"I'm Saving The Legacy Of The Band" Ali Campbell On The Divide Of UB40

UB40 front man Ali Campbell talks openly and honestly on being at loggerheads with his brothers and the 'other' UB40 as he continues to tour the world at sell-out shows with his own line-up performing those classic UB40 tunes.
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Your on a break right now from touring, But how has it been going up to now?

Ali Campbell - Yeah, we've just finished playing some dates around England to 70,000 people over 10 dates, and we did some in Holland too which was great. So yeah, we've got a couple of weeks down time and then were off to north America to tour, like we did last year.

Where are your favourite places to play in the UK, any difference between the northern and southern crowds at all?

Mmm..I think if you're in Scotland, Ireland or Wales the Celtic gigs seem to be a bit more mental, but then one of the best gigs on this tour was playing the Dome, which was amazing. And of course playing Birmingham is always good because were being treated a bit like the prodigal sons, me and Astro. You know, considering our hiatus away. Because Astro didn't play with me for 6 years or something, so the fans are just happy were back together and now were smashing it. But they're all as good as each other once you're out there on stage, they've all been great to play.

How about the international shows, what have been the highlights

The last 18 months has seen us play New Zeland playing the winery tour with record attendances. Where we'd usually be playing to 1500 in that part of the world we played to like 8000 people which was unbelievable. We also played in Papua New Guinea and Hawaii where we sold out the Neal S. Blaisdell Center in minutes so we put an extra show on, it couldn't of gone any better really.

So what has the reaction been like to you, Astro and Mickey UB40 line up then?

Its been amazing, the fans have been voting with their feet basically. We just sold out the Dome, the NIA and the Point in Dublin...which is now called the 3arena, but you can't really get any better than that in Britain and I think we've proved our point. It's UB40 featuring Ali, Astro & Mickey which is the one that's winning, the 'darkside' (as I call them) have just started a tour playing 800 seaters which I think is rather embarrassing for them and of course a shame, its a long lingering death that we're witnessing.

It all must be slightly bittersweet for you watching your brothers, as well as ex-band members pale in comparison compared to the success you're all having on tour right now?

Well in my opinion I'm saving the legacy of UB40. When I left them, my old band, because I couldn't get any joy out of the management I decided to go along with Mickey Virture (UB40 Keyboard player) and went around the world promoting reggae. As we've always have done and I was always watching what the others were doing and they were just killing the name of the band really. Playing smaller and smaller venues around the world and quite frankly Duncan can't quite cut it (Ali's other brother who stepped in as lead vocals) you know, he's not a reggae performer, he was a folk singer whose trying to sing my songs and it just doesn't work. In fact its not that it just doesn't work but its painfully embarrassing going on the stuff I've seen.

So then Astro phoned and said he wanted to come join me and Mickey because he couldn't believe they were going to do a country album ('Getting Over the Storm') which didn't even sell 5000 copies. Which is a complete disaster for the biggest reggae band in the world and there they are slapping me in the face because I started UB40 to promote reggae music, as well as slapping all our fans of 30 years in the face by coming out with a country album. So I decided to call it UB40 featuring Ali, Astro & Mickey so we could basically save the band's legacy. What we did this was play a set of 'Labour of Love 1 & 2' which are our two most popular albums, apart from 'Promises and Lies' and it went down a storm, its what the fans want to hear, they want to hear UB40 songs so obviously they're going to come and see us because they get the original vocalists too.

For me personally you have one of the finest voices of any British guitar band ever, so its just hard luck its your brother who is trying to fill those boots I suppose

We had 40 top 20 hits in the 80's and 90's and listening to Duncan destroy them is of course soul destroying for me and I just couldn't sit back and let them do it any longer, sit back with out doing anything about it, you know. To try and save the bands whole legacy.

Is there any contact at all between the two line-ups?

No, I haven't spoken to my brothers since I left them, and that includes the rest of the band because I always thought we were a band of brothers. It was a very acrimonious split and I left because some of the band members were up to stuff behind my back which I later became aware of. And when I did leave I became aware of more and more things and it just got worse and worse you know.

From a fan's point of view you usually presume your favourite bands all really get on, plus as a group UB40 always came across as quite a tight unit.

