Growing up in Birmingham at the age of ten, I knew what reggae was. Reggae was the music I heard booming out of upstairs windows on when my dad drove through Balsall Heath. Reggae was the sound of the occasional chart hit on the radio speaker, straining to be heard over the pinball machines in my parents’ chip shop. Reggae was Uptown Top Ranking. Reggae was Jamming. It was Now That We’ve Found Love. What did this music sound like? I probably wouldn’t have been able to put it into words at that point. But it sounded like it had come from a hot and far away place. In my childhood imaginings, reggae was Jamaica.
The reason I have a clear memory of hearing UB40 for the very first time though, is that UB40 did not sound like Jamaica. On a March evening in 1980, I found myself returning from a school trip in a transit van that had crudely been converted into a school minibus – just two benches running along the length of either side of the vehicle. When Food For Thought came on the radio, it rose up and dispersed like a vapor that enveloped the world outside: the Chrysler factory glistening in the rain on Coventry Road; the sulphur light of the subways beneath the Bull Ring; black kids and white kids hanging around on every street corners because there quite simply wasn’t that much else to do.
Listening to UB40’s debut single and the album that followed it, some thirty years after they first appeared is a deeply evocative experience. This is music that effortlessly catapults you back to a Britain we recognize from grainy footage of picket lines and overcrowded benefit offices. Signing Off may not have been intended to document much beyond the sound that eight young men from Moseley made when they played music together. But that’s neither here nor there. Without knowing it, they were merely following the advice laid down by Ernest Hemingway when he suggested that your first and foremost duty as an artist is to write down the truest thing you know.
For UB40, growing up in Moseley and the surrounding neighbourhoods, the truest thing they knew was reggae. There was no discussion about what sort of music they would play. That Ali and Robin Campbell’s father Ian was a well-known folk singer may have informed the seam of social awareness that prompted Robin to write about famine in Africa on Food For Thought. The lyric famously misheard as “I’m a prima donna/Standing in the dark” is actually “Ivory Madonna/Dying in the dust/Waiting for the manna/Coming from the West.” As the oldest of the Campbell brothers, Robin had been already been playing guitar for a few years when the ripples of the splash made by punk pushed out as far as Birmingham. “I only knew half a dozen chords,” he remembers, “But it turned out that they were the only half a dozen I needed to know.”
Forming a band was less about wanting to become famous or take over the world, more just a function of friendships that already existed. As a teenager in nearby Acocks Green, Brian Travers remembers donning his crombie jacket on a Friday night and dancing to reggae, bluebeat and soul at Crosby Hall youth club. “Because music is so readily available these days, it’s perhaps hard to convey just how important it was to people back then. All my friends were black or Asian. You had television, but television was white. There was no black TV; no Asian TV. So black kids turned to music to find a representation of themselves. For that reason, music was more important than telly. And, in turn, what your mates are into is more important than anything else. If you’re part of something, you’re part of something.”
Brian may have felt part of something, but the roots of what was to become UB40 were germinating two miles away. From where he grew up, it was a three mile ride on the number 1 to Moseley. A short walk from the bus stop in Moseley village was the flat at 106 Trafalgar Road, where Earl Falconer lived. Earl knew Brian (along with Jimmy Brown and Ali Campbell) from their time at Moseley School of Art. When a room became available next door to Earl, Brian moved in.
With unemployment surging upwards, Brian and Earl would have to travel beyond Birmingham, getting casual work on building sites as far afield as Leeds and Coventry. With their savings and the criminal compensation money awarded to Ali Campbell after he was attacked in a pub, they bought their first instruments. For Travers the soul fan, saxophone was a logical choice – although, as he explains, his reasons were more practical. “I had been an apprentice electrician, which fuelled my hatred of electricity. Choosing to learn the saxophone meant that I didn’t have to rely on electricity.”
In the summer of 1978, the first rehearsals of what became UB40 took place in the basement of Earl’s flat – initially just Earl on bass, Jimmy Brown on drums and Ali singing. Robin remembers them trying to learn by copying their favourite records – “there was one by Bim Sherman and another by Gregory Isaacs. It was just three songs that they copied parrot-fashion. Earl had his bass tuned wrong. We had already come together once before, but I had left saying that it would never amount to anything. They stuck to it though, and when they asked me to have another listen, it suddenly started to sound something like music.”
“The basement was only accessible from the outside,” remembers Brian, “You went down these steps and it was completely derelict – just leaves and dirt. But we cleaned it out and worked hard at getting better. Robin knew the chords to House of the Rising Sun, so when he joined in earnest, that’s what we would base a rehearsal on. It was all basic stuff, but we worked really hard at it.”
