UB40 feud: Reggae band's complicated history and why the Campbell brothers fell out

17 September 2020, 14:56 | Updated: 18 September 2020, 13:04

UB40 in 1983
UB40 in 1983. Picture: Getty

By Tom Eames

UB40 are one of the most popular bands of all time. Their brand of reggae-pop fusion was a huge success in the 1970s to the 1990s.

The Birmingham-based band are still touring today, but if you haven't kept up with the behind-the-scenes fights and lawsuits, you may be a tad confused as to what's going on.

Read more: UB40's 10 greatest ever songs, ranked

Here is your handy guide to where UB40 are now and what happened to split them up.

  1. Who are UB40 and when did they form?

    UB40 are an English reggae pop band, formed in December 1978 in Birmingham.

    They have scored over 50 singles in the UK Singles Chart, and have achieved success around the world, including Grammy nominations for Best Reggae Album four times.

    UB40 have sold over 70 million records worldwide. Their original line-up was particularly diverse, with members of English, Welsh, Irish, Jamaican, Scottish and Yemeni parentage.

    Their biggest songs included 'Food for Thought', 'Red Red Wine', 'Can't Help Falling in Love', 'I Got You Babe' and 'Kingston Town'.

    Their two biggest albums, Labour of Love (1983) and Promises and Lies (1993), were number ones in the UK. They hold the record with Madness for most weeks spent by a group in the UK singles chart during the 1980s, with 214 weeks each.

  2. What does UB40 mean and how did they start?

    The band members were friends who knew each other from schools across Birmingham.

    The name UB40 was selected in reference to a form given to people claiming unemployment benefits from the UK government's Department of Employment. UB40 stood for Unemployment Benefit, Form 40.

    The band formed in 1978, when guitarist Ali Campbell, drummer Jimmy Brown and bassist Earl Falconer began rehearsing reggae songs as well as some of their own tracks.

    They were soon joined by several of their friends, including percussionists Yomi Babayemi and Norman Hassan, and then saxophonist Brian Travers and keyboardist Jimmy Lynn.

    Robin Campbell, who was at first reluctant to join, was invited by his brother. Once Robin had joined, the eight musicians formed a band.

  3. Why did Ali Campbell quit UB40?

    Ali Campbell, Mickey Virtue and Astro in 2015
    Ali Campbell, Mickey Virtue and Astro in 2015. Picture: Getty

    After the band stayed together with a few lineup changes for nearly 30 years, frontman Ali Campbell decided to quit in 2008.

    It was originally said that this was so that Campbell could concentrate on solo projects, but Campbell later said he was leaving due to management and business arguments.

    The other seven members - at this point Mickey Virtue, Robin Campbell, Astro, Brian Travers, Earl Falconer, Jimmy Brown and Norman Hassan - released a statement saying: "Ali made a very simple decision; he chose to pursue and put his solo career over and above continuing to work with UB40 after February 2008. It’s as simple as that".

    Read more: Pop's biggest feuds and fallouts

    Mickey Virtue then quit shortly afterwards, citing the same issues that Ali Campbell had said.

    After rumours of Maxi Priest replacing Ali, his brother Duncan Campbell joined the group as their new lead singer.

    In 2011, five members of the group plus Ali Campbell were declared bankrupt, with proceedings starting against them due to debts of their record label.

    In November 2013, Astro announced that he had left the band too, describing it as a "rudderless ship" and criticising the "serious lack of communication between the band and management" and the country sound of their latest album.

  4. What are the different versions of UB40?

    UB40's Duncan Campbell and Brian Travers at Rewind Scotland 2018
    UB40's Duncan Campbell and Brian Travers at Rewind Scotland 2018. Picture: Getty

    There are technically two versions of UB40 now performing.

    The original UB40 - with Robin Campbell as lead singer - have the rights to the official UB40 name, and have continued to perform and release music together. Their most recent album was 2019's For the Many.

    Meanwhile, Ali Campbell has created his own splinter group alongside Mickey Virtue and Astro, called UB40 featuring Ali, Astro and Mickey - and they have since scored hit albums with 2016's Unplugged and 2018's A Real Labour of Love.

  5. Does Ali Campbell still talk to his brothers Robin and Duncan?

    Duncan and Robin Campbell in 2017
    Duncan and Robin Campbell in 2017. Picture: Getty

    Let's just say there's no love lost between the Campbell brothers in recent years.

    He was particularly critical of his brother Duncan's voice, saying: "I sat back for five years and watched my brother Duncan murdering my songs. We're saving the legacy."

    When Duncan was hospitalised in 2020 after a stroke, Ali said he hadn't spoken to him. When asked on Good Morning Britain if he thought "this might be a chance to patch things up", Ali replied: "Not really. I have no contact with him."

    Later in his GMB interview, Ali told the hosts he has no interest in getting the original group back together.

    He said: "I was betrayed by them. I stand vindicated. I’m just happy to carry on promoting reggae and diversion of UB40."

    Meanwhile, his brothers have accused Ali of “stealing” the UB40 name, and confusing fans over which band is performing.

    Along with older brother David, the four brothers are the sons of the late folk singer Ian Campbell, who died in 2012.

    However, Ali did not attend their father funeral due to the feud.

    In 2018, Robin told the Birmingham Mail: “There was no battle when Ali left. He spent five years performing under his own name. It’s only in the last couple of years that he’s trying to steal our name, basically.

    “Ali resigned from the band. He never owned the name. He didn’t start the band. He wasn’t the founder. We all started the band together. He wasn’t the leader. We were a democratic band that he chose to leave.“

    Robin added that they still intend on taking Ali to court over the UB40 name, saying: “We have never stopped. We never split up. We carried on performing and recording as UB40 and for Ali, five years later, to decide that he can use our name is ludicrous.

    "He’s spent a lot of money keeping it out of court. It’s all very crazy and very silly.“

    Robin and Ali Campbell in 2005
    Robin and Ali Campbell in 2005. Picture: Getty

    Duncan added: “He said in an interview recently that he didn’t have any brothers, but I don’t know what Dave did to stop becoming his brother. I don’t know what I did, to stop becoming his brother. I can’t tell you how close we are and always have been.

    “But when this happened, Ali and me stopped. I don’t know why. Ali was always very, very close to me.

    “But Ali is like my twin and if he came in here and wasn’t trying to punch me, I would be giving him a big hug. Of course I would. He’s my baby brother, he’s our baby brother and we always looked after him that way.

    “He’s made some very odd decisions in his life, but that’s up to him.”