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 by Reflex Recordings ©

Grammy-nominated music group UB40 are one the most successful British bands that made the history of reggae.

Formed in Birmingham in 1978 and named after a UK government’s unemployment benefit form, UB40 sold over 70 million records worldwide and topped UK charts with songs like Red, Red Wine and the super famous ballad (I Can’t Help) Falling in Love with You.

Their cover of Kingston Town, released in 1990, sold over a million copies, and the band’s participation in the 2005 charity concert Live 8 was just as memorable as their performance at the legendary Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert held in London in 1988 which also hosted the likes of Dire Straits and was watched by 600 million people worldwide.

UB40 founding member Robin Campbell answered the following questions on behalf of the rest of the ensemble – which, after former frontman Ali Campbell left in 2008 and original founder Astro and saxophonist Brian Travers both died in 2021 – is formed by original members Robin Campbell himself, Jimmy Brown, Earl Falconer, Norman Hassan, long-lasting members Martin Meredith, Laurence Parry, Tony Mullings, Ian Thompson and the newly appointed frontman Matt Doyle.

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Robin, what achievements are you most proud of?

We have so many achievements to choose from over the last 40-plus 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.

Are there any memories of the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute in 1988 you would like to share?

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, his election to President and the outlawing of apartheid. I believe we still hold the live audience record there, 210,000 people over three nights.

Are there any artists you would like to collaborate with?

We did a collaboration album called Bigga Baggariddim which was released in 2021 and 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 were very excited to hear the fans’ reaction.

What is the future of reggae?

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.

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