(Review by Steve Shafer)
"Whatever Happened to UB40?" is one of the song names on UB40's stellar new album For the Many that immediately jumps out when you scan the album's tracklist--and for a band that's achieved such incredible success, only to go through what seemed like an ugly, slow-motion slide into oblivion, it's a vital question for the band to address. For those only casually following all the drama, a quick recap of the last decade's worth of messy band history is in order. Prior to the recording and release of their TwentyFourSeven album in 2008, singer Ali Campbell and keyboardist Mickey Virtue split with the band (toaster Astro joined them later), amidst accusations of all sorts of business/financial mismanagement (though for a period before to his departure, Ali apparently had convinced the band's financial manager to pay him more than the rest of the band, despite the band's long-standing agreement that they were all to be paid equally; when this came to light, Ali left UB40).
Unfortunately, there were some very real and dire money issues at UB40's label and management firm DEP International that were exacerbated by the band split and subsequent loss of income. Several, but not all, of the remaining members of UB40 were declared bankrupt in 2011 after DEP International failed; as a result, much of their back catalogue was sold off to pay off taxes owed to the government; notably, it was revealed a year later that Ali Campbell also had been declared bankrupt by the courts (an embarrassing revelation, as he had been pointing to his former bandmates' bankruptcy as proof of his wisdom to leave the band).
More recently, there have been two versions of the band touring and releasing more Labor of Love-type cover albums (which has led to lawsuits over who has rights to the band name). I've seen each permutation of UB40 and while both were quite good live, I was a bit disappointed that UB40 featuring Ali, Mickey, and Astro focused almost exclusively on their pop hit covers, while UB40 (with brother Duncan Campbell more than ably taking on vocals) performed a mix of their own fantastic songs along with some of their famous covers--and I much preferred the latter.
Fans who have been longing for more than "Red Red Wine" and "Cherry Oh Baby"-like mining of reggae's incredible canon--not that I'm knocking them, Labor of Love was my intro to the band back in 1983--(or their recent album of reggae country covers, Getting Over the Storm) will be thrilled to find that UB40's For the Many consists of almost exclusively new original material--all of it terrific--and is fully on par with their classic early-to-mid 1980s albums like Signing Off, Present Arms, and Rat in the Kitchen. The title of the album acknowledges their support of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, whose tag line is "For the many, not the few" (and brings to my mind Jamaica's motto of inclusion and solidarity: "Out of many, one people."), while the album artwork by saxophonist Brian Travers is a skyline full of Grenfell Towers, both in tribute to the 72 poor and non-white lives lost in that horrific fire and as criticism of conservative policies of "austerity, outsourcing, and deregulation" that have neglected the safety and essential needs of Britain's less well-off citizens in order to further reward corporations and the rich. All of this signals that UB40 have found their democratic socialist-leaning political voice again--and they deliver a set of powerful and pointed songs about inequality--whether it be class, racial, or economic--that hit all of their targets. In all, this is an effective bid for reclaiming their relevance, converting new fans, and is a real gift to the faithful who have stuck with UB40 through thick and thin.
The thread that runs through much of the album is how human and systemic greed corrupts, perverts, and destroys everything: Communities, nations, our shared notion of what is means to be a good and successful person, even the band itself (more on that later). The wonderfully laid-back "Gravy Train" is a dynamite update/response of sorts to Ken Boothe's hymn of deliverance, "Train Is Coming"--but this one is going pass the vast majority of people by, as it's about the yawning divide of income inequality and the rigged political and economic system the keeps on funneling wealth and opportunity to the rich at the expense of everyone else.
Another day, another dollar
Feels like every day's the same
And I've given it the best years of my life
For someone else to ride on that Gravy Train
And I say
Here comes the Gravy Train
You can hear that whistle blowing 'round the bend
You can hear the sound of laughing
As the Gravy Train is passing
But that Gravy Train, it won't be stopping here
They say we're all in this together
But it gets harder every day
And if I work for a hundred years or more
I still won't get my seat on that Gravy Train...
....Rich man living in his castle
Poor man begging at his gate
If we can only get up
And stand up for our rights
We can send them all to hell on that Gravy Train
In a similar vein, "I'm Alright Jack" is delivered from the point of view of a politician who's using their position as a public servant to gleefully line their own pockets, while knowingly forsaking the people they're supposed to help and represent.
