(5 / 5)
March is a very big month for UB40. Their 39-date UK tour sets off to celebrate their 40th anniversary and they drop a brand new album of original songs – their first new one for six years.
“For The Many” is released today, 15th, sharing its title with that of the UK Labour Party’s slogan and political philosophy; the band proud supporters of Jeremy Corbyn.
It is UB40’s 19th studio album and their first since 2013’s “Getting Over The Storm”, their reggae-meets-country offering.
The new one has been crafted over a lengthy period by UB40’s founding members Robin Campbell (co-vocals/Guitar), Brian Travers (saxophone/keyboards), Jimmy Brown(drums), Earl Falconer (bass/keyboards/vocals) and Norman Hassan (percussion/vocals), alongside long-time members Duncan Campbell (vocals), Martin Meredith (saxophone), Laurence Parry (trumpet) and Tony Mullings (keyboards).
The band formed in Birmingham in 1978, naming themselves after the UK government’s unemployment benefit form. Their debut album “Signing Off” was released in August 1980 and is still revered as an absolute classic.
They have notched up a staggering 40 chart hits in the UK, including three number ones: “Red, Red Wine”, “I Got You Babe ft. Chrissie Hynde” and “(I Can’t Help) Falling in Love with You”, and topped the US charts too.
Their albums have spent a combined period of 11 years in the UK’s chart, which makes them one of the most successful British bands of all time.
So, they have had mega global success across four decades. Most people are aware they’ve had “troubles” in the more recent past when their main singer Ali Campbell left the band to go solo in 2008. Followed by two more (non-original) members, Astro and Mickey Virtue, who decided to trade on the band’s name, which sparked court action (Virtue has since left that band too).
There was also major financial grief from the band’s business affairs, which resulted in some of the band being made bankrupt and losing everything, including royalties from their songs signed over to HMRC.
But they do not rest on their laurels and trade on past glories, nor do they wallow in self-pity. For me, they have shown great restraint and dignity amid a shit storm of often nasty propaganda, aimed at them via social media from keyboard warriors and trolls who show loyalty to the other band and former singer.
But they are constantly touring worldwide filling arenas, and this year will embark on not only their 40th anniversary UK tour, but also a major trek across the USA and Canada, postponed from last year when the recording of the new album ran over.
They don’t tread old ground with their new music either. Far from it. When you read the phrase “back to their roots” in a record review, it is usually a cute way of saying, “rehashing old material again and again….”.
But not in this case. It is true this new record sounds in the main like “vintage” UB40, but that’s a good thing. A positive. They have come up with a bunch of their own songs that will trigger memories of their early days and their best work.
Amid all the muck that has been thrown their way from former members and the media, they have reflected on why they formed a band in the first place, and the family bond they all have – not just those with the surname Campbell either.
To have a voice to express disquiet about the unjust world around them, but mainly because of their mutual love and respect for the style of feel-good music that eminated from Jamaica.
The stuff here – dancehall, rock steady, ska, ragga, lovers rock, some tasty toasters and the reggae kitchen sink – all with that unmistakable hallmark of a classic UB40 track, is the kind of stuff that inspired a bunch of boys on the dole in Brum to form a band.
To express their anger and disgust about how they and millions of others were being dumped on the scrap heap by the then Tory Government fronted by The Iron Lady back in the late 1970s. I’ll take a lyric from their 1981 hit “One In Ten”, which goes: “I am a one in ten, a statistical reminder of a world that doesn’t care”. Powerful stuff.
Looking at the terrible stats of how many have taken their own lives over the Universal Credit benefits scandal, and those being refused help when they are genuinely too sick to work, Jimmy Brown’s gut punching lyrics could well have been written in 2019, not 38 years ago.
So, they are still relevant. And they are still capable of making great music. Live there is no other British reggae act that could touch them. A UB40 concert is more of a spiritual experience for most fans who buy tickets, than a gig and a few beers. It’s a family get together….For the many….
