UB40’s Ali Campbell: “There will never be a reunion between me and my brother”

In Does Rock 'N' Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz a grizzled artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the years in the trenches has affected the ol’ grey matter. This week: Ali Campbell, best known as singer of UB40

On a remix of whose chart-topping 2019 hit does Birmingham rapper Jaykae have verses that reference UB40?

“Who’s the ginger fellow? Is it Ed Sheeran?”

CORRECT. It’s ‘Take Me Back to London (Sir Spyro Remix)’, featuring Stormzy, Jaykae and Aitch.

“Got that one! I was flattered, as I always am to get mention in somebody else’s lyrics.”

There are two competing versions of UB40: the one that replaced you as lead singer with your brother, Duncan, and your band – UB40 featuring Ali Campbell and Astro. Do you think you’ll all ever bury the hatchet?

“No, that’ll never happen. They’re failing miserably and we’re flying high, so I wouldn’t dream of going back to them. There will never be a reunion.”

After the ‘other’ UB40 appeared at a bizarre press conference endorsing Jeremy Corbyn in 2016, which ginger frontman said: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has much in common with UB40. They are currently as divided as his Labour party’?

“(Laughs) Er, Mick Hucknall?”

CORRECT. Of Simply Red. What did you think when the rival version of UB40 (fronted by your brother Duncan) did that?

“We’re all socialists and obviously we’d support the Labour party, but I wasn’t too keen on Jeremy Corbyn. I thought he was a bit antiquated and he put everyone off by wearing his Lenin hat, calling each other ‘comrade’ and singing ‘The Red Flag’. I think that’s all too old-fashioned now and a modern Labour party doesn’t need that stuff.”

Do you prefer current Labour leader Keir Starmer?

“No, not really. With Brexit and the pandemic, the politicians have shown their true colours. They’re a bunch of headless chickens who don’t know what they’re doing, and we can see they’re useless. You had Cameron running away after Brexit happened, and generally our politicians stink. That goes for all parties as far as I’m concerned.”


Which controversial Supreme Court judge allegedly got into a fight after a UB40 gig in 1985 with an Ali Campbell lookalike?

“I can’t remember his name. Are you on about the American who thought he was having a fight with me after a concert? It’s complete nonsense.”

WRONG. It’s Brett Kavanaugh who, as a college student, was reported to be involved in an altercation with a man some thought was you.

“That’s him! It’s just bollocks. I don’t go for drinks across the road after a show (Laughs). I’m back at my hotel. And you know, I would have battered him anyway!”

Any other memorable false stories involving you?

“After UB40 played the Montreux Jazz Festival once, the newspapers reported that us and Depeche Mode had gone on a boat that sunk. Robin [Campbell, guitarist] was quoted as saying: ‘And then the rest of the band jumped in to save the beer’, which wasn’t true. I couldn’t see us hanging out with Depeche Mode back in the day.”


In Family Guy, which character’s tricycle has the licence plate ‘UB40FAN’?

“Bloody hell, what’s the little bald baby called?”

WRONG. He’s named Stewie Griffin.

“I did see that. We got a mention on Friends once as well where they said they’d come back from a UB40 gig, which we were chuffed about.”

Stewie isn’t the only criminal mastermind to be a fan of UB40. Apparently you produced a song written by Reggie Kray…

“What happened was I was in a late-night club in Birmingham, drunk at 3.30am, and [Peter Gillett, Kray’s so-called ‘adopted son’ whom he met in prison ] whipped his guitar out and started singing a song: ‘You act so macho all through the day / But in the hours of darkness you’re the other way’. We were all laughing at him and asked: ‘Did you write that song?’. He went: ‘No. Reggie Kray did’. Being a complete idiot, I offered to produce it.

“I’ve still got the letters [Kray] sent me from prison. The first went: ‘Thank you for looking after my boy. He said you’re going to do a record with him and we’re really pleased about that. God bless, your friend Reggie Kray’. Then I lost interest in the project and got a second letter saying: ‘Friends are telling me you’ve lost interest. Remember: you kick the pup, you kick his master. God bless, your friend Reggie Kray’. This is all manically scribbled in different coloured inks – red, green, everything. (Laughs)”

“Obviously I went back to the studio and finished the song called ‘Closet Queen’, and put whips and gunshots on it. Then I got a third letter saying: ‘Thank you for looking after my pup. Your picture is on my wall above my bed. God bless, your friend Reggie Kray’. (Laughs) No record company would touch it with a barge pole.”

What number did UB40’s debut ‘Signing Off’ reach on NME’s Best Albums of 1980 list?

“I don’t know that one! Number Two?”

