Monday, 10 March 2014

The Other Campbell Brother

While the three younger Campbell brothers wrestle with UB40's disputes, elder brother David is rebuilding a folk career, with echoes of their legendary father Ian.

Photo courtesy of Ian Dunn at Principle Photography
Among Birmingham's musical dynasties, one family stands out: The Campbells. The late Ian Campbell was a stalwart of UK folk from the 50s onwards. Driven by socialist principles, he ran the famed Jug Of Punch folk club for decades, hosting everyone who came up through the UK folk scene of the 60s and 70s.

Three of his sons, Robin and Ali, and later Duncan, helped rewrite British Reggae. The fourth is a traditional folk singer. David Campbell, the eldest by two years, is re-emerging in folk clubs and festivals. Like his dad's work, and like the early UB40 recordings, his work is shot though with political conviction; it's a family tradition.

Early days

What was it like growing up with a dad like Ian? Were you aware your dad was famous? 
We were split right down the middle in how we responded, not just to the fame but to everything. Duncan and I were delighted and proud of everything – the politics and the singing. Our grandfather was a prominent trade unionist. Everyone knows of the Jarrow marches, because they were organised by the Labour Party. But there were several before that, organised by the Communist party. Our grandfather led one, from Aberdeen to London. We knew all of that, Duncan and I, and we were proud of it. Robin and Ali were typically... conformist children. They cared about what other children thought.

But that's what kids do?
Yeah. The right shirt, the right look. The formative part for my three younger bothers came about after we moved from the Jewellery Quarter, where Dad was an engraver. The three of them grew up on the streets of Balsall Heath. I didn't really; I was ten when we got there, and I then went to secondary school the other side of town.

Was that slight age difference a critical factor?
Yes. I was older, I hit puberty, I had a life of my own, a couple of years before Robin. Being the eldest, being left in charge, being given responsibility, that was the difference. I wasn't a Balsall Heathen, like the others.

So that's why you headed to folk? Tell me about your first floor spot.
I would have been maybe fifteen. I think the first song I ever sang in public was 'Boots of Spanish Leather'. Unaccompanied. I sang it that way for several years, before I took up the guitar. It still shows in the way I sing it now: I approached it as if it were a traditional ballad.
You were at the Jug Of Punch, of course....
Every Thursday, for years.

With all the big names? Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon...?
I saw Joni Mitchell, twice. I don't remember Paul Simon, but maybe that was because I was young. I'm sure a lot of important people passed me by. But Joni was lovely. It's quite possible that I remember her because she was lovely.

And Davy Graham, Bert Jansch... all those fantastic players?
Pretty much everyone who was anyone; that was the place in Birmingham.

Recorded at Music Up, Coventry, the trumpeter on 'Brother, Can You Spare a Dime' is David's son Nathan, who also plays with The Heels and several other local RnB, ska and reggae outfits. 

The 60s and 70s folk scene

Your dad was a traditionalist, he saw folk as the 'music of the people', through his political convictions... how did that play out in the UK as the second wave of folk musicians came through in the late sixties? Was it like Pete Seeger condemning Dylan going electric at Newport?
It's a big subject. Like most people in the post-war folk revival, my father started off performing American material - he started off playing with a skiffle group. So just like Ewan MacColl, and Alan Lomax, they sang Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly songs, basically. And anything else Pete Seeger passed on, pretty much. So 'The Policy' as it was known, MacColl and Seeger's policy, for their club, the Singer's Club, in London, was adopted wholesale. It was a conscious shift to turn away from American culture, and turn to our own culture, our own working class, and all that.
The Jug Of Punch was never dogmatic. In Birmingham, Charles Parker (the legendary BBC radio producer), founded the Grey Cock. That was the de facto Birmingham Branch of the Singer's Club. I don't remember Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger playing the Jug Of Punch, and by the time I was taking an interest, they always played the Grey Cock. Once a year, at least. My dad would go to see them.

What about audiences?
The Grey Cock was very much like a contemporary folk club. Maybe they got sixty or so. The Jug Of Punch got hundreds, each week. And you had a good time.
Let's talk about you establishing yourself in the shadow of a very famous dad. Was that easy?
Easy? At the time, everyone was prepared to listen to me. I grew up never having to pay to go into a folk club. If I walked into a folk club, the whisper went round, and I wasn't charged. 'You'll be on the list (to sing) then?', and that was that. But I didn't really establish myself. Now, people wonder why they hadn't ever heard of me. I'm quite sure people often ask how I got to my age without them having heard of me.

That's partly why we're talking.
I did not establish myself on the folk scene. I sang on the folk scene, because I was there. But I didn't devote all my energies to that scene. I was active politically, as an Anarchist. I didn't reject what my parents believed. My version of rebellion was to be an Anarchist, rather than a Marxist.

Very sixties, if I may say so...
Exactly! I was a precocious hippie – slightly too young to be a hippie. I did a lot of playing, but it was all at political benefits.

