UB40 - Signing Off - Review
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critics' view

Theirs is an inspirational story; 8 amigos on the dole get together and, although barely proficient, dedicate themselves to their music, day in, day out until they’re good enough to be heard in public. Saxophonist Brian Travers would later comment: “We commandeered a cellar and started rehearsing every day, nine till five. Our first experiences of playing an instrument started together, and we'd humiliate each other over mistakes. But we were very serious about our music. It was a year before we played our first gig.” With no money to pay for recording sessions they approached Bob Lamb (drummer with Steve Gibbons Band), who lived locally and had some basic recording facilities in his ground floor flat. As Bob would later recall: “‘King’ was the very first song they ever played to me, and it just blew my mind basically, to realise a bunch of kids could make a sound like that… it blew me away. And that was it for me, I was hooked, it was a bit like Elvis walks in or something, you know, it was one of those moments.” With Bob’s support the rest was a shoo-in.

During relaxed sessions over the course of six months from December ’79 to July ’80, they nailed down everything perfectly, in no way concerned by minor inconveniences such as bird songs in the garden being picked up during the recording process. If you ask me, that’s a badge of honour, I just love that story. [Were they trilling “don’t worry ‘bout a ‘ting”?] By the time of their ambitious 2LP debut set in August ‘80, the vital and revolutionary Birmingham octet were: Jimmy Brown (22, drums); Ali Campbell (21, vocals, rhythm guitar); Robin Campbell (25, lead guitar, backing vocals); Earl Falconer (21, bass); Norman Hassan (22, percussion, congas); Brian Travers (21, tenor saxophone); Mickey Virtue (23, keyboards) and Terence ‘Astro’ Wilson (23, percussion, toasting).

Rows of white faces on a racially prejudiced jury come under fire on the album’s opening track, “Tyler”, as UB40 bristle with a sense of injustice over the flawed 1975 murder conviction of a young American by the name of Gary Tyler. Ooft. Talk about setting your stall out. Eyes remained trained on America with “King”, a superb cut lamenting both the death of Martin Luther, and the subsequent loss of focus amongst African-Americans and their struggle: “King, where are your people now? Chained and pacified.” Whilst militant and dub-heavy, Ali Campbells’s mournful timbre ensured that hearts, minds and ears were open way beyond the traditional reggae hotspots; the album rose all the way to #2 in the UK album charts, a phenomenal achievement for a new band, on an indie, being confrontational, in a niche genre. “12 Bar”, the first of five pieces which are predominantly instrumental (Astro’s toasting echoes distantly and occasionally), appears next and calms things down with a spongy rhythm and a hazy, lazy sax – it’s the sound of summer chill.

The respite is temporary as “Burden Of Shame” serves as an international apology for the falsehood that is Britannia’s far-from-glorious empire: “There are murders that we must account for, bloody deeds have been done in my name, criminal acts we must pay for, and our children will shoulder the blame … I’m a British subject, not proud of it, while I carry the burden of shame.” My own personal burden of shame is that, despite all of this superb action, my favourite track on the set is a cover; their incredible interpretation of Randy Newman’s song of alienation, “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today”, is peerless. The classic “Food For Thought” appears next, in slightly longer form than the debut single version which had given them a UK Top 10 hit earlier in the year. Robin Campbell would later say it was “about the hypocrisy of Christmas, the fact that there are starving people in Africa and here we are all sat around eating our Christmas dinner and praising the Lord.” Political failings are a recurring theme on “Signing Off” – and the best was yet to come.

Adding a tricky dilemma for discographers, the 10 track 33RPM disc is accompanied by a 3 track 45RPM 12" – is it part of the album or not? I’ve concluded that it is indeed on the grounds that i) It comes inside the cover sleeve, not separately, and that ii) The single cassette version includes all 13 tracks. It’s to their eternal credit that they let these tracks flourish sonically on the wider vinyl grooves, with little thought to the economic pitfalls of producing a two-record set. The “C” and “D” side are well worth their place, with the 12 minute epic that is “Madam Medusa” (a razor-sharp, scathing destruction of Thatcher), an exceedingly tasteful rendition of the old anti-racist standard “Strange Fruit”, and “Reefer Madness”, a sprightly instrumental which closes the set in a celebratory mood. Quite right too – this debut is a major triumph from every angle, and one of the greatest reggae albums ever recorded.

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