THERE’S a plaque on the wall of the Hare and Hounds in the Birmingham suburb of Kings Heath that marks the beginning of a remarkable musical journey.
On February 9 it will be exactly 35 years since a group of lads from England’s second city played their first gig at the pub, for a friend’s birthday party.
Taking their name from the DHSS form that the unemployed had to fill in to claim benefit, the band UB40 were born in the humblest of musical surroundings.
Their double A-sided first single (these were still the days of vinyl) was released soon after on a local independent record label but King/Food for Thought still reached the UK top 5.
Their first album was appropriately name Signing Off and started the band on a phenomenally successful career that has included No 1 hits on both sides of the Atlantic, a Grammy Award nomination and more than 70 million records sold.
Mickey Virtue was there at the start and will be alongside fellow founding members Astro and Ali Campbell (the voice of the band on all their best remembered hits), when this version of UB40 play the Bearded Theory Festival in May.
Mickey says that although times have changed, the UB40 mission remains the same as always.
“The thing that spurred us all on was that we love reggae music,” he says.
“The whole reason for the band was to promote and popularise the music we love and we are still doing that.
“We all felt when we started that reggae hadn’t been properly promoted and it wasn’t out there.
“Our Labour of Love album was all songs from the 70s that never made the British charts. When we released them they were topping the charts. We had a hunch and it paid off.”
The music was always around Mickey in his hometown.
“My dad was Jamaican so I grew up with the music,” he says.
“He also loved his Motown, blues, country and western. Growing up when I I did I was also exposed to The Beatles and Rolling Stones.
“As well as all that music, Birmingham was a brilliant place to grow up with influences from Asia and China, all over.”
Mickey thinks the band also benefited from being in the right place at the right time.
“There were so many bands we thought were brilliant who didn’t make it,” he says. “So luck had a lot do with it.”
It wasn’t long before UB40 were as well known abroad as they were at home.
“Although reggae wasn’t as popular in America when we started,” says Mickey.
“Our first UK No 1 was Red Red Wine but it wasn’t a hit in America until five years later.
“Now UB40 is an international brand. It has a fantastic following throughout the world.”
Mickey, Ali and Astro aren’t, however, the only current claimants of that legacy (see story below).
Mickey says: “I joined up with Ali when he left the band in 2008 and Astro linked up with us just before Christmas.
“I guess because of problems we have had with the way the business was being run, we were forced together for the same reasons really.
“Since we departed we haven’t stopped working and have been touring all over the world. We have been doing lots of festivals. Promoters put their hard cash up and risk everything and when they are looking to book the people responsible for UB40’s music, Ali tends to get the nod.
“We just take care of us. I hope their (the other UB40’s) show goes well and the fans enjoy it. The differences were never about the music.
“This story has got a while to go yet and maybe when we get to the end of it people will understand why things have happened a bit better.”
This version of UB40 have been busy in the studio recording new material.
“We have a new album that’s pretty imminent that we will be promoting it throughout the summer,” says Mickey.
“We are touring all the way from Papua New Guinea to Iceland as well as some summer dates in the UK.”
Mickey admits that when it comes to travelling the world that the ‘novelty soon wears off’.
“Sitting around in airports isn’t much fun but the the gigs tend to make up for it.
“There is nothing quite like it; no other sensation in existence like being on stage and all collectively having a party. It’s the best. When that goes it will be time for me to put the keyboards away.
“I think it’s experience that helps you at festivals - when you have played a few thousand of the things in your career that helps.
“The beauty of festivals is that everyone is there for a big party and it’s fun to be part of the goings on.”
Mickey hopes to be playing many more in the future.
“There’s still work to be done,” he says.
“It’s what we still do and we love reggae music. We hope we are still helping to take it everywhere.”
The Bearded Theory Festival takes place at Catton Hall, near Walton-on-Trent, from May 22-25. Go to www.beardedtheory.com for tickets.