In defense of UB40. What? UB40? Really? The reggae karaoke band? Well, yes and no. Sort of. See the thing is, it's almost like there were two UB40s to be fair. There's the later day version (Girl), the Labour Of Love UB40, the lowest common denominator UB40, the UB40 that churned out album after album of reggae-lite covers, the Red, Red, Wine UB40. Then there's the UB40 of my formative years. The one that gave us two stunning albums of politically conscious British reggae that gave it's Jamaican counter part a run for it's money and then some. The UB40 who learned (quickly)how to play their instruments before our eyes while commenting on the plight, prospects and lack thereof, of a generation, my generation, in a way that no modern day band seems to in spite of the glaring social and political similarities of the times.
In the wake of punk anything seemed possible. Music mattered, it educated while it entertained. Sure there was plenty of crap in the charts, there always has been and always will be but there were also bands with something to say, something worth hearing, a message, a point of view. Bands like Ska revivalists The Specials who gave us possibly the one song that summed up the times like no other, Ghost Town; The Beat wore their hearts on their sleeves while singing Stand Down Margaret as Thatcher and her cronies declared war on the working class, plotting the demise of trade unions while stealing milk from primary school children the length and breadth of the country; Madness, who's happy go lucky sound seemed somewhat at odds with the theme of songs such as their single Embarrassment - the story of saxophonist Lee Thompson's sister becoming pregnant to a black man and her family's inability or unwillingness to cope with the situation.
And then there was UB40. Initially lumped in with the crop of 2-tone/ska bands that had taken the nation by storm, UB40, it quickly transpired, were an all together different beast. They were a bona-fide, 24karat, reggae band. A bona-fide, 24karat reggae band comprised of black and white musicians. These things shouldn't matter but, unfortunately, they did. As a unit they were the living embodiment of everything that scared the crap out of the powers that be, the divide and conquer leaders in Parliament who would much prefer black people and white people didn't get along, thank you very much. And they were good. Scary good. Music has changed and chart placings no longer determine the measure of a band but, even so, it's hard to imagine a song as haunting as Food For Thought gaining any traction in the modern day billboard but, when Thursday night came around, there they were, a gang of fresh faced Brummies, all Fred Perry's and Dreadlocks, singing about famine and desperation and hopelessness on Top Of The Pops. Not the sort of material you'd feel too comfy handing over to Pan's People or Legs and Co.
The cover of their debut album depicted the unemployment benefit form from which they took their name; Unemployment Benefit form 40. A piece of paper millions of us would become all too familiar with. Whereas the debut albums of Madness and The Specials were instantly accessible, infectious and exciting, the latter even somewhat dangerous with its overtones of indiscriminate violence, the more difficult Signing Off proved ultimately to be so much more rewarding. There isn't a bum track on the album. With lyrics running the gamut from championing the cause of black youth convicted of murdering a white youth in the States (Tyler), to the feelings of shame felt for the horrors visited on foreign nations in the name of Empire (Burden Of Shame) by way of Martin Luther King's impact on the world (King). Amazingly, it still sounds as vibrant and fresh as it did upon release in 1980.
As good as Signing Off is, and I'd recommend anyone who doesn't own a copy to rectify that ASAP, UB40 really hit their stride with the follow up album, Present Arms. While Campbell's vocals remained as impenetrable as on the first album the musicianship had developed exponentially the sound had grown fuller. It's an extremely self assured and confident album, expanding on the dub and reverb themes of Signing Off. The title track should be compulsory listening for anyone contemplating a career in the armed forces.
You got no job you got no pay
Join the military, sign today
They'll send you off to fight on foreign shores
You'll be your mother's pride and joy
Her armed and dangerous golden boy
A uniformed hero that shows no fear
It's a phenomenally powerful song, both lyrically and musically with a driving beat and multiple horns. In my opinion, the high mark of their career. Don't Let It Pass You By implores the listener to take life by the horns, to make the most of your time, this is it, you're only going round once. A message that might sound tame these days but in 1981 optimism was thin on the ground. One in Ten, the album's signature song, catologues the anonymous people who made up the rank and file of Britain's unemployed - the 10% of working age people who were without work, much like today, no one knows them but they exist, they are real. One In Ten is the only song from that time that is anywhere near as evocative as The Special's Ghost Town which shades it by virtue of been the number one song when the countries inner cities exploded into rioting. Don't Walk On The Grass, well, it's reggae we're talking about here... Not content with resting on their laurels, just for good measure, they released a dub version of the album that's equally as good.
UB40 enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top; their descent was even faster, at least credibility wise. After releasing a live album they struck commercial gold with Labour of Love, a collection of cover versions of some of the bands favourite songs. Ironically, the success of the album and one song in particular, Red, Red, Wine (a cover version of a cover version!) may have robbed us of the UB40 many of us knew and loved. Labour of Love and it's subsequent follow ups Labours of Love II, III, IV, XXIII, albums that stuck to the same formula, are, unfortunately, reggae only an accountant could truly love.
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