UB40 are world renowned originators. Formed in Birmingham in 1978, they conquered the globe to become one of the biggest selling reggae acts of all time. 45 years and 70 million album sales later, they're still here. It hasn't however, been all plain sailing. We caught up with bassist Earl Falconer and drummer Jimmy Brown for a chat about their roots and to find out why there's only one UB40. The one in ten; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi guys, and welcome to Rewind South. Is it good to be here?
Earl Falconer: Mate, the sun's out, people are having a good time, so yeah!
Jimmy Brown: We did one a couple of weeks ago. I mean, it poured down all the way through, so today's a beautiful day.
UB40 are absolute legends of the Birmingham scene along with so many other bands like Judas Priest and Black Sabbath; what was it about Birmingham that produced so much good music?
Jimmy: Well, it's nice of you to say! You know what? That's the thing about Birmingham; it's so diverse. It's a diverse city, so you don't get, like a 'sound' the way that maybe with Manchester you did, and the way you do with Liverpool. Even London's got a London sound, you know what I mean, but Birmingham hasn't got that because it's so diverse that, you know, you get us, you've got Steel Pulse, you've got Duran Duran, you've got, like you said, the heavy metal bands, and you can't pigeonhole that into one style.
UB40 achieved huge success; what was it like when you started reaching stardom and having had number ones?
Earl: Well, we were doing a lot of work. I mean, we was touring for like two years at a time. We was young then, so obviously we could do it, you know? It kind of took its toll and then after about five years of like, touring continually and we had a couple of years off, and now, rewind to now, that was like 25 years ago, and we clocked up like another 20 years on the road. 45 years moving on, we've been on the road now. This is out forty-fifth year, we're doing a new LP to promote the fact, and it's just gone so quick, it's unbelievable.
Jimmy: A lot of the bands here [at Rewind], they stopped and then they reformed, whereas we never did that; we just carried on working. Because we're such a success globally, we can tour places like India, the Pacific, and kind of places other bands don't really go. So, we've constantly been working in Africa, the beautiful places like Tahiti.
Did that did that kind of success surprise you?
Earl: We went to school together before we even joined the band, so we was all friends first, and yeah, it was just that time. It was like, the punk era, and bands were popping up all over the place. You didn't have to be a great musician. Half of us couldn't play anyway, you know what I mean? So we just had to bash and yeah, we just managed to make a career out of it. It was all accidental, kind of.
With the band name referring to the unemployment benefit form, and songs like 'One in Ten', back then especially, it was protest music, wasn't it?
Earl: Well, we came out of going to demos, our whole thing was, like, a political side, you know.
Jimmy: Yeah, we were political back in your day, you know, we always were. I mean, even just sort of like the racial makeup of the band; that's a political statement in itself. But we're all individually sort of political.
Earl: It was that time, you know, the National Front and all that, and Margaret Thatcher. it was just the times.
Jimmy: It didn't make any difference though because it's just as bad today as it was then; even worse, in some ways!
Earl: We're going to find ourselves repeating our lyrics, you know, obviously those lyrics from all that time ago, actually still apply, because the same with crap is still going on.
On the other side of things, you scored massive number ones with the likes of 'Red Red Wine'.
Jimmy: You know, I was watching them a quiz program called 'Tenable' [British TV game show] not long ago, and one of the questions in the thing was; "can you name UB40's ten most popular hits?", and they couldn't get it. Even I got it wrong! I can't even remember! Apparently, we've had forty Top 20 hits, and I couldn't name them.
Earl: When you're making it, you don't think he's gonna go to number one; you just make it. I mean, 'Can't Help Falling in Love' ; someone asked us to do that for a film. It was tapped to be there, and obviously, it became this big thing, but at the time, it was just another tune that obviously, we liked the melody, and we've done our own version of it, and that was basically it. Obviously, we've been lucky and really appreciate that we've had a lot of success, but we don't really think about it. We just do it.
Jimmy: Well, we're working, you know what I mean? I mean, I think it took us a while to get used to it because very often, the crowd would be cheering, and we'd be looking around to see who's walked on, and then you realise eventually that it's for you! And then you learn not to question it. I think a lot of artists punish themselves go; "oh, I'm not as good as they think I am" - you know, the Robbie Williams syndrome - whereas after a while you've kind of got to accept you've been lucky enough to be successful and enjoy it.
I have to ask; obviously, there's two UB40s on the road and there has been for a number of years.
Jimmy: Well, there's only one. You know, there's loads of tribute bands around and our ex-singer is in one of them [UB40 Featuring Ali Campbell], but It has nothing to do with UB40, even though that's how he bills himself. So there's only one UB40, and we're the original members.
Speaking of original members, Astro and Brian Travers passed away in recent years.
Jimmy: The biggest blow to us us was Brian going because he was so prolific. He was one of the main songwriters, he was the most charismatic on stage, and he obviously did all the brass lines as well, so yeah, that's a massive hole to fill that probably won't ever be filled.
Going back, you were saying that you're celebrating 45 years and that another album is on the horizon.
Earl: We're basically mixing it now and it'll come out in a couple of months time and then we'll start touring that. We'll just carry on the cycle of recording and touring that we've done for the last four-plus decades.
Jimmy: We've had a busy year this year. I mean, we've been to Australia and America this year, and New Zealand, and we did a British tour, so we did quite a few gigs. We're just winding down now, doing a few of these because they they're kind of easy. We get on stage, and then five minutes later we're off!
You're probably the most representative Birmingham band; you must be prouder of that than anything else?
Jimmy: Birmingham, that's where we live, and it informs everything we do. if we weren't living in Birmingham, we'd be different people; it's in everything that we do, that diversity.
Earl: There's a lot of stuff going on in Birmingham. Steven Knight [screenwriter], who did Peaky Blinders obviously, he's put Birmingham on the map just because of that. He's building these massive studios in Birmingham. And Birmingham City Football Club, Tom Brady [American football quarterback]'s just invested. So everything's happening in Birmingham; we've done the Commonwealth Games, which was really successful, we've got the best food in the country, yeah, we're happy man! So yeah, people just come to Birmingham and check it out. it's really nice people, and it's friendly.
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