UB40 File

UB40 File:

 

The albums that I have looked at thus far have two things in common: they are both anarcho-punk records and I was listening to them in my early teens. Albums remind me of how I felt when I first listened to them; they can transport me to a time and a place and can stir up the emotions that I felt back then. Of course, an album, like any good piece of art, can constantly renew itself according to the changing mood or life cycle of the individual. UB40 File has this capacity in spades. Unlike my other two choices this band aren’t punk but rather reggae and I wasn’t listening to this in my early teens but rather I came to appreciate it as I was in the latter stages of that tumultuous time. First off I do need to clarify that this choice is technically not an album per se but rather a collection which, comprises the bands debut Signing Off along with a few EPs. UB40 are generally known for their cover albums and as a consequence are rather unfairly written off. Some would accuse them of the homogenisation of reggae and others might say they have no right to be playing reggae in the first place because the majority of the band are white guys from Birmingham. Look, bands playing covers is a debate that always divides music fans some are bad i.e. Scissor Sisters Comfortably Numb springs to mind but some covers are fantastic for example Whiskey in the Jar by Thin Lizzy (more languid than the original and because of this captures the mood of the lyrics more concisely). So, I’ll leave the whole cover thing aside for the moment.  As for homogenising reggae, well people do have a point with that one but I suppose that all underground music has to move into the mainstream at some point and UB40 can’t be blamed for people buying their music. Do they have a right to play reggae? Absolutely. Bands like UB40 represented a multicultural Britain and more importantly a multicultural Birmingham. This was the music that they grew up with; it was part of their everyday life. Jamaica and Jamaicans had changed the culture of Britain. The Clash played reggae covers, Don Letts dub soundsystem was the pulse of the early punk movement and the two-tone bands that followed had brought to the foreground how two cultures could mix the whole together. UB40 were a reflection of their society, they were a multiracial band doing what they did best although they were aware that this society wasn’t without its problems.

 

A good album should reflect the life of those that made it but a great album should tap into the zeitgeist and reflect the life and times of the listener and this is what makes UB40 File such a great work.  The opening track ‘Tyler’ is about Gary Tyler and the alleged miscarriage of justice in his case and highlights the racial tension that still existed in America. The subject of race runs through the album with ‘King’ asking what has happened to the dream of MLK and a plaintive cover of one of the true great protest songs ‘Strange Fruit’. A year after these songs were released Britain would be rocked by race riots showing that UB40 could sense the problems bubbling underneath. The name of the band was also, in and of itself, a political statement coming as it does from the Unemployment Benefit card, number 40. Unemployment was a hot topic, ‘Little By Little’ deals with the issue of poverty and the inequity between the rich and the poor. The lyrics are backed by a lively skank, the music offering hope to the listener. ‘Madame Medusa’ is a dub heavy tune castigating Thatcher’s Britain (it is funny that in all the three albums I have looked at she looms large. I wonder is it true that great art comes from great suffering, if indeed that is the case Irish bands will be knocking out classics for years to come). Cutting sharp guitars, bollocks rattling bass, the thwack of a snare and the blare of sax with biting social commentary make for a great album: this was the sound of a band on form. Smoke nearly drifts from the speakers.  Themes turn to larger concerns particularly on ‘Food for thought’ and ‘The Earth dies screaming’. The former is a song about famine in Africa, a serious subject but you can’t help but want to dance to the groove that the band lay down, the latter looks at the possibility of the end of days and the slow, lazy bass line is up there with anything committed to vinyl by ‘Family Man’ Barrett or Robbie Shakespeare. Throw in a few instrumental jams in the shape of ‘Adella’ and ‘Reefer Madness’ and millions of socially conscious stoners were happy out.

 

Being happy out is exactly what a body of music should do to the listener. Even though the albums I have looked at so far do have heavy lyrical themes they do bring me a lot of joy. They remind me of what it means to care about the society that surrounds me both at the local and the international level. In many ways music should transcend ideas of nationalism, UB40 are an English band influenced by the music of the former colonies, I am an Irishman listening to them. Three distinct cultures enmeshed through a series of 12 notes and 26 letters. Themes of love, injustice and poverty are universal. As I originally stated albums have a capacity to bring us back to a time and place, in the case of UB40 File it transports me to the seventeen to twenty year old me. It calls to mind friends that have fallen by the wayside, a lifestyle that is now out of reach and endless nights of booze, laughs and more. A place where possibility stretched ahead and things seemed purer. Of course, nostalgia makes fools of us all and I am drifting into the Irish malaise of cosy sentimentality. Great art should endure and this album does it’s themes of social inequality, racism and poverty still resonate and as more and more people join dole queues UB40 remind us just what is possible when you sign off.

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