Named after a British unemployment benefit form, pop-reggae band UB40 was formed in a welfare line in 1978, and its multiracial lineup reflected the working-class community its 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.
1983’s 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 and 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 its trademark left-wing politics and was concentrating more on perfecting its reggae oldies covers than its original material; however, the gimmick has thus far resulted in huge sales figures in both the U.S. and U.K., with Promises and Lies reaching number six and number one, respectively. In the spring of 1998, UB40 released Presents the Dancehall Album in the UK. 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 their version of the spirtual “Swing Low” with the multi-cultural 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 Spring.