Unemployment, Aloe Blacc and the Legacy of UB40

Sophie Zeldin-O'Neill; Facebook

“Politician’s argue, sharpening their knives. Drawing up their bargains, trading baby lives.” It’s hard to decipher whether these are lyrics contemporaneous with Live Aid or live blogs, As it happens, it was the latter.

UB40 was born out of the recession of the 1980s. Having produced twenty-four albums in twenty-eight years, the pop icons are now facing bankruptcy.

There is a bittersweet irony to this news that even I, born eleven years after their formation, can taste all too palpably. Named after the Unemployment Benefit Form number 40 that was issued by Thatcher’s government to those seeking dole, the band’s genesis took place at the very epicentre of an economic crisis that forced three million people into unemployment.

In the middle of their coverage of the bankruptcy, The Daily Mail were kind enough to provide online readers with a link to the original ‘Red, Red Wine’ video, and a one-way ticket down the stonewashed streets of memory lane.

The whole thing is shot in pensive monotone and you can still smell the Aramis and Elnett across the generation gap, but like it or not it’s that kind of shameless realism that made UB40 so quintessentially of their era.

Whilst listening to this song I noticed a link to another that had received a generous quantity of YouTube hits, and clicked on it. ‘One In Ten’ is as powerful a political manifesto as my twenty-one-year-old ears have ever encountered, but is all too reminiscent of others I have heard doing the rounds amongst my friends in recent months.

UB40’s first album, ‘Signing Off,’ charts the band’s progression from bedsit to smash hit, as their talent clawed them from the doldrums of urban poverty and into the public eye. Back then my mum was listening to the lyrics: “I am the one in ten, a number on a list…A statistical reminder, of a world that doesn’t care,” on her Sony Walkman.

Now here I am, thirty years on, listening to Aloe Blacc’s plea echo forth from my iPod: “What in the world am I gonna to do tomorrow? Is there someone whose dollar I can borrow?…I’m looking for somebody to come and help me carry this load.”

His sentiment is the same, but coloured by the knowledge that he is repeating the same cycle as his parents, it seems so much more hopeless. Blacc’s approach places him firmly within a musical bloodline in which using music as a political tool is as much a compulsion as it is a pleasure.

And so, as Britain confronts the cause of the recent riots, with demonstrators camping outside St.Paul’s in protest against the financial meltdown even as I write, it seems painfully clear that some things never do fundamentally change. My mum’s UB40 LP may yet live to see another day.

By Sophie Zeldin-O’Neill

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