The first single with Graduate, their initial label,
was a double-A coupling of "Food For Thought," a bitter
meditation on third-world poverty, and "King," a lament for
Dr. Martin Luther King. "King" had seemed to be the favorite
with live audiences, but it was "Food For Thought" that got
the airplay and became the first hit. The single was released during
the tour, without the benefit of major-label marketing or promotion,
and headed straight for the top five. Such was the band's impact on
their first major live audiences.
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The first album was released on September of that
year. The sleeve was a reproduction of the familiar buff-colored dole
card (more familiar, at that time, than it had ever been), with the
title "Signing Off" apparently rubber-stamped in red. It
referred to "signing off" the dole, i.e. getting a job. It
was both an acknowledgement of the band's inception, and a celebration
of their new status.
Because they were from the West Midlands, and
because they were a large mixed race group playing music of Jamaican
origin, UB40 were initially thought to be part of the Two-Tone
phenomenon which had burst out of nearby Coventry. "Signing Off" made it clear that they were nothing of the sort. They were
part of the same social and political tendency, of course, but their
musical approach was quite different. Their sound was more relaxed,
more sophisticated and sexier. You couldn't help dancing to it, but
you could do so without having to hold your hat on.
At the end of 1980, the contract with Graduate
expired, and UB40 formed their own record company, DEP International.
Only nine months after "Signing Off," and
while it was still in the charts, they released their second album
Arms." It was eagerly awaited and did not
disappoint. It was as good as its predecessor, and featured "One
In Ten," an anthem to rival "Food For Thought" and
"Medusa." It even included another bonus 12-inch.
Four months later, in October 1981, the UBs asserted
their allegiance to their mentors by releasing a dub version of the
Arms." It could hardly be expected to match
the extraordinary popularity of the first two albums, but it did
resoundingly well for a dub album and went some way to establishing
the band's credentials as serious students of reggae.
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That commitment to innovation was further
demonstrated by 1982's album, "UB44." It was an excellent
record, unfortunately obscured by over-ambitious packaging. The first
pressing was released in a plain black sleeve with a seemingly plain
silver square, which actually contained the album's title in the form
of a hologram. It was the first such use of holography, which was in
its infancy, and the result proved rather too much for the casual
purchaser. A brave failure.
The subsequent sleeve featured the monumental logo,
now mercifully legible, in the background of an African landscape. It
was a souvenir of the band's visit that year, to Zimbabwe a bizarre
story that has to wait for another time...
One year later, in September 1983, UB40
released the album they'd been planning, and putting off, since their
first faltering efforts in that cellar in Moseley. It was their first
direct tribute to the musicians who had inspired and influenced them,
and the title "Labour Of Love" said it all.
"Labour Of Love," including the
astonishingly popular single "Red Red Wine," was in the
British chart for two years. It gave UBs their first truly worldwide
hit and, eventually, their first American No.1.
UB40 have maintained their instantly recognizable
and highly distinctive style through nine more albums, as well as two
hits compilations. Released in November '87, "The Best Of UB40 -
Volume One" stayed in the UK charts for 123 weeks.
"Baggariddim," their adventurous 1985
collaboration with local DJ's also contained "Don't Break My
Heart" and "I Got You Babe" (with
Chrissie Hynde), both
memorable hit singles.
Chrissie Hynde joined the band again for
"Breakfast In Bed," the hit of the 1988 album simply called
1989 saw the release of a second helping of "Labour Of Love," from which "Kingston Town" and "Homely
Girl" were hits throughout Europe, while "Here I Am"
and "The Way You Do The Things You Do" were similarly
successful in the United States.
"Promises & Lies" brought us "I
Can't Help Falling In Love With You," the band's biggest American
hit to date, and "Guns In The Ghetto" included "Tell Me
Is It True," which featured in the film "Speed II." The UBs reaffirmed their commitment to reggae with "UB40 Present The
Dancehall Album," a collaboration with leading Jamaican artists,
some of which are now recording for the Oracabessa label, founded by Ali and Brian.
There are now three volumes of "Labour Of Love."
For more than twenty years, UB40 have continued the job of popularizing
reggae around the globe. In the process, they continue to give
enormous pleasure to a public too vast to be defined by age,
generation tribe or fashion. Welcome to the party!