Astro – Toaster and MC
Born June 24, 1957; died November 6, 2021
Terence Wilson, better known as Astro, who has died aged 64 after a short illness, was a founder member of UB40, the multi-racial group at the forefront of taking British reggae music into the global mainstream. As toaster and MC with the band, Astro was central to the band’s attitude as much as its sound on hits that included Red Red Wine (1983) and I Got You Babe (1985).
On record, Astro gave UB40 its political consciousness, as he rhymed about the everyday racism experienced by his generation. In the live arena, he came to the fore even more, with his charismatic stage presence and garrulous personality holding court over huge audiences as he encouraged them to party.
UB40 formed in 1978, with the group named after the era’s unemployment benefit card, which all eight original members of the band and several million others besides had experienced first hand. Fronted by Ali Campbell, with brother Robin on guitar, the band arrived at a time when racial tensions were high in the UK, with Margaret Thatcher’s ascendance as Conservative prime minister ramping up class divisions.
Wilson became the perfect foil to Campbell, as UB40 wrote about the assassination of Martin Luther King and the controversial ‘sus’ law. The latter was drawn from the 1824 Vagrancy Act, which, until its repeal in 1981, legitimised the stopping and searching of Black youth by police on the grounds of being perceived to be acting suspiciously.
In an interview with Graeme Thomson in the Guardian earlier this year, Wilson spoke of how he “went through the same rigmarole as most black people in the late ‘70s,” and how being lifted by the police was “a weekly occurrence. We found it harder to write love songs than militant lyrics, because it was a lot easier to write about stuff you had witnessed or read about. It seemed natural to us.”
As outlined in 2006 in the Campbell brothers joint autobiography, Blood and Fire, despite UB40’s success, Wilson was refused entry to nightclubs because of his dreadlocks while the band’s white members were let in. In 1990, he was jailed and deported from the Seychelles after police claimed to have found marijuana in his hotel room. He was subsequently refused entry to Hawaii, where the band had to play without him. Despite such abuses, Wilson remained every inch an entertainer onstage, and was at the heart and soul of the group.
Terence Wilson was born in Birmingham, the son of Jamaican immigrants who had settled in England as part of the Windrush generation. He grew up around the city’s multi-racial Balsall Heath area, and went to school with future UB40 keyboardist Mickey Virtue, who remained his oldest friend in the group. He acquired his nickname from the ‘Astronaut’ brand of Doc Marten boots he wore.
Wilson began Djing and toasting with Duke Alloy’s Birmingham based sound system, and bonded with UB40 founders, Ali and Robin Campbell over their mutual love of reggae. After signing to the local Graduate label, the band scored a top ten hit with their debut single, Food for Thought/King, with both songs featuring on their politically charged debut album, Signing Off (1980).
With writing credits shared equally among the band, further success came with One in Ten, from their second album, Present Arms (1981). The title of the song referenced the percentage of those in the West Midlands claiming unemployment benefit in 1981.
Despite these serious concerns, Wilson was quoted as acknowledging that reggae is as much about pop music as social awareness. This was highlighted as UB40 went to have worldwide success with a cover of the Neil Diamond penned Red Red Wine, taken from their 1983 album, Labour of Love. Another cover, of Sonny and Cher’s song, I Got You Babe, from Bagariddim (1985), featured Pretenders vocalist Chrissie Hynde. Both singles went to number one in the UK charts.
UB40 went on to sell over 70 million records, before a rancorous split saw the Campbell brothers lead two different versions of the band. After appearing on eighteen UB40 albums, Wilson departed the original group in 2013 in response to plans for a UB40 country music album. He joined Ali Campbell and Virtue in what eventually became known as UB40 featuring Ali, Astro and Mickey, and appeared alongside them in 2014 on their new record, Silhouette. An unplugged album followed two years later, with A Real Labour of Love released in 2018.
Following Virtue’s departure, the group became UB40 featuring Ali Campbell and Astro, and continued to tour the world. In June 2021, they performed an online concert of Signing Off in its entirety. Throughout the changes, Wilson’s love for the roots music that UB40 formed around never diminished.
“I’m on a mission thirty plus years to try and help popularise reggae music,” Wilson toldwww.reggaeville.comin 2014 after reuniting with Campbell and Virtue. “And all these years later, we’re still on that same mission. Cause we personally don’t believe that reggae is getting enough airplay on mainstream radio. There are plenty of specialised stations, but they’re just preaching to the converted. What we need to get at is people who haven’t listened to reggae before but could be interested. They just need somebody to show them the way.”
He is survived by his wife, Dawn Wilson.
The Herald, November 22nd 2021.