UB40 feat. Ali, Astro and Mickey: Unplugged

vj3xi4v9There are two UB40s: one of which (called UB40) still plays and tours with some of the members of the original band; and this UB40 ‘featuring Ali, Astro and Mickey’ which their website describes as ‘founding members of the original UB40’. Fans thus have two bands to follow, while those who dislike UB40’s brand of reggae can now disparage both bands equally.

This ‘unplugged’ release takes some familiar UB40 songs and gives them the semi-acoustic treatment. Some of the results of this are predictable but others are engaging including a fine version of ‘Baby Come Back’ with languid toasting from Pato Banton. ‘One in Ten’ is still a powerful song after all this time and there is a great take on Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’. An unplugged treatment of ‘I Got You Babe’ replaces the vocals originally sung by Chrissie Hynde with those of Ali’s daughter, Kaya Campbell. ‘Food for Thought’ is not up to the standard of the original – probably nothing could be – but it’s good to hear. The melodica sound on ‘Tyler’ is intriguing and it amounts to one of the strongest tracks here. Overall this album is certainly worth hearing by all those who can shake off preconceptions about UB40 and listen with an open mind. It is also a reminder that UB40 were stronger in writing their own committed songs than in performing covers of reggae classics even if they became more widely known for the latter.

The release also includes a CD of some of the original UB40’s greatest hits. This provides (with excellent sound quality) a tour of territory familiar to all those who know UB40’s music. With 20 tracks in all it’s a concise collection of the band’s chart history and there’s no denying the lasting impact and quality of very early songs like ‘King’ or the sympathetic covers of track such as ‘Kingston Town’. It is highly likely that fans already have most of these tracks so the purpose of this release isn’t really clear. While the selection of ‘greatest hits’ is always subjective there is a strong argument for re-releasing 80s’ classics like ‘Love is All is Alright’ or ‘The Earth Dies Screaming’ (ideally in 12” format) than (for instance) including ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ within any UB40 greatest hits collection – especially as they were original band compositions not covers. Anyway, post-UK referendum and post-US election, let’s hope some of the 80s themes of their songs are not becoming topical again.

See also review of UB40 reissues 21st February 2015

UB40 feat. Ali, Astro and Mickey: ‘Unplugged’ and ‘Greatest Hits’ two-CD release, 18th November on UMC

UB40: Present Arms/Labour of Love deluxe editions

UB40’s mass appeal from the 1980s onwards, and their move into a more comfortable pop-reggae niche as the years went on, sometimes means that the strength of their early albums is overlooked. This is a mistake as there is power and authenticity in these early albums. These two ‘deluxe’ releases revisit ‘Present Arms’ (their second album, initially released in 1981) and ‘Labour of Love’ (their fourth album, released in 1983, which would bring them mass international success).

For this re-release, each album is issued as a 3-CD collection. ‘Present Arms’ is accompanied for the first time by ‘Present Arms in Dub’, originally issued a few months after the parent vocal album. The music within is well-known. Highlights on disc 1 include the striking sound of still-relevant ‘One in Ten’, ‘Don’t Let it Pass You By’, and the welcome addition of the 12” version of ‘Don’t Slow Down’, which curiously enough does slow down to take us into a great extended dub fadeout.  Disc 2 is ‘Present Arms in Dub’. This previously seemed a little disappointing in its interpretation of dub, but now sounds more impressive, perhaps through the improvement in sound quality or the simple passage of time. The dub of ‘One in Ten’, and the classic bass line of the closing track ‘Neon Haze’ (the dub of ‘Silent Witness’), are as good as ever. Disc 3 adds something different in the shape of live BBC radio sessions from 1981. These begin at a cracking pace with (again) ‘One in Ten’ but there are also performances of tracks from the their first album ‘Signing Off’ including ‘Food for Thought’ and ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’, the latter as part of a closing run-together of three tracks. The production of these songs is excellent. Whatever view you take of UB40’s latter-day output, or which current incarnation of the band you favour, there is some great reggae music here, sharp and politically informed, mirroring some of the urban anger of the Specials’ output of the time.

‘Labour of Love’ was even more of a commercial breakthrough for UB40, and, unusually for a reggae band, charted highly in the USA as well as the UK. It consisted wholly of covers, not only of classic reggae songs like ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ but also of less likely targets such as Neil Diamond’s ‘Red Red Wine’ (which had previously been performed in a reggae style by Tony Tribe). Disc 1 is the original album, featuring the long version of ‘Red Red Wine’ and a good account of Dandy Livingstone’s (aka Boy Friday’s) ‘Version Girl’ although it ultimately sounds a little thin in comparison with Livingstone’s rugged DJ-ing take on the song. Disc 2 features ‘singles and B sides’ and there is interesting music here, including strong dubs of ‘Sufferin’ and ‘Cherry Oh Baby’, a live version of ‘Food for Thought’ and a different version of ‘Johnny Too Bad’ from that on Disc 1. The third disc is composed of BBC live tracks from 1983 and 1984, including the sweet but neglected single ‘Love is All is Alright’.

