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Sunday, 23 January 2011

“Nothing is the same as it was.” Ali Campbell and UB40, 2008

It’s been several years since Ali Campbell moved out of Birmingham, but the accent remains intact. In January, when the 49 year-old singer found himself back there, he was staying at the Hotel du Vin in the city centre. His brother Robin drove there to pick him up and – he notes this with some amusement – the two found themselves lost amid the regenerated city’s vastly altered landscape. “Nothing is the same as it was,” he says.

Like much of what he’ll go on to talk about the words chime with an accidental sort of poignancy. Two months isn’t a long time – but then two months ago, no-one had any reason to suspect that, after so long together, the most successful reggae band in British history was on the cusp of an acrimonious split. Right now though, UB40s ex-frontman – how strange to type those words – is no longer on speaking terms with Robin or the rest of the group. As Campbell himself says, “It takes a lot for eight members to stay together for 28 years. If you think about it, there’s only U2 – and there’s twice as many of us.”

And yet, there’s seemingly no going back. In February – the last time Campbell and the rest of UB40 exchanged glances – 30,000 Ugandan fans were gazing on at them, many unaware that the band were honouring their final live commitment. By that time a storm of claims and counter-claims had already broken out between the two parties. UB40 said that he had placed the promotion of his solo album Running Free over his duties with the band. On January 29th, a statement from Campbell’s solicitors stated that the singer had left to seek “a resolution to numerous ongoing long term issues that have arisen with the business managers of UB40.”

Come the very end, there were no awkward goodbyes. Since being treated for alcoholism, Campbell has kept a car waiting at the end of every UB40 show, lest he be lured into the recreational habits that come with the after-show party. In Kampala, it meant that he could simply run off stage and, effectively, out of UB40. But that was February – and if truth be told, by this point, the feud had already assumed a personal tone.

Taking exception to UB40’s contention that his “management” grievances were a smokescreen for his desire to put his solo career first, Campbell struck back, implying sour grapes. On Running Free’s arrival in UK top ten last October, he said that Paul McCartney was quicker to offer his congratulations than any of UB40. “All I got [from the band] was a text off Norman [Hassan, trombonist] that said, ‘Well done Piggy.’” Campbell’s nickname, presumably? “Yes. Well, it used to be.”

The hurt comes out in brief bursts. During the course of a one hour conversation, Campbell says things about his bandmates that I suspect he doesn’t really mean (a trait you hope he learns to curb before more excessive remarks end up being published). His bullish demeanour is heightened by the news that the group’s keyboard player Michael Virtue has also announced his departure, citing similar grievances. Just as telling though is the sense of a man keen to reassure himself that he has made the right decision. He points across the corridor to a studio where Chrissie Hynde – who duetted with UB40 on their version of I Got You – was recently rehearsing. “She came in, saw my band and said how brilliant they sounded. Then, she says, ‘I’ve f***ing had it with my band as well. Martin [the drummer] is still there, but she says she got rid of the others last week. She said, ‘We went into the studio and it just sounded like The Pretenders… and who wants to hear that apart from four f***ing fat lesbians in Ohio?’ I wanna do what you’re doing.”

Campbell may have inspired Chrissie Hynde to find a new band, but the fact is that plenty of people remain fond of Campbell’s old one. Whatever you think of their 80s mutation into a living reggae-lite jukebox, their first two albums – Signing Off and Present Arms – deserve to be acknowledged alongside more feted Midlands contemporaries such as The Specials and The Beat. As it happens, they rediscovered their militant edge in fine style on 2005’s Who You Fighting For. When it comes to talking about the group’s collective infancy, Campbell needs no encouragement. “Back then, Birmingham was multiracial. We’ve gone backwards in that respect. If you go back to our old stomping ground – Balsall Heath and Sparkhill – black kids hang around with black kids and white kids stick with other whites.”

Campbell says that the values promoted by ensuing forms of music have changed the social scenery. “You would never have a band emerge now, in the same way that UB40 did in 1979. But that’s the problem you’ve got now. Hip-hop came along and we inherited the segregation that it promotes.” All the more reason, you think, for them to stay together in 2008. By the same token, it’s nice to see him revelling in nostalgia for happier times. Like all bands starting out, he remembers UB40 as a band of simple pleasures. His friendship with Hynde dates all the way back to 1980 when The Pretenders toured with UB40 and “shared their rider with us.”

Two years later, substance abuse had killed off two members of The Pretenders, but UB40 had ingested nothing stronger than beer and weed. That all changed, remembers Campbell, with the release of UB44 in 1982. Prior to recording it, they embarked on a tour of Europe. Belgium provided their introduction to cocaine. “You go there and the hotels have glass dressers with grooves for coke and little scoops for heroin – from the 1920s. So we were all getting into the history of it. I remember going out and trying [cocaine], and just going out and laughing at the top of our voices – you know, that big elation thing you feel for the first time. Two years later, we were in Bogota with the crew f***ing marking out the stage with coke like [it was] chalk, ’cos we all had that much Peruvian flake, you know?”

