Present Arms was the second album from Birmingham reggae band UB40 – released in spring 1981. In its day, I bought the album on vinyl, but years later, after the band seemed to try and deny their early history, I lost interest and gave away more than half of my UB40 vinyl as a mark of disapproval. Pretty stupid thing to do, but the guy I gave it to (a major fan of the band) was grateful beyond words, and he was clearly not going to sell it. I did, however, miss this album, so in the 1990s I ended up buying it again – this time on audio cassette – the one you see here.
UB40 were the first professional band I ever went to see live as a teenager – that exciting moment coming on Sunday 14th February 1982, at the Birmingham Odeon. The support was a lesser known reggae band called Night Doctor, who I think did a radio session for Kid Jensen around that time.
I saw UB40 another three or four times after that, and they always stood out for having an amazingly well defined and polished sound on stage. The gig they did at the old Apollo theatre in Coventry on 18th September that same year was just stunning in terms of sound quality. I can’t remember any band in any genre topping that at any point in the 1980s.
UB40 were quite an unusual phenomenon, and their rise to prominence was interesting. They certainly weren’t in my opinion making the best available reggae records in 1980 when they first broke. In fact a number of kids at our school said every song on the first album (Signing Off) sounded the same. But the band had a big connection with younger working class people in the UK, and they played up to that, writing strongly political material, offering concessions to the unemployed, etc.
It would be fair to say that UB40’s initial core audience was the disenfranchised youngster seeing a bleak picture of the future, courtesy of high and still rapidly rising unemployment, and what seemed a very unsympathetic government. In my view, UB40 had deliberately and specifically cultivated that audience, and the policy paid them big dividends. A number of other groups hopped onto that same ‘Rock Against Thatcherism’ bandwagon after the Conservatives won power in 1979, and standing up for the disenfranchised probably was considered a passport to at least moderate fame by some bands, if not all.
But once firmly established, UB40 began to focus on the wider market, dropping the rather militant stance, the concessions, etc, in favour of a more universally viable message – if indeed it could any longer be considered a message. And starting (to my knowledge) in 1986, in an interview for a radio series called Punk to Present, UB40 began to deny that they were ever a political band, saying that in fact, they’d only ever set out to popularise reggae. This, as far as I was concerned, was a sell-out, and a snub to the core audience who’d set the band’s career in motion.
I suppose being young I was pretty naïve, and I didn’t grasp the huge power of money in changing people’s priorities. I always maintained my belief that UB40 were one of the best sounding live bands I’d ever encountered, but I no longer felt any connection with them, and for years I refused to buy their records on principle – even if I liked them. Was I over-reacting? Maybe. In the interim I’ve certainly seen some much more spectacular sell-outs than the one I felt UB40 were guilty of. But because I was one of the teenagers who’d looked up to UB40 as a nationally visible embodiment of my own concerns and fears, and I’d shown them loyalty on that basis, it felt very personal when later on, they effectively said that I and many others had misinterpreted what they stood for.
I do now have a more detached and realistic view of it all, and it’s very hard to dispute that in the 1980s UB40 did have a very positive impact on the popularity of reggae music. I liked their early material, and I regard Present Arms as a classic album with no low points. It did bring something a bit different to reggae music. It had all the technical characteristics of true Jamaican reggae (other than the lead vocal), but it retained enough British pop influence and national topicality to captivate the UK audience.
On the vinyl version there were just four tracks per side, but an included twelve inch single added two extra numbers. This audio cassette version has the combined total of all ten tracks. It’s good to listen to this from time to time, but each play is tempered with recollections of the disappointment I felt from the mid ‘80s, and the regret attached to giving away a load of valuable vinyl. It does tell a story, though, and it’s more interesting, I hope, than a track list and few regurgitated lines from press releases.