About UB40 – the history of Ali & Astro.
About UB40 – the history of Ali & Astro.
About UB40 – the history of Ali, Astro & Mickey.
Fuelled by the classic reggae spirit that powered UB40’s original incarnation to worldwide success, the contemporary band fronted by founding members Ali Campbell and Astro are now planning their next move. As the most authentic expression of the Birmingham band’s original aims, Ali and Astro continue to curate and build on a legacy that dates back over four decades to the group’s formative days, and the coming year will see the release of a new studio album and a major tour. Despite seeing their plans for 2020 thwarted by a global pandemic, they are now primed to make the most of the momentum that saw their last tour visit the world’s biggest venues and their last album, 2018’s A Real Labour Of Love, narrowly miss out on topping the UK charts.
‘For me, it’s all about advancing reggae,’ says Ali. ‘I love all kinds of music, but we’ve always promoted reggae. When we were a new band in 1979, reggae was the youngest major genre in the world. It had only been around for ten years, as it was only during the late Sixties that it evolved from ska and rock steady. So we’ve been on a reggae journey for most of the genre’s life. It’s a style that keeps on changing, too. It’s now being mixed with hip-hop, and its influence on dance music is huge. We’re blessed in that we still get a really mixed crowd. Teenagers might be into grime, rock and pop, but they still love reggae. We played at Boomtown Fair in August 2019 and the crowd we attracted was full of fans aged between 15 and 35. It must have been the youngest large gathering we’ve ever played to.’
The combination of Ali and Astro is key to the band’s wide appeal. Ali left the original line-up in 2008 citing business management and financial issues and was vindicated when said managers were struck off, with Astro following suit to join up with him again in 2013. Initially working alongside original UB40 keyboardist Mickey Virtue – who departed Ali and Astro’s set-up amicably after A Real Labour Of Love – the pair set about recreating their familiar magic while weaving fresh musical patterns. The duo augment one another superbly, with Ali’s smooth, melodic voice – which Astro describes as being ‘like a fine wine’ – a contrast to his partner’s ‘sing-jay’ style. Says Ali: ‘Astro was under used in UB40’s early days. He provided the lead on a few songs, like Rat In Mi Kitchen, but was also overlooked despite the fact that the public loved him. Since he came over to my fold, it’s been great all the way. He took the lead on six of the 16 tracks on A Real Labour Of Love and he’ll feature heavily on our new stuff. He’s incredibly versatile.’ For his part, Astro is delighted to be an integral part of a confident, forward-looking band. ‘From the day I went back into the studio with Ali in 2014, the years rolled away and we’ve had a blast,’ he says. ‘When I started performing I was a traditional reggae MC, but my style developed because I love a good melody. I became a sing-jay as opposed to a DJ.’
Backed by a seven-piece band, UB40 with Ali and Astro have become a formidable touring outfit. The Real Labour Of Love tour in 2019 visited Australia, New Zealand, Europe and America and even stopped off for a show on Rarotonga, an island in the South Pacific. The start of 2020 had been busy, too. With this year marking the 40th anniversary of UB40’s debut single King / Food For Thought and the band’s debut album Signing Off, the band played gigs in Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rica before the entire live circuit ground to a halt in spring. ‘Before the lockdown, we’d been firing on all cylinders,’ says Ali.
They’ve been active during the enforced hiatus, though. As well as writing songs for their forthcoming album, Ali and Astro reassembled the touring band remotely to record a lockdown single, a poignant cover of the late Bill Withers’ Lean On Me, in aid of NHS Charities Together. The release was accompanied by a socially distanced home video that featured guests Suggs, Jools Holland, Sir Cliff Richard, Shaun and Bez of the Happy Mondays, Kurupt FM, Lynval Golding of the Specials, Big Narstie, Frank Benbini of Fun Lovin’ Criminals, Phil Daniels, Scarlett Moffatt, Mo Gilligan and a cast of key workers. ‘The cover of Lean On Me was my wife Julie’s idea,’ says Ali. ‘I loved his music and I was so upset when I heard he’d passed away in March. I grew up listening to his second album, Still Bill, and it was easy to cover Lean On Me because I’ve been singing that song all my life. But my all-time favourite Bill Withers track is Grandma’s Hands from his first album Just As I Am. We made the Lean On Me single in five days, with Ric Levy mixing everything and adding the strings.’
