Think British reggae, and you think UB40.
Such is the success of the band that they’ve become synonymous with a genre.
It was a sound honed on the streets of Moseley, Birmingham, where a passion for multicultural music, a mash of knowing lyrics, reggae rhythms and dubby instrumental passages, snowballed into a band that would go global.
Since their inception in 1978, UB40 have racked up multiple gold and platinum-selling albums, over 50 singles in the UK charts and record sales of more than 70 million with instantly-recognisable tracks such as Red Red Wine and Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.
Ahead of the band’s return to the region on their latest tour, one of the founding members, Robin Campbell, recalls: “The area we come from is very multicultural and multiracial and reggae is what we were listening to.
It wasn’t even discussed that that’s the kind of music we would play, it was always going to be reggae as that is what we knew. People look at the band and see a white guy singing reggae at the front, but it’s all we knew.
“We were so in love with the genre that we were convinced other people would love it too. It wasn’t even a gamble, we were that convinced of the music.”
The singer and guitarist added: “It’s an English sound, it’s obviously reggae, but it’s working class and people took to it as their music. If we knew why exactly it struck a chord we’d be doing it every time and would have 40 No 1’s. All we can do is play the music we love and hope people follow it.”
The line-up remained virtually unchanged for almost 30 years until Robin’s brother, and lead singer, Ali left the band in 2008.
He was replaced by his brother Duncan and today the band are in the midst of their biggest ever UK tour. It began 18 months ago to promote the Getting Over The Storm album and is still going strong.
By the end, they’ll have performed 90 shows to almost 200,000 people, including a night at Sunderland Empire later this month.
Robin says people can expect that distinctive UB40 twang.
“There are very few bands from our era that are still going 30 years later,” he said. “It never ceases to amaze me that we can still tour and sell tickets.
“Also, that there are so many young people in our audience. I don’t know how they hear our music, as we aren’t played on young radio anymore. I think it’s down to social media and YouTube. But it’s great to have them there, singing the songs back at you.
“Because we’ve been touring for 18 months, it’s still officially the Getting Over The Storm tour, because it hasn’t stopped. But we only play two or three from the new album now. We give people all the hits they expect from us and the songs that turned people on to us in the first place.
“We also have the hardcore fan base, who want the more obscure tracks, so we play them too.”
However, behind the scenes of the upbeat tracks, the fallout of Ali’s departure is still rumbling on.
UB40 has issued writs against Ali Campbell and two other former members of the band over the use of the band’s name and are awaiting a High Court date.
“Ali leaving was pretty traumatic and disappointing,” said Robin. “Every gig up to that point he had been there. The first 28 years of our existence was with Ali as lead singer. But Ali was unhappy for a while before he left so it wasn’t a surprise.
“But my other younger brother (Duncan) brought a new enthusiasm to the band, and we felt re-enthused by him. I think the band is stronger than it’s ever been, and the reaction by fans has shown that. We never considered stopping when Ali left. We sat down and said ‘what are we going to do to carry on.’
“Norman, our percussionist, knew Duncan already, as did everybody. He suggested he joined and it seemed the obvious thing to do. He was an easy fit.
“He has a similar voice to Ali. He doesn’t do an impression, but he has that sound of UB40, we’re brothers, we have a blend. It was lucky that we had a brother in the sidelines and that he jumped at the chance to join.
“Duncan could have joined the band originally, but he wanted to do other things. He was a croupier and he travelled the world with that.
“We happened while he was away, and I think he always regretted that he didn’t take the opportunity. So he jumped at the chance and it’s genuinely reinvigorated us.”
And he says they’re still true to the band’s original sound.
He added: “After all, our line-up includes five of UB40’s six founding members, and in Brian, Jimmy and myself you have all of UB40’s principal songwriters. “And we’re a reggae band; no other band in the world can replicate the sound of UB40’s rhythm section of Earl (bass) and Jimmy (drums). They are the backbone of UB40’s sound.”
Despite the clash in recent years, the band has enjoyed many happy times that have seen them enter the annals of music history.
Looking back at some of their more memorable moments, Robin said: “I remember playing in South Africa in the early ’90s after apartheid with Mandela there.
“We’d observed a cultural boycott for the first 15 years of our career, so that gig was amazing,” he said. “Then we did three nights at a stadium in South Africa to 70,000 people a night, which is still the record there.
“My legs were like jelly by the end, but it’s something we’ll never forget. To have people sing those songs back to us when we had never been there before was amazing.
“It was the same in Russia – we had never released a record there, but everyone knew our songs because of the underground thing. Then when we had our first No 1 in America (with Red Red Wine) and in the same week played Madison Square Garden. That was another major highlight.”
Over the years, the band has played the North East countless times and Robin says he’s looking forward to returning on the final leg of their mammoth tour.
“It’s always good, we have fun wherever we play, it’s certainly always a party up there, they’re a lot more demonstrative.
“I think in the capital cities, the audience is a bit more spoiled, they tend to stand back and say ‘impress me’. We enjoy everywhere we play, it’s just the north is always more welcoming and the atmosphere more instant.”
•UB40 play Sunderland Empire on Friday, October 9. Tickets from the box office, Tel. 0844 871 3022 or www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland.
•We’ve got a pair of tickets to give away to UB40 at Sunderland Empire. To be in with a chance of winning, answer this question: complete the UB40 song – Red Red ...
Email your name and contact details to Katy.Wheeler@jpress.co.uk
Closing date: October 6.