Named after a British unemployment benefit form, pop-reggae band UB40 were formed in a welfare line in 1978, and their multiracial lineup reflected the working-class community their members came from. The band consolidated its street credibility with political topics appealing to dissatisfied youth and got a boost from fans of the waning 2-Tone ska revival movement. Brothers Robin (lead guitar) and Ali Campbell (guitar, lead vocals) formed the centerpiece of the group, which also included bassist Earl Falconer, keyboardist Mickey Virtue, saxophonist Brian Travers, drummer Jim Brown, percussionist Norman Hassan, and toaster Terence "Astro" Wilson. The band purchased its first instruments with compensation money Ali Campbell received after a bar fight, even though few of the members knew how to play them.
But by the end of the year, the group was invited to tour with the Pretenders. Their "Food for Thought" single reached the U.K. Top Ten in 1980, beginning a long streak of chart appearances. Signing Off and Present Arms were big sellers in Britain, if not America, and addressed the political issues of the day in songs like "One in Ten," a Top Ten hit blasting Margaret Thatcher for the country's unemployment rate. Released in 1983, Labour of Love, an album of reggae cover songs, gave the group its first chart album in America and first number one U.K. hit with Neil Diamond's "Red Red Wine." Several albums of original material sold well in the U.K., but only respectably in the U.S., where the group's biggest hit was a Top 30 cover of Sonny & Cher's "I Got You Babe" featuring the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde.
In 1988, the group performed "Red Red Wine" at a Nelson Mandela tribute concert, and a Phoenix radio station trotted the single out for a second go-round. Listener response was far more enthusiastic, and "Red Red Wine" re-entered the charts and went all the way to the top. Finally having hit on a way to conquer the lucrative American market, UB40 responded with another covers album, Labour of Love II, which produced Top Ten singles with versions of the Temptations' "The Way You Do the Things You Do" and Al Green's "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)." The group scored a huge hit in America with Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love," which was initially featured in the Sharon Stone film Sliver and spent seven weeks at number one. By this time, UB40 had largely abandoned their trademark left-wing politics and were concentrating more on perfecting their reggae oldies covers than their original material; however, the gimmick resulted in huge sales figures in both the U.S. and U.K., with Promises and Lies reaching number six in the States and number one in Britain.
In the spring of 1998, UB40 released Presents the Dancehall Album in the U.K. A third Labour of Love collection followed a year later. In fall 2002, UB40 bounced back with yet another collection. The Fathers of Reggae, which appeared on Virgin in November, highlighted the band's roots in reggae in a selection of classics. In 2003, the band scored a major hit in the U.K. when its version of the spiritual "Swing Low" with the multicultural choir United Colours of Sound became the official anthem for the 2003 English Rugby team. The song was featured on the 2003 album Homegrown. As their 2005 album, Who You Fighting For?, was being released, an announcement was made that the band would be working with Birmingham's Repertory Theatre to stage a new musical in the spring of 2006. Two years later, their album Twentyfourseven became their last with vocalist Ali Campbell and keyboardist Michael Virtue.
UB40's 2010 release, Labour of Love IV, introduced Ali's brother Duncan as the group's new lead singer. They also released a remastered two-CD/DVD version of Signing Off as a 30th Anniversary Special, which the band toured across America and Europe. In 2011, five founding members -- Robin Campbell, Brian Travers, Terence Wilson, Norman Hassan, and Jim Brown -- started bankruptcy proceedings against the existing group over debts accrued by their label, DEP International. Alongside former singer Ali Campbell, they were declared bankrupt that year. In 2013, they released their 18th studio album. Titled Getting Over the Storm, it featured covers of country music songs by the likes of Willie Nelson, George Jones, Randy Travis, and more. The album was a success, receiving widespread acclaim. In 2016, Astro, Campbell, and Mickey returned to record an album with the rest of the band; the results, released as Unplugged in November, contained acoustic interpretations of their most classic and influential tracks. Two years later, the trio returned with Real Labour of Love, which featured a number of '80s reggae covers alongside a version of Stevie Wonder's "A Place in the Sun." ~ Steve Huey
- Birmingham, England