UB40 FEATURING ALI, ASTRO AND MICKEY – Unplugged + Greatest Hits (UMC)

ub40 unpluggedThe 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.

  1. ‘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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. ‘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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. ‘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.
  10. ‘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.
  11. ‘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.
  12. ‘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.
  13. ‘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.
  14. ‘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.
  15. ‘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.
  16. ‘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’.

David Harley

Artist’s website: http://ub40.org/

‘Many Rivers To Cross’:

RETURN OF THE CROPREDY EXILE – By Dai Jeffries

Whisper this, but I hadn’t been to for twenty years. I had felt it was getting too big for my personal comfort – when I first went there was one campsite, now there are seven – but an insistent invitation drew me back this year. In fact what are bigger are the camper vans, the folding chairs and, dare I say, the waistlines. We older and …er…more substantial punters do like our comforts. Some aspects of the festival are more technological and sophisticated. The bar is a marvel of mobile opulence although initially no more efficient than in the days when there was one Wadsworth’s lorry, lots of barrels and one choice of beer. That’s no reflection on the brilliant bar-staff, by the way, but logistics do sometimes let the side down.

An innovation during my absence is the big screen which, in between displaying safety information, “televises” the show. It can be a boon for those at the top of the field although it’s often obscured by a forest of flagpoles. The interesting thing is that even down the hill at the front, unless you’re actually leaning on the pit barrier, you find yourself watching the screen, not the performers. Sure, you get 10 foot high images of John Tams’ face and Graeme Taylor’s plectrum technique but it feels wrong. If they could just pipe it into the cable TV network we wouldn’t actually have to go there. Er…maybe not.

Everything else is pretty much the same. The stewards are unobtrusive, laid-back and helpful and with road closures around the site their help was invaluable. The familiar spirit of the festival remains. Two examples that I heard about: one couple left their car keys in the door when they went to bed and woke to find the car locked and the keys safely guarded and a purse containing credit cards and a good deal of money was lost overnight and returned intact the following day. I’m not sure where else that would happen. T-shirts remain the badges of identification and mutual recognition although in general clothes are less outré – that goes with the Aldi and Tesco carrier bags. There are still more food concessions than can you eat from without the aid of a tapeworm, lots of silly hats to buy and, increasingly important as one gets older, civilised toilets. Don’t laugh, it’s important. And despite promising myself that I wouldn’t visit the CD store, I failed to keep my promise.

The rain loitered with intent on Thursday afternoon but stayed away as Fairport Convention opened the proceedings with a short and none too serious acoustic set followed by Katriona Gilmore & Jamie Roberts and Blair Dunlop. Hearing ‘Walk Awhile’ as the second song really sets you up for the weekend. Bob Harris introduced Home Service as the evening’s compère, John Tams, was too modest to introduce himself. It is so good to have the band back together although it has to be said that their failure to invite Bill Caddick to return raises awkward questions. Their set was familiar material – new boy Paul Archibald had to learn another back catalogue after all – and, in the current climate, it was impossible to listen to ‘Alright Jack’ and ‘Sorrow’ without reflecting on how little things have changed.

Hayseed Dixie might be considered a one trick pony but they perform the trick very well, although I have my reservations about their interpretations of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. A couple of serious moments were hidden in the rockgrass but I’m not sure if anybody noticed. They had a lot of fans at the festival, particularly among those who found Home Service too intellectually challenging to actually bother listening to. UB40 closed the day – slick, professional and, I have to admit, not my thing at all.

Before it actually opens to the public the arena is rather eerie. I watched Seasick Steve sound-checking with his pounding drums reverberating around the empty site. Steve was Friday’s headliner and I still can’t make up my mind whether he’s the great original everyone reckons he is or a charming old fraud. Don’t get me wrong, I love his music, but I don’t buy into his story. If I’m right he’s only following in the tradition of Bob Dylan who, in his early days, fed interviewers the most outrageous lies and watched them lap up everything he said. Listen to Folksinger’s Choice for prima facie evidence.

Moore Moss Rutter provided a suitably relaxed start to Friday, another day when the weather couldn’t make its mind up. The Travelling Band began with a Blind Lemon Jefferson tune which felt like a smart move. They moved on to their own material variously augmented by viola, cello and brass and played an exciting set which was also VERY loud. I rather liked them despite that but the contrast in approach was hard on Steve Tilston who had to follow them. I also like Steve and his partnership with The Durbevilles feels like a very natural match on a song like ‘Jackaranda’. This was a good set and The Oxenhope EP was one of my purchases. Charlie Dore provided yet more country-style music – the theme of the day, it seems. I found her set rather relaxing which was good for the late afternoon slot but I confess that I was waiting for The Dylan Project.

Like his hero, Steve Gibbons is seventy this year. How did that happen? Everything about him is unique from his look to his guitar style and the way he used to make Keith Richards appear the picture of robust good health. They played a tight set with none of Steve’s extemporising as they mixed the downbeat – ‘Dark Eyes’, ‘Sweetheart Like You’ and ‘Cold Irons Bound’ – with the simpler sentiments of ‘Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You’ and ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’. ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ seemed a most appropriate choice given the events of the preceding week.

