UB40 have just announced plans to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their seminal debut album, ‘Signing Off’, by performing the whole album live during a tour of intimate venues across the UK throughout October and November 2010. In addition to performing ‘Signing Off’ in it’s entirely, UB40 will perform a second set featuring some of the band’s most loved tracks.
To further celebrate the albums 30th anniversary, EMI will release a special, remastered double-CD together with a bonus DVD. The album features hit singles ‘King’/‘Food For Thought’ and ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’ (#4 & # 6 on the UK singles chart, respectively), along with other UB40 classics such as ‘Tyler’, ‘Madam Medusa’ and ‘Burden of Shame’.
It's funny to think that once upon a time UB40 were considered every bit as relevant and trend-setting as 2-Tone bands like The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat. I would actually go as far as to say the band's first two albums, 'Signing Off' (released in 1980) and 'Present Arms' rival much, if not all of the 2-Tone output. The album artwork for ‘Signing Off’ was a master stoke, famously depicting a replica of the bright yellow unemployment card from which the Birmingham-based band took its name: Unemployment Benefit Form 40. The title of their debut album also made direct reference to someone moving off of collecting unemployment benefits. Indeed, the band was known to allow anyone carrying their UB40 card into shows for free. Design wise and marketing wise the first album and its tour was on par with anything that 2-Tone did. Rumor has it that Jerry Dammers did approach the band with a offer to record for the label, but he was politely turned down.
In my humble opinion, UB40's 'Signing Off' remains one of the best reggae albums ever released and it had a profound impact on me as a young musician (I remain a fervent fan of the band despite their commercial ups and downs). First I was inspired by the band's politics and world outlook as well as their multiracial makeup which was a powerful statement on its own. I was also motivated by their story: a group of school friends decide to start a band. More interesting was the fact that most of them did not know how to play their instruments when the band started, Instead, lacking suitable work, they spent time in a dingy basement rehearsal space learning their instruments by playing along to reggae covers. It was time well spent as they emerged in 1979 with a batch of fantastic singles and album cuts.
UB40's grip on the pop-reggae market today is in stark contrast to their indie beginnings. In fact it may be difficult for younger fans to comprehend just how their arrival shook up the British musical scene. They appeared just as 2-Tone had peaked and the UK reggae axis of Steel Pulse, Aswad and Matumbi was starting to make musical waves. UB40 did not fit into either musical camp. Their rhythms may have been inspired by Jamaican reggae and ska, but they had such an original take on the genre that all comparisons were moot. Even their appearance on the singles chart was unusual, as they placed three double A-sided singles into the Top Ten in swift succession before releasing 'Signing Off.'. Both sides of their debut single — the roots rocking indictment of politicians refusal to relieve famine on 'Food for Thought' and the dreamy tribute to Martin Luther "King" were included on the disc, as well as their phenomenal cover of Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" off their second single.
The new album cuts were equally strong. The moody roots fired "Tyler," which kicks off the set, is a potent condemnation of the U.S. judicial system, while it's stellar dub "25%" appears later in the set. The smoky Far Eastern flavored "Burden" explores the dual tugs of national pride and shame over Britain's oppressive past (and present). If that was a thoughtful number, "Little by Little" was a blatant call for class warfare. Of course, Ali Campbell never raised his voice, he didn't need to, his words were sharp, and the sweeter his delivery, the deeper they cut.
Today, the group have moved on from their radical past (having recently weathered a nasty break with Ali Campbell who was replaced by his brother Duncan), but there's no mistaking their militancy here. The music was just as revolutionary, their sound unlike anything else at the time. From deep dubs shot through with jazzy sax, to the bright and breezy instrumental '12 Bar' with its splendid loose groove, that is transmuted later in the set to the jazzier and smokier 'Adella.' It's hard to believe this is the same UB40 that topped the UK charts with the likes of "Red Red Wine" and "I've Got You Babe"." Their fire has dampened and the band has mellowed, but on 'Signing Off' it blazed high. It stands the test of time, still accessible to the pop market, but edgy enough for those fans convinced there's nothing about the group to admire. It remains a timeless masterpiece.
Tickets for the tour which runs from October through November go on sale this Friday, July 16.
Below is a link to amazon.com where you can purchase a copy of the 30th anniversary re-issue of UB40's 'Signing Off' album: