UB40 In Conversation: Your City Needs You – Let’s Strike Up the Band
As UB40 set out on tour they talk to Martin Copland-Gray about personnel changes, country music and the good people of Birmingham
Turn right out of the station, walk through the churchless graveyard, past the railway arches with the half covered tramp amongst the discarded beer cans, cross over the road and take a look at the building in front of you. It’s an old pub, long abandoned but now being turned into eight stylish apartments for bearded hipsters in the ongoing gentrification of this once great city. Over 30 years ago something special took place here in the annals of Midland’s music history. But there is no plaque to commemorate it. No sign of that small but significant event ever taking place.
The station is Birmingham Moor Street, the pub is the Eagle & Tun and it was here back in the early 1980s that Birmingham’s own UB40 filmed the video for their seminal track Red, Red Wine. The pub was also featured on the front cover of two Best of LPs. Almost next door to the pub is the old but still impressive structure of the former Curzon Street station which is due to become the Birmingham terminus of the infamous HS2 project. Apparently the Eagle & Tun is to become a part of the redevelopment.
Across the other side of town in a half empty restaurant on this Monday lunchtime Robin Campbell’s face creases in a smile of recollection. His brother Duncan, shakes his head, takes a long sip of his drink and for a moment the years roll back for us all.
Louder Than War: What do you think about what’s happening to Birmingham City Centre now?
Robin: Well it’s inevitable isn’t it? All the factories have disappeared, they’ve all closed down. The whole industrial scene that was Digbeth has gone. It’s just a bunch of empty Victorian buildings standing there. They either get knocked down or ….
Duncan: .… or turned into luxury apartments that no-one wants ….
Your first gig was at The Hare & Hounds in Kings Heath, there’s even a plaque on the wall outside.
Duncan: Nobody’s nicked it! I can’t believe it – it’s been there for so long.
Robin: That’s respect that is!
Duncan: Earl and Tony were talking about nicking it!
Robin: Yeah, it’ll be on Earl’s wall!
Duncan: If they could’ve got it off I think it would’ve gone by now!!
How much do you remember about that gig? Wasn’t it a birthday party?
Robin: Yes, it was a girl called Sue Varty, I think. It was her birthday and that was our first proper gig. It still wasn’t public, it was a private party but it was our first outing in public and all I remember really was being terrified. Not so much about performing myself but just about whether the band was ready you know. I needn’t have worried because the reaction was absolutely brilliant.
How long had you been rehearsing up to that point?
Robin: We’d been playing for a year but we needed to because people didn’t play instruments when we started. We were a bunch of mates that decided to form a band.
Robin: I played chords on guitar that I learned from an uncle when I was a kid so I knew chords. Trying to teach them to Ali was hilarious cause he’d rather make his own up! Nobody else had any experience. Brian had had some lessons on the saxophone so he had a sax. But that was it. Everybody else had to learn from scratch. We treated it like a job, five days a week, Monday to Friday, sat in the cellar under Earl & Brian’s flat in Moseley in Traf (Trafalgar) Road. We just sat there all day copying records. We’d copy two or three records till we’d got those down and then got another record and copied that. Once we’d got about half a dozen records that we could play, that sounded something like the record we then started making our own music …. instrumentals and stuff. We already had an entourage of Moseley-ites that used to come and sit in the garden where we were playing. That was how we got the gig – it was a local Moseley-ite who said will you come and play at my birthday. Because, Brian particularly was our publicist at the time. He used to put posters up all over Moseley ….
Duncan: He could tell you how good UB40 were and they hadn’t even played yet!
Robin: You could stand in pubs and listen to the conversations of people saying “Have you heard that UB40? They’re really good aren’t they?” and “I saw them last Friday” Because we’d created this buzz. So this girl didn’t know it was our first gig cause there were posters all over Moseley!
Duncan: What did you play?
Robin: Our entire repertoire which was a forty minute set of basically the Signing Off LP.
Robin: It was shit because there wasn’t a lot of money around. When the band started people couldn’t get jobs. It was pretty awful. It was the beginning of the Thatcher era. But I loved growing up in Balsall Heath.
Duncan: For the first half of our childhood we were in a house on the side of a park, I mean it was joyful.
Robin: But we were in the red light district. We had Varna Road and Princess Road either side of us which were just full of window girls so it was constant traffic, constant police .…
Duncan: We could always make a few quid running errands for the girls. You know go and fetch them a packet of fags and they’d give you 50p or summat.
Robin: …. and it was a total cultural melting pot. We had the Singhs that side, the Hyppolytes that side, we had the Kellys underneath us.
Duncan: Proper multi-racial. That’s like the band.
So why do you think Birmingham embraced multi-culturalism?
