UB40 formed out of Birmingham, UK in 1979 when front-man Ali Campbell started the band. They fell in love early with a new genre of music referred to as Reggae that was only but a decade old at the time. They found joy in exploring the genre while taking classic hits and giving them a reggae make-over. They reached legendary status with multiple Grammy nominations, millions of records sold, and topping charts worldwide with smash hits such as “Food For Thought” and their cover of Neil Diamond’s “Red Red Wine.” They found success doing this with what would become their Labour of Love records that were released in the 80’s and 90’s.
This past March, they returned to the Labour of Love series that made them popular by releasing A Real Labour of Love via Universal Music Group. It’s a 16-track album under the signature voice of Ali Campbell & the sing-jay style of Astro backed by an 11-piece band. It is already the highest charting UB40 album in 25 years and spent 12 weeks in Amazon’s best sellers charts along with a 66% increase in streaming traffic.
We were able to talk with Ali over the phone to discuss this new record which segued into us talking about Beres Hammond, American reggae, his collaboration with Slightly Stoopid to his thoughts on Rihanna putting out a reggae album. UB40 will be back in the states at the end of July promoting the new album and it was discovered after this interview that they will be performing at Slightly Stoopid’s Closer To The Sun vacation destination in Mexico at the end of the year. You can find additional links and tour dates below — Enjoy the interview.
Interview: Ali Campbell of UB40
The Pier: I want to jump right into A Real Labour of Love! When Did the concept for it start? How & when did it take on a focus of primarily 80’s reggae songs?
Ali: Well we did the 3 Labour of Love records back in the 80’s and 90’s and they were so successful; they sold 21 million. I think that’s a big reason why we were always bringing it up to do another one. We just thought the timing was right. 20 years had gone by and we thought, lets do another Labour of Love! But we didn’t want people to get confused and think it was a re-release, so we called it A Real Labour of Love. We did tracks from 80’s — I mean the 80’s was a very special time for reggae because around the mid 80’s is when reggae went digital. So it was quite easy to pass digital reggae tracks on to the album.
The Pier: And you have a big album at 16 songs but at the same time, there are so many great songs to explore from the 80’s. How fun was it choosing the songs for production?
Ali: It was just easy, you know? With Labour of Love it’s always been a breeze and a real joy to compile because they’re songs we love to sing to. We’re just playing our favorite songs and it’s just a joy to do. When people ask if I get sick of singing songs like “Red Red Wine” I always tell them, No, because you have to remember we covered them in the first place because we loved them. We never get sick of playing them. It’s a joy to go into the studio and it’s no stress, really.
The Pier: There are so many great songs from the 80’s and you settled on 16 tracks. Were there any songs that were recorded that maybe didn’t make the album cut?
Ali: Not really. When we decided we were going to do it we were on the road and just complied a list. We went: “Okay, we’ve done 60’s & 70’s, lets do the 80’s.” It was a joy! We aren’t reggae fans, we are fanatics! We know most of the tracks from all of the decades, so we could probably do a volume 2 and volume 3 of A Real Labour of Love. It’d be quite easy with so many great songs to choose from.
The Pier: Was there any particular song that stood out that brought you the most joy or intimidated you the most when it came to recording or performing?
Ali: I think the most frightening song, the one that intimidated me the most, was “She Loves Me Now” by Beres Hammond. I mean you couldn’t really do anything from the 80’s without including Beres. He owned reggae music in Jamaica and England as far as I’m concerned. He’s absolutely fucking brilliant and for me to have to cover him is very daunting, but it’s what I do so I just go for it.
The Pier: Another thing I take away from the Labour Of Love series has been the unique cover-art. With this new one, you guys sought out American contemporary artist Mark T. Smith to commission the cover-art. What direction was he given, if any and how does the cover reflect that of the album?
Ali: Well we wanted it to be an artsy cover because that’s what we do with our covers. We’re not really into concept covers. Back in the day we use to get artists straight out of college and we’d buy up their Art Exhibits and re-use them for the album covers and for other album media. We thought we’d go out and try to do the same kind of thing with Mark. We saw pictures by him and we loved them. We sent him a tracklist, he did it to order and we love it! I think it’s a lovely piece of art and it looks great on our t-shirts and stuff. I wanted it to look and feel like a Labour of Love album, just more contemporary I suppose.