Had UB40 been well-versed with their respective instruments, the incentive to write original songs might not have been as great. It would be four more years – with the release of 1983’s Labour of Love – that the group felt sufficiently emboldened to record an album of covers. Be that as it may, that intense early period of rehearsals yielded dramatic results. By any stretch of the imagination, the soulful small-hours instrumental reverie of Signing Off and King – which illustrated the degree to which James and Earl had gelled as a rhythm section – were a phenomenal way for any band to open their songwriting account. Written collectively at around the same time, Burden of Shame addressed the misdeeds committed in the name of colonialism, portending sentiments that many would have cause to feel anew at the height of the Falklands conflict.
Among many young musicians at that time, Margaret Thatcher had quickly become an unlikely muse – a folk devil for the politically disenfranchised – and UB40 were no exception. A vocal double-hander featuring Ali and Astro, Madame Medusa was another stellar leap for the eight piece group, using their repulsion at how – Robin’s words – “the country had been taken in by this horrific woman” as a jumping-off point for a magnificently heavy thirteen minute dub-reggae excursion. “We didn’t consider it real music if it didn’t have a degree of political content,” remembers Brian, “The mere fact that a band like us even existed was political. That’s how we saw it.”
In a short space of time, UB40 had improved beyond all expectations. All young bands tend to be convinced of their own greatness – aren’t youthful chutzpah and self-belief the qualities that make you form a band in the first place? In this case, however, there were plenty of witnesses to the band’s progress. “In the basement, all our mates from Moseley would hang out and watch,” recalls Brian. After months spent raising their profile via an assiduous local fly-posting campaign, the next step was to play a show. Ahead of their maiden concert in February 1979 – a private party for a friend’s birthday – Robin remembers being a “total bag of nerves, expecting it all to go wrong.” In fact, the 40 minute set went down “amazingly.”
Over the next few weeks, the co-ordinates of UB40’s trajectory would be charted by the increasingly feverish reaction that met their three-night residency of shows at Moseley’s New Inn. As Jimmy recalls, “the first was a good crowd, the second was sold out and on the third, you had more people locked out trying to get in than were actually in the pub.” One person quick to cotton on to their potential was local producer Bob Lamb. “By the time I happened upon them, they were writing quite prolifically, he remembers. “They came to my studio and the first song they recorded was King. They laid down the backing track, which was beautiful. When Robin, Ali and Jimmy sang the vocal together around one mic. I nearly fell off my chair. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was just amazing.”
The serendipity of having Bob Lamb nearby meant that UB40 could engineer their ascent whilst barely having to leave their own postcode. Even if London-based major labels had registered their existence, the group felt that they had good reason to keep them at bay. “It was brave of them to keep it independent,” says Lamb. Their determination to do just that was, according to Robin, a result of the Campbells’ upbringing. “I remember my dad telling me that all record companies and publishers were evil,” he smiles, “So, when some labels finally did approach us, we made all sorts of demands. Nothing too extreme – just things like total artistic control.”
When the time finally did come to make a record, the group elected to do so with Graduate – a small independent label run by Dudley-based record shop owner David Virr. The immediate success of Food For Thought/King vindicated their self-belief, vaulting them into British top five – an unparalleled feat from a completely independently run label. As Ali Campbell points out, “That was when calling the band UB40 instantly came into its own. We instantly had three million card-carrying fans.”
Even getting the chance to make a record represented untold excitement. “As far as I was concerned,” remembers Brian, “only really famous people made records, not the likes of us! Bob got the first pressing in and we all went over to his place in Kings Heath. We were elated.” As the man responsible for the song’s yearning saxophone hook, Brian had particular cause to take pride in the song’s nationwide ubiquity. “I remember standing at the bus stop and hearing it coming out of cars sitting in traffic jams. I couldn’t believe that was my record.”
Between the winter and spring of 1980, the airwaves belonged to Food For Thought. The ascent of 2-Tone had propelled The Specials and Madness into the charts, but their sound at this time was revivalist at its core, centering around ska and bluebeat. Food For Thought and King presented an altogether more uncompromising noise – one that reflected the sound system culture of UB40’s immediate locale. Listen to those songs with fresh ears, and what strikes you is just how – by any conventional criteria – uncommercial they sound. Once in a while though, a song captures the public imagination by virtue of what it [italic] doesn’t [italic] do. Whither the notion of “commercial” when applied to Otis Redding’s Sittin’ On The Dock (Of The Bay)? – a song about homelessness which boasts no chorus and a whistling solo. It’s no exaggeration to say that Food For Thought struck a chord of similar proportions. The exact numbers differ, but common consensus puts the song’s sales at around half a million.
