They defined reggae music for a generation as they took their rootsy but stylish sounds to every corner of the globe. As founding members of Britain’s biggest reggae band UB40, singer Ali Campbell, second vocalist Astro and keyboardist Mickey Virtue topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic with hits like Red Red Wineand (I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You. But, in all their years of stellar success, the trio never transferred the spiritof UB40 into an acoustic setting. That is about to change with the release of Unplugged, an album that breathes new life into an intoxicating mix of timeless covers and classic UB40 originals by reinterpreting them in a stripped-down style.The idea for the album stemmed from the acoustic sessions that Ali, Astro and Mickey have recorded for BBC Radio 2 over the past few years. On realising that they had ten newly minted arrangements of UB40 standards, the trio initially planned to cut a string of acoustic EPs. However the project ballooned into 14-track album, resulting in a record that imparts an inventive new spin to early gems like Tylerand Food For Thoughtplus the huge hits with which UB40 later wooed the world.‘This is the first time we’ve taken iconic UB40 tunes and done them in an acoustic style,’ says Ali. ‘It all sounds very fresh. It’s completely unlike anything we’ve done before. When we were doing the radio sessions, we had to work in cramped conditions. We couldn’t use a full band, so we came up with these new arrangements, working on different songs each time we did a new session. When Universal got involved, they suggested adding more hit singles. We eventually came up with a balanced track listing that has plenty of hits plus a few albumtracks. The songs were remixed, but no new instruments were added.’Unpluggedmaintains the giddy momentum that Ali, Astro and Mickey built up on 2014’s Silhouette, the first studio album to feature all three members since Astro signed up in November 2013. With Ali, closely followed by Mickey, having left the original UB40 after thirty years in 2008, the reintegration of Astro consolidated a set-up that has now grown into an 11-piece touring ensemble, complete with a three-piece horn section. The album, as befits its unvarnished nature, doesn’t feature all 11 musicians, but the confidence gained on the road acted as an important spur in the studio. As Ali says: ‘Having Astro back really boosted our fortunes. I put this group together eight years ago, and they are all fantastic, hugely talented players. Now we’re a real band, too. We all get on well, and we’re all thoroughly enjoying it.’Among the highlights on the album is a new version of I Got You Babe, featuring one of Ali’s two musically gifted daughters. One of the girls, 22-year-old Indica Campbell, supported Ali and the band in London and Birmingham in 2014. This time, it is the turn of Kaya Campbell, also 22, who sings the lines originally performed by Chrissie Hynde when I Got You Babetopped the UK charts in 1985.According to Ali, Kaya wasn’t remotely intimidated by the prospect of stepping into the shoes of a rock ‘n’ roll legend who played a key role in the rise of UB40. ‘Chrissie discovered us,’ he says. ‘She saw us in a London club and took us on tour with The Pretenders at the time of our first single. But Kaya is very confident. She’s a self-taught pianist and guitarist, and she nailed the song in two takes. She sounds great.’That pop standard is one of four number one singles on Unplugged, which also contains new takes of (I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You, Red Red Wine–complete with a fresh Astro talk-over ‘in an acoustic stylee’ –and a new version of Baby Come Backfeaturing Pato Banton, the Birmingham reggae star who took the song to the top of the charts with UB40 in 1994.With Mickey adding upright piano and the arrangements fleshed out with shuffling percussion and Ali’s melodica, the other covers given a makeover include Lord Creator’s Kingston Town, Eric Donaldson’s CherryOh Baby, Winston Groovy’s Please Don’t Make Me Cryand the Chi-Lites’ Homely Girl.A clutch of vibrant originals have also been given the acoustic treatment, including Food For Thoughtand Tyler, both from UB40’s debut album Signing Off, and the 1981 single One In Ten. Those songs were written in the
harsh political climate of the early Eighties, but their social concerns seem no less relevant today. The new arrangements hark back to the past, too: after all, Signing Offwas recorded on a simple, four-track tape machine in the tiny studio of producer Bob Lamb in 1980.Another original to be given a fresh sheen is 1986’s Rat In Me Kitchen, with Astro again providing talk-over vocals. ‘That song was based on a real incident,’ recalls Ali. ‘Astro came over to my house in Balsall Heath to talk about lyrics, but I didn’t want to talk about the band, as I had a rat hiding behind my washing machine! So Astro wrote the song on the back of that incident. Some people thought it was about the government of Margaret Thatcher, but it had nothing to do with politics.’Most of the lead singing onUnpluggedis handled by Ali, and he is in fine fettle throughout. His voice, which Astro describes as ‘like a fine wine’, is instantly recognisable as the one that underpinned the Labour Of Loveseries and many other UB40 landmarks. As Mickey says: ‘Any song Ali sings could be a UB40 tune, which shows how important he was to the band. His genius, both now and back in the day, is the way he works a set of lyrics into a great melody.’Since reuniting three years ago, Ali, Mickey and Astro have developed into a formidable touring outfit. Their world tours have included visits to North and South America, Nigeria, South Africa, Dubai and Papua New Guinea. 2016 saw them return to the States, play Australia and visit the vineyards of New Zealand for a Red Red Winery tour. They also made an emotional return to the UK in April, when they perform songs from the first two Labour Of Lovealbums on an arena tour that included shows at London’sO2 Arena, the Brighton Centre and the Barclaycard Arena in their native Birmingham.‘We’ve had an outstanding two years on the road,’ says Ali. ‘In America, we’re playing huge venues that we last visited twenty years ago, and I can’t wait to play arenas in the UK again. For me, it’s all about promoting reggae. At the end of the day, fans don’t care about what goes on behind the scenes. They only care about the music, and that’s what we’re giving them. We’re having a great time and we’re doing it in style.