When UB40 hit the stage at the Arlington Theatre this Friday night, they will be doing so with a renewed vigor. Around the time of the band’s formation in the late 1970s, Robin and Ali Campbell invited their younger brother Duncan into the mix. Though the three had sung harmonies together throughout their childhood, Duncan quickly decided to leave UB40 to his siblings, choosing instead to follow his own path in life. But when Ali left the band last year, it was to Duncan that Robin again reached out. His induction into UB40 might have finally come some 30 years later, but his presence is now definitely being felt. With a legacy of more than 30 albums and $70 million in sales, Robin Campbell believes that UB40 has never felt fresher. And to prove it, the band is heading out on tour, as well as planning to release a fourth installment of their hugely successful Labour of Love series. The Indy recently caught up with Robin to discuss the band’s longevity.
Despite producing 21 albums of original material, it has been the cover versions on the Labour of Love albums that have brought the band its greatest success. How do you feel about that? It’s certainly been that way in America, but in the U.K. we’ve had 50 hit singles and not half of them were covers. So it’s a bit more evenhanded over there. Over here the hits we’ve had have all been off the Labour of Love albums, so it’s a bit of shame that we are known as a covers band over here really.
That amount of original material is an impressive success by any standards : And the content of those albums doesn’t really change. If you listen to our last album, TwentyFourSeven, it is just as political as our first one. The lyrics are just as conscious. What can you do? If the radio stations are only playing your covers, there’s not much you can do. But the people that come to the shows know that’s not what we’re really about.
Until last year, the band had maintained the same lineup for 30 years. What was your secret to such an enduring unity? I think the secret was that we were all mates before we were a band. We didn’t come together to form a band, we were a gang that hung together. Most of the band went to school together and we hung in the same places. And I think that helped us deal with all the crap that people have to deal with in band. It took a long while for egos to take over. We kept ourselves normal for a long time!
What drew a bunch of lads from Birmingham to reggae in the first place? The area; we grew up in was an immigrant area and that’s what we heard. That’s what was in the streets and at the parties and clubs, so it was never a strange thing to us. It wasn’t until we started taking our music around the country that we realized that a lot of other people weren’t listening to what we were. But it was only ever reggae for us. That’s what we grew up on and that’s what we knew.
At the outset, how far did you want to take your music? We set out to take reggae around the world. Especially when we realized that, outside of the area we grew up in, reggae wasn’t as big as we thought it was. That’s always been our mission. We spent the last few decades traveling the globe, and for a bunch of kids that started out in the slums of Borsal Heath in Birmingham to be still doing that now is a pretty amazing thing.
In taking reggae to the world, you have had some amazing experiences. I believe UB40 was the first Western band to tour the USSR? Yeah, in1986 we went over and toured Russia. A couple of other artists had been there before and done one-off concerts for dignitaries and officials, but ours was the first proper tour playing large venues to the populous as a whole. It was a pretty amazing trip. It was fairly unpleasant at times-we lived on boiled eggs and vodka-but it was a real trip to be there then.
And another must have been the concerts you did in South Africa shortly after the demise of Apartheid? That was another stellar moment for the band. We observed the cultural boycott for many years, so when Apartheid was abolished and Mandela became President, it was a fantastic thing to go there. We played three nights to 70,000 people each night. And to go there and sing a song that we wrote for the people of South Africa under Apartheid and have the entire audience singing it back to you really made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Just thinking about that experience and talking about it now is giving me goose pimples. It really was a pretty incredible moment.
Twiin Productions and KRUZ 97.5 present UB40 at Arlington Theatre this Friday, April 24, at 8 p.m. Call 963-4408 or visit twiinproductions.com for details.