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UB40’s Robin Campbell talks 45 years in music, new album and reggae roots

One of the most commercially successful reggae acts and still going strong, UB40 are set to celebrate forty-five years together with two celebratory shows and a new album, UB45. Ewan Gleadow sits down with guitarist and vocalist Robin Campbell to chat through the history of the band, their roots in Birmingham and that Commonwealth Games track.

Ewan Gleadow: I’ve got a couple questions, obviously, so we’ll crack on. First of all though congratulations on forty-five years of UB40. How does it feel to have been going on that long?

Robin Campbell: I’m still getting used to the idea that this is what I do for a living, you know? It’s always been a pinch me moment on a daily basis. I couldn’t imagine we’d be doing it for more than ten years. When we first got together, we planned it as a career. We were serious about it, but to be still doing the same thing and doing it successfully, globally, is a phenomenal thing. It’s still wonderful and I’m still enjoying it, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. 

Ewan: I suppose artists that have the same longevity, well, they’re enjoying it. It’s quite clear from the recent works that you’re still enjoying it, that the enjoyment is still there.

Robin: Absolutely. It’s what we do. It’s become the thing we do. Every now and again we get back in the studio and make some new music, and the only thing you want to do is take it on the road and play it to your fans. It’s a cyclical thing, but it never gets boring. 

Ewan: You mentioned some new recordings there, am I right in thinking there’s a new album on the way?

Robin: Yes you would be. UB45. Would you believe it? We’re working on it. At the moment it’s a mixture. We’ve got a whole heap of new material that we’re working on with our vocalist who is writing a lot of the lyrics, which is brilliant. Plus we’re re-recording as it’s a celebratory thing. We’re re-recording some of the classics from the eighties. The album will be half and half, classics and brand new material.

We still play a lot of those old songs, so we know them intimately. But the real reason for doing it [re-recording] is because we’re so happy with our vocalist. He’s so good. He fits in so well and he sings the old classics beautifully. We just thought it’d be a lovely idea to record some of them, to show everybody how good he is and the fact that we still sound like UB40.

Ewan: He’s picked up the torch really well. How does a new member add to the creative process there? Is there a new direction, a new perspective?

Robin: A new perspective for sure. He’s a young man, you know, only in his early thirties so I guess he must have a different perspective than a bunch of old guys. But much more than that, he’s been a fan since he was a child. He’s been singing the songs since he was a kid sitting in the back seat of his parent’s car. He just fitted in so seamlessly. That’s the point, you know, he just fitted in so well and there was no real breaking in period, other than for him. He was in a kind of shock when he was first doing it. But now that he’s relaxed into the job, his confidence has grown and it’s like he’s been there for years.

Well, he has been here for over a year. It’s just so comfortable and it’s so easy. I never imagined it would be and I think that’s just the reason that we’ve decided to record the old ones. It just sounds so good and we are enjoying them again, in a new way because we’ve got this new kid singing them. It’s a lot of fun. Of course, also, he’s coming up with lots of ideas for new songs and songwriting. I don’t think it’s a change, I don’t think he’s changing direction or anything, he just fitted in with what we do so beautifully. He’s so intimate with his knowledge of who we are and what we do. 

Ewan: That’s the thing with artists that have been around for a while, where members of a band change over the years but the core of the music has stayed the same for UB40. It is still rooted in those working-class origins, and it is nice to feel that present in the music still.

Robin: Yeah, half of us are still the original members. There are still four family members in the band and it’s just become an institution. I think we’ll be doing it until we drop. 

Ewan: The name too, from Unemployment Benefit, Form 40, at the time. 

Robin: There’s a myth that we all met on the dole queue. That was why we called ourselves it, but that’s not true. We’ve known each other since we were kids. Most of the band had gone to school at some point together. I’ve known all of the kids since they were ten, or eleven years old. Some of them, even younger. Norman, the percussionist, I think I’ve known him since he was six. So you know, we’ve known each other literally all of our lives and grown up together, grown up on the same streets, gone to the same schools and to form the band, we all went on the dole. Half of the band was already on the dole. It was the late seventies, which was a hard time for getting a job. 

I’m a few years older than everybody, so I had a lot of jobs, a lot of unsatisfying jobs through my teens. We basically did it as a business. We said, look, if we’re gonna do it, because half the band couldn’t play instruments as well, that it’s got to be five days a week. We’ve got to take it seriously, and that was what we did. We converted a cellar underneath a couple of the guys’ flats that they lived in, we set up the band in a cellar and we just played, went there every day, played and practised and played together.

We did that for about six months before we stuck our heads out and played a gig. For us, it was trying to think of a name for the band, like everyone else does. A friend of ours said “well, you’re all on the dole, you’ve all got one of those cards. You’re all card-carrying members of the Dole Club. Why not call yourself after that?”. It just seemed like a brilliant idea. We didn’t realise it was gonna be such a piece of marketing genius, you know, because obviously there were three million unemployed at the time.

Ewan: The name as well obviously has relevancy now too. It was going to have relevancy regardless of current circumstances, but it feels now more than ever that it is quite frequent, it’s very unfortunate. 

Robin: Isn’t it amazing how here we are forty-odd years later and nothing’s bloody changed? If anything, it’s gotten worse, which just goes to show you that singing about it makes no difference at all. What you need is action. You need rioting on the streets. Disorder is what we need. 

Ewan: Do you think it was that commitment to working-class values that gave you the momentum when you first started?

