Friday, 3 August 2018

UB40




"Never before had we seen pop getting so brazenly political. Thatcher was a hate figure that seemed to unite everyone" -Ali Campbell

I first saw UB40 back in November 1980 at Canterbury University and have seen them several times since, in the eighties and in more recent years in their non-Ali Campbell incarnation. They always had their heart in the right place - firstly with their politics, with which I concur and secondly, for their love for reggae. They kept the reggae flame burning when many didn't and introduced many to those wonderful songs from the classic reggae period of the late sixties/early seventies. I lived for a while in their stamping ground of Moseley/Balsall Heath in Birmingham so have a feel for where it all started for them, where they grew up. Many reggae aficionados dismiss them for not being the real thing, or for commercialising reggae, whatever. I feel the opposite. They carried the standard for reggae and their music helped many enjoy it who may not otherwise have done. Fair play to them I say.


Unfortunately, their recent years have been dominated by an acrimonious split between singer Ali Campbell and his brothers Robin and Duncan. Unlike some, I take no sides in this unfortunate and pointless row. I enjoy listening to the work of both UB40 groups these days. Good music is good music. Maybe one day they will make it up, but don't hold your breath...

THE EARLY YEARS (1980-1984)




Signing Off (1980)


Tyler/King/12 Bar/Burden Of Shame/Adella/I Think It's Going To Rain Today/25%/Food For Thought/Little By Little/Signing Off    
                              
Released in 1980, this eight piece Birmingham-based multi-racial reggae band hit the heights with this stunning debut of original reggae compositions, both vocal and instrumental. From the memorable Brian Travers saxophone intro to Food For Thought to the anti-Deep South institutionalised racism of Tyler and the anti-imperial Burden Of Shame this albums cooks - beautifully. Their cover of Randy Newman's I Think It's Going To Rain Today is just lovely and King (an ode to Martin Luther King) is so evocative. All delivered by Ali Campbell's trademark unique voice. Little By Little is a faster-paced but less instantly memorable number. 

The instrumentals were the rhythmic, atmospheric 12 Bar, packed full of saxophone and haunting keyboard breaks, the brooding, mysterious Adella, the equally enigmatic and sometimes dubby 25% and finally Signing Off, which finished the album on an upbeat note. It featured a succession of solos from the various instruments in the band. These tracks are all so nostalgic for me of November/December of 1980 and living in my student accommodation, playing this stuff before tea on dark late afternoons.

Also, the John Peel BBC sessions live cuts are good too. I caught UB40 live a couple of times in those early years and they were excellent.

This album fitted in well with the new wave/ska feel of the age and garnered due critical respect. Most people would still afford it that. Although UB40 went on to release many great albums, it possibly never got much better than this excellent debut. It was as much the sound of late 1980/early 1981 as anything else around. Ask anyone who was around back then. 

  

The non-album single, My Way Of Thinking was a fine, catchy number that helped to cement the group's trademark sound and, remastered beautifully, the "deluxe edition" contains the excellent 12" inch single mixes of the melodic Dream A Lie, the chilling warning of nuclear catastrophe in The Earth Dies Screaming and the no-holds-barred anti-Thatcher song Madam Medusa. This was all most impressive material that didn't even appear on the album, showing just wanted potential UB40 had. Also included as a bonus single with the album was an evocative, moving cover of Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit backed with an upbeat instrumental, Reefer Madness. Once again, this was high quality stuff.

                    
Present Arms (1981)


Present Arms/Sardonicus/Don't Let It Pass You By/Wild Cat/One In Ten/Don't Slow Down/Silent Witness/Lamb's Bread       

This was UB40’s second album, released in 1981, following their successful debut Signing Off. It contained the big hit single One In Ten, quoting the unemployment percentage at the time. The melodic Don't Slow Down was also a hit, and its “B” side, the extended, brassy Don't Let It Pass You By was impressive too.

Present Arms is a rousing call to arms, while Sardonicus is full of laid back UB40 atmosphere, showcasing Ali Campbell’s unique voice, as indeed does the sad tone of Silent WitnessLamb's Bread was as “roots” as anything the band had done so far. 


Wild Cat continues the Signing Off trend of including and instrumental or two. It is this album's only one, however. 

  

While the album didn’t quite have that certain “new band” feel that gave the previous album its appeal, this one was more polished and gave a hint as to the considerable commercial success UB40 would have over many more years. Nothing quite recaptured that atmosphere and general feel of that stunning debut though. Funny how it happens like that for some bands.

In 2018 we are still waiting for a mooted “deluxe edition” of “Present Arms”, however. The link below does, nevertheless, include the excellent Present Arms In Dub cuts as well as the original album. Worth checking out.

Included with the album was a bonus single containing two solid but otherwise unremarkable instrumentals, Doctor X and Don't Walk On The Grass

Present Arms In Dub (1981)


(in brackets are the original tracks the dub versions relate to)/Present Arms In Dub (Present Arms)/Smoke It (Don't Walk On The Grass)/B Line (Lamb's Bread)/King's Row (Sardonicus)/Return Of Doctor X (Dr X)/Walk Out (Wild Cat)/One In Ten (One In Ten)/Neon Haze (Silent Witness)  
                           
This was an adventurous thing of UB40 to do, after just two albums, they released a dub version of their second album. It was a bit different to much Jamaica dub, however, in that they didn't simply remove the vocals, several of the instruments and turn up the bass. They actually produced listenable instrumental versions of all the tracks from Present Arms, almost re-writing the instrumental tracks, adding all sorts of additional noises and percussion in particular. There are captivating new saxophone parts here and there, keyboard riffs and also typical dubby reverb parts. There are also excellent new bass lines all over the tracks. Listening to King's Row, for example, the dub version of Sardonicus it is like you are listening to a new track, to be honest. B Line, the version of Lamb's Bread is packed to the brim with lots of electronic noises, infectious percussion and a copper-bottomed dubby bass line. These tracks are a mixture of convincing dub and inventive new instrumentation. Indeed , several of them are instrumental re-workings of cuts that already were instrumentals.

While I am a fan of deep, thumping, authentic Jamaican dub, I feel there is certainly enough "proper" dub floating around to not render this a "plastic" dub album, and the use of a lot of inventive instrumentation makes it a more than interesting style of dub album. Not many dub albums have ever broken into the UK album charts. This one did.


