REGGAE stars UB40 maybe 35 years into a chart-topping career but they are still breaking new ground.
Constantly touring and producing new material, the band are always ready for a new challenge and so were delighted to cap a race day at Uttoxeter with a concert performance.
Drummer Jimmy Brown says: “It’s a different world for us and we have experienced it already at Newmarket. It’s awesome when you are there, the thunder of the hooves, the atmosphere.
“The racing itself gets people hyped up and I can understand why you would want extra entertainment after that when the lights go down.
“It’s an exciting place to be – it was an eye opener when we did our first racecourse.”
UB40 won’t be having a flutter on the horses however.
“To be honest we aren’t really gamblers,” says Jimmy. “The Grand National once a year, that’s about it.”
Jimmy was a founder member of the band back in the late 1970s and has played a major part in the creation of the UB40 legacy.
He says: “We could never have guessed it would last as long as it has. We have had a couple of careers’ worth already really.
“We had early hits from the Signing Off album and then a few years later a massive success with Red Red Wine and The Labour of Love series.
“Then in the 1990s our biggest selling album came out, Promises and Lies. So we have sustained the success over a number of years.
“We have suffered at times like any other band because the music industry has changed such a lot since the advent of the internet and downloads but it’s still an unbelievable story and I can’t believe how lucky we are to still be doing it. This tour has been sold out and has created a great buzz.”
So is there a secret to the longevity of the band?
Jimmy says: “Success in the music industry is unquantifiable, otherwise you could guarantee it every time. If you could get a winning formula then record companies would apply it to every act they sign, knowing they would be successful. But that doesn’t exist.
“If there is a secret for us, it’s that I think our music is approachable. We have sold in every corner of the world and have transcended cultures. We are just as big in Polynesia as England. It translates to so many different countries and maybe that’s why it has kept us going all this time.”
Jimmy was introduced to reggae music growing up in inner city Birmingham in the 1970s.
He says: “The music chose us really. There were a lot of immigrants from Jamaica and you could hear it coming out of people’s cars and houses. Tamla Motown dominated the charts but reggae music dominated the streets where we lived.”
He says: “It’s so long ago now and you are used to seeing multicultural bands these days. The advent of dance and house music, which is really multiculatural, changed all that. A DJ can be black or white and that revolutionised music as far as race was concerned but when we started there weren’t any mixed bands. There were a few Two Tone bands but the idea of being white and playing reggae still isn’t accepted by some journalists.
“There was a lot of racism around back in the late 1970s as well. The National Front was getting what UKIP do today - about 15 per cent of the vote. So, yes, we were pioneers.
“What mattered is that we were accepted very early on by our audience and other reggae artists.”
American success followed for UB40 doing what many UK bands have tried and failed to do, topping the charts in America.
Jimmy says: “That was pure luck. What happened was that five years after Red Red Wine was a big hit everywhere else in the world a radio station began playing it. They were bombarded with requests for it, other stations began playing it and it all snowballed and we went to No 1. We had a No 1 album then with Labour of Love 2, and another couple of Top 5 hits in the States.”
There are contrasting reports on the number of albums that the band have sold – from 70 million to in excess of 100 million. They are phenomenal figures, even at the lower end of that scale.
Jimmy says: “It’s somewhere in-between those figures but probably more towards 100 million. They are impressive figures.”
They are also the kind of statistics that modern bands can only dream of.
“It’s very hard to make money out of records now,” says Jimmy. It’s a good job for us these days that we are a good live band. I think we are better live than on record. So it’s OK for us as we have done it for so long we are comfortable on stage.
“But we accept that we will never get back to those number of sales and maybe neither will anyone else. It costs you more in advertising than you make from a No 1 record these days. You have to have X Factor phone call votes to make money out of records. It’s not really a very good business model any more.”
Live, UB40 have a great back catalogue to draw on but Jimmy thinks it’s important that they carry on producing new music.
“We are taking a bit of a risk,” he says. “We play a handful of hits but we are playing a lot of new material and really old material. We don’t want to be a karaoke type band playing hit records everyone knows. We are still a working band making new music and we want to perform that. We don’t want to only rely on the hits, even though we are grateful to have them.”
Jimmy has never left UB40 but former band members Ali Campbell, Astro and Mickey Virtue have and there’s now an alternative line-up out there.
“I don’t want to say too much about the legal side as it’s in a process,” says Jimmy. “But to be honest I don’t go out of my way to find out what they are saying. We have our own job to do and career to pursue, what our ex-singer does is of very little interest to me really.”
UB40 can be seen at Uttoxeter Racecourse on May 17. Go to www.uttoxeter-racecourse.co.uk.