It is a testament either to reggae’s amazing elasticity, the sunny music’s universal appeal or the efficacy of its modern pop co-option that UB40, a racially integrated octet from Birmingham, England, would — in the wake of Bob Marley — become reggae’s longest-running hit machine. Not to put too fine a point on it, Marley lived only eight years after making the landmark Catch a Fire album; UB40 is already in its third decade of successful employment.
Significantly, UB40 (the official name for a British unemployment form) has built its empire on laid-back covers of soul and pop classics and gentle love songs, not religion and revolution; there isn’t a single item in the UB40 archive with the international social significance of “Redemption Song” or “Get Up Stand Up.” Ultimately, UB40 is loyal not to a culture but to a beat. Unlike most pop behemoths who arrive through some exotic entrance way, UB40 has never rethought its basic approach of quietly percolating grooves garnished with sultry horn lines and centered on Campbell’s cool crooning (with harmonies from his guitar-playing brother Robin). Indicative of an abiding conservatism that has made no effort to follow the undertow of dancehall, the band’s formula is mighty steady: recent albums sound enough like early ones that it would be impossible to guess their order of release.
At the outset, UB40’s biggest problem was its weak songwriting, which seemed to rise to the occasion only for singles; as a result, The Singles Album is an especially fine LP, more than half of which had already appeared on Signing Off. (For the quantity-minded, the latter does include a bonus disc with another 21 minutes of music.) Present Arms is notable for more prominent use of toasting (continued on UB44) and little else, aside from two solid singles. Present Arms in Dub, though, attempts an alternative to the usual dub style, drastically changing the music to the point where some songs are hardly recognizable. The UB40 File is a repackage of Signing Off with a second disc consisting of all the singles the band cut that year. (It doesn’t require a detective to realize that it merely reissues — and not for the first time — everything on their original label.)
UB44, in addition to minor alterations (more Latin percussion, sparingly applied gurgling synth), displays wider lyrical range and increased verbal acuity, but the only truly striking tune is, naturally, a single (“So Here I Am”). The first live album (issued in America more than a decade later) was recorded on tour in Ireland in 1982 and features such tunes as “Food for Thought” and “One in Ten.”
The 1980-83 compilation selects tracks from UB44, Present Arms and early singles — not bad, but not the introduction America wanted to hear. What finally did the trick was a novelty of sorts, one that sidestepped the band’s material shortcomings. Labour of Love is an LP of cover versions, drawing on reggae (and previously reggaefied) hits from a number of diverse authors, including Neil Diamond (“Red Red Wine”), Jimmy Cliff (“Many Rivers to Cross”) and Delroy Wilson (“Johnny Too Bad”). The resultant variety and melodic quality make the album easily and enduringly enjoyable, a rich mine of superbly played familiarity.
The entirely new original material of Geffery Morgan shows a vastly more creative UB40 at work. Inventive production, intriguing rock rhythms, powerful and memorable songwriting and new outlooks all combine to make it a great record that remains rooted in reggae but is much more diverse than the form generally allows. “Riddle Me” and “If It Happens Again” are ace reggae/rock hybrids; “Nkomo a Go Go,” with a propulsive dance-rock beat and wailing saxophone, shows the full range of UB40’s development. A very impressive step forward from a band who already know the formula for success.
Baggariddim consists of three new recordings (the catchy “Don’t Break My Heart,” “Mi Spliff” and a charmingly reggaefied “I Got You Babe” sung with Chrissie Hynde) on an EP plus a seven-song album of dub mixes from Labour of Love and Geffery Morgan. Little Baggariddim has the three new items: “One in Ten,” “Hip Hop Lyrical Robot” and “I Got You Babe” in dub.
Rat in the Kitchen is another accomplished collection of originals that makes clear the maturity of UB40’s songwriting. Bopping from start to finish with infectious warmth and top-notch musicianship, the album addresses employment and poverty; “Sing Our Own Song” vaguely discusses apartheid but it’s clear UB40 isn’t deeply committed to commitment on its records.
Live in Moscow, a single disc recorded during a historic 1986 Russian tour, draws from various periods in the band’s career and includes “If It Happens Again,” “Don’t Break My Heart,” “Cherry Oh Baby,” “Johnny Too Bad” and “Please Don’t Make Me Cry.” The performances are lively, but thin, barely adequate sound makes it more a milestone in UB40’s history than an important contribution to it. In its original issue, The Best of UB40 Volume One compiles fourteen British hits (eighteen on CD); the belated American release is abridged.
In November 1987, UB40 bassist Earl Falconer drove his car into a Birmingham factory wall, killing his brother Ray (“Pablo”), the band’s co-producer. Although he was eventually sentenced to prison for causing a death by reckless driving, he was back in the group for the recording of UB40, a lightweight, restrained new album. “Come Out to Play,” “Breakfast in Bed” (another guest vocal by Hynde), the solemn “I Would Do for You” and “Matter of Time” make the most of catchy pop choruses, leaving the remaining material to just throb along pleasantly.
Labour of Love II assembles another unassailable collection of reggae-ready songs that either came from or had previously found their way to Jamaica. Although II is less convincing than the first covers album, several tunes — Al Green’s “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” and Smokey Robinson’s “The Way You Do the Things You Do” (originally a hit for the Temptations) — are able to locate that magical blend of song and style.
Following a lengthy studio layoff, UB40 made another album of originals, the lyrically downcast — but sounding none the worse for wear — Promises and Lies. For all the irresistible warm-bath appeal of the smooth grooves, no one should sing a line like “It’s a long, black night, good people, descended on our land” with such glowing positive spirit. The unmovable Campbell delivers all of the lyrics — from the grim realities of “C’est la Vie” to the title track’s deep disillusion (“All your promises were lies”) to the racial oppression venom of “Sorry” (“You must prove it sign the cheque without delay / Most humbly yours, four hundred years back pay”) — in exactly the same tone he’s always used. The emotional soft-soap is disconcerting if not dishonest, leaving the album easy to hear but hard to take seriously. (Actually, the only number that receives a stirring reading is “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” the Elvis Presley oldie recorded for the soundtrack of Sliver.) UB40 breaks the mold here with samples (in “It’s a Long Long Way”) and Astro’s occasional toasts: he waxes surprisingly sexy on “Bring Me Your Cup” and really wrecks shit in “Sorry.” Furthermore, Falconer spells Campbell on the electronics- powered “Reggae Music,” giving a warmhearted salute to the band in a husky voice.
In its American edition, at least, the band’s second greatest-hits compilation is nearly useless, drawing all but three of its tracks from Labour of Love II and Promises and Lies.
Campbell’s solo album marks the first significant break in the group’s close-knit insularity since Falconer’s imprisonment; still, everyone in UB40 makes some contribution. Although the polished soul of Big Love doesn’t break for any border, the album does give Campbell the freedom to work with some new people, slip out — just briefly — from reggae’s rhythmic yoke, do without live drumming, promote hemp farming (I said, “promote hemp farming”) and sing a broader range of material. He covers Syreeta Wright, Jimmy Cliff’s “Let Your Yeah Be Yeah” and preserves the father/daughter tradition of Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s “Somethin’ Stupid” with his own progeny. For all that, Campbell doesn’t maintain his usual air of sophisticated reserve. Left to explore his ambitions, he steps outside his strengths; the anti-racist fable “Talking Blackbird” and the tape collage PSA announcement “Stop the Guns” are witlessly obvious, and score no points beyond stating their messages.