UB40’s incredible journey has lasted nearly 45 years and there is no end in sight.
“We’re quite happy to follow it wherever it goes,” said drummer James “Jimmy” Brown, one of the five remaining founding members of arguably reggae’s most successful band not to have originated in Jamaica. “It doesn’t seem to be going down at any point. We seem to be working more and more as time goes on.”
On tour with The Original Wailers, Maxi Priest and Big Mountain,” Brown and his band were in Florida when he spoke to a journalist about a concert on Thursday, Sept. 22, in Truckee, California. A lifelong resident of Birmingham, England, Brown has an accent, and it was difficult to catch everything he said with sketchy cell phone reception.
A conversation starter – Where are you today? – had to be repeated.
“We’re on our way to St. Petersburg, apparently,” Brown finally answered. “It’s not unusual for me to wake up in the morning and think to myself, “Exactly what country am I in, lad?’ But that’s touring and that’s what we love to do.”
UB40’s month ends with a musical cruise through the British Isles. There will be a United Kingdom tour in December, and one in January in Australia.
“Have you performed in every continent?”
“Yes, we’ve played in Africa many times.”
Fortunately, the reception eventually improved, and the amiable Brit was happy to share the story about the fortuitous opportunity his young band had after it had only played about a dozen shows. UB40 performed at a Birmingham pub called Rock Garden and Chrissie Hynde of the American band the Pretenders was in the audience.
“It was a tiny venue, like a toilet,” Brown said. “Chrissie came backstage afterward. At the time she had the No. 1 album and No. 1 single, “Brass in Pocket,” in the U.K. And she said, ‘Do you guys want to come tour with us?’ ”
“We embarked on quite an extensive tour of the U.K. During that time, we released a record and by the end of that tour we had a hit record of our own. And a few months later, we did exactly the same tour as the Pretenders had done, only this time we were headlining. It was a good springboard. I don’t know where we would be if she hadn’t done that. We will forever be grateful to Chrissie for that.”
The journalist, not entirely sure of all Brown described, followed up: “Did you say the venue was the size of a toilet?
“Yes. Basically, a real shithole. But it was an iconic venue, and I am quite glad we played it.”
Birmingham has produced many of popular music’s best-known bands, such as heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, reggae’s Steel Pulse and new wave’s Duran Duran. UB40 is as successful of any of those bands, with more than 100 million records sold, 63 singles, 20 studio and seven live albums.
In the same vein as conscious reggae artists such as Steel Pulse, Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff, UB40, in its early years, wrote protest songs. Its members were critical of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies. The name UB40 is a British unemployment benefits form, and the band’s 1980 debut album is titled “Signing Off.”
But UB40 also has a great penchant for rearranging American songs into compelling reggae tunes. Its most famous song, “Red Red Wine,” was first recorded by crooner Neil Diamond in 1968. UB40 also turned reggae Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” Al Green’s “Here I Am” and the Temptations “The Way You Do the Things You Do.”
As it reaches a milestone year, UB40 will release UB45 in 2023. It’s already put out two singles from the record: A new version of “Red Red Wine,” and “Champion,” which was the theme song for 2022 Commonwealth Games held this summer in Birmingham.
How does a band that started out in 1978 continue remain so popular?
“If I knew what it was, I would put it in a bottle and sell it and become a multi-billionaire, you know,” Brown said. “I have no idea why we’ve lasted as long as we have and have this following and popularity, which we still enjoy today. It’s a phenomenal story and we pinch ourselves every day because we are still doing what we love.”
There was, of course, a hiatus.
“2019 was a very busy year for us and then suddenly lockdown came in,” Brown said. “It was a nice thing to be with my family, being at home and not going away. But then when it got into the second year we starting to think, ‘Is this ever going to change?’ So, I am pretty grateful to be touring again because going into that second year we were worried. My wife was even saying to me, ‘Isn’t it about time you went back on the road?’ ”
The post-lockdown UB40 has a new lead singer, Matt Doyle, who formerly was with another reggae band, Kioko. UB40’s original lead singer, Ali Campbell, left in 2008, and was replaced by his brother Duncan Campbell, who retired due to health reasons. Brother Robin Campbell is the founding guitarist. Doyle is the nephew of founding percussionist Norman Hassan.
“There’s a symbiosis you get with family,” Brown said, adding a quip, “and we can always get family members to work for less than the going rate, which really helps.”
“(Doyle’s) a very talented singer,” Brown said. “He’s a very good-looking young man and he’s getting a lot of attention from the ladies. We’re getting a few shows under our belt now and he really has stepped up to the plate. He’s really a good lad.”
Touring partner Maxi Priest also hails from Birmingham.
“We’ve known Maxi many, many years,” Brown said. “We’ve worked, toured and recorded with him. We love him. He’s got a really strong voice.”
“All of the bands are enjoying it. It’s like a big family. The Wailers are having a good time and Big Mountain is having a good time. We’re meeting them for the first time. We’re really having good vibes backstage. There’s no rivalry or competition. Everybody’s supporting reggae music. We all help each other. It’s a beautiful thing.”
The show in Truckee starts at 3:30 p.m. By the time headliner UB40 takes the stage it will be dark and possible cold in the mountain town. Brown is fine with that. Birmingham gets an annual average of 13 inches of snow.
“It will probably be a shirt-sleeve day for us,” he said. “Obviously we will be playing all the hits we are known for. But we’re also playing some new material as well as songs from the more recent albums. It will all be danceable and all be singable. We’ll see if we can get (the audience) doing that.”
The phone reception was perfect as the interview neared its conclusion. Brown had been informative, thoughtful and often humorous with his answers. The journalist asked an off-topic question: “Since you’ve been all around the world, which country has the most delicious food?”
“Without a doubt, it’s got to be India. When you go to India, you can get beautiful tasting food on every street corner. I love an Indian curry.”
With: The Original Wailiers, Maxi Priest, Big Mountain
When: 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22
New venue: Grand Sierra Resort
Tickets: $65 and $75