The Urban Folk Quartet was another band who benefited from my visit to the record stall but they had released a live album at a special Cropredy price and I wasn’t about to pass that up. UFQ are another band who have found a new approach to traditional music. Frank Moon’s oud features heavily, Joe Broughton seems to play more guitar than fiddle but who’s counting, Paloma Trigas is a bundle of energy and Tom Chapman joins a small roster of singing percussionists. If you haven’t heard them yet, you really should.

The Coral: ahead of their time or brilliantly retro? They included ‘Ticket To Ride’ in a spectacular show of their 21st century rock and would have made a better final act. It was unfortunate that there was a delay before Seasick Steve took to the stage. There was none of the redneck southerner schtick you get on TV and he seemed rather low key. I chose to watch him from the top of the field to see how he would work with such a big crowd and sad to say people around me were drifting away into the cold night long before the end of his set. I’d like to see him live in a smaller, more intimate, venue but so meteoric has been his rise to fame that he doesn’t play small gigs any more.

Richard Digance is a fixture as Saturday’s opener. Part comic, part social commentator and all warm-up man he did a superb job, getting the crowd on its feet doing silly things and listening to some serious songs – ‘Jobs’ is absolutely brilliant. It’s a combination that pulled the audience together and pointed it in the right direction. Next up, it was lovely finally to see The Shee on stage: fiddles, flute, mandolin, accordion, harp and voices performing their mixture of Scottish and American music and songs. I like the way they wear their posh frocks on stage, too.

Blockheads without Ian Dury: does it work? Well, the sun came out and England won a test match while they were on stage so I guess it does. The band isn’t exactly the same, inevitably, but in Derek “The Draw” Hussey they have a suitably eccentric lead vocalist who doesn’t attempt to imitate Dury but manages to channel his attitude. Songs like ‘Inbetweenies’ and ‘What A Waste!’ have been part of the band’s DNA for so long that they can’t fail to sound good.

My live experience of Lau suggested that they could be even louder than The Blockheads but the festival sound crew just about kept them in check. Martin Green seems to have more equipment every time I see the band – now he has a keyboard to go with his accordion and pedals adding new textures to Lau’s sound palette. The accordion was frequently used as a bass instrument with Martin playing a melody on the keyboard.

A decade ago Jim Lockhart introduced me to the art of ligging Dublin-style. This involved more pints of stout than I care to remember, being invited to a couple’s engagement party and being told by a lady with the reddest hair I’ve ever seen that my destiny was linked with the sea. As the ferry back from Rosslare didn’t sink I haven’t taken her too seriously. At the time Jim was head of production at RTÉ 2fm but in his previous life he played keyboards and flute with Horslips. Sadly they broke up before I had chance to hear them live which made their performance at Cropredy something of a milestone for me. Yes, Horslips are back, although Johnny Fean’s brother Ray now sits in for drummer Eamonn Carr. The outrageous stage clothes are gone and the band is rather more soberly dressed now but can still play those hits: ‘Dearg Doom’, ‘Trouble With A Capital T’, ‘Charolais’ and ‘Mad Pat’ as well as the soaring instrumentals from The Book Of Invasions.  It was a moment of magic.

I’ve tried listening to Badly Drawn Boy several times and it hasn’t worked. He has one great song, ‘Born In The UK’, but that’s not enough to hold my interest. My opinion was not helped by the fact that Horslips were cut short while Bad milked a smattering of applause for two encores. Look, this is personal recollection and I’ll be as partisan as I like, OK?

A typical Saturday set by Fairport Convention consists of some compulsory songs, explorations of the byways of their back catalogue and a succession of alumni and friends doing their thing. This wasn’t typical. Its centrepiece was a complete “Babbacombe” Lee which occupied a third of the programme and, of course, there’s a new album to promote which doesn’t leave a lot of time. They opened with ‘Walk Awhile’ and closed with ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’, ‘Matty Groves’ and ‘Meet On The Ledge’. ‘Crazy Man Michael’, ‘Honour And Praise’, ‘Mr Lacey’ and ‘The Hiring Fair’ were the other oldies. Ralph McTell dropped in for a couple of songs and PJ Wright and Phil Bond augmented Fairport when lead guitar and keyboards were required but otherwise the band stood up to be counted. I’m glad I heard “Babbacombe” Lee having managed to miss it on the spring tour and the use of films on the big screen added an extra something to the show. ‘Matty Groves’ was illustrated by a video featuring Barbie and Ken and what appeared to be a meerkat in a submarine – it was late, I’d had a beer or two: who knows what I saw?

So, has Cropredy grown too big? Yes, I think it has but I’ll qualify that by saying that the infrastructure is quite capable of coping with the 20,000 people who turn up each year. But on Saturday afternoon it was almost impossible to move around the field without kicking, jostling or stepping on someone and it was impossible to sit quietly and mind one’s own business without being kicked, jostled or stepped on. Thursday has now grown into an official day and the fringe occupies two pubs in the village. It may be time to consider a second stage. I would have been more than happy to see some of the acts play a second set in a smaller venue or some of the fringe artists accommodated there. It would take the pressure off the main area and restore the relaxed atmosphere that existed back in the eighties. I missed that. 

Dai Jeffries

For more information on Fairport Convention visit: http://www.fairportconvention.com/

Dai has also created a Flickr photo set from the festival which you can view by clicking on the following link:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/daijeffries/sets/72157627345454269/