The Untold Truth Of UB40

Reggae is a style of music strongly associated with Jamaica, and some master musicians of the form from the island nation became legends around the world, such as Toots and the Maytals and Bob Marley and the Wailers. And yet, one of the most popular and successful reggae acts of all time is a group of working class guys from Birmingham, England who gave themselves the cryptic name of UB40 (via AllMusic). Formed in the late '70s, the large, multicultural group went on to sell 70 million albums over the next four decades, according to the BBC, propelled mostly by a string of irresistible, confident, reggae-styled covers of American pop and soul songs, including Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe," Al Green's "Here I Am," the Temptations' "The Way You Do the Things You Do," Neil Diamond's "Red Red Wine," and Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love," the latter two of which topped the American singles chart.

Being the world's most successful cover band often overshadowed UB40's more overtly political and protest songs, but they remain one of the most successful English acts ever, charting about 50 hits in their native United Kingdom. The history of this unique group is as tumultuous as it is musically interesting. Here's the untold truth of UB40.

UB40 singer Ali Campbell used a legal settlement to fund the band

UB40, a band made world famous for its joyful, chilled-out reggae covers and originals, surprisingly and incongruously owes its entire existence to bad luck and violence. In 1976, Ali Campbell went to a pub in Birmingham, England, to celebrate his 17th birthday — although people under 18 can't legally drink in public in the U.K. "I shouldn't have been there in the first place, and got involved in a bar fight and I was glassed," Campbell told the Cumnock Chronicle in 2020. What does "glassed" mean? "I got hit in the face with a big beer jug," Campbell said. Quickly receiving medical attention, doctors treated the many severe gashes on the left side of his face with 90 stitches. He additionally received eight stitches in his eye and spent a month in the Birmingham Eye Hospital. 

About a year later, after he'd recovered, Campbell's brother urged him to file for criminal injuries compensation, a program in the U.K. where victims of violence can apply to receive a cash settlement. By the time Campbell received his payment, he was 19 and "getting £7.50 a week on the dole," as he told Birmingham Live. But then, suddenly flush with £4,500 pounds from the government, he invested the money. He gave about 25% to brothers Robin and Duncan Campbell to start a business (which failed within weeks) and the rest of it to buy instruments for his friends who had designs on starting a band — which became UB40.

What's a UB40, anyway?

UB40 is easily one of the most mysteriously named bands in pop music history. What does that deceptively simple combination of two letters and two numerical digits even mean? Is there some kind of hidden message in it, or is it some kind of play on words, using numbers in place of letters in much the same way that Prince often wrote song titles and lyrics? Yes, "UB40" does mean something, but it reflects the history and views of its members, and it's definitely not some kind of clever joke.

Conservative politician Margaret Thatcher became prime minister of the U.K. in 1979 and set to systematically eliminating many social programs and governmental assistance programs. That coincided with a massive economic recession that led to widespread joblessness, per the BBC. In the first few years of Thatcher's rule, 3 million Britons were out of work and receiving small welfare payments. "We were eight people who had been unemployed since school, trying to wade through Thatcher's quagmire of s***," singer Ali Campbell told The Guardian. "We were politicized, we were disenfranchised, and we had a lot to say." 

Two of the band's early hits, "One in Ten" and "Madame Medusa," savagely criticized Thatcher, according to The Hollywood Reporter. As for the band's name, it comes from the designation of a government unemployment benefits document.

UB40 got massive thanks to a big-time Pretender

Some bands grind it out in obscurity for years before their big break, playing hundreds of shows to small crowds in tiny venues. UB40, however, got very lucky very early. The group had played only 12 shows after forming in the late '70s when Chrissie Hynde — lead singer of the Pretenders and a rock icon for the ages — took an interest. "We were playing at this little club called the Rock Garden," UB40 singer Ali Campbell told the Press-Enterprise. That's where Hynde spotted the group and liked them so much she asked them to open for the Pretenders on a national tour in 1980. "That was like 35 shows, which was more shows than we'd actually done in our whole experience," Campbell added.

All that exposure to Pretenders fans helped drive interest in UB40, who hadn't even released as much as a single yet. When they did, both the album and single "Food for Thought" reached the top five of their respective charts in the U.K., according to The Guardian. Everything came full circle in 1985, when Hynde provided guest vocals on UB40's hit 1985 cover of the '60s pop classic "I Got You Babe."

UB40 made sure that marginalized songwriters got paid

UB40 scored platinum sales certifications with "Labour of Love" in 1983 and "Labour of Love II" in 1989, collections of covers of the band's favorite songs. Many UB40 albums, but those in particular, include the group's takes on old reggae songs, many of which were written by music industry neophytes in Jamaica, whose efforts were exploited by producers. "These artists came from a world where the producer would give 'em fifty dollars and they'd make the record and f*** off," UB40 singer Ali Campbell told Billboard. Those producers would then rake in royalties and proceeds on those recordings forever, while the song's original writers and artists might never see a penny.

