Brian Travers (February 1959-August 2021)

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This isn’t so much an obituary as an appreciation of a great player and arranger who didn’t necessarily get the credit from the public for everything that he put into the success of UB40. RIP Brian Travers.

Saturday February 16th 1980 was another one of those musical epiphanies. The university circuit was a crucial part of the plan to break new bands and Dundee University Students’ Association was part of that circuit. We booked acts that went on to be huge for ridiculous money (Tom Robinson Band at £250); I didn’t know how lucky I was until I graduated and didn’t have access to those gigs any more. This particular night was going to be good; we had The Pretenders headlining. They had already had three hit singles, including “Brass in Pocket” which went all the way to the top. I loved the album and couldn’t wait to see them, but I had a big surprise coming.

The Pretenders had a very black and white thing going on at that time (apart from Chrissie Hynde’s red leather jacket) and the overall vibe was studied cool. I’d heard the buzz about the support and was curious to hear them live. I’d been a fan of reggae and ska through my teenage years, but it was a whole new ball game when the UK-based bands started to break through, so UB40 looked interesting with double A-side single “King”/”Food for Thought” to be released imminently. From the opening seconds I was completely blown away.

The contrast with The Pretenders couldn’t have been greater. It was a laid-back and monochrome four-piece rock band against an eight-piece reggae band in riotous colour with a huge desire to succeed. UB40 really wanted it and they had political messages they wanted us to hear as well. There was something going on wherever you looked and you couldn’t take your eyes of the stage. Brian Travers was a player who defined the band’s sound, playing melodica (not unusual in reggae at the time) and tenor sax (a bit more unusual). “Food for Thought” was built around an incredibly catchy sax hook that you couldn’t ignore. I was instantly converted, bought the album “Signing Off” when it was released and the follow-up “Present Arms”, which had a harder musical and political edge. I even took a chance on trains over Christmas to go to a gig at Birmingham International Arena where the other acts on the bill were Elvis Costello, Rockpile, Squeeze, Madness and The Selecter. I saw the band a few more times over the years, including the 2010 “Signing Off” thirtieth anniversary tour, but I only really understood the importance of Brian Travers to the band when I photographed them at Cornbury Festival in 2018.

There were now two versions of UB40; this one was fronted by Duncan Campbell as singer. I know I’m not the only one to make this observation; this looked like a band that were taking the big payouts while they still could with phoned-in performances, with one exception. Brian Travers was on fire; he didn’t just play well, he was a showman who was working really hard to sell a package that was way past its sell-by date and mired in controversy and bitterness and just about succeeding. I didn’t envy him that job but he gave it everything. Brian Travers was still the livewire performer that I saw thirty-eight years earlier in Dundee; that’s how I’ll remember him.

He died on August 23rd after a long battle with cancer.

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