ALI Campbell has just returned from Nigeria where he and fellow UB40 members Astro and Mickey Virtue have been performing.
They were due to share a bill with Rihanna and Shakira but, as he explains, things didn’t exactly go to plan.
“Shakira got to play but in the hall where we were supposed to be doing our concert the floor hadn’t set. Her audience sank into the concrete. They cancelled our gig. We were stuck for four days with angry Nigerians surrounding us.”
Thankfully, for all concerned, the band got to play in the end.
It’s now three months since the trio caused a stir by reuniting to reclaim what they say is the “true sound of UB40”. Six years previously Campbell had angrily quit the reggae band he formed with his brother Robin and friends from Birmingham in 1979.
His former band mates continued the UB40 name, bringing in his older brother, Duncan, as lead singer. But when, last year, they released an album of country songs, called Getting Over The Storm, Ali Campbell decided enough was enough.
A war of words escalated when a disenchanted Astro – real name Terence Wilson – left UB40 last November to join Campbell and keyboard player Virtue in a rival band, which they also decided to call UB40.
Explaining the goings-on since 2008, it’s clear that Campbell, 55, is not about to forgive the ‘other’ UB40.
“I had serious issues with a couple of band members and with the management,” he says of his decision to leave the multi-million-selling group. “I was not getting information that I was entitled to as a director of the company.”
One argument allegedly centred on a scheme to buy repossessed properties and sell them at a profit. Campbell wanted no part of it. “I thought it was a disgusting thing, living off other families’ misery,” he says. “We are UB40 – we’re supposed to be socialists.”
Matters came to a head when Campbell released a solo album, called Running Free, which reached Number 9 in the charts. “Six months in advance I said to [the band] I want a month off to promote this. They said, ‘No, you can’t’. I said, ‘I think I can’. That’s when I left – I couldn’t believe they were being so unhelpful. “
In the six years since the break-up, Campbell has scored two further top 20 albums and played concerts all over the world. For the remaining members of UB40 there have been ups and down. Four of them were declared bankrupt in 2011.
“I started this band in 1979 to promote reggae music,” says Campbell. “I sat back for five years and watched my brother Duncan murdering my songs. I put up with that but when they released a country album with steel guitars, I thought sod it. I knew Astro did not want to be playing Django Unchained with a cowboy hat. We’re saving the legacy.”
The singer bats off his former band mates’ threats to sue. “It’s all talk as far as I am concerned. I don’t think they’ve got a leg to stand on. [The name] UB40 is a government form.”
He likens performing again with Astro to “putting on a pair of old boots”. When he introduced him as a special guest at London’s Indigo O2, he says it “went down brilliantly – it spurred us on to do all these gigs now”.
Campbell had “really missed” his old partner’s skills as an MC, warming up the crowd. It’s a part of the job he finds difficult, he admits. “I mumble when I’m trying to talk. It’s been a learning curve for me. It’s nice to have him back so I can concentrate on what I do best.”
Rhythm Method, the solo album Campbell had nearly completed when the reunion happened, will now be a UB40 record. The original plan for a collection of seven originals and seven cover versions has been changed. It’ll now include “three or four” new tracks featuring Astro, he reveals.
Reggae music remains close to the singer’s heart. “I grew up in a household full of folk music,” he says, with evident distaste. “My Dad had the Ian Campbell Folk Group [in the 1960s]. He had the biggest folk club in Europe for several years. The Dubliners would be in our front room, Billy Connolly would be kipping over when he was in The Humblebums. I lived at Dave Swarbrick’s house for a time. I hated it.
“I went the opposite way. We lived in Balsall Heath, which was a West Indian area. Reggae was the music if the streets, it was on the jukeboxes in the cafes.
“I got my first reggae album when I was 10 years old. It was African Herbsman which Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry produced for The Wailers. It’s the quintessential reggae album.”
UB40 appear at the Flashback Festival at Nostell Priory, Wakefield on June 14. Also on the bill are Jason Donovan, Heather Small and Heaven 17 and Go West.
On June 15 Jools Holland will perform with Melanie C and Marc Almond.
Adult tickets are priced £37.95 per day, children £22; camping is also available. For details call 0845 075 6101 or visit http://www.ukeventsandproduction.com/flashback-nostell.html.