The Pier: So with A Real Labour of Love, you’re paying tribute to hit reggae songs from the 80’s. What are you listening to now that you would consider A Real Labour of Love song for a Vol. 2 or Vol. 3? Who’s topping your own personal charts today?
Ali: At the moment, I’m listening to Raging Fyah; a young band from Jamaica. Same with Protoje and Chronixx. We been pushing Raging Fyah for the last 4 years, playing with us in England and in America. We promote them because they’re a young band with conscious lyrics, and they’re playing roots rock reggae, and so is Chronixx and Protoje. We’re finally getting away from the gangster music, like Vybez Cartel, which I’m pleased that we’re seeing the end of that. It’s a return to conscious lyrics, the roots rock reggae and we love that!
The Pier: Slightly Stoopid has announced their new record and we were surprised to see your name listed on there as a guest feature to the cover of Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It”…
Ali: Right, yeah I started doing that, originally, with Fun Loving Criminals. Then they went to the states and got Slightly Stoopid involved. But I’ve also done a couple of other tracks with Slightly Stoopid. Then there’s this other project album we’re doing with SOJA, Rebelution, Slightly Stoopid and all those bands… We’re flirting with the American reggae movement. [Haha]
The Pier: When we spoke in 2016, you were in talks with collaborating on songs with bands like Stoopid, Rebelution & SOJA on a west coast project album you referred to as Summer of Dub. You mentioned how it’s a collection of 14 tracks you and Astro had mixed years prior — Is this still a project you’re exploring to release?
Ali: It’s still going ahead; it’s just taking more time. Everyone is busy with their own stuff. Obviously, we just released our album so that doesn’t leave us much time to experiment. But we’re in touch with all of those guys still. Like we did “Legalize It” and I did a version of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” with Slightly Stoopid. They also put a song together, which I think is Kyle McDonald singing with some great backing tracks, but yeah, those are songs that are still in the works. Hopefully we’re doing a Reggae Time Version and a version in England with up and coming English reggae artists as well.
The Pier: How would you describe the cover of “Legalize It” with Slightly Stoopid? I understand it’s more of a modern day take on the Peter Tosh song?
Ali: Yeah, it’s metamorphosed into another thing, now. It started up with me and the Fun Loving Criminals and it was very much a reggae track. Now Stoopid has put a new bass on it and turned it around. It’s kind of interesting, I like it. I did a version of “Legalize It” on one of the Labour of Love albums before, so I was quite happy to do an experimental vibe with the guys. I like Slightly Stoopid. I like where they’re coming from and I like their attitudes.
The Pier: That sounds great – we’d love to hear the song performed live!
Ali: Oh yeah, I’d love to. Lets do it!
The Pier: Oh we’re excited to hear all of it, especially live. Incredible to think you’ve been releasing music for almost 40 years while experiencing your best charting in 25 years with A Real Labour of Love. How do you explain it?
Ali: There’s no secret to it. What happened was, when we chose our musical genre, what we chose was reggae. Like you said, that was in 1979 when I started UB40. Reggae was only 11 years old. Reggae only came about around the back end of 1968. Before that it was rocksteady and before that it was ska. We weren’t old enough to enjoy those, originally. So really, the reason we’re still here and still selling out big is because reggae is still cool! Reggae hasn’t outlived its own cool. If you look around the world, all of the contemporary dance music they listen to is all based on reggae. In America, the American pop singer is very influenced by reggae; Pharrel Williams, Katy Perry, Beyonce and Rihanna — they’re all playing reggae beats. Reggae is actually more influential now than it has ever been.
The Pier: That is very true! And we saw that Rihanna had announced her plans to release a Reggae album. Have you heard about that?
Ali: No, but she should get me to produce it for her. I think she’s great and very talented.
The Pier: Well thank you again for the time, Ali! We look forward to your visit to the states this July and cant wait to hear your collaborations with Slightly Stoopid. Congrats again on A Real Labour of Love and the continued success of the real UB40!
Watch: UB40 – “She Loves Me Now” (Beres Hammond Cover)