UB44 (1982)


So Here I Am/I Won't Close My Eyes/Forget The Cost/Love Is All Is Alright/The Piper Calls The Tune/The Key/Don't Do The Crime/Folitician/The Prisoner         

I remember getting this, back in 1982, and having the feeling that, after two wonderful albums, UB40 were treading water a bit with this one, their third album. It was their last one clearly in the style of the first two, although it was more laid-back than the other two. It is a good album and just sort of washes over you, but there are no real classic standout tracks as there are on the previous two. That said, take your time and you will get into it, it just isn’t as instant. It is an intense, uncompromising album that demands more than a few listens. In many ways, it gets better each time. I dismissed it a bit too easily back then.
                     
Highlights are the lovely, sax-laden Love Is All Is Alright, the laid-back, reflective single I Won't Close My Eyes and the dubby FoliticianThe Piper Calls The Tune is another that fits the description “laid back”. Some excellent soothing horns and that gently, easy slow skanking. So Here I Am and Forget The Cost fall into the same bracket as indeed does the whole album. 

Don't Do The Crime is the most “Ali Campbell” of the tracks, with the singer’s unique voice at its most, well, unique. Conveying that sadness in his intonation. Nice keyboard bit in the middle too.

  

The Key features Astro’s “toasting” as he name checks several contemporary Jamaican artists as “reggae music holds the key to my heart”. YellowmanEek-A-Mouse and Dennis Brown among those mentioned. This is the most “rootsy” of the tracks, along with the dubby Folitician.

Listening back then, and seeing them live in 1982, I felt they had lost a little something from those heady early gigs in 1980. I feel I am re-discovering this album now. It is a pleasure to listen to it on a good system too. It has not been remastered but to be honest it doesn’t matter. Listen to the percussion interplay a couple of minutes into the album’s excellent closer, The Prisoner, it sounds wonderful.

  


Geffery Morgan (1984)


Riddle Me/As Always You Were Wrong Again/If It Happens Again/D.U.B./The Pillow/Nkomo A Go-Go/Seasons/You're Not An Army/I'm Not Fooled So Easily/Your Eyes Were Open     

UB40s first three albums of self-penned material (as opposed to Labour Of Love covers) were notable for their laid-back reggae rhythms merged with Brian Travers’ trademark saxophone. It was only these three albums that saw this more pure and authentic reggae sound. Yes, subsequent work was always underpinned by a reggae rhythm, but it was increasingly generated by synthesisers as opposed to skanking guitars and drum machines instead of traditional drums. Synthesiser swoops abound. The final track, Your Eyes Were Open perfectly exemplifies this. It is almost jazz funk reggae.

This was the first album to utilise the new sound. It is also far more horn-driven (trumpet, trombone and saxophone together), as opposed to just saxophone. The results are a far more “manufactured” type of sound. This is immediately apparent on the first two tracks Riddle Me and As Always You Were Wrong Again. The hit single If It Happens Again is made more notable by its killer hook of a chorus and D.U.B. featuring Astro’s “toasting” is more rootsy and sounds it, more authentic, as does the instrumental Nkomo A Go-Go, to a certain extent. The Pillow returns to the previously mentioned sound. Drum machine to the fore. The nice saxophone bits are much lower in the mix than they had been in 1980.

  

Seasons has a staccato, dubby feel to it, but is still dominated by synthesisers. I would have preferred a more stripped back, roots style, but I guess it was 1984, and everything was synthesised, even The Rolling Stones. You're Not An Army dabbles in reggae/rap and has a great rumbling bass line. The politicised lyrics are still there, so they haven’t strayed far there. The synth/reggae continues on the soulful tones of I'm Not Fooled So Easy. It is all quite listenable, but I am just imagining how good these songs might have sounded if they had been given the Signing Off treatment. UB40's sound would stay in this style for many years. Don’t get me wrong, its ok, and Ali Campbell’s voice remained unique, but I much preferred the sound of the first three albums.

Great front and rear cover too. Some grafitti from the time on a wall that said “Geffery (sic) Morgan loves white girls”. Good old Geffery.



THE LABOUR OF LOVE ALBUMS



Labour Of Love (1983)


(in brackets are the reggae artists who recorded the songs)/Cherry Oh Baby (Eric Donaldson)/Keep On Moving (Bob Marley & The Wailers)/Please Don't Make Me Cry (Winston Groovy)/Sweet Sensation (The Melodians)/Johnny Too Bad (The Slickers)/Red Red Wine (Tony Tribe)/Guilty (taken from Isaac Hayes' "I Stand Accused")/She Caught The Train (Tony B's All Stars)/Version Girl (Boy Friday)/Many Rivers To Cross (Jimmy Cliff)      

UB40 have always suffered from something of a credibility problem - some people perceiving them as not being “real reggae” and so on. Never mind that, the band were obviously true reggae aficionados and they kept the faith and helped to introduce reggae to those who may not otherwise have listened to it. Fair play to them. This is a good album of commercial reggae, end of story. It hasn’t been remastered but the sound is still big, bold and bassy, as it should be. 

The covers are of a high standard - Eric Donaldson’s Cherry Oh BabyBob Marley’s Keep On MovingWinston Groovy’s lovely Please Don't Make Me CryJimmy Cliff’s iconic Many Rivers To Cross and, of course, Tony Tribe’s Red Red Wine. All singalong stuff immaculately played. Not forgetting either the dubby Version Girl or the saxophone/spoken vocal of GuiltyMy own personal favourite is The Melodians’ Sweet Sensation. The wonders of digital music have allowed me to program a Labour Of Love of the originals. Despite that, I still return to this one and Ali Campbell’s unique, unmistakable voice.



Labour Of Love II (1989)


(in brackets are the reggae artists who originally recorded the songs)/Here I Am Baby (Al Brown)/Tears From My Eyes (Teddy Davis)/Groovin' (Byron Lee)/The Way You Do The Things You Do (Eric Donaldson)/Wear You To The Ball (The Paragons)/Singer Man (The Kingstonians)/Kingston Town (Lord Creator)/Baby (The Heptones)/Wedding Day (Lloyd Price)/Sweet Cherrie (Honey Boy)/Stick By Me (John Holt)/Just Another Girl (Ken Boothe)/Homely Girl (Jackie Robinson)/Impossible Love (Honey Boy)   

Released in 1989, I love this album, possibly even more so than the wonderful Labour Of Love 1. It is full of atmospheric covers of reggae classics delivered by Ali Campbell’s unique voice. Despite never having been remastered the sound is still good. I lived in Moseley, Birmingham, at the time and it is so evocative of that part of the city.

