They have sold over 50 million albums and travelled the world as reggae ambassadors. They have played landmark concerts in South Africa, the Soviet Union and - only last year - Sri Lanka. And, disproving the proverb that too many cooks spoil the musical broth, UB40 has flourished by continually pooling their resources and pushing forward.
With reggae acknowledged as a pivotal influence on modern R&B, ragga, hiphop and garage, the Birmingham band have also helped to inspire generations of new stars over a career that is well into its third decade.
And now, 23 years after their first album - 1980's Signing Off - UB40 are returning to their roots. This autumn, the British reggae stalwarts are back with an extensive U.K. tour and an exceptional new studio album, Homegrown, which sees a return to their traditional strengths. "It's an album full of good tunes,' says guitarist Robin Campbell, whose brother Ali is the band's lead vocalist.
'It's got a more consistent sound than our last album. The last time around we pulled in lots of different directions. This time, we've gone the other way. The approach is simpler. It's an oldfashioned UB40 album.' 'Ali is on top form,' he adds. 'He's singing beautifully and his melodies are fabulous. Homegrown is a modern record in terms of technology, but beneath that, it's still vintage UB40.'
Homegrown - the band's 22nd album - was played and produced by the same eight members who formed UB40 in Moseley, Birmingham, in 1978. Having learnt to play their instruments and write their own songs whilst listening to their favourite reggae stars, UB40 have always been both gang and band. And, despite their huge success, the unique chemistry of their early days in Moseley is still there. 'We've tried to maintain what we had when we started,' says Robin. 'There are eight of us, and we're all equal. We've always been a democratic set-up.
Everything we earn has always been split eight ways. That's kept us very solid. Staying in Birmingham has also helped us to stay grounded. If anybody gets carried away with themselves, we give them a hard time. 'Everybody in the group has a vote,' adds percussionist Norman Hassan. 'We grew up together, so UB40 is like a family. Nobody steps out of line.'
Homegrown's first single, Swing Low, signals another exciting departure, being the England rugby team's official anthem for the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia. To mark its release, the band played the single on the hallowed turf of Twickenham, home of English rugby, prior to the Investec Challenge match between England and France on September 6.
Says Robin: 'Doing a rugby single wasn't uppermost in our minds, but we were approached by Rick Blaskey, executive producer of music for many of the major international sports events, on behalf of the RFU, and it seemed like a great idea. The way that English sport is at the moment, the England rugby team are the ones to get behind - the current side is the best we've had for 20 years.'
Swing Low has been the favoured anthem of English rugby fans for years. But the tune also has a distinguished history as an anti-slavery song: as well as being a spine-tingling World Cup terrace chant, its lyrical sentiments dovetail perfectly with UB40's long-standing anti-racist philosophy. Rather than perform the song in the rock-steady style of their acclaimed Labour Of Love series, though, the band have put a more contemporary spin on Swing Low, adding jittery electronic beats, a sample of a rugby crowd singing, and a stirring gospel choir in United Colours Of Sound.
The release of Swing Low and Homegrown comes after a period of intense activity. Following their previous studio collection, 2001's Cover Up, UB40 completed a tour in celebration of the 21st anniversary of Signing Off. Then, in 2002, they released a DVD collection plus The Fathers Of Reggae, an epic album featuring a list of Jamaican legends - among them Gregory Isaacs, Toots Hibbert, Ken Boothe, Mighty Diamonds and John Holt - who put their own distinctive slant on the band's songs.
'The Fathers album was a big deal for us,' says Robin. 'I've never had a better time in the studio. I was working with my gods, and I was close to tears. Some of the artists came to our studio in Birmingham, and they were all incredibly modest. I was also surprised how well they knew our material. Ali called John Holt to ask him if he could sing The Pillow - and he sang it on the spot!'
Moving more up to date, 2003 has seen UB40 receive an Ivor Novello Award for International Achievement. They have also made a timely reappearance in the U.K. charts with The Platinum Collection. A box set featuring all three instalments of the Labour Of Love series, it gave them another Top Ten album - a mighty testimony to their enduring popularity.
And, as if that were not enough, the band have also collaborated with a clutch of overseas singers and rappers on foreign-language versions of songs from Cover Up: French rapper Nuttea and South African Ringo Madlingozi both performed Cover Up's title track, Nuttea's interpretation becoming a Top Ten hit in France; and Japanese singer Mikidozan covered another number, Since I Met You Lady, topping the International Chart in his homeland in the process.
Partnerships such as these are typical of UB40's global outlook. They mighthave studiously avoided all the London-centric notions of hipster cool,preferring the rootsiness of the West Midlands, but the band have never been parochial in their perspective: in addition to securing three worldwide number one singles - Red Red Wine, I Got You Babe and (I Can't Help) Falling In Love - they have matched their multi-million worldwide sales by playing watershed gigs in the Soviet Union (1986), South Africa (1994) and 2002's peace festival in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo.
'I'm proud of selling millions of albums,' reflects Robin. 'But the record sales happen gradually, over a period of time. Those shows were the real landmarks in our lives.'
While many bands have blindly followed musical fashion, jumping from genre to genre in a desperate attempt to remain hip, UB40 have always stayed true to reggae and its ongoing capacity for diversity and originality. For them, the music first created in Jamaica in the Sixties and Seventies is as vibrant today as it was then. 'To some extent, reggae has been written out of history,' says drummer James Brown. 'But there wouldn't be any garage, drum and bass or hip-hop if it hadn't been for reggae. And today's dance music wouldn't exist if it hadn't been for dub. If you listen to producers such as Timbaland, their style is totally informed by reggae.'
But what sets UB40 aside, as Homegrown's memorable melodies attest, is their ability to mix seductive reggae rhythms with a very English appreciation of great pop. 'We try to play reggae,' says Robin. 'But we grew up listening to The Beatles and Everly Brothers before even reggae existed. We have never tried to make pop records, but the pop thing has always been there - it's an accidental cocktail.'
'We've always had our own hybrid,' adds Ali. 'We're from Birmingham, so we never played roots reggae or Jamaican reggae. We originally called it "jazzdub reggae".'With many rivers still to cross before the sweet chariots come to carry them home, UB40 mark their 25th year with one of the strongest albums of their career. And, with reggae an increasingly powerful presence in the pop charts through dancehall stars such as Shaggy and Sean Paul, the band are being constantly reminded of their impact on younger singers.
'Whenever we approach any dancehall stars, they are always more than happy to work with us,' says Robin. 'We've reached a stage where a lot of the new reggae stars grew up listening to us. We're revered by a lot of young musicians, who first heard our records when their parents were playing them.
I can hear our influence in a lot of modern reggae records.'
'When we made our first single - Food For Thought and King - the studio was so small that Norman had to record his percussion in another room,' adds Ali. 'If you listen closely, you can hear birds singing in the garden outside! With modern studios, we now have more scope. But technology can't write a song.
The important thing is the music we make as a band.' 'Whatever we try to do, the sound is always UB40,' concludes Robin. 'If only two or three of us work on a track, it doesn't sound like UB40. But, once the others add their contributions, it suddenly turns into a UB40 song.'
James Brown: drums
Ali Campbell: vocals / guitar
Robin Campbell: guitar / vocals
Earl Falconer: bass / vocals / keyboards
Norman Lamont Hassan: percussion / vocals
Brian Travers: saxophones / horn arrangements
Michael Virtue: keyboards
The UB40 single Swing Low is released on Virgin on October 13. The new album, Homegrown, follows on October 27. UB40 open their U.K. tour in Belfast on November 25.