Running free

After breaking with his former band, UB40's ex-lead singer Ali Campbell is stopping in Israel.

Ali Campbell 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ali Campbell 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I first saw UB40 in 1980 supporting the Pretenders at Hull University's students' union. The Pretenders were on the verge of commercial success; UB40 was an obscure reggae support band from Birmingham. UB40 blew the Pretenders off the stage. The band went on to become the most successful reggae group ever - after Bob Marley and the Wailers - selling 70 million records worldwide. Earlier this year, the band's lead singer, Ali Campbell, quit UB40 after almost 30 years. And his solo endeavor will see him headlining the Pepsi Max Music Show at Tel Aviv Port's Hanger 11 club this Thursday. Campbell will be backed by his new nine-member band and will be mixing UB40's hits with newer material. Unfortunately, reggae maestros Sly and Robbie, who were lined up as the support band, cancelled with little notice, leaving Mosh Ben-Ari, the dreadlocked Israeli reggae singer, to warm up the audience alone. For the uninitiated, Ali Campbell is white, and UB40 was a multi-racial band. This led to a certain degree of disdain from reggae purists who maintained that only black people could play reggae (they have obviously never heard the Clash's version of "Armagideon Time"). But, speaking to The Jerusalem Post over the weekend, Campbell slammed a small number of white middle-class journalists for making such allegations. "We've worked a lot in Jamaica with reggae artists and they love us. Those comments were racist and pissed off the black members of the group to no end," Campbell said. But UB40 never tried to sound Jamaican. It was always a very British band with its own unique sound. In any event, Campbell explains, reggae is now truly international with probably more white people playing reggae music than black. UB40 came from Brum to save the world, and after the group's first single, "King/Food for Thought," reached No. 4 on the UK charts, the members never looked back, churning out pop reggae hits for three decades. Their first two albums, Signing Off and Present Arms, remain classics: Both reached No. 2 on the UK album charts. To its credit, UB40 managed to combine catchy tunes with politically aware lyrics, singing about real issues such as racism and unemployment. The name UB40 itself comes from the form issued to the unemployed to sign on the dole (Unemployment Benefit form 40). In 1983, UB40's "Red Red Wine" (a reggae version of an old Neil Diamond song) went to No. 1 on the British charts, proving definitively that the original version of a song is not always the best. DESPITE GREAT success in the UK, UB40's popularity in the United States was only established after it released Labour of Love, an album of cover songs, in 1983. The album reached No. 1 on the UK Albums Chart and No. 8 on the Billboard Top 200 in the US. The group's most successful single was the cover of the Elvis Presley ballad "(I Can't Help) Falling In Love With You," which was intended to be the main title to the 1992 Sharon Stone movie Sliver and was a number-one hit across Europe and in the US. So, after 50 UK singles and 30 years of success, what prompted Ali Campbell to leave UB40 and embark on a solo career? The split, earlier this year, was anything but amicable, and was made even more complicated by the fact that Ali's brother, Robin, stayed on as a guitarist in the group. UB40 continues to play and record with the existing seven members in the post-Campbell era. Campbell told the Post that he hasn't spoken to any of the band since the split, including Robin, and another of his brothers, Duncan, who joined UB40 after the split. "It's a bit sad really, particularly because my brother decided to take the side of management," Campbell said. "But my job is to promote reggae music and that's what I'm doing." Ali Campbell justified his departure by claiming that problems with the management that had been ongoing for years had become intolerable, and that he was deeply unhappy with many management decisions. He has hired lawyers to investigate and promises revelations and legal proceedings in the new year. Very messy. He denied that he left the band to pursue a solo career, even though his solo album, Running Free, which came out in 2007, was critically acclaimed and reached No. 9 on the British album charts. This week's gig in Tel Aviv is part of a massive world tour that will be followed by the mixing of a new album later next year, entitled Flying High, which will feature a number of guest artists including Busta Rhymes. UB40 has played in Israel before, performing shows in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the mid-'80s. Campbell remembers both of them as great concerts and also has fond memories of the scuba diving afterward in Eilat. This time around there won't be any time for sightseeing, but Campbell already wants to come back. "I want to be invited back after everyone sees how good we are, so we can spend a bit more time in Israel next time round." Tickets for the concert cost NIS 229. Gates open at 8 p.m.