By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Entertainment Writer
By Derek Paiva
There are many things you probably already know about UB40.
And yet each time UB40 arrives here for shows — its Waikiki Shell gigs this week make it six visits since 1989 — diehard and casual Honolulu reggae fans alike grab lawn spots in droves to eat, drink and, well, absorb the inevitable contact highs.
We got the latest from guitarist/vocalist Robin Campbell by phone from a Tonga tour stop. Our first subject? Nearly every UB40 fan's favorite single-named trumpeter/toaster/vocalist Astro.
Excerpts from the chat follow:
Astro couldn't get a visa to perform in Hawai'i with UB40 in 2004 and wound up accompanying the band on a large video screen. Is he coming this time?
"We'll be coming without Astro this time as well. He can't get a visa. ... He was (once charged with), uh, cultivating his own plants for his own consumption (in Birmingham). We haven't been able to get Astro a visa for three years. ... He's with us now. He's able to tour the rest of the world. But he's not allowed into America. ... (The video screen) is the only way. Otherwise, we'd have to chuck out a third of our set. It's a real pain and we hate the whole thing really. It's why we've not been (touring) ... much of the U.S. in the last eight or nine years, apart from Hawai'i. I think (the authorities) think he's going to be traveling the U.S. throwing seeds everywhere." (Also missing the show will be percussionist Norman Hassan, who recently took ill and is unable to travel.)
The band has been together for more than a quarter century. How have those years changed your lives beyond filling out tax forms for the country's highest tax bracket instead of a UB40?
(Laughs.) "Well, that's the major difference, really. ... The alternative was we lived in a ghetto in Birmingham, probably would never have gotten out of it and would probably still be working in factories or whatever now or permanently unemployed. ... I mean, I still pinch me-self on a daily basis because I can't quite believe that I've got the life that I've got, you know? ... How many people get to do exactly what they want to do and get a great living out of it, too?
"And we're still going. ... To keep going for 25 years and keep all of the same original members of the band is pretty amazing. I think it's because we all know how lucky we are. We were a gang of friends before we were a band. We've known each other since we were kids. And we've kind of stuck together through thick and thin because of that. ... We still see a lot of each other (off the road)."
UB40's biggest American hits remain its covers, but the band has a deep catalog of great originals. Don't you sometimes wish that an original like "Rat In Mi Kitchen" did as well here in the U.S. as, say, "Red Red Wine"?
"I'd love it if the American audience listened to our other stuff or if American radio would play our original material. But it really doesn't upset me that we've had two No. 1 records in America. The fact that somebody else wrote the lyrics doesn't matter to me.
" 'Can't Help Falling in Love' (originally made famous by Elvis Presley) was the biggest hit we've ever had. It still is. It went to No. 1 in 50 countries or something.
"You can't be upset by having No. 1's all over the world or in America. But, of course, I would much, much prefer having a No. 1 with 'Who You Fighting For?' (The title track from UB40's recent album, released in January.) That would make me feel a lot better. But in the end, what we're about is promoting reggae and selling reggae. To have a No. 1 is the objective. If it happens with a cover, it doesn't really bother me because, obviously, ... (we) like the cover."
You and your brother (vocalist/guitarist Ali Campbell) recently co-wrote a rather revelatory autobiography titled "Blood and Fire," which, among other things, documented Ali's long battle with drugs and alcohol. Does the band as a whole still have any chemical vices?
"Well, we're all getting older so we all have to be a little more careful. (Laughs.) People get illnesses and things. We have a few asthmatics in the band. The thing is if you're going to survive as long as we have, then at some point you've got to start living the good life instead of the bad. ... You can't do that forever. You can't party forever. Not just Ali, but most of the band have realized that and accordingly slowed down.
"Ali's a new man at the moment. He's just a completely different person from the man five or 10 years ago. He was struggling with booze and coke, but he's a different guy now. Ali's renewed enthusiasm and the quality of his work is half of the reason for the (new) enthusiasm of the band. One of the reasons the current album is so good in my eyes is the melodies that Ali has come up with."
Have you slowed down your partying as well, Robin?
"Well, I was never a sprinter in the first place. (Laughs.) I was always in for the long haul, and have always been a bit more careful. I'm the oldest one in the band so I've always been the one boring them to death by going, 'Slow down, lads!' "
And they listen to you?
"Well, no, they don't listen to me at all. They never have. They're just listening to themselves a bit better now, I think. ... We all love doing what we do, and realize how lucky we are. Nobody wants to blow that."
What reggae song do you wish UB40 had written and recorded? Think artistic reward and not monetary reward here, Robin.
(Pauses and exhales.) "That is a mother of a question! ... Anything by (Bob) Marley, really. I'm still in awe of some of Marley's songs. Lyrically, he was a genius. He managed to say so much by appearing to say so little. I couldn't pick one song. I really couldn't.
"But there are many songs that I'm jealous of in lots of different styles. I listen to tunes all the time and think, '(Expletive), I wish I would've written that!' ... I hear one-liners in other people's songs and go, '(Expletive), I should've thought of that.' " (Chuckles.)
UB40's founding mission back in 1978 was bringing reggae to audiences that hadn't heard it, which, back then, meant much of the world. Do you feel you've sufficiently succeeded?
"Not sufficiently. Never. That is our reason for being. We're still doing it. Here we are doing it in Tonga. And there's never been a big reggae band (touring) through here.
"We'll be in Fiji tomorrow. We just played Tahiti and New Caledonia. And they love their reggae down here. Obviously, they're off the beaten path, so they don't get much. But when they do, they go absolutely crazy!
"In Mozambique ... we had 50,000 people! It was just incredible.
"We're now talking about going to China ... where we've never been before. So there's still new frontiers and new places to go.
"I guess we're a bit like 'Star Trek,' aren't we?" (Laughs.)
Reach Derek Paiva at email@example.com.