Ali Campbell, the legendary voice of UB40, chats with Kevin Cooper about being a judge on New Zealand’s Got Talent, the return of Astro to the fold, the World Tour and the release of the new album, Silhouette.
Ali Campbell is a British singer, solo artist and songwriter who is the ex-lead singer and a founding member of UB40. As part of UB40, Campbell sold over 70 million records worldwide and toured the globe for 30 years.
In 2008, Campbell and Mickey Virtue acrimoniously left the band and toured together with the Dep Band to promote Reggae music. During that time Campbell released three solo albums. In August 2014, it was announced that Astro would be reuniting with them on their World Tour and that all three as Ali Campbell’s UB40 would release a new album, Silhouette, in October of this year.
Taking time out from his promotional and touring schedule, this is what he had to say to Kevin Cooper.
Hi Ali how are you?
Hi Kevin I’m good thanks. How are you doing mate?
I’m good thanks and thank you for taking the time to speak to me. I have been trying to work out just how long ago it was when I first saw you and UB40 perform. It was way back on the 26th July 1980 at a monsoon covered Milton Keynes Bowl.
(Hysterical laughter) Reggatta De Mud (laughter). Was that the one with The Police?
Yes it was.
Yes that was a total wash-out Kevin wasn’t it (laughter). I actually remember it very fondly. We did some great shows with The Police. We literally went all over Europe with them, so they helped us a lot.
I have just been reading the programme for the gig at Milton Keynes and it was £6 entry with free parking. Well somebody missed out there as it’s about £25 to park now (laughter).
Yes, exactly. In the good old days at Milton Keynes (laughter). It was a fairly new place then if I remember correctly.
It was the first rock one. The year before they held a Reggae festival.
Perhaps UB40 should have performed on that one then (laughter).
So how is life treating you?
I’m very happy and we are in the middle of a world tour at the moment. We are playing in Reykjavik in Iceland; also in Ireland as we have sold out Dublin, and then we are off to Shanghai. I am quite excited about that as it will be the first time that we have played out in China. We have played in Hong Kong before but we have never played in mainland China, so that will be a new experience for us which is pretty cool. Basically we are the most toured band in pop history (laughter) so to be going somewhere new is quite novel for us.
I have been playing the new album ‘Silhouette’ for a few days now and what I would like to say is “welcome back” it’s fantastic.
Thanks Kevin we are happy with it. It was actually recorded a year ago so it’s the longest bloody release of one of my records that I have ever had (laughter). It was finished by December last year, which is when Astro joined the fold and came back to us. And so while we have been gigging, we have been popping into RAK Studios and putting Astro on it as well. So he is now, as you have heard, on all of the tracks isn’t he.
Talking of the album, were they all your choice of tracks to put on the album?
Always, of course (laughter) no one ever tells me what to put on an album. Cooking Vinyl told me what they would like would be 7 original tracks and 7 covers. So that is what I did.
Talking of covers, I really like what you have done to the Diana Ross track ‘Missing You’.
Well you know what Kevin, I don’t really deserve the credit for that (laughter). The version of the song that I did was a copy of Leroy Gibbons. He only really took the chorus and he forgot about the verses in the Diana Ross version so I sort of copied his version. Leroy Gibbons did a Reggae version of the song back in the 80’s which was mixed by King Jammy, and with me being in Jamaica in the 80’s that was my era. Plus Leroy Gibbons didn’t know what the song was about so he had put in ‘baby’ and ‘honey’ which I took out again because it was originally written by Lionel Richie for when Marvin Gaye died. It’s all about Marvin Gaye ‘I’m missing you’ and ‘tell me why the road turned’ which is of course why Diana Ross sang it.
But if you listen to the Diana Ross version there are all different keys; key changes and bridges but Leroy Gibbons, bless his heart, said let’s just stick to the nice bit; being the melody and the chorus (laughter). So that is the version that I copied Kevin, which I think is cool. What do you think to the last track on the album Kevin?
Well Ali I’m a little confused. You said that Cooking Vinyl wanted 7 new tracks and 7 covers but my copy only has 13 tracks on it (laughter).
Ah that’s because there were 14 tracks Kevin but one has been taken off to become a bonus track so you won’t have heard that one. That one is called ‘Ride On Sammy’ which is a cover of an old Rocksteady number from Jamaica. I recorded that track because one of my good friends who grew up in Jamaica, Chris Harrison, grew up listening to that Rocksteady track so I just recorded that for him (laughter). And then Cooking Vinyl decided that they wanted a bonus track and were going to take one track out of the 14, so I told them to take ‘Ride On Sammy’ out. It actually sounds like a song we did called ‘Wedding Day’ which UB40 recorded back in the day. It was on one of the Labour Of Love albums. I don’t know if you would remember that Kevin (laughter).
