Making their live debut in a pub in Birmingham in 1979, UB40 was made up of reggae fans who had known each other since childhood. Since they were also all jobless they chose as their name the official Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS) coding for unemployment benefit claim forms – UB40.
The band purchased its first instruments with compensation money Ali Campbell received after he was smashed in the face with a beer glass in the Red Lion pub and spent a month in the hospital with 90-stitches in his face.
They continued to gig locally until they were spotted by Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, who engaged them as the support act for her UK tour at the end of 1979.
The subsequent exposure resulted in much major record company interest, but in keeping with the fierce spirit of independence that was to become the band’s trademark, they opted to sign with a local label owned by the couple who ran their favourite record shop.
Their Food For Thought single reached the UK Top Ten in 1980, beginning a long streak of chart appearances.
Their debut LP, Signing Off (more dole references) and the follow-up, Present Arms, were big sellers in Britain 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.
For a time, UB40 was lumped in with the other multiracial Midlands bands on the 2 Tone label. The band hated the association because they played reggae while the 2 Tone outfits played ska. But it did their profile no harm and resulted in more media attention.
1983’s Labour of Love, an album of reggae cover songs, gave the group its first chart album in America and first number one UK hit with a cover version of Neil Diamond‘s Red Red Wine. Their duet with Chrissie Hynde on the old Sonny and Cher hit I Got You Babe repeated the feat in August 1985.
In 1986 they finished Rat In The Kitchen, and further recording in 1987 and 1988 was complemented by a world tour.
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. US listener response was far more enthusiastic, and the single re-entered the American charts and went all the way to the top.
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 a version of Elvis Presley‘s Can’t Help Falling In Love, which was initially featured in the Sharon Stone film Sliver (1993) and spent seven weeks at number one.
By this time, UB40 had largely abandoned its trademark left-wing politics and was concentrating more on perfecting its reggae covers than its original material.
This strategy has thus far resulted in huge sales figures in both the US and UK with Promises and Lies reaching number six and number one, respectively. The subsequent tour culminated in a series of shows in South Africa, with them dedicating their anti-apartheid anthem, Sing Our Own Song, to President Nelson Mandela.
Ali Campbell left UB40 in 2008 after a falling-out with the rest of the group.
Terence ‘Astro‘ Wilson