The 2009 UB40 with Duncan Campbell, far left, and Robin Campbell, far right
Robin Campbell of reggae outfit UB40 tells Jackie Butler why the Birmingham band have a new spring in their step
MAGICIANS are renowned for pulling rabbits out of hats, but UB40's Robin Campbell went one better when his brother Ali quit the band after a quarter of a century – he swiftly rustled up another singing sibling to take centre stage. Duncan Campbell is now firmly ensconced in the UB40 camp and sound-wise you can barely hear – or see – the join; in terms of off- and on-stage harmony between band members, things are sweeter than they've been for a few years and the fresh blood has boosted everyone's enthusiasm.
So expectations will be high when the band appear at Plymouth Pavilions next week as part of their UK Labour of Love tour, hot on the heels of their latest album, The Best of Labour of Love.
"It's a useful thing to keep another brother in the cupboard," says Robin. "Bringing Duncan in has allowed us to carry on and keep the sound more or less the same. It's really lucky that his voice has the same tonal qualities."
With the family connection – and the fact that he's just 10 months older than Ali – it's hardly surprising that Duncan's face fits, but it may also look familiar through his TV and film roles, mostly as an extra in series such as The Bill.
"We always say he looks like a copper, too," laughs Robin.
By all accounts Duncan is loving every minute of his life in the limelight on stage with his brother and the stalwarts of the UB40 gang – Astro, James Brown, Earl Falconer, Norman Hassan and Brian Travers – who have now been treading the boards consistently for nearly 30 years. Having turned down an invitation to be in the Birmingham band back in the early days because he was starting his own business, the new call to join 21 months ago came at just the right time.
"We've worked him solidly ever since," says Robin. "But he's still like a kid in a toyshop at the moment; we've all toured so much that we're happy just to hide in our hotel rooms and watch DVDs between gigs but he's out in every city sightseeing. We are having a really great time and nobody is talking about retiring any time soon."
But the new era of UB40 is tinged with sadness because a rift remains between Ali and his brothers.
"Ali hasn't spoken to us since he left the band. It's a bit strange because it was his decision," says Robin. "Time heals all wounds, they say.
"It was getting quite difficult on the last tour with him because it was obvious he didn't want to be there. We were losing our enthusiasm and people were coming up after shows and asking us what was wrong. I'm delighted to say we've found a new lease of life."
The current 1980s revival has seen several of UB40's chart contemporaries back out on the road, while the multicultural Brummie collective have never gone away.
"We have never been in fashion or flavour of the month, and the popularity of reggae seems to have a cyclical nature, but we just keep doing what we do and audiences still enjoy it," says Robin.
As the tour title suggests, the greatest hits setlist celebrates tracks from the past three Labour of Love albums – like the stunning Red, Red Wine – and offers some tasters from number four which is recorded and ready to roll. They are all albums solely featuring UB40 reggae-style covers of songs originally released by the group's musical idols.
"This was something we wanted to do right from the beginning – record songs we love," says Robin. "Because we were originally seen as a political band, we were told that doing an album of covers was a terrible idea; but these were the songs that made us want to be a band in the first place. We heard them at the blues parties we used to go to growing up in Birmingham. So we just did it anyway. Mind you, we have done 21 albums of original material too."
Special guest for the show is Eddy Grant who boasts hits like Electric Avenue, I Don't Wanna Dance and Living On The Front Line from his solo career, and Baby Come Back and Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys with The Equals.
UB40 are at Plymouth Pavilions on Tuesday, December 15. Box office: 0845 146 1460.