I do, it was on the Labour Of Love 2 album. Also, pride of place at home is a 12” vinyl version of ‘Rat In The Kitchen’ which I managed to get you all to sign for me after a gig.
Really Kevin, well did you know that Herb Alpert is playing the trumpet all over that?
No I didn’t know that. How did that come about?
UB40 were on A&M Records at the time, and he said “hey can I paint on your picture” and we said sure, so he did it in an afternoon, and sent the tapes back to us. We were both flabbergasted and thrilled to have him do that for us.
You have mentioned Astro, what’s it like having him back on board?
When I left UB40 six years ago now Mickey (Virtue) left with me so we have been travelling around the world doing what we have always done, which is what I set UB40 up for all those years ago when I started the band. We just wanted to travel the world promoting Reggae and Dub music you know. That was my mission back then and it still is and that is what me and Mickey have been doing. We have literally travelled all over the world with the Dep Band promoting Reggae for the past five years, flying the flag for Reggae basically. When the old guys decided to record a country album, that’s when Astro decided that he would leave (hysterical laughter). He came back to the fold because he is a Reggae musician. I mean it was a slap in the face to all of our fans more than anything.
What Astro said to the press when he was asked about why he left, he said that since me and Mickey had left, UB40 were like a rudderless ship. They were setting off in all different directions; they didn’t really write anything, and they still haven’t, except for this disastrous Country album which they released. So Astro came back and Mickey was quoted as saying that it felt like putting on an old pair of boots; the dynamics definitely changed with Astro with us, and you can feel that the audiences are a lot happier. It’s like there is a conclusion; Astro’s back thank god for that. I am glad that we are back together again because I haven’t been on a stage with Astro for the past six years. And as we were the main vocalists in UB40 it is kind of what people wanted to see and hear.
So we are doing a set of greatest hits which includes, Wear You To The Ball, Rat In The Kitchen, Version Girl, Folitician, and it is going down a storm basically. We are throwing in a few of the old UB40 numbers because I didn’t really do any UB40 numbers when I was with the Dep Band and Mickey; we just played a lot of Labour Of Love stuff and tracks off the three albums that I have made since I left the band. But now that we have incorporated more of the old UB40 stuff into the set, it makes a lot of sense, and it kind of finishes the set of nicely Kevin. It rounds it off nicely and the gigs have been great.
I had to review UB40 at Rock City last year…
The Dark Side? (Hysterical laughter).
and I wrote “UB40 without Ali Campbell is like Queen without Freddie Mercury. It simply doesn’t work”.
Well Kevin I think that it is worse than that. I have now sat back for five years and have watched my brother, Duncan, destroy my songs (laughter). Don’t get me wrong, Duncan my brother is actually a good singer, but he is a Folk singer and he just doesn’t suit that genre. He was never into Reggae; his favourite musician was Billy Joel. So for him to be jumping into my place and singing my songs, it’s disastrous. And what they were doing to the legacy of UB40 was even worse; playing smaller and smaller venues, and not letting anybody know who was in the line-up, which is what they have done all along. We have made sure that every single show that I have done has said either ‘Ali Campbell, the legendary voice of UB40’ or ‘Ali Campbell’s UB40’ or ‘UB40 reunited featuring Ali, Astro and Mickey’. We have never, ever not let people know who they are going to go and see.
Whereas since Astro, Mickey and I left UB40, ‘The Dark Side’ as I call them, have never, ever told anybody that it is not the original line-up and that they are going to get Duncan. Now their gigs are getting smaller and smaller because you can only really do that once; it’s actually called ‘Passing Off’. They are pretending that everything is fine, and they have even dressed Duncan up like me (hysterical laughter). They have cut his hair and put him in dark glasses and a black leather jacket, it’s ridiculous. What they are doing is, they are destroying their own audience because half of the people who are going to see them are walking out feeling conned. It’s like you go to see The Rolling Stones and Dereck Jagger comes out; you wouldn’t be well pleased Kevin would you (laughter). That’s what they have been doing you see.
They have slapped a writ on us saying that we can’t use the name ‘UB40’ but me and Mickey are the original rhythm section, keyboards and rhythm guitar, and me and Astro are the original vocalists. We feel that we can try and save the legacy of UB40 by touring and playing proper venues. And we also have the new album which is getting a lot of airplays so we are very happy at the moment.
On the subject of ‘The Dark Side’ after being together for over 30 years, was it a difficult decision to leave the band especially as there were family members involved?
