Tuesday 18 March 2014

UB40: Labour Of Love

(#288: 24 September 1983, 1 week)

Track listing: Cherry Oh Baby/Keep On Moving/Please Don’t Make Me Cry/Sweet Sensation/Johnny Too Bad/Red Red Wine/Guilty/She Caught The Train/Version Girl/Many Rivers To Cross

The Left has always had a problem with pleasure. The very concept that humans might actually want to enjoy their lives, rather than merely live them, makes the Left automatically suspicious. Where is the common good in what they habitually refer to as “entertainment,” as opposed to “culture,” which they take as meaning the only proscribed way in which humans should receive stimulation outside the act of working for work’s sake; being told what is good for them rather than being trusted to find out for themselves. Pleasure? It is decadent, elitist, non-utilitarian, a distraction from the greater needs of a society. Go back to the fifties and you will find Richard Hoggart and others fulminating against vulgar American comic books and perfervid American rock ‘n’ roll “music.” Go back thirty or forty years earlier and you will find sundry Fabian and Bloomsbury types fervently agreeing that eugenics are the only way to keep uppity proles in their place.

Go back only a couple of months and you will find the eximious George Monbiot fuming in The Guardian, and on his website, in an article entitled “Addicted to Comfort,” about “the failures to grasp the possibilities of self-determination” in relation to people on dating sites who like nothing better than to curl up with a glass of red wine and a good DVD, and about consumers who no longer hunt wild boar – a large part of me imagines Monbiot probably wishes they still were – but who drown themselves in the supposedly passive pleasures of “home entertainment” when they could be spending their time and money buying a horse, or learning to play buzkashi every weekend. As every schoolboy knows, buzkashi is a Central Asian variant on polo in which horse riders attempt to drag the carcass of a goat towards a goal. Too bad, I suppose, for the hapless goat.

Monbiot represents the kind of right-thinking – perhaps closer to Right-thinking, given the common obsession with work being the sole purpose of one’s life – Left thinker with whom I go along to a certain degree and then breathe a sigh of relief that he’s not in a position to make laws for anybody else to live by. Unfortunately, the late Tony Benn fell into the same category; watching a speech he gave to a near-empty House of Commons shortly after Thatcher’s resignation, I agreed with depressed eagerness with his acute diagnosis of what was wrong with the concept of an untrammelled free market economy – words which, had he lived and been in good enough health to do so, he could have spoken yesterday – but then my smile slowly froze into a rictus position as he began to extol, embarrassingly, the virtues of what he called “a socialist train.”

In summary, then, the Left are great at diagnosing problems but rubbish at finding workable solutions; scratch every presumed progressive Left thinker of today and you will find a rapid retreat to the seventies and eighties notions of power in a union, of common ownership of means of production, and a generalised idealising of a perfect and vapid utopia where everybody behaves in the correct, proscribed manner and anybody who exhibits any hint of individual thought or expression is swiftly deemed unmutual and ostracised, or worse.

As far as the far Left is concerned, pop music is of course the guiltiest of pleasures – note that the term “guilty pleasures” has a history all of its own, and all rooted in fear of pleasure as handicap to the perceived dignity of labour (a labour against love, one could term it) – a crass, consumerist beast there only to subdue workers and make them nothing more than passive receptors of signals from the State. Therefore the title Labour Of Love should be considered in a very literal sense, in terms of being a subtle rebuttal of the notion of work as thing and aim in itself; UB40’s drummer Jimmy Brown is on record as being averse to “day jobs” and the concept of “work” in itself. Note also that Ali and Robin Campbell’s father was the leader of the Ian Campbell Folk Group, and therefore fully involved in the bitter wars which raged around the British folk scene of the fifties and sixties, with Ewan MacColl and his thou-shalt-not proclamations (including, in some instances, thou shalt not make any money out of your music).

And the sleevenote to the album, which is unsigned but whose use of the first person plural suggests that it is intended as a statement from the band, as a collective whole, is quietly angry in its defensive defiance. The ten songs on the record, they say, represent “reggae when it was first called by that name. Reggae before it was discovered by cops, sociologists and TV producers. Before it was claimed by lefties, hippies, punks and rastas. Reggae when it was just the other dance music (my italics) and most DJs still sniggered at it.”