Highlights for me are their versions of Lord Creator’s Kingston TownHoney Boy’s Sweet CherrieSmokey Robinson’s The Way You Do The Things You DoJohn Holt’s Wear You To The Ball and The Kingstonian’s Singer Man.

Just a pleasurable album. Also fun is to search out the originals and make a “Jamaican Labour Of Love” playlist.



Labour Of Love III (1998)


(in brackets are the original reggae artists)/Holly Holy (The Fabulous Flames)/It's My Delight (The Melodians)/Come Back Darling (Johnny Osbourne)/Never Let You Go (Junior Delgado)/Soul Rebel (Bob Marley & The Wailers)/My Best Girl (The Paragons)/Good Ambition (The Ethiopians)/Train Is Coming (Ken Boothe)/Blood And Fire (Niney The Observer)/Mr Fix It (Winston Francis)/Stay A Little Bit Longer (Delano Stewart)/Someone Like You (The Mighty Diamonds)/Time Has Come (Slim Smith)/Crying Over You (Ken Boothe)/Legalize It (Peter Tosh)     

After two very successful Labour Of Love albums of reggae covers, this was the third UB40 released in the series, and was nowhere near as successful. What it is, though, is more eclectic, obscure and rootsy. There are dancehall and lovers rock sounds in there too. It is actually an underrated album, although it has never been given much credit, critically.
                                
Holly Holy, while a second Neil Diamond cover after Red Red Wine, is more inspired by the reggae version of it done by The Fabulous Flames in the "skinhead reggae" era of the early seventies. It's My Delight has a lively, dancehall-style beat and a quirky keyboard solo bit. Come Back Darling was a minor hit, featuring a huge bass line, great horns, dancehall digitally-programmed percussion and a classic, yearning Ali Campbelvocal. Never Let You Go is a bouncy, horn-driven stomper in which the brass overwhelms the skank somewhat. Bob Marley & The WailersSoul Rebel is one of the best cuts on the album, with a great vocal from Astro and a real atmosphere to it, which captures the essence of Marley's original.

My Best Girl is a soulful slow groove with crystal clear percussion and another excellent Campbell vocal. The EthiopiansGood Ambition is upbeat and melodic, although its nineties-style beat dominates a bit. Ken Boothe's Train Is Coming has a big, thumping, infectious beat and the same uplifting feel of the original. Blood And Fire is a roots reggae classic from the mid seventies. It is given a deep, heavy nineties makeover here, but retaining its righteous feel and toasting vocals. Mr. Fix It is a smoochy ballad with a bit of a country feel to it, certainly to its vocal and melody.

Stay A Little Bit Longer is a poppy skank. Unfortunately, as this album was recorded in 1998, the drums are quite programmed in places. I would have preferred an authentic "one drop" reggae drumming style, but reggae had gone digital by now, so it was in tune with the contemporary trend. Someone Like You has some deep, bass grooves behind its romantic ballad tones, particularly near the end of the song. Time Has Come is another with a sonorous dancehall/ragga beat although its vocal is light and appealing (not sure if it is Campbell, I think it is one of the others). It ends with an extended bit of contemporary reggae.

Ken Boothe's seventies hit, Crying Over You is a nostalgic one for me with some nice dubby parts and there is some more credible roots material on the cover of Peter Tosh's Legalize It. Bizarrely, after five minutes, the song ends, only for the sound to come back on a few minutes later with the sound of someone loudly snoring! Just in case the album had sent you to sleep. As it is, it is a good listen, better than many say it is.

Labour Of Love IV (2010)


(in brackets are the reggae/soul artists who recorded the songs)/Don't Want To See You Cry (Ken Boothe)/Get Along Without You Now (The Melodians/Viola Wills)/Bring It On Home To Me (Sam Cooke)/Cream Puff (Johnny Nash)/Easy Snappin' (Theo Beckford)/Holiday (The Sensations)/Close to Me (Derrick Harriott)/Man Next Door (The Paragons)/Tracks Of My Tears (Smokey Robinson & The Miracles)/True, True, True (Ken Parker)/Boom Shacka Lacka (Hopeton Lewis)/You're Gonna Need Me (Errol Dunkley)/A Love I Can Feel (John Holt)/Baby Why (Keble Drummond)      

This was the fourth in UB40's Labour Of Love series of classic reggae covers, and the first recorded by UB40 Mk. II, the line-up with Duncan Campbell on vocals in place of brother Ali, who left the band acrimoniously and formed another version of UB40. Duncan's voice is very similar to Ali's but not enough that one cannot differentiate between the two. It is probably slightly the worst of the four albums, not particularly because of the band line-up change, but more because of the choice of material. Personally, I am sure they could have found a couple more original reggae numbers to cover as opposed to The Tracks Of My Tears and Bring It On Home To Me. Having said that, though, the latter has a really infectious groove to it.

Otherwise, in contrast to the more rootsy Labour Of Love III, this is a more melodic, laid-back collection.
              
Highlights are the soulful vibe of Ken Boothe's Don't Want To See You CryTheo Beckford's vibrant skank in Easy Snappin', a solid version of Hopeton Lewis's Boom Shacka LackaJohnny Nash's infectious Cream Puff and a version of Get Along Without You Now, which owes far more to The Melodians' reggae version than Viola Wills' disco soul number.

The sound quality is excellent and the songs are delivered in the now familiar UB40 style - punchy horns, classic reggae keyboard riffs and rumbling bass. It is an eminently listenable album. If you like the other albums, you should like this one, unless you are taking sides in the UB40 split thing. I listen to both incarnations of the band and enjoy them equally.



