Not a Bird, Not a Plane, UB40 Is Reggae's Hot New Sound
At a Rolling Stones concert no one would have noticed. At a punk bash the musicians themselves might have leaped gleefully into the fray. But when a gang of rowdies began pummeling attentive fans down front at a UB40 concert in Brighton, England last year, all eight members of the group put down their instruments and rushed to the lip of the stage, where their glowering denunciations all but drove the bad guys out of the hall. "This music is for peace," Astro, the band's free-spirited "toaster" and emcee, called after the miscreants. "Not violence."
That's just what UB40's followers would expect from the band, which more than any other has revitalized reggae after Bob Marley. Whether decrying the ravages of unemployment (One in Ten) or condemning the trial of a black man framed for murder in Louisiana (Tyler), UB40's lyrics speak out for the underdog. "I won't close my eyes to the sufferers' plight," sings lead vocalist Ali Campbell, 25. "In a world full of sadness I won't turn off my light."
The band demurs when attention is called to its outspokenness. "We look upon ourselves as informers, just letting people know what's happening without giving solutions," says dread-locked Astro (né Terence Wilson), 26. But UB40 does happen to be the document number of a British unemployment benefits card, which all eight had in their wallets when they chose the name. Also, they all hail from gritty Birmingham, where 12,500 people applied last month for 60 jobs at the city's soon-to-be-opened airport. So their reputation as a "message" group—or, as rhythm guitarist Robin Campbell, 29, Ali's brother, drily puts it, "the dole-queue band"—has been hard to shake. But at bottom, insists the third UB Campbell, manager Dave, 31, "We are not a political party. We're a reggae band."
One of the best. With its beguiling melodies, close harmony singing and intelligent use of electronic keyboards, percussion and horns, UB40 has updated the form while sacrificing none of the feeling. Remarkably, when the group got together in 1978 they were just a scruffy gang of pub pals and old school chums who had never even played the instruments they would eventually master. Practicing in a cellar, they learned, recalls drummer James Brown, 26, "by listening to records, copying them and then doing our own things." They had heard reggae everywhere around the racially mixed Balsall Heath section of Birmingham where they grew up. It became, in the words of one of their lyrics, "the key to my heart...my stop and start."
Being an interracial band has never been a problem for UB40 (Astro and bassist Earl Falconer are black Jamaicans; keyboardist Michael Virtue is half Jamaican; percussionist Norman Hassan is half Arab; the others are combinations of Irish, Scottish and English). But Astro is reconciled to the fact that "some music journalists will never accept us because they think pure reggae can only come out of Jamaica."
The British public, though, has been less resistant, lifting UB40 to five Top 10 singles and four best-selling albums. Now it's America's turn. Following the release of an excellent compilation album (1980-1983) and a collection of the classic reggae songs (Labour of Love), the band launched a four-week, 20-city tour of the U.S. earlier this month. UB40 has earned enough to buy an old Birmingham meat warehouse and refurbish it as a super-studio. But, notes Robin, "We have the same friends and go to the same pubs. The only difference is we buy the drinks now."
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