UB40 feud: why Ali Campbell and his brother haven't spoken for seven years

Ali and Robin Campbell on stage in Wellington in 2006.
MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ

Ali and Robin Campbell on stage in Wellington in 2006.

When reggae-pop stars Robin and Duncan Campbell were kids their father ran a popular folk music club in Birmingham. Musicians from around the world came through the Jug O' Punch in the 1960s performing alongside their dad's group, The Ian Campbell Folk Band. Robin reckons half of them ended up crashing in the family's front room: "So many times we'd get up in the morning and there'd be somebody famous sleeping on our settee."

The celebrities on the couch included the Dubliners, Billy Connolly, and even Paul Simon, who covered one of Ian's songs (an anti-nuclear anthem entitled The Sun is Burning).

It was a childhood infused with music. Any time anyone mentioned an instrument, says Robin, "it would appear and be thrust into your hands". The whole family sang, including brothers Robin, David, Duncan and Ali. Ali would become lead singer of UB40, the reggae band named after an English unemployment benefit form, which was formed by Robin, Ali and six friends and has since sold over 70 million records and recorded hit after hit, including Red, Red Wine, Falling in Love With You and Don't Break My Heart.

Ali Campbell, Astro and Mickey Virtue comprise the rival UB40 line up.
Francois Nel

Ali Campbell, Astro and Mickey Virtue comprise the rival UB40 line up.

In 2008, Ali left UB40 to pursue a solo career. Fellow founding member Micky Virtue joined him, followed in 2013 by Terence 'Astro' Wilson.

In the aftermath a very loud, very publish stoush ensued, dividing fans and pitting brother against brother in a battle over who can use the iconic name of UB40, and in perhaps a more subjective sense, who the real UB40 is.

Next year it will play out in New Zealand.

Duncan, left,and Robin Campbell are in New Zealand ahead of the Raggamuffin Music festival to be held in early 2016.
Peter Meecham

Duncan, left,and Robin Campbell are in New Zealand ahead of the Raggamuffin Music festival to be held in early 2016.

In January, Ali, Astro and Virtue will play seven venues as part of The Red Red Wine Vineyard Tour - billed as UB40.

In February a different UB40 will headline the popular reggae festival Raggamuffin in Auckland. That band is comprised of five UB40 founding members including Robin and featuring Duncan, who took over from Ali in 2008 as lead vocalist.

Confused?

UB40 IN 2004.

UB40 IN 2004.

 "Yes it's very confusing, very annoying," says Robin, giving this interview with brother Duncan at an Auckland hotel during a brief stopover on their way back to the UK after a tour of Australia, New Caledonia and Tahiti.

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"It's confusing enough that even members of the band have said to me 'are we playing so and so?' and you say 'no, no, no, not us, that's them'," adds Duncan. 

It is, says Robin, "ridiculous: because we've never stopped recording and preforming as UB40 so for him to try and claim the name back, all that's done is confuse matters, because now some fans don't know what UB40 they're coming to see. So yeah, we're having to resort to the courts to stop him using the name because obviously it's our name, always has been and always will be."

Earlier this year Ali expressed his annoyance about his brother performing at Raggamuffin, telling the The New Zealand Herald. "I am the original voice of UB40 and everyone knows that".

Robin says that they've been told a court date is finally imminent. He is confident they'll win. By the time Ragamuffin rolls around it might be sorted, he says.

So will Ragamuffin punters be seeing the legitimate UB40? "Absolutely, and they're still going to get all the hits, you know, but it will be Duncan doing the lead vocals…"

"They can expect to sing and dance and party", says Duncan, who before joining the band in 2008 had a varied career path including singing, owning a fish and chip shop in Australia, working as roadie for Duran Duran and Prince and opening a casino in Barbados.

The spat also has a personal element: Robin and Duncan say Ali literally hasn't spoken to them, or anyone in their family, since 2008. They seem sad about it.

"They sent my Christmas cards back", says Duncan, who is just 10 months older than Ali ("we're Irish twins").

Asked to describe how he feels about Ali in one word he says: "disappointed".

"It is quite traumatic", says Robin. "In every way, from a professional point of view and from a family point of view…"

But back to the music: How did a group of lads from Birmingham come to start a reggae band?

At home they heard folk music, on the radio it was English pop, but on the streets, in an area with a big Caribbean diaspora, it was the Jamaican-influenced ska that was popular.

"Suddenly ska turned into rocksteady - which I thought was the sexiest, most beautiful music I'd ever heard", says Robin. "I just became obsessed with it… and force fed it to my younger brothers. So they were eight and nine and being played this music and me dad was going 'turn that shite off'. I was obsessed with it and still am."

And they're looking forward to sharing that obsession at Raggamuffin, says Robin. "We want to show the New Zealand fans that we're still firing on all cylinders."

UB40 play the Raggamuffin Festival, Trusts Arena, Auckland, February 20, 2016. Details and tickets: https://raggamuffin.co.nz

As mentioned in last weekend's main section, the edition of December 6 erroneously said Raggamuffin had been cancelled. We regret the error.

 - Sunday Star Times

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