I WAS on a school trip to see The Mousetrap in the West End the same week that UB40 released their debut album, so I nipped into Soho to buy it before we went to the theatre.
And yes, a year after my not-so-life-changing Florida holiday romance, with the level of my attractiveness to the ladies being in direct inverse proportion to the level of my desperation, I may have had a mooch round the sleazier side of the area too.
Visits to the big, bad city were few and far between in my early teens so I always tried to make the most of them when I could.
Mind you, even the Tube seemed insanely sophisticated and cosmopolitan to me at that age. I wasn’t exactly what you’d describe as hard to please. Two words: South Humberside. I may even have bought my Conquering Lion of Judah badge from some tourist tat shop on this particular trip. I was to end up wearing it for years and years afterwards.
UB40’s King and Food For Thought single had come out shortly before and thoroughly whetted my appetite for the album.
Other Midlands acts like the Specials, the Selecter and the Beat – all of whom I adored – took the old time sounds of Jamaican ska and rocksteady (from which what we know as reggae eventually evolved) and added some English provincial punk energy and attitude.
Conversely, UB40 took their cue from contemporary Jamaica reggae and dub, and added elements of UK soundsystem culture, jazz and even – thanks to the Campbell brothers’ family background – folk music.
As a result, they also sounded very different to other British reggae acts like Misty in Roots and Black Slate, though with a similar overtly political lyrical slant: one side of their debut single, for example, assesses the legacy of Martin Luther King, while the other indignantly dissects the politics of the kind of famine-charity which culminated in Live Aid five years later.
I remember sitting in the darkened balcony in the theatre with the album in my lap, praying for the hoary old whodunnit bullshit to end as soon as possible so that we could get back on the coach, start the four-hour journey back up north and I could actually listen to the bloody record. It was just killing me.
The butler did it, okay, can we go now?
Even within the context of the early Eighties – at a moment in time when the Factory and Crass empires were approaching their creative peaks – Geoffrey and David Tristram’s sleeve design for Signing Off is striking and memorable.
A replica of the manila unemployment benefit attendance ‘signing on’ card the band took their name from, it immediately made a point by saying very little. Except, of course – rubber-stamped in bureaucratic red ink – the words Signing Off.
Once back on the coach with its dim lighting, squinting, I hungrily devoured the black inner sleeves of the two-record set once more, reading the sparse information about the band and the two featured lyrics over and over again. They were soon indelibly marked with scores of greasy hamburger fingerprints.
I went to bed and listened to the album on my headphones as soon as I got home. It was worth the wait.
By turns militant and strident and broodingly, quietly intense, Signing Off came from the shared experiences of a group of unemployed lads from around Moseley, Birmingham. Though they got together a year before Margaret Thatcher led the Conservative party to power in the 1979 general election, they recorded the album a year after the Tory victory and Grantham’s favourite daughter casts a dark pall over Signing Off.
One of the album’s stand-out tracks, Madame Medusa, took up an entire side of the “Megadisco” 12-inch which accompanied the album, clocking up at just under 13 minutes. It was an eerily prophetic picture of how Thatcher’s Britain would evolve:
“Cringing in her shadow, the sick, the poor, the old, Basking in her radiance, Men of blood and gold,” croons Ali Campbell. “In her bloody footsteps, Speculators prance ..”
Musically, it was was every bit as forthright, with a rock solid bass-heavy groove which breaks into a thrilling dub section halfway through, complete with “talk over vocal” by Astro proclaiming “She gone off her head an’ got to shoot her dead ..”
Righteous condemnation of injustice crops up again and again on Signing Off, from a passionate defence of the falsely imprisoned Gary Tyler (he remains incarcerated to this day) to Little By Little, with its powerful “Little by little, and stone by stone, Rich man’s mountain comes crumbling down ..” chorus.
“I’m a British subject, not proud of it, while I carry the burden of shame ..” sings Campbell, berating Thatcher’s extreme right-wing government for its tacit support for the institutionalised racism of South Africa’s apartheid regime in Burden Of Shame.
Jim Brown and Earl Falconer, on drums and bass respectively, make for a formidable rhythm section, while Brian Travers’ languid sax and Michael Virtue’s minimal keyboard style smooth out what would otherwise be a rough, tough old sound.
At the time, more by luck than judgement and at least partly inspired by UB40 I’m certain, I was affecting a terraces look (even though I hadn’t been near a football match in a decade) of imitation M1A flight jacket, green combats, Fred Perry Adidas and slightly distressed White Riot T-shirt. I later swapped said imitation M1A flight jacket for a leather biker jacket, courtesy of a gullible former schoolmate.
UB40 were a lads’ band, just as much as Slade or the Clash or New Order or Oasis or Kasabian were. A few of the ‘cooler’, older lads in the village – including our resident card-carrying racist psychopath – were into them, alongside all the bands who actually had a connection with the 2Tone label. If he found any contradiction between liking multi-racial bands with a distinct anti-racism message and being a member of the National Front, he never mentioned it.
To be honest, I always thought UB40’s multi-ethnic line-up was a big deal until I lived in a city myself and realised that having a circle of friends with wildly different origins and backgrounds is just something that happens in cities. It’s not actually a big deal at all.
I’ve never seen UB40 live. I never managed it back in the day and of course, even before Red, Red Wine heralded their descent into a slushily sentimental covers band, their growing accessibility and popularity had already put me right off them. That and the fact that I wrote to the Graduate Records address in Dudley, asking for an interview for a completely fictitious school magazine and never heard back from them (a year or so later, the people at Chrysalis had the good grace to send me a broken Funboy Three seven-inch for ‘review’ in the same fictitious magazine).
It’s not as if they suddenly started to do covers – there’s a spirited take on Randy Newman’s I Think It’s Going To Rain Today and a smouldering reinterpretation of Billie Holliday’s Strange Fruit on Signing Off – but lads, please, what the fuck happened? These two songs were just the beginning of a string of increasingly banal covers, completely spoiling it for everyone – apart from them, their accountant and their millions of adoring fans.
It’s their business, and I wouldn’t blame anyone who decided to concentrate on making money rather than profound political statements, but why does it have to be so safe?
We probably shouldn’t forget that the songs they’ve covered for their Labour Of Love albums over the years were reggae standards, and you have to imagine that the business end would have been handled in a fairer way than many of the composers and producers would have been accustomed to in the past.
Their Fathers Of Reggae album also shone a long-overdue spotlight on some of the elder statesmen of reggae, while their dancehall album gave valuable early exposure to artists like Beenie Man and Lady Saw.
But they ended up just getting on my nerves more every time I heard them.
I don’t know where the album went but I it disappeard decades ago. I picked it up again in Oxfam the other day for £2.99. Bargain.
Funnily enough, the little lady loves the slushy, lovey-dovey side of UB40. Her dad was and still is a big fan and she grew up listening to the UB40 we all know and loathe. Inspired by me blasting out Signing Off last Sunday morning, she played some compilation CD she’s got, The Very Best Of UB40, in fact, equally loudly. I had to leave the room.
It did my head in. Hearing brilliant early stuff like One In Ten and The Earth Dies Screaming among the likes of I Got You Babe, Can’t Help Falling In Love and Cherry Oh Baby was a genuinely painful experience. I’ll ask the question again: what the fuck happened?
You might also ask the same question of the Labour party. I’m not saying that the probable election of David Cameron’s Thatcherite shit-bags tomorrow would be a good thing but maybe, just maybe a Tory victory would inspire the kind of oppositional culture we saw in the early Eighties.
You never know, UB40 might even become listenable again.