Robin: It was before it became segregated and ghettoised, you know. Now, Birmingham has gone the same way as Bradford and everywhere else, where you have areas that are Asian or Chinese. Whereas before, when we were kids, you went to school and there was every colour of kid. It was more of a melting pot, I think, and certainly a friendlier place.
Given the period of austerity that we’ve gone through, do you think there are any parallels between now and then?
Duncan: Absolutely. One in Ten .… it makes sense now doesn’t it?
Robin: The song is totally relevant now. Jimmy (Brown) would argue that it’s the coming of the end of capitalism but, you know, I thought that in the 70s. I think it’s just a cyclical thing. It’s boom & bust. It’s horrible and it’s a foul way to treat people. Those at the top of the pile just keep accruing. There are more millionaires now than there’s ever been, and the poor can all go and fuck themselves!
Duncan: I’m inclined to agree with Jimmy to a certain extent. I think we are witnessing the end of capitalism, without a doubt.
Robin: I think that’s just wishful thinking.
In Birmingham there used to be the legendary Don Christie’s record shop that sold lots of Reggae music. What do you remember of that?
Robin: I used to go there every week and buy one record. That was what I could afford. I’d stand there, I could be there for an hour listening, and then go “Yeah, that one”. I used to go in the Stoney Lane store. It was scary but never once did I have any trouble.
Duncan: Speciality shops like that are disappearing because you can get everything online. You’ll be able to buy records for a hundred years to come online, but I don’t suppose there’ll be many record shops.
Robin: It doesn’t matter how much we mourn it, it’s an era that’s gone. 78’s ain’t coming back!
I was almost 12 the first time I heard The Earth Dies Screaming and I can remember being grabbed by the title and thinking I’d never heard anything like that before. Tracks like that & King seem to sound as fresh now as they did back when they were recorded. Why do you think that is?
Robin: I don’t know really. I think what we were doing then, the Dub element, has become part of mainstream music. The whole way of producing music now is informed by Dub and Drum & Bass and all of that stuff, you know. Musical production has become Dub-wise. So I think the kind of music we were doing then in the 80’s sounds fresh because that kind of production has become fashionable again. In fact, it’s become de rigeur.
Do you get what an effect songs like Earth had at the time on kids like myself?
Robin: I think it was pretty obvious because the success was so quick for us .… from the reaction from the fans that we met and journalists who were saying, “I’ve never heard anything like this before, this is new music! Do you realise what you’re doing here?”
How is it for you Duncan singing it?
Duncan: I’ve never sung The Earth Dies Screaming. We’re working our way through our back catalogue .… there’s not many left but that’s one I haven’t done yet.
Robin: We’ve recorded over 200 songs, so for Duncan to learn all of those songs when we’re not going to perform them is a bit silly really. He had to learn 40 or so songs when he joined.
Duncan: There are fans now that want me to re-record everything! So maybe they don’t listen to the old albums anymore, which is a shame.
Robin: Robert Palmer told me when I met him that The Earth Dies Screaming was one of his favourite tunes. When he was living in the Bahamas he used to play it every day! The thing about the 12” version, the reason that it’s so different, is because the Dub instrumental is before the song. It always used to be the song and then the break down into a Dub. On everybody else’s twelve inch that’s what happened.
Your songs seem to explore the everyday reality of love and sensitivity in men. Was that something important for you to get over?
Robin: Wow! Far out! I’ve never heard that one before! That’s the first time I’ve ever had anybody say that. Because to be absolutely truthful, we’ve always struggled with love songs. It’s always been easier to write political songs. It’s always easier to shout about what you’re angry about …. the words flow. But when you’re trying to write about personal relationships it’s really hard, especially when you’re young, macho geezers going “it don’t bother me!” I think it’s so much harder, and hard for you to bring lyrics to the band that are too personal. Although we have done it over the years, we have learnt to do it and now I don’t think it’s a problem, but for the first twenty years we really struggled with writing personal stuff.
Have your influences changed since you started or have they remained the same?
Duncan: They’ve always been the same I think. I still listen to the same stuff.
Robin: So do I. There are still artists who were major influences, musically. Bob Marley was definitely the artist that made me want to be in a band when I saw him live in 76 – and I took these as well.
Duncan: You didn’t take me! I wouldn’t go, if you remember, because he’d made a racist comment in the press the day before and I objected to it. He didn’t want white people in his audience. Of course, we know now about his bonkers Dad and had a very bad relationship with his Dad at that time. I know that now, but I didn’t know that then and I went “well fuck you then”. That’s the decision I made. I wish I hadn’t.
Robin: It was the greatest live show I had ever seen.
Duncan: It had a profound effect on you and Al, and that’s the reason I’m sad I made that decision. But for me it was Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson really, without doubt.
Robin: But throughout our careers it’s been Reggae – apart from Black American Music/R&B, which I’ve always loved. The whole Tamla Motown thing .…
Duncan: It’s got to be Marley though, without a doubt .… African Herbsman.
