Brown speaks to Maureen Coleman about personnel changes within the band, the NI Protocol, rock ‘n roll attitudes and the UK’s political landscape
Jimmy Brown is a ‘bit knackered’ when he rings at 10.30am for a pre-arranged chat.
In true rock ‘n roll style, the UB40 drummer ‘isn’t great’ before midday, particularly when the band has been touring.
But if he’s tired, it certainly doesn’t show. He talks animatedly about everything from pop music to the Northern Irish Protocol and makes for an interesting and engaging interviewee.
And, to be fair, it wouldn’t come as too much of a surprise if fatigue had caught up with him. As one of the original founding members of the Birmingham reggae band, he’s been working flat out as a musician for over 40 years. Drumming’s great exercise though, he points out, and helps keep him fit, which comes in handy, given the band’s hectic 2022/2023 tour schedule.
“You get all the exercise you need from drumming five days a week,” he says.
“Playing really keeps you fit. To be honest, when I’m on the road, I’m much fitter than I am when I’m relaxing at home.
“But we still have that old fashioned rock ‘n roll attitude. We’re not like Coldplay, all vegetarians and healthy living.
“We like to enjoy ourselves but there’s always that sense of moderation. It would take a lot of hard work to kill yourself with pleasure.”
After a two-year hiatus from touring due to the Covid pandemic, the reggae hit-makers are currently gigging in Europe following the UK leg of their Bigga Baggariddim Tour. New dates have been announced for December, including Belfast, Leeds, London’s Wembley Arena and a special hometown performance at Birmingham’s Utilita Arena.
The tour follows on from the band’s secret surprise show in Birmingham ahead of the Commonwealth Games coming to England for the first time in 20 years. Not only has it been a chance to premiere their new track Champion, written for a multi-artist album On Record to celebrate the Games, but the recent shows also marked Matt Doyle’s on-the-road debut as band frontman.
Former Kioko musician Doyle was announced last year as Duncan Campbell’s replacement after the 63-year-old singer suffered a stroke in 2020. Campbell had replaced his brother Ali on lead vocals in 2008 but the stroke forced him to ‘reluctantly’ retire from the band.
Kioko had previously supported UB40 on the road, so the band was familiar with Doyle’s reggae pedigree.
“Yeh, we stole him,” laughs Brown. “Kioko are a great band, and we did feel a bit guilty, but we knew he’d be perfect as our frontman. He’s a lot of fun on stage and at 30 years younger than the rest of us, he injects new freshness.
“We did four shows last summer with him, but this is his first proper tour and he’s really developing as the tour goes on.
“At first, he was a bit like a butterfly pinned to a board but then he began to loosen up and become much more charismatic.
“Once we have about a dozen shows under our belts, he’ll be firing on all cylinders.”
Losing Campbell from the band due to ill health was a ‘blow’, admits Brown. Although he’s recovered well from the stroke, his memory has been impacted and he struggled to remember lyrics and arrangements.
“It’s such a shame,” Brown says. “Duncan and I go way back. We were in the same class at school.
“He’d still be with us if it wasn’t for his health.”
The founding members of UB40 met through school in inner city Birmingham, setting up the band in 1978. Back then, the outfit was made up of Brown on drums, guitarist Ali Campbell and bassist Earl Falconer. The trio started out rehearsing reggae covers as well as writing their own music.
They were then joined by several friends, including percussionists Yomi Babayemi and Norman Hassan, saxophonist Brian Travers and keyboardist Jimmy Lynn. Campbell’s brother Robin joined up too, and the eight musicians settled on the name UB40, chosen as a nod to an attendance card issued to people claiming unemployment benefits. Duncan Campbell only joined the band in 2008, following the high-profile departure of his brother Ali, but more of that later.
UB40’s ethnic make-up was diverse, and the band’s appeal widespread. In 1980, the group released its debut single as a double A-Side, King/Food for Thought on a new record label. Food for Thought was written by Robin Campbell in his flat in Birmingham, in the run-up to Christmas — a protest song about hypocrisy and greed. King was a tribute to Martin Luther King. The double A-side went to number four in the UK charts. UB40 had arrived.
The band went on to score over 50 singles in the UK charts, including Red Red Wine, Can’t Help Falling in Love, I Got You Babe and Kingston Town. Their two biggest albums, Labour of Love (1983) and Promises and Lies (1993) both went to number one in the UK and they notched up four Grammy nominations for best reggae album.
Brown puts the band’s enduring appeal down to hard work and discipline but mainly, the accessibility of reggae music.
“I think the nature of reggae is that it’s very accessible music,” he says.
“It’s not difficult to listen to. It’s less punky than say, ska. And it’s timeless.
“If you were to take one of those charts that intersect, you’d have jazz, rock, pop, blues, all intersecting. It’s inclusive.
“And come on, everyone loves Bob Marley. How could you not?”
