When UB40 take the stage at the Reggae Lake Festival Saturday night in Amsterdam, the set list is sure to include “Red Red Wine.” The group’s first No. 1 hit in America, the song reached the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 30 years ago this October, becoming one of the world’s biggest reggae songs. As such, it remains a mandatory selection for the multiracial band from Birmingham, England.
“I don’t think we’ve done a show without playing it,” says founding member Terence Wilson a.k.a Astro. “In fact, I think we’d be lynched if we didn’t perform it,” he adds with a laugh. The man responsible for toasting “Red Red Wine you make me feel so fine/ You keep me rocking all of the time” swears that the band has never grown weary of the hit that topped the charts in six countries, turning the members of UB40 into worldwide pop stars.
“We love the song and we don’t mind singing it a million times,” Astro says of the track that’s racked up over a billion streams. “People wonder if we get sick and tired of performing it. Well the answer’s no, because we loved it before we even recorded it -- and we love it even more when we see people in front of us dancing and singing.”
The song has become so closely identified with UB40 that the band even sells bottles of “Red Red Wine” via their website. The 2014 Bordeaux was described by the critics at Wine Enthusiast as having “a jammy character.”
“Red Red Wine” was the breakout single from UB40’s fourth studio album, Labour of Love, which dropped 35 years ago this Sept. 12 on the band’s own DEP International label. A collection of cover versions, Labour of Love is a heartfelt tribute to songs the band members absorbed in the ethnically diverse Birmingham neighborhood of Balsall Heath, whose other claim to fame was the tasty dish chicken balti.
“When we were young, there wasn’t anywhere to listen to reggae music other than house parties, which would start on a Friday night and finish on a Monday morning,” Astro recalls. “We used to sneak out of our bed and go and listen to this music for a couple of hours, hoping that our parents wouldn’t realize we’d escaped. That was it -- once you’re smitten by the reggae bug, it’s very hard to shake off.”
“They were all classics in our world,” recalls lead vocalist Ali Campbell. “We’ve always believed that if everybody else got to hear songs like ‘Cherry O Baby’ by Eric Donaldson and ‘Many Rivers To Cross’ by Jimmy Cliff, they’d love them the same as we did.” Their hunch was right: the Labour of Love franchise has expanded to multiple volumes since 1983, with new installments in ’89 and ’98, not to mention the infamous fourth volume, released in 2010 (after Ali left the band for a time) featuring his brother Duncan on lead vocals. “We don’t talk about that thing,” Astro cautions.
Last March, UB40 released A Real Labour of Love, which returns Ali Campbell to his rightful place alongside founding keyboardist Mickey Virtue and Astro on the mic. This time around, the band covers dancehall cuts from the late ’80s, originally recorded by such Jamaican stars as Beres Hammond, Dennis Brown, Barrington Levy, Cocoa Tea, and Culture -- artists whom Ali and Astro refer to as “our heroes.”
“The one thing that everybody always asked was, ‘Why do we play reggae?’” Campbell explains. “So we thought we’d do an album of our favorites. We just wanted everyone to love what we loved.”
While all the members of UB40 genuinely love reggae, Campbell describes his own passion for the music as downright obsessive. “I had to know every new bass line and all the different stages of reggae, from roots rock all the way through bashment and ragga,” he says, adding that he “basically” chose the songs to be covered on the Labour of Love albums. “I was quality control if you like,” he says. “I was a reggae nut. I knew all the songs by heart.”
Despite the Labour of Love phenomenon -- the series has sold over 20 million albums -- it would be incorrect to describe UB40 as a “cover band.” Named for the Unemployment Benefits form that the members used to fill out each day in order to collect public assistance, the close-knit group knew each other since school days. “We were like a gang if you like,” recalls Campbell, whose father was a Scottish folk singer. “We were disenfranchised in Thatcher’s Britain, unemployed for three or four years.”
While celebrating his 17th birthday, Ali Campbell got into a bar fight and was hit in the face with a beer glass, blinding him in one eye. He later collected over 4,000 pounds on an injury compensation claim and spent the money on musical equipment. Ali and his brother Robin, who first introduced him to reggae, launched the band in 1979 with a few close friends. “I gave my eyeball for my art,” Campbell jokes.
The sacrifice soon paid off: Chrissie Hynde dropped by one of UB40’s early gigs, and suddenly they were booked as the opening act for The Pretenders, who were then riding high on their hit song “Brass in Pocket.” The UB’s first single, a dour protest track called “Food for Thought,” soon shot up to number four in the British charts. “We never looked back since then,” says Campbell. “We’re very very lucky.”
We only ever knew it from a guy called Tony Tribe,” says Astro, referring to a 1969 ska version of the oenophilic song released on the UK label Trojan Records. “We had to go looking into the center of seven-inch vinyls and there was ’N. Diamond,’ so we presumed that was obviously Neville Diamond or Negus Diamond,” Astro says with a laugh. “You could've knocked us out with a feather when we found out it was actually Neil Diamond.”
