The UK’s most successful reggae band, UB40, land in Australia next month playing all the hits and more including Red Red Wine, Can’t Help Falling In Love, Kingston Town, Here I Am and countless others. With over forty top 40 hits in their native Britain and sales of over 100 million records, the band are one of the biggest UK music acts of all time, and continue to record charting albums while touring across the world including regular trips to Australia where they have firmly found a place in the hearts of fans.
After nearly four decades of success including their hit singles, international stadium tours, festival headline slots and the dramatic replacement of long-time lead singer Ali Campbell with his brother Duncan Campbell in 2008, the band continue with their key founding members and songwriting core, staying true to and building on the legacy and ethos of the band.
UB40 are Robin Campbell (co-lead vocals and guitar), Duncan Campbell (lead vocals) Earl Falconer (bass, vocal), Brian Travers (sax and keyboards), Jimmy Brown (drums), Norman Hassan (percussion, vocals). The band also features Martin Meredith (sax) and Lawrence Parry (trumpet), who have both been in UB40’s touring line-up for over twenty years, and Tony Mullins (keyboards), creating a genre-defining synergy of horns and rhythm section that are uniquely UB40. Hi Fi Way: The Pop Chronicles spoke to Jimmy Brown about the tour.
Awesome news that UB40 will be back in the country for another tour.
Yeah. We had such a good time last time that we wanted to get back as soon as we possibly could. Usually, it’s like three years between the visits. No, we’ve been down that side of the world about three times in the last two years. The shows have been great, so that’s why we keep coming back.
Yeah, fingers crossed that next time you can come down to my hometown, Adelaide, next time?
You know, somebody just read out the tour schedule, and I’ve gone, “What? We’re not playing Adelaide? How come we’re not playing Adelaide and going all the way down there?” We always play Adelaide. I don’t know why we’re not playing there this time.
It’s a bit of a weird thing. A lot of international acts seem to miss out Adelaide now for some reason.
We had a great time last time. That was, earlier on this year I think, or was it the end of last year? I can’t quite remember. I know we had such a really good time last time, especially Adelaide, because the audience were just brilliant. I’m surprised it’s not on the list this time.
Fingers crossed for next time! What do you look forward to most when you tour Australia?
I mean, obviously it’s quite an exotic location for somebody from Birmingham, because it’s an amazing country. Just the landscape is incredible. The people are great too. It’s an amazing place, really. It’s like, England in paradise, so you do feel at home when you come to Oz, which is why we look forward to it.
Do you have a favourite tour story, like I know UB40 have been touring Australia many, many, many times over your career. What stands out for you?
Ah, there’s just been a few. Obviously back in the days of Molly Melbourne, was it? It was mister, now you have to remember really. I don’t know if he’s still around or not. I remember those days, and then going to remove the cast of Neighbours, because we were really popular in England. It’s difficult to pick out one thing, though. We’ve been doing it for that long, and had that many different experiences. It’s really hard to pick out a single incidence to tell you. We always had a fabulous time. Like I say, it’s like England, but you’ve transplanted it into some kind of Pacific paradise. I think you guys are lucky there. It’s certainly not quite as drab as it is in England. It’s been raining for the last three days here, as usual.
Picking the set list must be a good challenge to have, not only picking one that best represents UB40 but also keeps it exciting for the band and fun for the fans?
They are lucky, because we’ve got half a dozen really, really well known tunes. There’s obviously Red, Red Wine. Then there’s other tunes like I Got You Babe as well as Here I Am, Baby. We’ve got half a dozen tunes that we’ve always get an audience reaction to. That means that once we play those half dozen tunes, we can play anything we like in between. We do like to bring out really old tracks, or try out new stuff as well. It’s really easy to do a greatest hits kind of set, but you just get bored doing that all the time. You want to do some new music or bring back some really old stuff, so we keep changing it up all the time. We’ll play one set one night and then we’ll play a different set the next night.
Even after all this time, it still must be a huge buzz each night when people are singing these hits that obviously means so much them?
Obviously you’re kind of nervous when you’re looking at 20 to 30,000 people and you’ve only been playing for a year or two. It’s hard to enjoy it then but we’ve been doing it that long now. We’ve tread the boards for that many years we feel at home onstage, you feel comfortable, like you belong there now. We’re enjoying it more now than at any time in our careers.
Do you enjoy it more so now than you ever have before? Is that just because being there, you know how hard it is to get there, so you just savoir every minute of it?
We’re grateful for the opportunity to keep playing shows and people keeping coming to see us. That’s what musicians want, you want to perform in front of an audience. You don’t want to just be recording all the time. We’re lucky we’re a live band. We’ve developed over the years and I think we are a really good live band. As a band we’ve always concentrated on the live show and that’s the most important thing to us. Like I say, we feel at home when we’re onstage, which we didn’t do for many, many years. We’ve been through a lot and everybody trusts everyone now and we all work together to make the show happen. It’s much more enjoyable now than it used to be.