Before we get into the new music, the album’s cover artwork was created by their founder member sax man, keyboard player, arranger and one of the main songwriters, Brian Travers. His abstract canvases have been the subject of several highly acclaimed exhibitions. You can read all about Brian’s art here: http://www.musicrepublicmagazine.com/2016/12/art-soul-brian-travers/
The opening track, “The Keeper” is a sure-fire winner and one of the very best cuts of the 10. The hook will get inside your head and stay there. The lead vocal by Robin Campbell is really lovely, and not too far away from the timbre of his brother and former lead singer Ali.
The horn arrangement and performance is exemplary, and Jimmy Brown’s drum track is killer. Mr Brown and Earl Falconer on bass channelling Sly and Robbie in fine style across the whole record. The dream team. Production values get big props too.
Trade-mark cool and classy sound of UB40 back in the day, when “King” and “Food For Thought” were tearing up the airwaves. Five minutes and five seconds of sunshine.
“Broken Man”, featuring Jamaican producer and artist Kabaka Pyramid, another cracker. More sparkling horns and an arrangement tighter than the Chancellor of the Exchequer on budget day.
Strong lead vocal from Norman Hassan and super ensemble vocal parts. Kabaka’s reggae “rap” adds value, but it’s the strength of the song writing and the overall production vibe that seals the deal here.
Jimmy Brown penned the single, “Gravy Train” which attacks the elite who bank offshore at the expense of the rest of us, and the posh politicians who look after their rich mates and themselves and not the people who elected them.
The single’s artwork was drawn by talented Birmingham artist Void One, and shows May, Trump, Rees-Mogg, Cameron and Putin riding the gravy train, champagne in their glass and a sign pointing “offshore”.
Duncan Campbell takes lead vocal in fine style, with the artist Slinger slinging in his ten pennorth on a more up-tempo track from the first two. Infectious hook and very radio friendly.
Duncan has that Campbell tone to his voice that he, Robin and Ali all possess. But he has perfect diction, from his years of singing Sinatra/big band style music.
Ali was a great singer for the band back in the day, but it was hard to understand a lot of the lyrics of much of the stuff he sang. No disrespect intended. For me, if a song has been written with lyrics, I want to hear every word and understand what the song is about.
If you are not singing, humming or whistling “Gravy Train” after one listen, get your ears syringed super quick! Slinger appeared on the band’s 1985 album “Baggariddim” and pops back up on this cut and does a nice job. But for me, Duncan on his own would have been more than enough.
UB40 are also reunited with reggae DJ and artist Pablo Rider on “I’m Alright Jack”, who also appeared on their 1985 album. Another one for Duncan to take lead vocals on, who penned this song. He sounds a tad different on this, to the other three cuts he sings lead on. Pablo adds the fun with his vocal part.
At six minutes and 11 seconds, a shave of two minutes would have been OK with me. Maybe there is a radio edit, because this would make a good single minus the lengthy dub instrumental part. Jimmy and Earl are locked in tight together to make the dub mix an easier job on a promised dub version of this album.
Norman Hassan sings lead on the first single from the album, “Moonlight Lover”, the sole cover on the record, a classic originally by Joya Landis. This new version features a guest spot from Birmingham rapper Gilly G. Nice crisp horns, but the song and the rap just don’t grab me.
Duncan fronts “You Haven’t Called”, a track that was given away for free with all pre-orders of the album, along with “Moonlight Lover”, which were both singles. See the video to “You Haven’t Called”, at the bottom of this page.
This track has a strong lead vocal from Duncan, and will become a favourite for the fans, methinks. Nice solid production and not too much thrown at it – lets the song breath. No need for guests. Great hook. This one at six minutes and 23 seconds, with the extended instrumental section, does work in its current length, for me.
Bass man Earl Falconer takes his turn up front on the lead vox for the track that has a title that made me smile: “Whatever Happened To UB40”, considering the band’s well publicised history in the last decade or so.
The lyric seemingly makes veiled references to the former lead singer and others who have vexed this band. No matter what inspired the track, it deserves a place on the record.
