Robin Campbell, (seen here third from the left), an English guitarist, singer, songwriter and founder member of UB40, chats with Kevin Cooper about the current state of the health of band member Brian Travers, celebrating forty years in the music industry, releasing a collaborations album and their forthcoming Christmas Hometown Show in Birmingham.

Robin Campbell is an English guitarist, singer, songwriter and founder member of English reggae and pop band, UB40. As a child he sang in a harmony group with his brothers and performed with their father on stage.

Campbell was initially reluctant to join a band with his brother Ali Campbell and six friends, but was persuaded to when he bought his first guitar. Once he joined the others in their jamming sessions, the eight musicians formed a band in 1979, deciding on the name UB40 after a form issued to people claiming unemployment benefit, although at the time Campbell was employed as an apprentice toolmaker.

UB40 went on to achieve huge success. They had more than 50 singles in the UK Singles Chart, and sold over 70 million records worldwide. They were nominated on four occasions for a Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album.

The band’s line up was stable for nearly twenty nine years from March 1979 until January 2008 when Ali left the band followed shortly after by Mickey Virtue and Astro. In 2008 Ali was replaced by his brother Duncan and in 2010 the band released their album, Labour Of Love IV with Duncan as the front man.

Since then they have released Getting Over The Storm in 2013 and earlier this year, For The Many.

Whilst preparing for their Christmas Hometown Show in Birmingham, Robin Campbell took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Robin, how the devil are you?

Kevin Cooper, as I live and breathe. I’m very well thank you; how the hell are you?

I’m very well thanks and before we move on, let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

It’s not a problem, absolutely no worries whatsoever.

And just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

Life now is pretty good. However, to be honest with you I am getting rather knackered (laughter). As you know we have been doing a lengthy 40th Anniversary Tour and we have just not stopped. It feels as though we have been performing for the entire year (laughter). We have just finished a nine-week tour of the States, where we played forty odd shows in those nine weeks. We literally had two days off, I think. So, as you can imagine, that was fairly heavy. We also played a few sold-out shows in The Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia and now, I have to say that I really can’t wait for our Christmas Hometown Show on 21st December at the Birmingham Arena. So hopefully, I might just get a couple of weeks off in January (laughter).

Which year (laughter).

(Laughter) well it is most definitely the end of the celebrations for our fortieth year, and the Birmingham Homecoming Show will be the end of a very crazy eighteen months.

Before we move on, can I just ask you, how are things with Brian (Travis)?

To be honest with you it is very difficult to know. He simply doesn’t tell us. Obviously, Brian had his tumours removed the week that we came away on the road, but there is still a lot of stuff that is still going on. He is having another course of chemo and radiotherapy but he won’t tell us anything. I know that he refuses to stop partying, he lives the lifestyle (laughter). Since he has had his operation he has not stopped trying to raise money for a machine that they need at the hospital, so he has continued to raise money for The Giles’ Trust which as you know was set up by Stine and Ashley Giles to support the Queen Elizabeth Hospital here in Birmingham, in order to raise funds for research in to brain tumours. Brian has been tirelessly campaigning for that but in all honesty, no one would blame him or criticise him if he had a week off, but he never does. Brian just tells everybody that he is fine.

I did read on Brian’s Facebook page that he is hoping to join you and the boys on stage in Birmingham for at least one number. Is that still the plan?

Yes, it is, of course, even though he has been told not to play the Saxophone. He is currently practising once again, and I don’t know what to do. What do you do with a man like that? We have all begged him to slow down, take things easy and just get better but yes, he is insisting that he is going to come to the Birmingham Christmas Show if only for one song. He wants to come along and say hi to the audience which is exactly what Brian would do.

Does playing in Birmingham in front of your home town fans bring with it any added pressure?

To be honest with you I don’t feel that, but I do feel the pressure that it appears to put on other members of the band because of their friends and family. It puts pressure on us just because you suddenly get phone calls from people who you haven’t had phone calls from since the last Birmingham gig. They all want to be put on the guest list; they all want to be able to come and see you, and obviously you end up with a guest list that couldn’t possibly cater for all of the people that we want so we find ourselves having to buy a hundred tickets or whatever, or if we are playing at the NEC then it’s a couple of hundred tickets.

Over the years we have bought hundreds and hundreds of guest tickets, so as you can imagine, that’s a pressure. For us having to deal with the whole thing logistically is a bit of a nightmare but you lean on other people for that. But yes, some of the band really do feel the pressure of performing in front of friends and family. It doesn’t make any difference to me; I just think that an audience is an audience. Once you are up there and you are in the bosom of your mates, together with an audience, it really doesn’t matter who is in the audience, it is a mass thing. When you have got that wave of love coming at you, I just find it easy to deal with wherever we are.