Conspicuous by his abstinence was Campbell’s brother Robin. The younger brother likens himself to their father, womanizing Scottish folk singer Ian Campbell – “I did everything to excess” – while he likens the comparatively timid Robin to their mother. “He smokes weed now, but he didn’t start until his 30s.” says Ali, now a near-teetotal father of eight children (four from a previous marriage).

How to square the affectionate glint with which Campbell talks about UB40’s past with the open warfare being reluctantly conducted by both parties through publicists, solicitors and newsprint? In pop there’s no shortage of precedents for this sort of thing. For a year at the end of the 60s, The Bee Gees used the press to level all sorts of accusations at each other. In 1970, a heartbroken Paul McCartney left The Beatles before going on to sue them for the dissolution of their contractual relationship.

UB40’s implosion may yet turn out to be temporary. Right now though, a dream-team comprising Kofi Anan, Terry Waite and a resurrected Mo Mowlam would to struggle to establish common ground between the conflicting utterances currently being issued by both parties. Campbell’s story centres on two bones of contention: (i) his alleged attempts to access details pertaining to the band’s finances; and (ii) his decision to make a solo album at the same time as UB40 were recording their 24th studio album, entitled 24/7. Leaving aside (i) for now, Campbell insists that his solo tracks were recorded in his spare time, without compromising the band’s schedule. For a while, relations between Campbell and the band must have been amicable – at least amicable enough for the singer and UB40 saxophonist Brian Travers to co-write nine songs for Running Free.

However, Campbell now alleges that his album plans became an issue for members of UB40, who thought its release would detract from 24/7. In a bid to placate his colleagues, Campbell says he then tried to convince the band that publicity for his solo album would have a positive effect on the fortunes of 24/7. A further sticking point may have been Campbell’s decision to enlist guest vocalists such as Smokey Robinson, Mick Hucknall, Lemar and Katie Melua on his solo album. UB40’s album was also planned as a set of collaborations. If Campbell describes the clash of projects as surmountable, the same cannot be said of his problems with those running the band’s business affairs. “Every single band member knows I’ve got gripes with the management and I’ve had them for years. But their statement is that I’ve left to pursue a solo career and [I think] I’ve become bigger than the band is all about protecting… management”

And so two issues that – in Campbell’s mind are separate – are intertwined in the eyes of his ex-mates. Rightly or wrongly, UB40 see his business grievances as a smokescreen for his own personal acquisitiveness. Responding to Campbell’s words, UB40 ¬– via their publicist – emailed to say they were “disappointed that Ali Campbell continues to use and hide behind a variety of allegations against the other band members of UB40 and their supposed ‘management Svengali’s [sic].’ Ali Campbell's departure from UB40 has always been about promoting his solo career.”

Campbell, obviously begs to differ, alleging that the group are happy to live on their monthly allowance for the sake of a quiet life: “I want to find out where the rest of the money’s going.” As part of the statement sent to The Times, drummer James Brown suggests that Campbell – who once claimed to have bought his wife a £2000 pair of Gucci jeans – may have become too used to living beyond his means, “The truth is UB40 were no longer prepared to fund the extravagant lifestyles of the other two band members. After being given an ultimatum by both Ali and Michael [Virtue] to sack our staff, some of whom have worked with us for nearly 30 years, we chose to ignore their ultimatum and they chose to leave.”

Campbell’s representatives dispute James Brown’s words. They say Campbell requested four weeks off this June, for a UK tour – and that prior to asking UB40 for this time, he checked with their agent to ensure there was no conflict with a planned UB40 tour of America. It seems, though, that – with the release of 24/7 to avoid a clash with Campbell’s solo promotional duties – the singer’s decision to play solo shows in June this year compounded existing tensions. Prior to last week, fans were still holding out hope of a resolution. But on Saturday, Brian Travers posted a notice on the group’s message board from which there may be no return. Angry at what he sees as the behaviour of “someone that could sell us out quite so easily”, he accused Campbell of “turning into an egomaniac” and using the dispute to “sell tickets for his upcoming tour.” On the afternoon of our meeting, Campbell had already read Travers’ posting and pledged to “never share a stage with him again.”

Of course, if people have to move on, they will move on. Campbell asks if I want to see his new band and beckons me into the rehearsal room. Once in, it isn’t hard to see what so enthused Chrissie Hynde. Eight or nine skilled musicians busily run through Campbell’s imminent Royal Albert Hall show. Scheduled to appear among these venerable reggae sessioneers are most of the guest singers on Running Free – Smokey included. Fans will no doubt go home happy. But when Campbell opens his mouth to sing the lines, “All I can do, I’ve done/But memories won’t go”, will Red Red Wine have ever sounded sadder?

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