When Robin Campbell, guitarist for the legendary reggae band UB40, was growing up in the city of Birmingham, U.K., music was everywhere. He was “born into it,” he says. His father was a “reasonably successful” folk musician with a band and his own club to play in. Campbell remembers sitting on the floor as a kid, listening to his pops and his band rehearsing in their home, too. Other musicians would play his father’s club, also in Birmingham, and then stay the night at the Campbell’s.
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Meanwhile, all around, in the ether practically, Campbell would hear ska and reggae music emanating from the windows of homes. There were a lot of immigrants living in the neighborhood, he says, and Jamaican music would fill the space between the residences. Of course, English pop music from the ’60s and Motown would mix in, too. But Campbell loved reggae and so did his friends and family, many of which would go on to form UB40. Ever since, the band, which is set for a new U.S. tour this summer (from August 18-September 18), went on to sell 100 million records, earn Grammy Awards and leave an imprint on music forever.
“All of which was a great disappointment to my father,” Campbell says, with a laugh. “Being a folk musician, he lived with the eternal hope that one of us or maybe all of us could have become folk musicians and a part of his band, I think. But we just fell in love with reggae.”
And the band’s latest musical contribution is the new single, “Champion,” which the group released today (July 15). The song, which is the official anthem of the 2022 Commonwealth Games, is also UB40’s first single from their upcoming album, UB45, which is set to drop next year in celebration of the band’s 45th anniversary.
It’s rare that children directly fall in line with their parent’s wishes. Yet, while music was the shared career of choice, it was the genre that was a left turn for Campbell. Hearing the reggae music, all it did was make him and those close to him in age want to do the same. Thanks to guitar lessons from his uncle, Campbell was “conversant” in guitar and able to join with the friends and family that would form UB40.
“We saw Bob Marley play in 1976 and that sealed the deal, really,” the now-67-year-old Campbell says. “I just turned to my brothers after that concert and said, ‘If you’re ever serious about doing this, that’s what we’ve got to be doing. And I’m in!”
The original members of UB40 were all from the same area, many of whom went to the same school together. They all hung out, went to the same youth clubs, and later, the same bars and venues. Spent time on the streets together. The band, which was multi-racial, was a hodgepodge of people sharing the same interest. When the band finally formed, there was no question about what style of music they’d produce. It was reggae all the way. And even the friends who didn’t want to be on stage became the group’s road crew.
“Success came for us really very quickly,” Campbell says.
It’s true. The band was on the road playing gigs for barely a year when they were noticed and started to create a buzz. Chrissie Hynde of the group The Pretenders saw the band play in London early on and then went backstage to ask if they’d open for her group on their upcoming tour. “That was a shock,” says Campbell. But of course, they said yes. To that point, he says, the band had probably done 30 gigs total. Now they were set to play 30 gigs in a matter of weeks with a famous group.
“We begged, borrowed, and stole whatever money we needed to get on the road,” Campbell says. “It was a baptism by fire. We were dropped in the deep end.”
The band released its first double A-side single, “King / Food for Thought,” in 1980 while on that tour and the music was a hit, peaking at No. 4 in the U.K. and No. 1 in New Zealand. “King” was a song about Martin Luther King Jr. and “Food for Thought” was about the hypocrisy of Christmas, Campbell has said. After that success, UB40 immediately booked the same tour stops for their own headlining gigs, all of which sold out. At the time, reggae and ska were becoming more and more popular in the mid-20th century, thanks to groups like The Specials and others.
“We were arrogant enough to think that we deserved it,” Campbell says. “But I think we were still in shock because it was just so incredible. You don’t do these things unless you have dreams. But to have them all come true so quickly was a bit ridiculous.”
As a unit, UB40, the name of which comes from the British unemployment code, was a group that, collectively, made music that people loved. Outside of that, Campbell can’t really explain the band’s success in any fine point way. If he could, he says, he’d bottle it and sell it. But what he does know is that it’s not a matter of trying to guess what fans will want. Instead, it’s about what the band wants, and what the musicians want, and if everyone is honest about that and can achieve those goals, then everything will fall into place.
“Once you have that,” he says, “you don’t try and second-guess what your fans think. You just do what you love. You don’t try and keep people happy. You try and keep yourself happy. As long as you’re happy with what you’re doing, chances are the people who love you and follow you will like it, too.”
