WION exclusive: UB40: We are old f*rts now, our kids carry the flag for revolutionary change

WION Web Team
New DelhiWritten By: Pallabi Dey PurkayasthaUpdated: Nov 07, 2021, 01:32 PM IST


Story highlights

In this exclusive interview with WION, Jimmy Brown, drummer and founding member of UB40, who spoke on behalf of his entire gang, explains why nobody gets to boss around B40, busts the myth that Reggae is only for a select few. Read on!

If fame’s money, they would spend it all on issues closest to their bosom. A band born on the streets of Birmingham amid tough times, comprising a bunch of angry, yet, musically inclined young men. Forty-odd years on, it is now safe to say that UB40--founded by Ali Campbell, Jimmy Brown and bassist Earl Falconer, percussionists Yomi Babayemi and Norman Hassan, and then saxophonist Brian Travers and keyboardist Jimmy Lynn, Terence Wilson aka Astro and Robin Campbell--is God in-(multiple)-human-form in the Reggae universe. 

But, when has global recognition, sold-out concerts and music-chart-topping records prevented them from speaking their hearts out? Never. Not once. “They (youth) can see how capitalism is killing the planet and are fighting for radical change,” points out Jimmy Brown—drummer and founding member—in an exclusive interview with WION, when asked about what’s the band fuming over at the moment.

In this interview, Jimmy, who spoke on behalf of his entire gang, talks about a time when they found themselves in the middle of a socio-political upheaval in South Africa, why nobody gets to boss around UB40, and busts the myth that Reggae is only for a select few. 

Unedited excerpts from our conversation with the legendary Reggae band: 

WION: ‘Bigga Baggariddim’ is your 20th album and 40 years of being together, more or less—an extraordinary feat to achieve for a band of your stature. What are your fondest memories from those formative years?

UB40: As you point out, we’ve been doing this a long time. There are many highs and lows over the decades. Too many to recall, really. But our first chart success in the UK with ‘Food for Thought’ was an exciting time for the band. And our first number one record in the USA, playing a sold-out show in Madison Square Gardens at the same time, that really felt like we had made it on a global scale. Touring Polynesia was like touring in paradise with thousands turning up for shows in places like Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti etc. And our experiences in South Africa after Mandela was released and the cultural boycott was dropped, where we still hold the record for the biggest live show ever, 100,000 (people) over 2 nights. We’re very lucky, we’ve lived the dream.

WION: ‘Bigga Baggariddim’ is ‘Baggariddim’ 2.0. What was the thought behind revisiting this 1985 and re-collaborate with the original guest artists from it? Was it pure nostalgia? Or, the need to revisit those bygone years?

UB40: Our plan was to make a triple album. Starting with our last release ‘For the Many’—the ‘dub’ version—then Bigga Baggariddim. So this is the final part of that trilogy. And because it was a collaboration with other artists it was sort of ideal for lockdown because we could just send the backing tracks [from ‘For the Many’] around the world digitally, let the artists do their thing, send them back to us and we mixed the results. We weren’t motivated by nostalgia. Even though there are a couple of veterans on the Album like Inner Circle and Winston Francis, and we have a couple of artists from the original Baggariddim from 1986, but we also have some young contemporary artists from Jamaica Like Blvk H3ro and Leno Banton. Reggae has a timeless quality so the old can travel alongside the new without seeming out of place.

WION: Your long-time guitarist Duncan Campbell recently announced retirement. What does that mean for you as a band, and how has his contribution over the years shaped your music?

UB40: Duncan definitely contributed a lot to UB40. He was a really good live performer, and he contributed two songs to ‘For the Many’ [I’m alright Jack and Poor Fool], but UB40 are a bit like a football team. We can change our striker, like we did when Dunc took over from his brother Ali, and fans might not be happy, but when the new striker scores a few goals they will warm to him. Which is what happened when Dunc first joined the band, but once we had done a few gigs and people could see what a good performer he was people accepted him.

