About UB40 – the history of Ali, Astro & Mickey.
About UB40 – the history of Ali, Astro & Mickey.
About UB40 – the history of Ali, Astro & Mickey.
We are UB40 featuring Ali Campbell, Astro and Mickey Virtue, all of us founding members of the original UB40. Ali and Mickey left the band in 2008 and were reunited with Astro when he left too in 2013.
The original line-up of UB40 with Ali, Astro and Mickey enjoyed huge success over a period of 30 years from 1979 until 2008, including number 1 album’s and multiple top 10 gold and platinum selling albums and Grammy nominations, 4 number ones worldwide. Total of 70 million plus sales.
We would not want anyone to confuse Ali, Astro and Mickey’s band with the band that carried on using the name UB40 after 2008 made up of other founding members and new members they tried to replace us with in their attempt to trade off the reflected glory of the success of the original line-up.
Only with Ali Campbell, the legendary voice of UB40, reunited with Astro and Mickey can audiences get to experience the closest thing to the sound of the hugely successful original line-up of UB40 as all the hits are played. They can also get to hear these three founding members’ and UK reggae pioneers’ latest take on the genre.
When vocalist Astro and keyboard player Mickey Virtue rejoined forces with Ali Campbell, the spirit of their old band UB40 was never going to be far from the surface. All three were founding members of the iconic Birmingham reggae troupe who topped the UK singles chart on three occasions and sold 70 million records as they took their smooth yet rootsy musical blend to all corners of the globe.
Having reiterated their credentials as consummate live performers with triumphant gigs this year in places as far flung as Nigeria, South Africa and Papua New Guinea, Ali, Mickey and Astro are now turning their attention to the studio and a new album, Silhouette, that is an inspired mix of freshly-minted new songs and sparkling, reggaefied cover versions of classics by The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Chi-Lites and others.
Silhouette, recorded in London’s legendary RAK Studios, plays unashamedly to the trio’s strengths. Ali’s voice, described by Astro as being ‘like a fine wine’ (red, presumably), remains as strong as ever – rich, melodic and instantly recognisable. With the redoubtable Astro lending strong vocal support and Mickey’s keyboards to the fore in a new band that includes a three-piece horn section, their lithe but potent sound should delight fans old and new.
“Going into the studio with Ali again took me back in time,” says Astro. “We hadn’t recorded together for years. But, once he started singing, the years just rolled away. And, whenever I had my own ideas for a vocal part, I was encouraged to go for it. There was never any hassle, as we’re all having such a blast.”
“Silhouette is like a continuation of the solo albums Ali has made since leaving the old band,” adds Mickey. “Musically, he’s been really consistent. Ali’s genius is the way he can work a set of lyrics around a great melody. Any song he sings could easily be a UB40 tune.”
Among the album’s highlights is the title track and first single Silhouette. A 1957 hit for the American doowop group The Rays, though the yearning take that appears on the album owes more to an early 1970s version by the crown prince of reggae, the late Dennis Brown. “It’s a cracking tune and the reaction when we play it live is phenomenal,” says Astro, who adds vocals to the track. “We’ve always mixed covers and originals. On the first UB40 album, Signing Off, we had one song by Randy Newman (I Think It’s Going To Rain Today) and another made famous by Billie Holiday (Strange Fruit).”
Silhouette also includes an upbeat reggae interpretation of Any Time At All (from The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night album), a cover of Bob Dylan’s enigmatic 1966 single I Want You (a number Ali remembers from his childhood) and an inspired take on The Chi-Lites’ Yes I’m Ready (a song originally on the B-side of the soul standard Have You Seen Her). Says Ali: “Have You Seen Her was a song that meant a lot to me in the 1970s. I used to listen to the seven-inch single on my Dansette record player in the dark. And, in Yes I’m Ready, there was also a great track on the flipside – a song that nobody has really heard of.”
Two other covers that may be less familiar are Sha-La-La, once a harmony hit for The Pioneers, and Jamaican singer Ernie Smith’s Ride On Sammy, a cautionary tale that warns a philandering rude boy to change his ways. There is also the lilting lovers rock of Missing You. It was written by Lionel Richie as a tribute to his departed friend Marvin Gaye, it was a hit for Diana Ross, though Ali is covering the Lee Roy Gibbons version. “Lee Roy misinterpreted it as a love song,” he says. “He assumed that Lionel Richie wrote it about a woman he was missing, but it was actually inspired by his memories of Marvin.”
