Food for thought. UB40 are one of Britain’s mostsuccessful ever bands. Though pop’s innovative winghas long since given UB40 their P45, they are now lessUB40 than UB40 million. Of course, having (presumably)a wide property portfolio stretching from the WestMidlands to JA doesn’t preclude you from getting intoa bit of a tizz about “five tons of megaton / sentwith love from the Pentagon” and stuff like that.
With a title like Who You Fighting For, you willbe entitled to expect, nay demand, righteous fervour,and indeed, some might say the times demand it.Reggae, at least in terms of roots, was never shy ofa little bit of protest ‘ere and there, and UB40 arenothing if not traditionalists.
As familiar as the Bisto waft of sunday roast, AliCampbell’s keening voice tells of “Queen and Country /Freedom Cry / God and Glory / Do or die / Propaganda,spin and lie” finally demanding “Who you are fightingfor?”. ‘Who’ being ‘the youth’ (remember them?).
Neat anti-war couplets abound throughout thepolemics of the title track, Plenty More, and WarPoem. However, as Boy George once proved, war,war may be stupid, but to ram home the message in themusic, those riddims better be as revolutionary as thesentiment. Otherwise you may as well be crooning about”junelight turning to moonlight” (which Campbellactually does on the Lennon / McCartney cover I’ll BeOn My Way) for all the impact its going to have. Withtheir Bisto kind of reggae, it was always unlikelythat UB40 would reach the level of militant stridencyso easily attained by some of their musicalantecedents.
‘Twas not always thus. Back in the days when nobodycould get a job on Maggie’s farm, the eight members ofUB40 invoked an atmos of smoky tension allied to someof the finest (and most underrated) protest-pop. Theydeservedly jostled for angry chart space with thelikes of The Jam and the whole Two-Tone ‘ting,though compared to the original product of Studio Oneand Trojan, the brummie boys were perhaps never goingto be anything more than particularly gifted artisans.Still, tracks like Madame Medusa and The Earth DiesScreaming had a particularly home-grown twist whichshould have put them in the same credibility categoryas Steel Pulse and Matumbi.
It’s with this history in mind that sees Who YouFighting For falling between the broadest of twostools. While Sins Of The Others may skirt allegoricalprophecy ( and easily copped clich� – “in the land ofmilk and honey/ the ship of fools go sailing) songslike Gotta Tell Someone (“the girl of my dreams / justtold me she loved me”) are more like the UB40 thatwere awarded lucrative film tie-ins, and much morelike the UB40 that have turned somnabulence into acareer choice.
Elsewhere, there are strained attempts to show thatthe boys are still ‘down’. Bling Bling is areggae-lite examination of the favourite subject ofageing, rich pop stars – yep, the all-roundshallowness of consumer culture (“diamonds and pearlsdon’t mean any thing”). Reasons is an uncomfortablecollaboration with Hunterz of the Dhol Blastersthat does neither Reggae or Desi any favours, with aneffect similar to finding your granddad playing MortalKombat in his Levi’s anti-fit.
The Status Quo of brit-reggae won’t care ofcourse. They’ve been nailing that once vitalrock-steady beat into soporific submission for yearsnow, and strangely, a lot of people like it. It’sreggae as if Bobby Digital never happened, and though reggae’s stellar past is thankfully now moreaccessible than it ever was, some revivals are betterthan others.
There is the odd compensation. Signing off with twocovers, Kiss And Say Goodbye (The Manhattans)and Things You Say You Love (The Jamaicans)gives Brian Travers ample opportunity to dip into theStax horn-chart book and decorate the soundscape with somelast-dance poignancy that this record doesn’t reallydeserve.
As for me, I’ve got a mediocre CD in me kitchen.What am I gonna do?