From ‘Kingston Town’ to singing for Nelson Mandela in 1988: interview with UB40

UB40 Robin Campbell black and white portrait by copyright 2009 Reflex Recordings & Music LTD

UB40’s Robin Campbell © Reflex Recordings

It is with a huge amount of honour and excitement that I jumped at the chance to interview one of UK’s most successful bands of all time, a Grammy-nominated music group that truly made the history of British reggae.

Formed in Birmingham in 1978 and curiously named after a UK government’s unemployment benefit form, UB40 have sold over 70 million records worldwide in 40 years in music, reaching number one in Great Britain various times with spectacularly moving songs such as Red, Red Wine and the super famous ballad (I Can’t Help) Falling in Love with You.

Their outstanding cover of Kingston Town was released in 1990, sold over a million copies (half of which in France alone, and God knows how hard is hitting France if you’re not French…) and is also known for a video clip that is still being viewed by dozens of millions of people on YouTube.
UB40‘s participation in the Live 8 in 2005 was just as memorable as their other performance at the legendary Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert held in London in 1988 and watched by 600 million people worldwide.

UB40 founding member Robin Campbell has answered our questions on behalf of the rest of the band – which, after past frontman Ali Campbell left in 2008 with two other members – is currently formed by Robin Campbell himself, Brian Travers, Jimmy Brown, Earl Falconer, Norman Hassan and Duncan Campbell.

UB40 music band vintage band picture

UB40 © to the owners

What achievement are you guys most proud of, as a band?

We have so many achievements to choose from over the last 40 years that I could write a list, but I guess our greatest one is just that we are still going after all this time – with as much or more enthusiasm than ever. As long as we can keep playing live at this same level of enjoyment, we don’t want to stop.

You took part in The Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute in 1988; have you got any memories you would like to share about it?

The disappointment for me was that there were artists there solely for the commercial boost it gave their careers. I remember Whitney Houston’s team insisting that a large Coke banner (her sponsor) had to be prominently displayed for the TV cameras, which meant it covered the Mandela backdrop while she was on stage. It was a much more satisfying experience playing our own concerts in South Africa after Mandela’s release, election to President and the outlawing of apartheid. I believe we still hold the live audience record there, 210,000 people over three nights.

Wow! Are there still artists you would like to collaborate with, at this stage of your career?

We have just finished a collaboration album called Biggabaggariddim, that will be released later this year, where we have worked with reggae artists we’ve met from around the world, including from countries such as New Zealand, India – of course – Jamaica, and the UK; some are long-established and others are up and coming. It was a hugely enjoyable experience and we’re very excited to hear the fans’ reaction.

What do you believe the future of reggae music will be like?

One can’t know the future of any genre of music, but I believe reggae will continue to develop and inform all types of dance and pop music as it has done for the last fifty years. We travel the world over, and every country has its own home-grown reggae artists, so its global acceptance and growth are assured.

Are you recording something new, at the moment?

We just want to stay safe through this Coronavirus storm and get back out on the road to honour the commitments we’ve already made. We want to continue to work at what we love most and what we do best.

You were supposed to perform at the Rochester Castle Concerts this summer…

We also had dates in Holland and Belgium, summer dates in the UK including the Rochester Castle and an Australian tour in 2020 – all booked and rescheduled, because of Coronavirus, for later in the year.

★ Enjoyed this article? You may also like our interviews with Prince’s musical director Morris Hayes, Zucchero, Skunk Anansie’s Skin, Paul Young, Jah Wobble, Spandau Ballet, Imelda May, Bruce Foxton from The Jam, The Lumineers and Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock 

★ For more stories about music legends, also have a look at our interview with Danny Zelisko, the concert promoter who has worked with everybody, from Alice Cooper to Pink Floyd, from Queen to Guns ‘N Roses

UB40 performing at the Nelson Mandela Tribute Concert 1988 London UK

UB40 performing at the Nelson Mandela Tribute Concert, London, 1988 © to the owners

About The Author

Founder of The Shortlisted Magazine

The one behind the wheel.