And of course he tossed ice in the face of a guy he insisted was the band’s singer, Ali Campbell. You can picture an intense preppie jerk like Kavanaugh enjoying the British band’s wan, blue-eyed reggae covers while failing to be chilled out by their cheesy laid-back vibe. Douchecore for the douche corps, right?
But let’s not do that to UB40. Maybe you only know them for their covers of Neil Diamond’s “Red Red Wine” or Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe” or Elvis Presley's “Can't Help Falling in Love.” But the band built its foundation on a multicultural, working-class radicalism that’s the antithesis of what the Supreme Court nominee and his supporters believe. And their early work is proof that history is always repeating itself.
The band’s name comes from a British unemployment form, an acknowledgement of where the young Birmingham men with Jamaican, Yemeni, English, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish roots were at in their lives when they formed the band in 1978. Their 1980 debut album, Signing Off, replete with the actual UB40 form as album cover, deftly wrapped socioeconomic commentary in raw, organic reggae laced with reverb-drenched dub and two-tone ska influences. It came out amid the dire days of the early Margaret Thatcher era—unemployment was high, but Thatcher’s reforms were empty promises to the unmonied. They were going to get screwed and there wasn’t anything they could do about it.
The album opens with “Tyler,” a song about Gary Tyler, a then-17-year-old African-American who’d been convicted of first-degree murder for a shooting during a 1974 desegregation protest in Louisiana. The evidence the all-white jury considered was shoddy and eventually Tyler’s death sentence was commuted; he was released 41 years later. There are songs about Martin Luther King, income inequality, and African famine, while “Madam Medusa” puts Thatcher firmly in her place. Hard to believe these are the same eight men whose music you’d one day hear at weddings or the dentist’s office. Signing Off, released on the independent label Graduate Records, sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
UB40 followed it up in 1981 with the even harder and more aggressive leftist anthems of Present Arms. “One in Ten” (citing unemployment statistics) took another shot at Thatcher, while the anti-Reagan number “Sardonicus” played on the concept of a disease that causes people to smile maniacally. Two songs on the record call for the legalization of marijuana.
UB40, then, recorded two highly charged political albums with catchy melodies yet foreboding minor chords that recalled the Specials more than 35 years ago, but with lyrics that could have been written yesterday. Present Arms remains a particularly powerful album for me, because when I was nine or ten, visiting my dad’s apartment on the Wisconsin River near the Dells about a decade after the album’s release, it would be on his turntable constantly. He’d tell my brother and me about the need to fight injustice. He’d talk about the unfairness of marijuana prohibition. And he’d talk up the merits of UB40—their message, the genre they chose, why they sounded so gloomy.
UB40 believed in something. Their very existence was a challenge to the Kavanaughs and Trumps and Theresa Mays of their day, parading their power, imperialism, ignorance, and white supremacy. But 1982’s UB44 would largely be the swan song for political UB40. In 1983 they’d release the cover album Labour of Love and forever be that band, catalogued alongside the Mike Love and Bruce Johnston-led “Kokomo” Beach Boys. UB40 became the soundtrack to the gauche ruling class they once hated. But plenty of beliefs were set aside for the bottom line in the ’80s—yuppies were real, you know.
So I’m glad a 21-year-old Kavanaugh got into bar fight over UB40, and not just because it’s yet more evidence that he perjured himself. This anecdote gives us an opportunity to cut UB40 some slack. Through well-written and poignant songs they used their burgeoning fame to shine a spotlight on the rampant inequality perpetrated by entitled elites who exploit society with relative impunity. It’s an era of UB40 that deserves a revisit.