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article imageRobin Campbell of UB40 Special

By Adrian Peel     Sep 20, 2014 in Music
The guitarist and occasional lead vocalist for one of Britain's best loved bands discusses their extensive touring plans, the joys of playing smaller venues and country music's long-standing relationship with reggae.
Since forming in 1978, the name UB40 has been synonymous with reggae music and, with the help of major international hits such as "Red Red Wine," "(I Can't Help) Falling In Love With You," "Kingston Town" and "Higher Ground," this group of old school friends from Birmingham has arguably done more than anyone else, save perhaps Bob Marley, to popularise the genre around the world.
Despite a much-publicised falling out with three of their ex-members, Robin Campbell (guitar/backing vocals), Duncan Campbell (lead vocals), Brian Travers (saxophone), Jimmy Brown (drums), Earl Falconer (bass) and Norman Hassan (percussion) have sought to focus their collective energy on performing for the fans and making albums, the most recent of which, Getting Over The Storm, achieved rave reviews in the UK press on its release in September last year.
UB40's 2014 tour has seen them play sold-out shows in the UK and across the continent and the six-piece and their able backing musicians are set to go again when the second leg of the tour kicks off on the 24th of September.
"It never stops!" exclaims Robin, who still lives in the Birmingham area. "We've been in Europe all through the summer doing our own shows and doing festivals. Where did we come from last? I think France, Italy and Belgium were the last few. Then we did some English dates...
"We're in Brussels, Germany and Switzerland next week and then we've got a few weeks to rehearse a new set and the British dates start October the 24th and go right through November. Then we're in Germany throughout December and then France after Christmas, so they're keeping us busy."
"Not drastically," replies the amiable fifty-something, in answer to the question of whether the setlist will be noticeably different from that of the first leg. "But we'll be probably trying a couple of new tracks out off the new album and maybe revive a couple of old tracks from the early days, just to change things up and make it a bit different for us!"
Choosing songs to play must be difficult after 35 years?!
"It's enormously difficult, yeah, when you've got 25 albums and nearly 50 Top 40 hits. There are certain hits we have to play because we'd be lynched if we didn't, you know the "Red Red Wines" of the world... Not to say that I don't love playing them because I do - the reaction's always fantastic.
"We try to pick a few other hits that people may not have heard for a while, and of course we're always trying to introduce current stuff so we're not a cabaret band... It's always difficult but we're luckier than most because we've got a lot of recognisable hits that we can draw on. It's easy to keep people happy, but you just have to try and balance that with playing new stuff as well."
The "new stuff" in this case would be material from Getting Over The Storm, a 'country' album (though still done in UB40's inimitable style) made up of originals and classic country covers by the likes of Randy Travis ("On The Other Hand"), Buck Owens ("Crying Time"), Vince Gill ("If You Ever Have Forever In Mind") and Jim Reeves ("He'll Have To Go" - sung by Robin and previously covered by fellow purveyors of reggae, David Isaacs and Luciano). Which tracks off the album might feature on the upcoming run of dates?
"Well that's why I was saying we're gonna rehearse because we don't know! We'll probably play the ones that we've already added to the set this year, which were "
Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain" and "Midnight Rider."
"I think we also did a couple of the original tunes and we also did "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live" - we did that in quite a few shows as well. But we might drop a couple of those and add a couple of new ones...
"That's really what we're gonna get together and rehearse for is to try out different songs and see how they work live, and see whether we want to include them or whether we just want to play the ones that we've already played."
Recently, the band has gone back to its roots, packing out smaller venues up and down the country - and abroad - and visiting towns that could perhaps best be described as "off the beaten track," places that I assumed the guys had never visited before...
"Well I don't think there are many places that we're playing that we've never played before," Robin informs me, "just that we haven't played for a long time... We used to tour like this in the early days. In the '80s we would certainly get around and do 30, 40-date tours and that was playing the kind of venues that we're playing this time round.
"The in-between years, everybody moved to enormodomes and it's a different way of touring when basically you play half a dozen venues round the country that are big enough to draw from 20, 30 miles around, and the audience had to travel to you.
"There's nothing wrong with those venues - I've had some great shows in big venues - but it's fantastic to get back to the smaller shows where you can see the whites of their eyes and you get a much more personal relationship with the audience.
