UB40 are an English reggae and pop band, formed in December 1978 in Birmingham, England. The band has had more than 50 singles in the UK Singles Chart, and has also achieved considerable international success. They have been nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album four times, and in 1984 were nominated for the Brit Award for Best British Group. UB40 have sold over 70 million records worldwide. The ethnic make-up of the band’s original line-up was diverse, with musicians of English, Welsh, Irish, Jamaican, Scottish and Yemeni parentage.
Their hit singles include their debut “Food for Thought” and two Billboard Hot 100 number ones with “Red Red Wine” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love“. Both of these also topped the UK Singles Chart, as did the band’s version of “I Got You Babe“. Their two most successful albums, Labour of Love (1983) and Promises and Lies (1993), reached number one on the UK Albums Chart. UB40 and the English ska band Madness hold the record for most weeks spent by a group in the UK singles chart during the 1980s, with 214 weeks each.
The band’s line-up was stable for nearly 29 years, from March 1979 until January 2008, when frontman Ali Campbell left the band, followed shortly thereafter by keyboardist Mickey Virtue. Another member, Astro, remained with the band until November 2013, when he departed the original band to team up with Campbell and Virtue in a new version of UB40. In 2014, legal advice was sought by the original band (now consisting of remaining co-founding members drummer Jimmy Brown, guitarist Robin Campbell, bassist Earl Falconer, percussionist Norman Hassan, and saxophonist Brian Travers, along with new vocalist Duncan Campbell) who took action against the group containing Campbell, Virtue, and Astro over usage of the band name, due to its being used by both parties.
The band members began as friends who knew each other from various schools across Birmingham, England. The name “UB40” was selected in reference to a form issued to people claiming unemployment benefits from the UK government’s Department of Employment. The designation UB40 stood for Unemployment Benefit, Form 40.
The origins of what would become UB40 began when in mid-1978 guitarist Ali Campbell, together with the rhythm section of drummer Jimmy Brown and bassist Earl Falconer, began rehearsing charting reggae songs in addition to some of their own original compositions. They were soon joined by several of their friends, firstly percussionists Yomi Babayemi and Norman Hassan, and then saxophonist Brian Travers and keyboardist Jimmy Lynn. Robin Campbell, although initially reluctant to commit to forming a band with the others, was invited to join once again by his brother and bought a guitar with which to do so in December of that year. Once Robin had joined the others in their jamming sessions, the eight musicians formed a band, deciding on the name ‘UB40’ after a friend suggested it was an appropriate name given the unemployed status of all of the band members. Prior to this, Travers had work as an electrical apprentice for NG Bailey; whilst Robin Campbell had been an apprentice toolmaker.
This lineup of the band lasted long enough to play their first show at the Hare & Hounds pub in Kings Heath in February 1979 and one other, before the band underwent its first lineup change in the form of Babyemi and Lynn leaving the band and Mickey Virtue joining in place of Lynn. A month later UB40’s classic lineup was rounded out with the inclusion of percussionist and vocalist Astro. Astro had previously been working for Duke Alloy’s sound system attending reggae dances in Birmingham. Before some of them could play their instruments, Ali Campbell and Brian Travers travelled around Birmingham promoting the band, putting up UB40 posters. Their sound was created and honed through many long jam sessions at various locations in Birmingham.
Their first gig took place on 9 February 1979 at The Hare & Hounds Pub in Kings Heath, Birmingham for a friend’s birthday party. This was commemorated in October 2011 by the unveiling of a plaque at the venue, indicating the band receiving the Performing Rights Society‘s Music Heritage Award. UB40 caught their first break when Chrissie Hynde saw them at a pub and gave them an opportunity as a support act to her band, The Pretenders. UB40’s first single, “King”/”Food for Thought” was released on Graduate Records, a local independent label run by David Virr. It reached No. 4 on the UK Singles Chart.
The title of their first album, Signing Off, indicates the band was signing off from, or ending, their claim for unemployment benefits. It was recorded in a bedsit in Birmingham and was produced by Bob Lamb. Norman Hassan said of the recording: “if you stripped my track down, you could hear the birds in the background.” This is because his tracks were recorded outside in the garden. Signing Off was released on 29 August 1980. It entered the UK Albums Chart on 2 October 1980, and spent 71 weeks in total on the chart. Signing Off is now a Platinum album. As UB40 grew in popularity, they encouraged and supported local musicians and bands from Birmingham, such as Beshara, often bringing them on tour.
After great success in the UK, UB40’s popularity in the US was established when they released Labour of Love, an album of cover songs, in 1983. The album reached No. 1 on the UK Albums Chart and No. 8 on the Billboard 200 in the US. The album featured the song “Red Red Wine“, a cover version of a Neil Diamond song (in an arrangement similar to that of Tony Tribe’s version); it stayed on the charts for over 100 weeks. Three years later UB40 performed at the Birmingham Heart Beat Charity Concert 1986. In 1987 Ray “Pablo” Falconer, producer of UB40 music, died in a car crash. His brother, Earl Falconer, the band’s bassist, was driving with nearly twice the legal limit of alcohol in his blood. Earl was sentenced to six months imprisonment in June 1988 and banned from driving for three years.
Their most successful worldwide single release is their reggae/pop version of “(I Can’t Help) Falling in Love With You“, which was the main title to the 1993 Sharon Stone movie Sliver; it was a number one hit across Europe and in the US. In 1995 they covered the Stevie Wonder song “Superstition” for the Eddie Murphy movie Vampire in Brooklyn and it appears on their album The Best of UB40 – Volume Two which they released that year. The group also made a guest appearance in the 1997 feature film Speed 2: Cruise Control. UB40 are featured in the 1988 film The Yob. UB40 toured South Africa in July 2007 and headlined the Live Earth concert at the Cradle of Humankind, near Johannesburg.