Ali Campbell doesn’t want to break up the band
Reggae legends UB40 enjoyed huge international success, selling more than 70 million albums worldwide, and bringing us such classics as Red Red Wine, I Got You Babe and (I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You. Yet, in recent years, their messages of love and togetherness have been tainted by a bitter feud.
Lead singer Ali Campbell was replaced as frontman in 2008 by his older brother Duncan. Ali claims he was axed. The band, including his guitarist brother Robin, claims he quit to pursue a solo career.
Whatever the story, the fallout has seen two rival UB40s touring. Using the original name, UB40, became Duncan, Robin and four others of the founding line-up.
Meanwhile, Ali and remaining original members – co-vocalist Astro and keyboardist Mickey Virtue – toured and recorded as UB40 FeaturingAli,Astro and Mickey.
Tragedy struck in 2021, when saxophonist Brian Travers and Astro died, while Duncan was forced to quit music after suffering a stroke. Yet that hasn’t lessened the intensity of the dispute.
Ali emphasises he has no plans to call a truce, telling the Daily Express: “I don’t think I’ve got anything to say to them. There’s no way there’ll be any getting together with them again.”
The Birmingham-born singer, who was honoured yesterday with a star on the Music Walk Of Fame – a pavement tribute in Camden, north London – still regrets the split.
“Oh, of course it’s sad. Stuff happened that should never have happened,” he continues. “It was all very messy and very silly. But I’m better off out of it all. I’m happier without all of that nonsense.”
Now 64, Ali is friendly and a born storyteller. But it’s clear he remains frustrated with his ex-bandmates and friends. “There’s only four of the original line-up in what I call ‘The dark side version’,” he says.
‘And they weren’t the most important ones in the band. I’ve no wish to go backwards with them.
UB40 at photo shoot
“I’m happy going forward with my band. Every time the dark side version plays, it takes away the legacy of my band.”
Now billed as UB40 Featuring Ali Campbell, the second incarnation of the band has just announced a huge arena tour for next year. Ali delights in playing in regions where global artists rarely perform.
“I’ve taken my band to 72 different countries,” he says. “We’re very lucky to have a truly worldwide fanbase.” In 2013, for instance, they played a show in the Solomon Islands, in the South Pacific.
Ali laughs as he remembers the episode: “We were met by naked men in the bush. They had bones through their noses and tribal feathers in their hair. And they were pointing blowpipes at us.
“We followed their bare bottoms back to the airport, which is where they whipped out panpipes and started playing UB40 tunes. It was the most ridiculous thing that’s ever happened to me. I thought, ‘How do they even know about UB40 music?'”
It’s just one of many strange moments Ali has experienced since UB40 formed back in 1978. “I grew up in Balsall Heath, a suburb of Birmingham that’s predominantly West Indian and Asian,” he recalls.
“It meant I grew up listening to reggae music as it was coming together. I always was a little reggae fanatic, but not many people at school understood what I was talking about.
‘If we starting have just say about Britain… but change singing them’ “My school friends were into glam rockers like Marc Bolan and Mud, which went straight over my head.”
While playing a gig in Camden, UB40 were spotted by the lead singer of The Pretenders, Chrissie Hynde, who invited them to support her on tour.
Ali explains: “We’d barely played a dozen gigs in our whole career before then. We released our first single, Food For Thought, while we were supporting Pretenders. It got to number four and we never looked back.”
Much later, UB40 recorded the charttopper – I Got You Babe, a cover of the Sonny and Cher hit – with Hynde. Named after the government’s unemployment benefit form, UB40 stood out among the more glitzy bands of the early 1980s music scene.
Their political protest hits included King, One In Ten and The Earth Dies Screaming.”We were now, we’d as much to Sunak’s you don’t things by about “We had something to say, which the press didn’t like,” Ali remembers.
“They wanted fun pop, like ABC and Culture Club. They didn’t want disenfranchised kids like us moaning on Top Of The Pops. I remember one review of One In Ten that said, ‘Oh look, UB40 are crying in their beer again”.
“Ali is still politically motivated, but admits: “As you get older, you get less angry, as you come to terms with the fact it’s all a crock of s***. If we were starting out in music now, we’d have just as much to say about Sunak’s Britain. We’d still be crying in our beer.
But, while I’m as political as I ever was, I don’t think things get any better and I don’t think you can change things by singing about them.”
This month marks the 40th anniversary of UB40’s most successful album, Labour Of Love. The chart-topper saw the band cover cult reggae and ska tunes including Red Red Wine, turning them into mainstream anthems.
Ali remembers: “Those songs were already massive hits in the reggae world. We knew people would love them, if they only got a chance to hear them. It’s why I still enjoy playing them 40 years later.
“We actually wanted Labour Of Love to be our debut album, but at the time every band wrote its own material.We were talked out of the idea. But UB40 went on to do three Labour Of Love albums [I, II and III], which have sold 21 million copies. So we were right.”
Despite their phenomenal success, UB40 weren’t invited to perform at Live Aid in 1985, which understandably still rankles.
“It was strange we weren’t invited,” Ali says. “It’s even stranger when you think that Food ForThought dealt with exactly the subject Live Aid was all about – poverty and starvation. But black acts were conspicuous by their absence at Live Aid.”
Away from the band’s campaigning side, Ali found himself coerced into producing a song co-written by infamous
East End gangster Reggie Kray. As if that wasn’t bizarre enough, the song was called Closet Queen. It came about the time Ali met the Krays’ associate, Pete Gillett, after his release from prison in 1987.
“Pete was singing Closet Queen at a club in Birmingham,” Ali reveals. “It was a long, drunken night and at 4am I told Pete, ‘OK, I’ll produce it.’
“I had a letter from Reggie Kray saying: ‘I hear you’re producing my friend. Thanks for that. God bless, your friend, Reggie Kray.’ But I had to go on tour before it was finished and I’d lost interest in the song.”
Later, he received a second, more ominous letter from Reggie. “It said: ‘My friends have told me you’ve lost interest. Remember: if you kick a dog, you kick its master. God bless, your friend, Reggie Kray.’
“So I finished the song. But, of course, no record company would touch it with a bargepole. Thankfully, Reggie understood. His last letter said: ‘Thank you for finishing the record. I have your picture in my cell. God bless, your friend, Reggie Kray.'”
Today living happily with wife Julie in Dorset, Ali is still as passionate about reggae as ever. He was delighted when his band’s most recent album, Unprecedented, reached the Top 10 last year. But he’s still coming to terms with playing shows without Astro, adding: “Astro not being there is always going to be a big hole. He was like a brother to me, but life goes on and UB40 goes on.
“We’ve never stopped playing. The whole idea of forming UB40 was to promote reggae. All these years later, reggae is massively influential.And I still love it.”
UB40 Featuring Ali Campbell’s The Hits tour runs from April 6 to 16, 2024. Tickets go on sale at myticket.co.uk this Friday at 10am
‘If we were starting now, we’d have just as much to say about Sunak’s Britain… but you don’t change things by singing about them’ The who ABC didn’