Nobody really ‘shapes’ the UB40 sound. We don’t have a boss or a band leader that controls all the elements of making music. It just organically grows out of the individual contributions of each band member, and that was true for Dunc too. The individual band members are just cogs in a bigger machine called UB40 that has a life of it’s own.

WION: This time you truly went global with your collaborations—with Indian vocalist-producer General Zooz aka Zorawar Shukla and New Zealand-based roots reggae band House of Shem—what prompted you to reach out to these artists? In what ways are this generation’s music different from when you all were just starting out?

UB40: When we did the first Baggariddim back in 1986 we used just local Birmingham artists where we all lived. But this time around, because we had so much international success, and had met some great artists along the way, usually performers that had opened for us on a show, as happened with House of Shem, who we loved so much we became good friends over many decades, we wanted to reflect that and give the record an international flavour. And it was the ideal record for lockdown because on line there are no barriers.

As far as today’s artists are concerned, there isn’t much advice I can give because it’s a different business to the one when we first started. So much of it has been changed by the growth of technology.

WION: Your last album—‘For The Many’ (2019)—was more of a political dialogue, a social commentary. What is the message that you are trying to send out or lesson you are trying to impart through ‘Bigga Baggariddim’?

UB40: For The Many was a UB40 original studio album, so because we are all [to a greater or lesser degree] political that is bound to be reflected in the lyrics. But Bigga Baggariddim isn’t a UB album in the same way. All the lyrical content comes from the individual artists that contributed. They had complete freedom to say what they wanted. Some of the tracks are political, but many aren’t. We didn’t control that, so there is no over-arching message from the record. Just a celebration of the diversity of Reggae music.

The legendary band UB40
WION: The COVID-induced lockdowns around the world meant you couldn’t perform. How does getting back feel after over a year? The fear of the pandemic causing severe harm must be playing at the back of your mind, no?

UB40: It was a real culture shock for us to stay at home. We’re a working band, and have been since we started. In 2019 we did over 100 shows in various places like America, Australia, Europe and the UK. Then suddenly we were forced to give up touring. At first it was ok because we all have families, so spending all our time at home wasn’t such a bad thing, but as we went into the second year we started to get itchy feet. Covid has had a devastating effect on the music business. And it’s still unfolding. Cases in the UK have started to get out of control [again], so it’s hard to see quite where then end will be. If there is an end at all. Time will tell.

WION: In a country like India, where Reggae is not half as popular as, say, Jamaica, how do you still manage to strike a chord with your fans in this part of the world? The 2017 concert was a hit.

UB40: Reggae is international music. Every country has its own reggae culture, some are underground like India, others are mainstream like Polynesia and New Zealand, and Africa loves Reggae too. It’s accessible, inclusive music that can appeal to all generations. And it’s rebel music, too, so it still has appeal for the young, and dub appeals to younger people too. Artists around the world, like the ones we collaborated with for Bigga Baggariddim, will keep the music alive.

WION: Right from the name of the band to the last album you had released, your music reflects the pain of the common man. Looking at the current scenario—from bloodshed to natural calamities—if you could, what would be the first thing you would change in the world with your music?

UB40: I’m not convinced music is really a good vehicle for change. And sometimes music can be an escape from the chaos. There are soothing qualities to music that can help heal wounds, and a UB40 concert, above all else is just a celebration of being alive and being able to dance and sing.

Things feel bad right now, Covid, Trump, and other right-wing crazy men [it’s usually men] are in the ascendency, but it’s always at its worst before things get better. I believe in the youth, who I think have had enough of the rampant inequality and abuse of the planets resources, and have been shut out of wealth while older people protect their accumulated wealth through property ownership. Young people are ‘generation rent’ who pays more in rent than they ever would if they could get a mortgage [which they can’t]. They can see how capitalism is killing the planet and are fighting for radical change. And socialism doesn’t have the same baggage that it has for older people. Young people don’t care about Stalin or McCarthy. They just care about inequality, insecure low-paid work and affordable homes. We are old f*rts now, but our kids carry the flag for revolutionary change that we once carried.

So, the first thing I would do is dump capitalism and re-distribute wealth.