Robin: I brought that record back to the house in 1970 I think, and said to them who were both babies at the time, “This is the future of Reggae guys. This is it. This is where Reggae is going”. It was a revolutionary album. It was a record that changed Reggae and it was co-written and produced by Scratch Lee Perry, who was the master. It just made the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and it was like “Bloody hell!”
Robin Campbell: Well, I think we started out in even smaller venues. The venues on this tour are, for the most part, a couple of thousand. If we’d have played to a couple of thousand when we started we’d have been chuffed. We were playing to hundreds when we started, so it’s not really going back to how we started, but I suppose it’s back to how you used to gig before the enormodomes were built. When we first got successful we played Odeons, Top Ranks. We’ve played a couple of O2 Academy venues and the people who booked those were surprised that we would play them – and surprised that we sold them out so quickly because really they are younger venues for younger bands and younger fans.
What amazed us was how many young kids were at the shows. We were expecting to see the usual fans that we always have. They were there but it was mixed with lots of kids, which amazed me, you know? They are second and third generations of our original fans! Or maybe we’re getting new fans. I don’t know how because we’re not on the radio much anymore, except our old stuff. How they get to hear us I don’t know.
Duncan Campbell: They hear from their Mums & Dads in the first place. We have got an awful lot of young fans. I meet a young girl of 19 after a show and she’ll say “this is the sixth time I’ve seen you”. She was 12 when I joined the band and it just surprises me every time. We get them in three generations sometimes.
How has your style evolved from the early days?
Duncan: I couldn’t comment on the style changing over the years. That’s for Rob to say. I don’t think our style has changed since I joined in particular. I’m not slavishly copying Ali, but at the same time we’ve kept, I think, the sound of UB40. To most people they can’t tell the difference to be perfectly honest, you know. We tour all the time and people are still shouting out “ALI!”
Robin: People still call him Ali!
Duncan: In Ireland, that was my favourite, there were a bunch of travellers who said “We always loved Ali. Well, he dresses the same, you know!” (Laughs) and they kept saying “Ali, sing Blue Oyes” which is a track off the new album which, obviously I sing. The flavour of this album has been talked about as if it was a massive departure, but it’s very much a Reggae album. Country and Reggae aren’t strangers to one another. There’s been a Country/Reggae crossover been going on since there’s been Country or Reggae. It’s just not that weird a thing to do. Toots has had Willie Nelson on his last three albums.
Do you still class yourselves as a Jazz-Dub-Reggae band?
Robin: No, I think we dropped the Jazz immediately and then we called ourselves a Dub/Reggae band, because every 12” we did was a Dub experiment – and we still do that, we still do Dub albums. It’s just that we don’t release them commercially. We sell them online to our fans. But we still do Dub all the time. Never stopped – never have. We Dub it on stage. We’ve never changed our style of music. Obviously, with this new album (Getting Over The Storm) half of the album is covers of Country songs, and the originals we wrote for the album are also done in a Country style lyrically but they’re still Reggae. Without doubt, all of them are Reggae tracks.
Duncan: The launch point for it was One the Other Hand with Robert Palmer, which was years ago!
Robin: Twenty years ago!
Duncan: I don’t remember anybody going “Oh god they’ve gone mad, that’s a Country record!” It was perfectly acceptable then.
Robin: Ali has slagged us off for doing a Country album, saying we’ve besmirched the name of the band and all that, you know, but if he knew more about Reggae he’d know what the connection is with Country and Reggae. He’s slated me for doing a Jim Reeves song when the same Jim Reeves song has been covered by Luciano recently, and also Lee Perry recorded it with The Upsetters in the 60s.
Ali has been quite frank about leaving the group, do you still speak to each other?
Duncan: I’m afraid not. I don’t know why he doesn’t talk to me but that’s what he’s decided. I didn’t think I was going to fall out with him by taking this job but that’s all I did. He left and then they approached me: did I want to do it? I rang Ali straightaway and said that I’d been offered it, was there a problem? He said, “Well, I can’t stop you doing it…”, and I said, “I’m unemployed Al, it’s a job, you know?” He said, “Yeah, yeah, I see your point, OK, yeah, yeah” …. and then he put the phone down and he hasn’t spoke to me since, eight years on. I think it’s incredible. I’ve had his birthday cards and Christmas cards sent back to me. It’s as simple as that. There’s nothing happening.
Robin: You see, Ali has to behave like that to justify his behaviour, to justify what he’s doing – trying to steal the name and all that stuff that he’s doing at the moment. He can’t be friendly with us on the one hand and do that on the other hand. He has to distance himself so that he can feel alright about what he’s doing, because what he’s doing is outrageous.
Duncan: I thought he was going to go off and be a solo star, have a wonderful career – and so did he. But it didn’t work out that way and now it’s all my fault, apparently.
