Two months into the nineteen eighties, and British popular music was enjoying a particularly purple period, with brilliant post-punk bands like The Undertones and The Jam electrifying the singles charts. There was also a full-blown ska revival going on, with The Specials, The Beat and Madness in top form. Behind this, the reggae scene was burgeoning; Black Uhuru, Aswad and Gregory Isaacs were all popularising the genre. Into this pop landscape, UB40’s first single King/Food for Thought fitted perfectly; it was a little bit ska, a good deal more reggae, and there was a bit of dub thrown in – plus a distinctly ‘do-it-yourself’ post-punk sensibility.
A double A-side – with the first track being a beautiful dub-tinged paean to Martin Luther King Jr, and the flipside being a more uptempo dance-friendly number – the record slowly worked its way up the charts, and by Easter was getting large amounts of airplay. It topped the independent music chart for three months, reached number 4 in the British singles chart, and went on to sell nearly half a million copies – the first independent release to achieve such success. The band’s name – taken from the government form that every unemployed person needed to claim state benefits – was distinctive. The following album – released on 29 August 1980 – was called Signing Off, and referred to what people did when they got a job and left the unemployment register.
To the style-obsessed pop world of the nineteen eighties, UB40 didn’t measure up. They had a slightly mod look, but it was too casual for them ever to be pin-ups. Instead the band came over very much as ‘boys next door’ – a group of friends playing the music that they loved – which was precisely what they were. Being a mixed race group, many mistakenly thought they were on the highly fashionable 2Tone label, but the band was from Birmingham and had a much more reggae sound. In mid-1978, guitarist Ali Campbell, together with drummer Jimmy Brown and bassist Earl Falconer were joined by percussionists Yomi Babayemi and Norman Hassan, then saxophonist Brian Travers and keyboardist Jimmy Lynn. The lineup was completed by Ali’s brother Robin Campbell, also on guitar. Babyemi and Lynn left, with Mickey Virtue taking over on keyboards and Astro adding additional percussion and vocals. A year or so of heavy rehearsing in Birmingham followed, with a line-up that stayed the same for nearly three decades.
At the end of 1979, the band approached well known local musician Bob Lamb – former drummer of the Steve Gibbons Band – and asked him to record their songs. Unable to afford a suitable studio, they ended up in his bedsit with an eight-track open reel recorder, kept going by putting the same 50p coin through the electricity meter repeatedly. The saxophone parts were recorded in the kitchen for a richer, more resonant sound, and percussion – tambourines, congas, drums – were done in the back garden. “Everybody had a lot of fun making it, and you can hear it on the record. You can hear the summer… you can hear the birds singing”, recalls Lamb.
Recorded between December 1979 and July 1980, Signing Off captured the innocence of a group of gifted teenagers in love with the music they were making. It has a simplicity and a naivety that’s rare in any type of commercial release; there’s an immediacy and an energy to it that shows the band’s post-punk sensibility. It sounds less polished than any of the other chart albums of that moment, yet is a pleasure to listen to, and grows on you the more you hear it. “Nothing was hard work about that album, it was a bit of a dream that sort of fell out of the sky… It was almost effortless to make in that they were so good at the time, and so happy at the time with the success that they got, there was no effort in it”, adds Lamb.
Musically, the album is driven by Mickey Virtue’s heavily reverb- and echo-infused keyboard sound, added to which is a big, sumptuous bass and scratchy ska-style rhythm guitars. Raw but melodious saxophone work overlays this, and the result is a wide, expansive sound with big grooves and great percussive breaks. Campbell’s vocals are not to everyone’s taste but work well in the context of the songs, and the lyrics are intelligent and nuanced. UB40 brought social commentary into its songs – Food for Thought for example, was about famine in North Africa, long before the subject became fashionable in pop music. Even the two cover versions – Randy Newman’s I Think It’s Going to Rain Today and Strange Fruit (popularised by Billie Holiday) – are interesting takes. This is a special album with bags of charm and authenticity – things that the band’s later, far more slickly produced long players, arguably lost. If you’re a fan of the post-punk era and/or reggae, then it’s well worth seeking out.