In their 30 years together, the last two must go down as one of the busiest and most traumatic periods in UB40’s history.
Small wonder they’ve not had time to discuss how they’ll be celebrating the anniversary of their first single.
“Thirty years – isn’t that amazing?” smiles Robin Campbell, guitarist and vocalist with the band who first met as friends in the late 70s.
“I’m sure we will mark it somehow, I’m sure we’ll have a party somewhere but we haven’t really discussed it – we’ve been so busy.
“We haven’t stopped touring since Duncan joined; we kind of broke him in in a big way and his feet haven’t touched the ground – and neither have ours really; when we haven’t been touring we’ve been in the studio.”
Duncan is Robin’s younger brother, who last year stepped in to replace youngest sibling Ali when he sensationally quit the band after three decades fronting the reggae superstars.
Dubbed ‘Newbforty’ by fans, the refreshed line-up is currently touring the UK with their Labour of Love show, featuring songs from the three bestselling albums of classic covers plus half a dozen tasters from volume IV, due out early next year.
“It never starts from scratch – we had a list of 200 songs with Labour of Love 1 and we’re working our way through it,” says Robin.
“It’s the music of our youth, the music that we grew up on; occasionally somebody comes up with a new idea like the Sam Cooke song (Bring It On Home To Me) that wasn’t on the list because it wasn’t originally a reggae song, it was a bit leftfield but seemed like a great idea, we’re all massive Sam Cooke fans and there’s a great tradition in reggae of covering R&B tunes; Here I Am is an Al Green tune, Homely Girl is a Chi-Lites tunes, so it fitted in.”
It’s both apt and poignant that the tour ends, as ever, in Birmingham; it’s not only the band’s home town but was where, in 2007, the band’s last UK tour with Ali came to a close.
“You look forward to the NEC because you’ve come to the end [of the tour],” laughs Robin. “It’s also the one that’s 10 minutes from home and it’s pretty special, it’s always one to look forward to, you’ve got hundreds of friends and family coming to the show – we always buy 500 tickets.
“It’s been an eventful two years really,” he reflects. “It was quite traumatic and I don’t think we could have done it any other way than with Duncan – he’s just made a massive difference.
“It’s taken him a while to just relax really and get into it, but I think this tour he’s just learned to relax and enjoy himself, and we’re enjoying it more than we have done for a long time – it was getting hard work with Ali.
“I think it was showing; the last Christmas tour we did, we had a lot of fans saying ‘what’s wrong with Ali?’ because it was fairly obvious he didn’t want to be there, and I think it had been going on for quite a while and it was just getting to the point where it wasn’t enjoyable any more and there’s nothing worse than being in a band and not actually wanting to be there – it was getting very frosty and it had stopped being fun.”
Happily the fun is back – both from the band’s perspective and the fans, who have welcomed the new line-up with open arms:
“Incredible – we just haven’t had any negative responses,” says Robin, the second eldest of the four Campbell brothers (there is an eldest sibling, David).
“We thought there might be some, but the reaction has been fantastic – we’re still selling tickets, it’s business as usual for us, but also a reinvigoration of us, we just feel full of beans again and we’re enjoying ourselves.
“Using Dunc allowed us to keep the UB40 sound and I think that’s why the fans support him so well,” he adds. “I don’t think we could have found anybody else to have done the job and worked so successfully tonally, someone who could fit in and still sound something like Ali and we have still got a vocal sound that’s very close to the original.
“I think everybody in the band is so surprised that we’ve just been able to carry on almost as if nothing had happened, and with the reaction of fans it’s just been nothing short of fabulous for us.”
The band’s rebirth and continued success is, of course, tinged with sadness over Ali’s departure and the rift it has caused in the Campbell family:
“[Ali] hasn’t spoken to us since he left,” says Robin. “He hasn’t spoken to any member of the band and he hasn’t spoken to me or Duncan; I’m sure my mum’s not happy about it, but she’s steadfastly neutral – she loves all of her children equally – but what it means is she tends to see him on his own and then she tends to see us without him.
“Who knows what the future will bring? I really don’t understand why he’s so bitter about things, it was his decision to leave, it may have backfired on him a bit but it’s still not our fault – to act surprised that we have carried on seems ludicrous to me; the fact that he’s bitter that we’ve carried on successfully just seems very silly to me, but what can you do? Time will tell.”
* UB40 with special guest Eddy Grant play the LG Arena on December 21 – for tickets call 0844 338 8000.