Andy Coleman talks to UB40’s Astro as the band prepare to wind back the years with a celebration of their first album.
UB40 are embarking on a trip down memory lane as they celebrate the 30th anniversary of their debut album, Signing Off.
The veteran reggae outfit are returning to their roots for a warm-up show tomorrow (Friday) at the Hare & Hounds pub in Kings Heath, the scene of some of their earliest shows.
Then they embark on a British tour that includes some of the venues where they performed on the original Signing Off tour in 1980.
‘‘I’m looking forward to all the gigs,’’ admits 53-year-old rapper/toaster Astro. ‘‘It will be great to go back to some of the places that we played on that original tour, a proper trip down memory lane.’’
To coincide with the tour, which plays Birmingham’s Symphony Hall on October 26 and Wolverhampton Civic Hall on October 27, a re-mastered version of the album is being released with a second disc of radio sessions and early promo singles.
Astro recalls the excitement the band felt as they worked on the album in the late 1970s.
‘‘It was like the greatest adventure was about to begin. I remember running from Rubery to Moseley virtually every day for rehearsals.’’
‘‘You know what it’s like when you’re a kid and you wait at the bus stop. If you can’t see a bus you walk to the next stop. In my case, by the time the bus turned up I was in Selly Oak so I thought, well, I might as well run the rest of the way!
‘‘I remember going into producer Bob Lamb’s studio, which was actually his bedroom. He had his bed on stilts and all his studio equipment was underneath the bed. We had to feed the gas meter and the electric meter.
‘‘The room was so tiny Norman Hassan had to play most of his percussion out in the garden. On a few of the tracks you can hear the birds tweeting away in the background.
‘‘There were no complaints from the neighbours, though – in Moseley virtually all the roads were filled with bands. People were used to noise exuding from people’s properties.”
Astro is particularly looking forward to the Hare & Hounds gig because he wasn’t with the group when they performed there in 1979.
‘‘I was the last person to join UB40’s original line up and I hadn’t actually joined them for the Hare & Hounds gig so I can’t comment on how brilliant or how crap the gig was.
‘‘I know everybody was petrified, it was brand new to everybody.
‘‘It’s a tiny little pub so we’ll be able to see the whites of the eyes of the punters. It’s been ages since we did little gigs but the atmosphere is second to none, you can almost see what they’re thinking, you’re that close.’’
The rapper reveals that he gave UB40 little choice about asking him to join.
“Instead of paying for a support act they’d have a disco which I would run. I’d play the latest 12 inch mega-mixes and people would have a full night of reggae.
“Once the band was ready to go on I’d grab the mic and say ‘here they are, the band you’ve been waiting for, UB40’. And then I refused to get off the stage – and I’ve been there ever since.”
The forthcoming tour will see the band performing all of Signing Off, then an hour of hits.
Revisiting the songs off their debut has been an interesting experience, says Astro.
‘‘It’s been fun. When we started rehearsals we thought, right, don’t even check the lyrics, let’s just play what we remember and record it at the same time and then have a listen to how we recorded it originally and let’s see the difference.
‘‘I was surprised how many people’s grey cells were still intact, I was surprised by how close the rendition was.’’
For singer Duncan Campbell and keyboardist Tony Mullings, there was a little more work to do as they have joined UB40 relatively recently.
The duo were recruited when original singer, and Duncan’s brother, Ali, and Michael Virtue quit in 2008.
“Duncan’s like a breath of fresh air, he’s so enthusiastic and eager to please,” Astro says. “It’s just been a bit of a whirlwind.
“But it’s been tougher for him. You know when you can’t understand the lyrics, you make up your own? Well, he’s spent 30 years making up his own words to certain songs and now he’s realised they’re not the right words at all so he’s had to unlearn them and learn the correct ones. But at the last rehearsals he was sounding on the money.
‘‘The album was definitely of its time but the songs themselves have stood up. When we re-listened to the album the only thing that was very noticeable was that the keyboards were very 70s and 80s.
‘‘I can’t wait to see the audience’s reaction because over the years so many people have said to us ‘oh, it was the original stuff that we loved’ and we haven’t played it for 29 years. It’ll be great to do it now when everyone knows what they’re supposed to be doing instead of being petrified and it being organised chaos on stage.”
When the shows were first advertised some people misunderstood ‘Signing Off Tour’, thinking it was meant UB40 were saying their final farewell.
“There’s no truth that this is our final tour,” Astro laughs. “We’ve got nothing better to do. It’s what we still enjoy doing. We set out to help popularise reggae music and we’re still on the same mission.
* UB40: October 26: Symphony Hall, Birmingham (0121 780 3333) October 27: Civic Hall, Wolverhampton (0870 320 7000).