A second top ten single, My Way Of Thinking kept UB40’s profile high while they completed work on their debut album. By all accounts, the sessions for Signing Off went by in an idyllic haze, with many individual tracks recorded in Bob Lamb’s garden! Percussionist and trombonist Norman Hassan has even claimed that if you listen hard to some of the tracks, you can even hear the birds tweeting in the background. “The vision everyone had for Signing Off was so pure,” says Bob. “A major label would have totally screwed it up.” Or, at the very least, diluted their uncompromising vision. Take for instance, the cover. One of the truly iconic record sleeves of its time, the blown-up facsimile of brown card that every jobless person had to bring with them when visiting the dole office anchors Signing Off to the very circumstances that informed its creation.
But, of course, it was the music which ultimately ensured that the album – voted by Q Magazine in 2000 as one of the hundred greatest British albums of all time – would go on to spend 72 weeks in the album chart. That would have counted as a hell of an achievement for any album. If you listen to Signing Off with fresh ears, thirty years after its original release, that feat seems more astounding than ever. Little By Little and a well-chosen cover of Randy Newman’s I Think It’s Going To Rain were sonic barometers of Britain between the winter of discontent and the decade of desolation ushered in by Thatcherism – whilst Tyler showed a group that was no less adept at addressing subject matter that lay further afield. Once again, the influence of the Campbells’ father manifested itself on Tyler. “Police gun was planted/No matching bullets/No prints on the handle…” sang Ali on Tyler, outlining the suspicious grounds upon which teenage African-American Gary Tyler was sentenced for murder by a Louisiana jury.
Younger music fans who associate UB40 with huge number one hits such as Red Red Wine, Can’t Help Falling In Love and their duet with longtime fan Chrissie Hynde on I Got You might struggle to reconcile that band with earth-shaking dub explorations like Madame Medusa and Reefer Madness. Both tracks originally appeared on the 12-inch that accompanied the original issue of the album. As Jimmy says, “Dub was the formative thing for me: Lee Perry, Prince Jammy – that was the music that you had on when you were smoking your spliffs. You listen to these amazing sounds achieved with really basic equipment on old King Tubby records, and through sheer force of will, you would set about doing the same thing.”
Bearing testament to Jimmy’s words are the two extraordinary recordings that comprised the UB40’s third single. Most bands, having hit the top ten with their first two singles, would surely set about trying to consolidate that early success with something more outwardly commercial. The third single released by UB40 confirmed that when it came to such matters, they simply didn’t appear to give a f***. Featured on the second CD here, the 12-inch versions of Dream A Lie and Earth Dies Screaming rank as arguably the heaviest recordings committed to vinyl by the group. With Earl Falconer’s near-subsonic bass rumble masterfully underscoring the whole thing, Dream A Lie locks into the sort of blissful dub groove that presaged the later critically-acclaimed work of sonic explorers like Mad Professor and even Massive Attack. Tapping into the collective cold war anxiety of the age, The Earth Dies Screaming paid host to one of Campbell’s most soulful vocals, attesting to Lamb’s claim that listening to him sing for the first time was an experience comparable to hearing the young Steve Winwood. Once again, this sort of fearlessness paid off, scoring UB40 their third top ten single in a row.
Thirty years on, it’s a purple patch from which UB40 take immense pride, and rightly so. Signing Off would be a staggering achievement from any band, let alone finding their way in a studio for the first time. “In one sense, the music might evoke dark times,” says Ali Campbell, “But there’s also an immense positivity about what UB40 did that has since been lost. Back then, Birmingham was a genuinely multiracial place. We’ve gone backwards in that respect. If you go back to our old stomping ground – Balsall Heath and Sparkhill, those places – black kids hang around with black kids and white kids stick with other whites… Hip-hop came along and we inherited the segregation that it promotes.”
For Brian Travers, listening to these songs again has been a humbling experience. “We tried to keep everything as simple as possible, because we wanted to be able to play these songs when we went on tour. In some ways, I think we were smarter then than we are now! Because that simplicity helps give these songs their power.”
“I can’t explain the feeling we had that summer when Signing Off was coming together,” smiles Bob Lamb. “Everything about it felt perfect. We knew that we were making the right record at the right time. It felt like Britain was waiting for a record like this. And, in our little corner of the world, we knew we were about to deliver it.”