Talking to UB40 Jimmy Brown about his 40-year music career: ‘Reggae chose us more than we chose reggae’  

Who hasn’t danced on a UB40 tune during a hot Summer party filled with reggae music? We all have such memories … even if they are distant ones. To bring them up, I recently had chatted to UB40 historic drummer Jimmy Brown about his 40-year music career. Jimmy is an absolute joy and in this lovely interview he tells me all their plans for the 40th anniversary tour and explains why Reggae chose UB40 more than they chose reggae.  

The bands 40th anniversary tour, will see them play 38 dates across the UK, starting in Portsmouth on 29th March and ending in Guildford on 22nd May.  The band formed in Birmingham in 1978, Their debut album ‘Signing Off’ was released in August 1980 and is considered by many to be one of the greatest reggae albums ever released by a British band.  It was the start of a career that led to 100 million record sales worldwide, forty UK Top 40 hits – including three Number 1s (‘Red, Red Wine’, ‘I Got You Babe ft. Chrissie Hynde’ and ‘(I Can’t Help) Falling in Love with You’) – and a run of hit albums that have spent a combined period of eleven years in the UK’s Top 75 album chart, establishing UB40 as one of Britain’s most successful bands of all-time. The tour features UB40’s founding members Robin Campbell (co-vocals/Guitar), Brian Travers (saxophone/keyboards), Jimmy Brown (drums), Earl Falconer (bass/keyboards/vocals) and Norman Hassan (percussion/vocals), alongside long-time members Duncan Campbell (vocals), Martin Meredith (saxophone), Laurence Parry (trumpet) and Tony Mullings (keyboards).

Tour Dates here: https://ub40specialguests.seetickets.com/tour/ub40-special-guests 

Enjoy the chat!

Monica Costa: It’s a real honour for me to talk to you, Jimmy! You are one of UB40 founding members and you’ve been touring with the band the world for 40 years. 

 

JIMMY BROWN: Yeah. That’s really long time. We couldn’t imagine at the beginning that we would still be doing it 30 years later and we are still enjoying it. 

 

Monica Costa: It is unique and unusual for a British band from Birmingham to play reggae music. I always wondered why you did choose this genre and what your influences were. 

JIMMY BROWN: We were all friends when we were 11 years old, and all came from an area of immigrants from the Caribbean. Music that came out from the cars was reggae. We are surrounded by it. It was something natural really because we were living in the inner city area with lots of immigrants. Raggae chose us more than we chose reggae.  

We went to see Bob Marley in 1976 at the local Odeon gig. That was a big influence. There was a reggae band on every corner back in the 70s. It was a great time for reggae. At the same time there was glam rock in the early to mid 70s. But we did not like any of that. We liked reggae and that’s the medium we chose. 

Monica Costa: Why do you think reggae is so long-lived as a genre? 

JIMMY BROWN: Reggae is a very versatile genre. It is party music if you want to dance to it or it can be political if you want.  It can carry all these different things under one style. Reggae is also inclusive. A lot of people can like it, younger people and everybody who loves Bob Marley. But even rock lovers like a bit of reggae. It is unifying music that brings people together. 

Monica Costa: Is there a new audience for reggae nowadays? 

JIMMY BROWN: There’s always an audience for Reggae because it is a genre of music young people tend to like. It is  kid of avantguard. It does’t play by the rules. In the new album we have some dub. It is quite heavy. There’s some heaviness in reggae. It’s like an alchemy because it’s heavy but it’s light and uplifting at the same time. When I went to see Bob Marley and the whalers in 1976 – I could see that they were really classy and stylish musicians  but they had warmness too. It was kind of dirty too. The combination of the two is magical. 

Monica Costa: How did you find audiences now compared to the 70s and 80s? 

JIMMY BROWN: I’m not sure that there’s that much difference, to be honest. I mean, we, with the internet and technology, it’s made a big difference to the record business. Hasn’t really made much difference to the live business because, in the end, people have been doing that for hundreds and hundreds of years. Musicians turned up in a town, and they’d play, and they’d get paid, and that’s been going on for centuries. I think that will never change, people always want to go out and see a live band because, there’s something special about a live performance. There’s an electricity to it in the room, for a live performance, instead of a recorded performance, or miming, or to backing tapes or, which a lot of bands do these days. But, I think in the end if you play, you get up there and play, you create the dynamics in the room then, gigs are the same. We all have a good time, we all party, we dance, we sing, and we go home all satisfied, is the idea. So I don’t think that there’s that much difference really.

