Lots of records are tainted by compromise, but very few have that term attached to them by the people who worked on them. However, in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich had exactly that to say about the debut album by Thom Yorke’s “other band.” It might, of course, have been awkward, were it not for the fact that: (a) Godrich is also in that band; and (b) Yorke was in the room when Godrich said it. “This is the eternal battle with Thom,” he explained, much to Yorke’s apparent amusement. “He’s like ‘I really want to make a dance record. But I have to sing on it, or nobody’s going to fucking care. ‘ This is his compromise.”
Hooray for compromise. And even if Yorke’s contention that “there’s no such thing… as a good tune with no vocals” suggests he’s never heard Axel F or the theme tune to Van Der Valk, it’s good that he believes it to be so. That much became apparent as early as last September when the first fruits of Yorke’s moonlighting collaboration with Flea, Joey Waronker, Mauro Refosco and Godrich emerged. The song in question was Default, a soft, sinewy collision of sustained bass notes and pattering dubstep beats intermittently quelled by one of those febrile hooks that, in a post-Kid A world, have acted as something of a Thom Yorke calling card. As a preview of what to expect on Amok, it’s not inaccurate. In line with a project that grew out of the live band that Yorke assembled to play songs from his 2006 solo album The Eraser, trace elements of that album’s cold-war synthscapes and slurring digital oscillations can be found, most notably on Dropped and Judge Jury And Executioner.
But if this can no longer be called a solo project, what’s the band up to? Alight on a spooked symphony of panic buttons called Unless and, actually, it’s no clearer than it was during the sessions for Kid A – sessions that Colin Greenwood memorably described as “two years of intense manual reading.” In fact, there’s little by way of conventional drumming on much of Amok. And even Flea is a muted presence compared to his slaptastic work with Red Hot Chili Peppers. That’ll be no doubt down to the role as “conductors” that Yorke and Godrich assigned to themselves – a role that yields quietly spectacular results throughout the record. On the sonic establishing shot of Before Our Very Eyes, we’re presented with a simple descending guitar motif, a rhythm of syncopated clicks that slowly vanish behind an electronic mist and lyrics siphoned from the precise moment when consciousness succumbs to the molten logic of dreams.
Sounding more like an actual band in a room than at any other point on the album, Reverse Running sees Yorke’s illustrious sidemen gently embellish his vocal with a restive half-funk that wouldn’t sound too out of place on a D’Angelo album. Perhaps more than any other song though, it’s Ingenue that you’ll return to again and again: a dripping tap in lieu of percussion, a synth and bassline that writhe and move around each other like two figure skaters. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? And yet, from such a slender premise, a familiar spell takes hold. Yorke sings and you’re face-to-face with that false sense of deja vu that happens when you hear great pop for the first time.
All of which brings us squarely back to where we started – Yorke and his unique ownership of an instrument for which his beloved Flying Lotus, Autechre and Four Tet would surely pawn all their hardware. If he wants to be disingenuous, he can call it a compromise. To an impartial observer though, it sounds like the best of both worlds. And it buys Atoms For Peace the goodwill to be as experimental as they like.
The new Brian? In some ways, it was an inevitable development. Four years ago, when Brian Wilson finally finished work on the daddy of all lost masterpieces, Smile, it was only natural that the world would need to anoint a new Great Lost Beach Boys Album to replace the other one.
With his only completed solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue, long deleted and its mythical successor Bambu never released, Dennis Wilson was something of an entire lost Beach Boy – feted only by fans who had checked the credits of post-Pet Sounds albums and realised that the hirsute, handsome one on the drums had a surprisingly keen strike rate. Cuddle Up from Carl & The Passions/So Tough? That was his?! Forever and several more from Sunflower? That was Dennis too?! Who knew?
