“It’s a good time for reggae now. We should be the biggest band in the world!” - hmv.com talks to UB40
Throughout the great success they enjoyed in the 1980s and 1990s, UB40, who’d built their careers on channelling the reggae of Jamaica into British pop music, never forget what inspired them in the first place.
In 1983, 1989 and 1998, they release three albums under the name Labour Of Love, all of which consisted of cover versions of the reggae singles that had inspired their sound. It was on the first Labour Of Love, in fact, that they unleashed their megahit ‘Red Red Wine’, itself a cover of Neil Diamond’s hit single. It’s still probably their biggest hit.
Now things are a little different in the UB40 camp these days.
In 2008, the line-up splintered; the half of UB40 featuring original singer Ali Campbell, backing singer Astro and keyboard player Mickey Virtue all departed the band, leaving co-founding members drummer Jimmy Brown, guitarist Robin Campbell, bassist Earl Falconer, percussionist Norman Hassan, and saxophonist Brian Travers, along with new vocalist Duncan Campbell, to get on with things.
The remaining members have released two further albums and continue to tour the world, while Ali Campbell, Virtue and Astro have done the same. Confusingly, for quite a while, both groups toured under the name UB40, something which came to a head in February 2014 when both groups were due to perform concerts in Dubai on the same day.
Now Ali Campbell, Virtue and Astro perform under the name UB40 Featuring Ali, Astro & Mickey and it is they who have returned to their Labour Of Love series for a brand new record, this time taking on tracks from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Derrick Brown and Culture among others.
As the album comes to shelves, we spoke to Campbell and Astro about how it came together and why reggae’s influence in contemporary pop music is still so strong…
When did the idea to revisit Labour Of Love come about?
Ali: “We did the series back in the 1980s and 1990s and they were really successful for us and they’ve been asking us for 20 years to do another one. The reason we called it a Real Labour Of Love is just to add a bit of difference between the first three. Anyway, the time felt right, enough time had passed since the last time and we wanted to showcase a lot of songs from the mid-1980s onwards that we’ve lost.”
How did you put the list of covers you wanted to do together?
Astro: “We started off with a big list of about 80 songs and it was just getting it down. All in all, we’ve probably got enough material for another three Labour Of Loves!”
So how did you decide which tracks went on this record?
Ali: “They’re just classics. Especially in Jamaica. I’ve been going to Jamaica since as soon as I could afford to and I’ve spent a lot of time there. These are the songs that have been smashing it in Jamaica and were massive hits in the reggae charts. Our aim is pretty simple, doing reggae hits that haven’t made it across the Atlantic, exposing them to people, that’s what Labour Of Love is.”
Astro: “The first three Labour Of Love albums were the songs we grew up listening to, these are the songs we would listen to while we were touring as a band. This is us helping to bring these songs to a wider audience. To reggae fans, they’re classics, they deserve a much wider audience. I mean, we’ve been playing the hell out of all these songs for years.”
Ali: “The first three Labour Of Loves were us answering the question ‘Why do we play reggae?’ and this new one is us answering ‘Why do we continue to love reggae?’.”
How did you find recording the album?
Astro: “It was a total pleasure, very easy and very relaxed.”
Ali: “We know these songs back to front, so getting them down was a joy to do. Compared to recording your own songs, doing these are a piece of p**s. It was great fun.”
How will you take this new album out live?
Astro: “We’re itching to do it, it’s the last piece of the puzzle. We won’t be doing any shows exclusively of stuff from the new album, when people come to see us, they want to hear the hits, they want to hear the stuff they know. But we’ll put a few in.”
Ali: “We’re not a self-indulgent band, we’d never go out and do the whole new album to an audience that we know wants to hear the hits. We do a ‘Greatest Hits’ set, but we’ll stick in three or four off the new album. We know what everyone wants to hear.”
Are you working towards a new album of your own?
Astro: “We’re always constantly writing, but we’re always on the road so it’s hard to find time to get into the studio to get it down.”
Ali: “We’re working with Slightly Stoopid, Revolution, we’ve got a project with them, lots of West Coast reggae, we’re hoping to do something with the Reggaeton Stars in South America as well as some younger reggae guys in Europe. I’ve actually just been working the Fun Lovin’ Criminals, doing a track, so we’re always busy. But the next year will be promoting this album.”
It feels like the sounds of reggae is back in a big way in contemporary pop, you can’t move for a steel drum sample on a big pop hit, have you been able to work in any of the modern takes on the genre into your music?
Ali: “These tracks do feel very modern to me, certainly in how they’re recorded. But you’re dead right about how heavily influenced everybody by reggae at the moment. I love that Pharrell Williams track ‘Feels’, the one with Katy Perry, that’s great. I even saw The Script the other day on TV and they were doing a reggae tune, that made me laugh, I must say. No one goes hard though, not hard reggae, except maybe Rihanna, she goes hardcore…”
Does it warm your heart? To see the power reggae still has…
Ali: “I’d say this is the biggest reggae has ever been, definitely in its influence on contemporary dance music, you’ve got Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Beyonce, all using dancehall beats to power what they do. It’s a good time for reggae now. We should be the biggest band in the world! We’re the sole surviving daddies of reggae!”