Signing Offby Ts’eliso Monaheng / 22.11.2011
UB40, if you believe their own PR, is “the biggest reggae band of all-time and the fourth most successful group in the history of the British charts”. Made ubiquitous through cover versions such as Neil Diamond’s “Red, Red wine“, Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe“, the band is as much a wonder as it is a source of irritation to many. Unlike, say, Aswad or Steel Pulse, one could never take them seriously as “tuff-gong” or “rude-boy” youths. Their flirtations with pop saw them oftentimes at odds with reggae’s much-urgent, rude sound. Yes, they were from inner-city Birmingham. Yes the name UB40 (the name of the form you file to get on the dole) is steeped in British class politics. Yes, their lyrics may have been informed by Thatcher’s tight-fisted policies which led to the demise of British industry. But sometimes, the variables alone aren’t ‘spread out’ enough; the coordinates do not intersect at the right points. So the band, oftentimes, found itself ostracised by hardcore reggae music lovers worldwide for not being the real deal. For flirting too much with pop.
Signing Off is a cathartic exhortation of the decay of the late-seventies and early-eighties England. The lyrics are urgent, the melodies tight, and the harmonies point to a group intent on locking down their own tactical approach regarding how the music should be perceived. According to the liner notes, “..London-based major labels had registered their existence, [but] the group felt that they had good reason to keep them at bay”. The band crafted some of their finer moments on Signing off, at least as far as reggae is concerned.
The re-mastered version comes complete with a ten-page booklet of liner notes interspersed with concert photography, and contained in a digpack that opens to reveal two CDs: CD1 the original recording, CD2 the outtakes, twelve-inch mixes, and some BBC Radio One Sessions. The DVD contains footage of a college performance as well as videos and general madness courtesy of the dutty-eight; fitting extras to a set of songs that arguably pushed UB40 to the fore-front of the British charts which they were to dominate for some years to come.
From album opener “Tyler’s” rocksteady rumbling, to “King’s” urgent x-ray incendiary dub explorations, right through to the sublime ‘Burden of shame’ and pre-Band Aid ‘Food for thought’, and rounding off with the title track, Signing off seethes, wreathes, and teeters with a prowess of arrangement which leaves the listener hitherto unaccustomed to the rootsier side of UB40 enamoured by their musicality. Even sixties-style ska makes an appearance on “Adella”, while “I Think It’s Going To Rain” is a fitting rendition of the Randy Newmann original. Perched comfortably between dark inflections of bass flickering over wailing horns is Ali Campbell’s voice, a reassuring undertone always revealing his and the collective’s sturdy sense of bewilderment at the situation unfolding around them during the album’s recording.
Signing Off struck a chord with the British populace, one that radiated throughout the world and created a feedback mechanism which transformed into an at-times-uncontrollable anomaly that yielded insular superstars that, on the outside at least, embodied the values of the very beast they had set out to fight against.
*UB40 (along with their estranged lead vocalist, Ali Campbell) will play the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, 17 December 2011. Ts’eliso Monaheng has already packed his bag. Tickets here.