Robin: Yeah, like it’s our fault …. as if we plotted and forced him out. Like I had Duncan waiting in the wings .…
Duncan: [Ali would have you believe] this was all part of my plan, I’m a very patient man .… I’ve planned all of this for years. It’s quite ridiculous what he’s saying.
Didn’t you turn the job down at the beginning?
Duncan: Basically, I had other things to do than sit in a cellar with them for a year trying to learn how to play a kazoo! People say, “You mean you turned that down?” I didn’t go, as they walked on stage in front of thousands of people with millions of pounds in their pockets saying “You coming, Dunc?”, “No, you’re alright!” It didn’t work out that way!
Robin: Me and him were working together at the time and I went “OK, I’m in”, because Jimmy, Ali & Earl had sat in the cellar and learnt a few tunes and could actually make a noise. Three months earlier I’d been trying to get them playing stuff and it was just a cacophony of ridiculousness and I went “You’re all a bunch of wankers, I’m out of here!” So I went off back to hustling at snooker and hanging out with Dunc again. Three months later they came to us and we were working at Bingley Hall doing the catering and they said, “We’re making a reasonable sound now. Are you in or are you out, because we’re serious about it?” We went and had a listen and I said “OK. I’m back in”, because I saw how much work they’d put into it. Ali had finally bought himself an instrument. The legend is that he bought everyone’s instruments and that’s not true. He bought himself an instrument which meant he could be in a band.
How difficult has it been when band members have left after such a long time?
Robin: It was traumatic when Ali walked out. It wasn’t traumatic when Astro left, we didn’t miss him to be honest. He was doing less and less in the band anyway as far as recording was concerned. Live he was playing his part, but we haven’t really missed him that much. Ali leaving was traumatic. We were shocked because we’d always been a band of brothers and we were always going to be together. We kept the same line up for 28 years! All we knew was that we were going to carry on. Even though we’d lost our lead singer we were going to carry on. Luckily I had another brother!
Duncan: The weird thing about Ali is that he thought we’d disappear .…
Robin: …. that we’d lie down and die and all the fans would go with him. You know, it wasn’t as traumatic for any of our fans as it was for us. It was a massive blow and a kick in the cobblers. We couldn’t believe he was actually going to do it. He was making noises for months and I remember saying to a couple of guys in the band “Ali’s going to walk” and they were going “Don’t be ridiculous, he’d never leave!” But the last couple of years before he left the noises were different and the misery was different. He wasn’t pleasant to be on stage with. At the end of the 90’s we discovered that we’d been so badly managed by our financial manager that not only were we penniless after selling seventy million albums, we were in debt. We were all completely in shock for a while and, of course, we just had to carry on. What Ali did, nine years after we discovered we were penniless, was blame the then management for our financial situation .…
Duncan: …. and everyone around him.
I really hope there will be some recognition there for the band at some point. Do you think there will be?
Robin: Oh I’m sure there won’t be. The number of councillors I’ve met that told us they’ve been campaigning for us to get a plaque on the walk of fame thing …. and it’s never happened. Other people have got their plaques but …. who cares really? It would be nice to get recognised, you know.
We’ve been lauded all over the world. Everywhere we’ve gone we’ve been treated like royalty. We’ve been inducted into the Maori tribe in New Zealand. We’ve been invited to celebrate 50 years of independence in Samoa. We went to Dundee in the 80s and they gave us the keys to the city because of our political stance. We’ve been awarded for our stance against apartheid and observing the cultural boycott in South Africa. Birmingham? Nothing! We’ve got one plaque on the Hare & Hounds in King’s Heath that PRS did because they ran a campaign and decided that we were one of the bands that they should recognise. But that’s it. Birmingham has never recognised us.
Duncan: Birmingham has a great musical tradition that it seems to be ashamed of.
So here’s an open letter to the people that run this great city that we call Birmingham: You can knock a building down without a second thought and forget it ever existed. You can take a tired old pub and turn it into some trendy apartments without remembering for a moment the events that took place within its hallowed walls. You can attempt to scrub away the dirt and grime of the past by building a disc covered shopping centre and covering the railway station with a silver blob of metal in a vain attempt to make this edgy, hardworking city in the centre of the land shiny like a new penny. Because when all things are said and done it won’t change a thing.
If you listen very closely you’ll hear the heartbeat of the people and the music that they make. Back in 1978 in a small cellar in the heart of the city a young multi-cultural band with honest aspirations started a rhythm that can be heard as clear now as it was back then …. and a message .… a message that is stronger now than it ever has been before .…
Your city needs you .… let’s strike up the band!
MCG: Words – London 2014. Heart & Soul – Birmingham 1968
All words by Martin Copland-Gray. More work by Martin can be found in his Louder Than War archive.