THE EIGHTIES AND BEYOND (1985-2005)



Bagariddim (1985)


(stating guest vocalists and original source songs)/The King Step Mk. 1 (Feat. Pato Banton and If It Happens Again)/The Buzz Feeling (Feat. Gunslinger and Cherry Oh Baby)/Lyric Officer Mk. 2 (Feat. Dillinger and If It Happens Again)/Demonstrate (Feat. Admiral Jerry and As Always You Were Wrong Again)/Two In A One Mk.1 (Feat. Pablo & Gunslinger and The Pillow)/Hold Your Position Mk. 3 (Feat. Stones and If It Happens Again)/Hip Hop Lyrical Robot (Feat. Pato Banton and Your Eyes Were Open)/Style Mk. 4 (Feat. Pablo and If It Happens Again)/Fight Fe Come In Mk. 2 (Feat. James Bon & General CP and The Pillow)/V's Version (Feat. Sister V and Version Girl)/Don't Break My Heart/I Got You Babe (Feat. Chrissie Hynde)/Mi Spliff

This was one of UB40's heaviest and most authentic albums. However, it is in no way a typical UB40 album. They play contemporary (in 1985) dancehall/ragga "riddims" over some of their previous material, and invited several guest singers to "toast" (Jamaican reggae rap) the vocals. The results are certainly an acquired taste and would not appeal to those attracted by the group's many accessible covers of classic reggae songs and indeed their own, often commercially appealing material. It has never particularly appealed to me, because my own reggae tastes are from the earlier periods of ska, rock steady, early pop reggae, roots, rockers, dub and lovers rock. I can tolerate bits of dancehall and ragga but not too much, to be honest, therefore I can dip into this album for an occasional blast, but half an hour or more is a bit like too much stodgy food.

Now, that is not to say that there isn't a lot of atmosphere or indeed quality on here. The sound quality is big, bassy and resonant and, if you like the genre you will very much enjoy this. As I said earlier, it is very authentic stuff.

 

I am not the best person to advise on dancehall/ragga grooves, but both The King Step Mk. 1 featuring Pato Banton's lilting voice and Gunslinger's The Buzz Feeling have a certain loose, dubby infectiousness about them. I can certainly take small doses of this. However, the toasting on Lyric Office Mk. 2  just isn't for me. Demonstrate has a quirky appeal, but to be honest I prefer the toasting of the seventies DJs such as Prince Far I, U-Roy, I-Roy and Big Youth. Admiral Jerry's lyrics make me smile on occasions, but I don't want to listen to the track too many times. The backing is good though.

Pablo and Gunslinger's vocals on Two In A One Mk. 1 are amusing and provide a bit of light entertainment. One of my favourites is Hold Your Position Mk. 3 which has Stones sounding quite a lot like Prince Far I, in that gruff, throaty way. Even better is Hip Hop Lyrical Robert which is the most musically appealing. I really like the lighter skank of V's Version as well. Sister V's female vocal is a pleasant change from all the previous male vocalists too.

Strangely, at the end of this mix of dancehall/ragga toasting are included two commercial, poppy singles in the evocative, more typical UB40 of Don't Break My Heart and the laconic, slightly underwhelming cover of Sonny & Cher's I Got You Babe, which was a duet between Ali Campbell and The PretendersChrissie Hynde. These were originally released as an EP, and the EP has been tagged on after the album's original ten tracks, hence the slightly incongruous feel.

Just to reiterate the point I made at the beginning, this is a dancehall/ragga album and not what the uninitiated would expect from a UB40 album.

Rat In The Kitchen (1986)


All I Want To Do/You Could Meet Somebody/Tell It Like It Is/The Elevator/Watchdogs/Rat In Mi Kitchen/Looking Down At My Reflections/Don't Blame Me/Sing Our Own Song  

This was the album that saw UB40 move considerably away from the trademark sound that had dominated their first four studio albums. Although their output on this album was still immediately identifiable as UB40, largely due to Ali Campbell's unique voice, there was now a horn-based backing as opposed to Brian Travers' solo saxophone and the drumming was sounding more programmed. The reggae was less authentic sounding too, less skanking, less rootsy. There is still some appealing, poppy material on here, though, it has to be said. It is certainly not a bad album, but it is the point, for me, when UB40 became slightly less credible and more a band that very much followed contemporary trends. Their reggae had become a bit muffled by digital drums and keyboards, but then again, so had much chart reggae at the time. If you think I am being a bit harsh here, let me say that I still like the album.
                   
All I Want To Do is very brassy and although pleasant enough, is a little unremarkable. It is a bit pre-fabricated and lacking in reggae credibility. There is nothing wrong with it, to an extent, but they had done far better. You Could Meet Somebody is more catchy, with a nice refrain and some Augustus Pablo-inspired melodica backing. Tell It Like It Is continues this lively feel with a keyboard-driven riff similar to the one they used on their cover of Johnny Too Bad and the same style of toasting vocals from Astro. This is one of the better cuts on the album.

  

The Elevator is another good track, with a chugging, mysterious feel to it and Travers' saxophone back in the mix on its own at times, which is always a good thing. Watchdogs has a very late eighties reggae sound to it, but it has an atmospheric chorus to it, with a typical Campbell vocal. Rat In Mi Kitchen has an addictive intro and similar vocal. Its singalong refrain made for a perfect single. The toasting bit, followed by a dubby bass and killer trumpet solo is wonderful, the best bit of music on the album.

Looking Down On My Reflections has a vaguely jazzy air about it in its breezy horns and backing vocals. Fair play to the group for trying material that sounded nothing like that on their first three albums, for sure. UB40 were often accused of sounding the same, well, this actually sounded quite a lot different. Don't Blame Me was not a single, but sounds like one somehow, with its melodic jauntiness. Sing Our Own Song is a captivating and lengthy South African-themed song (Nelson Mandela had not been released from prison yet). It carries a solid message and features excellent backing vocals and rhythms. Yes, I prefer the earlier albums, but this is still worthy of revisiting.



UB40 (1988)


Dance With The Devil/Come Out To Play/Breakfast In Bed/You're Always Pulling Me Down/I Would Do For You/'Cause It Isn't True/Where Did I Go Wrong/Contaminated Minds/Matter Of Time/Music So Nice/Dance With The Devil (Reprise)     

This unimaginatively-titled album saw the change in UB40 from a radical, rootsy but catchy reggae band to more of a finely-crafted mainstream, brassy reggae-tinged keyboard-dominated pop outfit. There still remains a bit of an authentic atmosphere here and there, though, but it is very driven by the brass section as opposed to the skank. Strangely, the cover shows some medieval portraits, the significance of which is unclear.

The edgy, political motivations of 1986's Rat In The Kitchen had gone, though, exchanged for polished pop/reggae and love songs instead of more cynical protest numbers.
        
