And it’s certainly been very successful.
HC: So, songwriting. I’m a songwriter myself so I know how hard it can be to write a song, or sometimes it can be really easy in a wave of inspiration. So, how does the band go about writing a song?
DC: Everybody’s different. I mean, anyone can write lyrics and throw them in the middle. Like, they may have a tune for it, they may not, ya know? Band jam us together and stick in the backing tracks and so on and along the way, lyrics and the backing tracks get muddied up and –
JB: It’s kind of an organic process, its – there’s no –
DC: There’s no rules
JB: There’s no hard lines. But luckily there’s so many of us. Somebody’s gonna come up with something.
HC: Yeah, you guys said you would keep playing basically as long as the fans love you, and they obviously do. A sold-out performance? But, do you still have goals as a band? How do you guys keep your motivation?
DC: Well it’s difficult too, in that, in the sense that the business has changed so much. I mean, suddenly record sales sell by […] compared to how they were in the 70s and 80s. But I mean – goals. Do you have any goals?
(He turns to Jimmy)
JB: Well, ya know, yeah. I mean you always wanna get better, you wanna get better at what you do. And every night ya know –
DC: That’s the goal really. To be honest, is to, each night, when you’re doing a show.
JB: Ya know you want perfection, but you don’t get it.
DC: You do wanna put on a good show. Nothing worse than coming off thinking you weren’t doing your best.
HC: Definitely. But also, since you did do so many cover albums, if you had to do a cover album now – to cover some new artists – is there anyone you have your eye on?
DC: Well, ya see the thing is the cover albums – “Labour of Love”, they’re only four albums out of twenty.
JB: Twenty something, speaking of albums. Ya, I think exactly 21st [with] the new album.
DC: And those four albums were all concerned with covering the same time and same years that you see. Cause it was all about the birth of reggae in Jamaica and those hits that got us all into reggae. Those hits that we listened to when we were teenagers. We weren’t covering a Neil Diamond record, we were covering a Tony Tribe number that had been a big hit in the Jamaican charts, and in our community. Ya know, because we were mixed with a Jamaican community. So it was never a case of ya know –
JB: Just any old cover.
DC: We have done a few of those here and there, but in general, that was not, the “Labour of Love” project ya know? The “Labour of Love” project was concerned with reggae hits over a sort of five year period.
JB: Yeah, sixty-eight to seventy-eight was I think the time period.
DC: Which is the perfect reggae you see. So it’s not the case of who you’d like to cover. I think we kind of exhausted that project. But there’s nothing to stop us doing cover versions of anything we like really.
JB: But the album before that –
DC: The album we got now has only got one cover on it of an old reggae hit, but the album we did before – as Jim was just about to say – was an experiment in doing versions of American country songs which we’re still playing a couple of now. “Blue Eyes” from Willie Nelson and uh – I forgot the –
(Jimmy jumps in)
JB: – Midnight Rider. The classic American 60s song. (He lifts both his hands up for emphasis in excitement) Midnight Rider by…
DC: The so-and-so brothers.
JB: No, the Doobie Brothers.
DC: No, no it’s not them. No no. It’s country isn’t it?
JB: No, yeah. Of course, yeah.
DC: But anyway, that album was an experiment that we enjoyed and was proud of, but we were sort of not for it a bit, ya know? And that’s kind of why we – with this album – we wanted to get back to our roots and the stuff that the fans really wanted out. Especially the hard-core fans.
JB: Yeah. We wanted the music to be heavier and the politics to be heavier as well in some ways. So it’s kind of hard to put it all in a heavy dub album.
HC: I mean you’ve done over a dozen albums; you should be proud of that.
DC: Twenty-six, I think twenty-six.
HC: Yeah, that’s a lot.
JB: It’s quite a few ya.
HC: You should be proud of that. So, no more covers well not ‘no more covers’ but –
DC: No, no more “Labour of Love”. I don’t think, I don’t think we’re gonna do [another] “Labour of Love” album. As I say from that period of reggae. But ya, covers come and go. It’s not off the table.
JB: To be honest as a drummer I don’t care who writes the song.
HC: Yeah, I just hear your songs – “Red Red Wine” – all the time on the radio. All your guys’ songs, amazing. I just have one more question for you, actually. What’s next for UB40? Are you working on another album?
DC: More than the set now? We’re touring this one at the moment but more of the same ya know?
JB: We got another album in the can waiting to go. We got another album to release, in the can ready to go, which is a collaboration with a lot of artists around the world. A band called “House of Shem” in New Zealand, in the circle a Jamaican band, a couple of some of the hot Jamaican rappers. And so, that’s ready to go whenever we decide to release it. But ya know, we’re kind of old fashioned in that we’re – I guess we call them Troubadores – in that we make our living this way. We go away, we entertain people, we get paid. We move on to another town ya know? And that’s kind of – that’s been effected by technology, it hasn’t changed in a thousand years. Really.
HC: It still moves on, and you sure do entertain.
JB: Well, we do our best ya know.
They certainly do.
You can listen to UB40’s latest album “For the Many” from their website ub40.global, and listen or purchase it here. You can also catch them on their For the Many 40th Anniversary Tour in a city near you!
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