There would of course be ‘Labour of Love’ volumes II and III in later years, and the commercial appeal of covers would be evident in single hits like ‘I Got You Babe’ and ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ but something of the spark of a creative band started to be lost with this immersion in crossover pop reggae. But that original sound is still there in these ‘deluxe’ releases. What would be even better? Maybe an album-set consisting wholly of 12” versions as originally released, ideally including ‘The Earth Dies Screaming’ where unusually the instrumental dub precedes rather than follows the vocal track; or the lengthy dub takes on ‘I Think it’s Going to Rain Today’ or ‘Dream a Lie’, or the hard-to-get- hold-of 12” version of ‘King’. If that release ever happens you’ll hear about it here.

UB40 are touring in the UK in May and June 2015.

UB40 ‘Present Arms’ and ‘Labour of Love’, each available as 3-CD Deluxe Editions and also as 2-LP 180g vinyl, released 2nd March 2015.

UB40: Getting Over the Storm

This is the first release of new material from UB40 for three years (see preview, reggaemusic.org.uk 3rd July 2013) and in essence it combines their typical sound with some standards from the country music tradition. The opening track, Midnight Rider, starts as it means to go on and, despite the departure of Ali Campbell, it could only be UB40. I’m Pretty Sure that’s Just What’s Killing Me introduces – as on many of the other tracks – the characteristic circular musical structure of country music, along with its somewhat miserable lyrical tales of inevitable sad refuge in drink, together with the steel guitar phrases you might expect. With an unobtrusive reggae rhythm beneath it all it sets the pattern. With the title track we move further into country music territory in this cover of a George Jones release, the steel guitar more prominent and the lyrics no doubt reflective of UB40’s turbulent recent history. From these first tracks the formula is more or less set for the rest of the album and you will like it or not accordingly.

If You Ever Have Forever in Mind has a slightly dubbed-up instrumental rhythm behind it and it would have been good to hear more in this vein. He’ll Have to Go is of course a classic country song and here it gets the same reggae/steel guitar treatment, the arrangement, including sax solo, thoughtfully put together. The reggae bass line and percussion of their take on Willie Nelson’s Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain gets more interesting while the words of On the Other Hand almost caricature the lyrical concerns of country music. How Can Poor Men Stand Such Times and Live, the depression era-song popularised by Ry Cooder, gets a good (though incongruously jolly) workout here with its explicit referencing of banking bonuses and health care…what do you think Gideon? Maybe worth a listen while tackling that gourmet burger?

Overall, the combination of country steel guitar and smooth-grade production reggae instrumentation becomes engaging after a while and there is no faulting the production. The change in vocal duties from earlier-era UB40 remains noticeable, a surprising reminder of how closely their sound over the years was rooted in their distinctive vocals. The album as a whole is relatively undemanding listening and a harder dubbed-up edge to some of the (meticulously produced) instrumental rhythms would have been welcome, maybe as an additional release to the vocal tracks (as they have in the past), but that’s probably not the intended focus or audience anymore.

UB40: Getting Over the Storm; released 2nd September 2013, Universal

UB40: Getting Over the Storm

UB40 provoke mixed reactions. For some, their legacy of covering songs from the received reggae tradition as well as writing their own material has brought the music to a far wider audience than reggae previously enjoyed. For others, their style of reggae-lite verges on MOR drive-time background listening. Whatever assessment is offered, along the way they have released some tracks that deserve an honourable mention in any complete history of reggae. You might say: like what? Well, like the 12” version of ‘The Earth Dies Screaming’ with its powerful bass-led ‘version’ preceding rather than following the vocal track and enough reverb and echo to keep anyone happy. As well as its cheery lyrics of course. And the very early ‘King’ which uniquely managed to combine thoughtful reggae and even a dub into a 4 minute pop single.

So, here they are with the first new album release for three years, featuring Duncan Campbell as lead singer (he replaced brother Ali Campbell in 2008). Otherwise the membership is largely that of the original band, dating from 1978. The album is a combination of original songs and covers, the latter drawn, perhaps surprisingly, from country music, including George Jones’ ‘Getting Over The Storm’, Jim Reeves’ ‘He’ll Have To Go’, Willie Nelson’s ‘Blues Eyes Crying In The Rain’ and Vince Gill’s ‘If You Ever Have Forever In Mind’. “It’s not a country album, though.” states further brother Robin Campbell. “It’s a UB40 album. It’s a reggae album. We’ve just covered some country tunes.” It also includes the rather topical ‘How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?’ which most people will know from Ry Cooder’s 1970s reworking of a song from the Great Depression era.

The band are due to tour in the UK in September, coinciding with the album’s release. A limited edition version of the album is also advertised as available from here. “Limited to just 200 copies, the album will include a 12×12 poster signed by the band” according to their press release.