I think what’s happened is that we’ve got a lot of older people coming to the gigs obviously that became in the early eighties. We’ve also got the next generation, and the generation after that coming with us. And some young people who just wanna go and see a live band because, I think a good live band, is quite rare.

Monica Costa: Yeah, that’s right. Do you think it’s harder to make a living as a band these days?

JIMMY BROWN:    Much harder, yes, it’s much harder.

I think some good things had happened, there’s a democracy to the technology which their ability to just anybody, to make a record. When we first started back in 1980, it was a £1000 a day in a studio to make a record but, today you can make a record, you can buy the equipment to make a record, for few hundred pounds. I think that’s a really good thing because it means that, more people have access to the means of production, of music. It doesn’t have to go through a record company anymore, you can afford to make a record yourself without taking a big advance, from the record company. I think there are some good things about the music industry today. But, the record industry is dead.

Monica Costa:       Yes. It’s true.

JIMMY BROWN:    That’s right, young people don’t wanna pay for music really, recorded music.

Monica Costa:       Does that mean that you can only make money through live performance?

JIMMY BROWN:    That’s exactly what it means. Yes, really, the only way you can make a living in the music business now is, to get up on stage and play and, if you do well, you’ll get paid. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because, a lot of people can make a record, millions of people can make records but, not everybody can get on stage and play that record live. And, I think that, that separates the good bands from the bad bands.

Monica Costa:       That’s very true actually.

JIMMY BROWN:    You can’t just jump up on stage and repeat something that you put on to a record, unless you can play it.

Monica Costa:       Yeah, you managed to sell an amazing 100,000,000 albums worldwide and are still hold a massive appeal. What has been the secret of this incredible, international success, what do you think?

JIMMY BROWN:    It’s just all the planets were in the right position for it to happen, I don’t think there’s a formula to say, if you do this, then you will have this success because, probably taste is unpredictable. You can’t really predict what people are going to buy and what they’re gonna like, you can only do what you think is right. But you can’t really have a formula and say, if you follow this formula then, you will sell a 100,000,000 records because, we were just lucky I think, in the end.

Monica Costa:       You’re good and lucky.

JIMMY BROWN:    I don’t feel embarrassed about that luck, I enjoy it and we don’t question it. We used to question it, we used to … why us, why has this happened and now we don’t question it, we just enjoy it.

Monica Costa:       Yeah. Well that’s the way to go.

JIMMY BROWN:    Absolutely because you can’t find an answer because it’s completely unpredictable. We were just lucky, in the right place, at the right time, did the right things and, it happened for us.

Monica Costa: Moving on to the songs and so, but actually, it struck me that the name UB40 is the designation that stood for unemployment benefit form 40 in Birmingham.

JIMMY BROWN: UB40, that’s what it stands for, yes. Because at the time, we didn’t have jobs so, we had to live on unemployment benefit and, the unemployment benefits subsidised us giving up our jobs and working every day, to learn to play an instrument and put the band together. So, we know, we’re getting some wage, but it also shows the benefit of good welfare. A good welfare system and people being paid some good money, rather than just terrible money on welfare it’s a good thing because, people will learn new things and I think people still need to have a decent life, even if they haven’t got a job.

Monica Costa:       And also you made a lot of political songs as well and the first album Signing Off, wasn’t it the signing off from your claim of unemployment benefit wasn’t it, that kind of innuendo?

JIMMY BROWN:    Kind of yes, the Signing Off, it was a saying that here we are, we’ve arrived, we can stand on our own two feet. We don’t need to take benefit from anyone else. But also, it was an indication of how the government hated working people, if they were happy to create so much unemployment. Millions of people unemployed and to us, that’s an insult to working people, that you can leave them being unproductive and that’s okay in society and, it’s not okay. People should be productive, but people should be looked after, and I think that, we always fought against the white wing government that was in power at the time. And, we’ve always been political and our new album, is one of the most political albums we’ve every made, I think.

