You might not think a bunch of boys from Birmingham, England, would become one of the world's best-selling reggae bands.
But the reggae collective of UB40 has achieved just that, with 70 million in album sales, 50 UK chart hits and No. 1 smashes worldwide. From their most recognizable U.S. hits — "Red Red Wine" and "Can't Help Falling in Love" — to record-setting shows everywhere from South Africa to New Zealand, the band has taken reggae to a mass audience for the past 30 years.
Formed in 1978, the group has reggae roots coming from members' upbringing in multicultural working-class neighborhoods.
"I was brought up in an area where there was a great wave of immigration in the '50s and '60s — people from India, Asia, the Caribbean," drummer James Brown said.
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"I just happened to live in an area where predominantly the people were from Jamaica. Reggae wasn't on the radio, but people put dances on. That was what was happening in the area."
The eight-man group boasted the same lineup from its founding to earlier this year, when lead vocalist Robin Campbell and keyboardist Mickey Virtue both left. The band now tours with 10 musicians and guest artists.
Brown, fresh off a trans-Atlantic flight from England to New York the night before, spoke with The Bee about everything from the band's origins to its upcoming 24th studio album.
Q: You have a new record coming out soon. I understand you touch some topical issues in the release.
A: It's called "TwentyFourSeven" because it's our 24th studio album. It's got a smattering of love songs and a smattering of protest songs. We don't expect it to make any difference, but it's less frustrating when you've got an outlet for what you're thinking.
As I'm saying this I think, "God, this sounds like PR bull----, but really we actually enjoyed making this album more than any other. The new album has a nice live feeling but is polished enough to listen to over and over again. We try to cover as many styles of reggae, because reggae isn't all one thing: it's protest music, lovers music, dance music.
Q: Few reggae groups have broken into the mainstream the way you did. To what do you attribute your success?
A: It's a difficult question to answer. If we knew then we'd always be releasing successful records and so would everyone else. It turns out some of my least favorite tracks often sell the best. Because we're a collective, there are all kinds of different styles that come out.
Q: "Red, Red Wine" celebrates its 20th anniversary atop the U.S. charts this year. Did you realize when you recorded it you had such a hit?
A: I suppose you can hope, that's why you release it. But I don't think you could anticipate the success. "Red Red Wine" is a milestone for most people in our careers. It was a hit in the United States three to four years after it was a hit in other parts of the world for us. But hit records come and go and record sales come and go. I don't think we judge our success on whether we sell a lot of records, especially now, since no one is selling a lot of records.
In South Africa, we had the biggest walk-up, outdoor and indoor shows ever. And we had the biggest show in New Zealand. We're a working band, so those things mean more to us. "Red Red Wine" was great, but it's also an albatross around our necks sometimes. It drives people mad. It happens to even records you've loved, you get to hear them too much.
Q: You recently had two members, your lead singer and keyboardist, leave the group. How have you been able to keep the continuity of the group and its music with lineup changes?
A: There is a soul to the band; we're bigger than the individual parts. I think it's all about the sum of its parts in the end. As long as the main creative forces are there, which they are — nothing personal to the lead singer and keyboard player, but they didn't write many of the songs.
We have a lot of strong personalities and no one is a leader. Nobody is more important than anyone. (New lead vocalist Duncan Campbell) is the brother (of the former lead vocalist). So they've sung together as brothers all their lives. So really it was business as usual. We've all been great friends for years and years when we were at school.
Q: What can people expect from the live show?
A: I think we're pretty good live; we have been playing for 30 years now. If we can't get it right now, then, well ...
You can expect a lot of dancing, singing and familiar tunes. It's a straightforward live reggae show — no backing tapes, no backing tracks.You should go home feeling quite tired from dancing and with your voice a little hoarse from singing. It's a love and peace thing.