The Unplugged album (along with the Greatest Hits compilation), by the band calling itself UB40 Featuring Ali, Astro and Mickey, means that UB40’s current status deserves and requires a little clarification.
In 2008, frontman Ali Campbell left the band, followed soon after by keyboard player Mickey Virtue, and in 2013 by percussionist and vocalist Astro. In due course, the three of them were reunited in the line-up represented on the Unplugged CD. Meanwhile, Ali’s brother Duncan replaced Ali as the original band’s vocalist.
There now seem to be two versions of UB40, with some tension between the two bands resulting in a still unresolved legal dispute over the use of the name and some muted verbal sparring on their respective websites.
The Unplugged CD which is the main subject of this review is the work of the three core members of the newer incarnation of the band, Ali, Astro and Mickey, and consists of re-recorded interpretations of hit singles recorded by UB40, or on which UB40 members (especially Ali Campbell) were featured. The Greatest Hits CD, on the other hand, consists entirely (as far as I can tell – I only have promotional copies) of original recordings by the band as it existed for most of its life up to 2008, and which did, of course, also include Ali, Astro and Mickey.
First of all, I’ll look at the Unplugged CD: where an earlier version of a track is featured on Greatest Hits, though, it seems reasonable to compare the two versions rather than consider them in isolation.
- ‘Kingston Town’ revisits the 1970 song by Lord Creator which was a hit for UB40 in 1989 and also features on the Greatest Hits CD. The arrangement is essentially a stripped down version of the older version, with guitar taking the lead part and piano taking the rhythm part. The vocal part proves that Ali’s voice hasn’t lost its charm. However, the unplugged recording suffers from the lack of the heavy underlying bass guitar part characteristic of so many reggae recordings (including the 1989 UB40 version). And I don’t think it gains from the extended outro.
- Neil Diamond’s song ‘Red Red Wine’, like the older version, owes its reggae flavouring to Tony Tribe’s 1969 version. This update has a ‘toasting’ talk-over by Astro, as did the original version on the 1983 album Labour Of Love. The version found on the Greatest Hits CD seems to be the shorter, toastless1983 single.
- Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Many Rivers To Cross’, like the original, has a somewhat gospel-y feel enhanced by the organ backing. It doesn’t reproduce the synthesizer parts or backing vocals of the older version.
- This version of Eddy Grant’s ‘Baby Come Back’ doesn’t particularly resemble the Equals version from the ’60s, but revisits the 1994 version by Pato Banton that featured Robin and Ali Campbell, and again features Banton.
- Elvis Presley’s ballad ‘(I Can’t help) Falling In Love With You’ was written by Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore and George David Weiss, though the melody is essentially that of ‘Plaisir d’Amour’ by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini (also known as Martini il Tedesco). This re-working follows the 1993 version by UB40 rather than Presley’s (or Martini’s!) – that version is included on the Greatest Hits CD.
- ‘Purple Rain’ by Prince, reworks the version by Ali Campbell (previously recorded for Radio Riddler’s Purple Reggae album. It’s not on the Greatest Hits CD.
- Sonny Bono’s ‘I Got You Babe’, originally a hit for Sonny and Cher and later a hit for UB40 with Chrissie Hynde, is here re-recorded with Ali’s daughter Kaya Campbell taking the female vocal part.
- The first UB40 original on this CD is ‘One In Ten’, a song of social commentary said to refer to a contemporary statistic: 9.6% of the workforce in the West Midlands was said to be claiming benefits in the summer of 1981. It does a good job of expressing the prevailing alienation and polarization of the time. The guitar part lacks expression compared to the atmospheric sax on the original recording, but the harmonies are as strong as ever.
- ‘Homely Girl’ is another reworking of a UB40 cover version of the 1974 Chi-Lites hit. However, the jaunty reggae arrangement has more in common with the Inner Circle arrangement. The Unplugged version is notable for substituting some in-your-face but smiley melodica for the subdued synth on the Greatest Hits version.