Amid such originals as the self-explanatory Reggae Music and Cyber Bully Boys, the album contains the poignant Tomorrow On My Shoulder, a previously unpublished track written by Ali’s father, Scottish folk singer Ian Campbell. “It’s a song about parenthood,” says Ali. “My dad gave it to me when I had my first son.”
As original members of UB40, Ali, Mickey and Astro helped to define reggae music for a generation. The multi-racial band, formed in 1979 in the Birmingham suburb of Moseley, pooled a diverse set of influences to put a fresh, indigenous slant on Jamaican reggae. After encouragement from Chrissie Hynde, who offered them support slots with her chart-topping band The Pretenders, they recorded their independently released debut album, Signing Off, on an eight-track tape machine in the home of producer Bob Lamb. An unexpected number two album, it gave them the conviction to chart their own course.
“Chrissie Hynde discovered us,” recalls Ali. “We’d only done a dozen gigs when she saw us at the Rock Garden in London. She was top of the charts at that time, but she took us on tour. We were on the road with The Pretenders when our first single, Food For Thought and King, reached number four in the charts.”
“We owed a lot to the late 1970s ska movement, too,” adds Mickey. “We shirt-tailed the ska movement but we also stood apart from the 2-tone acts: their thing was a mix of punk and ska and ours was a new homegrown strand of reggae.”
UB40 went on to dominate charts around the world, not least with the hugely successful Labour Of Love series. The first Labour Of Love album, in 1983, yielded a cover of Neil Diamond’s Red Red Wine that topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. The band secured two further chart-topping singles at home in (I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You (also another US number one) and I Got You Babe, a duet between Ali and the band’s old friend Chrissie Hynde, and Ali and Robin Campbell also scored a No.1 with Baby Come Back.
When Ali Campbell departed in 2008 after 29 years and a dozen major world tours with the band, he was followed out of UB40 by Mickey Virtue. Campbell, with Mickey lending a helping hand, has since released two solo albums. Astro remained with the band until November 2013, when he left to team up again with Ali and Mickey. Now, following some spectacular gigs at home and abroad, the trio are facing the future with renewed confidence and vigour.
“When we play live now, it feels like a real group,” says Ali. “The musicians in our band have all played with other reggae acts, so they love what we’re doing. And the fact that Astro is back with us after six years speaks volumes about the music we are making.”
“For me, it’s all about promoting reggae. At the end of the day, the fans don’t care about what goes on behind the scenes. They only care about the music, and I’m sure they are going to love this record.”
UB40 FEATURING ALI, ASTRO & MICKEY
‘A REAL LABOUR OF LOVE’
When UB40 embarked on their Labour Of Love series in 1983, they were keen to tell the world about the songs that they grew up with in Birmingham. They dug deep into the reggae and rock steady rhythms of yesteryear and ended up producing three Labour Of Love albums, bringing hits such as Eric Donaldson’s Cherry Oh Baby, Lord Creator’s Kingston Town and Johnny Osbourne’s Come Back Darling to a new, global audience. They also topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic with their reggae cover of Neil Diamond’s Red Red Wine.
By the third Labour Of Love album in 1998, though, the band had revisited almost all of their favourite reggae songs from the Sixties and Seventies. It was time to move on. And now, two decades later, UB40 founder members Ali Campbell, Astro and Mickey Virtue are revitalising the concept by exploring the tunes of a later golden age: on new album A Real Labour Of Love, the group explore the songs that defined reggae in the Eighties. The concept isn’t a rigid one: Stevie Wonder’s A Place In The Sun is a Motown classic from 1966, and there are numbers from the late Seventies in Dennis Brown’s sublime How Could I Leave and Culture’s International Herb. But most of the tracks on A Real Labour Of Love are from the Eighties – a decade that saw dancehall reggae enter the mainstream, the arrival of new digital rhythms like Sleng Teng, and some of singer Gregory Isaacs’ most memorable moments.
