While the rest of the world was grooving on psychedelia in the summer of ’67, Robin and Ali Campbell were turning on to something else entirely.
Growing up in an immigrant, working-class neighborhood in Birmingham, England, the two brothers who spearhead the reggae-dub-pop outfit UB40 were witnessing a groundbreaking change in Jamaican music.
Ska was slowing down, and ? … the [bass] line was bigger, and the emphasis had changed, and it was rock steady,? explains Robin.
Later, it would morph into reggae, and Robin was transformed.
?It was the newest, sexiest music I?d ever heard. It just knocked me sideways,? he said. ?I thought this was the future. I?d always liked ska and the boogie-woogie stuff coming out of Jamaica, but the rock-steady period ? in ’67 ? was absolutely life-changing for me.?
As it was for the rest of UB40, a group whose origins trace all the way to the members? school days. ?Almost every member of the band went to school with Ali ? all of ’em, since we were about 11 years old,? says Robin, the band?s lead guitarist. ?We?ve been a gang ever since we were kids really, and we?d just hang out and go to the same places and listened to the same music all our lives, basically.?
Those bonds of friendship have kept UB40 intact for almost 30 years. Hits from the band?s Labour of Love series, such as the remake of the Neil Diamond classic ?Red, Red Wine,? made the band international superstars, and they?re still going strong, having released the 2-CD concert album, UB40 Live At Montreux 2002, and an accompanying DVD of the show this summer courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment. Highlights include the infectious ?Rat In Mi Kitchen,? a moving Jimmy Cliff cover of ?Many Rivers To Cross? and a soulful rendition of ?Kingston Town.?
?The atmosphere was lovely,? says Robin of the show. ?It was raucous and noisy but kind of laid back.?
Before finding success, UB40 went through some rather rough growing pains. A common misconception is that the band met while in a welfare line. While it is named after a British unemployment form, that story is false.
?I think most of us were unemployed at the time, but it wasn?t like we met up at the dole queue,? says Robin. ?That?s a very romantic version of the truth. Those of us that did have jobs gave them up and went on the dole to be in the band.?
Without jobs, during the grim economic times of the Thatcher regime, UB40 concentrated on music.
?None of us could play instruments, and we had to learn,? says Robin. ?It was a 9-to-5, five-days-a-week job, where we learned to play chords and things. It became kind of a full-time occupation, paid for by the unemployment benefits.?
Ali bought the band instruments after receiving criminal injury compensation money awarded to him for getting attacked in a bar.
?The first few times we got together were completely hilarious and completely nonproductive ? total anarchy,? laughs Robin. ?I actually walked out at the time and said, ?You?re all a bunch of idiots. Nothing?s going to happen.??
But Ali, drummer Jim Brown and bassist Earl Falconer forged ahead and got better. Eventually, Robin re-upped, and so did the rest of the band, including keyboardist Mickey Virtue, saxophonist Brian Travers, percussionist Norman Hassan, and toaster Terence ?Astro? Wilson.
At first, UB40 took hard political stances. One of its first big hits in England in the early ’80s, ?One in Ten,? ripped Margaret Thatcher for the country?s high unemployment rates. Gradually, though, UB40 softened its edge, starting with 1983?s Labour of Love, a reggae covers album. The band?s biggest U.S. hit was its remake of Sonny and