It’s 1976 and the fact that he was far too young to be in that bar did nothing to deflect the broken beer mug that smashed into the face of a 17-year-old Ali Campbell. Fortunately, 90 stitches and the status of a relatively innocent bystander got him 4,000 pounds in compensation money – and the chance to buy his band some equipment. Of course, they got ripped off by the dealers, but it was a beginning. You can imagine what it was like: they still had stars in their eyes. Provocative yet completely laid back, UB40 would go on to claim reggae for their own at a time when it was still something white kids just didn’t sing.
In the intervening decades, Ali Campbell and UB40 made over 20 albums, broke several records and got themselves nominated for the 2007 Grammy Awards. Counted amongst the UK’s most popular bands, they seemed set for a long run. And then they split – and it was clearly far from amiable.
Accusations of financial mismanagement and unprofessional conduct were flung back and forth, even as Ali prepared for the release of his first solo album. Suffice to say it wasn’t pretty, but it’s brought Ali to a different place, one which he says he’s happier to be in. Plus, in a thick accent, he says he’s counting on winning a Grammy “on me own.”
It helps that both his solo albums – ‘Big Love’ and ‘Running Free’ – featured strong collaborations with the likes of Smokey Robinson and Katie Melua and were well received by fans. Some contend that Ali might even be a better musician post-split – certainly his new work is on par with anything he created with UB40 – and it’s still reggae. Reinventing himself is clearly not something Ali is gunning for. “It’s like what Bob Marley said: ‘One good thing about reggae music is that when it hits you, you feel no pain.’ That’s true for me. Reggae is the only music that elates me, that genuinely lifts my spirit,” he says, “I’m still on the same mission with which we started, which was to popularise reggae.”
It’s become the passion of a lifetime. The son of a Scottish folksinger, Ali (born Alastair Ian Campbell) grew up in Birmingham, England. Populated by immigrants from Asia and Africa, the city brought together people from many diverse backgrounds. “The music of the streets was reggae and I grew up on it,” Ali says looking back. “When we formed our band, there was no question but that it was going to be reggae…our own hybrid style of reggae.”
They decided that they would not merely emulate the great Jamaican tradition, instead they would create British reggae. So the 4,000 pounds of compensation money couldn’t have been timed better. They were all living on Unemployment Benefit and filling out form 40 (hence UB40) and the pickings were slim – 7 pounds and 90 cents a week to be precise. Both the financial strain and their disparate origins and influences created a band that was also aggressively political – both in song and deed. Even as they became famous for anthems like “1 in 10”, they refused to play gigs in places like South Africa where apartheid still ruled. Only when Mandela was released, did UB40 play to a sell out concert, where an 80,000 fists saluted them as they sang the INC anthem “Power is Ours”!
“We were living in political times, we were a product of Thatcher’s mess. We were 1 in 10,” says Ali. “Unfortunately, it’s happening again in England, again its 1 in 10…perhaps, I’ll do a remix.” And pulling off a remix is easier now than ever before. Describing song writing with UB40 like having to deal with the Russian Politburo, Ali says he no longer needs to negotiate with “eight other people who disagree with me and disagree with each other.” He adds, “I’m not compromising, I know what I want, and no one is arguing with me.”
This new, liberated Ali was particularly visible on stage, at the Yes Fm organised concert in Colombo early last week. Supported by a group of session musicians known as The Dep band, Ali was the undisputed king of the spotlight. Gyrating like it was still the 1970s, Ali managed to keep the crowd stamping their feet and swaying their hips. Over the decades, UB40 has always been at its most popular when performing other peoples songs – “Red, Red Wine” was originally Neil Diamond’s, while “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” belonged to Elvis – and Ali has continued that tradition with renditions of “Everything She Does is Magic” and “Would I lie to You?” by The Police and Eurythmics respectively.
Despite a noticeable dip in audience enthusiasm, Ali also sang several songs from his both his new albums, most notably the title tracks off both the ‘Running Free’ and ‘Big Love’ albums.
In the coming months Ali intends to put his new band to trial by fire – he has declared his intention to play at every venue UB40 ever performed at. ‘Flying High’, his third album is scheduled for release in 2009 and will feature big names like Busta Rhymes. “I can’t wait for people to hear ‘Flying High’, because it’s like I’m finding my feet now, I’m on a roll,” he tells me laughing. Later, as I watched Ali serenade Colombo singing “said I’m just groovin’, groovin’ till I die,” I can see that he really means it.
Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka. Words by Smriti Daniel.