The experience of lockdown is certain to have some impact on Ali and Astro’s new music, too. Reflecting the unusual times we’re living though, the band want to call the album Unprecedented, though Ali admits that writing in quarantine hasn’t been easy. ‘People say coming up with songs during lockdown must be a breeze, but it’s not ideal for uplifting reggae songs. But we’re happy with what we’ve got so far. It sounds like UB40, as I wrote all the melodies in the original band, but it’s also fresh and modern.’
Unprecedented will add another chapter to a story that began in the Birmingham suburb of Moseley in 1979 when UB40, taking their name from the form given to individuals claiming unemployment benefit, started putting an indigenous British slant on Jamaican reggae. After reaching number four in the charts with King / Food For Thought, the multi-racial band released debut album Signing Off in 1980. They went on to sell 70 million records and topped the UK singles chart on three occasions – with Red Red Wine in 1983; I Got You Babe (a duet between Ali and Pretenders singer and long-standing UB40 champion Chrissie Hynde) in 1985; and (I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You in 1993. Two of those hits, Red Red Wine and (I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You, also went to number one in the USA, while Ali and his brother Robin joined Birmingham singer and toaster Pato Banton to top the UK charts again with Baby Come Back in 1994. Paying homage to the songs that inspired them, UB40 also released three volumes of the Labour Of Love series, covering Jamaican standards such as Eric Donaldson’s Cherry Oh Baby and Lord Creator’s Kingston Town.
For Ali, a new era began when he left the original band 12 years ago. He had already released two successful solo albums in Big Love (1995) and Running Free (2007) and made two more, Flying High (2009) and Great British Songs (2010), before he and Mickey reunited with Astro on 2014’s Silhouette, an album featuring covers of songs by The Beatles, Bob Dylan and others alongside a handful of original tunes. Silhouette was followed by 2016’s UB40 Unplugged – on which Ali, Astro and Mickey performed iconic UB40 tracks acoustically for the first time – and A Real Labour Of Love. Updating the ethos of the original Labour Of Love trilogy, which focussed on songs from the Sixties and early Seventies, A Real Labour Of Love zoomed forwards to the roots-rocking sounds of the late Seventies and the digital reggae and dancehall styles of the Eighties, with the group putting their own spin on Barrington Levy’s Here I Come, Wayne Smith’s Under Me Sleng Teng and hits by Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Culture and Shinehead. ‘The Eighties were such a fertile decade for reggae, and new technology meant the genre was moving forward at an incredible pace,’ says Ali. ‘By 2018, enough time had elapsed for us to investigate that era properly, which is what we did.’ The band’s fans clearly agreed, and the LP was only held off the UK number one spot by the soundtrack to Hollywood blockbuster The Greatest Showman. It was still the highest charting album by any incarnation of UB40 since 1993’s Promises And Lies.
Ali and Astro are now looking forward to getting back on the road in 2021 with a band comprising bassist Colin McNeish, guitarist Winston Delandro, keyboardist Michael Martin, drummer Paul Slowly, backing singer Matt Hoy and a brass section of trumpeter Colin Graham and saxophonist Winston Rose. They will be honouring the memory, too, of trombonist John Johnson, who had been with them for seven years before sadly passing away in 2017. And while a handful of songs from the forthcoming album will feature alongside favourites from the Labour Of Love series, Ali is keen to include older numbers such as King (about the legacy of American Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King) and One In Ten (about unemployment in the UK) that are, unfortunately, as timely today as when they were first sung in 1980 and 1981.
‘We put King back into the set because it’s so bloody appropriate,’ says Ali. ‘We wrote it 40 years ago, but it’s still representative of what’s happening in America. It’s depressing that nothing has changed. It’s the same with One In Ten in the UK. With the impact the coronavirus could have on jobs, we could soon be looking at unemployment figures on a par with the early Eighties. Those songs will feature in a show we’ve been honing for the past 12 years.
‘We’ll always play the classics, like Red Red Wine and (I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You, but we like to change the beginning and end of the show. We’ll play Lean On Me and maybe add three or four new songs. The band members are all fantastic musicians and we’ve climbed back up to the biggest venues in the past 12 years.’
Instantly recognisable as the true voices of UB40, Ali and Astro are raring to go again.
The faces of Ali and Astro throughout the years.