UB40 Biography

Named after the form issued to unemployed people in the UK to receive benefit, UB40 are the most long-lasting proponents of crossover reggae in the UK. The multi-racial band was formed in Birmingham, England, in 1978 around the brothers Robin (25 December 1954, Birmingham, England; lead guitar/vocals) and Ali Campbell (b. Alistair Campbell, 15 February 1959, Birmingham, England; lead vocals/guitar), the sons of Birmingham folk club singers Lorna and Ian Campbell. Other founder members included Earl Falconer (b. 23 January 1957, Birmingham, England; bass/vocals), Michael Virtue (b. 19 January 1957, Birmingham, England; keyboards), Brian Travers (b. 7 February 1959, Birmingham, England; saxophone), James Brown (b. 20 November 1957, Birmingham, England; drums), and Norman Hassan (b. 26 January 1958, Birmingham, England; percussion/vocals). Reggae toaster Astro (b. Terence Wilson, 24 June 1957, Birmingham, England) joined UB40 to record ‘Food For Thought’ with local producer Bob Lamb (former drummer with Locomotive and the Steve Gibbons band). ‘King’ (coupled with ‘Food For Thought’) was a tribute to Martin Luther King that provided UB40 with a UK Top 5 debut single in March 1980. Two further Top 10 hits followed, with ‘My Way Of Thinking’/‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’ and ‘The Earth Dies Screaming’/‘Dream A Lie’.

UB40’s debut, Signing Off, boasted an album sleeve with a 12-inch square replica of the notorious, bright yellow unemployment card. This image attracted a large contingent of disaffected youths as well as proving popular with followers of the 2-Tone/ska scene. The following year, UB40 formed their own label, DEP International, on which they released ‘One In Ten’, an impassioned protest about unemployment which still managed to return the band to the UK Top 10. Labour Of Love (1983), a collection of cover versions, signalled a return to the reggae mainstream and it brought UB40’s first UK number 1 hit single in ‘Red Red Wine’ (1983). Originally written by Neil Diamond, it had been a big reggae hit for Tony Tribe in 1969. The album contained further hit singles in Winston Groovy’s ‘Please Don’t Make Me Cry’, Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Many Rivers To Cross’, and Eric Donaldson’s ‘Cherry Oh Baby’.

The band’s next release, Geffrey Morgan... , a UK number 3 album, supplied UB40 with the Top 10 hit ‘If It Happens Again’. ‘I Got You Babe’ (1986) was a different kind of cover, as Ali Campbell and Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders duetted on a chart-topping revival of the Sonny And Cher pop hit (the same team had a further hit in 1988 with a revival of Lorna Bennett’s 1969 reggae song ‘Breakfast In Bed’). ‘I Got You Babe’ and the number 3 hit ‘Don’t Break My Heart’ were featured on 1985’s Baggariddim. The band’s next album Rat In The Kitchen included the hit title track and the African liberation anthem ‘Sing Our Own Song’. After performing ‘Red Red Wine’ at the 1988 Nelson Mandela Concert at Wembley, renewed promotion in the USA resulted in the single reaching the number 1 spot.

Throughout the 80s, UB40 toured frequently in Europe and North America, boosting sales of their releases. They also played Russia in 1986, filming the tour for video release. Further UK Top 10 success followed at the end of the decade with versions of the Chi-Lites’ ‘Homely Girl’ (1989) and Lord Creator’s ‘Kingston Town’ (1990), both of which appeared on a second volume of cover versions, Labour Of Love II (which has subsequently sold over five million copies worldwide). In 1990, the band had separate Top 10 hits in the UK and USA, as a Campbell/ Robert Palmer duet on Bob Dylan’s ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ charted in Britain, and a revival of the Temptations’ ‘The Way You Do The Things You Do’ was a Top 10 hit in America.

Following a quiet period the band returned in 1993 with a version of ‘(I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You’, which reached number 1 in the UK and USA thanks to its inclusion on the soundtrack of the movie Sliver, and also fostered the career of new pop reggae star Bitty McLean. The attendant Promises And Lies provided UB40 with their second UK chart-topping album. The following year they backed Pato Banton on his worldwide hit cover version of the Equals’ ‘Baby Come Back’. Litigation took place in 1995 when Debbie Banks, an amateur poet, claimed that their major hit ‘Don’t Break My Heart’ was based upon her lyrics. She won the case and was awarded a substantial amount in back royalties. Campbell released his debut solo album the same year.

After another extended sabbatical the band returned in 1997 with a solid collection, Guns In The Ghetto. The following year the band backed various chatters, including Beenie Man, Lady Saw, Mad Cobra, Ninjaman and Lieutenant Stitchie, on the excellent Present The Dancehall Album, recorded at Ali Campbell and Brian Travers’ new Jamaican studio. It was the first instalment in a series planned to showcase Jamaican reggae both old and new (later releases included Present The Fathers Of Reggae). The same year’s Labour Of Love III included the band’s biggest UK hit since 1993, a cover version of Johnny Osbourne’s ‘Come Back Darling’ reaching number 10 in late 1998. Cover Up (2001) and Homegrown (2003) followed in the new millennium, with the latter featuring the band’s contribution to the England rugby team’s world cup campaign, a version of the negro spiritual ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’. The 2005 release Who You Fighting For? was an acclaimed return to the politically motivated roots reggae of their early work.

UB40 have tirelessly promoted reggae and ska, through no other motive than a love and respect for the music. They have never become star struck and as such are one of the most credible units of the modern era. They truly live up to the principle of ‘the family that plays together stays together’.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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