I have always had an ambivalent relationship with UB40. I still recall the excitement of hearing their debut single, King/ Food for Thought in 1980, and going out to buy it immediately. Like everybody, I assumed the lead singer was black, until I saw photos of a very white Ali Campbell. The sound was that of a reggae band, forged in the multi- cultural melting pot that was, and is, Birmingham and was as authentic as it came. They have gone on to sell 70 million albums, by any measure a hugely successful career. Yet I wonder what might have been.
Those early recordings were not a tribute, re-working, or reimagining of reggae. Instead they were part of it, an evolution of the sound, which was fresh, accessible but challenging. It had neither the cultural nor commercial cynicism of the Clash and Police’s work on reggae turf. Success happened quickly for the band, maybe artistically too quickly, as, after just a year, their repertoire was inevitably limited when their first hit single broke. But listen to the when their first hit single broke, listen to the You tube clip of their John Peel session reading of King , recorded in 1980, and you are taken to raw emotion and musical wonder, passion over riding any technical limitations.
Right from the start, purist critics charged Campbell with popularising black reggae ,as a watered down white imitation. Further claiming that if he had not been white, the band would not have enjoyed the success they did. They are charges that can never be proved, you cannot rewrite an alternative history. What you can do is examine the facts. The band triumphed, the fans bought the music in droves, and thirty five years on, they are still popular. Maybe having a white man imitating a black man singing black music with white and black musicians was a gimmick, but it worked.
The first album, Signing Off, contained two cover versions, I think its going to rain today and strange fruit , but neither were well known and blended effortlessly with the high quality original material. That formula survived three albums before Labour of Love, their fourth, and a covers album. The previous three had been released annually and had reached 2nd, 2nd and fourth in the best- selling album charts, a fine and rare achievement.
Labour of Love reached No 1 with No1 Single Red Red Wine leading the way. Thereafter their musical success was, and is, as a covers band, their most recent album covering Country music classics. Some, myself included, lost interest at that point as they became a karaoke cabaret style band, albeit with continued success. And over the years the line-up has fractured too with original and long-standing frontman Ali Campbell leaving the band, later with original members Astro and Mickey Virtue joining him, soon to tour as an alternative UB40. Ali was replaced by his brother Duncan, who looks and sounds like him, prompting an acrimonious family, as well as band schism.I suspect that many in the audience at Uttoxeter were unaware that it was not Ali singing, such are the physical and phrasing similarities.
I had never been to a gig at a racecourse before. It worked surprisingly well as an evening meeting on a gloriously sunny late spring day. The crowd of around 8000 had been drinking and enjoying themselves for the racing between mid- afternoon and 9pm, so were well warmed up for the evening entertainment. A racecourse is no bad place for an open air concert with its ample toilet, bar and refreshment facilities complete with terraces, stands and pa system. The stage was large and professional, the sound clear and loud enough, the weather was perfect.
The gig itself brought out my best, and worst feelings, for the band. Food for thought, One in Ten and Kingston Town were magnificent. The rest was pleasant enough mood music. When they announced “something off the new album” during the encore it signalled a stampede for the exits to beat the car park rush- the prospect of “I Can’t help falling in Love” to finish was not enough. Duncan Campbell is good, but does not have the vocal range or charisma of his brother, possessing the manner of an imposter, fearful that he will be found out. Yet the show in the round was an undoubted success. Grannies tapped their open toed sandals at the Neil Diamond number, the casual were impressed by the hits, the uncommitted will have found little to dislike as the reggae rhythms drifted into the cooling night air, and the devoted were treated to a fine set.