Dance With The Devil is a punchy, rhythmic opener featuring some excellent brass and a thumping beat. Surprisingly, it is an instrumental. No matter, really, it is an extremely good one. Come Out To Play is a typical piece of of late eighties UB40 fare - summery, laid-back but melodious, with a catchy hook and Ali Campbell's unique quietly nasal voice instantly recognisable. The rhythms now are more programmed, however, less authentic, as they had been on the first two albums in particular. Those albums were seven or eight years back in time by now, though.

Breakfast In Bed was a lovers rock style cover of a Dusty Springfield song (also done by lovers rock singer Lorna Bennett and roots vocalist Candy McKenzie), which here featured Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders on lead vocals and its gentle groove made it a big hit. Campbell adopts an unusually high-pitched vocal on his parts. You're Always Pulling Me Down reverted to the muscular, horn-driven beat of the opener. Once again, it is archetypal UB40 late eighties material.

I Would Do For You is the first dub-influenced number, despite its poppy, love song lyrics. It has a deep, rumbling bass and a horn sound reminiscent of the group's 1981-82 output. Cause It Isn't True is a lively number, as also is Where Did I Go Wrong. The latter has a really familiar keyboard riff that I can't put my finger on, infuriatingly. It's come to me now, it is The Days Of Pearly Spencer.

Contaminated Minds has a heavy, dubby beat and echoes of the Rat In The Kitchen album. It is one of the album's more rootsy cuts. A similarly solid approach is given to the infectious slow groove of Matter Of TimeMusic So Nice features a very late eighties digital beat but it is also a very hooky song. It is vaguely dancehall in its rhythm. The opening track is briefly reprised to end what is a regularly overlooked album, particularly by myself, who has to admit to rarely returning to it. That is a bit of a shame as it is perfectly ok. Sandwiched between Rat In The Kitchen and Labour Of Love II, though, it has been often forgotten.

Promises And Lies (1993)


C'est La Vie/Desert Sand/Promises And Lies/Bring Me Your Cup/Higher Ground/Reggae Music/Can't Help Falling In Love/Now And Then/Things Ain't Like They Used To Be/It's A Long Long Way/Sorry              

It was the nineties now. This was UB40 going full-on digital, nineties pop with a bit of reggae influence. Their socially-aware, authentic reggae grooves of ten-twelve years earlier had long gone. This was commercially-driven stuff and it remains the group's biggest-selling album, which is a bit of a shame in some ways, as it is nowhere near their most credible or crucial. It was here that UB40 gained a whole new generation of fans who were often not fully aware of the band's first couple of ground-breaking, vital albums. Those like me who had been around since the early days (I first saw them live in 1980) enjoyed the new material, but not in the same way. Time moves on, though, and I accepted that. It is certainly not a bad album at all.
                          
C'est La Vie is a thumping, bassy, but highly programmed opener with some typical Ali Campbell vocals and hooks swirling around throughout the track. Desert Sand is a laid-back slice of slightly jazzy, summery easy listening fare. Campbell's vocals intertwine well with the sumptuous backing, though. Perfect wine bar background music, I guess. Nothing wrong with that, but people such as myself were fully aware that UB40 could produce better material than this. I still like the song, it has to be said. Brian Travers' saxophone is superb on here too. Maybe I was just living in the past

Promises And Lies has that fast-beat semi-dancehall digital backing that UB40 would use a lot during the nineties. Bring Me Your Cup was a single and should have been a bigger hit than the number 24 it got to. I love it. It has a delicious guitar twiddle-diddle riff underpinning it, great saxophone and one of those great Campbell soulfully nasal vocals. I always enjoy the "sexy lady" toasting part at the end. The catchy Higher Ground was a much bigger hit, although I always preferred Bring Me Your Cup. An even bigger hit than both of them, of course, was the Elvis cover, Can't Help Falling In Love. It is done well, I have to say, but it is not the essence of UB40, for me. Campbell's voice sends shivers up the spine, however.

Reggae Music is a contemporarily-influenced attempt at merging ragga with the UB40 sound, with toaster Astro providing typical ragga vocals. It has an addictive chorus. Now And Then is a muscular, brassy but tuneful number. Things Ain't Like They Used To Be is a shuffling, brassy vaguely funky groover. It's A Long Long Way is given an infuriatingly programmed nineties backing, but its ragga vocals are authentic enough. It was a perfect mix of the often impenetrable sound of ragga with appealing pop/reggae. That contemporary vibe continues in the intro to the jaunty Sorry. There are hints of Sing Our Own Song from 1986 about it.

Listening to this again, it has been a pleasurable listen from beginning to end. The booming backing that would blight the group's next few albums was not present here. The sound is excellent.



Guns In The Ghetto (1997)


Always There/Hurry Come Up/I Love It When You Smile/I've Been Missing You/Oracabessa Moonshine/Guns in The Ghetto/Tell Me Is It True/Friendly Fire/I Really Can't Say/Lisa        

It had been four years since UB40's most successful album, 1993's Promises And Lies, but this offering didn't really register much at all. Most hints of politicised lyrics had disappeared and also the group seemed to have almost lost the knack for a hit tune, something that certainly was not the case on the previous album. It is all very polished, digitised pop reggae, with programmed drums replacing "proper" drums and the skanking is nowhere near as pronounced. Yes there is a reggae beat, but it is largely keyboard-driven. For me, this is where UB40 really started to hit a rut, reggae authenticism giving way to contemporary rhythmic beats. Furthermore, the sound suffers from the "loudness" prevalent at the time and I have to turn down the bass settings on my sub-woofer specifically for this album, otherwise it shakes the whole house.
                                                  
Always There is a pleasant enough opener, with some nice bass parts, Ali Campbell's vocals are as nasally sleepy as ever. Hurry Come Up is a shuffling groove, with a decidedly digital backing. Some nice brass near the end. I Love It When You Smile has a laid-back, gentle feeling, with some good saxophone in parts. Again, Ali Campbell's voice is getting more somnolent by the minute. I've Been Missing You comes and goes without really registering either one way or another.

