Following a sell-out UK spring tour, UB40 are embarking on a second leg later this year, including dates in Burnley and Liverpool. MALCOLM WYATT talked to sax player/songwriter Brian Travers about the band’s rediscovery of the intimate gig...
Behind the scenes, things have got a little murky with UB40, a public, often caustic fall-out leading to an ongoing legal dispute with former vocalist Ali Campbell.
Ali quit in 2008 in order to pursue a solo career, and was replaced by brother Duncan Campbell, a brewing situation coming to a head when the original singer reunited with Mickey Virtue and Astro and looked to tour under the UB40 name.
But while clearly upset by the feud and unable to say much during those proceedings, sax player and songwriter Brian Travers is happy talking about the past, present and future of the band – 36 years after their first hit.
And with fellow founding members Jimmy Brown, Ali’s older brother Robin Campbell, Earl Falconer and Norman Hassan also still on board, he feels he’s still at the heart of it all.
I put it to Brian that few of us would have lasted quite so long living in the pockets of old school-mates. The fact that five of the original eight still play together is quite something.
“Well, not all of us made it, but funnily enough all the songwriters made it.
We split everything though – you won’t see a credit other than ‘UB40’ on all our records.
“All those royalties were shared, and guys who never wrote a single note or word earned exactly the same.”
Do you foresee a time when you can pick up the phone to Ali, chat about the good days and start again?
“I’m not so sure really. We’ve just carried on what we’re doing amid some very underhand stuff.
“I forgive them though, if you’re asking me, in a hippy sense – yeah. As for trust and some of the terrible stuff that’s gone down …
“Good luck to them though – I wish them No.1s and so much success they won’t have time to think about us, and we can just get on with it. I’d love that.”
The issue at the heart of the dispute is brand ownership, not least with the departed trio announcing their intention to ‘reform’, record a new album and perform live as UB40, something the original five-piece see as an attempted ‘hijack’ of their 35-year career.
Meanwhile, Brian’s more than happy with how things are going on the recording and live front, not least as they’re playing smaller venues – re-discovering a little intimacy.
They played 14 sell-out gigs earlier this year, and have another 22 planned, including October 31 at Liverpool’s 02 Academy and November 22 at Burnley UCLan. And it’s been something of an eye-opener.
“Yep, venues on the street, where you can get a cab from your house or a local bus to the gig, rather than have to drive to the outskirts of town to some arena then get a bus from the car park and get past 75 lines of security.
“In towns, with a chip shop next door and a local bar, so you can have a beer before and after the gig. That for me is what I find exciting!
“We wouldn’t have got those gigs for the last 25 years. Promoters simply wouldn’t be able to resist the lure of filthy lucre, saying, ‘I can sell 20,000 tickets rather than 2,000’.
“That forgot completely what it was really about, and we were trapped in that for many years. As a result a lot of little venues disappeared – lots of little clubs you could play.
“Now we’re on to the 02s and Academy venues – not the greatest places to work in, but better for the audiences I think.”
What’s more, Brian is proud of his recent creative output, not least latest LP Getting over the Storm – a reggae-tinged tribute to country music roots, its name no doubt a nod to those court battles.
After selling a phenomenal 70 million records, becoming one of the most commercially-successful reggae acts ever, which album or tracks are you most proud of from the last three and a half decades?
“Probably the latest stuff, because by the time you’ve recorded songs, smashed them to bits mixing them, rehearsing them into the ground and taking them out on the road, you’re ready to make a new record.
“I’m most proud of Getting over the Storm, and we’ve always had a soft spot for country, and not only from touring in the States, where the radio stations change as you head up the highway, genres change and you know you’re somewhere new.
“Reggae’s always had a tight relationship with country, and I wrote five original songs for the album.
“That’s a great experience – writing country songs, bringing them to the band and them changing them into reggae tunes. We all stretch out and find ourselves a bit more.”
Does it surprise you when people talk about it being 34 years and counting?
“It surprises me how fast that time’s gone and how quick the time is that we have, all of us, and to do what we aim to do.
“But then, if I start thinking about it, we’ve done such a lot, so it makes sense.”
