The name comes from a British unemployment form. But for the past 40 years, reggae has kept the members of UB40 gainfully employed.
For co-lead singer Terence Wilson, better known as Astro, reggae music and its predecessors have been the soundtrack of his life.
“Because of where we came from in Birmingham (England), there’s a high West Indian population, and my parents were part of that population, so the music they had with them was rock steady and ska music,” Astro said recently by phone from a tour stop in Toronto. “So even as youngsters, we’d sneak out and go and listen to music coming from people’s houses, because there weren’t any outlets for reggae music or that music in general.”
The house parties were marathons, starting on a Friday night and continuing until Monday morning. “So we used to sneak out and go to those houses while our parents thought we were asleep,” Astro says. “You got caught, and you’d have to put up with the consequences. But for the music that we were hearing, it was totally worth it.”
He quickly progressed from listening to the music to wanting to play it, hanging out with guys in local bands, going to shows, eventually joining UB40 in 1980. The band had started in ‘79 with the Campbell brothers, Ali on lead vocals and guitar, with brother Robin on lead guitar, bassist Earl Falconer, saxophonist Brian Travers, drummer Jimmy Brown and percussionist Norman Hassan, adding keyboardist Micky Virtue and Astro in 1980.
The band scored a huge hit with their ’83 version of Neil Diamond’s “Red Red Wine,” with their syncopated reggae version allegedly affecting the way Diamond performed the song in concert after their treatment hit. The band also hit the top 100 with their ’93 arrangement of “I Can’t Help Falling In Love,” a hit for Elvis in ’62, and hit the top of the charts once again covering Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” in ’85 with Chrissie Hynde on lead vocals.
But their output wasn’t just pop covers. Their first release, “King,” from 1980’s “Signing Off,” was a protest song, about the labors of Martin Luther King:
“You had a dream of a promised land / People of all nations walking hand in hand / But they’re not ready to accept / That dream situation, yet ... / Tried in vain to show them how / And for that you died.”
Also in 1980, they covered “Strange Fruit,” the song made popular by Billie Holiday in 1939 as a protest against lynchings. Astro says they never set out to be a protest band.
“It was all of us, how we are, most of us were politically driven anyway,” the singer says. “We just thought to ourselves, ‘If you’ve got a public platform, it makes more sense to sing about something worthwhile.’ So we thought if we get into these social issues that everybody can relate to, and you can give your own account of your convictions, people can’t really trip you up.”
But as things turned out, it wasn’t social issues that tripped up the band, but management woes. Ali Campbell left the band in ’08, followed by keyboardist Virtue, then Astro left in ’13. The three reunited in ’13 as UB40 featuring Ali Campbell and Astro, and the other members, including younger brother Duncan who took over lead singer duties, continue to tour as UB40.
Its caused some confusion and created some acrimony among fans. “It’s kind of embarrassing now that the others are being fronted by three people who were never in the band,” Astro says. “And both are touring at the same time, so people need to make their mind up about who they want to see.
“If they want to see the artists, the original singers of the songs they grew up listening to, they need to come and see me and Ali. Or they can go and see some outfit who never had a hit. We’ve had so many complaints about people going to shows thinking it was me and Ali only to find Duncan and were sorely disappointed and left before the end.”
To further confuse the issue, the other band has just released a record, “For the Many,” as UB40. It’s an attempt to compete with the latest UB40 featuring Ali Campbell and Astro release, “A Real Labour of Love,” a continuation of the “Labour of Love” series they started in ’83. It was updated it in ’89, ’98 and 2010, honoring reggae greats by covering their hits.
“That one debuted on the charts at No. 2. So we’re happy about that. The other UB40 that you’re talking about, they released their album and it went to the prime position of I think it was 192,” Astro says. “So I think the fans really voted.”
Despite the infighting, in the end, it’s all about getting the music across.
“The choice is the public’s. We can’t force anybody to come and listen to us,” he says. “But we’re doing fine. We don’t want any massive adulation, just be recognized as somebody who helped pioneer the genre of reggae music.”