Of course, they were all my brothers; Robin and Duncan are my real brothers but we were a band of brothers anyway. It took me four years while I was still with them to leave them because it was my band Kevin. I didn’t leave to pursue a solo career as they have said; I left because I couldn’t get any information that I was after out of the management. I had moved away and was living down South, and then I realised that there were band members who were in cahoots with the management in some very doggy dealings. So I was forced into leaving my own band and I will tell you what happened Kevin.
I went to see my brother Duncan, who is ten months older than me, and I always went to see him if I had any problems and moan about stuff. Duncan had himself had dealings with the management team that we had. I told him that as a director of the company I was entitled to this information but I was being fobbed off by the management. It was Duncan who advised me that I should ‘down tools’ and stop working and then they would have to give me the information that I was asking for. So I took his advice and the next day he joined the band (hysterical laughter). He joined the band and took my place, you couldn’t write that could you (laughter). It is proper Cain and Able stuff and so I feel that he is the biggest betrayer of them all, you know.
Robin betrayed me when I was in the band. The others were all getting monies that I wasn’t getting, and they were all sworn to secrecy not to tell me, which to this day I don’t understand why they did that you know. I haven’t got a clue. All of this horrible jealousy and vindictive vitriol which came bubbling to the surface, I’ve written about Kevin on the new album. ‘Cyber Bully Boys’ is about the members of UB40 who just can’t shut up (laughter) and keep lying through their teeth. They can’t lie straight in bed those guys. They mounted a hate campaign against me, and then Mickey, and now Astro to the point where they have stuck a picture of Astro as an orang-utan on their website. It is totally disgusting what they are doing. I think that they are just exposing themselves as I have written in ‘Cyber Bully Boys’; they have exposed themselves for all to see and it is all very unpleasant Kevin.
I just ignore them, because I have never once reacted or gone on-line or anything like that, not once, because I won’t play in the mud with them you know. I’m just hoping that if I ignore them then they will just go away. They are playing smaller and smaller venues; they haven’t got a record contract anymore, so I really do think that they will go away because of the stuff that I am doing with Astro and Mickey with the new album, I think. Hopefully, they will just go away and live in a place called obscurity I hope (laughter).
But Ali, you can rise above that because you have the product and it’s a bloody good product.
Well exactly and at the end of the day Kevin that is what it’s all about. It’s about making a Reggae album that people will go out and buy because it is what they want to listen to. Everything else is nonsense. The ‘Dark Side’ going up their own arses and coming out with a Country album is just absurd you know. My jaw is still on the floor as that has got to be the worse decision that they have ever made. The biggest Reggae band in the world are making a fucking Country album (laughter) and none of them know anything about country music which is the stupid thing. It’s unbelievable; you have got Robin singing “put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone”, fucking Jim Reeves; you couldn’t write it could you (laughter). It’s just unbelievable.
With me being of a certain age I know what a UB40 card was. When you are being interviewed by people of a younger generation, do they ask you about the name?
Yes they do, and I think that it’s a general knowledge question. Its trivia you know, “where do UB40 get their name”. But on that subject Kevin that is one of the things that the court case is over because nobody owns the name UB40. We never trademarked UB40 because we were told early on in our careers that we couldn’t trademark it because it was a Government Registration Form. It wasn’t a name that somebody had thought up, it was an existing Government Form (laughter). So we were told that we couldn’t trademark it, but now we are being told that we should have trademarked it. The ‘Dark Side’ can trademark it and we can also trademark it; it’s just a load of bollocks (laughter).
It’s all about good will and the ‘Dark Side’ are saying that they have good will because they are the original UB40 and I’m saying that I have played more gigs and bigger gigs than them and that I am the original singer and melody man. I wrote every single original melody for UB40 and that is something that they didn’t take into consideration when they let me leave. There isn’t one of the ‘Dark Side’ that can write a tune (laughter) and that’s why the album is such a disaster.
I was speaking to Tony Hadley recently and he said that you and he have had some good times performing on the same bills?
The last time that I saw Tony was when I was playing at the Rock Proms in Belgium. I was actually managed for a while by Kim Reevie, who is the daughter of the famous Don Reevie; the Leeds United and England manager. His son Duncan, does Soccerex which is a big corporate thing which he does in different countries all over the world and he did one in Dubai. Tony was invited to do a corporate event so he got up to sing and he went down like a horse shit sandwich basically (hysterical laughter), he didn’t go down well at all. And when he came back to the table he said “oh yes, don’t worry about that. It was because there weren’t enough women in the audience” (hysterical laughter). So of course we all took the piss out of him for years over that (laughter). But he is a nice enough lad and it is good that they are getting back together again, again, again (laughter).