WRONG. It was 13.

“Unlucky for some!”

A lot of that album’s subject matter – such as racial bias in the eyes of the law and high unemployment – seems timely at the moment…

“The saddest thing is that our first single, ‘King’ is over 40 years old and it’s just as relevant today as it was then. We wrote it after we’d seen a documentary about Martin Luther King Jr, and those pictures of policemen kneeling on people’s necks in the 1965 Watts riots are the same as you see happening in England when police are arresting black kids today. We were a young and hopeful band dreaming of a Rainbow Nation, but since then, I think things have actually gone backwards.”


According to a MI5 whisteblower, UB40 were one of four “subversive” bands that the agency kept files on. Can you name any of the other three?

“Were Crass in there? Sex Pistols?”

CORRECT. You only missed John Lennon.

“We’re in very good company! I think we behaved suspiciously back in the day (Laughs). It might have been our lyrical content they were worried about but I have no idea why they would spy on us.”

Ever fraternise with any of your fellow subversives?

“No. I never met the Sex Pistols or John Lennon, but I’ve met Paul McCartney a few times. He’s a lovely bloke, and phoned me up once when he was in Jamaica just to tell me he liked my album. When we did Live 8 in 2005, he asked me to sing ‘The Long and Winding Road’ with him and I refused because I didn’t know the words. I didn’t want to stand there going ‘The long and winding road la, la, la, la’ in front of billions of people, so I bottled it!”

Which hotel heiress’ debut single faced legal action over it sounding too similar to ‘Kingston Town’*?

Paris Hilton.”

CORRECT. For alleged similarities with her 2006 song ‘Stars Are Blind’.

“It really was a total lift. When I heard it, I said what almost everybody does: ‘Wow! That’s more or less ‘Kingston Town’ all the way through’. It was almost comical. I don’t know who sued her – it wasn’t us.”

It was the copyright holders of the song, Sparta Florida Music Group, who started legal proceedings. In 2006, UB40 also played a House of Blues show where the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal and Gwen Stefani turned up and outed themselves as fans…

“We were upset because when Gwen Stefani came into the club, she was upstairs in the balcony and the fuckers who run the club put the spotlight on her all the way through the show – which must have made her uncomfortable. But we love Gwen and No Doubt, particularly stuff like ‘Underneath It All’ that they did with [reggae legends] Sly and Robbie. She knows her reggae. She came to another big show after the House Of Blues one – and we gave her a smokeable present, so she was happy. Her husband at the time [Gavin Rossdale of Bush] came up to me the day after and went: ‘What the hell did you do to my wife?! She was all over the place when she got home!’ (Laughs)”

*Kingston Town is a 1970 song by Lord Creator that UB40 made famous when they covered it in 1989.


UB40 were nominated for Best Group at the 1984 Brits. Who beat you?

“I’ve no idea.”

WRONG. It was Culture Club.

“Well… would you believe it! We’ve never been into industry patting each other on the head. We were offered the Brit Award for Outstanding Contribution to Music, but I was an idiot and said: ‘What do we want a lifetime achievement award for? We ain’t finished yet!’. I’ve got an Ivor Novello Award [for International Achievement] as well, but they mean nothing. I think that because I got nominated for an Ivor Novello for my B-15 Project for ‘Girls Like Us’, which was a garage track, in 2001. But I was pipped to the post by Bob the Builder! Which says it all. It’s a bit like being beaten by Culture Club! (Laughs) I shouldn’t say that – I like Boy George.”

Which sitcom character once said: ‘I’ve got a broad taste, from the Britpop bands like UB40 and Def Leppard right back to classic rock like Wings’?

“You’ve got me there!”

WRONG. It’s Alan Partridge.

“Brilliant! (Laughs) Steve Coogan’s a funny guy and I like him.”

Collided with any Britpoppers?

“I’ve met Noel Gallagher several times. In Australia, he was taking the piss out of us because we were playing The State Theatre in Sydney and he was doing a big festival and he was ribbing me going: ‘Oh, are you only playing the State Theatre then?’ Then his festival got cancelled (Laughs).”

Name either of the two people who impersonated you on the celebrity specials of Stars In Their Eyes.

“Brian Harvey from East 17.”

CORRECT. The other was Jeff Brazier. 

“They always do ‘Kingston Town’ don’t they? Brian Harvey is a really great singer. I loved East 17’s Christmas Number One ‘Stay Another Day’;  it’s a beautiful song.”

The verdict: 5/10

“Do I win a prize?”


UB40 Featuring Ali Campbell & Astro’s ‘The Unprecedented Tour’ begins in April 2021. Their album ‘Unprecedented’ will be released next year