We Went to That Weird UB40-Corbyn Event to Work Out Why It Was Even Happening

The kings of cod-reggae endorsed the Jesus of Islington North, in an afternoon of freeform experimentalism.

by Gavin Haynes
07 September 2016, 11:15am

UB4Corbyn (All photos by Chris Bethell)

He sat in a train corridor. Then someone published the CCTV of him doing it, then he went to a press conference with UB40... When Jeremy Corbyn recounts his 2016 re-election campaign, it's sounding increasingly like a gym-class-naked kinda dream.

But no – it really did happen. Media greats up to and including Michael Crick were summoned to the Royal Society for the Arts, to see JC play the Chrissie Hynde role for UB40.

UB40, for anyone under 30, were the inventors of the term "cod-reggae", who had a few hits in the 1980s, taking other people's songs and giving them the sort of copy-paste reggae-ish overhaul for which there is probably now an app on your phone. In 2008, lead singer Ali Campbell left to do solo stuff, and was replaced by his younger brother, Duncan. He's since got irate at not being let back in, and has taken to touring the country in a bitter rival UB40 collective, with two other members who'd also quit.

One: observant readers may already be noticing a disastrous parallel with the Labour Party. But that's not the only aspect of bad poetry within this brilliantly ill-judged photo opp.

Two: UB40 are named after Unemployment Benefit Form 40 – the 70s dole office sign-on form. They actually met in the dole queue, under the Callaghan government. Hence, they are a literal representation of Saatchi & Saatchi's famous Labour Isn't Working ad campaigns that swung it for the Tories in '79.

Three: They're UB40, and therefore only a "Walk Of Life" or "Sussudio" away from personifying the blank dinner party shittery of the mid-80s, the inauguration of the CD era, and maximal point of inflection in anodyne yuppie consumerism. Imagine Patrick Bateman rhapsodising about Huey Lewis and you've pretty much got it.

Four: They're Britain's most successful cultural appropriators. In Labour in 2016, that's problematicalistic, bro.

None of this seemed to have occurred to Jeremy Corbyn, though. In fact there was something quite sweet about something so many millions of miles from Cool Britannia at Number 10 – dad likes what he likes and sod anyone else. Fine. Good. Jeremy stood up and welcomed the band. "Thank you for this incredible endorsement," he said. "It's a tremendous honour to be endorsed by one of the most successful acts of all time."

Everyone looked round to see if one of the most successful acts of all time had walked into the room. No dice.

Jeremy went on, and said some nice and relatively interesting things about arts policy: he'd definitely have one. It would involve "national creative apprenticeships", "defending cultural assets", and "considering dance and drama as national curriculum values". The room settled slightly into its seats. Ok. So we were here to hear a speech on arts policy. Fine. At least some of the freeform experimentalism of the afternoon had been reined in.

Except it wasn't really that, either. Corbyn's few top-line ideas weren't a speech. And rather than use the Ubes as mere set-dressing as they sat in front of a big banner saying "#UB4Corbyn" (which, we were assured, had been seeded on "all the band's social media channels"), people actually started interviewing them.

A few question stooges from "the youth" had also been let in – and the Q & A was divided equally between them and the press. The youth stooges opened the bidding with a toughie.

"How can a Labour government put the arts at heart of policy-making?" Corbyn answered a bit. Then he turned it over to UB40. The room stiffened, bristled. What would bassist Earl Falconer, or even trombonist Norman Hassan, have to say about this?

"It's an urge, isn't it."

"People will always make art..."

"The Tories are philistines..."

"In Birmingham, in our day, it used to be a melting pot... Not so much now. There are more ghettoes than melting pots..." Perhaps the sound of UB40 lamenting the obvious failure of multiculturalism should have been enough for a press agent to swoop in and rip the mic jacks from their sockets, but no, on we went.

"I'm a DIY artist, I've had some music played on Radio 2. I've collaborated with Basement Jaxx. And I find the music industry to be very cliquey. How can it be opened up, to be more inclusive?"

"Convince people to buy the music – and not download it for nothing." No one had the heart to tell Duncan Campbell, estranged younger brother of Ali, that people don't even bother to pirate music anymore when they can stream it from every orifice. That he was working on a model of "the future music biz" from ten years ago.

But then – how much did they know? Bar the youth stooges, the room was all Fleet Streeters. Middle aged mortgage-folk. "Hmm." They may have thought. "I did read a piece on the Dark Web in the LRB last week. I guess this is the same sort of thing. Ross Ulbricht and so on."

"I would have thought the internet's made it more accessible?" Corbyn piped up. Clearly, this was pretty deep shit for everyone to be exploring for the first time. Like when aunt Wanda needs coaching what you actually do on Facebook: "What, so I just write things? But... are they emails? Who to? Why are they on a wall?"

Surely The Internet couldn't be both helpful and harmful to acts, could it? Luckily, guitarist Jimmy Brown could square that circle. "I think it's much easier to start in many ways. With YouTube. In our day, the record labels had a monopoly on everything."

Music biz blather-bingo-players were eyes-down-for-a-full-house by the time Duncan threw in the magic phrase: "In the past, you'd make money from the album and subsidise it by touring. Now, you subsidise the album and make your money back from touring."

Finally, it was the press's turn. Michael Crick decided to be the adult in the room and ask a question about grammar schools (UB40 are against them, maintaining a brilliantly Blair-era consistency on "the line"). But the normally astute Nick Watt from Newsnight was scraping the funnies barrel for his BBC quirk quota. "I guess what I'm trying to say," he added, at the end of a rambling question about musical tastes, "Is would you like to follow Ed Balls onto Strictly?" Everyone in the room laughed in that way that "adults" do when they're listening to Hugh Dennis on News Quiz. Huck-huck-huck-huck-huck. Huck-huck-huck-huck they went. I just hope Nick got his "and finally" nailed.

Corbyn, for his part, was a rung above the usual politico in his response. Rather than being all like: "Well I'd have to say that the Spice Girls really are very good role models, and I don't know if you're aware of Lady Gaga but she has a really marvellous voice, very... spirited. My wife took me to see Adele the other week...", he talked about Mahler. And about the two years he spent living in the West Indies, getting into The Merrymen. And how he'd been onstage with Joan Baez. But he then ended this uptick with a ramble about the nature of creativity, which made him sound exactly like the Peter Sellers in Being There guy that we've always feared or suspected.

"I enjoy going to the Proms at least once a year... Trying to understand what motivated someone to sit in a garret room and turn out something that was stupendous. They had to write it out, and then find an orchestra that would support it."

They had to write it out. Then find an orchestra that would support it. Even Nick Watt could be seen nodding in agreement that Jeremy really was a man of rare insight, intellectually fit to negotiate the finer points of phytosanitary TBTs in any post-Brexit bilaterals should Theresa succumb to Type-1 diabetes. But sadly, while in the words of cutting-edge musical unit Procul Harum, "the crowd called out for more", the party was already starting to fray at the edges, time was up.

Still, everyone left in high spirits, agreeing it was brilliant that UB40 had finally received Jeremy Corbyn's endorsement. That was the point, right?

@gavhaynes / @CBethell_photo

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