It’s like with Madness as well, they were actually not a band for eighteen years or something before they reformed again you know. And it’s the same with Spandau Ballet; it’s been fifteen years or something before they reformed (laughter). With UB40 we just carried on, and we carried on touring around the world with the same line-up for twenty eight years. If I hadn’t left we would have still been playing but there you go, that’s what happens. I recorded my first solo album ‘Running Free’ with Brian Travers because we were trying to reignite the interest in UB40, as we were about to record our 24th album, ‘247’ it was. The ‘Dark Side’ eventually put it out with The Mail On Sunday (laughter) and of course I didn’t get any money for that, but there you go. We recorded twenty four albums in twenty eight years all with the same line-up, which is a bit of a record I think. Only U2 have gone that long with the same line-up but there is only four of them.
I don’t think that we are allowed to speak about U2 as they have upset everyone by giving their latest album away haven’t they?
Well Kevin they might as well give it away. Cooking Vinyl have given away three singles off my album already before it has even been released (laughter). They are like headless chickens aren’t they, record companies, and it all started when the head of EMI Records admitted that they had ignored the impact of downloads. That basically was the end of the compact disc industry almost overnight. And so now they are like headless chickens because they don’t know how to promote anything. Instead of your gig being to promote your latest compact disc, the compact disc is now something to promote your gig. And so they just give it all away because they think that if they don’t give it away, then someone will download it anyway (laughter).
I find it all very amusing you know, because I am a live act thank god. I know a lot of people who were not a live act and they have all disappeared. They have sold millions of compact discs but they are not known as being a live act so they simply do not exist anymore. But Kevin, you have to adapt; it’s a cyclical thing isn’t it; you know video killed the radio star, music hall killed vaudeville, and now compact discs have been killed by downloads. We just have to adapt and see what comes along next.
On the subject of the music industry being killed, how was it being a judge on New Zealand’s Got Talent?
What, you mean when we were killing music down there (laughter). The thing about that is, that you just cannot take it seriously. One has to remember that it is all about the television programme that you are watching and it has nothing whatsoever to do with finding new talent. It is all about people having a better backstory than the other person; a sicker grannie. Do you know what I mean Kevin? It’s not about finding talent and I think that once you can get around that, then you can take the programme for what it is. It’s simply a night’s entertainment. I wouldn’t have made a career out of it (laughter).
I only took the gig really because it was a chance to spend three months in Auckland. While I was out there I was staying in Whitamacker Harbour in Ponsonby which is the best area in the Southern Hemisphere (laughter). I was staying in a great apartment and I was only working one day per week for three months. I did get fat drinking Pinot Noir (laughter) as you do, do you know what I mean (hysterical laughter). I had my young kids out there with me and we travelled through the Alps and showed them everything that they wanted to see. The great thing was that I too got to see everything that I had ever wanted to see down there. Plus I have got lots of friends over there, so yes, I had a great time.
At the same time that I was doing that, the band were back in the UK sitting around twiddling their thumbs. So what I had to do was film New Zealand’s Got Talent, then I would get on a plane and fly to Santiago in Chile, which was a twenty one hour flight, and then we would meet up in Bogota or Argentina. We toured Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, and I was flying back and forth just to keep the band employed basically (laughter). I ended up with a face like a pair of warm bollocks (hysterical laughter) but it meant that the band were kept working. It was a laugh and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but what I would really like to do is Jamaica’s Got Talent. That would be the funniest television programme ever made (laughter). I have put it out there to certain people to talk to Simon (Cowell) to see what he thinks but he hasn’t got back to me yet (laughter). I just think that it would be fucking hilarious you know. Everyone in Jamaica is a star.
You have got the album launch coming up, and then the tour, what next for Ali Campbell?
Well that is what I have done for the past thirty years Kevin; I have recorded an album in the studio and then I have toured with it. That is what were are doing with ‘Silhouette’, we started off this tour in Nigeria and then we went on to Dubai, South Africa, Dakar, Kuala Lumpur and even visited Papua New Guinea on this tour. We will be visiting the UK next year and we are really looking forward to playing in Nottingham again next April. It’s a great city and we always have a great time when we play there. So after this tour it will be pretty much the same for us; write a new album, record it, and then tour with it. Life goes on (hysterical laughter).
Ali many thanks for taking the time out to speak to me.
It’s been a pleasure Kevin.
Good luck with the album and I will see you in April at The Royal Concert Hall when the tour hits Nottingham.
Make sure that you come by and say hello to me and the boys. It will be great to see you. You take care Kevin.