30th anniversary edition of the group’s great debut album.
Lloyd Bradley 2010
Remastered and reissued to celebrate UB40’s 30th anniversary, Signing Off is still believed by many to be the group’s greatest album, and it remains the clearest window into what the band were all about.
It’s far from their most musically proficient release, but Signing Off has energy and intelligence that made it stand out from so much post punk pop. This set sums up a bunch of young Brummies schooled in the West Indian blues dances of Balsall Heath, angry about the world around them and articulate enough to express that without simply ranting. Not entirely unexpected, as being clever with words and using abstract lyrical imagery is very Jamaican and was a factor in the 1970s reggae that influenced the band.
This Anniversary Edition brings together the original album, the three-track EP that was part of the vinyl release, four twelve-inch mixes, and radio sessions for John Peel and Kid Jensen in 1979 and 1980 respectively. This shows the group off in the best possible light, because, as good as the polished-up album now appears, it’s the extras that add real dimension.
The live Food for Thought – a fierce indictment of African famine, five years before Band Aid – is even more powerful and passionate. From the same Peel Session, 25% is unnervingly eerie and as constantly surprising as the best dubs should be, while Reefer Madness pays homage to all those quirky late-1960s reggae instrumentals. I Think It’s Going to Rain Today was heckled at the time as being too soft, but it was their embrace of lovers rock, a vital side of 1970s reggae often by mainstream fans. Here, as seven-minute twelve-inch, alongside My Way of Thinking, it makes perfect sense as their take on the lighter side of sound system dances.
But pride of place must go to 12 minutes of Madam Medusa, the witty, wickedly perceptive verbal caricature of Margaret Thatcher and her rise to power, which issues a stark warning of what she might be capable of. It was the sharpest summing up of the Iron Lady outside of the satirical puppet show of the times, Spitting Image, and the epitome of how roots reggae works.
It seems remarkable that UB40 have been with us for three decades, but we should count ourselves lucky they have.