I know that this may seem like I am playing catch-up but is it okay if we talk about your last album, For The Many, which you released on 15th March 2019.

Of course it is, go for it.

Were you pleased with the fan’s reaction to the album?

Yes I was, the fans have absolutely loved it. In fact everybody who I know has said that it sounds like a throwback album, and that it could have been released back in the day after Present Arms. It sounds like the kind of thing that we were doing back in the early 80s so you really can’t ask for any more than that. I genuinely think that, although I will most probably say this every time that we release an album, I genuinely believe that it is the best album that we have made in a very long time.

I must agree with you. Whilst I was listening to the album, I was making notes and I have put ‘it is UB40 doing what UB40 do best, making a great album’.

Well then, there you go. Thank you, that is exactly what I feel. It is UB40 having the time to sit in the studio, play together, write together and that’s the result. We are not doing it music by numbers, or recording it separately in different rooms, which I have to say is how we tended to be making records, certainly through the 90s. We have gotten back more and more to playing as a band and putting things together as a band which was something that had stopped happening. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t the first album where we have done that. I just think that we have gotten better at doing it again and we are working well together. We compose well together, and I personally feel that Duncan is now fitting in great.

He has written two of the tracks on the album, so yes; it all just seemed to come together. I have to say that it took far too long, but we did it all in-between whilst we were away on the road so as you can imagine, it took far longer than it should have done simply because of the studio time. It was hard getting us all together in the same room. That really did prove difficult, because once people got home all that they wanted to do was become comatosed, veg out for a while and spend time with their families (laugher). So, it has taken us a long time chronologically, but in actual fact, if you added up the actual time that we spent working on the album, it would only be a few months. The problem is that those few months were spread over five years (laughter).

I’m so pleased that you have mentioned Duncan as I was going to ask you, is he now comfortable with his role within the band?

What can I say; I think that he is now a lot more comfortable than he has ever been. He’s the new boy isn’t he; its twelve years that he has been doing it now (laughter). When he first took over the role, I have to admit that he was like the proverbial rabbit in headlights, and like he said he had big shoes to fill. He was understandably nervous; in fact he was terrified that the fans wouldn’t accept him. However, we got over that pretty quickly, because the fans took to him immediately. But yes, I have to admit that it has taken him a while to relax into his position within the band. But I think that he is confident now, and I know that he is doing a good job and I think that he is enjoying it more now because of that.

I recently spoke to Jimmy (Brown) and I asked him about Duncan’s contribution to the band and he said that in his opinion, Duncan actually contributes far more than the previous lead singer did. Would you agree with that?

I think that certainly by the end Ali was doing very little to do with the band and the bits that he actually did, he was doing them reluctantly (laughter). I think that Duncan contributes in ways that he doesn’t even know because he got the rest of us enjoying it again because we weren’t with Ali. With Ali everything had become a chore. I’m sure that I have told you this before during one of our marathon chats (laughter). Certainly during the last couple of years, it really was hard work being in the band. None of us were enjoying it anymore really. It really was a struggle because Ali was blatantly unhappy. Having said all of that, I feel that Duncan coming into the band brought our mojo back.

It certainly fired everybody up again and got us all excited. Duncan also bought with him his enthusiasm, and the fact that he was bringing lyrics to the band, was just great. That’s one of the main reasons why Jimmy would be saying that Duncan has bought with him a greater contribution, simply because Ali never wrote a decent lyric (laughter). My Way Of Thinking is the only lyric that Ali ever wrote on his own. Duncan is really enthusiastic and is bringing lyrics to the band and more to the point, we are using them. So I guess that in that way, he makes a greater contribution.

I personally feel that there is more of a Dub feel to For The Many, which takes the listener back to your first album, Signing Off. Would you agree?

Yes, I would, absolutely and again, that was intentional. We wanted to get back to making music like we used to. We didn’t do any specific instrumental tracks like there are on the first album, but we all wanted to have instrumental passages which would heavily feature the Dub content and get back to doing it like that. That is what we loved about our early music because we were always Dub fanatics. The reason why we say that it could have been the follow-up to Present Arms is simply because we released Present Arms in Dub which was the very first Dub album in the charts. So, in all honesty, you could most probably argue that For The Many is a kind of mishmash of both of those albums really. As you know we have also recorded a Dub mix of For The Many, the same as we did with Present Arms.