To date, UB40 has several now-timeless songs. But perhaps their biggest hit is the cover of “Red Red Wine.” The band plays it at every show, even now. As Campbell notes, the song went No. 1 in dozens of countries. And that popularity has been vindicating, he says. The band’s first few albums were comprised largely of originals. Then the band put out Labour of Love in 1983, which included a number of covers, all songs they loved, many of which were from the late ’60s and early ’70s in the “embryonic stages of reggae.” Journalists at the time, Campbell says, kept wondering why this group of Brits played reggae. But as they said it was because they loved the music. So, they proved it with their 1983 album and the cover songs they’ve long adored. What’s funny, though, is that the band thought “Red Red Wine” was originally written by the Jamaican reggae musician Tony Tribe, when really it’s attributed earlier to Neil Diamond. Though there are apocryphal stories that even Diamond didn’t write it and it’s from the 1800s.
“We had no idea it had anything to do with Neil Diamond,” Campbell says. “We only knew the cover done by the reggae artist Tony Tribe. He made a record that was No. 1 on the reggae charts in 1969. When I was 14 years old, that was a massive tune to me.”
Today, UB40 is different than when it first started. Original singer Ali Campbell, who is Robin’s youngest brother, left the group, unhappy with business practices. Later, Duncan Campbell, another of Robin’s younger brothers, came in and “reinvigorated” the band. Duncan has since left after health issues forced him out. Now, the group is fronted by Matt Doyle, a longtime reggae singer in the band Kioko, fan of the group, and nephew of UB40 percussionist Norman Hassan. Campbell met Doyle at an awards show where Kioko performed a cover of a UB40 song. Ever since then, he seemed like the perfect replacement frontman. Doyle, in his thirties, jumped at the chance and has been navigating the job ever since. He’s really rounded into shape of late, Campbell says, and as a result, reinspired the band.
“He really impressed me,” he says. “We feel like we haven’t sounded this good for a long time. He’s a great addition.”
Campbell says he’s happier than ever playing music these days. He’s “excited” for the upcoming tour and, he says, he couldn’t imagine himself doing anything else. Sure, he adds, there have been ups and downs along the way. Times, especially when his brothers departed, when he thought maybe he should hang it up, too. The band also lost saxophonist Brian Travers, who died after a battle with cancer, which was “horrible.” But now, Campbell says, his doubts have subsided. He says he’s “full of life and enthusiasm again.” He can’t imagine stopping.
“Music is an emotional communication,” Campbell says. “The communication between you and a live audience is special. But you can also have the same emotional communication with a record, you know? If a record can reduce me to tears, which it can, then there’s something special happening. I can’t explain what it is. But it’s a special relationship.”
8/18/22 River Breeze Events Center Knoxville, TN
8/19/22 The Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre Detroit, MI
8/20/22 Rock, Reggae & Relief Festival Pittsburgh, PA
8/21/22 New Jersey Performing Arts Center Newark, NJ
8/24/22 Central Park New York, NY
8/25/22 House of Blues Boston, MA
8/26/22 Southside Stage @ XL Live Harrisburg Harrisburg, PA
8/27/22 Entertainment & Sports Arena Washington, DC
8/30/22 Jannus Live St. Petersburg, FL
9/1/22 Mizner Park Amphitheater Boca Raton, FL
9/2/22 Stockbridge Amphitheater Stockbridge, GA
9/3/22 The Caverns (Above Ground Amphitheater) Pelham, TN
9/4/22 QC Sound Stage Charlotte, NC
9/6/22 Saenger Theatre New Orleans, LA
9/8/22 Payne Arena Hidalgo, TX
9/9/22 Wild Acre Live Ft. Worth, TX
9/10/22 Haute Spot Event Venue Austin, TX
9/11/22 Arena Theatre Houston, TX
9/13/22 Celebrity Theatre Phoenix, AZ
9/15/22 Mountain Winery Saratoga, CA
9/16/22 Ironstone Amphitheatre Murphys, CA
9/17/22 Dignity Health Amphitheatre Bakersfield, CA
9/18/22 The Hollywood Bowl Los Angeles, CA
Photo courtesy Rogers and Cowan PMK