Interviews which the band gave at the time of the record’s release indicated a real anger behind this declaration of principles. The “other” dance music, the music of young working-class people, black, white and Asian, such as would have been heard in the Digbeth area of Birmingham where UB40 grew up. The horrendous word which lurks within that other word “sniggering.” The music of skinheads, roughnecks, renegade hooligans. The music sneered at by those allegedly higher up the socio-evolutionary scale; why aren’t you listening to proper music, like Zeppelin or the Moody Blues (to keep the question in the Midlands)? The songs which didn’t make the charts because they sold in the “wrong shops” or perhaps were bought by the “wrong people.” The three-year fog – all ten songs here were recorded by reggae artists between 1969 and 1972 – which dissipated only when the selfsame Zeppelin and Moodies fans began to discover Bob Marley and the Wailers, now that they had signed to Island, had their music watered down to appeal to “classy” people and received the Old Grey Whistle Test seal of approval. The music listened and danced to by no-goodnik teenagers like John Lydon and Steven Morrissey. The music in danger of being erased or sniggered from history before UB40, all very young teenagers when these records were new, decided to rescue it.

A rescue job was needed, perhaps as much for the band as for the songs. Of the ten, only two – Tony Tribe’s “Red Red Wine” and the Melodians’ “Sweet Sensation” – made the UK Top 50 in their original form, and neither made it to the Top 40 (a more lachrymose ballad reading of “Red Red Wine” by Jimmy James and the Vagabonds, done in Long John Baldry fashion, complete with sickly Light Programme choir, did slightly better in 1968, mainly because it got more radio airplay; and when the odd hardcore roots reggae curveball did make its way into the charts – “The Liquidator,” “Return Of Django,” “Wet Dream” – radio contrived to play these records only when they had to, for example on chart shows, or sometimes didn’t play them at all; “a record by Max Romeo” indeed). But prior to their version of “Red Red Wine,” which as a single went to number one three weeks after release, UB40 had not seen the inside of the Top Ten, or for that matter the Top 20, for two years, since “One In Ten.”

Listening to Labour Of Love anew, I couldn’t help but recall “I’ve Got Mine,” a terrific and rather menacing stand-alone single that the group released in early 1983. “I’m taller than I was last year,” growls Ali Campbell, “’Cos I’ve got mine.” Socialist or Thatcherite defiance? It was hard to tell, but the group were as animated as I had ever heard them, Brian Travers’ tenor solo on the verge of going off the scale into Evan Parker multiphonics, and the rhythm undertracked by the same Space Invaders electronic cavalcade heard throughout OMD’s “Georgia.” But it seemed that no one quite got it; the single stopped at #45 and a UB40 Live album, featuring a bizarre monochrome cartoon Frankenstein cover, did little business.

So they had to do something. It is evident throughout the record’s thirty-nine or so minutes that it was recorded – albeit “on tour” – with the best of intentions; three songs involve the very welcome Farfisa organ of the unquestionably authentic Jackie Mittoo (who was “just passing through”). And the cloud of murky darkness which periodically materialises, ready to darken the sunlit chambers of these recordings, renders Labour Of Love a record as distinctly of the Midlands as Paranoid or Sladest; indeed, looking at their first two albums, both of which made number one on the NME chart but only number two on the chart being used here, with their forbidding use of space – so many gaps, so much silence, so many unspoken threats from a band this large – they could be deemed the reggae Black Sabbath, with their rueful aura of foreboding.

My worry, however, is that here there is just too much sunlight and too much space, so spacious that the music becomes alienating, like Tighten Up distilled through Barry Lyndon. Astro’s toasting gives the game away - “’Red Red Wine’ inna eighties style” - and finally one has to conclude that good intentions are just not enough when it comes to making a record worthy of repeat listening and close attention. It would be nice if all number one albums could be approached and deemed equally terrific, or at least good, but sometimes I wonder whether I shouldn’t change this blog’s header to “review every UK number one album so that you don’t have to listen to it.”

The reasons for this, from my perspective, are pretty simple. I turned fifty a couple of months ago, and I am now much more aware than I was when I turned forty that there is only so much time left, and consequently I don’t want to waste it on anything that is not less than great. I don’t quite know why I didn’t feel this so strongly ten years ago, since at forty you are, technically speaking, already well past the average halfway mark, though I am aware that recent health issues have played a major part in this – I am now the manager, or one of them anyway, of that world-famous double act, Dilated Cardiomyopathy and Atrial Fibrillation – but nonetheless I have to realise, with no little melancholy or foreboding, that I went out and bought Parklife from the long-gone King’s Road branch of Our Price, not the other day, but a generation ago; that I look through our sixties albums and tick off fewer and fewer artists who are still alive.

