Musicians and their fans are familiar with difficult second album syndrome.

The struggle to equal if not surpass the quality of the first now the element of novelty has been lost - it can take years to get it right.

Although it has taken UB40's Ali Campbell more than a decade to follow up his 1995 solo release Big Love, he hasn't spent that time curled up in a ball of song-writing angst in the studio. This is just the first chance he has had to get round to it.

"It has taken 12 years to find a window in UB40's schedule. We have made an album a year for 26 years and every album we make we go out and promote so if UB40 aren't recording they are out touring.

"Brian (Travers) and I wrote half a dozen original songs three years ago and that's when I started thinking seriously about doing it because I thought I have got half an album here if I added some lovely covers then I would have an album.

"After we came back from Argentina about six months ago instead of coming home I went to Jamaica. I had my demos with me and played them to Sly and Robbie (rhythm section Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare) who promptly went in and in one take did fantastic versions of all of them.

"I brought it back and we've been at Eden studio, sadly now defunct after 40 years, then I went to Townhouse to finish it."

Ali, 48, is giddy as a schoolgirl now it is completed and scheduled for release on October 8, with the single Hold Me Tight coming out on October 1.

"The album's called Running Free and that is how I feel," he says.

"Because UB40 is a democratic band - we all get the same money and there is no one man in charge - what you have got is eight people, no leadership and no one direction. We all love reggae but we all want something different out of each record so UB40 is the sound of eight people compromising.

"Running Free is Ali Campbell with Sly and Robbie. I am in total control."

Even though he wasn't surrounded by his band mates of 30 years, he had no opportunity to get lonely because he was busy ringing up his friends and heroes and asking them to duet with him.

The impressive roll call of co-stars includes Smokey Robinson, reggae legends Aston 'Family Man' Barrett and Ernest Ranglin, Mick Hucknall, Bitty McLean, fellow Midlander Beverley Knight and Lemar. Gwen Stefani will also be contributing to the the North American release of Flex.

"We couldn't get hold of her. She had one day off in Paris we were all thinking 'let's fly over to Paris and put her in the studio' and then I went 'hang on a minute, it's her one bloody day off. I'm not going to fly over there and ruin it'. When she has got a bit more time she is going to do Flex."

The first person to come on board was Stevie Wonder who will feature on the American version of Hallelujah Time.

"I met him at the Ivor Novellos a couple of years ago," Ali mentions casually. " I said 'Stevie would you do something with me?' and he said 'Sure. When? Where?' I said 'I dunno yet'."

Possibly the most left-field pairing is Ali and the petite pop balladeer Katie Melua.

"Everyone has gone 'who?' but I think she has been really brave," laughs Ali.

"She is a lovely girl. Tiny with a big voice. She had never done anything remotely to do with reggae before but I wanted a female refrain for Don't Try This At Home, her name was mentioned and we had the guts to go for it.

"Being a solo artist frees you up to do anything you want. I couldn't ever see Katie Melua and UB40, that just wouldn't work.

"I have always been jealous of people like Robert Palmer because he could do what he liked - pop, jazz, experiment with swing, anything. When you are in UB40 you play reggae and it is usually political."

He hasn't entirely left the politics behind. There is a moving cover of Stevie Wonder's Village Ghetto Land which Ali admits " breaks my heart every time I hear it.

"It's just a really sad song about families buying dog food and children dying but it is a very beautiful tune.

"It actually started off with me and my brother Robin (UB's guitarist/vocalist) and my other brother Duncan singing it acapella for a World in Action programme.

"I left it in the studio in Jamaica and the guy who was looking after it put a drum beat to it, then got my brothers taken off. Family Man Barrett and Ernest Ranglin built a track round it. Don Yute came and did a rap and we got some Jamaican kids singing on it."

Though Ali was determined to keep things light on Running Free his social conscience is never far from the surface. He becomes visibly upset when talking about some of the poverty he has witnessed as the band has travelled the world performing gigs and benefits.

"There are places I wish I hadn't seen," he admits. "I made a bad decision to travel with the crew on the bus from San Paulo to Peru and that is one trip I wish I'd never made because it is the worst poverty I have ever seen.

"It does hurt when you see it. Every time I say Peru I start crying."

Even though Ali has enough material to produce a third solo album within 12 months, it doesn't mark an end to his participation in UB40. However, he admits they might cut back on the touring.

"It is time to relax the UB40 thing a bit, I would like us to run festivals because we are quite tired of doing badly organised reggae festivals and we know we could put on great ones.

"The problem with touring is you never get to see your kids and that is the worst thing for me. I am in my second marriage, as is every other member of UB40 except for Brian. But that is what happens.We spend so much time away it is really hard to keep a relationship going.

"I want to spend more time with my wife and kids. I do the school run when I am home. Six o'clock in the morning and back by 9am. That is my time with my kids, I love doing it."

He also has his "other" family in the band. It is a remarkable achievement that all eight members have remained friends since childhood.

"I can't imagine doing heavy tours, and we have toured for two years at a time, with people I didn't know and love. I couldn't. It is fully understandable when bands split up because you are in each others pockets 24/7.

"But then we were together 24/7 before UB40 and I am sure I will know them all when the band finishes."

It also seems quite astonishing that it should it be two white brothers from the Midlands with undiluted Brummie accents at the core of what is one of the greatest reggae acts of all time with 55 million album sales to their credit.

"I grew up on reggae because I came from Balsall Heath. I was born in Hockley but we moved when I was five and it was predominantly West Indian and Asian people living in our road.

"We used to watch Mother India round our mates' houses. I love Asian music but it wasn't as accessible so from 10 years old I was listening to reggae.

"I was actually quite an odd child. In the 70s everybody was into Marc Bolan and the Sweet and all that and I was strictly reggae and Tamla Motown."

Nobody was more surprised by his sons' musical passions than the brothers' folk singer dad, Ian Campbell

"That's putting it mildly. Of course he wanted us to follow in his footsteps. We have got two other brothers David and Duncan and they have done gigs with my dad.

"But there is no bass in folk music and no beat. I think reggae is infectious. It is truly the only music that elates me and makes me feel high or eyrie."

He credits the UBs longevity to the fact that they stayed away from the London scene, kept their business in Digbeth and "carefully avoided being trendy for the obvious reason that if you are trendy one week you are old fashioned the next".

He is also acutely conscious off the fact that the whole music business is in flux with a generation growing up who access music only through downloads, never touching a CD or listening to the radio.

"To make money now you have got to be able to do it live because as soon as you release a record it is online and that is the end of your profit-making.

"Performing live sorts the men out from the boys, the wheat from the chaff. If you can't cut it live you are not not going to make a living."

It seems somewhat ironic coming from Ali considering when UB40 started putting up posters for their first gig at the Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, in 1979 they had nothing to play.

"We got the name and the poster first and then went out and got the instruments. We couldn't play, we were all self taught apart from Brian who had had some saxophone lessons.

"Our first album Signing Off sold eight million copies but I can't listen to it because it is all out of tune. The saxophone was tuned to the wrong pitch. Earl (Falconer) didn't know how to tune his bass. My guitar was tuned to an open E chord. Who knows what Robin was tuned to? It was just fluke if it was in tune... and it was produced in someone's living room.

"Punk made it possible because everybody was in a band. It didn't matter who you were you could do what you liked.

"But because we loved reggae we always wanted to play it well. It took us six months and we licked it."

Running Free is released on October 8, with the single Hold Me Tight coming out on October 1. An all star gig for the album is being planned for the Royal Albert Hall in March.