Absolutely, I was with them for 28 years before I left and made 24 albums, and when I did leave this horrible victual came to the surface. I mean I even wrote a song on the last album called 'Cyber Bully Boys' due to the way several members of the old band just bullied anyone who had anything to do with me. These guys are mature gentlemen but then they're threatening female fans, it just got unbelievable. Now it seems the better I do the worse it gets.

How have you dealt with all this?

Well for the most part I've maintained a silence. I don't go online or have anything to do with the net at all really, I've got a Facebook account but it's run by some body else, I don't play in the mud. The best way for me to answer it all is to keep selling out these concerts, the Dome, NIA and so on and smashing it all over the world which is what we're doing right now. But I don't feel bitter about anything, when I first left them I said 'Look, there's room enough for both of us, it'll just mean there's 2 reggae bands out there'...but that's not how they saw it and since then they've just tried to destroy me by issuing a writ on me. And its once you start that its something very hard to walk away from. But I can't walk away from it because I'd have to pay their costs and visa versa if they walked away from it, which for both of us would cost us half a million quid each.

So this feud could end up in court?

What they've done is stupid that they've launched this case against me to stop me using the words 'UB40', which of course is daft because its a statement of facts. I've been the lead singer of UB40 since I created the band. It was my band and now I've sort of re-invented it again with Astro and Mickey.

How about the ownership of the actual name 'UB40', do you all own it as a group or something?

No, we never actually did anything like that because UB40 was a government registration form so we didn't even own it, nobody owned it so nobody has the copy right on the name.

As a UB40 fan its a shame to hear this divide has gone so far

This is it. What I was saying to them, through the lawyers of course...was that all we're doing is giving money to them, the lawyers, and its a fruitless exercise. So why don't we all put our hands down and walk away. But I'm still waiting for them to come back on that one. But I'm not going to give up, you know...not while I'm winning anyway.

The tour has been Labour of Love 1 & 2, which were both massive selling albums. But how about some of those earlier tracks from the first 2 albums, be great to hear those again

We do play them...it was only the last 10 dates in the UK where we did Labour of Love 1 & 2. Ordinarily we play '1 in 10'', 'Bring me your Cup' and other UB40 golden oldies. We've also got an acoustic album coming out with a version of 'Tyler' on it (protest song in the name of US Gary Tyler who was locked up for a crime he never did, shooting of a white 13yr old boy in Louisiana), an Unplugged album which will be coming out in June/July. In fact Tyler has just been released after 41 years in custody, a man who spent all those years in prison and there was never one bit of of evidence to convict him on, really shocking.

Looking back at those early classics, especially off the first 2 albums they still very much resonate today, whether it be about unemployment, racism and so on

The '1 in 10' unemployment thing was after that mare (Thatcher) and we're still being led by a bunch of fuckin muppets, 'Madame Medusa' and 'Sardonicus' (UB40 tracks) and all those people. Look at Sardonicus which we wrote about Ronald Reagan, but it also suits Donald Trump beautifully doesn't it. The first song we ever released was 'Food for Thought' and we sort of released that as a Christmas single really talking about the hypocrisy of celebrating Christmas when people were starving. And that was like was 4-5yrs before 'Live Aid' and its still relevant today with what's happening in places like Syria and countries like that.

How about this current era for celebrating the past great British groups, many of them have enjoyed their second day in the sun so would you say the divide in the UB40 camp has robbed the full band of enjoying their own celebrated reunion tour?

Totally, yeah totally because what the dark side have done is split our fan base in half and I've been kinda repairing that for the last 6-7years. And now I think I've got most of my fans back, you know. But there's definitely been this time of like 2 camps following both the 2 different UB40's but I think they just got sick and tired of all the crap. At the end of the day its all about the music and the majority of people don't give a flying fuck whose singing, they just want to hear the songs they grew up listening to, or their parents grew up listening to. But I'm just happy I've re-invented UB40 and were back playing stadiums. We've doubled our attendances on the American tour. Which was only my second time playing over there now with Astro and Mickey and this line up and I'm sure we'll be going back there again around this time next year. After the 'Promises & Lies' tour in America (1995) UB40 sold 10 million records in the US alone and instead of capitalising on that everybody just went home and had 2years off, so I want to take UB40 to back where they were, and more.

Despite that though UB40 are still one of the biggest ever and longest serving groups to take reggae worldwide, the bands history for records sold and chart hits speak for itself

You've got to remember that UB40 are as much, if not more of a part of the story and history of reggae as Bob Marley was because we've been around for so long. You could say it broke through around 1968 and we started in 1979 so it had only been around 10, 11 years when we started out, and we've been doing it for 30years. But though times have changed and things have moved on but the influence reggae is having on all contemporary music is the biggest it's ever been. I travel around the world and the music of the streets is all based on it beats and rhythms.