With this in mind, I also realise that I can now say whatever the hell I like, since it’s much too late for it to make a difference or for anybody to take note of it – more than a dozen years toiling at the coalface of online, and occasionally printed, music writing have taught me that it’s just not going to happen – and that doing so is, perversely, a rather joyous and liberating thing. And so it is I have to tell you that Labour Of Love, try as hard as it might (and does), doesn’t really cut it.

“In those days,” the sleevenote says, “reggae appealed not to the intellect or the social conscience, but to the heart and hips.” And yet this is a record which includes interpretations of a Curtis Mayfield song (“Keep On Moving,” via the Lee Perry-produced Wailers), a song widely regarded as Jamaica’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” (“Many Rivers To Cross”) and “Johnny Too Bad” with its references to robbin’, stabbin’, lootin’ and shootin’, its subliminal references to “stop and search” and the fugitive who has nowhere really to run but who equally can never die. The latter works slightly better, no small thanks to Norman Hassan’s lead vocal, though it’s still not a patch on Taj Mahal’s version – too much shiny top, not enough ragged bottom – and it’s a truism that UB40 are at this stage generally more interesting when Ali Campbell isn’t singing (though a fine singer in his own way, and in style and tone not too far away from Boy George, his voice does not stretch or inhabit as George’s can do, and rapidly becomes annoying); Hassan talks his way through the rather sinister confessional “Guilty,” Robin Campbell takes a low lead vocal on “Sweet Sensation” and Astro does very well on both his half of “Red Red Wine” and all of “Version Girl.”

But there’s no jeggae in this reggae. “Cherry Oh Baby” is initially promising but is let down by a ludicrous synth-bass reminiscent of seventies television commercials for Denys Fisher/Fisher-Price toys, and its appealing old-school feel is never fully exploited because there is so much dropout in the mix (which cannot really count as dub) that there’s hardly anything left to listen to. Travers, who is hardly on this album at all, turns up for a solo on “Please Don’t Make Me Cry” (Ali’s best vocal performance on the album) which might as well be Andy Mackay or Steve Norman; there is scarcely any reggae present. “Keep On Moving” at least springs along with some purpose, no small thanks to Michael Virtue’s delightfully retro organ lines, so much so that you can ponder what Jerry Dammers might have made from the same raw material.

But “She Caught The Train” might as well be Jimmy The Hoover or Belouis Some with its jerky eighties drum machine press-ups and Virtue’s now ponderous keyboards threatening to turn things into Days Of Future Passed. As for the big finish of “Many Rivers To Cross,” Campbell is no Jimmy Cliff, the musical backing, Mittoo’s agreeably solemn Sunday school organ notwithstanding, is a karaoke setting and the soulful, passionate and honest backing singers, Ruby Turner and Jaki Graham among them, end up getting in each other’s way.

Overall the ambition of Labour Of Love is superseded by its actuality; this comes across as reggae for people who don’t like reggae, soundtracks for conservative dinner parties, young couples returning from the theatre, and so on. I doubt whether many of the people who kept the record in our charts for 18 months bothered to check out the originals, or even knew (despite the sleevenote) that there were originals. Listening to it is a rather etiolating experience, somewhat akin to walking through a National Trust reggae museum, with lots of exhibits but more warnings not to touch them. For an eight-piece band, much of UB40 seem absent from this record; the bass does not throb, guitars do not pulsate, the musicians sound too far away from each other to communicate or interact, and were it not for the occasionally, if modestly, adventurous drum programming there really would be little to engage or hold the listener’s attention. The end result is that a project of the Left proceeds to convert “entertainment” into “culture” for the appeasement of the Right, not realising that the original constituted a culture in itself. No doubt, as Lena suggested, these songs would have come across as far more dynamic in live performance. Monbiot, in the piece cited above, refers disapprovingly to “the three Rs: renovation, recipes and resorts,” but while Labour Of Love’s recipe may be admirable in theory, its renovation is not nearly radical enough, and all too often it sounds like the last resort. If you wanted to know where reggae really could go in 1983, listen to Yellowman’s Zungguzungguguzungguzeng, Bad Brains’ Rock For Light, or, better still, Aswad’s Live And Direct which, though not released until very late in 1983, was recorded live at that year's Notting Hill Carnival (with this writer in the audience) and displays all the genuine anger, joy and adventure which UB40, on this showing, are too polite to permit themselves.