UB40: Promises & Lies

Scene of the band's first Birmingham gig

Scene of the band’s first Birmingham gig

Sometimes a decent music documentary can really open up a subject like a good book or movie. The Dexys/Kevin Rowland film ‘Nowhere Is Home’ did the job recently, and last weekend’s ‘Promises & Lies’ does it superbly too. It lets the protagonists speak for themselves purely in interview format without any ‘I’m-going-on-a-journey’, narrator-led BBC guff.

Like Simply Red, Madness or The Beautiful South, UB40 are so much part of the ’80s UK chart furniture (39 Top 40 singles including three number ones to date – surely only Shakin’ Stevens and Madness bettered them during the decade?) that it’s quite hard to listen to their music objectively these days.

By the mid-1980s, they had essentially become a stadium reggae band, exemplified by their joyous Nelson Mandela 70th birthday duet with early mentor Chrissie Hynde (she headhunted them at a London Rock Garden gig in 1980 for a big US tour).

UB40’s huge success has possibly obscured their great passion for the music – singer/guitarist Ali Campbell claims several times in the film that they were always promoting reggae rather than seeking fame, and the claim rings true. But their amazing hit-rate was somewhat of a smokescreen for some serious inter-band issues, culminating in a disastrous schism between vocalist/guitarist brothers Ali and Robin in 2008 that makes the Gallagher boys’ break-up look like a petty family tiff.

It was arguably always on the cards. A very tight-knit bunch of Brummies in their early days, UB40 had always split all their performance and songwriting royalties eight ways, a decision which created financial ‘situations’ (millions missing) that would have given even Billy Joel and Leonard Cohen serious cause for concern. The resentments, claims and counterclaims piled up, and now in 2016 there are two bands gigging as UB40, one almost unbelievably fronted by another Campbell brother, Duncan.

James 'Jimmy' Brown

James ‘Jimmy’ Brown

‘Promises & Lies’ gleans strikingly honest interviews from everyone involved – no punches are pulled. And despite lots of fascinatingly-grim stuff, the documentary shows all band members to be an incredibly resilient, exceptionally talented, somewhat stubborn bunch. Drummer James ‘Jimmy’ Brown gets an especially bad ride in the film, apparently the chief social-media ‘Ali-hater’, but his playing sounds great throughout (no less an ’80s pop personage than The Police’s Stewart Copeland once named him as his favourite rock drummer), as do almost all of UB40’s classic ’80s anthems.

I’ll be looking more closely into a band I’d mainly ‘dismissed’ as a singles act. Catch ‘Promises & Lies’ while you can on the BBC iPlayer.

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Alex Sadkin: Sonic Architect Of The ’80s

Grace_Jones_-_NightclubbingOne of the nice things about putting together this website is finding out about some important – though often completely unsung – characters who pop up in the credits of many a classic album. Alex Sadkin is just such a figure.

You could probably write a history of 1980s music purely from the perspective of producers. Perhaps it was the decade of the pop producer. There was certainly a lot of turd-polishing going on, but on the flip side it was a chance for someone to establish their own sound, hopefully in collaboration with a great artist or band.

In the early ’80s, everyone was pretty much using the same fairly limited (but very expressive in the right hands) equipment, so it was a question of being as original as possible.

Though he died at the age of just 38 in July 1987, not many producer/mixer/engineers of the early ’80s had a more distinctive sound than Alex Sadkin. He worked with James Brown, Grace Jones, Bob Marley, Sly and Robbie, Robert Palmer, Talking Heads, XTC, Thompson Twins, Foreigner, Simply Red and Duran Duran during his short life. His productions are full of colour and detail, usually featuring multiple percussion parts, kicking bass and drums and a very characteristic, super-crisp snare sound.

Alex’s first gig in the music biz was as a sax player in Las Olas Brass, a popular Florida R’n’B outfit, alongside future bass superstar Jaco Pastorius. Jaco and Alex had gone to high school together, and Alex later became the house engineer at Criteria Studios in Miami where Jaco recorded the demos for his legendary 1976 debut album.

Sadkin then engineered James Brown’s ‘Get Up Offa That Thing‘ single and also worked on Bob Marley’s Rastaman Vibration album, which brought him to the attention of legendary Island Records owner Chris Blackwell. Sadkin quickly secured a new gig as in-house engineer at Island’s Compass Point Studios in Nassau on the Bahamas.

This was where it really all began for Sadkin – an amazing melting pot of talent passed through the Compass Point doors including Talking Heads, AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Tom Tom Club, B-52’s, Robert Palmer and Will Powers AKA Lynn Goldsmith. But his first bona fide producer credits were alongside Blackwell on Grace Jones’ stunning trio of early ’80s albums (Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing, Living My Life).

Sadkin was now a name producer with a trademark sound and considerable rep, and as such started to attract significant attention, sometimes of the negative variety – legendary NME scribe Paul Morley even took agin him for some reason in a review for Thompson Twins’ ‘Hold Me Now’ single. It probably meant Sadkin was doing something right…

Later in the decade, though his work arguably became more anonymous (but then so did a lot of post-1986 pop), Alex’s career went from strength to strength, producing some big albums such as Robbie Nevil’s debut, Simply Red’s big-selling Men And Women and Arcadia’s (admittedly fairly dire) So Red The Rose.

Sadly, Alex Sadkin died in a motorbike accident in Nassau on 25th July 1987 just before he was due to begin working with Ziggy Marley. He had also just recorded some demos with Jonathan Perkins, later to front criminally-underrated early ’90s act Miss World. Robbie Nevil’s song ‘Too Soon‘ and Grace Jones’ ‘Well Well Well’ are dedicated to Sadkin’s memory, as is Joe Cocker’s album Unchain My Heart. Gone too soon, indeed.