In Balsall Heath – a diverse multicultural working-class area with a huge student population in the Birmingham of the late 1970s and 1980s – there was not much to do for many, as were several others in the UK at the time. The economy has stagnated and jobs continued to plummet as a result of the energy crisis triggered by a surge in oil prices following a Middle East embargo. The crisis led to stagflation, with inflation rising in tandem with unemployment. In this setting, in 1978, a bunch of guys – singer Ali Campbell, his brother Robin Campbell, percussionist Jimmy Brown, bassist Earl Falconer and saxophonist Brian Trevors along with some friends – sang about what they saw around them – racism and racial segregation. , growing industrial disorder, unemployment, talks of revolution and Margaret Thatcher’s policies that increase inequalities in an unstable economy.
Since none of the guys had a job, the eight members of the band called themselves UB40, meaning Unemployment Benefit Form 40 – the form filled out at the time to apply for unemployment benefits. The name caught on and so did the music. The lyrics were political, the sound — chosen from a bouquet of bhangra, Bollywood music and Jamaican melodies that dominated Balsall Hall due to a massive influx of people from India, Pakistan and Jamaica to fill post-war labor shortages — was reggae. According to the band members, the Windrush generation nearby – who came from the Caribbean – had more of an impact than the rest. And UB40’s rebellious music began to fall into place. “When these people started settling in, the area came alive with so much color and music. It was the best education you can get and it was a privilege to be there,” Brown said in a Zoom interview with The Pyjama People.
As for the music, Robin Campbell says UB40 hasn’t changed.
But UB40 didn’t exactly do reggae the Jamaican way. They were different in that they were not Jamaican and fused their own influences with what they understood from reggae – Jamaican music that grew out of ska and rocksteady and was heavily influenced by jazz and blues. Over the years, many successful lilting reggae pieces such as Red Red Wine and Can’t help fall in love with me (which became a title for Sharon Stone’s film Silver), Madam Medusa (a song for Thatcher) and Kingston Town an important entity. The Beatles were already a phenomenon. Amid that, 50 UK hit singles and four Best Reggae Album Grammy nominations made things impressive. “We’ve definitely been political and we had quite a few things we wanted to talk about. A lot of those things we said are universal and still applicable,” says Robin.
Forty years later, minus Ali Campbell, who left over management and business disputes in 2008, keyboardist Micky Virtue and percussionist and trumpeter Astro who followed him, are still trying to get strong. Ali, the front man, was replaced by his brother Duncan, while Brian Trevers and Norrman Hassan continued the old lineup. But a few years later, Ali started touring as UB40 with Astro and Virtue, and the case went to court because Robin and his bandmates believed Ali was confusing people by using the same band name. In 2011, five members of the band, including Ali, went bankrupt and owed money to the record label. The legal battle has continued and a massive battle of words has been publicly exchanged by the brothers through a series of press statements. “It was traumatic when he left. But we definitely went further. There is nothing unusual about someone leaving a band. Yes, we were in shock. Not that we didn’t know he was going. We knew we were going to move on, we weren’t sure how. Thirteen years later, we enjoy it just as much, if not more. We are proud of what we do musically,” says Robin. The band’s last album was titled For the Many (2019), an interpretation of one of the Labor Party slogans.
UB40 is now out with a new album titled Bigga Baggariddim, a fresh take on their 1985 album Baggariddim, featuring guest artists who appeared on the 1985 album and new reggae artists from Jamaica, New Zealand and India, among others. Zorawar Shukla (General Zooz) of Reggae Rajahs collaborated on one of the band’s pieces: Roots Rock Reggae. The album will be released on June 25. “We never thought India had a reggae scene, despite growing up in a neighborhood where we heard a lot of Indian music. At the time we thought it was us and Jamaica. But everywhere we go, it has been adapted, including in India. And that local flavor is so interesting to hear,” says Robin. When the band went on tour in 2016, they discovered Reggae Rajahs, which opened for the band in Mumbai. Shukla, meanwhile, heard UB40 when he was a young boy at school. “My parents were very fond of English music, so that’s where my interest came from. After we opened for UB40, they kept in touch. So when they were looking for guest vocalists, they contacted us and asked us to represent India,” says Shukla. He adds that reggae has been a fun genre in India, a relaxed upbeat sound, but never pushed from a cultural angle or approached in terms of philosophy. “Reggae is not just a relaxed island atmosphere. And we tried to represent it through culture,” Shukla says.
As for the music, Robin says the band hasn’t changed. “It evolves and changes subtly, but we still write as a band and we still play music by jamming, since none of us can read or write music. Essentially, it’s absolutely the same,” says Robin. “Politically speaking, the messages we had then have not changed at all, because we are saying the same things as 40 years ago. Ultimately, it’s about haves and have-nots,” says Brown.
The political texts of the past were spoken of by many with silent awe. But no one considered MI5, the British security service, in the band’s life. Earlier this month, Brown claimed that MI5 tapped and placed under surveillance the reggae band’s phones, fearing the band was plotting a socialist revolution through their songs. The story had come out after MI5 whistleblower David Sheylar, a former officer at the agency, spilled the beans several years ago. The band had been unaware of any supervision until then. says Brown. “I thought it was all ridiculous. It just showed how out of touch with reality these ghosts were. It makes me think that if an anti-establishment plot was invented somewhere, they would have no idea because they were too busy watching a bunch of pot-head reggae musicians. They must have a serious siege mentality if they feel attacked by us,” says Brown. So far the band is not complaining. Although Brown had said they had thought about it .