For a band that has achieved so much, what will you see as the next challenge for UB40?
We’re just concentrating on writing the next record. Even now, we still like to do new music, so we’re constantly chasing, we’re chasing the perfect radio record, which we haven’t quite made yet. I think one day we will come up with it. The band is always chasing perfection and certainly with a live performance you want to make as few mistakes as possible. We want the vibe to be as good as possible and we’re always working to make it better over time. The thing about being a musician unlike aa sportsperson you’ve got to do it all in the early part of your career and then retire early. Fortunately, you get better and better as you get older, so it has been getting better and better for us.
How is the new album shaping up? Is that something that’s likely to be a next year release?
Yeah, that’s what I think we’re looking at now. It was strange how it came together, everyone has an idea of how a new record’s going to sound but because it was a true collaboration between seven different people you’re never really going to know. It’s nice to watch the whole thing unfold and see what everyone else in the band is contributing to the songs. It unfolds in a way that you can’t really predict how it’s going to sound. Now that it has taken shape, I think it’ll probably be less middle of the road reggae ballads. Little bit more politics, probably a bit of a harder edge and not so friendly in some ways. Certainly Earl has done a few dance hall tunes that are quite edgy. We’re not really trying to reproduce past successes as we’re trying to make some new music, which is more important than trying to make something that you think might be epic. I don’t think you can ever do that anyway. All you can do is make music you believe in, and hope that other people enjoy it as well.
You were talking before about chasing that perfect reggae sound. How do you think that whole reggae sound has changed with 2017 perspective?
In one way, it hasn’t changed at all, but in other ways, obviously there was that transition in the 80s from traditional sounding reggae in the 70s to dancehall in the 80s. I think that was a big, big change. I think to some degree, reggae has got a traditional sound. There’s a traditional way of using the guitar and a traditional way of doing the drums. There are certain signifiers that make it that style. The thing about reggae is it’s purely instinctive, it’s not something you can really go to school to learn. It’s something you either understand or you don’t and it’s a way of thinking as much as it is a way of playing. It’s about discipline in the end. It’s the most disciplined music in the world and that’s where I think a lot of musicians find it hard is you have to be incredibly disciplined and do as little as possible and still make it sound complete.
That’s really hard for musicians to get their head around if they’re not born into it, if you see what I mean. We were into reggae from when we were teenagers, so we know the music well. You’re trying to chase that perfect sound, I don’t suppose the audience really cares whether we do something perfect or not but we do.
Previously you talked before about the line-up being settled. Do you think with the changes over the years, there’s also been a bit of a positive thing as well, keeping it fresh and changing that dynamic and bringing something new into the band as well?
Yeah, that really did work out that way. We’ve been touring forever, and obviously Ali wasn’t happy. We’re spending less and less time with the guys outside of just performing. Playing greatest hits shows every night started to get a bit stale but then he made that jump. He wanted to go solo so he made that jump. So we got Duncan in, who is his brother, and he’s really enthusiastic, so that really makes a difference. Ali would sing the songs but he didn’t really put much into it. That’s quite frustrating for the band because obviously everybody needs to be on the same wavelength. It’s been a bit of a grind but with Duncan coming and his enthusiasm he’s really pulling his weight. We’re a big band there’s a lot of people, so you need everybody to pull their weight, to do their share of the work. He wasn’t pulling his weight, really.
Duncan, he performs over and above what we expected of him. We really enjoy it and we really like each other. When Ali left, everything got better. I think the band sounds better now than we’ve ever sounded before. We’ve always got a sense of pride and want people to hear us, so I’m looking forward to coming down and playing some good shows.
Well, they say change is as good as a holiday.
Yeah, absolutely, and I think it really did reawaken us. We’ve never been happier, to be honest. When you’ve got that kind of bad vibe going on, it makes everything feel bad. Now that’s gone and we’re a lot happier.
Is there a secret to keeping it going and keeping it going so well?
Nobody can obviously expect to have a career this. Forty years in the business is just phenomenal and in that forty years we didn’t retire and give up then reform. We just kept going, we literally were non-stop for forty years and I think that’s phenomenal. I can’t think of many other bands that have done that. I can think of bands that have folded and then got back together ten years later or even twenty years later but we never did that. We just carried on. UB40 is a unique band, we’ve got a unique story. I’m quite proud to be involved in this story. It’s a great feeling because like I said, we’re a football team. You’re going out with your gang all around the world. It’s like, what a great life. You couldn’t ask for anything better, could you? As far as being able to predict and say what it is that’s made that happen, I wouldn’t have a clue. If I knew what it was, then I’d be bottling it and selling it, because I’d make a fortune. Just luck up until the end.
Interview by Rob Lyon