Interview: Ali’s battle for heart and soul of UB40

Ali Campbell of UB40 Reunited.
Ali Campbell of UB40 Reunited.

Who would have thought it? The likably chirpy lead singer of reggae legends UB40 is at loggerheads with his own brothers over the soul of his own band. But, as GRAHAM CHALMERS finds out, Ali Campbell still has passionate opinions about many things - from Sir Bob Geldof to modern-day politics.

With the exception of Bob Marley and the Wailers, who aren’t about to play live anytime soon, UB40 remain the biggest reggae band in the world.

But, talking to me, lead singer Ali Campbell doesn’t sound like someone who’s grown tired of being been successful in the music business for 36 years selling more than 70 million records in the process.

Anyone else I’ve talked to previously who’s been famous for that length of time tends to sound a little world weary.

But the decidedly upbeat Brummie-sounding Ali, who tells me he’s rustling up a late breakfast as he chats away on the phone, is enthusiastic, angry and witty by turns.

“Reggae is the most influential music in the world.,” Ali tells me. “Sly Dunbar’s beats are all over modern dance tracks. Even Snoop Dogg or, should I say, Snoop Lion has gone reggae with on his new album.”

Next month sees Ali and his version of UB40 (called UB4-0 Reunited) headlining a major outdoor show at Nostell Priory near Wakefield on June 14.

Casual as you like, he tells me he’s just back from Papa New Guinea using the same tone of voice I’d use recalling a bus ride into town.

Now aged 55, Ali has seen and done it all since I last saw his band live in 1982 at the Edinburgh Playhouse during their Present Arms tour.

I tell Ali I was on the front row of the balcony, trying to skank to the likes of One in Ten, Food for Thought and Don’t Let It Pass You By.

It wasn’t an easy act to pull off. I can’t dance and was trying to avoid the 30ft drop directly in front of me.

“I love the Edinburgh Playhouse. It’s a great place,” he says.

“I’ve written 24 albums with the band but some people only remember Labour of Love. UB40 sometimes get labelled a covers band but we never turned our backs on our political side.”

Although best known for that global, multi-million-selling album on their own Dep International label with huge hits such as Red Red Wine and Many Rivers To Cross, UB40 were a band with a social conscience from the very start.

It might explain why Ali still hasn’t got a good word for Sir Bob Geldof to this day, that and the fact the band weren’t invited to play Live Aid.

“We weren’t asked to do Live Aid because Uncle Bob didn’t like us. It was a great gig but I thought it was a bit dodgy not having any black acts on the bill when it was raising money for Africa.”

While Geldof talked a lot about ‘rainbow politics’, UB40 actually put it into practice.

Formed in 1978 in Birmingham, the eight-piece outfit‘s original line-up was made up of musicians of English, Scottish, Irish, Yemeni and Jamaican heritage.

UB40 were genuinely multi-cultural before it was fashionable and emerged from the jobless queues, hence the name which stood for Unemployment Benefit Form 40.

I suggest the band’s background partly explains their lyrics of those early hits.

Ali says: “I’m very proud of the band and what we did first time round. We were the real deal. We felt so disenfranchaised in our early days that we started a claimants union to help people get what they were entitled to. It didn’t make us popular with job centres.”

It was Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders who ensured their swift ascent from underground ‘troublemakers’ to mainstream hitmakers when she spotted them playing a small pub gig.

Ali hasn’t forgotten it.

“We’d only played live 12 times when Chrissie found us and invited us on the next Pretenders tour. She gave us a real leg up. I’m still grateful to her.”

Within a few years, Ali would be duetting with the Pretenders’ lead singer on the chart-topping I Got You Babe.

But first there were politically aware singles and the platinum-selling album Signing Off on small independent label Graduate Records.

I ask Ali whether he’s surprised that in this current age of austerity there aren’t more modern bands making music with a political message.

Ali says: “You’d think with this shocking government there would be some angry young groups coming up.

“Kids have the same things to complain about as we did when we were young. They’re still waging bad wars and there’s still one in ten unemployed. Politicians should be made to live on the basic minimum wage.”

The more you delve into the UB40 story, the more complex it becomes.

The close-knit nature of the original band started to unravel as the 80s turned into the 90s and then the noughties.

Perhaps it was the regular line-up changes or problems in their personal lives including a car crash which killed the band’s producer Ray ‘Pablo’ Falconer (and led to the jailing of one of the band’s founding members) or the deteriorating relationship between Ali and his brothers Duncan and Robin. . .

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that Ali sort of left the band which has continued in his absence with Duncan on lead vocals.

To say Ali is still angry would be an understatement. Though all of his solo albums such as Running Free, Flying High and Great British Songs sold well, he insists his departure wasn’t his idea.

“I didn’t leave UB40 to pursue a solo career like they said. It’s rubbish to say that I intended to leave my own band. I was forced out because of the management’s skullduggery. I didn’t see it coming.”

Now a three-piece alongside fellow founding members Astro and Mickey Virtue, Ali is having to fight the ‘other’ UB40 and his own brothers for the band’s legacy.

It’s a battle he sounds determined to win.

“I sat back for five years and watched my older brother smash the band’s legacy to bits. You could have blown me down with a feather when I heard they were doing cover versions of country songs on the Getting Over The Storm album last year. I was horrified.

“The idea of Robin singing a Jim Reeves song is ridiculous. It’s a slap in the face to me and to the rest of the original band and to the fans. I thought ‘sod this, I’m taking the name back.’”

As fans will discover at Nostell Priory next month and a series of 02 Academy shows later in the year, it would be wrong to assume the legal wranglings and sibling rivalries have made Ali bitter about the business.

Most of his close friends to this day are musicians, including fellow reggae greats Maxi Priest and members of Aswad.

In fact, Ali’s love of the music which made his name seems stronger than ever.

Ali says: “What makes it all worth it is going out and playing to people. Unlike my brothers’ band, I’ve never played smaller and smaller shows.

“I’ve been flying the flag for reggae ever since they made me leave UB40.

“In Africa I played in front of 20,000 tribesmen who sang my songs back to me.

“It doesn’t get any better than singing The Harder They Come on stage with Jimmy Cliff himself.”