Updated: Sep 12, 2021
By Richard Nevin
As you are no doubt aware, Brian Travers has passed away. The sad news was announced minutes before I started writing this article - something I’ve had in mind for a while - and has momentarily stopped me in my tracks. But it feels grimly prescient that I feel the need to launch a defence of the band in which he was a founder member and on the back of which he became a Brummie musical icon……..
I have a friend who considers withering, cynical wit to be a gift and what can sometimes be uproariously funny can also be rather tiresome on occasion. His opinion on UB40 certainly fits into the latter category. He claims that they have only ever recorded slightly different versions of Red, Red Wine and he’d go as far as singing the words to that particular song over any other track by the band played on the radio or in a pub. A view born of ignorance and laziness and one tailored to get my goat.
I love UB40. The problem is that my friend’s particular take is not actually that uncommon. I have heard a lot worse from others - “karaoke reggae”, “they only do covers”, “white man’s reggae” etc. etc.. Now I’m not too shy to declare that I am averse to certain bands, how anyone gets enjoyment out of listening to some of them is beyond me; but then it’s a free world and I can see the musical talent of a band even if I can’t enjoy it.
Yet t it particularly irks me when Brummies slag off UB40. The city, its culture and people have enough enemies without our own joining in. You may not like the band but they have been an enormous success story, raised the profile of Birmingham and never ran off to bloody London at the first opportunity. Their story may have taken an operatic turn of the soap variety of late but the core of the band remain in place and I personally believe that two UB40s is perhaps better than one.
Formed on the streets of the city, with a multi-cultural influence in both line-up and sound, they are an organic representation of what they were and what they grew up listening to. What’s more, they represent what Birmingham was, is and always will be. A city built on various creeds and cultures, religions and ethnic groups working and living together, opposed by the few, while the many get on with it.
And what of the music? Well taken at face value and looking at the biggest hits, UB40 are a very successful covers band, but that’s not even the half of it. Their original material stands comparison with anything “borrowed”. Their debut album Signing Off is widely recognised as a classic and while what followed didn’t quite reach those heights, the first phase of their career produced enough to prove any doubters wrong with regards to their talent.
Then came Labour Of Love, and that’s where opinion starts to divide. Success off the backs of others or inspired choices to bring reggae further into the mainstream? The argument could go on for ever and there is validity in the claim that they stretched the franchise rather thin over the years, but the first Labour of Love album, released in 1983, and in particular the accompanying short film made a big impact and shot the band to superstardom worldwide including the United States. I loved that Labour Of Love film, Brummie accents with no ridicule, working class and multi-cultural, it was a breath of fresh air.
The second volume emerged in 1989 but what came in between is rather overlooked. The hits kept coming, almost all self-penned and the band went from strength to strength. And, ground breaking at the time, to Russia. The follow up to the second LOL, Promises and Lies kept the band at the top and if returns have been diminishing since those heady days, what band or artist is immune to that sort of scenario? Every artist has a peak and it’s rare to hit those heights more than once. Paul McCartney wrote “Yesterday” but he also wrote “Spies Like Us”. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that you can’t just look at one aspect or era of an artist or band, particularly one that has been going for forty odd years. But this is something that befalls UB40 on a regular basis.
From a personal point of view UB40 provided a conduit for me to discover reggae as a kid, a genre of no interest previously, and I can’t have been alone. I’m more inclined to listen to the originals than the covers although I still return to Labour Of Love 1 from time to time. I’m more likely to play Present Arms, the original Baggariddim, Geoffrey Morgan or my personal favourite the eponymous album from 1988, the climax of the tour that accompanied the album took place at a football ground in Birmingham, my first UB40 gig and a proper day out in the sun.
Just about every Brummie has a tenuous link to the band. I knew someone who changed the brakes on Astro’s car back in the day, my late mother worked alongside Brian’s mother-in-law for a short while and I’m friends with Jimmy Brown’s brother-in-law’s brother. There will be hundreds of stories such as that, each one rooted in the fact that UB40 were just ordinary Brummies and never shied away from their roots.
Still touring today and still recording is admirable and if the lead tracks off new album Bigga Baggariddim are anything to go by, a return to form is on the cards. Say Birmingham and people will think of UB40, say UB40 and people think of Birmingham and people don’t think of Birmingham often enough for my liking. The two are inextricably linked
So if you have pre-conceived ideas about UB40, perhaps it’s time to think again. Dig a little deeper, look beyond the norm, watch the Labour Of Love film perhaps. But maybe give their version of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot a miss - even I can’t be having that one.
7 February 1959 – 22 August 2021