It turned a few heads when it was announced that not one, but two different bands called UB40 would be performing Dubai gigs in coming weeks. Naturally, both gig announcements came on the same day, just to confound the confusion.
Having chatted to both bands at length, let us bring you up to speed. UB40 – that world-conquering bunch of previously unemployed Brummies – enjoyed unprecedented success throughout the ’80s, selling a reported 70 million records and notching up more than 20 UK chart hits, ‘I Got You Babe’ among them. The ’90s were less kind and the noughties crueller still, culminating in bitter resentments which saw lead singer Ali Campbell and keyboardist Mickey Virtue quit in 2008, while at least four members of the band reportedly filed for bankruptcy in 2011.
Despite these setbacks, the band soldered, recruiting Ali and guitarist Robin’s older brother Duncan – who’d had no formal association with the band up until that point – on lead vocals. UB40 continued to tour, releasing two albums with the new line-up, while Ali launched a solo career backed by his Dep Band and appeared as a judge on New Zealand's Got Talent.
Then in November 2013 iconic trumpet player Astro suddenly announced he was off too, and shortly afterwards Ali, Mickey and Astro told the press they were ‘reforming’ the band, ‘reclaiming’ the UB40 name. Although for what may be legal reasons it looks like this new outfit may be taking the name UB40 Reunited.
Whether these facts were known to the competing promoters who, seemingly coincidently, booked both different incarnations of UB40 for two totally unrelated gigs just five weeks apart, is unclear. But to help you make your mind whether you’d rather see UB40 fronted by Duncan Campbell at The Big Grill on February 28 (labelled ‘UB41’ for distinguishing purposes below), or UB40 fronted by Ali Campbell at The Irish Village on April 3 (‘UB42’ below), we interviewed they key players from both bands to get their side of the story.
What UB41 says:
Duncan: ‘No one’s more confused than me. As everyone knows Ali left the band six years ago to pursue a solo career. Now just before Christmas Astro left the band and has gone to join him, and they decided to recreate UB40. It’s not a situation that can continue – you can’t have another UB40 in the same way you can’t have another Heinz Beans.’
What UB42 says:
Ali: ‘We are UB40 Reunited. We’re calling it because we’ve just been reunited, Michael and myself with Astro, because the old UB40 broke the camel’s back by releasing a country album [2013’a Getting Over the Storm]. That’s when Astro decided to join our ranks. And we’ve taken the name back to save the legacy of the band.’
What UB41 says:
Duncan: ‘It’s very strange – I can’t imagine why anyone would think they could get away with it. It’s like going back to the wife you divorced six years ago and saying ditch the bloke you’re with now. I’m sorry [Ali] doesn’t appreciate what we’ve been doing with the name, but there’s nothing he can do now. It’s a silly situation and it will be sorted by the men in suits.’
What UB42 says:
Ali: ‘For five years I’ve watched Duncan sing my songs badly, and fair enough I’ve put up with that. For them to put a country album out – as a founding member, the reason for starting the band was to promote reggae, and that was just a slap. And an absolutely awful album to boot.’
Duncan: ‘It’s all a bit unpleasant – Astrid left after six years. Three weeks ago he loved the new album. Now he’s left us because with the promise they can start a new UB40 band. Five years ago Ali said he never wanted to play with a member of UB40 again.’
Astro: ‘Well to be truthful, I should have left earlier. We wanted to promote good music and I don’t understand how they lost the plot so badly. I just couldn’t force myself to stand on the stage and try and pretend this is where I wanted to be. I was left with no option, I felt I had to stand up and leave – and it’s the best move I made in my whole life.’
Duncan: ‘I’ve always been around, I grew up with them all, I’ve always been very, very involved. The drummer was in my class at school, the bass player in the year below. A lot of people don’t know I got onstage with them at the Nelson Mandela concert [at Wembley in 1988], and sung backing vocals on some songs.’
Ali: ‘Duncan never wanted to join the band, he thought it was a bad idea, and he was involved with a folk singing with my father. And he does sing like a folk singer – him singing reggae just doesn’t work. The fans are disappointed – how would you feel if you went to see the Stones and it was Patrick Jagger? What would you think?’
Duncan: ‘[Me and Ali] are not close anymore. We’ve not been close for so long, Ali’s not close to anybody. He’s probably genuinely disappointed with what we’re doing, but he went his way. He always thought it was his baby. He was never a great fan of the band.’
Ali: ‘It was a very acrimonious split and I haven’t spoken to anyone apart from Astro [since].’
Duncan: ‘They were falling out with each other... everybody knew [Ali] was leaving and they put me on the pay role [to replace him]. I rang him up and said “if you don’t want to do it, I will”. He said “I’m not going to stop you”. I did it and he’s never spoken to me since.’
Ali: ‘What I actually said to Duncan when he phoned me very [intoxicated] and told me he’d decided to join the band was “I can’t tell you not to Dunc, but I’m very disappointed.’ What was hilarious is that I used to go to Duncan to talk about my problems with the management, and Duncan said to me “you ought to down tools until they give you the information you’re entitled to...”’ so when I did that, taking his advice, he then jumped in and joined the band.’
Duncan: ‘Incredibly the fans took to me pretty much instantly, being Ali’s brother definitely made it a lot easier to do what I do. I thought it was a job I could only fail at. I like a challenge, but I had no idea how supportive the fans would be.’
Mickey: ‘I think the fans showed the band how they felt with their wallets, which was by staying as far away from the shops as possible.’
Duncan: ‘I went to see Ali’s band here in Birmingham and after the gig he wouldn’t even talk to me. I did quite enjoy the show, but I feel sorry for the band – it’s all a bit strange.’
Ali: ‘No I wouldn’t go and see Duncan destroying my songs. What I’ve seen online, I’m not really impressed.’
Duncan: ‘I hate to get into such things, all I can say is they’re different shows, different bands. For six years he’s just been doing greatest hits – it’s a tribute show. We’re a working band, we have new material which we only hope people enjoy.’
Ali: ‘What is the point in going to see a band that you love the music and the vocals are the wrong person? You’ve got the wrong vocals, and no spirit. You can either come and see the original singing the original hits – or go and see somebody else singing the hits. And why would you?’
UB40 (with Robin Campbell, Duncan Campbell and Brian Travers) at The Big Grill, Emirates Golf Club on Friday February 28. Tickets Dhs350 here.
UB40 (with Ali Campbell, Astro and Mickey Virtue) at The Irish Village on Thursday April 3. Tickets Dhs175 here.