After they started recording their favorite reggae songs, UB40 sought to right the wrongs done to the writers of those tunes. When they covered a chestnut, the band would track down the original writer and register them with PRS, the major royalty collection agency in the U.K. For example, when UB40 scored a huge British hit with "Kingston Town" in 1989, songwriting royalties finally went to writer Lord Creator. "He came to meet us at the airport in Jamaica and he brought his whole family, dressed up like it was Sunday," Campbell said. "He told us he'd been very ill and couldn't pay his bills. How he's paid his bills, built a house, and eating sweeties every day."

Red Red Wine was a Diamond in the rough for UB40

Singer-songwriter Neil Diamond racked up many hits in the 1960s, but his 1968 single, the slow drinking song "Red Red Wine," flopped, peaking at #62 on the Billboard Hot 100. A year later Jamaican singer Tony Tribe recorded an upbeat, reggae version of the song, and that's what caught the attention of the future members of UB40. In 1983, the group recorded its own reggae-style take on "Red Red Wine" because they didn't know that the song was anything other than a reggae song. It would wind up the band's breakthrough single, topping the pop chart in the U.K. (and eventually, the U.S.), launching them to fame and success, having no idea that it was a plodding Neil Diamond ballad from the '60s, or that they'd made a cover of a cover, as per the New York Daily News. "When we saw the writing credit which said 'N Diamond,' we thought it was a Jamaican artist called Negus Diamond," group vocalist Astro told Financial Times.

Neil Diamond thoroughly approves of UB40's version, covering their cover (of a cover) for his 2010 album "Dreams." "I like when an artist records one of the songs and puts his own stamp on it; finds something new and fresh in the song," he told NPR's "All Things Considered. On the record, Diamond did his song in the pop-reggae style, and when he'd sing "Red Red Wine" in concert, he'd often perform it the UB40 way, including Astro's rap-like toasting bridge.

It took years for Red Red Wine to hit big in the US

UB40 hit big in the group's native U.K. a lot faster than they did in the U.S. Reggae is much more widely popular in Britain than it is in America, and by the time UB40 hit No. 1 in the U.K. for the first time in 1983 with "Red Red Wine," it had already hit the top 40 with eight other singles. Meanwhile, in the U.S., "Red Red Wine" marked the first time UB40 appeared on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at a respectable No. 34 in 1984 (via Stereogum). A year later, the group's U.K. No. 1, a cover of Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe," did alright in the U.S., stalling at No. 28.

But then, almost inexplicably, "Red Red Wine" became intensely, phenomenally popular in the U.S. — five years after its debut. In June 1988, UB40 performed at Freedomfest: Nelson Mandela's 70th Birthday, a televised concert from London's Wembley Stadium celebrating the life and achievements of then-imprisoned anti-apartheid crusader Nelson Mandela. According to Billboard, a Phoenix DJ named Guy Zapoleon saw UB40's "Red Red Wine" cover and liked the song so much that he added it to the playlist on his nationally syndicated show. That boosted the song's profile, and numerous DJs across the U.S. added it to their playlists, and before long, "Red Red Wine" sat at No. 1 on the Hot 100.

A pest in UB40's hangout inspired a UB40 hit

Many of UB40's early singles address the political situation in the U.K., particularly the controversial, archly conservative rule of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. One could assume that the band's 1986 album "Rat in the Kitchen" and its semi-title track, "Rat in Mi Kitchen," a No. 12 hit on the British chart, hint at animosity toward the government of the era. They don't — that song is literally about an actual rat that gave lead singer Ali Campbell a lot of trouble.

In 1981, Campbell bought a home in the Balsall Heath neighborhood of Birmingham, and it became the UB40 hangout house. "Everybody walked in and out, all the band and friends," he told The Telegraph. At one point, bandmate Astro came over and asked if Campbell had any seeds of any new songs going that they could develop. "At the time I had a rat in the kitchen. I tried to shoot it and hit it but it ran away," Campbell said. "I was p***ed off about that and told him: 'Oh God, I don't care about the album for a minute, I've got a rat in the kitchen!'" With that outburst in mind, Astro went off and immediately wrote 'Rat in Mi Kitchen."

UB40's biggest hit was rejected from one movie but appeared in another

In 1993, UB40 experienced the biggest hit of its lengthy existence when "Can't Help Falling in Love," a synth-and-drum-machine drenched and reggae-flavored uptempo cover of Elvis Presley's ballad, spent seven weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, notes Cleveland.com. That song's journey to the top was a long and unlikely one.

