The second album by Britain’s biggest ever reggae band gets the deluxe reissue treatment, 34 years on from its original release
That’s not to carp or bitch, merely to state facts: after Labour Of Love, the Campbell brothers and their band of merry men undeniably chose to pursue a more commercial, pop-oriented sound. It’s a decision that’s served them well – and good luck to them, because while this reviewer may prefer Augustus Pablo, Eek-A-Mouse and King Tubby these days, the fact is it was UB40 in their early days that turned a generation on to those artists in the first place. They deserve respect for that… and for the fact that, over three decades later, Present Arms still sounds great.
Lyrically, it’s as militant as they come: from the anti-war title track (“Khaki ranks of flesh and steel/Learning how to smile and kill/They’ll teach you to ignore the screams and tears”), to the harrowing hymn to the forgotten One In Ten (“I’m a starving third world mother, a refugee without a home/I’m a housewife hooked on Valium, I’m a pensioner alone”), to the anti-religious Don’t Let It Pass You By (“There ain’t no heaven and there ain’t no hell/Except the one we’re in and we know too well”), the Campbells weren’t ones to mince their words. As for the music, UB40 had emerged from Birmingham’s “blues” (unlicensed Jamaican clubs) scene and here their roots are definitely still showing, with heavy bass and dubwise sound FX the album’s primary MO. “Burn two spliff, play ital riddim” indeed!
So yes, Present Arms itself stands up very well. The ‘deluxe’ side of the equation is where things fall down a little. The dub version of the album – cunningly titled Present Arms In Dub – was something of a landmark, being the first dub version of an album ever to hit the UK Top 40 (putting it on a par, historically, with the roughly contemporaneous Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing by Soft Cell, the first club remix album to do the same). So Universal’s decision to include only five of …In Dub’s eight tracks in this set is frankly baffling. In recompense you do get five live tracks culled from a 1981 Radio 1: In Concert set, but compared to other deluxe reissues we’ve reviewed recently (the stunning Setting Sons set, for instance), fans may feel a little short-changed.
Verdict: A classic album, but the ‘extras’ are a little disappointing
(for the original album)
(for the Deluxe Edition)