Oracabessa Moonshine is a swoony, jazzy number with a nice atmosphere and melodic vocal about jacaranda trees and bathing in the sea. Very suitable for a hot summer's day. It is a bit Third World-ish. Guns in The Ghetto is the one track on the album that really makes you sit up  and say "yes! That's what I expect from UB40". Campbell's voice is as you would expect - sad and quietly expressive. It has more of a reggae groove, some subtle brass and a heartbreaking lyric about gun violence. It is probably the mark of a special band that, even at their most underwhelming, they can still come up with a classic.

Tell Me Is It True finds the group bravely diversifying somewhat with acoustic guitars and a jaunty jazzy vocal. Friendly Fire has a lively rhythm to it and lyrics that you might think were militarily inspired/political but actually is about a relationship going wrong. I Really Can't Say is a catchy enough tune. Lisa is another perfectly inoffensive track. Look, there isn't a bad track on this album, but apart from the title track, there just isn't one that sticks in the memory for long.

Cover Up (2001)


Rudie/Sparkle Of My Eyes/Really/The Day I Broke The law/Let Me Know/Cover Up/Walk On Me Land/Something More Than This/Everytime/I'm On The Up/Look At Me/Since I Met You Lady/Walked In The Rain/Write Off The Debt                        

This is a much longer UB40 album than people had been used to thus far. CDs were allowing for over an hour's worth of music and many groups were taking advantage of this. Sure it gave value for money but when most of the songs were in the same mould, as on this album, maybe forty minutes is preferable to an hour. Four years after the acceptable but musically unadventurous Guns In The Ghetto album, UB40 were back, with an album based round contemporary, digital ragga rhythms, with not an authentic rootsy one-drop drum beat within earshot. It leads to a somewhat characterless, amorphous sounding album  that is a long, long way from those crucial reggae sounds of twenty years earlier. Yes, the group are attempting to develop in line with current ragga sounds, as opposed to playing late seventies/early eighties roots stuff but while it is perfectly listenable, it just passes me by, aurally, I have to admit. That said, repeat listenings find me enjoying it more with each one.

Rudie is a quirky, appealing mix of ragga beats, guitar skanking and dubby bass, particularly near the end. Sparkle Of My Eyes is a gentle, laid-back romantic groove. As with so many UB40 tracks, it features an excellent dubby bit at the end. Really uses programmed drums, as do a lot of the tracks which is annoying, for me anyway. It has a nice ambience to it, though. The Day I Broke The Law features that manufactured beat again, but also a sad, mournful Ali Campbell vocal. It is one of the album's best offerings. Let Me Know ploughs the same relaxing furrow.

 

Cover Up features some nice brass. Walk On Me Land also has nice bass and horn parts and a dubby vibe to it. It has the album's best bass line. Something More Than This is a ragga-ish, faster paced offering, with appropriate toasting lyrics and some spacey, Groove Armada-esque keyboard sound effects. Everytime is quite a bouncy, keyboard-driven number.

I'm On The Up has a rolling, catchy dance-ish rhythm. Look At Me is a pleasant enough, but otherwise unremarkable number. Since I Met You Lady features dancehall vocalist Lady Saw and has a deep, bassy vibrancy to it and raises the album out of its sleepy torpor. Walked In The Rain is a bit more rootsy and while it is still bassily enjoyable, it just doesn't stick in the mind much. It also has an annoying crackling bit in the backing that makes you think something is wrong with your speakers. Write off The Debt is a politically-motivated Buju Banton-influenced rap to end on a different note.

This is certainly not a bad album, and the sound quality is improved from the previous "loudness"-affected album but the music on the album is far too homogenous on the whole. Not too much of it stays with you after the album has finished. On the other hand, though, the hour I have just spent listening to it was a fulfilling one. I listened to it again and it revealed hidden depths. So, it is a sort of half and half album. It would be more effective as a forty minute album, though.

Homegrown (2003)


So Destructive/I Knew You/Drop On By/Someone Like Me/Freestyler/Everything Is Better Now/Just Be Good (Bushman Dub)/Young Guns/Hand That Rocks The Cradle/Nothing Without You/Nothing Without You (Dub)/Swing Low Sweet Chariot            

After several unremarkable albums over a fair few years, UB40 released one here with a bit of political vitality about it, lyrically. Sonically, however, it was a victim of the "digital reggae" that was popular from the early/mid nineties through into the new millennium. The bass is big and booming, the drums programmed and all potential rootsiness sort of computerised out of it, which is a shame. It was contemporarily on the money, however, so fair enough.

There are a fair few dubby passages, though, that give a little bit of roots feel to some of the songs.

So Destructive starts with a few weird, spacey sound effects before a digitalised, ragga style beat kicks in and Ali Campbell's trademark voice arrives. It has a nice enough beat to it, but I have always preferred "real" reggae, but as this was recorded in 2003, I have to get used to the "faux" sound. I Knew You is a big, rumbling slow burner, with hints of the group's mid eighties Rat In The Kitchen output. Initially, it is just another bit of digital reggae, but I have to admit that after a few listens, it starts to work its way into my consciousness. There is a good dubby/brass interplay section in the middle too. Drop On By has more dub enhancing its backing - a slow, deep skank together with a haunting Campbell vocal. This is probably as good as anything the group had put out for years. It has a great dub bass bit at the end.

Someone Like Me ploughs the same furrow, but has a slightly poppier edge to it. Freestyler utilises dancehall/ragga toasting on the vocals. Most UB40 albums in recent years contain at least one track like this. It serves to change the feel from the previous tracks a bit. Everything Is Better Now is pretty typical UB40 fare, but again they concentrate on the dubby aspects of the beat, which is fine by me, as lover of dub. Once more, the bass bit at the end is excellent. Full of dubby atmosphere. The same applies to the impressive Just Be Good (Bushman Dub). Once more the dub aspects are to the forefront, even before the infectious ending.

Young Guns has a catchy feel to it, a great vocal from Campbell and an anti-gun message. "Young guns never grow old...". Indeed they don't. Hand That Rocks The Cradle is a very digital-ish number with politically-motivated lyrics about the state of the world. I have got used to the digital sound by now, actually, and I am quite enjoying it. Nothing Without You is almost electronica in its backing. The dub version of the same song is obviously going to be enjoyed by me. The group's cover of Swing Low Sweet Chariot is enjoyable but somewhat inessential and incongruous in the context of the album as a cohesive whole.

This was one of UB40's best albums from their latter era career, before their big split up, which saw two groups splintering off from each other. It is easily the match of Rat In The Kitchen or any of the mid-eighties offerings.

