2014 was another vintage year for Birmingham’s finest. A series of sold-out shows all over the world on the back of their well-received 2013 album, Getting Over the Storm, allowed them to feel safe in the knowledge that fans still flock to see them 35 years after they released their very first album – still one of the greatest debuts of all time – Signing Off.
I spoke to the drummer and the most politically outspoken member of the band, James “Jimmy” Brown, who was one of eight working class lads – all old school friends – who initially got together in 1978 (three original members have since left the fold) with the express purpose of popularising the music they love, something I think it’s safe to say they have achieved many times over.
“Since Christmas we’ve been doing nothing – we’ve had a little bit of time off,” says the friendly and very able musician, one of reggae music’s premier drummers, chatting to me from his home in the West Midlands, “but up until then we were very busy…
“Last year was quite a busy year for us. We did about 50 shows in England alone and then we still managed to get around to places like Miami and the Seychelles and Germany and Holland and France.”
The new tour is set to kick off in Clermont-Ferrand in France on March 18th and I wondered whether the group, made up of Jimmy on drums, Robin Campbell on guitar and vocals, Brian Travers on saxophone, Earl Falconer on bass, percussionist Norman Hassan and lead vocalist Duncan Campbell, had been rehearsing some new songs to put in the set?
“Well we have been changing the set around a lot… We’ve been dropping some of the more well-known songs and trying to reintroduce some of the older songs that we’d forgotten, which strangely brought a bit of freshness to everything.
“We’ve been playing a lot of really old songs and a lot of songs from Getting Over the Storm and that keeps things fresh. We’re not a cabaret band – we want to do new material when we can, so we’ve been doing that just to keep ourselves on our toes.”
Any examples of songs the band have not played for a while that will be in the setlist come March?
“We’ve brought back some really old ones, like ‘Silent Witness,’ which is from our second album Present Arms, which we’ve just re-released, funnily enough. Present Arms has just been re-released, along with Labour of Love.
“‘Silent Witness’ and a track called ‘Love Is All Is Alright,’ which was a single that had been completely forgotten… First song we ever wrote together was ‘Dream A Lie‘ and I don’t think we’ve ever played ‘Dream A Lie’ live in 30 years, so we gave ourselves a challenge, I think, when we did that.
“Obviously there’s a naivety to the early stuff, that when you get older it’s difficult to approach that in an honest way without wanting to change things and make things more sophisticated, but we’ve not changed things around too much because I think that can be a mistake sometimes.”
Will the 2015 live take on ‘Dream A Lie’ be the excellent longer version that appears on 1985’s The UB40 File?
“Well we do break into the dub, yes,” reveals Jimmy, whose 22-year-old daughter Rose runs her own cosmetics business. “Last year we brought it back for the first time and we keep saying, ‘We need to extend the end a little bit longer.’
“I think we’re covering about five or six minutes… The song’s not very long, but we do do a couple of minutes of a dub workout and I think we intend to do even longer. I’ll have a listen to that and see what the arrangement is on that dub because we are dubbing the second half of the song.”
I asked the “talkative anarchist,” a former art school student, if there were any cities or venues that UB40 will be visiting on this tour that they’ve never played before.
“I can’t think of anywhere in the world where we haven’t played,” he replies. “Well there are plenty of places we haven’t played, but any major city of any major country in any continent, I think that we’ve played most of them and would like to go back.”
Pondering the reasons why lots of young people actively attend the band’s gigs these days, Jimmy remarks, “Personally, I think it’s maybe the really early stuff that’s attracting them… Although that said, the parents probably played our music as they were growing up, but then that would be a good reason for me not to want to go to a show or buy a record!
“It’s hard to say why that’s happening. Maybe there’s a demand to see a band that doesn’t hide behind technology and just gets up there and plays, rather than mimes…
“We don’t have a dance routine, we just get up there and play and play the tunes as close to the records as we possibly can. Maybe there’s a purity to that that you don’t get in a lot of modern pop music.”
As mentioned earlier, Present Arms and Labour of Love are being reissued, with both of them receiving the Deluxe Edition treatment (the sticksman also revealed that some “uber fans” of the group actually helped the record company when it came to selecting the track-listing). It’s hard to believe that both these classic albums originally came out over 30 years ago!
“It’s mad really,” agrees Jimmy, who cites playing Madison Square Garden and South Africa in 1993 as career highlights. “I mean obviously it feels like yesterday and we didn’t stop, so it’s not a case of we had hits and then we all went and got other jobs and then we all reformed later.
“I think a lot of bands are doing that. They had hits in the ’80s and they’re reforming and putting on a tour and whatever.
“But we continued through all that time, so it’s slightly different for us. We’re very happy with where we are at the moment. The gigs are going great, the reaction’s great. There’s a nice vibe that’s got a freshness to it that maybe we’d lost a little bit in our middle years…
“I think it’s a case of just continuing on as long as we can. It’s what we enjoy doing and the audience are enjoying it, we’re enjoying it, so we’re just gonna continue doing it. There’s no reason why we should stop, I don’t think.”
The Deluxe Edition of Present Arms and Labour of Love are available to pre-order here.
For more information, and to check tour dates, visit UB40’s official website.