A little bird tells me that you are going to be releasing a collaborations album, is that correct?

(Laughter) who the bloody hell have you been speaking to. Yes, we are, we are going to be releasing a collaboration album based on the music of this album. We have already sent backing tracks out to different artists and asked them to come up with something and I have to say that the early results have been both fabulous and quite surprising. We sent three tracks to a band called House Of Shem who are a reggae band from New Zealand who actually supported us the last time that we were over there in New Zealand. They are, in fact, New Zealand’s premier reggae band and a part of their heritage is the band called Herbs, who are also a New Zealand reggae group who were founded in 1979 and have been friends of ours since we first went over there in the early 80s.

Firstly, we asked them if they would be interested to which they replied, “we would love to” so we sent them three backing tracks over, asking them to pick one, and do whatever they wanted to do with it, and before we knew it, they had returned all three tracks with something on them and we love all three of them. I wrote back to them saying “we can’t choose, is it okay if we use all three tracks” and of course they were delirious (laughter). We have done the same with several bands. We have even got an Indian reggae band who we met when we were over in India; we sent them a track to do something on.

We have got some Jamaican artists who are living in England, some British reggae artists, we have both old-style Jamaican and younger plus we have the Birmingham band Kioko who have been supporting us on the whole British tour. They are the band from Birmingham who remind us of us when we were kids. The album is going to be really quite varied, eclectic and some very different styles of reggae all on our own music. It really is a lot of fun, which once again is harping back to the 80s when we recorded Baggariddim. Which leads me onto the title of the forthcoming album, we have called it Biggabaggariddim and it will be released very soon, I hope (laughter).

I’ve currently got three go to tracks on the album, Gravy Train, I’m Alright Jack but the track that takes me back to the 80s is You Haven’t Called. I think that particular track is UB40 doing UB40.

Well, believe it or not, I wrote that song back in the mid-90s and I actually wrote it for Duncan. He was going over to Jamaica to record an album with Ali. At that time, Ali was in Jamaica supposedly building a recording studio out there, or at least trying to (laughter). Ali said to Duncan “why don’t you come over, spend some time here, and I will record an album with you”. So, I demoed the song, gave it to Duncan and said “here’s a track for you, see what Ali thinks” so Duncan took it with him and guess what, Ali didn’t like it (laughter). Apparently, Ali listened to the track and said “no, you don’t want to use that” so it never got used (laughter). I have always harboured a bit of a grudge, as I have always thought that we should have used that tune, it’s a good song.

I actually wrote it in the style of Gregory Isaacs. If you combine The Border and Night Nurse, you pretty much get the backing for You Haven’t Called. It is very much in the style of Gregory which is what I wanted it to be as Duncan is a massive Gregory Issacs fan. So, that was the idea but unfortunately, the song never got used and here we are some twenty-five years later, and I’m thinking ‘I could resurrect that’ (laughter). So, I took it to the band, and what you have to remember is that most of them had never heard it. What can I say, they loved it. So that was it, it finally got used. Even though it is a 90s tune, it is a 00s band backing track because we obviously totally re-did the demo and completely re-did the vocals. All of the original work was done back in the 90s and it is based on a bunch of 80s tunes really.

For a minute then you made me go cold because when you mentioned Night Nurse I automatically thought of a certain Mr Mick Hucknall (laughter).

Oh dear (laughter). Unfortunately, a lot of people do. It’s the association isn’t it simply because he did the version that was successful.

You and I have spoken before and I have never asked you this. When the previous lead singer left the band didn’t you fancy stepping forward and taking over the mantle?

Not really, no. I have never thought of myself as a lead singer. However, that doesn’t mean that I can’t take a lead vocal. But being the lead singer in a band is a totally different job to what I have always done. I know what I am good at, and I know that I do a supporting role very well. I just think that I can do my job better supporting the lead vocalist. I always knew that Duncan, given the chance, could do it. I mean, what I always wanted was for the three of us to be vocalists in the same band. Right from the beginning I was begging Duncan to be in the band, but he just thought that nothing would ever come of it, plus the fact that he had other things on his mind. He went off and did his own thing.

He will never admit it, but he regretted that decision for over thirty years (laughter). He was delighted when he finally got the chance. How many people get the chance to join the band that they originally turned down thirty years ago (laughter). To Duncan it was a bit like winning the lottery; he really was delighted. I was totally confident in the knowledge that he would be able to do the job. So, in my usual long-winded approach to replying to a question, I have never wanted to be the guy who has the spotlight on him all the time.