Who You Fighting For? (2005)


Who You Fighting For/After Tonight/Bling Bling/Plenty More/War Poem/Sins Of The Fathers/Good Situation/Gotta Tell Someone/Reasons/One Woman Man/I'll Be On My Way/Kiss And Say Goodbye/Things You Say You Love                       

After an impressive album in 2003's HomegrownUB40 delivered another solid album of relaxed songs - contemporary-sounding but with dubby influences. They are the usual mix of love songs and cynical observations on everyday life/political situations. This album has sort of slipped under the radar as the group moved inexorably towards their acrimonious split, which is a shame, as it is one of their best relatively recent releases. It is one of their liveliest, most uptempo albums. The great thing about this release is the move away from digitally-programmed rhythms to a more traditional reggae, utilising "real" drums and percussion. For me, this is always going to be a good thing.

The opener, Who You Fighting For is a lively, pounding thumper of a track, with that fore-mentioned "proper" percussion as opposed to the digital rhythms that had been used on the previous three albums. After Tonight continues the upbeat vibe, with another excellent number. UB40 hadn't sounded this ebullient in years. The 1980-style saxophone is back too, not before time. Bling Bling is also fast-paced, with toaster Astro on vocals. Plenty More is a bassy number with dubby strains that almost harks back to the glory days of those first two great albums all those years ago. The same could be said of War Poem which again features great bass and a typical vocal from Ali Campbell. There is definitely a bit of "regained mojo" to be detected in this material.

Sins Of The Fathers is a wonderful, evocative song, full of melody and one of those archetypal Campbell vocals where he just hits that sad, mournful-sounding sweet nasal spot. This was one of their best songs for quite a long time. There is a lovely bit of bass/drum interplay at the end. Good Situation has vague hints of The ParagonsThe Tide Is High about it. It is a delightful poppy skank  delivered in a Gregory Isaacs style. Again, I have to reiterate how lovely it is to hear original reggae being played, as opposed to digitally backed stuff. Check out that Dave & Ansel Collins style organ and the "one-drop" drum sound, plus those sharp cymbals. Echoes of the seventies "flying cymbals" sound. Another great track.

 

Gotta Tell Someone is also a most impressive, fetching number. Full of toe-tapping rhythm. Something so absent from so many earlier albums. Reasons is probably more upbeat than anything they had done for decades. It also features some Eastern-sounding vocals, like Sufi chanting, behind the frantic, shuffling beat. One Woman Man is a slow-burning, horn-driven love song. Brian Travers' saxophone sounds out loud and clear on here once more, as it did in 1980-81. I'll Be On My Way is an old Beatles rarity from 1964. Here, it is given a tuneful easy reggae makeover. Another cover is up next, this time The Manhattans' sweet soul classic from the mid-seventies, Kiss And Say Goodbye. It would have fitted quite nicely on a Labour Of Love covers album. It is played here as an effortless, melodic skank. Things You Say You Love is a sweet slice of relaxing, romantic reggae, with those horns as sensual as usual. It was also a cover of a rare rock steady1970 number from The Jamaicans. So, the album ends in a real Labour Of Love fashion, but let that not detract from the excellent original material that had been before.

This really was a very enjoyable album - a good mix of vibrant new material and some attractive covers. It is a hidden gem amongst UB40s large pile of recordings. Surprisingly good, in fact.

THE LATER INCARNATIONS (2009-2019)



Getting Over The Storm (2013)


Midnight Ride/I'm Pretty Sure That's Just What's Killing Me/Getting Over The Storm/Blue Bilet Doux/If You Ever Have Forever In Mind/Crying Time/How Will I Get Through This One/He'll Have To Go/Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain/I Did What I Did/On The Other Hand/How Can Poor Men Stand Such Times And Live/I Didn't Know  

“The voice of UB40”, Ali Campbell, leaves in a fit of sibling rivalry pique, gets replaced by elder brother Duncan, who was never in the group for all those success-filled years and guess what? The band release a country and western reggae album! That will go down well. Cue the predictable chorus of criticism.

Unfair.

This is a very pleasant album to listen to. The laid back reggae groove suits the country songs perfectly - Getting Over The StormBlue Eyes Crying In The RainMidnight Rider, I Did What I Did, He’ll Have To Go are highlights.

If You Ever Have Forever and How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live are personal favourites.

Forget the criticism. Good album.

Silhouette (2014)


Anytime At All/Silhouette/Cyber Bully Boys/Reggae Music/I'm Missing You/Who Will Remember Them/Fijian Sunset/Sha La La/Tomorrow On My Shoulders/Our Love/History/I Want You/Yes I'm Ready   

This is the first album from singer/songwriter Ali Campbell's breakaway triumvirate from UB40, including toaster Astro and keyboardist Mickey Virtue. As a long time UB40 fan since 1980, unlike some, I don't take sides. I enjoy the music made by both UB40 incarnations. Good music is good music, after all.
                                                                        
Anytime At All is a staccato, appealing enough tune, but Campbell's voice sounds a bit deadpan on the song. I was listening to it and thought, this sounds like The Beatles. Of course it does, they recorded it on A Hard Day's NightSilhouette is more recognisable as Ali Campbell and has a nice, deep bass backing. Old mate Astro adds some quality toasting near the end. This is a good track. Apparently it was a cover of a 1957 US doo-wop hit by The Rays. No, me neither. Cyber Bully Boys is a brassy and dubby condemnation of Campbell's ex-band members, which I find churlish and unnecessary, but it is a good skank, as indeed is the very UB40 Reggae Music, featuring Astro once more. Nice dub passage at the end too.


I'm Missing You is an appealing Campbell love song with his voice sounding more nasally recognisable. Who Will Remember Them a deep but melodic bass and an atmosphere to it. Fijian Sunset is another yearning, typically Campbell track. I'm not sure if Sha La La is a cover, but it has a very nineties lovers rock sound to it. Tomorrow On My Shoulders is also a fetching song with a vague country feel. Odd that, as the rival UB40 released a country reggae album around the same time.

