Interview with UB40 - The ‘Real’ UB40 Fight Back
04/07/2014 by Gerry McMahon
Opening their 2014 world tour in Ireland at the end of March last, original band members Robin Campbell and James ‘Jim’ Brown took time out to talk with REGGAEVILLE.
Starting with an easy question: UB40 are a phenomenal success. How come?
Robin Campbell: If that was an easy question I don’t fancy the rest of them! If you knew you’d do it every time and you’d never have a failure. With us, it’s a lucky mix of people. We were a gang, mates who decided to form a band and learn our instruments together. There are no stars, there are no leaders. It’s always been a communal thing. We all contribute to the music. But I don’t think any of that makes a difference. It’s just sheer luck that we make a sound that’s unique and people love it and it’s instantly recognisable .It’s what all good bands have – that chemistry, that sound that’s instantly recognisable as theirs. It doesn’t matter what kind of band it is, whether it’s the Rolling Stones, Status Quo – it could be anybody and you instantly know it’s them. That’s what we’ve got.
James ‘Jim’ Brown: If you could tell us. Who the hell works that one out? One thing that’s in our favour is that we have got a chemistry. When this set of musicians get together and play we create a unique sound. And it’s a shame because even with that chemistry it’s much harder for bands to make it nowadays, singers, songwriters and DJs are cheaper. The most expensive thing in the music business is running a band - and running it on the road, so they’re becoming less common.
UB40 are 35 or 36 years old now. High point?
Robin Campbell: There have been many high points. For example, South Africa after Mandela was out and made President and we had been observing the cultural boycott for 14 years - to finally go there and play - it was just fantastic.
James ‘Jim’ Brown: There have been several: the first hit and doing America’s Madison Square Gardens with a No. 1 album and single on the go. And doing South Africa, where we got the biggest walk up and were one of the first to go there, playing to over 100,000 people over 2 nights. I think we still hold the record – but I heard U2 have taken it?
Robin Campbell: Oh what a dread. It would be bloody U2. We’ve held that live record many years – we played to 210 or 220,000 people over 3 nights – more than Michael Jackson or Lionel Richie or whomever. But apparently U2 have the record now.
James ‘Jim’ Brown: It happened just after the cultural boycott was dropped and Mandela was let out – so we were one of the first bands to do it and Robert beside me had written a song called Sing Our Own Song and that had been adopted by a lot of Africans and the ANC and the 100,000 audience were singing it along with us.
That must have been good for the ego?
Robin Campbell: It was more than the ego – it was a totally emotional experience. It’s the closest I’ve come to crying my eyes out on stage. The hairs were standing up on the back of my neck all the way through the song. It was just fantastic.
James ‘Jim’ Brown: It was amazing. You felt like you were living in a part of history – getting really close to it - scary.
Robin Campbell: There have been other times like that – playing Russia in the 1980s before the Iron Curtain came down. That was an incredible experience. Not one, mind you that you’d want to repeat!
James ‘Jim’ Brown: It was before Russia had changed. I was happy to see Russia before it changed.
Robin Campbell: It was pretty horrendous, it was incredible to be playing there with the Red Army all lined up in front of you. We had ‘an interpreter’ on stage with us, and we were saying ‘come on and dance’ and he was saying ‘if you don’t sit down they won’t start the next song’. It was a journalist with Rolling Stone magazine who told me in an interview after one of the shows that the interpreter was saying the opposite to what we were saying. We were asking: ‘We can’t get them up! Why aren’t they dancing?’. We know the first 3 or 4 rows was made up of 184 year olds and they weren’t going to dance, as they sat there bemused by us. The rest of them were trying to dance and they were being told to sit down and we didn’t know. After the guy from Rolling Stone told me I was livid and I went straight into the interpreter’s office and started screaming at him. He stopped me and said ‘Robin, Robin, wait, before you say anything, if I say what you’re saying they’ll cut my balls off’. So he wrote out some words phonetically for me to say, so that it didn’t matter what he said if I was saying ‘get up and dance’. So he was a darling really, a lovely man. We had a great time.
James ‘Jim’ Brown: So we won in the end. In the 35 or whatever number of years we’ve never done a single show where people have sat down. It’s never happened.
Robin Campbell: We’re a dance band aren’t we? I noticed you were dancing during our rehearsal (to interviewer).
Yes, reggae heart and soul from before Bob Marley came to Dublin.
Robin Campbell: So did we see Marley – fantastic.
