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.”