Our Love has a retro reggae sound to it, sort of eighties digital in its feel. It has some nice percussion and an all round good vibe to it. History is catchy enough, but lyrically a bit clich├ęd - "history remains a mystery...". I Want You - yes it is the Bob Dylan number and it really suits Campbell's mournful voice. he does a great job on this, giving it real pathos. The horns fit the track too. The album finishes with the laid-back, summery groove of Yes, I'm Ready. It is a cover of a Chi-Lites song. Once again, Campbell really does it justice. He always could nail a cover.

Unplugged/Greatest Hits (2016)


This album is a double mix of firstly, “unplugged” versions of UB40 classics performed by singer Ali Campbell’s breakaway triumvirate of toaster Astro and keyboardist Mickey Virtue. (Virtue has subsequently left) and a second CD of the original group’s greatest hits. Funnily enough, despite Campbell’s acrimonious split from some of the other original members of the group (who now carry on also claiming to be UB40) he seemingly has no qualms about pairing these new unplugged versions with the work of the original group.


Anyway, enough of all that nonsense. On to the music. We all know the greatest hits, so it is the “unplugged” material that is of interest. It is certainly not all unplugged i.e. stripped back and acoustic. Many of the tracks have a beat to them and a reasonably full instrumentation. While it is always a bit strange listening to new versions of songs you have become so familiar with over the years, there is, for me, always an interest in seeing what they have made of them. There are certainly some intriguing interpretations on offer here. A quirky, Eastern-sounding One In Ten, an acoustic Food For Thought and a cover of Prince’s Purple Rain for starters. Tyler gets a good makeover too and Baby Come Back features some classic Booker T-style organ.

Most of the tracks are tinkered with quite a bit, enough to justify their new existences. A bit of new percussion here and there, a new bass line, some new backing vocals, a riff played on acoustic guitar instead of saxophone, a more rhythmic drum backing. We get all of that and the new versions are worth listening to for that. The sound quality is good - full and bassy and it is nice to hear Ali’s unique, iconic voice again. For many, he is UB40. It is such a shame what has happened.

The new track That's Supposed To Hurt is a good one, and quite appropriate really.

A Real Labour Of Love (2018)


Making Love/She Loves Me Now/Strive/Here I Come/Telephone Love/Rumours/How Could I Leave/Ebony Eyes/Hush Darling/Hard Times/Moving Away/International Herb/A Place In The Sun/Tune In/Once Ago/In The Rain/Under Mi Sleng Teng  

It is so sad that UB40, after all those years recording and touring together and producing so many great albums, have ended up splintered, as two separate groups, five of them in one group, three in the other - this one. As a fan, I have stuck with both of them. To be honest though, Ali Campbell is the real voice of the band, despite brother Duncan doing a more than acceptable job in the "other UB40". I have seen that version of the band, with saxophonist Brian Travers and Robin Campbell in it, live a couple of times and they're excellent.

Anyway, back to this album. Despite the criticism from many other reviewers, I find it a perfectly enjoyable listen. Nothing spectacular and certainly not covering the copper-bottomed reggae classics that the first three Labour Of Love's did. Volume Four not quite so much. Apparently these were not the 70s reggae songs they grew up listening to as covered on those albums, but stuff they listened to on the road while touring.

Stevie Wonder’s A Place In The Sun is obviously not a reggae original, and there are a couple of songs from the late 70s in Dennis Brown’s sublime How Could I Leave and Culture’s International Herb. The early 70s stuff that so dominated certainly the first two Labour Of Love's has gone, though. However, most of the tracks on A Real Labour Of Love are from the 80s, a decade that saw dancehall reggae enter the mainstream. Gregory IsaacsHush Darling and Once Ago are welcome inclusions. Hard Times is a favourite of mine and Moving Away has a nice dub-style backing. I also love In The Rain, which has a great laid back feel to it.

Ali's voice sounds a little older, maybe, but I don't accept any of the criticisms of the musicianship on this album.

For The Many (2019)


The Keeper/Broken Man/Gravy Train/I'm Alright Jack/Moonlight Lover/You Haven't Called/What Happened To UB40/Bulldozer/Poor Fool/All We Do Is Cry    

Having enjoyed UB40's music since 1980, I find the current situation which has two feuding incarnations of the same band very sad. I do not take sides, I listen to the output of both groups and enjoy them. This version of UB40 contains five members from the original band - Earl FalconerJimmy BrownRobin CampbellBrian Travers and Norman Lamont Hassan. Since Labour Of Love IV and the country/reggae album Getting Over The StormDuncan Campbell has been lead vocals and, as we know, he sounds a lot like original vocalist Ali Campbell. The latter is part of the other version of the group with toaster Astro and Mickey Virtue. Confusing, isn't it?

Anyway, this is a laid-back pleasant enough collection of catchy reggae numbers given that familiar UB40 brassy treatment. It has a nice, warm sound quality to it as well, with none of that too heavy bass that blighted late 1990s/early 2000s albums like Guns In The Ghetto. The bass is solid and full, as it should be, but not distorted.

The cover is a somewhat shocking impression of a city skyline based on the Grenfell Tower fire.
                
The Keeper is a breezy, brassy and summery typical UB40 groove, while Broken Man has a deeper, dubbier rhythm but retains the trademark horn backing. Additional vocalist Kabaka Pyramid has a toasting part near the end. Lead vocals are taken by Norman Lamont Hassan, who has a deeper voice than Campbell. Gravy Train is a Gregory Isaacs-inspired melodic skank, with a nice dubby bit at the song's conclusion. UB40 have always been a band with a social conscience and this is expressed in the cynical I'm Alright Jack. Its concerns are the unfairness of the property market. Pablo Rider provides the gruff, ragga-style toasting vocals. More authentic dub is featured on the
track too.

  

Midnight Lover has Hassan on vocals again on an infectious Lovers Rock-style number. You Haven't Called is a slow-pace, dubby love song. Great bass and saxophone on this. What Happened To UB40 is a disappointing, unnecessary toasting dig at the "other band". While it has a great groove  to it, its sentiments come across as churlish. No need for it. Once again, though, the dub sounds on the track are impressive.

Bulldozer goes full on ragga and Poor Fool is a return to that laid-back, sunny sound. All We Do Is Cry is an evocative, soulful number with Hassan again on vocals, at one point showing some Eastern influences. This album is notable for using Hassan quite a few times on vocals, so it doesn't come across like an attempt to sound like Ali Campbell, something Duncan is sometimes guilty of. This is an enjoyable forty-fifty minutes or so's listen. Recommended.

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