As original members of UB40, Ali, Mickey and Astro helped to define reggae music for a generation. The multi-racial band, formed in 1979 in the Birmingham suburb of Moseley, pooled a diverse set of influences to put a fresh, indigenous slant on Jamaican reggae. After encouragement from Chrissie Hynde, who offered them support slots with her chart-topping band The Pretenders, they recorded their independently released debut album, Signing Off, on an eight-track tape machine in the home of producer Bob Lamb. An unexpected number two album, it gave them the conviction to chart their own course.
“Chrissie Hynde discovered us,” recalls Ali. “We’d only done a dozen gigs when she saw us at the Rock Garden in London. She was top of the charts at that time, but she took us on tour. We were on the road with The Pretenders when our first single, Food For Thought and King, reached number four in the charts.”
“We owed a lot to the late 1970s ska movement, too,” adds Mickey. “We shirt-tailed the ska movement but we also stood apart from the 2-tone acts: their thing was a mix of punk and ska and ours was a new homegrown strand of reggae.”
UB40 went on to dominate charts around the world, not least with the hugely successful Labour Of Love series. The first Labour Of Love album, in 1983, yielded a cover of Neil Diamond’s Red Red Wine that topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. The band secured two further chart-topping singles at home in (I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You (also another US number one) and I Got You Babe, a duet between Ali and the band’s old friend Chrissie Hynde, and Ali and Robin Campbell also scored a No.1 with Baby Come Back.
When UB40 embarked on their Labour Of Love series in 1983, they were keen to tell the world about the songs that they grew up with in Birmingham. They dug deep into the reggae and rock steady rhythms of yesteryear and ended up producing three Labour Of Love albums, bringing hits such as Eric Donaldson’s Cherry Oh Baby, Lord Creator’s Kingston Town and Johnny Osbourne’s Come Back Darling to a new, global audience. They also topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic with their reggae cover of Neil Diamond’s Red Red Wine.
By the third Labour Of Love album in 1998, though, the band had revisited almost all of their favourite reggae songs from the Sixties and Seventies. It was time to move on.
And now, two decades later, UB40 founder members Ali Campbell and Astro are revitalising the concept by exploring the tunes of a later golden age: on new album A Real Labour Of Love, the group explore the songs that defined reggae in the Eighties. The concept isn’t a rigid one: Stevie Wonder’s A Place In The Sun is a Motown classic from 1966, and there are numbers from the late Seventies in Dennis Brown’s sublime How Could I Leave and Culture’s International Herb. But most of the tracks on A Real Labour Of Love are from the Eighties – a decade that saw dancehall reggae enter the mainstream, the arrival of new digital rhythms like Sleng Teng, and some of singer Gregory Isaacs’ most memorable moments.
‘There was always a chronological element to the Labour Of Love series,’ says Ali. ‘The first three albums featured the songs we grew up listening to. This one is built around the records we were listening to once UB40 were on the road. It’s been 20 years since Labour Of Love III, so it was time for an update. The Eighties were such a fertile decade for reggae, and enough time has now elapsed for us to investigate that era properly. In the Eighties, artists were moving away from the same old backing tracks. They were using technology to create new rhythms. Reggae was moving forward at an incredible pace, but there were also lots of great songs – everybody remembers Here I Come by Barrington Levy.’
‘We used to sing a lot of these on the tour bus,’ adds Astro. ‘We were spending more time in Jamaica, too, and some of these numbers are the ones we’d hear on the radio and out in the streets. The singers of these songs were our heroes. They are quintessential reggae artists.’
The new album builds confidently on the momentum gathered in the past five years, with Ali’s instantly recognisable voice augmented by the ‘sing-jay’ vocal style of Astro. The latter takes the lead on six of the album’s 16 tracks, placing the two singers at the helm of an 11-piece band, most of whom have been on the road with Ali in some capacity for ten years. Sadly, A Real Labour Of Love also marks the passing of long-serving trombonist John Johnson. A former member of Simply Red who joined forces with Ali seven years ago, John played on the album but passed away the night before the rest of the group were due to play a benefit concert to raise money for his cancer treatment. The album is dedicated to him.
Produced by Ali and recorded in two London studios, Dean Street and RAK, the new record – which features a striking sleeve illustration by artist Mark T. Smith – arrives in an era when reggae-inspired hits are exerting huge sway in the pop world, with Katy Perry’s Chained To The Rhythm, Clean Bandit’s Rockabye, Rihanna and Drake’s Work and Sia’s Cheap Thrills all displaying significant reggae undertones.
Among the album’s highlights are heartfelt tributes to two of Jamaica’s greatest singers, both sadly no longer with us. Dennis Brown’s How Could I Leave was a hit for the Crown Prince of reggae in 1977, and there are two tracks from Gregory Isaacs’ exquisite 1981 album More Gregory, Once Ago and Hush Darling.
Astro’s vocals are prominent on two of the album’s most adventurous song choices – Barrington Levy’s 1984 hit Here I Come and Wayne Smith’s Under Me Sleng Teng, a track widely recognised as the starting point of reggae’s digital age when it arrived the following year. ‘Those two were tricky choices,’ admits Ali. ‘Reggae experts warned us off doing them, as our versions would be instantly compared with the originals. But we didn’t want to back off, and Astro was brave enough to tackle them both in his own way.’
The influence of American hip-hop on reggae in the Eighties is also acknowledged. Bronx-raised singer and toaster Shinehead played with UB40 on their first visit to New York, and he is represented by his single Strive, a huge hit in Jamaica in 1989, while female singer J.C. Lodge’s Telephone Love became one of the first dancehall numbers to top the R&B chart in New York City in 1988.
Ali, Astro and Mickey are also proud of influences from closer to home, and they acknowledge the importance of British reggae by tackling London singer Barry Boom’s Making Love, Pablo Gad’s Hard Times – a 1980 single sampled by The Prodigy on their single Fire – and Webby Jay’s In The Rain. ‘It was important to include British as well as Jamaican music,’ says Astro. ‘When we started out, we wanted to put our own slant on Jamaican reggae and create our own hybrid sound, but we used to sing a lot of British reggae songs on the tour bus.