In the first article in a new series, Songwriting gets the story behind the legendary British reggae band’s breakthrough single
hey’ve sold over 70 million albums worldwide and had 50 UK Top 40 singles… statistics that make UB40 the second most commercially successful reggae artists of all time (only Bob Marley outshines them in sales terms). Here, in the first in a new regular series from Songwriting, guitarist and co-founder Robin Campbell discusses how he wrote the band’s 1980 debut single Food For Thought.
“What happened with Food For Thought was typical of how most UB40 songs are written. I wrote the lyrics, then I brought them to the band and we sat around and worked it to music. That’s usually how it works. Sometimes the lyrics might be by more than one person, but often it’s one person that brings a lyric to the band, generally without a melody. As a band we just jam and record stuff that we like, and then it’ll be like okay, we’ve now got 25 backing tracks, we’ve got to come up with some lyrics! And we go away and come back with a bunch of ’em and select the ones we like between us. When Ali was with the band he was often the tunesmith: he would take the lyrics and fit them to an instrumental that we’d already come up with. That was our songwriting routine… pretty arse-backwards really compared to other people!
“The song’s actually credited to ‘UB40’. That’s another thing we’ve always done that’s a bit different from a lot of bands – the whole band’s credited for everything. That was a decision we made right at the beginning, because it seemed obvious that many bands fall out over who gets what song on what album, and the end result is that people all have to get a song or two on each album so they’re earning, and we just felt it watered down the quality. We had three or four strong lyricists and the whole band did the music, so we decided early on that whoever wrote any particular lyric, we would always credit the whole band and share it equally. I think that’s maybe part of the reason we’ve lasted so long as a band… publishing and who shares what seems to be one of the biggest causes of splits. It’s always quoted as musical differences but from bands I’ve spoken to, very often it’s financial differences. So from day one, we decided that wasn’t going to be a source of argument between us.
“I actually wrote Food For Thought in my flat in Birmingham, just before Christmas one year… so it’s actually a Christmas song! Or rather, it’s inspired by the hypocrisy of Christmas, the fact that there are starving people in Africa and here we are all sat around eating our Christmas dinner and praising the Lord. And people are still dying every day, every minute while we’re doing it. But people tend to forget that because it came out as a single in April. It was our debut single: we had a record deal but the label weren’t in any hurry to release anything, and then we went on tour with The Pretenders who had the number one single and album at the time. So suddenly we had the chance to release a single, and our two favourite songs were Food For Thought and King, which is about Martin Luther King of course, and so we put them out as a AA-side. We certainly weren’t going to wait another eight months to put it out!
“Because it was our first single, Food For Thought was obviously a big landmark for us. But if you’d asked me to name my personal favourite song I’ve written, it’d be Sing Our Own Song. Because I wrote it about South Africa, while apartheid was still going on and Mandela was still in prison. We eventually went to South Africa once apartheid was banished, and we played three nights, to 70,000 people each night – which is still the live record in South Africa. And to go there and play to 70,000 people a night and have them sing that song back to us… that was one of the most emotional things that’s ever happened to me.”
UB40’s latest album Getting Over The Storm is out now. Their 20th studio album, it features reggae covers of a number of classic country & western songs. For more information, see their official website – or to hear a full-length radio documentary about the making of Signing Off, the band’s 1980 debut album which featured Food For Thought, click here