In the week that I Won’t Close My Eyes is released, UB40’s credentials as a reggae band are challenged by NME: what they play isn’t “real” reggae, is it? The band’s Robin Campbell countered: “Of course we’re a reggae band… we’re not from Jamaica but all our influences, the music we listen to, is reggae. And that’s what we set out to play.”
Indeed they aren’t from Jamaica: they’re from Birmingham, but there’s a variety of cultural influences brought to the 8-man outfit from the members’ different heritages. And to get their records to sell, Campbell argues that certain musical compromises had to be made: “They were mixed in a commercial way to sell to people who weren’t into reggae. That’s fair enough, that’s the way you break into the market. It wasn’t reggae as we wanted it to be – if we’d started out playing heavy reggae, we’d have sold the same as everybody else: zilch.”
UB40 emerged in the late 70s, at the time the ska revival was certainly selling: the artists on the 2-Tone label, for example, were regularly placing singles in the Top 10 and a reggae influence was evident on the work of a number of punk and new wave artists at the same time. The early singles Campbell was referring to, all double A-sides, were issued on the Graduate label in 1980. His brother, the band’s singer Ali, said of them “I think a lot of people were put off by our first singles, which were pretty awful.” Robin disagreed, saying “They were still good singles,” and the chart evidence was that the public agreed with him rather than Ali: all three UB40 singles on Graduate made the Top 10. The group had come to national attention shortly before the release of the first of them via a timely ‘Peel Session’ (a set of recordings made at the BBC at the bequest of DJ John Peel for broadcast on his show) and through a tour supporting Pretenders, Chrissie Hynde having spotted them at a gig in a London pub.
The sleeve of their debut album depicted the yellow card the group took their name from, the Unemployment Benefit form number 40, and the title Signing Off was the informal phrase used when someone stopped claiming benefits, having ‘signed on’ to receive them in the first place. If the group name was appropriate given its members were all on the dole before learning their musical craft, then the album title was now suitable given how strong their stock was by the summer of 1980. Their next move was to launch their own record company, DEP International, through which to release their future recordings. I Won’t Close My Eyes was DEP’s third single, but it was UB40’s least successful to date, failing to reach the Top 30.
To be continued…
NEW SINGLES on sale from Feb. 5
ABC Poison Arrow (Neutron NT102)
MADNESS Cardiac Arrest (Stiff BUY140)
UB40 I Won’t Close My Eyes (DEP International 7DEP3)