UB40 feat. Ali Campbell ADD

UB40 feat. Ali Campbell

The History of UB40
Fuelled by the classic reggae spirit that powered UB40’s original incarnation to worldwide success, the contemporary band fronted by founding members Ali Campbell and Astro are now planning their next move. As the most authentic expression of the Birmingham band’s original aims, Ali and Astro continue to curate and build on a legacy that dates back over four decades to the group’s formative days, and the coming year will see the release of a new studio album and a major tour. Despite seeing their plans for 2020 thwarted by a global pandemic, they are now primed to make the most of the momentum that saw their last tour visit the world’s biggest venues and their last album, 2018’s A Real Labour Of Love, narrowly miss out on topping the UK charts.

‘For me, it’s all about advancing reggae,’ says Ali. ‘I love all kinds of music, but we’ve always promoted reggae. When we were a new band in 1979, reggae was the youngest major genre in the world. It had only been around for ten years, as it was only during the late Sixties that it evolved from ska and rock steady. So we’ve been on a reggae journey for most of the genre’s life. It’s a style that keeps on changing, too. It’s now being mixed with hip-hop, and its influence on dance music is huge. We’re blessed in that we still get a really mixed crowd. Teenagers might be into grime, rock and pop, but they still love reggae. We played at Boomtown Fair in August 2019 and the crowd we attracted was full of fans aged between 15 and 35. It must have been the youngest large gathering we’ve ever played to.’

The combination of Ali and Astro is key to the band’s wide appeal. Ali left the original line-up in 2008 citing business management and financial issues and was vindicated when said managers were struck off, with Astro following suit to join up with him again in 2013. Initially working alongside original UB40 keyboardist Mickey Virtue – who departed Ali and Astro’s set-up amicably after A Real Labour Of Love – the pair set about recreating their familiar magic while weaving fresh musical patterns. The duo augment one another superbly, with Ali’s smooth, melodic voice – which Astro describes as being ‘like a fine wine’ – a contrast to his partner’s ‘sing-jay’ style. Says Ali: ‘Astro was under used in UB40’s early days. He provided the lead on a few songs, like Rat In Mi Kitchen, but was also overlooked despite the fact that the public loved him. Since he came over to my fold, it’s been great all the way. He took the lead on six of the 16 tracks on A Real Labour Of Love and he’ll feature heavily on our new stuff. He’s incredibly versatile.’ For his part, Astro is delighted to be an integral part of a confident, forward-looking band. ‘From the day I went back into the studio with Ali in 2014, the years rolled away and we’ve had a blast,’ he says. ‘When I started performing I was a traditional reggae MC, but my style developed because I love a good melody. I became a sing-jay as opposed to a DJ.’

Backed by a seven-piece band, UB40 with Ali and Astro have become a formidable touring outfit. The Real Labour Of Love tour in 2019 visited Australia, New Zealand, Europe and America and even stopped off for a show on Rarotonga, an island in the South Pacific. The start of 2020 had been busy, too. With this year marking the 40th anniversary of UB40’s debut single King / Food For Thought and the band’s debut album Signing Off, the band played gigs in Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rica before the entire live circuit ground to a halt in spring. ‘Before the lockdown, we’d been firing on all cylinders,’ says Ali.

They’ve been active during the enforced hiatus, though. As well as writing songs for their forthcoming album, Ali and Astro reassembled the touring band remotely to record a lockdown single, a poignant cover of the late Bill Withers’ Lean On Me, in aid of NHS Charities Together. The release was accompanied by a socially distanced home video that featured guests Suggs, Jools Holland, Sir Cliff Richard, Shaun and Bez of the Happy Mondays, Kurupt FM, Lynval Golding of the Specials, Big Narstie, Frank Benbini of Fun Lovin’ Criminals, Phil Daniels, Scarlett Moffatt, Mo Gilligan and a cast of key workers. ‘The cover of Lean On Me was my wife Julie’s idea,’ says Ali. ‘I loved his music and I was so upset when I heard he’d passed away in March. I grew up listening to his second album, Still Bill, and it was easy to cover Lean On Me because I’ve been singing that song all my life. But my all-time favourite Bill Withers track is Grandma’s Hands from his first album Just As I Am. We made the Lean On Me single in five days, with Ric Levy mixing ever