UB40’s line-up was fairly stable until January 2008 when Ali Campbell announced he was leaving the band. Shortly afterwards, he was joined by keyboardist Mickey Virtue and then in 2013, another member, Astro, quit too, joining Ali Campbell and Virtue in a new version of UB40. This caused a bitter feud with Brown, Robin Campbell, Falconer, Hassan and Travers — along with new singer Duncan Campbell — taking legal action against the new version over usage of the name. Virtue later left in 2018 and Astro passed away in 2021, leaving Ali as a solo artist. Travers also died last year.
The legal battle is still ongoing and brothers Duncan and Robin no longer talk to Ali.
“None of us have spoken to him,” says Brown.
“It’s really difficult to take a private case to court when the person constantly wriggles out of it.
“We don’t think it’s right that someone can leave a band and advertise themselves as the band they’ve just left. We’ve been fighting that ever since he left.
“There are four of us left from the original line-up. We either went to school together or were brothers, so we’re the nucleus of the band. We wrote the songs, apart from the cover versions.
“There’s a continuity with what we’re doing. We’re not just one member and everyone else is a session musician. We are the genuine band.”
When UB40 started out, they were very much at the forefront of the anti-racist movement sweeping the UK. Brown’s friends and classmates included the first generation of black British children, whose parents had arrived in England during the 1950s and 1960s. The Windrush generation brought an explosion of music, writing and art from the Caribbean and Brown recalls his school as a “melting pot” of cultures and backgrounds.
“My infant school was really mixed. There were black kids, Asian kids, Arab kids, Irish kids, English kids. We were all together,” he says.
“But over the decades those melting pots have become ghettoised. People splintered off into separate groups. The school I went to is now almost 100% Asian. There’s not the same togetherness now as there was back then.”
Brown is saddened by the rise in jingoism and right-wing politics which he has witnessed in recent years, saying the Brexit debate and the increased popularity of UKIP have led to racism rearing its ugly head again.
And he blames the Conservative government for feeding into this.
“The Tories are playing with getting people riled over a handful of people in boats coming over from France to one of the richest countries in the world,” he says. “We can afford to accommodate a couple of thousand asylum seekers and immigrants.
“It’s ridiculous. It doesn’t really exist, that idea that we’re being swamped by Johnny Foreigner but it’s playing to the gammon constituency.
“There are enough people who will be attracted by racist policies and that’s what they do and why they send people to Rwanda; they’re keeping their voters happy; the racist vote, which I reckon can swing elections.
“There are that many in England. I don’t think it’s the same in Ireland or Scotland or even Wales, but I think England has got that core racism that if you can get that racist vote then you can swing elections and that’s what they’ve been doing.”
Brown is also critical of the DUP, whom he says hold “too much sway” in Northern Ireland politics. And he is ‘hopeful’ that a united Ireland is on the cards and that a second Scottish referendum could pave the wave for the break-up of the union.
“The DUP is a party which is waning. They’re on their way out,” he says.
“How they can hold so much sway over the whole process is ridiculous, especially after the British government completely reneged on any promises it had made to the DUP.
“I think it’s wonderful that Sinn Fein is the biggest party in Stormont. It’s a brilliant thing and it was always going to happen.
“I pray for a united Ireland and I’m really hopeful that that’s the way it goes, because this English government is the worst government in my entire life and that’s a pretty long time.
“There’ll be another Scottish referendum and that’s a great thing. And you know, it’s not an Irish border. It’s an English border in Ireland.
“A border in the Irish Sea is the only answer but of course, the DUP don’t want that.”
Brown has fond memories of playing Belfast and coming to the city during the Troubles, when many artists stayed away.
His personal highlights over the last 40 odd years include playing at Madison Square Gardens in New York in 1988 and in South Africa, following the release of Nelson Mandela.
A family man as well as a reggae rock ‘n roller, Brown says his wife, four daughters and grandchildren help keep his feet on the ground. Lockdown might’ve kept him off the road, but it gave him more time to spend at home with his loved ones and he’s grateful for that.
“You know, me and my wife got together in our teens,” he tells me.
“I had nothing at the time. I like that idea; that she got with me for me rather than because of who I am. Mind you, it took us 20 years to get married.”
The band is currently on the road in Europe then heading to the States before returning to the UK and Ireland later in the year. The tour will bring them to the Ulster Hall in Belfast on Friday, December 9 — then in the new year, they’re off to Australia.
So what keeps them going after all this time?
“As long as we’ve still got the audience, we’ll keep playing,” replies Brown.
“If we book a tour one day and people don’t turn up then we’ll take as a subtle hint that we’ve overstayed our welcome.
“But right now, there is a lot of love out there for the band and that’s something I think about every day.
“As schoolboys with a love of music who went to see Bob Marley play at the local Odeon in 1976, we dreamed of being in a reggae band and we went on to become the biggest reggae band in the world.
“That’s quite an unbelievable achievement.”
UB40 play the Ulster Hall on Friday, December 9. Tickets are available via https://biglink.to/UB40Tickets