Friday, 27 August 2010

26 Present Arms - UB40


Acquired : 23 December 1983

Tracks : Present Arms / Sardonicus / Don't Let It Pass You By / Wild Cat / One In Ten / Don't Slow Down / Silent Witness / Lamb's Bread

This was the fourth of Helen's joint birthday/Christmas presents.

This was UB40's second album and therefore before the post-Red Red Wine bland out. I think most readers will have a fair idea of UB40's sound, the reggae rhythms, punchy brass, rudimentary keyboards, reliance on Brian Travers' sax for most of the melody and of course, Ali Campbell's Jamaican-inflected vocals. I can't describe the dub effects or interpret Astro's toasting properly so please use the comments box to tell me what I've missed.

We kick off with a military drum roll, a parade call then an assertive brass riff leads into the title track, a bleak satire of army recruitment campaigns some years ahead of Public Enemy's "Black Steel". The line "You'll be your mother's pride and joy" recalls "Enola Gay". It's a Faustian bargain ; trade in your humanity for an escape from the dole queue and the urgency of the music gives it real punch.

"Sardonicus" slows things down as electronic percussion and an ominous sax riff lead us to a shared vocal about presumably a politician with a fixed smile. The title refers to the medical condition leading to a fixed grin (often associated with tetanus). Its two verses are both repeated to get the point across then there's a lengthy instrumental passage complete with an unassuming guitar solo before the track fades out.

"Don't Let It Pass You By" is the longest track , the first half of which was released as one side of the first single ahead of the LP. There's a lengthy intro before Ali comes in to warn of the dangers of waiting for utopia, whether religious or not. The band's unassuming keyboard player Mickey Virtue comes to the fore here with some questioning synth chords then an idiosyncratic little solo. After a repeat of the second verse a sudden brass intervention brings the music to a temporary halt and Ali gives way to Astro who begins toasting to the same backing as before. Astro's repeated instruction to "burn two spliffs" seems at odds with not letting things go by. Most of his toast seems to be describing the sound of the band although the latter part has political references notably an allusion to the New Cross fire earlier that year which killed a number of black children and wasn't interpreted as a racist attack by the police.

Side One ends with "Wild Cat" a pacy instrumental led by Travers' insistent questioning sax. UB40 don't provide answers and the track fades out without resolution.

The second side kicks off with the second single "One In Ten", it's urgent bounce and frequent sax breaks preventing the check list of human misery in the lyrics from becoming too turgid. It's closing guitar solo expresses the anger at the reality behind the statistics but it also draws a line under their most militant music and the rest of the LP pursues a mellower groove.

"Don't Slow Down" was the other side of the first single and also concerns living for the moment but where "Don't Let It Pass You By" is strident , this is laid back with a warm, lazy groove. Campbell is observing the hectic lives of others from a position in the rear rather than instructing.

"Silent Witness" maintains the mellow tone with a drowsy shared vocal observing the nightscape of Birmingham where the ignored homeless roam the streets amid occasional violence. Ali rouses himself for a solo verse about the shop dummies coming to life and fleeing the scene (unlike Kraftwerk's clubbing mannequins) but it comes across as mournful and defeatist rather than challenging.

The closing track is Astro's paean to marijuana "Lamb's Bread" by far the most upbeat track on the LP. Lyrically it's ambivalent with Aatro noting "Thiefing, looting, lying, me seh dep pon the street" and if legalisation is seen as the answer it's not obvious from the words. The last verse is just an exhortation to the bass player the album concluding with the words "B-line".

We'll come to UB40 again and it's hard to pick a favourite from those I've got but this is certainly in the running.


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