Sunday, 31 October 2010

UB40 30th Anniversary thoughts

Call me DJ Urassic: I’m pretty ancient on the evolutionary scale of djs. Actually, I don’t jock anymore, and that’s probably a good thing. But I do go on the radio to do things like the Handsworth documentary. And because I’m ancient, I get called in now and again to talk about one good old day or another.

This month sees UB40 touring to mark the 30th anniversary of the release of their first album. As I was the first jock in the known universe to actually play any UB40 on the radio, I’ve been tapped up several times for reminiscences. This led to a thoroughly enjoyable hour today on BBC WM, gassing with Carl Chinn, taking calls and waxing lyrical about four track recording sessions in bedsits in King’s Heath. Ironically, the station on which I played that early UB40 stuff was... BRMB. You know, the 'Made In Birmingham' guys. They haven’t been in touch. But, hey, I don’t think they play UB40 that much these days. And truth be told, back in the day, the station wasn’t impressed by my interest in obscure local bands… at least until those bands stopped being obscure.  

Interesting fact: UB40 are the fourth most successful British band EVER. Consistency and long-term appeal will do that for you.

Second interesting fact: they deliberately chose to keep their business in their hometown. Not many bands do that.   

Third interesting fact: only a town as multi-ethnic as Birmingham could have ever produced a band like UB40; they know it, and we know it.  That’s why their gigs are so satisfying. It was interesting to note during the programme today that many of the callers feel a very real sense of gratitude as well as a kinship with the band. Seriously.

Fourth interesting fact – and this is where it gets personal: the session I ran on BRMB was a custom rough mix of some of the tracks that were being worked on for the first album, Signing Off. I asked for early mixes; I got them, they worked just fine. The session, in fact, was a stomping, whooping, huge success for the Rock show that I ran at the time.

Whenever I tell this story, I get asked if I still have the original reel to reel tape, as it would be a priceless piece of Birmingham music history – the very first evidence of UB40 on record.

I don’t, of course. In those days, stations recycled tape, wiping the content to re-use the medium. Pro reel to reel tape was expensive stuff. Why, a 10.5” reel, giving you half an hour of play, might run you £15 in 1979, and that was too much money to tie up. This is a difficult concept to explain to anyone under 30 years of age. Factor in inflation, and that £15 gives you enough money to buy a couple of terabytes of hard disk storage… Enough for thousands of hours of material.

Now, it’s easy and cheap to make room for audio storage. Then, it wasn’t.  So countless hours of priceless material has been lost down the years. BRMB is not alone: the BBC did the same; everyone did. So a lot of stuff got lost. Some of it, like the UB40 sessions, irreplaceable, and of huge historical significance.

In a few weeks, I am launching a project  - the Pilot Project – which aims to go some way towards preventing this sort of thing happening again, so that we can stand a better chance of holding on to the vital and powerful music that is being made right now. It’s been two years in the planning, and we are a long, long way from nailing this thing down permanently.

It’s a tough call. But I live in hope. Watch this space for details, very soon.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Handsworth Evolution – a documentary

One tradition. Three generations of Birmingham reggae.

I spent a lot of time in the summer of 2010 bathed in classic reggae grooves, chasing down some of the musicians I worked with at local radio, over a generation ago, for a radio documentary. It was a true pleasure, and while it wasn't quite a labour of love – Birmingham Music Heritage paid me, bless, em, but they didn't pay me that much – I certainly put in way more time than was economic.  The picture here is from Birmingham Museum and Art Galleries; the site's well worth a visit. 

While working on the documentary, I got to hang out again with some dear friends from back in the day – so nice to catch up with some of the guys in UB40 that I hadn’t had a chat with for ages - and forge new friendships with guys like the great Andy Hamilton, and the amazing Apache Indian. And I got to do a bit of proper radio as well. It’s all there – the story of how the children of those early post-war immigrants came up with a vital new approach to reggae, mixed, matched and mashed up... and invented whole new styles of music along the way. And right now, there’s even a third generation doing new and vital stuff. Now, with the blessing of Birmingham Music Heritage, whose commission it was, I am making it available via MixCloud. Know what? I love internet publishing. All three parts are after the jump.