Recorded at Music Up, Coventry, this song sequence features Ian and Duncan Campbell on backing vocals. It was Ian's last recording session. 

UB40 and the music industry

So explain to me how you wound up working in the music industry? After all, it's the most brutally capitalist, red in tooth and claw, exploitative industry there is. It chews people up and spits them out after sucking the talent and the money out of them. And here's you, a hard left anarchist, in the middle of it all?
I know. The simple truth is I fell into it by accident, because my brothers became pop stars. Two of them formed a band. When they formed it, I was in prison. And they came to see me because Ali didn't want to be a singer.

What? With that voice?
Quite. Everyone wanted to be in a band with Ali, because of that voice. But he wriggled for some time. So he and Robin came to see me, to ask if I would like to be the singer. As it was, I had to say no, because I was tied up for two years or so. I saw them do their first single on Top Of The Pops, shortly before I got out.
Then, when the money started coming in, they employed me. After a year, their first manager quit, and they asked me to take over. So I did, for three years. I left at the end of '84, the year of the first Labour of Love album.

Can I ask why you were in prison?
It's not strictly relevant, but here's why: It was for armed robbery. Because I was an Anarchist.

Aha! The end justified the means, comrade? 
I was performing an expropriation. For the revolution.

And you got busted?

And David burst out laughing.

Recorded at Music Up, Coventry, this song was written by Ian Campbell

So: three year of business shenanigans, contracts and hustle. Even though you were an anarchist.
If I were still an ideologist, I'd still call myself an anarchist. When I started, I shared all of the band's mistaken ideas. I considered my qualifications for the job to be loyalty and trustworthiness. There was no danger of my doing anything to them for my benefit. I believed absolutely that they were the talent, and that management was a form of parasitism. I now think quite differently. I didn't believe that by the time I stopped.

Surely the job of a manager is to do the best by his client? That can mean being an absolute son of a bitch to an innocent third party...
That didn't bother me in the slightest. I deliberately didn't take a percentage; I worked for a salary. But it was a proper job. I worked much harder than the talent did. It meant a business day, and then going to the show, and then partying into the early hours with them and business people they needed to work with. Then getting up to do another day. A 24 hour job, which being a pop star isn't.
I also realised there is absolutely nothing natural or proper or to be expected about anybody selling millions of records. It is not a consequence of being brilliant. The only reason anybody sells millions of records is because an industry exists to generate demand where none existed before.

From UB40, David headed to the music industry, starting at Virgin, to whom UB40 were then signed. Moving to London, he spent the a decade in the industry. Finally, a combination of dark business doings and personal conflicts cut the ground out from under his feet; and twenty five years later he headed back to Birmingham, to the Moseley fringes of Balsall Heath, again.

Starting Over

So here you are. Very gradually you're re-establishing yourself. In your sixties. How does that feel?
Very odd. People must wonder where have I come from. Of course, in Birmingham, I have something people can relate to. It does give me an 'in' to people who are interested. It doesn't mean anything to people who have only just developed an interest.

How are you finding the circuit? Are you booking yourself?
If I knew someone who would be my agent, I would jump at it. I know what's involved, and I don't want to do it. In fact, I can't do it, I'm incapable of doing it. But my audiences are great. Mostly, I have lovely audiences, people who haven't heard me before. I've been delighted at my reception – young people who have no knowledge or previous interest in folk music.
My brothers have all said to me, each one, at one time or another: 'I couldn't do what you do'. Simply because I walk on to a stage alone, and just do it.
I see you as drawing on the fifties, a direct connection to those ground breaking musicians of folk, who trod a difficult path.
Not just the fifties, sometimes the twenties! Really, it's about bypassing prejudices. People who have a memory of the folk song revival, but who are not fans, invariably have prejudices. For instance, unaccompanied singing is referred to as 'finger in the ear' singing. No-one ever stuck their finger in their ear. Nobody. Not even Ewan MacColl. Young people don't have those prejudices, because it's a new generation.

So here's the big irony. You can go to a gig. Walk on stage with nothing, maybe a guitar or a banjo. Play, get paid, go home. Clear profit. Your brothers, who were millionaires, now have the tax man jumping on their heads, they're in all kinds of trouble. The three of them are feuding, lawsuits are flying. That won't, can't be any good. Are you a peace-keeper between your younger brothers?
I'm the only one that everyone speaks to.

That must be really difficult. And you could have been part of that band, had you cared about reggae.
Yes, it is difficult. But I have to tell you, I loved reggae, from early on. I was going to blueses in Handsworth and stuff, when it was mostly R'n'B and Ska. And I still like it. But it's not important to me, like it's important to Robin and Ali. They feel about Bob Marley like I feel about Bob Dylan.

David Campbell plays The Kitchen Garden Cafe, Birmingham on April 28 with Chris Cleverley.

Recordings courtesy of Music Up, Coventry. 

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