Photo by Radski

As UB40 celebrate 45 years of not having to sign on, Robin Campbell and Jimmy Brown tell Classic Pop why they’re still a band of brothers – just not with that brother…

For a band that famously took its name from a jobseeker’s benefit form, UB40 has been keeping its members in gainful employment for some 45 years now.

“It’s a lifetime, isn’t it?” says Robin Campbell, guitarist and de-facto spokesman for the world’s biggest-selling reggae group. “You look back and wonder where it’s all gone. But I guess that’s how everyone thinks when they become… senior.”

“It’s all a bit of a marijuana-induced haze, to be honest,” adds the band’s drummer James ‘Jimmy’ Brown, with a throaty cackle.

“They’ve been mostly glorious, those years,” reflects Robin, when Classic Pop meets him and Jimmy to mark the milestone birthday.

“Of course there’ve been ups and downs. We’ve had some trauma, and we’re still going through it. Our ex-singer is still a thorn in our side.” (More – much more – on that later.)

“But on the whole it’s been incredible. I constantly pinch myself that I’ve had the life I’ve had, and the career we’ve had.”

The band – which also includes fellow founding members Earl Falconer on bass and percussionist Norman Hassan – has been marking the anniversary with tours of the US and Europe, while putting the finishing touches to a new studio album, UB45 – their first with Matt Doyle, the singer recruited two years ago following Duncan Campbell’s retirement after a stroke.

As frontman of fellow Birmingham reggae outfit KIOKO, Doyle had previously supported UB40 on tour. “He’s a really good singer, and a massive UB40 fan,” says Robin.

“So when my younger brother retired, I thought, ‘This kid is perfect – why should we go looking elsewhere?’

“Matt jumped at the idea, but he was like a rabbit in the headlights when he started because it was such a big job, more than he could have dreamed of. But he’s settled in fantastic.”

Another highlight of the band’s 45th birthday celebrations ought to have been their induction into the Music Hall Of Fame during September’s Camden Music Festival. But things didn’t quite go to plan…

“It was going to be a great day – until we found out the selection committee had Ali’s manager on it,” sighs Robin.

Ali, of course, being the band’s original singer – and Robin’s kid brother – who jumped ship in 2008, and now tours with his own rival operation under the banner UB40 Live Featuring Ali Campbell.

“That set off some alarm bells,” says Robin. “So we decided not to attend, because we knew [Ali] had an album and a tour to promote.

“We’re faintly stunned that he turns up to things like this, when he left the band 15 years ago to pursue a solo career. It’s just a very strange thing to do – to turn up to accept an award for a band you’ve left. We didn’t want any part of that.”

(A spokesperson for the Music Walk Of Fame told Classic Pop that while Trinifold Management, who represent Ali, are on the committee, they are not involved in the selection process.)

Media coverage of the day – in which Ali posed on the red carpet with the stone that’s been laid into the pavement in the band’s honour – included excitable talk of a possible rapprochement.

But, frankly, that seems about as likely as a Pink Floyd or Oasis reunion.

“That reunion chat is bullshit,” says Robin, bluntly. “It was all put about to help sell Ali’s tour. There’s no reunion, never was one, never will be.” So much for reggae being the sound of peace, love and unity…

For those who aren’t fully across UB40 politics, Ali quit the group in 2008, citing “management and business disputes”.

He was later joined in his rival splinter group by long-standing rapper/toaster Terence ‘Astro’ Wilson and keyboardist Micky Virtue, but the latter left in 2018, and Astro died after a short illness in 2021.

“He calls himself UB40 Featuring Ali Campbell, but there isn’t one member of UB40 in that band, other than him,” says Robin.

“The four original founding members of UB40 are still in our band. That’s the glue that keeps us together. That’s the ethos of the band. And Ali didn’t want that any more. He wanted a bigger share.”

Photo by Dave Freak

“We tried to pin him down in the courts,” says Jimmy, of their estranged singer’s continued use of the UB40 handle. “But it’s a really hard thing to do. He’s not breaking any laws. It’s a no-win situation.”

But no one’s getting any younger, says Classic Pop. With saxophonist Brian Travers, who died of cancer in 2021, and Astro both now gone, and Duncan not in the best of health… isn’t life too short for all this bitterness and acrimony?

“The thing is, Ali left,” says Robin. “And he has not spoken one word to anyone in the band – all of whom considered him to be one of their best friends – since that day.

“People have portrayed it as a feud between brothers. But there was no fall-out between me and him. He left to go solo, and there was nothing we could do about that, except carry on.