James ‘Jim’ Brown: In the Birmingham Odeon in 1976.
Big influences on the band?
James ‘Jim’ Brown: Marley, obviously. I think it was seeing Marley in 1976 that planted the seed of having a band for us. And Marley was surrounded by sheer class musicians – a point many people didn’t think about. I mean reggae is crude, but the Barrett brothers were really classy players – just like Sly and Robbie – and that gives you something to aspire to.
Robin Campbell: Marley – that was definitely the experience. We had talked about being in a band from when we were kids – but never took it seriously until that 1976 gig. That was a major thing. I was listening recently to all the songs we did for ‘Labour of Love’ – they are all the songs that we grew up on. Including the original rock steady tunes that made us want to play reggae. Our dad was a singer\performer – but I can’t point to just one influence. It wasn’t just Marley – in fact he wasn’t the greatest musical influence – but on our desire to be artists and form the band.
Robin Campbell: There’s been many of those too over 35 or 36 years.
James ‘Jim’ Brown: It’s difficult to say. In the beginning it wasn’t easy. We had a lot of arguments and a lot of excess. When we were at our most popular, I don’t think we were at our happiest. We had a lot of friction inside the band – but that’s gone by the way.
Robin Campbell: Friction – I think you have to go through all that anyway - that comes with the success. You get stuff heaped on you.
Sounds like a marriage?
James ‘Jim’ Brown: Yes, absolutely – a marriage to 8 other people!
Robin Campbell: There’s a lot of external influences, all of the drugs and all of that – you have to go through that to come out the other end. And at some point in the 90s we came out of that and started enjoying being a band again – it was nearly at the start of the Millennium that we started to play as a band again rather than doing things by numbers in the studio. We started to jam again.
James ‘Jim’ Brown: We were riding a whirlwind before that. It was just going from success to success to success and we didn’t get time for a breath really.
Want to talk about regrets?
James ‘Jim’ Brown: To be honest I’m not one to do regrets – more one to regret things they don’t do than things they do. There aren’t many things we haven’t done I must admit. It’s the most amazing dream we’re living. You can’t regret that.
Robin Campbell: It sounds like bullshit, but I still do constantly pinch myself because I can’t believe the life we’ve had – it’s been incredible. Of course there’s a million things I’d do differently – I’d save some money for starters. I’d have looked after our finances better, instead of trusting unto one man who let us down tremendously. We ought to be sorted, but we’re not – we’re still working for a living.
James ‘Jim’ Brown: But if it was purely for fun, we’d still be doing it.
Robin Campbell: We would be, because we love it, it’s what we live for. There’s no better life that I can imagine, so the regrets are overshadowed.
Tell the readers a little about this tour?
James ‘Jim’ Brown: To some degree we want to go back to our roots with this tour. You noticed we were playing some very very old tunes.
Robin Campbell: We want a balance on this tour, because we were very Labour of Love heavy for the last 10 years. It’s been a bit of a hit, hit, hit type of set – which is the easiest to play of course, because you get the easiest reaction. So we wanted to get some balance back on to the set. So we’ve kind of split it into thirds – it’s a third really old stuff, a third brand new stuff off the new album and a third Labour of Love tunes.
Big set at 24 songs?
James ‘Jim’ Brown: Yes, it’s a big set. And we still get complaints from fans: ‘Why didn’t you play ..’.
Robin Campbell: 24 - That’s what we normally do.
How do you cope with the rigours of touring?
James ‘Jim’ Brown: Touring? There couldn’t be an easier life really. I love it. It’s great.
Robin Campbell: I love the gigging. I like the living on the bus quite a bit – not for too long. Not for months like Willie Nelson. But I hate flying. We enjoy each other’s company. We just have a good time.
Congrats. on the success of the new album. Tell the readers a little about it?
Robin Campbell: It’s the best reviews we’ve had for years. It’s amazed us. I love old country music especially.
James ‘Jim’ Brown: It’s been taken quite well really. We wanted to do something that was different, unpredictable. I’m not a country fan, it’s not on my horizon. But it’s great for me. They’re great songs on the album – Blue Eyes is one of the best I’ve ever heard.
Given his reservations, do you think (the departed) Astro was surprised by its success?
James ‘Jim’ Brown: I don’t think he had those reservations until he left.