Monica Costa: I like that, music has to be a bit political in a way. Sometimes it’s nice to have decent texts, lyrics.

JIMMY BROWN:    Yeah, if you’re going to say something then, instead of saying your platitude or moon and spooning and grooving, just say something that you care about. I couldn’t be inspired to write love songs over and over again. I want to talk about different things and also, if I was in a room with the Prime Minister, or a Politician, what would I say to them. I put that in a song because, maybe one day they’ll hear it. I don’t like the idea of pop musicians thinking they can educate the people. I don’t like the idea of raising awareness and, I think that, that’s conceit of the music business that, they think people need the opinions of pop stars, who know how to look at life. I think that, that’s completely wrong. When we write a political song, we are aiming at the Politician, not at the people.

Monica Costa:       I love that, well done. This is good stuff, and, what are you talking about the songs like, what are your favourite UB40 songs of all time and why?

JIMMY BROWN:    That’s a really hard question to answer because, a friend told us the other day that he made a calculation of all the music we’ve recorded in 40 years and, we’ve recorded over 500 songs.

Monica Costa:       It’s quite a lot.

JIMMY BROWN:    It would be very difficult to choose one that would say, that’s my favourite song.

Monica Costa:       You can mention a few.

JIMMY BROWN:    UB40, there’s the Love Song, Labor of Love, cover version side like Red, Red Wine, Can’t Help Falling in Love and then there’s the other side to UB40, which is the political and a different style, more radical than the love songs that we do. We’re a little bit of a split personality. We have a lot of success with the cover versions and the love songs and these subsidise our political songs.

Monica Costa:       Exactly. Which is the right thing to do, you did it all.

JIMMY BROWN:    We tried to. If we do a live show, we’ve got a lot of hits but, we wanna play more obscure music too, so if we space the hits over the length of the show, we can, between hits, do more experimental things. So, the two things fit together, they’re not a contradiction.

Monica Costa:       And also it’s a good way to do it, so you can sneak in some of your most controversial things or, experimental things in between the hits, so people are still happy-

JIMMY BROWN:    If people are not really responding too well to the politics then, they’ve got a hit record coming up on the next tune. We are lucky to have that duality.

Monica Costa:       Yeah, definitely. And you’ve got a new single out called Gravy Train?

JIMMY BROWN:    That’s right, yes.

Monica Costa:       I’ve listened to that and it sounds also quite electronic, it plays a little bit of electronic music in between the new reggae.

JIMMY BROWN:    We do use electronic tunes… reggae adopted technology really early because, they haven’t got much money so, if there’s a machine that can take the place of a drummer, or a keyboard player, a machine’s cheaper. So, you don’t have to give food to the machine, you just give it electricity so, with reggae, a lot of artists adopted the technology of computers, and sequencing and midi, and all those things that have developed over the last couple of decades. Poorer people are the first to use that because, it’s democratic and cheaper and so, I think reggae does take on technology, in a different way, to British pop music, or American pop music. But technology is there to help the musician create the music they wanna do so, I’m not against using modern sounds and modern techniques and technology to make your music. As long as it doesn’t take it over completely.

Monica Costa:       Last but not least, what’s next for UB40?

JIMMY BROWN:    Well, we are just beginning our 40th anniversary so, we are not really thinking too far ahead from that but when we’ve finished in England – we’ve got about 3 months of that – then, we’re going to America. We are going to be coming to Europe and we are going to be very busy this year, so, I’m not thinking after this year, at all really.

Monica Costa:       Yeah. It’s busy enough isn’t it?

JIMMY BROWN:    Yeah, exactly, we just go year by year and each year, we don’t really plan any further than a year ahead.

Monica Costa:       Well Jimmy, you’ve been a pleasure to talk to and I hope I’ll come your gig in London, the last one I think it’s in a month’s time or so.

JIMMY BROWN: In The Roundhouse. Come and say hello and we’ll have a glass of champagne together.

Monica Costa:       Oh yeah, why not, that’s brilliant.

JIMMY BROWN:    Of course, it is!

Monica Costa:       It’s rock and roll! Ah ah! Oh no, it’s reggae (wink).

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