People took our dub album back to the shop saying the vocal's gone missing: UB40's Ali Campbell on bringing reggae to the masses

Ali Campbell, Astro and Mickey Virtue
Ali Campbell, Astro and Mickey Virtue

When UB40 take the stage at the Nocturne Festival at Blenheim Palace, the set list is sure to include Red Red Wine. And One in Ten. And Food for Thought.

And frontman Ali Campbell never gets weary of playing the hits that made them one of the most commercially successful reggae acts of all time.

He said: "We will be playing our usual set, all our hits. We had 40 Top 20 hits, that’s why we are a good band to have at a festival, people know us and know our songs. And festivals are great to play at because it’s not necessarily our audience. You rock up and see what’s on. I like to play for people who would not come to see us normally. It’s a chance for us to convert them!"

He is thrilled to be back performing especially as so many events have been postponed.

"I think that has been happening across the board," he said. "There’s been a lot of cancellations. It’s good to be back out there. We were at Hampton Court yesterday, that’s a lovely place. It’s great that people are feeling reckless enough to stand next to each other again.

"I have been to Oxford lots of times, I like it, lovely little place. And I've played at Blenheim Palace before, back in the day when I would do corporates there."

Oxford Mail:
Oxford Mail:

UB40 have sold over 70 million records worldwide in a three-decade long career. They have been nominated for the Grammy for best reggae album four times.

But Ali, 53, is as enthusiastic about music as ever.

"I’ve got a new album Unprecedented coming out." What’s it like? "It’s brilliant."

The band decided to dedicate their latest tour to the memory of founder member and 'toaster' Astro who died last November following a short illness.

Ali said: "Astro’s death was an awful shock and he had been more included in this whole album. He was doing more background singing. It’s kind of a new sound but fans will definitely recognise it as us. Astro had a lovely soft falsetto. But he was in a very good place. I have just been out to Jamaica and we got that time out there. We made four new tracks.

"You know, when he suddenly died it was a big shock. But I never thought I’m not going to perform again."

The band was formed in 1978 as friends who knew each other from various schools across Birmingham.

They were influenced by the blues parties they went to as teenagers in the multicultural Balsall Heath area and the original line-up was diverse, with English, Irish, Scots and Jamaican and Yemeni musicians.

He said: "We were most definitely one of the first multiracial bands. We had all the nonsense of being called a white reggae band, which I didn’t mind because I am white, but the others were black so they weren’t happy.

"And people didn’t know what dub was. I was a reggae fanatic and if you love reggae then you love dub. We made our second album, Present Arms, in dub literally to show people what it was.

"A lot of people were taking it back to the shop saying the vocals had gone strange and the record wasn’t working properly."

The debut album Signing Off, which is now a platinum album, was recorded in a bedsit.

And after that was a huge hit in the UK, they went on to establish themselves in the US with Labour of Love, an album of covers, in 1983.

Ali said: "We made our first album on a four-track in someone’s bedroom. It sold over a million copies so that’s pretty special. We originally wanted Labour of Love to be our first album – it was the music we loved and grew up with, Red Red Wine, Many Rivers to Cross."

The album went to number one on the UK Albums chart.

“Yes, we were right about that one!" he said.

 

Sons of the late Scottish folk musician Ian Campbell, Ali and his brothers Robin and Duncan, who have both been in UB40, were fanatical about reggae from a young age.

He said: "My favourite band are the Wailers. When I was 10 or 11 years old I had African Herbsman which is the quintessential reggae record with Lee Perry. But I also loved the Jackson Five, I loved Stevie Wonder and Al Green.

"There was a record shop on Ladypool Road in Birmingham called Don Christie’s where we’d get reggae records. And I’d steal them from my brother’s record collection and we’d play them at youth clubs and shebeens. And I was promoting.

"I came from a West Indian and Asian community. All the neighbours were West Indian or Jamaican. It was only when I went to secondary school I realized I was the only one who liked reggae. I was considered a bit strange."

Ali left the band acrimoniously in 2008 and in 2014, became embroiled in a legal row with former bandmates over use of the band name.

They took action against the new group containing Campbell, Mickey Virtue, and Astro over the name which was being used by both parties.

"When I left my band in 2008 it became my UB40 – featuring Ali Campbell," he said. "They carried on as UB40. I did not want anyone to think that I’m them. They’re a tribute band."

Ali, who has eight children, including two with his current wife, Julie, moved to Dorset 15 years ago but spends a lot of time recording at Dean Street Studios in London’s Soho.

“It’s a great little studio, used by David Bowie and Marc Bolan and it’s smack bang in the middle of London," he said.

So what does the man who named his band after an attendance card issued to people claiming unemployment benefits and wrote lyrics tackling apartheid, Thatcherism, racism, global poverty and social injustice think of Boris Johnson?

"I try not to," he said. "I think he’s an absolute buffoon and the older I get I just can’t believe people put up with it. They showed their true colours with Brexit then Covid, it’s been disaster after disaster.

"UB40 came out of the winter of discontent – it was the name for unemployment benefit – which was a good idea actually as we had an instant fanbase. We also gave out tickets free or half-price to people who had a UB40 card.

"It’s like pi**ing in the wind. People aren’t any more content today. We’ve got this ridiculous war in Ukraine – what happened to never again and lest we forget. What Russia is doing beggars belief. It’s like we’ve gone back 90 years.

"But," he added, "you don’t change any minds by singing about it."

  • UB40 Featuring Ali Campbell will perform at Nocturne on Friday June 17 along with Cleveland Watkiss, Ayana Witter-Johnson, ASWAD and Maxi Priest.