Don't you give me your hard luck story
I don't care now you voted for me
I know austerity's breaking your back
But, I'm alright, Jack
Don't complain that there's no state housing
I've bought mine made a profit of thousands
There's not many left, but I can't help that
But, I'm alright, Jack
There's even commentary on how in our rapacious capitalist system someone who works hard, stays out of debt (earning a poor credit score in the process!), and doesn't exploit others is considered a "Poor Fool":
He's worked for minimum wage
Even survived the dole
But he doesn't owe a penny
To a living soul
He doesn't drive a big car
Or wear designer clothes
He tries hard to save a little
But a little soon goes
Any millionaire would tell him
He should forget his foolish pride
And take the whole world for a ride
But he's a fool (Poor fool)
He's a fool (Poor fool)
The flip side of having political systems focused enriching the already rich, connected, and powerful is that much is left unresolved in the world. In "All We Do Is Cry," our extraordinary technology connects and makes us witness to daily injustice and suffering worldwide, but there's little political will or courage to resolve some or all of it (since conflict elsewhere often serves nation's strategic interests and the arms manufacturers and exporters are making too much cash in the process; there's no money for them in peace).
We see mothers cry
As their children die
On our TV sets
While we sit and vent
But nothing gets done
As they pass one by one
All they do is die
And, of course, the band is concerned with events across the pond--the United States' narcissistic, self-dealing, money grubbing, white supremacist, chaos president, who is called out in "Bulldozer":
Trumpy Trumpy said
Your head must a full up a bumpy
Him dome must crack cause him so crazy
Ya Twittering daily like a baby
Him bring in the Muslim ban what dastardly plan
What a vindictive old racist man
But him plan did back fire Ninth Circuit judges called him a liar
Him is a man who love to play with da fire
But too much brimstone gone haywire
Him and rocket boy coming like pariahs...
Say what happened to UB40 now?
Some of them think dem bigger than Bob Marley, whoa!
Who's who in a the party now
Gould's lurking in the corner now
Some of dem flimsy, some of dem shallow, want dem money in a wheelbarrow
Dem mind is weak, dem mind it narrow, little after dat them get para
Three Yoko Ono's so craving, want new house new car and tings
Spangles and bangles and diamond rings, you can hear them coming dem a j'lingaling...
...One man try fe go solo, like the explorer Marco Polo
The attendance weak, de attendance low
Him have fe stop cause him woulda bruk fe sure...
Your best friend could be your worst enemy, him a backbiter turn spy turn thief
Him pride broke down, say him a creep creep
Oh gosh me bredrin you done know we have fe weep...
Suffice to say, this is a UB40 album proper, so there's also a great batch of mid-tempo love songs on For the Many, including "The Keeper" ("I will lift your spirit, whenever you are blue/I will be your constant, when no one else is true/I will always be the friend you need to get you through/And you will be the keeper of my heart), "Moonlight Lover" (a great Duke Reid track first recorded by Joya Landis that may have versioned a fair amount of the Jiving Juniors' doo wop single of the same name), and the emotionally shattered protagonist of "You Haven't Called."
Amazingly, this year marks UB40's 40th anniversary; For the Many is their 19th studio album; and the much of the founding core of the band is still together after all this time and tribulation: Robin Campbell (co-vocals/guitar), Brian Travers (saxophone/keyboards), Jimmy Brown (drums), Earl Falconer (bass/keyboards/vocals), and Norman Hassan (percussion/vocals)--augmented by long-time members Duncan Campbell (vocals), Martin Meredith (saxophone), Laurence Parry (trumpet) and Tony Mullings (keyboards). Plus, many of their guest toasters are repeat collaborators: both Pablo Rider (on "I’m Alright Jack") and Slinger (on "Gravy Train) appeared on the 1985 album Baggariddim, and Hunterz (on "All We Do Is Cry") previously co-wrote and sang on UB40’s single "Reasons" from 2005's Who You Fighting For?
UB40 is touring the UK this April and then hitting various spots in Europe in May and June. Then, in July and August, they'll be playing in venues across the US and Canada this July and August. It's been almost a decade since they've last been in North America and who knows when they'll make it back. So, you might want to make a point to see them, particularly since they'll be performing tracks from such a superb and compelling album.
+ + + +
[Notes: There is deluxe, double CD version of For the Many that includes an entire album of dubs, which we've ordered, but didn't receive in time for this review. Also, UB40 saxophonist Brian Travers recently was diagnosed with a brain tumor and will not be participating on the current tour (we wish him a speedy treatment and full recovery).]
+ + + +