Robin Campbell: No. As far as I knew, 2 weeks before he left he loved the album and was playing it to his mates and telling them how brilliant it was. So when he claimed not to like the album a few weeks later we were very surprised. We think it was said for effect when he left. We never set out to make a country album and I don’t think we’ve made one. I think we’ve made a reggae album of country tunes. What it has that’s unmistakably country is a steel guitar – and a great steel guitar player in Melvin Duffy. The tunes and melodies are country, but the music, the rhythm and drum and bass is pure reggae. So it‘s a reggae album of country tunes. And it wasn’t planned. It came from a record we made 20 years ago with Robert Palmer of a Bob Dylan tune called I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight. And in that same session he said he wanted to do a Randy Travis song called On The Other Hand. We didn’t know it, but he played it for us and we said ‘lovely tune, great lyric’ – we can do that. But Palmer died and it never got released – it was sitting on the shelf in our studio. Obviously we released the Dylan one and we had a big hit with it. We always intended to do something with that single. And in David Harper we shared managers with Robert Palmer. And David said he’d love to put it out as a bonus track on a Best Of of Robert’s material. So we gave it to him, because it was a great idea. And then for whatever political reasons the Best Of thing didn’t happen. But the record was re-awoken for us and we re-recorded it with Duncan doing vocals. But Palmer’s family wouldn’t give us permission to use it, so we had to take Robert’s vocals off and Duncan did the lead. And we enjoyed it so much that our manager said ‘why don’t we do an album of tunes like this’. And that was the start of the whole thing and our new album of country tunes.
Congratulations – a country album was a risk.
Robin Campbell: Well we’ve never been fearful, we just do what we want to do. Never in our careers have we made a consciously ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ move – we just do what we fancy doing. And most of the time we’re told we’re doing the wrong thing. With the first Labour of Love album we were told it was commercial suicide and it turned out to be the biggest album that we’d ever done.
Do I tell the readers to mind their own business on the band’s split\friction issues?
James ‘Jim’ Brown: There was no friction on our part. What happened was our singer left (Ali Campbell) and we carried on. And it’s as simple as that. The fact that he does press interviews making it look like there’s friction is from his side, not on our side. We’re just carrying on as we’ve always done.
Robin Campbell: Again, he’s reinvented the reasons he’s left. He left because he wanted to pursue a solo career – he was offered a British tour for a large amount of money. The fact that the tour was subsequently cancelled due to the lack of ticket sales is neither here nor there – that’s why he left. But he had to reinvent his reasons for leaving and say that there was band friction. There wasn’t. The only friction was that he wanted to leave. So we wished him all the very best and I brought my other brother in to do the lead vocals and we never stopped. We’ve recorded 3 albums since and toured the world twice.
Well whoever loses, I hope the legal profession don’t benefit.
James ‘Jim’ Brown: They already have. But we’re trying to keep that to a minimum as well.
Robin Campbell: Well we had no choice but to take a legal injunction against him because he was using the UB40 name – and we can’t have that.
So it’s like the time two Black Uhuru bands came to Dublin?
Robin Campbell: Exactly, yes – and two Wailers bands. And the only way those things get sorted is in court. It’s a terrible thing to say but it’s what’s going to happen. Because he left, went off as himself and we remained as the band. So for him to now take on the name of the band is ludicrous.
James ‘Jim’ Brown: What happened was when he left he booked a tour under the name Ali Campbell and because that tour didn’t do very well he started using ‘Ali Campbell’s UB40’ on the posters. And then over time – because that hasn’t worked either - he took ‘Ali Campbell’ off and it’s just ‘UB40’ now – and that we can’t have.
What do you say to those who argue that UB40 ‘sold out’ on its early political edge?
Robin Campbell: It’s rubbish. People say that because of the Labour of Love album. The success of that album is what made some people turn their backs on us and say ‘Oh they’ve gone commercial, they’ve sold out, they’re not political anymore’. But if you listen to TwentyFourSeven, Who Are You Fighting For or any of our latest albums, they are just as political as anything we’ve done on the first 2 albums. We’ve never changed how we feel about politics. In fact, we still tend to rattle on about the same stuff that we were rattling on about in the first couple of albums.
James ‘Jim’ Brown: We never lost our politics.
So you’re still big supporters of the British Conservative party (sarcasm)?
James ‘Jim’ Brown: Absolutely. No, we support the United Kingdom Independence Party (more sarcasm).
Robin Campbell: Total Thatcherites (much laughter).
James ‘Jim’ Brown: You do know we’re only joking?
What have you learned from the investment\bankruptcy business?
