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UB40 featuring Ali Campbell, Astro & Mickey Virtue are joined by Blue King Brown and Special Brew this Friday, December 5, at Red Hill Auditorium.  There seems to be two UB40’s on this planet at the moment. The legendary reggae has splintered in half but judging by the size of the crowds that Ali Campbell, Astro and Mickey Virtue are playing in front of around the world, the gravitas is held by this version of the band, the one that is touring Australia at the moment. The three had previously left the band, unhappy with the direction and the way it was run. However with a new album, Silhouettes, they are back and performing new songs and, of course their iconic hits.


How’s the tour been going so far, in terms of getting back with Mickey and Astro and seeing the audiences again?

We’re in the middle of a world tour as we speak and it’s been fabulous. The reaction has been amazing, actually. Ever since Astro joined the fold back last December he played his first gig in six years, he played at the 02 in London. That atmosphere was brilliant. I ended up putting him on the album. Astros now on four-to-five tracks on the album.

There’s a variety of originals and covers…

Cooking Vinyl, the record company, they asked if we could have seven covers and seven originals and that’s what we did.

In terms of getting back with Mickey and Astro, what was the vision in terms of song choice?

I’d already finished the album, as it happens. When Astro came back and joined us live, the reaction was so brilliant and there was a feeling of conclusion after six years had passed and I think the fans all sighed a big sigh of relief and said, ‘ah hurray they’re all back together again’, not that we all are back together again but the two lead vocalists and me and Mickey being the rhythm section.

Basically, what Astro did was what he does and put the little raps and taste on the end. One of the songs, Breaking Music, he did that all the way through.

It was really lovely when we were asked what it was like, Mickey said it was like putting on a pair of old boots. And that’s what it’s like, it’s like we’ve never been apart now and the dynamic has definitely changed for the better and that’s why we’re having a ball.

In terms of when you choose cover tunes what are the things that call out to you? What makes it a song that you do pick?

Well I do try and make reggae covers of songs you wouldn’t expect to be covered, you know? I did it a couple of years ago with Fun Lovin’ Criminals. We did a cover of Prince’s Purple Rain which is now in the set and goes down fantastically and that was a very unlikely cover.

Then I did the great big British songbook, that was rock classics – The Beatles, The Who. That was basically a project, with Purple Rain that was a million miles removed from reggae, and now it’s quite easy. I’ll take any song that I find attractive or I like the tune or the lyrics and I’ll make it into reggae. I don’t think there are many songs you can’t put into reggae and into a 4/4 beat.

When you did great British songs you were unable to tour because you came down with Eppstein-Bar virus. Does that make you appreciate connecting with audiences more given that fairly recently you were unable to?

I love performing live you know, it’s what I do, its what I’ve been doing for 30 odd years now and basically if I’m not in a studio recording I’m on a tour promoting what I’ve recorded. That’s my life.

Time off was a drag, really. When I took time off I felt like I should be doing something and would get really restless. I love touring. I haven’t been back to Australia since I did a stint in New Zealand on NZ’s Got Talent.

And we’re back as you know, soon. I mean Perth, I’ve seen Perth grow since 1981. The first time I went to Perth there wasn’t anything there, it was just like a big pub! And I’ve watched Australia grow. Some places have gotten worse, but most places have gotten better. I’m not so keen on Sydney anymore but I do love Melbourne. I think it’s one of the coolest cities in the world now.

Over the years you were often on Countdown…

Yeah with… what was his name?

Molly Meldrum.

Yeah that’s right, last time I was there, he was holed up because he’d fallen off a ladder or something.

One of your first Australian television appearances was in 1981 (daytime talk show) The Mike Walsh Show performing One In 10. That says something for how different Australia was then. Do you have any other memories of those early tours?

Yeah, I’ve got absolutely wonderful memories of staying up on Coogee Bay above the pub we were playing at and we stayed at Bondi Beach and we had a lot of fun in Sydney when it was a completely different Sydney to what it is now. We used to be around Kings Cross having a laugh.

We really had the best times the first few times we were there. It was always sunny, as opposed to now… it always seems to be raining. I’m playing the State Theatre again in Sydney, and I really love that, it’s a really beautiful place. I’ve got nothing but good memories of Australia and I can’t wait to be there again

In getting back with Astro and Mickey was it because you wanted and were able to, or were there some hurdles to jump in regards to legalities because of the business side?

