If you haven’t already do watch the aptly named UB40 documentary ‘Promises and Lies’ on the BBC iPlayer. If you haven’t seen it **SPOLIERS!**
It’s extraordinary viewing – unlike most other BBC4 docs it’s not really a celebration of their music. In fact what is startling is just how good the early stuff is, and just naff it gets as they get into Labour of Love series and basically make it their business to water down classic reggae hits for mass consumption. However, as the music gets slicker and more Cod-Reggae the more globally huge they become and therein lies the problem.
Both sides of the UB40 divide contribute so we hear from the ‘official’ UB40 led by Robin Campbell and then Ali’s ‘UB40’ which now includes Astro and Mickey Virtue who have defected to his side. In spite of global megastardom and years of selling out enormodomes and selling gazzilions of LPs and CDs everyone concerned is in seriously reduced circs. Nobody seems to know where the UB40 millions went and both sides of grown men in their late 50s (brothers and lifelong friends) are at each others throats very publicly over who has the right to be UB40 and who shafted who.
It’s almost like a ‘Whodunnit’. For a while I found myself siding with Robin’s UB40 – until they decided to a Country Music album. Maybe I’m on Ali’s side – except this is the man who disowns the pre-‘Labour of Love’ era – everything before it was ‘out of tune’ he says and Labour of Love should have been the band’s first album.
If either side were selling a used car I think would buy from Robin’s lot rather than Ali, Astro and Mickey but I’m really not sure. What’s clear is that most of the money they made was spunked on maintaining a ludicrously expensive studio complex, keeping 8 band members and crew living in luxury and bales and bales of weed – which itself contributed to all concerned being less than astute in terms of keeping an eye on their finances over the years.
For Ali to leave the band and then decide to contest to ‘owning’ the UB40 name is a tricky one especially in an 8 piece band and he’s hardly a Morrissey or a Jagger or an Ian Curtis. He’s been replaced by brother Duncan who has the air of a man plucked from a pub darts match in Balsall Heath and plonked on the stage of the O2 with a mic. For now both sides would seem to have some claim to the name which ultimately is a (seriously reduced) pension plan for everyone concerned.
It would seem both sides probably knew more than they were letting on about the financial situation and you’d perhaps have sided with the ‘official’ band were it not that Astro – a somewhat haunted presence – had either been stitched up by his former bandmates in ways that were not quite made clear..or had just fallen out with his lifelong pal Travers and gone over to Ali. God knows. Bill Curbishley crops up and he says he had a go at the managing them – and he couldn’t sort them out – and he used to deal with Keith Moon and the fecking Who!
This isn’t like the ongoing bickering over Bucks Fizz (yes it’s still going on) – this is a band who can still put thousands of bums on seats or tents in festivals in territories even Iron Maiden can’t reach so the stakes are seriously high for these. Clearly they’d be better off cutting their losses, shaking hands and getting back together but nobody concerned seems to have in them to do that. So, watch it and tell me – whose UB40 side are you on – cos I’m not sure!