Almost 40 years on from his band’s first release, Ali Campbell still believes he has a very special job to do when it comes to maintaining the popularity of the music he plays.
“It was always our mission to promote reggae,” he tells me, ahead of UB40’s gig at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground in May.
“I’m still doing the same thing I was doing all those years ago – promoting reggae music because it’s the music I love.”
Since they formed in Birmingham in 1978, UB40 have sold more than 70 million records and had more than 50 singles in the UK Singles Chart, including huge worldwide hits like Red Red Wine, One in Ten, (I Can’t Help) Falling In Love, Breakfast in Bed and Kingston Town.
Famously named after the document issued to people claiming unemployment benefit, UB40’s first album, Signing Off, saw the band set their stall out as a fiercely political outfit determined to talk about the problems that were then affecting inner-city Britain.
“Reggae is protest music or ‘social music’ which is how Miles Davis described jazz,” chuckles Ali, in his broad Birmingham accent.
“You can say a lot more with a drum and a bass than you can with words anyway – what unifies the reggae fraternity is the beat, not the lyric. It’s a sufferer’s music and I think anyone can recognise that as soon as they hear it.
“My politics have never changed, although if anything I’ve got more cynical, but it’s interesting times politically.
“We’ve got a prime minister that we didn’t vote for and Trump on the other side of the pond – as the saying goes, may we live in interesting times.”
When mentioning the band’s illustrious history, the elephant in the room or, if you prefer, the rat in the kitchen, is the very public split that occurred in 2008. UB40’s line-up was stable for nearly 29 years until Ali left, followed shortly after by keyboardist Mickey Virtue. Another member, Astro, remained with the band until November 2013 when he departed to team up with Ali and Mickey in an all-new version of UB40.
To make things even more complicated, Ali’s brothers, Duncan and Robin Campbell, to whom Ali has not spoken for years, also use the band’s name, with the resulting legal wrangling becoming a long-running feud between the two factions.
“The situation is the same as it ever was,” says a surprisingly open Ali.
“I left nine years ago now and I left my own band, not because I wanted to go solo, but because I was having big problems with the management.
“When I left, I found out some band members had been in cahoots with the management and it was all very unpleasant.
“Mickey left with me for the same reasons and Astro joined us three years ago and we’ve been enjoying our renaissance for the last three years.
“We’ve been selling out everywhere we go and doing some fabulous tours.
“It’s too far down the road to speak about a reconciliation.
“What I’ve got is the hottest reggae band on the road in the world so why would I want to change that?
“To be reunited with the old dudes would really be going backwards for me – we are starting work on a new album and have tours booked for the next two years including America and the UK.
“Then we’ve got South Africa and Asia and then it’ll probably be back to the South Pacific and then there’s Caribbean tours on the way.
“We’re thoroughly enjoying what we’re doing and we want to be doing new material as well.”
For most younger bands, a punishing tour schedule like this would prompt complaints, but 58-year-old Ali has no such worries.
“Luckily, we were always a live act and even though we’ve sold over 70 million records we were a live act first and foremost and thank God for that because CDs don’t really sell anymore,” says Ali.
“The only people who’ve been able to adapt to the situation are live acts, which is why you’ve got so many heritage acts headlining festivals – the new acts haven’t got the material.
“I’ve just spent 13 days in the Caribbean and then we went to Florida and before that were in Hawaii for two shows and before that we playing wineries in New Zealand and Australia.
“You tell me if that sounds like a tiring life? Because we do it in style and comfort these days, it’s all I want to be doing.
“We’re not in the back of a Luton van with our gear anymore so what’s not to love? I’m going out there to sold-out audiences who are very appreciative and we’re working solidly.
“I’m at the top of my game in the career I chose, have a great family and we’re having a great time.”
As well as getting to see Ali, Astro and Mickey, audiences on the forthcoming shows will also be treated to fellow 80s stars Level 42, as well as the Original Wailers and new reggae act Raging Fyah.
“The reason we’ve brought the Original Wailers with us is because they were the biggest influence on us growing up,” says Ali, describing Bob Marley’s former backing band.
“We’ve got Raging Fyah because they’re the new vanguard – young kids coming out of Jamaica who are playing roots reggae and none of the gangsta business.
“They’re the new generation who’ve come back to great lyrics and wicked beats.
“Bob was our prophet wasn’t he?
“Every generation has one and Marley was ours and to have the Wailers on the road with us is fabulous. We’ve had Steve Marley playing with us and Bob’s grandson guest too and for us it’s just dreamland because we loved the Wailers.”
This summer sees the band return to the UK for the first time since last year’s emotional shows which saw them perform the classic Labour of Love albums to sell-out arena crowds across the country. It’s fair to say they’re on a bit of a roll.
“We cannot wait to perform for all our fans at Wrexham next summer and pull out all the favourites that our fans love the most,” adds Ali, signing off with an enthusiastic flourish.
“The Grandslam Tour is going to be a brilliant experience for both us and the fans so big love to everyone in Wrexham and I hope you can all come to party with us.”
UB40 – featuring Ali Campbell, Astro and Mickey Virtue – with special guests Level 42, The Original Wailers and Raging Fyah – takes place at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground on Friday, May 26.
Tickets are priced at £35 plus booking fee (general admission) and £50 plus booking fee (Platinum enclosure)
www.UB40.org / www.ticketmaster.co.uk/ www.lhgtickets.com
Tickets are all standing
Disabled tickets are available directly from the venue
Hospitality packages are available at some venues, with these including parking a buffet meal and access to a private bar. Details are available directly from each venue.
See full story in the Leader