Special Feature

UB40-MegaStars But America Hardly Noticed

Almost like a pop-music testament to the postulate that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, the strength of UB40, the enormously successful British reggae band, lies in the strong communal bond that holds its multi-racial membership together. All eight members of the group—brothers Robin and Ali Campbell, who play guitar and sing; singer, trumpeter, and “toaster,” or rapper, Astro; saxophonist Brian Travers; keyboardist Michael Virtue; drummer Jimmy Brown; percussionist Norman Hassan, and bassist Earl Falconer—were born and raised in Balsall Heath, a neighbourhood in the English Midlands industrial city of Birmingham, an area that has always attracted large numbers of West Indians, Asian Indians, and working-class whites and blacks looking for scarce jobs.

Though times were tough growing up in that neighbourhood in the 1960s, Travers told Time‘s Jay Cocks: “Don’t get the idea that we grew up poor, because we didn’t. We didn’t go hungry and have holes in our shoes or anything.” And rather than being torn apart by large-scale unemployment or racial tension, the members of UB40 came together in those days with the help of music, specifically the charged rhythms of Jamaican reggae and the lyric melodies of Motown that were popular in Balsall Heath. “At the age when you start to

form your musical allegiances,” Robin Campbell told Rolling Stone, “we were hearing reggae. They used to play it at ear-bleeding volume, so you couldn’t help but hear it.”

Considering that at the time of UB40’s inception none of its members could play an instrument, the birth of the group was somewhat curious. Then seventeen, Ali Campbell “got very drunk and upset somebody,” brother Robin told Rolling Stone‘s Parke Puterbaugh, “and he got a flying glass in his face.” With the money he received from criminal injuries compensation, Ali went out and bought a guitar and drum set, and the others went out and bought instruments for themselves.

What UB40 lacked in musical talent in those early days, they more than made up for with self-confidence and ambition. Embarking on their “master plan,” the group, which they named after the all-too-familiar unemployment benefits application form, had plenty of time to practice in a cellar, where they honed their sound and practised scribbling their soon-to-be-famous autographs on the walls. To avoid becoming merely a local favourite, the band vowed to play its home town only once every six weeks, and spread word that in the times between they were on the road touring, when in fact they were usually right back in the cellar practising. The first producer to show genuine interest in UB40 was Bob Lamb, who played the group’s demo tape for several influential DJs and eventually got them signed to the Graduate record label. The band’s second single, “King,” received extensive airplay, and when Chrissie Hynde, lead singer of the path-breaking group Pretenders, heard UB40 playing in a London pub, she invited them to join her band on its upcoming tour.

The exposure brought on by this popular tour catapulted UB40 into instant stardom. Their subsequent album, Signing Off, became the first reggae record to reach the British pop 30, and UB40 has since amassed more than 25 hit singles in the United Kingdom. But in the recording industry, to achieve true stardom and, of course, financial success, the greatest test for a group is whether or not it can conquer America. Strangely, UB40’s first foray into the American pop world fell astonishingly flat. “No, no, no, it just doesn’t happen this way,” Time‘s Jay Cocks sarcastically wrote of that ill-fated venture. “Smash Brit band, bedecked with hit singles and platinum albums from abroad, storms U.S. shores in 1983. Plays some concerts, manages to squeeze one hit onto the low midrange of the singles charts, then goes back home. Modest hit single, which had reached the number one spot in twelve other countries, expires from widespread Stateside indifference.”

The “modest hit single” Cocks refers to was “Red Red Wine,” from the LP Labour of Love, a compilation of all cover songs taken from favourites the band had over the years of listening to reggae. Ironically, “Red Red Wine” was not, like most of the songs on the album, a classic Jamaican reggae hit; rather, it was penned in 1968 by the legendary Tin Pan Alley songwriter Neil Diamond and first covered by Tony Tribe. “Red Red Wine” was a number one single in Britain and a smash hit worldwide, but American audiences strangely shunned it when UB40’s new label, A&M Records, released it in 1983. Meanwhile, in the ensuing years the group released two critically acclaimed albums of original songs, Rat in the Kitchen (1986) and UB40 (1988), which were both, again, well-received in the United Kingdom and hardly noticed in the United States.

Source : http://www.encyclopedia.com

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