No, no, Mickey left when I did about six years ago and we’ve been touring around the world since. I mean, I started UB40 30 years ago and the reason I started UB40 was to promote reggae music and then when the old UB40 started making country songs, they did a country album, that’s when Astro decided he’d had enough. And Astro wasn’t really happy there then anyway,  I think he said in the press, since Mickey and I had left it was like a rudderless ship, sort of a boat with no direction and that really came to light with the country album. It was like a slap in the face to fans really. For 30 years they’ve bought 70 million bloody albums!

I mean we were the biggest selling reggae band in the world. For those guys to make a country album it showed a massive lack in direction and actually they showed contempt for their audience and for us and that’s why Astro came back because he couldn’t be on stage playing country music.

The classical UB40 hits were always true to reggae roots.

Well every single hit was a reggae hit. That is what kind of band we were. I am very proud of what I did with the band with all the CD sales and stuff but I’m more proud of the fact that we’re loved by many other reggae artists. And me, Astro Mickey and the band played with John Holt and Luciano and the London Philharmonic and to be part of things like that is what makes me really proud. And I love being with this band because they’re a very happy band and a more up band. They used to be seasoned session players but we’ve been playing for six years now so we’re a wicked band and I could say the hottest reggae band in the world at the moment. Yeah.

What about playing with the London Philharmonic. It as though there’s more opportunities up for grabs the longer you play…

(Laughs) Yeah, I think there’s another way of putting it. The more tenacious you are and the more you refuse to go away, the more they have to find different things for you to do!

But I just love working with Jamaican artists because it’s a dream come true for me to be on stage with John Holt. He’s a legend in my life, and Luciano too, both of those artists, when I lived in Jamaica they were a part of everyday life for me in Jamaica and when I was living there I had my own studio too and I worked with more legendary Jamaican artists than there is.

You’re a pioneer yourself, but is it a case that you never stop learning?

Absolutely never stop learning. I mean doing that thing with the London Philharmonic and with John Holt. I mean the guy’s in his 70’s but he’s like child when he sings, he’s amazingly so brilliant. And Luciano is the same way and I just feel honoured to be working with these guys and not too many months ago I was with Jimmy Cliff singing, The Harder They Come. Things like that make it all worthwhile. Like I did I Got You Babe with George Penn who did No, No, No and I did Silhouette with Sly & Robbie and I finished up the night with Jimmy cliff. I was pinching myself to be on stage with Jimmy Cliff.

And the fact that UB40 was fronted by white boys. We only ever had problems from white press. The black Jamaicans always knew where we were coming from. And I met Beenie Man the other morning and he was saying ‘thanks for the music’ and I was saying ‘no, no, no, thank you for the music’ and it’s just lovely.

It’s a good life and career when you don’t stop pinching yourself, I suppose?

Absolutely. I mean I’m back on the radio again with Silhouettes. I mean I’m 54 years old and I’m still in the charts and that keeps me rocking. I’m really pleased with the album, it’s like a production journey for me, making albums, and this is my 30th or 31st album I think and I’m finally get the balance between the bass drum and the bass guitar lines.

Do you look at the next 12 months as working the album and touring for it?

This sort of tour will be promoting Silhouettes and will take us all around the world, literally. We’ll be in South America and the South Pacific and back to Africa and India. We are literally all over the world. So far this year we’ve been to Papua New Guinea and Kuala Lumpur. We were rained off in the deserts in Dubai. That was an unusual experience actually it was hail, we had hailstones, first time in 35 years, in the middle of the desert.

Reggae continues to be universal…

It’s the most influential it’s ever been actually. People ask me what’s the state of reggae? What do you think? If you look around, I travel around the world and it on the streets of Kenya, in Mozambique, Angola, Luanda, the music of the streets. The production techniques on all of the dance records are dub techniques. Reggae gave us dub and everything that you hear is a dub production. From Swedish House Mafia to everybody and d’n’b techniques is all about what you leave out and not what you put in. So going from a production technique to a genre, it’s just gotten stronger and stronger since the ‘80s.

I’m part of this evolution and I’m proud of that… part of this evolutionary journey with reggae.

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