I last saw you here in Nottingham at the Royal Concert Hall on 13th May which seems a hell of a long time ago now, but I really did have a great time.

That’s brilliant, thank you. I’m so pleased that you enjoyed the show. And for us to play the Royal Concert Hall just proves that we are moving in the right direction.

This year has seen you celebrating your fortieth year in the business. Can you believe that it really has been forty years?

(Laughter) I must be honest with you and say no, not really. Forty years is a lifetime isn’t it (laughter).

When you originally formed the band, how long were you expecting it to last?

We were always serious, and we always saw it as a profession, simply because our father was a professional musician. If we were going to do it, we were always going to take it seriously and we intended to do it as a job. What you must remember is that the pop business is a fickle business isn’t it (laughter). If you got ten years out of a band you were normally delighted. Most bands only ever get either three years or five years success, and then call it a day, simply because they stop getting played on the radio and it dies rather quickly for most bands because of the nature of the business. For a short time, you are flavour of the month; you are fashionable, which is why we have always steadfastly refused to be fashionable because we wanted longevity.

However, if you had asked us in our twenties what longevity meant we would have probably said ten years. Who the hell thinks that they are going to be doing the same job for forty years and here we are now hoping that we are going to be doing it for fifty years (laughter). Nobody imagines that. I’m sure that The Rolling Stones never believed that they would still be doing it in their bloody seventies (laughter). The longer that it has gone on the more I pinch myself and wonder if it could possibly keep going. The only thing that really seems to slow us up is illness. On the British tour I lost my voice when I picked up a virus. My voice just disappeared and there was absolutely nothing that I could do about it.

It meant that we ended up pulling a few shows until I got my voice back and then we put those back into the tour schedule. Obviously, Brian’s illness has slowed him up a bit, not as much as I would have wanted it to, which has meant that he has been unable to be with us out on the road (laughter). But other than illness, or worse, I can’t imagine what is going to stop us because we are loving it again.

UB40 were one of the leaders of fan funding. Did the recent collapse of PledgeMusic hit you hard?

Oh yes, in the same way as it hit everyone else. We personally had to get copies of the album and mail them out to everybody who hadn’t received them. Take it from me, there were quite a few and we never saw any money. They folded and we tried our very best to honour all the pledges, and as far as I knew we had managed to do all of them, but I am not surprised that a few of them have fallen through the net. It really was a difficult time for us. We were saying to people “if you have pledged then do please let us know” and we got a list from PledgeMusic as well. We personally sent those albums out, and we have never received the money from Pledge.

What caused the collapse; did they simply overstretch themselves?

As much as I know about it, and from what I have gathered, they most definitely overstretched themselves. The American leg of the company built bloody great big offices, they expanded much too quickly and spent money that they didn’t have. In fact, they most probably spent our money building a big, posh office block.

It’s a shame because the business model, in theory, does work. It makes the fans feel so much closer and almost a part of what it is that the band are doing at that moment in time.

I totally agree with you. In theory the business model does work, although it has now been superseded by bigger and better business models. It is a great way of getting your music out to your fans. When Pledge was working, I have to say that it was brilliant. People had all sorts of success and people had hit albums. In fact I think that Status Quo had a number one album with Pledge, Robbie Williams did it, lots of artists were doing it; it had become an accepted way of getting your music out there. It was working so well, so much so that we didn’t even think that we were taking a risk at the time. But there you go, it just shows how little I know (laughter).

What can you remember about your first appearance on Top Of The Pops?

That was with Food For Thought and I can remember it quite well. In fact, it is still on YouTube (laughter). We really did feel as though we had arrived after that as far as we were concerned. It all happened so quickly, what with Chrissie (Hinde) discovering us and us having a hit single by the end of the tour, and then all of a sudden, we were requested to appear on Top Of The Pops. It really was a ‘oh my god, can this really be happening’ moment. We really had arrived. We were this gang who had basically taken our social circle out on the road, and whoever wasn’t in the band was a roadie (laughter).

It was an adventure; it was the beginning of the great adventure. Everybody religiously watched Top Of The Pops every week when we were kids, so for us to actually be on there, we knew that the country was watching us. If you ever watch it on YouTube you will see that we can’t get the smiles off our faces (laughter). We are just beaming at each other singing this totally miserable song, all about the hypocrisy of Christmas and starvation, and we have got big grins on our faces which is what our gigs have always been about really (laughter). It really doesn’t matter what we are singing about; when it come to performing, it’s all about having a party. It’s about enjoying yourself and dancing.

What was the first record that you bought?

