‘Adapt or Shut Up’ – An Interview with UB40’s Ali Campbell

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UB40 featuring Ali, Astro and Mickey are going on a UK Grandslam tour in 2017. “It’s the first time we’ve been away from the big arenas. We wanted to get away from the beaten track.“ said the band’s lead singer, Ali Campbell, currently on their Red Red Wine arena tour. Hot off the release of their acoustic and greatest hits album ‘Unplugged’, as well as the recent screening of the BBC UB40 documentary ‘Promises and Lies’, we sat down with Ali to find out more about the new tour as well as the band’s early days.

What has been your favourite venue to perform at so far?
That’s a difficult question but there has been one standout emotional moment. Having upheld the cultural boycott of South Africa, we refused to play there until Mandela was released, we got to play in Johannesburg. We had 80,000 people singing along with us. One of our own songs, ‘Sing Our Own Song’ had everyone singing ‘amandla awethu’, the ANC chant meaning ‘power is ours’. It was a bit of a limb wobbling moment! But I generally love playing anywhere because I want people to have a good time and enjoy reggae music – that’s my mission in life!

What can fans expect from the Grandslam tour, will there be acoustic elements to match the release of your latest ‘Unplugged’ album?
You’re the first person to have asked that question! When I say “there might be a few surprises”, you’ve just given it away!
Oops!

In the recent BBC Documentary Promises and Lies you revealed the band had only been playing instruments for 9 months before you went on tour. Are you feeling better prepared this time around? Would you have been able to do an acoustic album back then? You said you were out of tune in the early days – did anyone ever pick up on that?
The only reason we’ve done an acoustic album now is because we were doing little acoustic sessions for BBC Radio 2 for Terry Wogan and Sarah Cox and people like that. We were self-taught, we absolutely wouldn’t have been able to do an acoustic album in the early days! Nobody ever picked up on the fact that we were out of tune, we sold a million records! It had a homemade quality to it our first album. My guitar was tuned to an open e cord so I was just running my finger up and down it – that was cheating. Earl (Falconer) didn’t know how to tune his bass guitar for about two years. Brian Travers was using a saxophone that was from 1902 and completely in the wrong key for everything. He was spending all his time pulling his mouthpiece off so it was in tune. Because everything was slightly out of tune it kind of just added to the quaintness of the album, you know. But as a musician I find it very difficult to listen to!

In the documentary you talked about the kind of nerve and self-belief required to build a band from nothing and go on tour with very little experience – where did that nerve come from?
We did hype ourselves – we wanted to get off the dole! It’s absolutely the truth! I mean we were called UB40 because we were all on the dole and all had a UB40 card. We had an instant 3 million card carrying fans. We did the thing where you could get in free or half price with a UB40 card. We were all living on £7.90 per week for three years, we were the disenfranchised youth of the Thatcher years. We were the one in ten, you know. We just wanted to get off the dole and that’s why we called our first album ‘Signing Off’.

You recently compiled your top 10 reggae albums for Music Radar and Damian Marley is one of the newer artists featured. Which other more recent reggae artists are you listening to at the moment?
Our favourite one is the one that’s on tour with us, Raging Fyah. Raging Fyah are a young band, they’re only in their early twenties, they’re coming out of Jamaica, they’re rasta and they’re doing roots rock reggae with conscious lyrics, just exactly what reggae needs at the moment. The same as Protoje, the same as Chronixx, all these acts have gone back to playing roots rock reggae, traditional reggae with conscious lyrics and we support that 100%. We love bashment and ragga but we didn’t like the gangster lyrics and misogyny. Reggae is a healing music and it’s about peace and love!

Some musicians complain about fans filming them on their phones at concerts – how do you feel about it?
It was an issue until we decided to film the sold out O2 arena gig that we did last year in virtual reality. It’s amazing – it’s like you’re at the gig and you can look behind you and see the audience… If you were in the audience you can buy the VR and watch yourself watching the gig! It could be ‘the new format’ in the same way downloads killed CDs. VR could be a new way of making money with your music or concerts. Or it could completely kill live music altogether! The possibilities are endless with VR, it’s an exciting time. If you think about it, the music business started off selling sheet music, then records came along, then tapes, then CDs…it’s a cyclical thing and things change about every ten years in the music business. We as musicians or performers have to adapt. There’s no point in moaning about it, it’s adapt or shut up I say!

UB40 featuring Ali, Astro and Mickey are on tour in the UK from May 2017 – get your tickets here!

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