“When he left, he left Birmingham, he left his family. So this idea of ‘Let bygones be bygones…’, it’s not going to happen. He made that decision and he’s got to live with it.”

Isn’t it especially painful for Robin, though? We’re talking about his own flesh and blood, after all. “It may have hurt originally,” he says. “But I’m over it now.”

“We’re quite happy with where we are,” says Jimmy. “We’re doing sold-out arena tours all over the world, we’re having a good time. It was 15 years ago – we’d be living in the past if he was constantly on our minds.”

Talking to Classic Pop in 2018, an equally forthright Ali insisted UB40 was, “my band and my brand.” Jimmy’s having none of it. “I’m an original member,” he says. “We started it together. Rob was there, Earl, Norman, Brian… we were all at school together.

“And we had a philosophy of equality in the band. A lot of bands are a singer and a songwriter and they get all the money, while the drummer and the bass player get wages. That wasn’t us. We were a band of brothers. We did it together.”

The band came together in Birmingham as a reggae-loving ‘rainbow of nations’ in 1978, with founding members boasting English, Irish, Welsh, Jamaican, Scottish and Yemeni heritage.

“We all saw Bob Marley in Birmingham in ‘76 – I think everyone in the band was at that gig,” recalls Robin. “That was the catalyst. That was when everybody started to talk about this seriously, rather than it just being some pipe dream.”

Their debut single, 1980’s double A-side King/Food For Thought, earned them a UK Top 5 hit, but it was their 1983 covers album Labour Of Love that sent UB40 stratospheric, with their take on Neil Diamond’s Red Red Wine – or, more accurately, their take on Tony Tribe’s 1969 reggae version of Red Red Wine – topping the charts in seven countries, including the UK and in the US.

(The single was re-released in the States and made No.1 in 1988 after a performance at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Concert at Wembley resumed US airplay.)

Matt Doyle. Photo by Radski

It set a pattern for the future, in which all three of the band’s UK chart-toppers, and four of their five US Top 10 singles, were covers, including their pop-reggae version of (I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You, which spent a whopping seven weeks at Billboard No.1.

With 70 million record sales, UB40 are comfortably the world’s most successful reggae group, while their joint record-breaking tally of 214 weeks on the UK singles chart during the 80s is a feat matched only by Madness.

Nearly half a century on, the band still live in the Midlands, and are about to move their HQ back into Birmingham at the invitation of Steven ‘Peaky Blinders’ Knight, who is in the process of developing an ambitious new creative hub for the city.

“Birmingham is in our blood – it makes us what we are and informs everything we do,” says Jimmy, of their collective resistance to joining the celebrity republic of north London. “If we came from anywhere else, we’d be a different band.”

Personal politics aside, Robin says they’re honoured by the Music Hall of Fame accolade. “And the same thing’s happening in Birmingham – they’re laying a Walk Of Fame star for us in the city centre.

“I’m not going to tell you the date, because Ali will turn up!” he laughs. “But it’s great, because it means when we’re all dead and buried, we’ll still be remembered.”

Fortunately, it seems there’s still plenty of life in UB40 yet: next year, the band will play a series of UK arenas with special guests Soul II Soul. “We’ve known them a long time,” says Robin.

“I holidayed in Barbados with Jazzie B 30-odd years ago. We didn’t go on holiday together. We just turned out to be in the villas next door to each other!”

“I think there are a lot of similarities,” reflects Jimmy. “We’re more 80s, they’re more 90s, but it’s all dance music influenced by black British culture.”

And beyond that? Having made it this far, Robin, 68, and Jimmy, 65, are optimistic about their chances of celebrating their 50th anniversary together.

“We’ve got our fingers crossed,” says Jimmy. “We’re all feeling okay, and we’re still enjoying playing together.”

“We’ve had a ball and, unbelievably, we’re still having a ball,” agrees Robin. “We’re probably enjoying it more than we have in a long time. That’s the truth of it.

“And it’s fantastic that we can still go to any corner of the globe and fill arenas (as, to be fair, can Ali’s band – there seems to be an almost insatiable appetite for the music of UB40).

“The fact we could go on for another five or 10 years, I find hilarious. But as long as we can, I’m up for it.”

“We’re not like a lot of other bands, in that we actually like each other,” smiles Jimmy. “We like spending time with each other. We’re like those old guys you see in the corner of the pub, playing dominoes and cards.”

“You’ve got to remember, we took our social circle on the road,” remembers Robin. “We were a gang of mates from childhood, and we took that gang on the road.

“Even the crew were members of our gang. And that’s the way we have done this business for 40-odd years. That’s how we are. We’re still a bunch of mates on the road together, having a good time.”