Oh my word (laughter). I haven’t got a clue. I have bought so many that I simply couldn’t tell you. When I was a teenager I used to buy a single every week, without fail I would get myself off to the shops and I would buy a single every week. But, oh man, the first one I couldn’t possibly tell you (laughter). What I will say is that it would most probably have been a Prince Buster single or something like that. Having said that it could easily have been a Beatles single or a Motown record or an Otis Redding record; I was listening to a lot of different stuff back in the 60s. I was listening to a hell of a lot of different stuff before I fell in love with Reggae. So, let’s turn this around and ask you what the first record was that you bought (laughter).

That’s easy; it was Down The Dustpipe by Status Quo (laughter).

Bloody hell (laughter). I have got that album believe it or not. There you go, my interests were so varied. I have never bought a Quo record since, but I really did love that tune, Down The Dustpipe when I was a teenager and because of that I bought the album which, as soon as I got it home, I regretted (laughter). Quo have never been my taste at all, but I really did love that single and I’ve got the album because if it (laughter). You are honoured because I don’t tell many people that (laughter).

Who did you first see performing live?

Oh blimey, I can see why you save these questions until the end of the interview. For me, these really are impossible questions for me to answer because my dad was a performer, and so obviously as a kid I saw my dad live. Also, he ran the biggest Folk club in Europe during the 60s and many different artists, even American artists such as Paul Simon played at my dad’s club. All sorts of people including Joni Mitchell played there and I saw them all as a kid. One of the first concerts that I went to was to see a man called Ramblin’ Jack Elliott who was an American cowboy, who sang country folk and who stayed at our house (laughter). And believe it or not, during his show he dedicated a song to us.

We were all sitting up in the balcony, he came on stage and he said in a cowboy drawl, “I would like to dedicate this song to the Campbell boys” (laughter). I think that at that time Ali and Duncan were four and five years old, so I would have been around eight years old at the time. That is quite possibly the first concert that I saw, but I honestly couldn’t tell you because I have just grown up in and around music. I found myself surrounded by different types of artists all my life.

When I asked Jimmy the same question he came back with “well I saw Bob Marley at the local Odeon”. Just how do you beat that (laughter).

Yes, I know because I took him (laughter). I even bought his ticket.

I bet he still owes you for it.

Of course he does (laughter). At that time, I was the only one working you see. They were all babies. It was back in 1976 at the Birmingham Odeon. I took around eight people to the gig, one of whom was my little brother Ali. Jimmy was there, I think that Earl (Falconer) went there as well but he went under his own steam, also my girlfriend at the time. There was a whole bunch of us who went. But as I have said, that certainly wasn’t my first concert.

Having said that, I must tell you that was the concert which was the catalyst; it really made us form UB40. We all came out of that place on a cloud saying, “we have got to do that for a living, come on, let’s form a band, let’s stop talking about it, let’s do it”. It still took us a further two years for us to do it seriously. But yes, that was kind of the catalyst for the band, Bob Marley in 1976 at the Birmingham Odeon.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

Oh my god, you really do ask some deep questions. I simply can’t think which is ridiculous because I am a total softie and music can bring tears to my eyes very easily. God, I really can’t remember because I get very emotional about music anyway.

That’s what music is all about; it’s to bring all those emotions to the surface.

Yes, it is, it really is emotional communication, that’s what it is, absolutely. And if it gets you to cry then it is doing its job. Lyrics of ours have brought tears to my eyes. I have listened to one of our songs that I haven’t heard for a while and have been just chocked up. I have often thought, ‘oh my god did we really write that’ (laughter). Stevie Wonder’s lyrics have brought tears to my eyes, for me lyrics tend to do it in combination with the music. For me, Guns In The Ghetto is a really sad lyric that chokes me up every time that I hear it, which just so happens to be one of ours. Many other artists have also been able to do that to me.

Whether it is Sam Cooke singing A Change Is Gonna Come, or Otis Redding, he always manages to choke me up. Especially when I am listening to Otis and suddenly, I realise just how young he was when he died and just how short a time that we had him for. The thought of listening to Otis can choke me up because I loved him so much. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it still feels like that whenever I listen to him.

I have to come clean and tell you that (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay does it for me every time.

Well there you go. I like Try A Little Tenderness; that gets to me whenever I hear it.

On that note Robin let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been absolutely fantastic plus it’s been a short one for you this time, only thirty-nine minutes (laughter).

(Laughter) thanks Kevin; it’s been great as usual, if a little shorter (laughter). You take care and I will see you in Brum mate.