Skinny Elvis? Fat Elvis? Bad movie Elvis? Las Vegas Elvis? Elvis in the mall yesterday? All or none of the above may be true, but the one thing that remains constant is Elvis the Hitmaker. RCA still sells a ton of Elvis records. He wasn't the King for nothing. British pop reggae band UB40 has been on top of the charts for the last few weeks with their cover of an Elvis song, "Can't Help Falling in Love."
Recording an Elvis song is fully as risky as having Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson in your movie. And getting an Elvis song in a Sharon Stone movie ("Sliver") won't hurt UB40's financial statement, either. UB40, who have been around for 15 years and have had hits in the United States before, mostly with cover songs by artists such as Neil Diamond and Sonny & Cher, will headline the Santa Barbara County Bowl Tuesday night.
UB40's brand of homogenized reggae and pop music seems to have found a responsive chord in the United States, where hard-core reggae seems to be always sick but never dying. Reggae somehow made palatable and safe is yet another example of the sanitizing of a popular culture in which Little Richard somehow becomes Billy Joel, John Wayne becomes Ronald Reagan, Elton John shows up in a commercial with Bogie, and Bob Marley becomes UB40. Thus, Never Never Land, unlike the real world, becomes as dangerous as Barney saying "darn it."
The Birmingham octet, on the other hand, has had hits the world over with originals. Actually, very few of the band's repertoire consists of covers, but those Americans (especially those radio programmers) seem to be playing it safe. Even though the Bundys would win the brawl, "Full House" is the big hit, and "Married With Children" is the cult favorite.
James Brown, not "The Godfather of Soul" but UB40's drummer, discussed the latest from a St. Louis hotel room.
Is "Promises and Lies" the best UB40 album yet?
We're doing OK. This is a very odd business. I mean, who knows about an album until it comes out?
Why is it your hits in America are cover songs?
Yeah, OK. I suppose that's a bit strange in the States. We have hits with our originals in every other country. We have 14 studio albums, only two of which are cover albums. We have over 200 songs probably, and only about 20 covers. I think in America, covers are what they can relate to. I remember when our band had dreadlocks and came to America. It's very insulting to be asked what you are.
Is reggae getting bigger, smaller or staying the same?
That's hard to say. I think it's dangerous when things spill over and become the flavor of the month. Who knows? Maybe Arabian nose flute music will be the next big thing. Reggae is an existing form of music that is growing slowly.
It seems as though hard-core reggae doesn't do well, but your brand of pop and reggae is a hit. Why?
I don't think anyone else is doing what we're doing. We've never had an album in the Top 30 before. Reggae is still sort an unknown quantity; it's unknown on black radio.
Reggae is often regarded as a music of black liberation; but your music doesn't seem very political.
I'd have to argue that. Reggae is nothing but Jamaican pop music, and it's no more political than any other type of music. Reggae songs are about politics, but also about love and all kinds of other things. I think the political aspect got started because Bob Marley got a higher profile than he probably deserved at the time. It's slightly pretentious to think this music is more than it really is.
How many times has UB40 been to Santa Barbara?
Oh, a lot of times as far as I can remember. We've been touring mostly for the last 12 years. It's definitely a different lifestyle. We tour in blocks of a year or two at a time. We get an usually large amount of money for our labors, but being separated from our families for long periods of time can be difficult.
Has UB40 been to Russia?
In 1986, we were the first band to go to Russia. We got asked to tour there by the powers-that-be, and we played six nights. I loved the place, really, but I hate what's happened there since. I think Gorbachev is just an amazing guy--the Man of the Century. I don't have so much respect for Yeltsin, though.
How did UB40 get started in Birmingham?
Reggae was always close to us there, and it was the music we were exposed to. We lived in predominantly immigrant areas where reggae had a high profile. We were never going to play anything else. There were a lot of Jamaicans and East Indians in Birmingham. It was a very authoritarian place with a lot of police who were happy if you stayed in at night. You'd get questioned if you were out on the street.
Would John Major wear a UB40 T-shirt?
I wouldn't think so unless he wanted to pretend to be young and hip. He's just one more bank manager.
What's next for the band?
Oh, a year of touring and pushing this record. We'll be doing the States until September, then maybe come back early next year. We play where our audience is, because we have a pretty expensive entourage.
* WHERE AND WHEN
UB40, Gin Blossoms at the Santa Barbara County Bowl, 1122 Milpas St., Santa Barbara, 568-2695. Tuesday night, 7 p.m. Tickets $28 or $26.50.