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Pop Music Review : Reggae A La Ub40: A Lot More Than Skin Deep

September 18, 1986|CHRIS WILLMAN

That loping rhythm section, the syncopated guitar strokes, the percolating Third World social commentary--no doubt about it, 'twas indeed a reggae concert that nearly filled the Greek on Tuesday night.

You'd hardly know it looking at the crowd, though. The only dreadlocks we were able to spot anywhere among the immediate masses were on a white kid.

That exemplifies what many music fans find encouraging--and others find alarming--about the surprising popularity of UB40, a multiracial English group finding wide American success with a permutation of a music still found chiefly in Jamaica.

Longtime reggae champions tend to agree that it's something of a miracle that any reggae band has made it big among teens here. But while some think UB40's success speaks well for the open-mindedness of the young KROQ crowd that has adopted the group as its own, others are suspicious. A band whose two most visible frontmen are white, now playing for a predominately white and trendy audience, must have sold reggae out somehow.

Whites playing black music for whites--imagine that !

It may be true that UB40 wouldn't enjoy its current level of popularity if its principal lead singer wasn't an adorable gum-chewing blond (Ali Campbell), but it would be a mistake to try to equate this band's success with Pat Boone making Little Richard and Fats Domino safe for the world three decades ago.

The band's current live show and latest album, "Rat in the Kitchen," find UB40 sticking determinedly to the real thing, holding to that familiar beat and topical themes while resisting what must be a strong commercial temptation to smooth out some of the style's rough rhythmic edges.

UB40 has added much more to reggae than it has stripped away from it--namely, delectable melodies, both borrowed (the renditions of Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe" and Neil Diamond's "Red, Red Wine") and original ("Don't Break My Heart," "If It Happens Again," the new "All I Want to Do"). Adding that kind of pop craftsmanship while sacrificing the genre's usual celebration of Rastafarianism and ganja shouldn't strike any but the deeply religious and the most hardcore ethnic purists as an unfair trade-off.

The eight-member crew was joined by two female vocalists, but it was the augmented brass section that proved the real secret weapon Tuesday, putting a bit of R&B swing over the steady-as-they-go rhythm on neatly arranged songs like "Don't Blame Me."

One thing the concert could have used more of was a stronger sense of the band's sociopolitical convictions--expostulated with no pulled punches on vinyl but easy to miss live, no thanks to the lack of between-song patter other than the usual crowd-pleasing amenities. When, late in the show, guitarist Robin Campbell described the band's new single as "a call to arms for the black people of South Africa," it came as a shock after what must have seemed to many in attendance an entirely celebratory affair thus far.

Opening the show with a sober dose of uptempo, downbeat soul were the Fine Young Cannibals. Both bands play Friday at San Diego State University and Saturday at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Orange County. Separate appearances also were scheduled for the Palace--UB40's show there (a benefit for Amnesty International) was set for Wednesday and the Cannibals are booked there next Wednesday.

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