Might be seen as a bit of a Marmite moment I guess, based on the vocal style and the topic. They want people to move on and forget the past, and they emphasise how long their previous singer has been gone, but then put this track on their new album. Their call…
Earl stays at the microphone for the next one, “Bulldozer”. More patois and in a dancehall stylee. Like the previous track, it’s a bit different to the rest. Earl has fun and is a tight fit for the style of the track. …. Like to hear this one live through a big PA system.
One of my faves here is the penultimate cut, “Poor Fool”, Duncan on lead vox duties and he also wrote it. Cracking song, cracking vocal, and lyrics having a pop about minimum wage jobs, bankers and fat cats creaming it while the working man gets shafted.
I have to laugh when I read some of the comments on social media sometimes about UB40, from those people who say the band should stick to music and not make their songs political. You just want to climb onto the top of the Bull Ring in Birmingham city centre with a megaphone and scream, ‘wake up dickhead.’
This band has always been a political animal and socially conscious, from day one. Without the politics and economic chaos this country was in back when these lads formed in the late 70s, I doubt we’d have a band called UB40. They were a product of their time. Same as punk bands were of theirs. They came and went. UB40 are still at it.
They got stick for making an album of country song covers back in 2013, which for me is a lovely job and I still play it. I might well have been very first to review it then too. Many missed the point.
They were not wearing cowboy hats and riding horses, or screaming ‘Yee haaa.’ They were making a reggae album with that trademark UB40 sound. Nothing had changed with their sound.
But they were taking great songs to cover that just happened to have been written and first recorded as country tracks. But a great song is a great song, and can be approached in many different ways.
Did Whitney Houston get slagged off when she recorded Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”? A country song. How about the Pet Shop Boys cover of “Always On My Mind”, orignally sung by Elvis and Willie Nelson. A country song. “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” a country song. I could go on and on.
But this record is 10 all new original songs penned by the band, and Duncan’s first all originals album since he joined. In the main, these are excellent songs even before the band got stuck in to perform them.
They close proceedings with “All We Do Is Cry”, where Norman Hassan is joined on lead vocal by British Asian urban artist Hunterz, who previously co-wrote and sang on UB40’s single “Reasons” from their 2005 album “Who You Fighting For”. He performed that single live on stage in Hyde Park with UB40 at the Live 8 concert in 2005.
On “All We Do Is Cry”, the band deliver a powerful message that while we watch mothers and children die on the TV, all we do is cry and nothing gets done. Visual images of Syria and of dead children and families being washed up on the beach, drowned as they escape conflict, flashes into my head as I hear this emotive track.
“For The Many” proves, if proof were needed, that UB40 have a lot left to say, and sound as mighty as they ever have, after four decades of spreading the one love around the world.
That despite the many sacks of crap with their name on them, metaphorically dumped at their door over the last 10 years or so, they have come out the other side as brothers in arms. Staying true to their original declaration that this is a unit and not about any one individual, but more importantly, they are still making a fabulous noise together.
The other stuff really doesn’t matter. It is all about the music, surely. And this music is as it says on the tin, for the many. So if anyone wants an answer to the question Earl Falconer poses on track number seven: “Whatever happened to UB40.” I can give it. Here and now…Nothing. They never went away.
They never stopped. They have continued to make relevant, love-filled music as a band of brothers for 40 years this year, and they obviously ain’t done just yet. Coventry neighbours The Specials claimed the number one spot in the UK album chart last month with “Encore”, their first original material in 20 years.
It’d not be beyond the realms of possibility that this lot could follow that trend. If there is justice as a reward for sheer talent, defiance, perseverance and the gift they give of timeless music. Go buy it and let’s give them back some well deserved love. Gwan me lions….
By Simon Redley
(2 / 5) ‘OK Zone’
(3 / 5) ‘Decent Zone’
(4 / 5) ‘Super Zone’
(5 / 5) ‘Awesome Zone’