by James Fleming
“All reggae is vile,” so claimed the much adored but oft-maligned Morrissey, glum-stricken lead singer of the Smiths. A statement that struck many dumb and raised the voices and fists of many others.
Upon inspection, it’s clear that, this, is a daft proclamation.
For how can a genre be vile? A genre of music is merely a collection of characteristics and traits arranged in a certain way that have come to be known under a particular name. A body may not like said traits, but that does not make it “vile.”
If Morrissey was making that grand statement based on UB40’s new collection of acoustic versions of their greatest hits, he could be forgiven.
Attempts to add a certain exoticism to such ubiquitous tracks as Red Red Wine and I Got You Babe with the addition of bongoes and congas merely resulted in Kokomo-style cheese. The overall effect wouldn’t be out of place in a sparsely filled Jamaican Holiday Inn.
The revolution has been airbrushed out. Gone is the spiritual lift of Marley and Toots, replaced by a cold over production and a stark stain of under-enthusiasm. The politics of Peter Tosh and Burning Spear? Pushed aside to make way for soul-sucking cover versions of Jimmy Cliff’s Many Rivers To Cross and Prince’s Purple Rain.
An album of brand new originals featuring the reunited Ali, Mickey and Astro would have been a more admirable move. But, a decidedly less commercial one. And lo UB40 Unplugged was born.
It reeks so bad of money-grabbing you can practically taste it. And, aside from the addition of the aforementioned hand percussion, they have done nothing new to the songs even.
Where records like Nirvana’s landmark MTV Unplugged album succeeded was with the subtraction of their heavier elements but with added intimacy. UB40, being the most successful reggae group this side of Bob Marley, have failed to add this intimacy. As a listener, you don’t feel any closer to the band with these acoustic versions of their hits as you would watching them at the back of Wembley stadium.
The pace neither picks up nor slows down across the sixteen tracks, leading to a deep sense of boredom and a hankering for ska’s livelier rhythms. The added CD, featuring the band’s greatest hits, does nothing to slake this thirst.
It’s as if they took the roots out of reggae and replaced it with an archaic eighties pop production and declared; “go forth and make thine millions!”
And that’s what they duly did. And here, on UB40 Unplugged, they are grasping at the straws of former glory, hoping to, at the very least, make a bit of dosh from ticket sales and merchandise.