‘There was always a chronological element to the Labour Of Love series,’ says Ali. ‘The first three albums featured the songs we grew up listening to. This one is built around the records we were listening to once UB40 were on the road. It’s been 20 years since Labour Of Love III, so it was time for an update. The Eighties were such a fertile decade for reggae, and enough time has now elapsed for us to investigate that era properly. In the Eighties, artists were moving away from the same old backing tracks. They were using technology to create new rhythms. Reggae was moving forward at an incredible pace, but there were also lots of great songs – everybody remembers Here I Come by Barrington Levy.’
‘We used to sing a lot of these on the tour bus,’ adds Astro. ‘We were spending more time in Jamaica, too, and some of these numbers are the ones we’d hear on the radio and out in the streets. The singers of these songs were our heroes. They are quintessential reggae artists.’
A Real Labour Of Love is the third album since vocalist Astro rejoined singer Ali and keyboardist Mickey in 2013. Ali and Mickey had left the original line-up five years previously, following three decades in which the multi-racial band from the Birmingham suburb of Moseley had taken their smooth yet authentic brand of reggae to all corners of the globe, clocking up four number one singles, selling over 70 million records and helping to define reggae for a generation. The reintegration of the redoubtable Astro consolidated the line-up of a band built around Ali’s richly melodic voice – the voice of UB40. Having reintroduced themselves with 2014’s Silhouette, a mix of sparkling new songs and reggae covers of songs by The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Chi-Lites, the band went on to release 2016’s UB40 Unplugged, breathing new life into timeless covers and classic UB40 originals by reinterpreting them in a stripped-back, acoustic style.
The new album builds confidently on the momentum gathered in the past five years, with Ali’s instantly recognisable voice augmented by the ‘sing-jay’ vocal style of Astro. The latter takes the lead on six of the album’s 16 tracks, placing the two singers at the helm of an 11-piece band, most of whom have been on the road with Ali in some capacity for ten years. Sadly, A Real Labour Of Love also marks the passing of long-serving trombonist John Johnson. A former member of Simply Red who joined forces with Ali seven years ago, John played on the album but passed away the night before the rest of the group were due to play a benefit concert to raise money for his cancer treatment. The album is dedicated to him.
Produced by Ali and recorded in two London studios, Dean Street and RAK, the new record – which features a striking sleeve illustration by artist Mark T. Smith – arrives in an era when reggae-inspired hits are exerting huge sway in the pop world, with Katy Perry’s Chained To The Rhythm, Clean Bandit’s Rockabye, Rihanna and Drake’s Work and Sia’s Cheap Thrills all displaying significant reggae undertones.
Among the album’s highlights are heartfelt tributes to two of Jamaica’s greatest singers, both sadly no longer with us. Dennis Brown’s How Could I Leave was a hit for the Crown Prince of reggae in 1977, and there are two tracks from Gregory Isaacs’ exquisite 1981 album More Gregory, Once Ago and Hush Darling.
Astro’s vocals are prominent on two of the album’s most adventurous song choices – Barrington Levy’s 1984 hit Here I Come and Wayne Smith’s Under Me Sleng Teng, a track widely recognised as the starting point of reggae’s digital age when it arrived the following year. ‘Those two were tricky choices,’ admits Ali. ‘Reggae experts warned us off doing them, as our versions would be instantly compared with the originals. But we didn’t want to back off, and Astro was brave enough to tackle them both in his own way.’
The influence of American hip-hop on reggae in the Eighties is also acknowledged. Bronx-raised singer and toaster Shinehead played with UB40 on their first visit to New York, and he is represented by his single Strive, a huge hit in Jamaica in 1989, while female singer J.C. Lodge’s Telephone Love became one of the first dancehall numbers to top the R&B chart in New York City in 1988.
Ali, Astro and Mickey are also proud of influences from closer to home, and they acknowledge the importance of British reggae by tackling London singer Barry Boom’s Making Love, Pablo Gad’s Hard Times – a 1980 single sampled by The Prodigy on their single Fire – and Webby Jay’s In The Rain. ‘It was important to include British as well as Jamaican music,’ says Astro. ‘When we started out, we wanted to put our own slant on Jamaican reggae and create our own hybrid sound, but we used to sing a lot of British reggae songs on the tour bus.’
The group are now looking forward to taking the new album on the road, with UK festival appearances lined up for the summer and a UK arena tour in the pipeline for 2019. Given the massive success of the trio’s last Labour Of Love outing, a 2016 tour that featured sold-out shows at the O2 Arena in London and the Barclaycard Arena in Birmingham, there is bound to be a huge appetite for A Real Labour Of Love. ‘The reaction to that tour was fantastic, and every show was a sell-out,’ says Ali. ‘Now we’re ready to do it all again. We knew most of these songs back to front before we began recording A Real Labour Of Love, so the challenge was to make them our own rather than copying the originals.’
