Above, the hologram cover of UB44, their last good album
I thought I’d write a post sticking up for UB40—right after I duck from all the bottles whizzing past my head—and link to their insanely great Rockpalast gig from 1981.
Many of you reading this, especially most of the serious reggae fans among our audience, probably consider UB40 to be something akin to the Hootie of reggae, and to a certain extent, that’s a pretty fair assessment. What’s popular—UB40 are the most popular reggae group ever, selling over 70 million albums—isn’t necessarily any good, and frankly I personally don’t have any time for anything they’ve put out for three decades, BUT... they weren’t always known for turning out bland reggae for white folks. People with really good taste in music—even a lot of reggae heads—actually loved UB40 back then, as difficult as this might be to remember. Not to mention that they were much loved by Crass punks. Oh yes they were…
In the early 1980s, I lived in the South London area of Brixton, specifically off Railton Road, the so-called “Front Line,” in a neighborhood known at that time for rioting, anarchist squatters, and hundreds of out-of-work dreads, loitering, smoking three-paper joints, drinking, kicking soccer balls and openly selling weed on this huge concrete basketball court.
The above described scene was immortalized in the Eddie Grant songs “Living On the Front Line” and “Electric Avenue,” the latter being a street that crosses the former. If you were a white kid walking down Railton Road in 1983, you were more likely than one of the rastas to have your pockets searched by London police under the “suss laws.” It was simply assumed (with good reason) that if you were in that vicinity, then you were probably there buying some hash. It got to the point where I had to take the long walk home from the tube station to avoid an unpleasant interaction with the cops. I probably had to empty my pockets half a dozen times.
In any case, to set that scene, reggae in general, but UB40 in particular was normally what was heard being blasted out of the buzzing, blown-out speakers that my West Indian neighbors would so thoughtfully put in their windows. I’m telling you that they were as ubiquitous as those Cher or Kylie megahits were in gay neighborhoods. UB40 records were even played at blues parties. Their early singles and first three albums were an intrinsic part of the soundtrack of daily life in Brixton thirty years ago, as weird or as hard to believe as that might sound today.
UB40 were not, I repeat, not really regarded so much as a “pop” band then, but more like “heavy”—if somewhat doom-laden—socially-conscious, reverb-drenched psychedelic dubmeisters. The group’s name referred to the UB40 card then issued to the armies of unemployed who were “signing on” to collect benefit in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain (Their first album was called Singing Off). Indeed, their early material was dark and bleak, taking on topics like racism (”King” and “Tyler”), being nothing more than a number or a statistic to the government (”One in Ten”), famine (”Food For Thought,” the first single on a totally independent record label to crack the top 10 of the UK singles chart) and Thatcherism (”Madam Medusa”). They also came up with skankin’ stonkers like their smokin’ “Reefer Madness” instrumental and I’m sorry, but that song is simply fucking irresistible, I don’t care how big of a rock snob you are.
If I am honest, I will tell you that although I knew that UB40 were a racially integrated reggae band, I’m sure I would have thought they were more than a little bit goofy had I known that a short-haired white guy was the front-man. Truth is, I had no idea that Ali Campbell wasn’t black. You certainly can’t tell from his voice and the decidedly minimalist album covers gave no hint at what they looked like—not that it was a secret, they were on TOTP, of course. Being white is hardly something to hold against the man or his music, my point is, to use George Michael’s phrase, you should listen without prejudice to the first three UB40 albums and you might hear something you really dig. There’s some great music hiding in plain sight that you probably missed out on because, well, it’s UB40.
I will say it again, there’s no Hootie factor whatsoever to early UB40. Hell, there’s not much indication at all of the shiny, happy crowd-pleasing direction they would take—a considerable U-turn creatively, to be sure—on their fourth album, the gazillion selling megahit, Labour of Love in 1983.
Below, a phenomenal 120-minute long set from Germany’s Rockpalast TV show dating back to 1981.
1. Present Arms
4. Food For Thought
5. Earth Dies Screaming
6. Don’t Let It Pass You By
7. Lamb’s Bread
8. Silent Witness
10 One In Ten
11 Madam Medusa
12 Don’t Slow Down
13 Dr. X
14 Burden Of Shame
15 Signing Off