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Back in the 1970s, a group of working class lads from Birmingham, who knew each other from the local youth clubs, started a reggae band.
Named UB40 after the unemployment benefit form they were familiar with, the gang were barely out of rehearsals when they were picked up by Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, then at No.1, who took them on a tour that changed their destiny.
Going on to secure chart-topping hits of their own, including Can’t Help Falling In Love which reached No1 in the UK and US in 1993, the band split amid some bad feeling in 2008 and now continue as two separate acts.
Original singer and rapper Astro – real name Terence Wilson, 57 – has re-grouped with original co-singer Ali Campbell and keyboard player Mickey Virtue to form UB40 Reunited, who will play a sold-out gig at Rochester Castle on Friday, July 18.
In his strong brummie accent, the father-of-five and grandfather-of-six, who still lives in Birmingham, talked Jo Roberts through his transition from dead-end jobs to selling out New York’s Madison Square Garden.
What were your early musical influences?
“I grew up near Balsall Heath. It was a very multicultural area and as we got into teenage years, that’s when we all found music and started having school discos. From then, music took over my life. My earliest musical influence was U-Roy, he was, in my opinion, the first rapper in the world, even before the Sugar Hill Gang. Artists like John Holt, Alton Ellis, Errol Dunkley, Dennis Brown were all my idols from the age of about 11.”
Did music seem like a realistic career goal for you as a youth?
“I had 47 jobs before the band, a lot of them only lasted a couple of hours because I was really picky and choosy. Sometimes I’d walk into a machine shop and if I just didn’t like the surroundings I’d tell them to send my cards back to the dole office, and I’d find another job. Back in the early 1970s you could walk out of a job or get sacked in the morning and you could find a job the same day in the afternoon, so I was fairly prolific in doing so. I’ve done everything from making light fittings, working at Butlins, Cadbury, I’ve done it all.”
How did the band come together?
“I was the last one to join the original band, we knew each other through the youth clubs. All these little community centres just sprang up in our neighbourhood and they were the only things that were open to us at that age. It wasn’t until a few years later when I left Cadbury that I ran into Mickey Virtue and he told me that he’d joined UB40. He said come down and have a look. So I went and haven’t looked back since.”
Your first album, Signing Off, was recorded in a bedsit, so it sounds like times were hard?
“It was the norm at the tail end of the punk era – everybody was trying to do something and you didn’t have to have loads of money to accomplish things. We recorded the first album in [producer] Bob Lamb’s bedsit, using two eight-track tape machines. It was underneath his bed, which he had on stilts and we had to record in shifts. On lots of tracks in the first album you can hear birds twittering away in the background, and traffic. It does prove that you really didn’t need to spend loads of cash on big, expensive studios just to create a masterpiece.”
When did you get the feeling that things were taking off for UB40?
“The whole thing’s been a bit like a fairytale – I haven’t got tales of spending years trawling around the pub circuit. We fly-postered our neighourhoods with the name of the band and it was funny going into pubs and hearing people saying, ‘Have you seen UB40?’, ‘Yeah,yeah’, so we’d already got the name out before we’d even recorded anything. Everything on Signing Off was everything we knew – we knew 13 songs and that was it. Then with the next album we had a repertoire of 25 songs. We were very arrogant, we were totally convinced that we would be successful and as it happens we were absolutely right. We actually only did about a dozen gigs before we went to London and we were doing a show at the Rock Garden and Chrissie Hynde was in the audience. She came backstage afterwards and said she’d enjoyed the show and would we be interested in going out on the road with her. At the time she was No.1 in the singles and albums charts with Brass in Pocket. We checked our diaries and said, ‘Oh, go on then.’ We ended up doing a 30-date tour around Britain and released our first single, a double A-side King/Food for Thought. By the time the tour ended the record was at No.4 in the charts, so our success was pretty immediate and the rest is history."
Looking back over the years, can you pick out a favourite song?
“It’s really hard to pick out one because your favourites change with every album. Everything you do, you consider it to be the best thing that you’ve done. One track I love is Young Guns from the Guns in the Ghetto album, I think it’s such brilliant lyrics and a wicked melody, it’s the complete package and it sends goosebumps over me whenever I hear it, even to this day.”
Which are the fans’ favourites?
“There’s quite a few – Can’t Help Falling In Love, Kingston Town, Red, Red Wine – those are three songs that we couldn’t possibly do a show without putting in the set. Ali’s just done a track with Radio Riddler, Purple Rain, and it’s been going down an absolute storm. It sounds great on record but, for me, you’ve got to hear it live to really appreciate the musicianship.”
What are your happiest memories with the original band?
“We’ve had so many fabulous moments throughout our career, but one of my fondest moments was when we went to No.1 in the billboard charts in the States and we were playing Madison Square Garden the same week. The only other band in history to be at No.1 and sell out Madison Square Garden at the same time was The Beatles. All I could say was, ‘Wow’.”
What is different about performing outdoors at somewhere like Rochester Castle?
“The fact people can bring a picnic and chill out, spread out. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed the day’s going to be beautiful. We’ve been doing some castles and stately homes, and it’s a totally different environment to stadiums, it’s a lot more relaxed and you can bring the whole family.”
The night after UB40 Reunited, for which tickets are now sold out, the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra will take to the same stage to close this year’s Castle Concerts series with pomp and ceremony.
Rounding the event off on Saturday, July 19, the Royal Philharmonic will perform a selection of classical favourites, including the Sailor’s Hornpipe, Rule Britannia, Jerusalem and of course the timeless Land of Hope and Glory.
They will be joined by one of the country’s finest large choirs, Hertfordshire Chorus, as well as Jo Appleby and Noah Stewart. Tickets cost £35. Visit www.thecastleconcerts.co.uk or call 01634 338338.
On Sunday, July 20 the attitude is 'while the stage is there, let the musicians play on.'
This ethos allows young up-and-coming acts from across Medway to step up at Rochester Castle on Sunday afternoon for the Under Siege concert.
Started in 2008 as a showcase for local rising stars, Under Siege spans the musical kaleidoscope from rock and pop, and R&B to classical. Attracting crowds of more than 3,500, the factor that sets this big gig ahead of the others on offer during the Castle Concerts series is that it’s completely free.
See 15 top Medway acts including Teenage Coast, Venetia, Manny Amoah, Zak Warren, Proud to be Sinners and Hollow Body among others at the Castle on Sunday, July 20, between 1pm and 3.30pm. Visit www.facebook.com/undersiegeconcert
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