I equate your debut album, 1980’s Signing Off, with hot summers, and it’s certainly stood the test of time. Does that LP reflect a happy time in your life?
“Absolutely! Everything was starting to go right for us. We’d left school and there was no work in Birmingham or anywhere from around 1976 onwards, so we were at the tail-end of all that. It was a nightmare.
“But we were travelling for the first time in our lives. We were all school-friends, and it was the first band we’d been in and these were the only songs we could play.
“We didn’t know the keys, what the right passing chords were, what a bridge was … there’s a lot to be said for knowing nothing about pop music!”
So how did this white boy from Birmingham get introduced to reggae?
“In my early teens we’d already had the original Blue Beat thing going on. Not on the radio, but because we lived in a neighbourhood called Balsall Heath, right in the middle of Birmingham.
“It was a car city – with all those factories in Birmingham and a lot of West Indian people, so our youth club music was generally the records my mates had, their big brothers had brought over or their Mums and Dads had, or sent over from Jamaica.
“We got the Blue Beat rock-steady thing, the original skinhead thing. It wasn’t fascist - it was about fashion and youth culture. We were part of that first wave.
“By the time The Specials – and those guys are my mates, I play in bands with most of them now – were doing that kind of punky, rock-steady Blue Beat thing, which everybody called ska, we were into reggae.
“We had Bob Marley, Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs, and thought we were a bit ahead of the curve.
“We weren’t in the black and white check outfits. We were just into youth culture and the clothes that were in fashion then.”
You were ambassadors for your home city’s multi-cultural diversity too.
“We were just teenagers and all a bit political, and had to be unless there was something wrong with us. We were all socialist.
“We thought we could change the world and put to right what was wrong. It was exciting, it was cool.
“I think it was more by luck that people caught on to what we were doing. We were only the same as every other kid at that time.
“It just so happened that we were in a pop group, talking to the NME and on the telly. We were probably among the more normal pop stars that had ever been out there. There were no aspirations for Ferraris and all that. We had more interest in girls!”
Did you have a clear goal of what you wanted to achieve when you started out?
“Me and Earl (Falconer) lived in a bed-sit in Trafalgar Road in Moseley, and it had a cellar which you could get to from outside, full of leaves and rubbish.
“We claimed it as our rehearsal room and lived over the top. We wrote all over the walls, and because we were on the dole we were in there every day rehearsing. We figured we had more chance of having a hit record than a proper job.
“Many years after we moved out, World in Action made a programme about us and asked if we could get back in this cellar.
“We went down and got it all opened up, and we’d written on the walls, practising our autographs, and had this list of goals – to have a hit record, go on Top of the Pops, go on The Johnny Carson Show, and play Madison Square Gardens.
“When we went back, we’d done that. They were impossible dreams, things never likely to happen. As it turned out, we only really needed to have a hit record, and the rest fell into place.
“Now all those things are done, we really couldn’t care about having a hit record, going on a TV show or playing an ‘enormodome’ where you’re 47ft away from the audience and can’t see the whites of their eyes.
“That’s why when we come back this October and November we’re playing what I call real venues, for a couple of thousand people at most.”
Do you spend much time back among the old haunts around Birmingham?
“We lived in the countryside for many years, mostly to protect our kids.
“It can’t be easy to be the kids of people you see on Top of the Pops.
“They’d often get told, ‘It’s all right for you, your Dad’s a millionaire!’
“It was unfair on them, so we moved out.
“Now the chickens have come home to roost – we live back in the city, and we’re happier.
“We all made millions of pounds, and did incredibly well for ourselves. But it seems to be a tradition in the music business – to get ripped off.
“That happened to us. I lost my house, a 10 million quid house in the country.
“Maybe it’s just karma and the way it should be. But it wasn’t easy.”
Will you be playing quite a few of the new songs on this leg of the tour, or is it a greatest hits package?
“Maybe three or four from the latest album, but we’ve had around 40 top-20 hits.
“If we just played them we could be on stage three hours!
“We’ll be playing new stuff, old stuff, keeping it a little eclectic, trying to take people as far as we think they can go.”