Well, The Beach Boys did, of course, but it wasn’t as though they did much to nurture him. “He was under-appreciated in our band,” said Al Jardine, perhaps remember how intensely Dennis railed against The Beach Boys’ mid-70s transformation into an oldies act. Using Dennis songs could have helped them out of a spot, just like it did with Sunflower – but when the cynical retro-dreck of 15 Big Ones came out in 1975, he took the songs he had co-written with old pal Gregg Jakobson to Jim Guercio, head of Caribou Records. In doing so, he became the first Beach Boy to release a solo album. When Pacific Ocean Blue went head-to-head with The Beach Boys’ next album Love You, the one regarded by his tyrannical father as the talentless one stole it hands down, outselling his brothers by two-to-one.
In the interim, decades of unavailability have done sterling work to ratchet its stock further up, earning it plaudits from fans such as The Verve, Primal Scream and The Charlatans.
Well, during key moments of the newly remastered Pacific Ocean Blue, certainly not. It’s hard to talk about the Carl Wilson-assisted River Song in anything other than the very terminology it deploys: rising torrents of gospel harmonies, the freshwater piano trickle that starts the thing off; and the unstoppable current of Wilson’s voice, blurring nature and love into an irresistible all-consuming force. Rainbows is a love-drunk paean to life lived large carried effortlessly by the pistons-hissing chug of its own backing track. Farewell My Friend is a requiem to just-deceased Beach Boys’ associate Otto Hinsche, apparently written at the piano in a single rhapsodic outpouring to the astonishment of all present.
These are songs you could live your life to, were it not for the fact that its creator expired doing just that. You can guess what kind of a husband Dennis was to his four wives by cocking an ear to Time. “I’m the kind of guy who loves to mess around,” sings the sad miscreant more out of regret than pride. If Wilson’s ex-wives still seem anguished by his passing, Thoughts Of You goes some way to explaining why. Moving from hair-shirt minor chords and hushed, penitent assurances into a major-chord sunburst of temporary resolution, he sings “All things that live, one day must die” – and his voice hurts like you’ve never heard a Beach Boy’s voice hurt before.
On Pacific Ocean Blue, Dennis’s two sides – the boozy bon viveur and repentant child – often co-exist within the same song. Not so the songs from Bambu. The hoarse, hungover croak evokes Harry Nilsson, whose recreational habits mirrored Dennis’s own. And like Nilsson’s underrated 1972 album Nilsson Schmilsson, Bambu veers wildly between ribald, roister-doistering and achingly tender declarations of love. The reasons were simple enough here. The former songs – School Girl He’s A Bum, Wild Situation – were mostly written with Gregg Jakobson (although I Love You is tender exception). But what really sets Bambu apart is the arrival of jazz guitarist and sometime Beach Boys sideman Carli Munoz as a writer of songs that nailed Wilson’s mile-wide romantic streak.
Collectors will be familiar with tunes like Under The Moonlight and All Alone from bootlegs. But, by God, have they scrubbed up well. Bereft of the damp, flatulent drum thwacks of the bootlegs, It’s Not Too Late is like a bedraggled refugee from Dion’s Born To Be With You – Dennis’s sandpaper croon groping for love like a infant feels around for its mother at night. Also from Munoz, an ultra-vivid burst of Latino jazz-pop Constant Companion benefits from a rich dimension of choral harmonies hitherto unheard on unofficial recordings.
Nearly 25 years after Dennis’s death, we’ll never know if this version of Bambu corresponds to the album that he confidently predicted would surpass Pacific Ocean Blue. There’s no doubting the lengths gone to by those around him to realize Dennis’s dream. Original engineer John Hanlon has helped oversee the completion of the previously half-written Holy Man – a lovely idea, but surely less totally arbitrary singers than Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins might have sprung to mind? Did brother Brian not oblige?
Whatever the reasons, in the final analysis, it feels churlish to pick nits – especially bearing in mind the fact that this was an album that had been left abandoned a full four years before Dennis Wilson died in 1983. In death as in life, Dennis’s closest friends seemed to hold his vision in higher regard than he did. In his words, “They say I live a fast life. Maybe I just like a fast life. I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world. It won’t last forever, either. But the memories will.” They will now.
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.”