UB40 saves room for pop in its reggae groove

August 06, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Given the choice between seeing Sharon Stone in a movie with her clothes off and listening to a reggae band cover an Elvis Presley tune, you'd think the average American would opt for the former. Yet "Sliver," a film that offered frequent peeks at StGiven the choice between seeing Sharon Stone in a movie with her clothes off and listening to a reggae band cover an Elvis Presley tune, you'd think the average American would opt for the former. Yet "Sliver," a film that offered frequent peeks at Stone's anatomy, was a box-office flop, while UB40's version of "Can't Help Falling in Love," the single from the movie's soundtrack, soared to the top of the charts.

Could it be that people really would rather hear reggae than ogle starlets?

"I find that extremely hard to believe," laughs UB40 drummer James Brown. "But there you go. We found out today that this is the 18th country where the track's gone No. 1. It's a big worldwide hit."

And no wonder. With its lean, supple groove and tart, expressive vocals, it's a perfect blend of reggae rhythm and pop appeal. But not everyone believes the two should be so closely linked; indeed, some critics have complained that UB40's pop instincts undermine its credibility as a real reggae band.

Nonsense, counters Brown. "I don't think the two are mutually exclusive," he says, over the phone from the Jones Beach Amphitheatre in Wantagh. N.Y. "Certainly not from my point of view. Even though I may be attracted to relatively fresh and innovative things, I don't think pop is a dirty word. And I don't think there is a mutually exclusive audience there.

"That's something we've always maintained about reggae," he adds. "It's just pop music, and that covers a multitude of sins."

Pop content isn't Brown's bailiwick, though. Rhythm is where his responsibility lies, and when it came time to record the band's current album, "Promises and Lies," he and bassist Earl Falconer wound up setting the pace for the rest of UB40.

"With this album, me and Earl went in the studio first, and we just created some pieces of music," Brown says. "We're the first ones to do anything. Everybody else sort of adds to that -- even the songs come after that."

That add-as-you-go approach can make the recording process somewhat nerve-wracking, since, as Brown admits, "there's no way we can predict how the music's going to sound until we've actually done it." But Brown feels the benefits far outweigh the risks -- particularly given the lean, muscular groove the band maintains throughout "Promises and Lies."

"I love the spareness of the arrangements," he says. "That's always what has attracted us with reggae. It's not quite relaxed music, but it's not frenetic. And I think that's because we lack rock roots in a way. If you were to trace our roots back and ask what formed our musical tastes, I think you'd find rock music pretty low on the list."

A lot of that has to do with the way the band came together. All eight members of UB40 grew up in the working-class neighborhoods of Birmingham, England, and even though some are white and some are black, they had the same friends, the taste in music, and the same inability to find work. So they put a band together, puckishly naming it after the form each had to file to remain on the dole, and by 1980 had their first English hit, "King."

Still, the band's commercial success doesn't seem to mean as much to Brown as its cultural importance. "We're a complex band because of the cross-culturalization of the town that we were brought up in," he says, pointing to UB40's fusion of English and Jamaican influences. "It makes us play the music that we do. We're only reacting to demographics, if you like."

Maybe so, but UB40 is anything but a stereotypical reaction. Take, for example, the division of labor within the band. "Most bands get ghettoized," Brown says. "Even though there might be mixed bands where you've got a black drummer and a black bass player and a white keyboard player and a white guitarist."

UB40, though, has a white drummer, a black bass player, a white guitarist, and a black keyboard player. "We cut across that purely accidentally," Brown says. "We didn't decide to cut across it. But I think that's one of the most interesting aspects of the band.

"We're the new British, in a way," he adds. "It's sort of like the positive side of colonialism, if there is one. Certainly my life as an English boy has been enriched by there being people of different cultures in the town that I was brought up in. It made me different -- and I owe that difference a great debt, I think."

UB40

When: Tonight at 8

Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion, Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia

Tickets: $22.50 pavilion, $18.50 lawn

Call: (410) 730-2431 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets

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