We went to the Solomon islands about 18months ago and we were greeted at the aeroplane steps by these naked guys from the jungle with bows through their noses. Then playing through pan popes they started playing UB40 tunes, which was something to experience. We've played in Rwanda to a beach party of 200,000 people and they all knew our lyrics, even the kids. Just amazing. So yeah, reggae does bring people together. That might sound cliche but it does unify people which makes me think we should be playing in places like Syria and the West Bank and taking it there, you know what I mean?

Someone who once actually worked with both UB40 and later on Oasis once told me that 'if you were to put both groups into a room full of drugs, UB40 would still be there when Oasis had long gone home to bed', what do you say to that?

Absolutely, of course...(laughs). No two ways about it. We just did a North American tour and we were able to get legal marijuana in every state we went to. 31 states in all and 31 bags of medical marijuana and I think we're the first ones to of done that I believe. We put our name to the legal marijuana course 30years ago and its only now that people are starting to see its benefits.

So fair to say when UB40 first broke through during the earlier years the band did live it large, so to speak?

Totally, we were like the typical zeitgeist band, you know, We did all the stupid drugs and everything but what we did was take our social circle on the road with us. Which was for like 20 years and just really partied for those 20 years basically. Even though people thought we were that dour political band we were really the exact opposite, we were a party band. Because we had so much success with the Labour of Love series which was 3 albums, though our biggest selling album was our self penned 'Promises & Lies', people seem to some times forget about that stuff because of the success tunes such as 'Red Wine' and 'Falling in Love' had.

How about your thoughts on reggae music today, anything out there which impresses you?

Yeah, there's some great stuff out there in Jamaica like 'Chronics' and 'Raging Fire'. Raging Fire are only young kids, around 19, 20years old but they play subconscious/roots rock reggae and its lovely to see that happening. I feel the gangster vibe is kinda dying slowly, though I did like artists like Mavado and Vybez Kartel and those guys. Obviously I love all styles of reggae at times but I do love the conscious lyrics and I do love roots rock reggae, and of course the golden age of reggae which was what I grew up listening to.

Away from the UB40 you've also produced some great solo tunes such as 'Hold Me Tight and 'Would I Lie To You', whats your plans in terms of future records. Will you be off in the studio with Astro and Mickey or release more solo material?

Well we kinda did that, recording with Mickey for 'Silhouette' which we released in 2014. And then when Astro re-joined me we went back into the studio and cut him in on 4 of the tracks off the album. But for the next album I'll do the same thing, I'll do the music and Astro will do his stuff but it will generally be me producing it. Its that what I really love what I'm doing now because UB40 back in the day was like pulling teeth trying to record because we had our own studios in Birmingham. Which you think is a good idea but actually it isn't, it was a bad one because we could never get anyone in the studio because they were all out enjoying themselves. But as a band its actually better if you go away to record so you can just concentrate on what your doing. But its basically me in control of what's happening so we can get an album done in a couple of weeks now, where as UB40 would take months and months. So the next album we'll do will be next year probably and it'll be following on from Silhouette.

Have you already got plans for the next record then?

Yeah, next few months sees us return to California while we tour the west coast where we're going to try and make an album. Because there's a kinda west coast reggae scene happening out there with bands such as Revolution and No Doubt, bands like that, its been happening for years actually. We've already got some music for them and were going to get them to put some vocals over them, so we'll see what happens doing that and working with those guys. Its just us adding another string to our bow so to speak, you know.

Before you go Ali, so much has happened during UB40's as well as your own solo career, have you ever thought of writing a book at all, a biography

There is one out there actually called 'Blood and Fire' which Tim Abbott made with Paul Gorman. But to be honest it wasn't a great book because it was just Robin using the books writer as a bloody psychiatrist because he was going through a break up with his wife at the time. But there's also a good chance of a movie coming out, I'm managed by Bill Curbishley now who managed the Who and made Quadrophenia so I'm trying to persuade him we should do a film about UB40 because you couldn't make it up. It'd make a great story so you never know...watch this space.

Follow Ali, Astro and Mickey on Twitter - https://twitter.com/WeAreUB40