Vinyl Vlog 489

Vinyl Vlog 489

Sunday, 14 March 2021
‘Tyler’ from the 2LP 40th anniversary reissue of Signing Off by UB40.

A deeper look at the grooves pressed into the 40th anniversary, 2LP reissue of Signing Off by UB40.

Maybe it’s just an extension of the unapologetic non-conformist in me, but I have never been able to stop myself from being drawn into music which goes out of its way to challenge expectations and/or just endeavor to go against the grain, defiantly. I know that, at least occasionally, I turn an ear toward music which doesn’t make me feel comfortable, in one way or another, because it forces me to think a little further outside the box – that’s how I first heard UB40’s first album, Signing Off.

Now, to be honest, Signing Off was not the first thing I ever heard by UB40. Like innumerable people my age, I was exposed to UB40 by “Red Red Wine,” the single biggest hit that the band ever wrote. To be a little more honest, I didn’t even like the song when I first heard it and I don’t like it now either – but at some point someone got me to give the band another chance, go backward [“Red Red Wine” was originally released on UB40’s 1983 album, Labor of Love –ed] and listen to their first album. I obliged, and I’m glad I did; what I found was an album which goes against the grain in that it finds the shadows and the darkness in a genre which got and remains popular thanks to the copious amount of sunshine which pours out of it, and revels in the grey scale while reggae normally seeks bright colors.

Basically, in Signing Off, I found the darker kind of reggae which lit me up and inspired my imagination. It also helped me find my way into dub reggae, which continues to reward my heart and soul; but that’s a discussion for another time.

Without meaning to sound contrary, the brightest color – well, the only bright color about Signing Off at all, really – is the transparent red vinyl into which this 2LP Release is pressed. There’s a sadness about “Tyler” which is positively unmistakable, as the song opens the A-side of the album with minor chords, a beat which never breaches a rhythm faster than walking speed and a saxophone which wheezes like a bag of reeds. Those who are accustomed to reggae brightening their days and demeanors and spilling a little bit of sunshine onto their heads will be sorely disappointed – “Tyler” inverts the typical spin placed on reggae. Some would see that as a problem, obviously, but the other side of that coin is that it has listeners totally engaged; it is so far from what they expect of reggae that they’ll want to investigate it further. That’s when they’ll realize that the production of “Tyler” is flawless; where it’s common to hear a bit of grain get captured by a microphone when reggae performances are captured in Jamaica, the clarity which registers through this performance leaves little warmth. In fact, the performance of “Tyler” which is captured here is almost cold and otherworldly.

After the lugubrious opening that “Tyler” makes for Signing Off, listeners won’t be left feeling as though they have any idea what to expect – but “King” begins to restore a sense of normalcy as its beat speeds up a little and Ali Campbell leaves the sadness he was expressing in “Tyler” behind in favor of aiming for something more reminiscent of dry-eyed soul. The energy gets even higher as “12 Bar” hits a genuine stride, and really captures listeners’ attention after that. While it does focus on a form which is closer to dub, but the instrumental performances are pretty captivating here; the texture added to the guitars and keyboards by some effects pedals , the reverb added to the drums and the solid, pocket-dwelling rhythm are absolutely magical and really help to set a standard for the album before UB40 really wows listeners with “Burden Of Shame,” which closes out the album’s A-side.

To this day, forty years after Signing Off‘s original release, listening to “Burden Of Shame” remains an uncomfortable experience. There, while bands like The Clash and the Sex Pistols had already proclaimed their disdain for the governing institutions and monarchy of the United Kingdom, UB40 takes a more internalized angle on the concept of being English. The first lyric which really registers in “Burden Of Shame” is, “I’m an English citizen, not proud of it/ I carry the burden of shame” – and it hits listeners like a dead-blow hammer; there’s a disgust in Campbell’s voice which makes the line not land heavily; it rings through with genuine frustration and can really hang with listeners. Sure, there are other good lyrics in the song (“Our money’s supporting our army/ And a boy in Soweto dies” always hits this critic hard), but that first one seeks to unsettle and hits its mark very, very well; and the sensation lingers as the side ends.

While the A-side of Signing Off is moody, the B-side really seeks to reach for more inspiration (which includes a cover of a Randy Newman song) than simply attempting to set an image, as its predecessor did. The side starts with “Adella,” which presents a striking contrast to the A-side; there, what almost sounds like a harpsichord introduces a new amount of treble to the mix which hadn’t been heard anywhere prior to that point in the album’s running, and the contrast manifests as a brighter and more brilliant aural change. That treble does retreat a bit for “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today” (the Randy Newman cut) but it doesn’t disappear completely, and then it recesses again for “25%” – the closest cut to a dub performance on the album. There, without any words at all, UB40 creates a sonic palette which instantly expresses feelings of worry and trepidation (the crying sax holds listeners in that emotional place) for a fantastic three and a half minutes before ending so abruptly that it’s actually a little jarring.

While it’s true that “Food For Thought” follows “25%” very well and sets up a great contrast between bright, major-key instrumental chords and minor-key vocal melodies, “Little By Little” does even better with its discussions of class warfare and really sets “Signing Off” up to close the B-side strongly with ghostly synths and that brassy sax again. And once again – while “Signing Off” comes through to close out the LP wordlessly, it still comes off feeling like a great and poignant closing statement.

Now, there’s no question that Signing Off could close out at the end of one LP – in fact it did, when it was released in 1980. However, the deluxe reissue of Signing Off throws in a second three-song, 12” EP which adequately adds to the album without leaving listeners wondering why anyone would glut a solid album with an equal amount of extras. That question remains valid as “Madam Medusa” fills the C-side of this reissue with thirteen minutes all by itself, and then closes the running with the unapologetic “pop culture fascination”of “Reefer Madness.” Really, those two cuts are the dictionary definition of “extras” which could have been left out of this reissue, but the take of “Strange Fruit” that’s sandwiched between them is absolutely, positively essential – particularly given the type of year that 2020 turned out to be.

For those who are unfamiliar with “Strange Fruit,” the song started out as being an Abel Meeropol composition which was made famous by Billie Holiday in 1939. The song presents the lynching of black Americans, and its lyrics compare victims to fruit hanging from trees. To this day, almost a century after it was written, the song is capable of making those who hear it feel incredibly anxious and uncomfortable both in spite and because of its craft. In the hands of UB40, the reggae undertones which are integral to the band’s sound bolster and enhance the spirit of the sound and presentation, and the result is a fantastic improvement. Moreover, the sense of UK punk and its connection to reggae in the Seventies and Eighties make the vibe almost tangible here, and illustrate, both how and why “Strange Fruit” is still capable of stopping listeners dead in their tracks to listen intently while the song plays.In this context, “Strange Fruit” is the single most important but on the entire second LP in this reissue of Signing Off; it is as captivating not as it was forty years ago.

Now, while this reissue doesn’t end with “Strange Fruit,” there’s no question that discussion of the song is a very difficult act to follow – it is a very thought-provoking cut here or anywhere. After it does play through here though, listeners will feel as though they’ve been filled up by Signing Off; many of the cuts on both the A- and B-sides have retained their power and potency over time. Just as has always been the case, Signing Off is the album that listeners need to hear first from UB40; they may be won over in a very big way and choose to find the rest of the albums that the band has released [to date, UB40 has released twenty albums – the most recent of which was For The Many in 2019 –ed], but Signing Off is the album in the band’s catalogue which qualifies as the dictionary definition of “Essential Listening.” [Bill Adams]


The fortieth anniversary 2LP reissue of UB40’s Signing Off is out now. Buy it here on Amazon.

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