- ‘Please Don’t Make Me Cry’ is a Winston Tucker song originally covered on the Labour Of Love album, and not included on Greatest Hits. This also includes some melodica, presumably played by Astro, and it’s surprisingly effective.
- ‘Food For Thought’ was the first UB40 single (that version being included on here on Greatest Hits). On the Unplugged version, the original saxophone parts are approximated on guitar and the vocals seem further forward in the mix. While I miss the sax, I prefer the vocal balance here.
- ‘Cherry Oh Baby’ is yet another cover version, this time of a lightweight but very popular song by Eric Donaldson. The lighter arrangement for the Unplugged version allows more focus on the vocal hooks than the version from Labour Of Love (also included on Greatest Hits.
- ‘Rat In Mi Kitchen’ was apparently written by Astro about a rat in Ali’s kitchen… Both versions are entirely listenable, but the brass on the Greatest Hits version, including trumpet from Herb Alpert, does give it some extra oomph.
- ‘Tyler’, originally recorded on UB40’s 1980 debut album, is based on the disturbing case of Gary Tyler, who served 41 years in prison in Louisiana before being released in 2016. The older version isn’t included on Greatest Hits, but the Unplugged version works very well with its minor melody and plaintive melodica riff.
- ‘You Could Meet Somebody’ is a re-recording of a UB40 original originally released on the Rat In The Kitchen album, and not included on Greatest Hits. This is another track with melodica to the fore and pleasant harmonies, though the lead vocal is a little nasal.
- ‘That’s Supposed To Hurt’ is from Ali Campbell’s first post-UB40 solo album, Flying High. A pleasant end to the CD.
Many of the tracks on the Greatest Hits compilation were re-recorded for Unplugged, so I won’t consider those tracks again below. The remaining tracks, however, are as follows.
- ‘Don’t Break My Heart’ was the follow-up to ‘I Got You Babe’. Unusually for this collection, it sounds more New Romantic than reggae.
- ‘The Way You Do The Things You Do’ was written by Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers of The Miracles, and an early hit for The Temptations. This version, however, is closer to the catchy reggae arrangement by Eric Donaldson.
- ‘Higher Ground’ is a UB40 original from 1993. Catchy tune and brass arrangement, interesting lyric.
- ‘Breakfast In Bed’ is 1988 track featuring Chrissie Hynde’s vocals. It’s a cover of a song recorded by Dusty Springfield for her 1969 Dusty In Memphis This is a decent version if you don’t mind the change of rhythm, but for me Dusty’s version is definitive.
- ‘Here I Am (Come And Take Me)’ is an Al Green song, but with an arrangement modelled (according to Wikipedia) on a version by Irving ‘Al’ Brown.
- ‘King’ is another UB40 original: good harmonies and a strong lyric relating to Martin Luther King.
- ‘If It Happens Again’ is another UB40 original, reported to have been written in response to the Conservative party’s election success in 1983, though that isn’t clear from the lyric.
- ‘Bring Me Your Cup’ is also a UB40 original. Nice brass arrangement.
- The last track and the last original on the CD, ‘Sing Our Own Song’ has a strongly anti-Apartheid lyrical theme, and provides a rousing finale.
UB40’s Greatest Hits has quite a few songs with which I wasn’t well acquainted. The combined package as a whole offers a good selection of songs associated with UB40. And as a standalone CD, Unplugged is a good introduction to the work of the Ali/Astro/Mickey lineup in the context of the older material, and may hold particular appeal for those who know their recent Silhouette album. But is it successful as a fresh re-imagining of the original recordings? In general, we’re presented with a version of an older arrangement, but modified to adapt to the more limited instrumental palate available to the smaller line-up. In some cases, it works very well – certainly I enjoyed the melodica passages more than I expected. In some other cases, the vocals are more effective than on the original recordings, though sometimes the phrasing seems exaggeratedly ‘reggae’. But I’m not hearing any complete recasts like, for instance, Clapton’s acoustic version of ‘Layla’.
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‘Many Rivers To Cross’: