In most people’s minds, UB40 represent the most easy listening aspect of reggae music. Often derided for being lightweight, they were once a band with a serious edge and strong political bias. It’s sometimes hard to believe they would have once been contemporaries of The Clash and Steel Pulse, but back in the early 80s, they were eight men from Birmingham delivering a serious message. In September 1980, UB40 released their debut album, ‘Signing Off’, a hard-hitting mix of politics and classic style reggae, faultlessly produced by Bob Lamb with Ray ‘Pablo’ Falconer.
Its intense political stance is present from the opening track, ‘Tyler’ (arguably one of the angriest songs the band has written), concerning the mistrial of Gary Tyler, a young black youth sentenced to life in prison – a sentence given after an appeal was made against his original death sentence. Most of UB40’s tougher elements are present in this song: Earl Falconer’s bass line is uncompromising and upfront, Brian Travers’ sax carries weight without losing any soulfulness, Ali Campbell’s vocal performance brings a great amount of passion and Robin Campbell’s rhythm guitar parts are suitably spiky. During the song’s mid section, Jim Brown lays down a marching drum rhythm, while Norman Hassan joins on percussion (in this case, I’m sure it involves milk bottles) while Earl and Robin’s bass and guitar parts incorporate dub reggae elements. If Astro, their second vocalist and sometime trumpet wielding Rastafarian, had a lead part here, all of UB40’s best strengths would have been on show. All in all, ‘Tyler’ is a very impressive opening number.
Also home to equally powerful political messages, ‘Burden of Shame’ is another bitterly angry piece concerning Britain being supportive of colonizing and ‘Little By Little’ carries a heavy handed message of rich versus poor – which was almost certainly a swipe at the then new Tory government helping fill the bellies and pockets of the rich. During this track, Jim Brown’s drum part provides a high point with excellent use of hi-hat and a groove which compliments Earl Falconer’s bass very well. (Interestingly, despite being a reasonable drummer, Brown chose to use drum machines and programming in the studio from 1984 onward, a technique he would favour through the rest of that decade and beyond).
Perhaps the album’s best known track, ‘Food For Thought’ provides a good example of where UB40 stood musically in the early part of their career. Ali Campbell’s vocals are natural sounding and distinctive, but it’s the combination of solid bass playing from Earl Falconer and a memorable sax arrangement by Brian Travers which give it lasting appeal. Once again, it’s a piece with another hard-hitting message; in this case, concerning suffering caused by famine. ‘King’ (released as a double A-side with ‘Food For Thought’) features a heavyweight message about racial equality; musically the piece’s main musical refrain comes from Brian Travers on the sax, but most of its sharper-edged moments come from Mickey Virtue’s staccato keyboard work.
The album’s intense politics are balanced out by some lighter material. During a cover of Randy Newman’s ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’, UB40 reggae chops give the song a new bouce to which it is well suited and Ali’s vocal is one of his best here. ’12 Bar’ has a light and summery feel – influenced by the late sixties reggae and ska released on the Trojan record label – during which Astro lends some vocal assistance, though his delivery is almost incomprehensible.
There are also three instrumentals featured: ‘25%’ hits upon a slow groove by Jim Brown and Earl Falconer but it’s most memorable feature, once again, is the sax playing a simple but effective tune. Likewise, ‘Adella’ focuses on Travers’s sax, but it’s a little gentler than the other instrumentals. The sax has a bit more of an easy listening tone, but if you can listen beyond that, you’ll spot Virtue’s echoing keyboard rhythms adding depth and Falconer’s bass work has a great flow. Lastly, the title cut provides a decent mix of Norman Hassan’s percussion and an almost dub style bass line by Falconer. It’s a fantastic end piece for the album and once you’ve included a unobtrusive keyboard solo by Mickey Virtue, a sax solo by Travers and a guitar solo by Robin Campbell – with an unexpected jazz tone – it becomes a great showcase for each of the musicians.
Original pressings of the LP came with a bonus 12” single (the three songs from which are included on all CD pressings as bonus tracks). One of the tracks, ‘Reefer Madness’, is a fun but otherwise forgettable instrumental. However, the other two tracks are indispensable. A cover of Billie Holliday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ is given a well-structured reggae makeover, while ‘Madam Medusa’ (another original UB40 composition) combines scathing anti-Thatcher lyrics with elements of dub music and features fantastic vocal performances from both Ali and Astro.
A 2010 re-issue of ‘Signing Off’ contains a bonus CD featuring the three tracks from the original bonus 12”, plus 12” versions of ‘The Earth Dies Screaming’, ‘My Way of Thinking’ and ‘Dream A Lie’, all of which were featured on the 1985 compilation ‘The UB40 File’. Also included are the 12” version of ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’ plus previously unavailable BBC sessions recorded for John Peel and Kid Jensen. A bonus DVD features each of the 1980 promotional clips for the singles releases, plus a ‘Top of the Pops’ appearance and the complete ‘Rock Goes To College’ set (both recorded for the BBC and available for the first time as part of a sell-through release).
UB40 followed ‘Signing Off’ the following year with ‘Present Arms’, an album which gained them increased popularity through the angry hit ‘One In Ten’. In many ways, it’s a better album than ‘Signing Off’ since it has a tighter structure – the well-crafted songs aren’t padded out by instrumental numbers (a companion release ‘Present Arms In Dub’ was also issued in 1981, which featured excellent dub reconstructions of the album, which further highlighted UB40 as being a really tight musical unit). For those wishing to check out the band at their most edgy, ‘Present Arms’ is also an essential purchase.
It’s become easy to sneer at UB40. Four years into their career, they took the easy route and recorded an album featuring cover versions of (mostly) old reggae hits. This would make them even more popular, and from that point on, their albums became more commercial. While their albums released during the remainder of the 1980s would occasionally feature songs with social and political messages, there was an increasing focus on feel-good pop-reggae with hummable tunes. Despite these later faults, it needs to be remembered that ‘Signing Off’ is a fantastic debut album, even though couple of the instrumental numbers feel rather like filler material. It is, perhaps, one of the most important debut releases by a British band.
[A 2008 release, ‘Live at The Venue’, recorded a few months before the release of ‘Signing Off’, is also essential listening for fans of UB40’s earliest work]
UPDATE: A message from UB40 drummer Jim Brown written in November 2010 to Real Gone, explaining the change in drum sound:
“OK. Let’s put this one to rest. I know I get some stick for using machines, but it’s a bit like shooting the messenger.
The reason I used machines in the second half of the eighties and onwards was simple. That’s where the music went. Reggae didn’t stop in the seventies. It continued to develop. As studio sequencing developed it was adopted very quickly by Jamaican producers. From the eighties onwards almost everything made in JA was made that way. Classic reggae tunes like John Holt’s Roumers of war, most of the output of crooners like Berris Hammond and all of Stevie and Cleevey’s output [which dominated reggae for years and gave birth to dancehall].
We didn’t stop listening to reggae when we started the band. And we weren’t a nostalgia band just sticking to one era. I was just doing what my heroes were doing. Never felt like cheating because I had to reproduce the sound live, and I’m not a machine. So, in a way, I was making my own life harder having to reproduce a machine style. Every other reggae record used machines, so why shouldn’t we? We were following the development of the music, just like we did in the seventies.”
March 2010/October 2010