Robin: We were just very ambitious. We took it very seriously. We definitely had ideas above our station. We thought we were going to be successful even when we hadn’t played a gig. Brian Travers, who sadly passed away, he used to do posters. He used to promote us before we’d ever had a show. He used to go around the area we lived and put up posters, not about gigs, but about the band. He was promoting us before we ever played a show. We were standing in our local pub and listening to two guys next to us talk about UB40, who’ve never played a show. 

They were talking about how good we were. That was all down to the kind of self-promotion we were doing, you know? I don’t know what the driving force was. Maybe it was the fact that we were unemployed. We couldn’t find anything that any of us wanted to do. What we wanted to do was make music, and we were very serious about it. I think we were determined. It was in the atmosphere of the punk days. There was a very much an “anyone can do it” attitude. There was in Mosley, where we came from in Birmingham, where we formed. There were a lot of bands. There were a lot of bands making music. Birmingham’s a place for bands anyway and has been for generations. But where we came from in Mosley, there were a lot of bands, and there were a lot of bands that all believed they were gonna make it. Not all of them did, of course, but some of them did.

Ewan: You found your roots there too, in reggae, which is an exciting choice given that at the time music was very punk-oriented.

Robin: I was no part of the punk thing. Some of my younger mates were in the band but I grew up on Jamaican pop music. That’s the area we grew up in. We were surrounded by Jamaican pop music before it was reggae, when it was ska. Then it became rock steady and then reggae in the late sixties, and that was the new music as far as we were concerned. That was what we heard everywhere we went, whether it was school or youth clubs, pubs, café’s, you know, what we were hearing everywhere was the embryonic form of reggae. That was the music for us. Of course, we were listening to pop music and were listening to American RnB, Tamla, Motown, and reading all that kind of thing. But when reggae happened, that was it for us. When we talked about forming a band, all we ever thought we would play was reggae. 

We honestly never considered any other kind of music. It was always going to be our version. We were desperately trying to sound like a Jamaican reggae band, but of course, we came from Birmingham, England, so it came out slightly differently.

Ewan: It did. But that’s the unique charm of it, isn’t it?

Robin: Of course, yeah. That’s the unintentional thing. It gives you instant recognisability and a different, unique sound that no one else has, which isn’t what you’re aiming for but it’s what you end up with. 

Ewan: It’s a happy coincidence. Obviously more recently as well you recorded Champion for the Commonwealth Games. How did that come about?

Robin: Well, I’ve never been a massive fan of the Commonwealth as an idea. But the Commonwealth Games was coming to Birmingham. We were hosting the Commonwealth Games, a big deal in our city. This global competition coming to Birmingham, being hosted by Birmingham. They asked us to write a song for an album that was being released about Birmingham, and we agreed to do it because it was celebrating the Commonwealth Games. We wrote with an eye towards the Commonwealth Games, and they wrote it so much they made it the official anthem of the games.

Everywhere we went, every stadium and every time a race stopped or an event was held, that music started playing. It was the soundtrack to the games, which was fantastic. 

Ewan: That’s incredible. And of course, to wrap that up there are two shows, London and Manchester, to celebrate the forty-five years of UB40. It seems quite the celebration.

Robin: Yeah, they’re not gigs we haven’t played before but of course celebrating forty-five years will be fun. The atmosphere should be fantastic. That’s just part of the celebrations. We’ll be travelling around the world, with more details to follow, that’s what we do. A continuation of what we do, but of course, it’ll be extra special with those celebrations.

Ewan: Absolutely, and for my generation, it’s been great for us, bands are getting back together. A very popular generation of music that we never experienced is now at the forefront again, which really is remarkable to me. 

Robin: Of course, many bands are getting back together again because their income has dried up. Their back catalogue is not earning them any money anymore. Many bands that were happily surviving on their back catalogue income suddenly discovered they’ve got no income, so they’re back on the road, which is great for the public but not so much fun for the bands. 

It’s harder to get venues, harder to get dates. It’s much more crap than it used to be. It’s great to hear when bands get back together, isn’t it?

Ewan: I suppose it’s harder now after Covid and the lack of venues because of it. It seems quite difficult for musicians regardless of legacy to actually maintain themselves or, in the case of new stars, get their foot on the ladder.

Robin: Very often bands are having to take smaller venues. Therefore they earn less fees, because Covid devastated the industry. Live music was crippled because so many venues went under. We had a sold-out tour of Australia that was cancelled and then rescheduled, I don’t know, three times? Different dates and then eventually different venues because half the venues closed down that we were booked to play. It’s difficult, but if you want to be a touring band you have to put up with these things. 

Ewan: There’s not really a solution. I went to The Leadmill for the first time last year and it’s just amazing to me that a legacy like that can disappear. People have photographed it and experienced it, but the physical place will be different or even removed. It’s infuriating and kind of hopeless. 

Robin: There’s not much you can do because venues and promoters have gone under because of Covid. The struggle of trying to keep everything going when we had a lockdown for virtually two years. It’s inevitable that these things are going to happen. But people will open new venues, there’ll be other places just as historical. It’s an end-of-the-era kind of thing and everyone is feeling that. 

Ewan: It’s certainly a change in pace. 

Robin: Believe me, it’s global. The problem is global. We’re a globally touring band and in every country we go to, promoters tell us they have been devastated by Covid. Many promoters have, but it’s sadly only the biggest that survive. They tend to swallow up the smaller companies. But that’s the way of the world, because there’s only, like, three record companies left. I can’t say it’ll change either, we have to adapt to it.

Tickets are on sale now here.

Ewan Gleadow
Ewan Gleadow
Editor in Chief at Cult Following | News and culture journalist at Clapper, Daily Star, NewcastleWorld, Daily Mirror | Podcast host of (Don't) Listen to This | Disaster magnet

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