A REAL LABOUR OF LOVE: TRACK-BY-TRACK
Originally released in 1989 by London singer and producer Barry Boom. ‘We wanted to include British as well as Jamaican reggae, and Barry Boom is a fabulous singer,’ says Ali.
SHE LOVES ME NOW
Written by guitarist Willie Lindo and sung in 1986 by Beres Hammond, a vocalist who is still making music today. ‘He is a hero of ours, and She Loves Me Now has a brilliant backing track.’
A 1989 dancehall hit for British-born, Brooklyn-raised singer and toaster Shinehead. ‘We spent a lot of time in Jamaica in the Eighties, and this song was everywhere,’ says Ali. ‘Every man, woman and child reacted if it came on the radio. They related to the lyrics as well as the tune.’
HERE I COME
A UK hit for Jamaican dancehall star Barrington Levy in 1984. ‘This was one of the trickier choices,’ says Ali. ‘It’s a song that’s still being listened to by younger kids, skateboard kids. But Astro was brave enough to take it on and do it his own way.’
TELEPHONE LOVE / RUMOURS
Originally by London singer JC Lodge, the 1988 dancehall track Telephone Love crossed over into the R&B and hip-hop charts in the States. ‘It was such a big smash and it dominated the airwaves for months,’ says Astro. ‘You heard it at every dance or shebeen that summer.’
HOW COULD I LEAVE
A 1977 classic from the Crown Prince of reggae Dennis Brown. ‘It’s a standard because of the hook,’ says Ali. It’s a real ear-worm, a bit like Johnny Cash’s Ring Of Fire.’
Written by Thom Bell, one of the creators of the Philadelphia soul sound, Ebony Eyes was sung by The Stylistics in 1971 and covered by reggae-soul act The Chosen Few the following year. ‘I was drawn to the song because of the bassline,’ says Ali.
HUSH DARLING & ONCE AGO
Two classics from reggae’s cool ruler Gregory Isaacs, both from 1981’s More Gregory. ‘That was such a great album, from the time when Gregory was working with Sly & Robbie and the Roots Radics backing band,’ says Ali.
‘Pablo Gad is a British reggae star, and 1980’s Hard Times is a song we used to sing on the tour bus.’ says Astro. ‘When we were choosing the tracks, we focussed on the Eighties and that allowed us to pick our favourite songs from that era.’
A number from the pre-reggae era that is still popular today, Moving Away was sung by Ken Boothe, the singer once promoted as Mr. Rock Steady. ‘Ken has the ability to take any number and turn it into a love song,’ says Ali.
Written by the late reggae legend Joseph Hill, International Herb was the title track on the seminal vocal group Culture’s 1979 album for Virgin’s pioneering Front Line label.
A PLACE IN THE SUN
Stevie Wonder’s 1966 soul hit is something of an oddity on an album of reggae covers, but it made the final cut as a personal favourite of Ali’s. ‘I love Stevie Wonder, and this was one of his first social commentary songs,’ he says. ‘And it was nice to have one song that wasn’t a reggae classic.’
An Eighties hit for dancehall star Cocoa Tea, and a personal choice of Astro’s. ‘It’s one of my favourites, and I hope I do it justice,’ he says. ‘It transports me back to one of the first times I went to Jamaica. I remember seeing Gregory Isaacs and Freddie MacGregor, and Cocoa Tea was everywhere.’
IN THE RAIN
A single for Webby Jay in 1979 and another British reggae standard. ‘It was originally done by Keith Hudson, but we looked to Webby Jay’s version,’ says Ali. ‘British reggae had it’s own distinct identity, a very clean sound characterised by the production work of Dennis Bovell.
UNDER ME SLENG TENG
Driven by a Casio keyboard rhythm, Wayne Smith’s 1985 hit Under Mi Sleng Teng was the song that ushered in reggae’s digital age. ‘Another one we used to sing on the tour bus,’ says Astro. ‘I wanted to update the original rather than simply copy it.’
Official website: http://ub40.org
The faces of Ali, Astro and Mickey throughout the years.