Notes on Music, Politics and Birmingham.
Robin grew up in Birmingham, on the top floor of a Victorian terrace in Balsall Heath. There was an Irish family below, an Indian family to the left and a West Indian family to the right. “It was a working-class ghetto” he explains “but there was unity – I mean obviously there was racism around, but we ate each other’s food, listened to each other’s music, hung out with each other in the youth clubs and coffee bars. It wasn’t segregated like it is now.”
When he passed his eleven-plus and went to grammar school, he soon discovered that the bright young things in his class were into rock. In Balsall Heath, however, it was reggae on the streets, Bollywood through the walls and folk-music through the corridors. This was before reggae was adopted by the Rastafarians, before it became ‘rebel music’ and before Bob Marley shifted the paradigm in the early to mid seventies.
“We were listening to ska, then rocksteady in the late 60s. Radio had introduced us to the Beatles, one Aunt was big into the Rolling Stones, the other a huge Everly Brothers fan. Motown was happening. There was just fucking good music everywhere.” It wasn’t until 1976 when he took his little brother, Ali, to see Bob Marley in concert, that he actually thought about seriously becoming a musician himself.
“It was the nearest thing to a spiritual experience I’ve ever had. I’m an atheist, but It just moved me in a way that I’d never been moved before. Bob Marley really changed the course of Reggae, weaving it in with the Rastafarian religion, changing the aesthetic. My friends started growing dreadlocks and talking about Ethiopia. It’s strange, looking back on it now at the time I felt like reggae had been hijacked by religious people. I was pining for the days when it was just Jamaican pop music.”
In 1980, UB40’s first album – Signing Off, was recorded and released. Along with their second album – Present Arms, it went platinum in the UK. Both albums were overtly political, with deep bass lines and deeper poetry. There was Madam Medusa (a sly dig at Margaret Thatcher), the anti-apartheid anthem Burden of Shame (conveniently left out of the South African release by their record company, to the band’s disgust) and of course, Tyler.
“Yes. Tyler. So Gary Tyler was a young black kid in Louisiana, framed for a murder he didn’t commit. He served four decades in jail, but there was no trace of it in the regular mainstream media. Jimmy (James Brown, drummer) read it in ‘The International Socialist’ and he was so moved by the injustice in the story that he wrote the song.”
“Saying that all artists are political is like saying that all milk-men are political. Some are, some aren’t. We just wrote about what we saw. About Britain. One in Ten was just a list of present-day statistics really. Just a list of shit that we didn’t like. We didn’t like racism, we didn’t like poverty, we didn’t like inequality. We were just having a moan.”
In 1983 they started their own record label and recorded their most successful album yet – Labour of Love. The melodies became brighter, the technology and production became much slicker, and their style began to hark back to the ‘Jamaican pop’ that they were listening to in the sixties, but with real mainstream appeal. Labour of Love went double-platinum in the UK, including the smash-hit cover of Neil Diamond’s Red Red Wine, Cherry Oh Baby by Eric Donaldson and Many Rivers to Cross by Jimmy Cliff.
“During the seventies, reggae was a little bit exclusive. Music was tribal. Your taste in music dictated who your friends were, where you drank, and how you dressed yourself. By unlocking those old love songs we opened reggae up to people that weren’t Rastas. It was beautiful because we were just doing the Jamaican pop we heard in the late sixties but to an entirely different audience.”
UB40 had crossed the genre-line in a way that few artists of the time had managed to. They had become pop royalty, even though deep down, their reggae roots were always apparent, just like the blues roots of Eric Clapton, the soul roots of Prince or the gospel roots of The Commodores.
I asked Robin what he thought about the music industry today.
“Look, music’s much more democratised now. You used to have to save up, buy a record, then play it with your mates. Your music was part of your identity. Now young people have access to so much music, tastes have become much more eclectic in a way. You could look at a mod, rocker, skinhead or someone with dreadlocks and you could tell what type of music they were into. It’s nostalgia though, that’s the most important. I find myself listening to older music all the time. It’s that emotional response that you get when you hear something that cuts deep into your identity or brings your past back to life.”
I can’t help but wonder if the millennial relationship with music, while broad, just isn’t as deep as it was when music was more enmeshed with culture and identity. Honestly, can you tell what music people are into by looking at them? I can’t. What do my clothes say about my music taste? How could they say anything, when today alone, I listened to classical, jazz, reggae, soul and some EDM?
Do you think that music has become a bit more meaningless?
“Not at all. It’s still all about the same thing, emotional communication. Look, there’s always been shit music being made, but I think on the whole, the way that the industry’s set up now is a good thing. Talented people will always rise to the top, it’s just now you have to search a lot harder for the good stuff because the archive is so massive. The golden era of record sales is gone for good – at one point we were selling 30,000 records a day, now, to get to number one, 10,000 listens and you’re there.”
UB40’s new album For The Many is out Feb ’19 on Absolute Records.