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The story of UB40 is complicated and messy and ultimately, as shown in the recent documentary 'Promises & Lies', a story of friends and a family torn apart. The programme is still currently available on BBC iPlayer and is well worth a watch if you didn't catch it. It's hard not to be struck with real sadness at this gang of young boys who started a reggae band, topped the singles chart and sold more than 70 million records all being interviewed individually or in small groups because, since lead singer Ali Campbell left the band after thirty years in 2008, brother has turned against brother and friend against friend. They were perhaps all victims of their own success and who really knows where the blame lies or where the money really went. It is clear everyone has an opinion but the only thing we know for sure is that, despite the countless memorable singles securing them a place in national consciousness and often providing a soundtrack to Thatcher's Britain that still feels relevant today, something went badly wrong somewhere.
So now we have UB40 presenting this double album which comprises original members Ali Campbell, keyboardist Mickey Virtue and Astro on one side and the rest of the original band who now tour with Duncan Campbell providing lead vocals on the other. Yes, that would be Duncan Campbell, elder brother of Ali, who along with guitarist brother Robin no longer seem to speak to their sibling.
The 'Unplugged' album, Part 1, features 16 tracks offering "a new spin on UB40's early gems plus the huge hits with which they later wooed the world." But Part 2 is a straightforward greatest hits compilation featuring the original recordings, so let's deal with that first. There is 'I Got You Babe' featuring Chrissie Hynde to 'Don't Break My Heart' to 'If It Happens Again'. It's twenty tracks and it's comprehensive as you would expect, well paced and virtually every track is a joy to rediscover if you've not heard the band for a while.
Everyone should own a copy of UB40's 'Greatest Hits'. In fact at least three separate people 'own' my copy since it seems to be the album I've had nicked the most. They wrote some fantastic songs, of which 'One in Ten' is probably one of my favourites. Standing in the job centre with my brother, growing up in a Northern city and seeing its main industries torn apart, while the miners' wives collected food and money for their striking families and famine in Africa dominated the news, this song always seemed to be the soundtrack. Not all their songs were as political as first assumed though.
I have very mixed feelings about the song 'Rat In Mi Kitchen' primarily because I am terrified of rats. Terrified. Writing about how scared of them I am makes my chest tighten and yet that 1986 classic is just so bouncy and earwormy that despite the subject matter I happily sing along anytime I hear it. Ali Campbell recalls that the song was based on a real incident, "Astro came over to my house in Balsall Heath to talk about lyrics, but I didn't want to talk about the band, as I had a rat behind my washing machine! Some people thought it was about the government of Margaret Thatcher, but it had nothing to do with politics!" So sometimes the song is exactly what it seems to be about. It's a useful reminder for any reviewer in danger of inferring clever interpretations where there are none to be found.
'Higher Ground' starts and I am fourteen again and it reminds me of the best friend I had, sitting on her bed singing along before we got ready to go out, along with 'If It Happens Again', because obviously we weren't going to take any crap from anyone ever. UB40 at their best never sound old or dated. I was a DJ assistant in the dim and distant past and did my fair share of weddings and youth clubs: UB40 are always a safe bet if you want to get the dance floor full.
So now we turn to the new stuff, the sixteen 'Unplugged' tracks. Fun fact, 'Baby Come Back' featuring Pato Banton was one of the first CD singles I ever bought and I played it to death. So I was looking forward to hearing what a stripped down version would sound like. Well...It retains the cheeky chappie mixed with pleading of the 1994 version, but overall it just feels a bit slower. In fact, if I was being brutally honest, I could say the same for every one of these tracks. It feels like they're all slower but don't always offer the rawer acoustic sound I tend to associate with unplugged offerings. In 'Red Red Wine' I'm promised it will be "complete with a fresh Astro talk-over in an acoustic stylee", but overall I just feel like I'm waiting for it to really get started when it ends.
The cover of the late great Prince's 'Purple Rain' is unexpected to say the least but the jaunty reggae beat works and gives the song a totally different, less dramatic but really enjoyable vibe. The new version of 'I Got You Babe' features Ali's 22 year old daughter Kaya singing instead of Ms Hynde. She has an amazing voice but it's not really a father and daughter song is it? It's not all bad news however, the new version of 'One in Ten' sounds even stronger, the voices tug even more at my heart perhaps because we are decades later and it feels just as relevant to call out a world that ignore statistics and people it deems lesser. 'Please Don't Make Me Cry' does feel stripped back in a very effective way, as does 'Food for Thought'. The percussion carries the track and is complimented very effectively with a little guitar and piano. This is the sort of track that keeps us buying unplugged type albums of songs we already own.
Overall this is a mixed bag. The greatest hits are as fantastic as ever, so good in fact that it makes me sad that I'll probably never see the original UB40 in their entirety play these songs. They make me want to dance even when describing my idea of Hell and I love them for it. I can't quite love the 'Unplugged' album though. I want more than slower tempos, I want stripped back to let the song shine, I want less perfect sounding vocals and more emotion.
Commenting On: Profile - Ub40
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Just like the history of the band themselves, Fiona Hutchings finds 'UB40 Featuring Ali, Mickey & Astro Unplugged' paired with the original band's greatest hits a complicated and sometimes challenging combination
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