James ‘Jim’ Brown: There’s a load of deficiencies and inefficiencies in the finance business. We’ve been shoved and passed like a parcel from ‘pillar to post’ and nobody seemed to know what was going on with our money. And we changed lawyers. But they’re all fucking up. They’re not really very good at what they’re doing. Even the Government department that oversees bankruptcy is bankrupt itself. They promised us they’d bring in all this money, but they never have. They’ve got a black hole in their accounts. We were victims of a lack of efficiency. They don’t know what they’re doing half the time. And a lot of it was down to record company or label debts. It’s God’s way of telling you that you’ve too much money, because we spent a lot trying to break other artists. But we didn’t owe tax, which usually happens in this situation. We’ve always paid our tax. It was other things.
Robin Campbell: It should never have happened to us in the first place. For us to have to get to a point 20 years down the line to discover that we had no money at all - no savings, no investments, no pensions, nothing – even though we’d been promised this was being done for us. To suddenly find that after 20 years of working your tail off you’ve got nothing to show for it, it was a shock. What I’ve learned is to trust no one now.
Any ‘words of wisdom’ for the millions chasing fame via the music business?
James ‘Jim’ Brown: It’s a different business from the one we started in. I wouldn’t know where to start now. The technology revolution has been a great thing, because it’s democratised music. It’s made more music available for more people and it‘s got cheaper to make digital recordings. We used to pay 2 thousand pounds a day to hire a studio. Now you can buy your own studio for that money. Even though technology has changed the music business, what we are is a live band. Turning up, playing and getting paid is the way it’s been for a thousand years. And I think UB40 were always better live than on record.
Robin Campbell: Yes. It’s all ‘do it yourself’ now. Everyone is doing it from their bedrooms on a small scale. And it seems to me it’s the way it’s going to go. Record companies are not for the future. They’re getting smaller and disappearing. Eventually there will probably be just 2 record companies - like Warner Brothers and Universal, or maybe Sony, and that will be it and they’ll own everything. The excesses of the 1970s and 80s are gone and they’re never coming back. People are now back to being minstrels and troubadours and you can earn a living at it if you’re good. You sell music in live performances to make a living – the era of the vinyl and the CD is gone. The future of this business is going to be completely different to what it has been. And we’re dinosaurs from the old time.
Who would the band like to collaborate with musically in the future?
Robin Campbell: That always changes. You meet kids on your travels and think you’d like to try something. Things happen all the time, even that you don’t expect, like the record we did with Maxi Priest. All of a sudden, from him supporting us on a few shows we recorded I Shot The Sheriff and then he brought a song to us that he’d been working on and we ended up doing a collaboration. It’s always great fun. And then his son Marvin Priest brought a song (Slow Down) to us and we loved it and that ended up on an album as collaboration. You don’t sit there thinking ‘who can we find to work with’, as you just meet people and these things happen organically. I’d love to work with Stevie Wonder. I’m sure if I sat down I could write a list of people I’d love to work with. There are genius brilliant musicians out there. But those things don’t tend to come to fruition – and when they do, they’re usually a disappointment. So, for me, the things that happen organically are much more fun.
Remaining ambitions for UB40?
Robin Campbell: Just to keep going. To keep going until we drop.
I went on tour with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry last week and wondered – at ~80 years of age – how does he do it?
James ‘Jim’ Brown: Yes, he’s still going. He’s the granddaddy of modern music as far as I’m concerned. We were very into dub in the beginning, with King Tubby obviously and Scratch Perry – they were the 2 grand dads. Perry – a nutter.
Robin Campbell: I’d say that Scratch was a greater influence on us than Marley. He was the‘Upsetter for Christ’s sake. But even before dub he was a producer. He was the ‘Godfather’, even telling Marley what to do – look at the African Herbsman album – Scratch wrote half of those songs. He’s a genius – a complete ‘head the ball’.
But he’s a smart guy.
Robin Campbell: Yes, he’s very smart man. The line between genius and insanity is slim. I think he wobbles from side to side.
James ‘Jim’ Brown: And occasionally falls off!
Any parting words for your fans across Europe?
Robin Campbell: Yes, keep coming. We’re constantly evolving and changing. Anyone who thinks that we begin and end with the Labour of Love is wrong and they should come and check us out. People who think that we stopped doing political stuff in 1982 should come and have a listen. It’s patently not true.
James ‘Jim’ Brown: And we’re always refining the sound. We’ve always put a lot of effort into the live production and the sound quality and we want an audience in front of us to keep refining that sound.