It was hard to escape the strains of UB40’s version of “Red Red Wine” in 1988. Until then, the British band had enjoyed only middling success in the U.S., but the number one single changed all that.
UB40—led by Robin Campbell (lead guitar) and his brother Ali (guitar, lead vocals)—came together in 1978. The multiracial outfit, mostly youngsters from working-class West Midlands, couldn’t even play instruments at first. By 1980, UB40, named for the British unemployment form, was a sensation in Europe and the U.K. America was proving more resistant: UB40’s first single, the socially conscious “Food For Thought,” had reached Britain’s Top 10, but the ska-reggae-pop outfit’s Signing Off and Present Arms albums, both major sellers in the U.K., had made nary a wave in the U.S.
Having made the decision to record an album of songs from reggae’s golden age, UB40 avoided straight imitation of their Jamaican idols. “Red Red Wine,” a Jamaican hit for Tony Tribe in 1969, was an unlikely candidate for re-recording—who would have thought a song written by talented songwriter but schlock stage performer Neil Diamond would make anyone swoon?
Labour Of Love was a sure-footed collection, climbing the charts to number 14 in the U.S. on the strength of “Red Red Wine,” which itself initially reached the Top 40 in the States.
A 1985 remake of “I Got You Babe,” the old Sonny and Cher classic, saw Chrissie Hynde teaming up with Ali Campbell on vocals and hitting #28 in the States. Album releases such as Little Baggariddim and Rat In The Kitchen were respectably successful but did not match Labour’s impact.
It was their decision, in 1988, to reissue “Red Red Wine” in a longer version including a rap by Astro, that finally gave UB40 the boost they’d been looking for in America. The single skyrocketed to number one and triggered a flurry of major hits, including the Top 10 “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” “Here I Am (Come And Take Me)” and, in 1993, a cover of the Elvis Presley ballad “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” which topped the U.S. chart for a remarkable seven weeks. That same year, their Promises And Lies album made the U.S. Top 10 as well.
UB40 subsequently returned to their reggae roots, and eventually split. But some of those whose music inspired them returned the compliment by recording UB40 Presents: The Fathers Of Reggae, a 1992 tribute album featuring Freddie McGregor,
Labour Of Love (Virgin Records)
Promises And Lies (Virgin)UB40 Presents: The Fathers Of Reggae (Virgin Records)