Here’s a clip of Birmingham UK reggae octet UB40 with their 1980 track ‘Food For Thought’ as taken from their debut album Signing Off. Among the bands coming out of the ska/reggae revivalist movement in the Midlands of England by the late 70s and early 80s, UB40 had the most commercial success, although it’s important to note that they were never officially a part of that scene.
I first heard this tune on the band’s 1983 Live album, a song about the disparity between the first and third worlds, with some references to the absurdity of religion in the face of human suffering thrown in. I was 14 at the time, unaware of most of what was going on in distant places. But the weightiness of this song, the stark imagery in the song’s lyrics, more than made up for that lack of awareness.
The lamenting sax lines from saxophonist Brian Travers, along with Ali Campbell’s plaintive vocal convey the sadness and the anger in this tune. And the rhythm makes each line hypnotic, holding the attention of the listener. It’s always annoyed me that reggae has been sidelined as music to smoke pot to, especially when so much of the best of the genre is about paying attention, and not letting it wander. And this was the strength that UB40 had on their early albums; they made reggae music that had something to say, like the music of those who influenced them.
UB40 were more of a purist reggae outfit when they started out, leaving behind the abrasive textures of punk which marked the Two-Tone sound which was another prevalent musical scene in Birmingham, Coventry, and the outlying areas. This is one of the major reasons why they are thought of as being separate from their contemporaries like the Specials or The Beat. They would eventually leave the rootsy sounds of Jamaican reggae too, and take it in a more AM radio pop-reggae direction by the late 80s and into the 90s, which diluted their sound to the band’s detriment.
But, their first few albums were very focused on their dual purpose as a band; play reggae and make money. If this last bit sounds a bit on the mercenary side, it’s because these guys had all lost their jobs and formed the band as a means to make up the difference. They even named the group after the UB40 form, which is the documentation needed to get their dole money.
After they gained an audience and rose in stature, they most likely had a more difficult time justifying their unemployment benefits. Yet, at least in the beginning, they were giving voice to that audience by singing about what they perceived to be a crumbling society around them, as well as how the corruption of their government was affecting life in the Third World. In short, they were a long way from reggae covers of Elvis tunes, at least for a while.