If UB40 played every hit they’ve ever had at the Dubai Tennis Stadium on March 24, they’d probably be on stage for nearly four hours. So it must be agonising for the most successful reggae band in the world to decide which songs to leave out.
Not so, according to vocalist and percussionist Terence Wilson, better known as Astro: “The golden rule is, if it makes people dance, it’s in the set.” Good news then for those who want to hear One in Ten, Cherry Oh Baby, Rat in Mi Kitchen, Kingston Town, and many of the other 50-odd hit records they’ve notched up in their 36-year chart career.
The story of UB40 has not been without its quarrels and in-fighting, particularly in recent times which has resulted in there being two versions of the band now touring the globe. The version Dubai fans will be seeing this month is UB40 ‘Featuring Ali Campbell, Astro and Mickey Virtue’. This is because in 2008, lead vocalist Ali and keyboard player Mickey left the band after a bitter fall-out with management. Astro joined the exodus five years later when he couldn’t quite stomach the old band’s new country-tinged album ‘Getting Over the Storm’.
Sadly we are more likely to see Justin Bieber record an avant-garde jazz album than Astro and co holding out an olive branch to their old pals in the other UB40, or the ‘Dark Side’ as they refer to them. They’ve also been hyper-critical about Ali’s brother Duncan taking over the vocal duties and are on a bit of a mission to ‘protect the UB40 legacy’.
Astro explains: “It is still very acrimonious and there is no chance whatsoever of a reconciliation. So I’m afraid all those fans around the world hoping and praying for a reunion are going to be waiting a very long time. Myself, Mickey and Ali are happy as we are and we do truly believe we are here to save the legacy of UB40 especially after the ‘Getting Over the Storm’ nonsense from the Dark Side.”
His criticism of his ex-bandmates foray into country music is still raw despite initially supporting it and confessing to owning some Jim Reeves albums. “That was just a slap in the face to all our fans who have stuck with us through thick and thin over 30-odd years,” he insists. “To come out with a country album for me was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Despite the bitterness and enmity, Astro and his renegade colleagues feel, they are still having a blast touring some of the world’s most exotic places and are showing no signs of taking things easy. “Things don’t seem to be slowing up at all,” says Astro. “If anything the touring is getting longer and more intense. We cope with it by being on automatic pilot. We’ve been doing it for that long it’s all we really know now. It’s the norm for me and I prefer to be on the road to be truthful. I’d rather that than being in the studio. I’d rather that instant reaction whether positive or negative. I hate the hanging around.”
After performing in Dubai the band jets off to Australia, SE Asia, then back to the UK, Europe and onto America. It almost seems like the classic backpacker trip without the backpack. Was it arranged like this on purpose?
“Done on purpose? Of course it was,” chuckles Astro. “Touring is a lot easier now anyway. Before it was like controlled mayhem but now, 35 years on, we know exactly what we are doing and we get to see more of the places we visit this time. We are doing it in style now and we’re just having a great old time!”
Visiting some of the most glamorous places in the world doing something you adore seems light years away from the trio’s formative years in inner-city Birmingham in Britain where the unemployed, multi-ethnic band hatched their plan to raise the profile of reggae music around the world. Astro still lives in the city. “When we started we set out to popularise reggae music and dub and we are still on that same mission. Reggae still does not get its fair share of airtime and until that happens we stay on our mission. Reggae does not stand still, it is constantly evolving and so are we.”
The trio have already released their first album Silhouette in 2014 which contained the tried and trusted formula of original songs and cover versions but with such a hectic touring schedule, it is unlikely the band will have time to record another until the end of the year at least. “As soon as we can get five minutes we’ll be back in the studio,” Astro pledges. “We have already started penning lyrics but because we have been on the road for the last two years it will have to be right at the end of the year now in November or December. Maybe even into next year so keep watching this space.”
It would be nice to add to that huge tally of hit records which Astro admits he gave up counting years ago. “We’ve just been blessed – we’ve obviously done something right. We’ve struck the right chord with the public and 37 years later we are still here, still contemporary and still relevant.”