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UB40, the English reggae and pop band, made their way to Indian shores recently and evoked a host of memories

Words: Sandra Edmonds
Photography: Gaurav S Thombre

You’ve danced to their tunes, literally, and swayed to the rhythm of their beat along with your parents and maybe even your grandparents. We catch up with the legends while on their Indian tour and get nostalgic!

A few good friends and a lot of great music
Having begun their career in 1978, UB40 have endured almost 40 years. What began as a few friends from Birmingham, England just jamming to cover songs, turned out to be a huge act selling over 70 million records. At the time they started out, most of them were unemployed hence a friend suggested they call themselves UB40 after the term for the signing on form to claim unemployment benefits in the UK (Form 40). “And with two million unemployed people in England at that time, we had a ready audience,” reflects Robin Campbell, lead guitarist and vocalist of the band.

For those of you who are just tuning in now, here is a quick crash course on UB40. The band originally comprised six members and then grew to eight but as all good things must come to an end (or change as that is the only constant in life) three of the band’s members moved on and a new guard took their place. Today, this is a stronger, wiser unit of nine. However, true-blue reggae lovers needn’t feel so broken up about the change of order. Their music still possesses that soul and the music is just the same… nay, even better. Er, just like a glass of (red, anyone?) wine.

Robin Campbell, the oldest member and lead guitarist of UB40 reminisces, “We were family and friends before we came together as a band. However, we discovered that we had more than music in common — some of us are also related by blood and the rest, by heart — and we simply connected and the music did the rest by stringing us together in a melody.” In today’s world, for most musicians, to find a good five piece band to synchronise with and sit through rehearsals is quite a task. However since reggae was very influential to the UB40 founders they didn’t have to discuss sound, as it was organic. Diving head first, leaving everything else behind, this group of young, talented individuals started their journey and the rest, as they say, is the stuff legends are built on.

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Rise to success
A year into their formation, in ’79, they played their first gig and success soon followed. Playing one of their first gigs in a pub in London, Chrissie Hynde, frontman for The Pretenders, spotted and invited them to join her on tour. Looking out into the distance Robin reminisces, “At that time The Pretenders had a number one selling album so this was a huge boost in our career. We were confident and a bit full of ourselves as one has to be in this line but most of it was luck.”

As the adage ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ goes, the group disbanded after the Brothers Campbell parted ways because of artistic differences, which sadly gave birth to a decade-long family feud that took on the guise of a legal dispute. But their love for music has stood the test of time. Robin remembers, “We all found a new sense of enjoyment for what we were doing. Towards the end Ali wasn’t really enjoying what he was doing so we all were a bit tired.”

Cut to present, despite the ups and downs and the messy family saga, the secret that binds the group together is that they “all really love the work” they do. Watching them perform is a real treat and takes you back to your youth, singing with dad or those cold nights when “red, red wine” was your only companion. Duncan, the other brother who replaced Ali, fits right into the band although he did have big shoes to fill and though he may have been thrown in the deep end, his enthusiasm seems to have re-energised the group.

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Indian connection
The band’s Indian tour has taken them across venues in Bangalore, Goa, Pune and Mumbai. “Being in India is great and although we don’t get to see much of the country, it isn’t the first time we have stayed in this beautiful place,” says Robin. Nevertheless, he is happy to see the rise of the Indian reggae scene over the past few years. Being heavily influenced by Jamaican reggae, the band feels that, “upcoming artists should constantly perform no matter how small the venue or the audience is. Playing live is the most important thing and is the best part about making music. I love being in the studio but you can’t replace what you get from an audience. Music is an emotional connection. That’s where you sort out the men from the boys!”  Seeing such a huge turnout for their shows, Robin says that he is “always amazed to see how many people still listen to our music, especially in India”.

I am not surprised because these guys brought reggae to the forefront of the world of music in the early ‘80s. Since then, they have inspired musicians around the world (including me) with their amazing skill to pull crowds. Whether it is the first dance at a wedding, a concert or a retro dance night, UB40’s Red Red Wine and Kingston Town always get the party started. Whether it is today, tomorrow or a walk down memory lane – UB40! Having begun their career in 1978, UB40 have endured almost 40 years. What began as a few friends from Birmingham, England just jamming to cover songs, turned out to be a huge act selling over 70 million records. At the time they started out, most of them were unemployed hence a friend suggested they call themselves UB40 after the term for the signing on form to claim unemployment benefits in the UK (Form 40). “And with two million unemployed people in England at that time, we had a ready audience,” reflects Robin Campbell, lead guitarist and vocalist of the band.

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