This year, Trojan released a 50th Anniversary Box Set which includes the Tony Tribe version of “Red Red Wine.” The label also dropped a limited edition vinyl pressing of their album Red Red Wine featuring the Tony Tribe cut as well as other tracks by Jamaican producer Brother Dan aka Dandy.
UB40 has always been scrupulous about crediting the original composers of songs they covered, making sure the writers registered with PRS, the UK’s leading collection society. Royalties from UB40’s cover of “Kingston Town” on Labour of Love II changed the life of Lord Creator, for one. “He came to meet us at the airport in Jamaica and he brought his whole family, dressed up like it was Sunday,” Campbell recalls. “He told us he’d been very ill and couldn’t pay his bills. Now he’s paid his bills, built a house, and eating sweeties every day.”
“Well thank fuck for that, eh?” Campbell replied with a grin. But the band takes their responsibilities seriously in an industry rife with unscrupulous business dealings.
“These artists came from a world where the producer would give ’em fifty dollars and they’d make the record and fuck off,” adds Campbell. “They were ripped off for their whole careers, so it’s nice for us to be able to give something back. It’s just right and proper.”
Already a world-renowned hitmaker, Neil Diamond’s reaction to being covered by UB40 was somewhat different. “I’m sure it annoys Neil no end that people think it’s our song,” Campbell surmises. “Of course he did make a lot of money out of it, but he’s never sent us a card saying thanks or anything like that.”
Diamond has been known to perform the song live with a reggae beat, sometimes rapping his own spoken-word interlude in the same cadence as Astro, but with new lyrics. “Red Red Wine it makes you feel so fine/ Hear it the radio all of the time/ Even if the words are turned around wrong/ I don’t care cause I wrote this song,” Neil raps on one YouTube clip as the crowd goes wild. “Red red wine it makes you feel so good / Even if the words aren't understood.”
During a 2015 Reddit AMA, Diamond did mention UB40’s “Red Red Wine” as one of his favorite covers, along with Frank Sinatra’s version of “Sweet Caroline” and Urge Overkill’s “Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon” from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. “Listening to Neil’s version,” one Redditor commented, “I can’t help thinking that UB40 nailed it so hard that their version of the song is the definitive version now.”
Despite the merits of UB40’s recording,“Red Red Wine” did not catch on in the United States for many years. “The song had two lives,” Campbell recalls. “It went to number one in England and all over the world in 1983, but didn’t do anything in America.”
Campbell attributes the disconnect to racial politics. “It was difficult for us in America,” he explains. “In the ’80s it was still very much black radio and white radio -- and of course we were multiracial, so we didn’t fit neither.”
Some attribute the song’s breakthrough to UB40’s June 1988 performance on the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday TV special, which also helped to launch Tracy Chapman’s hit “Fast Car.” Others credit DJ Guy Zapoleon from Phoenix, Arizona, who added “Red Red Wine” on his nationally syndicated radio show. “Before he knew it he’d created a monster,” says Astro, noting that the version which topped the U.S. charts included his rap, unlike the UK edit.
“It’s just one of life’s mysteries,” Astro offers by way of explanation. “If that DJ hadn't chosen to include it in his playlist we might not even be having this discussion. You can never know when you’re going to have a number one. It’s the public who decides what’s a hit. No matter how clever it’s written on paper, if the public don’t buy it, it’s a flop.”
The group’s latest tour has been anything but a flop, thanks in no small part to the smooth harmonies and bouncy beat of “Red Red Wine.” The song is so catchy many listeners may overlook the singer’s pleas to tear apart his “blue blue heart.”
“It’s actually a very sad song,” Campbell points out. “It’s all about a bloke drinking his sorrows away.” Still somehow the reggae beat makes for an uplifting experience. “It's the drum and the bass that says it all,” he notes. “The thing about reggae music is that it is elating. It elates me when I’m listening to it, whether old reggae or new reggae. That’s why I love it. It changes the mood of everything.”
If Campbell sings “Red Red Wine” with a certain conviction, perhaps that has something to do with UB40’s hard-earned reputation for enjoying themselves on the road. “We’re the party band, aren’t we?” he asks with a laugh. “Obviously we’re older now so we don’t party like we used to. In the ’80s and ’90s there were all these nasty drugs about, which we don’t do anymore because we’ve grown up.”
“The bones don't bend like they used to,” admits Astro, who recently celebrated his 61st birthday. “But now we’re doing it in style. We’ve got decent tour buses instead of everybody crammed into one van with all the equipment.”
Safe to say UB40 are enjoying tour life as much as Lil Uzi Vert. And they still make plenty of time for smoking and listening to reggae on the road. “It’s part and parcel of the job,” says Astro. “So yeah, we still party hard.” Astro says he likes to sip champagne or maybe a nice glass of red after gigs. After all, nothing ages better than fine wine -- except maybe a timeless song.