According to UB40 guitarist Robin Campbell in Far Out, the band members were far from "raving Elvis fans" but nevertheless jumped on the opportunity to record a song for the 1992 Nicolas Cage comedy "Honeymoon in Vegas," which features a lot of Presley imagery and had a soundtrack consisting entirely of his covers. Filmmakers allowed acts to record whatever song they liked for submission, and at the suggestion of drummer Jimmy Brown (via "1000 U.K. Number One Hits"), UB40 went with "Can't Help Falling in Love." However, other acts had chosen the same song — director Andrew Bergman used Bono's cover on the soundtrack and Clarence Giddons and Bruno Hernandez's in the film itself. UB40 still liked their rejected version, however, and saved it for inclusion on its 1993 album "Promises and Lies." And then it was used on a different soundtrack, to the 1993 Sharon Stone erotic thriller "Sliver." "And it made number one in something like 30 countries," Campbell boasted.

UB40's original lead singer quit the band after 30 years

UB40 maintained a stable lineup for nearly three decades, but in January 2008, it lost one of its most important members: founder and lead singer Ali Campbell. "The reason for me leaving the band is that management difficulties, which have been ongoing for almost five years, had become intolerable," Campbell said in a statement on his website (via Reggae Report). "I have been deeply unhappy with the administrative practices and with many decisions that have been made in recent years regarding the band and I have an ongoing investigation into the handling of my business affairs in relation [to] UB40." Campbell felt he "had no other option" than to quit. 

The remaining members of UB40 called foul, claiming that Campbell was thinking only of himself. "Ali made a very simple decision, he chose to pursue and put his solo career over and above continuing to work with UB40," a band representative said (via NME). A few weeks later, keyboardist Mickey Virtue left UB40 as well, also blaming his departure on management and financial issues, per the BBC.

Losing two key musicians left UB40 feeling "like a rudderless ship," trumpet player and toaster Astro said in a statement in 2013 (via ITV). "After a well-documented turbulent few years I feel that it is time to draw a line in the sand and move on," he added, effectively announcing his exit from UB40.

There are currently two separate versions of UB40

The lead singer, the keyboardist, and the guy who did the quintessentially reggae element of "toasting" represented a considerable consolidation of what made UB40 so special. And so, after all three — Ali Campbell, Mickey Virtue, and Astro — had left the group they founded together, they joined forces to create a new band called UB40 Featuring Ali Campbell, Astro, and Mickey Virtue, according to Swan Turton. Meanwhile, the remnants of UB40 (led by Ali Campbell's brothers, Robin and Duncan Campbell) continued on under its original name (per Birmingham Live) — and in 2014, filed suit against the splinter group for improper use of the band's famous moniker.

Eventually, both groups were allowed to continue to use the names they'd settled on, although the offshoot band changed its name after the 2018 departure of Virtue to merely UB40 Featuring Ali Campbell and Astro. In 2018, the newer, smaller, sort-of-UB40 released an album that felt very much like it could have come from the older, fully together UB40 — an album of loving reggae covers called "A Real Labour of Love."

UB40's private record label bankrupted several members of the band

Ali Campbell left UB40 in 2008 over deep-seated issues with the band's management over finances. Some who remained in the band questioned that notion, assuming he was more interested in a solo career. Campbell (and keyboardist Mickey Virtue, who departed for the same reasons) received some vindication, and cold comfort, when he was proven right about financial mishandling. In 2011, according to the BBC, a judge in Birmingham County Court in England ruled that UB40 members Brian Travers, Jimmy Brown, Terence Oswald, and Norman Hassan must file for bankruptcy. (A fifth UB40 musician, Robin Campbell, initially was involved in the case but ultimately didn't receive a bankruptcy ruling.)

The bankruptcy followed, and was partially the result of, another huge problem for UB40. In 2007, DEP International, started by the band in 1980 to release its own music and that of other reggae artists, went out of business and was shortly thereafter liquidated, per the BBC.

UB40 tragically lost two members in 2021

By 2021, with the acrimonious departures of Ali Campbell, Mickey Virtue, and Astro, the once well-populated UB40 was down to only a few original members. With Ali Campbell out, his brother, guitarist Robin Campbell, took over the band and brought in their brother, Duncan Campbell, to be the singer in 2008. (According to the BBC, the newest Campbell sang in a vocal harmony group with his brothers as a child and was also a former professional spoons player.) 

In August 2020, according to UB40's Twitter account, Duncan Campbell was hospitalized after suffering the effects of a stroke. After spending several months recovering from the medical episode, he announced on a UB40 fan site that he had retired from his band and music in general "due to continued ill health." (A few days later, UB40 announced, via Yahoo! News, that Duncan Campbell's replacement would be Matt Doyle, singer for the band Kioko, UB40's opening act on its 2018 tour.)

Less than two months after Duncan Campbell's departure, UB40 suffered a tragedy when it lost founding member, saxophonist, lyricist, and arranger Brian Travers. According to the BBC, Travers underwent surgery in 2019 to remove two cancerous brain tumors and had another surgical procedure earlier in 2021. He died in August 2021 at age 62.