"I think that we were good in big venues. We were one of the bands that was able to get a good atmosphere and still keep that kind of a relationship with our audience, but it's so refreshing to get back to these venues where it reminds you of why you made a band in the first place. It reminds you of what you loved about playing gigs and it really is about being up-close-and-personal, and it's great.
"We did it in the spring and it was so successful that we're doing this leg again. I think this leg's even a few more shows than the first leg, so by the end of this year we'll have done nearly 50 shows in the UK and we haven't done that for nearly 30 years.
"We're kind of reinvigorated. We're really enjoying playings gigs again and seeing, as I said, the whites of their eyes... and also seeing how many young people are at the gigs, which is a constant surprise to me; how we keep getting young people coming to the shows and how the hell they know all the songs and can sing all the words is beyond me because we don't get the kind of radio coverage that we used to get. They must be learning the stuff from their parents..."
"We're in a very fortunate position - we're lucky," continues the grateful musician. "We're lucky that we have a unique sound. We happen to make a sound that's instantly recognisable and, thankfully, popular. But that's not by design - it's not something that you can work out. It's what you strive for and if you achieve it then you get longevity.
"There's no one sounds like us. When our record comes on you know it's us, and live we can produce the goods. We're a good live band and not all bands are. Bands can make brilliant records and be great musicians, but not necessarily do they cut it live, and again, by luck, we happen to be a combination of guys that the music we make together works and is very popular - thank God. I still pinch meself daily!"
Since the release of Labour of Love in 1983 - the first of four albums to pay homage to the artists and songs that inspired them - UB40 has become famous the world over for putting their own unique spin on many well-known pop, reggae and soul standards. I was therefore curious to learn how they initially came to the decision to have a go at tackling tunes from the country songbook?
"Well, several reasons... One, reggae and country have always had a relationship. Just geographically where Jamaica is, they've always listened to southern state American radio - that's what they pick up on the airwaves. So country music has always been massive in Jamaica and many many artists have done reggae covers of country songs. It's been a tradition for the last 40 years.
"So it wasn't that new an idea, really. Toots of Toots & the Maytals has worked with Willie Nelson... There's also an album called Reggae's Gone Country which came out a few years ago while we were actually working on our album, which was infuriating!
"It just shows you that country and reggae have been intertwined for a long time, so it wasn't a strange thing... But the catalyst for it was we recorded a Randy Travis song with Robert Palmer in the '90s that we never released. We did a couple of tunes with him, one of which was the Bob Dylan tune, "
I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," which we did release, which was a big hit.
"The other was going to go on his album and it never did. It sat in our archives for years and we dug it out a few years ago and reworked it, got Duncan, our current vocalist, to sing on it... We did a rework and a remix on it and we liked it and then thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice to do some more country covers?'
"That was the start of it. We then sat down and decided which country covers and then we wrote half a dozen original songs in a country style, so we ended up with a country-influenced album - and it was just really the fun of doing it..."
In 2008, UB40 was rocked by the departure of two of its founding members, Ali Campbell and keyboardist Mickey Virtue (who both cited issues with management as their reason for leaving), later to be joined by vocalist/trumpet player, Astro, in November 2013.
The three subsequently went on to 'reform' as 'Ali Campbell The Legendary Voice of UB40 Reunited with Astro & Mickey', while Ali has been very critical of his former bandmates in the press.
Despite all the animosity and disparaging remarks from his younger brother, to whom Robin hasn't spoken since he left, I finished up by asking what many long-time fans of the band are no doubt wondering: "Will all eight original members of UB40 one day put aside their differences and share a stage again?"
"No, to be honest. I think the wedge has been driven too deep between the two parties, really. We have felt incredibly betrayed over the years and they've said a lot of hurtful stuff in the press.
"We've tried not to - we've tried to stay out of all of that and tried to remain above it. But it doesn't stop the things that are said being hurtful, so I think it would be very difficult... Never say never, but I think it's highly unlikely."
UB40's tour starts in Brussels on September the 24th.
Getting Over The Storm is out now.
For more information, visit the band's official website.
More about robin campbell, UB40, reggae music, getting over the storm, chrissie hynde
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