Jul 09

UB40 – “Red Red Wine”

FT + Popular65 comments • 6,613 views

#526, 3rd September 1983, video

UB40, I was aware, made reggae. Therefore reggae sounded like what UB40 made. I can’t have been the only one who made this logical mis-step, and I expect I wasn’t the only one who spent a decade-plus assuming they disliked reggae because of it.

For many people, of course, UB40 will have served as the gateway into reggae: that was the aim of Labour Of Love, after all, one of the best-intentioned smash hit albums of its era. Good intentions don’t always make for good music: so deadening is “Red Red Wine” in its UB40 form that I’ve never had a twitch of motivation even to go back and see what they polished up.

UB40’s basic problem here is Ali Campbell’s dishrag lead vocal: a pinched whinge of bottomless dissatisfaction that leeches all hope from its already workmanline surroundings. The weird thing is that it’s not as if UB40 didn’t on some level realise what Campbell sounded like, as on their early work they trimmed subject and approach accordingly. “One In Ten” and “The Earth Dies Screaming” are as much undead as dread; Babylon effectively recast as an endless grey purgatory. “Red Red Wine”, layering the same miserable tones over its stolid jauntiness, creates something fresh and unpleasant.

And that’s before you even start to consider the contribution of Astro, whose nervous, monotone toasting is less the gleeful interaction of voice and rhythm and more a junior executive being forced to rap as a forfeit on a team-building exercise. When he sings “Red Red Wine inna 80s style / Red Red Wine inna modern beat style” the lack of excitement or conviction is so total you almost want to give him a cuddle.



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  1. 51
    Conrad on 10 Jul 2009 #

    Another vote for early ’40 here. Loved the first two albums, and the dub version of Present Arms. 1982 witnessed a shocking tailing-off in songwriting form though. If “Red Red Wine” sounds sonambulant, listen to the most mis-titled single of all time, “I Won’t Close My Eyes”. Yes you will! Literally nothing happens for four minutes.

    I think writer’s block and a corresponding dwindling in sales, as much as good intentions, must have been behind the cover-version route. In France at the time this leapt up the chart, I saw an NME and in that way when you are abroad – the charts seem so exotic and mysterious – I thought, Good on UB40, having a top ten hit again.

    I wasn’t aware of the original, and when I got home and heard it, hmmmm…I agree that this one track single-handedly killed any residual credibility they still held.

    Other notable examples? It’s not quite in the same league of awfulness but after the commercial failure of Dazzle Ships, OMD became very bland and toned down all the early Neu, Kraftwerk edges.

  2. 52
    peter goodlaws on 11 Jul 2009 #

    For me this was a penny dreadful after the excellence of “One in Ten” and “King”. Astonished therefore that it was a chart topper for them as it is quite extraordinary in its blandness and lack of conviction. Alas for UB40, Red Red Wine really did go to their heads. Cheesy rubbish.

  3. 53
    MikeMCSG on 15 Jul 2009 #

    52- I agree. This really was a watershed release for them. There’s been sporadic goodies since – I’m Not Fooled, Sing Our Own Song – far outweighed by soulless cover versions.

    I think that early policy of releasing double A-sided singles caught up with them in 82 when they only had dreary songs like “I Won’t Close My Eyes” and “I’ve Got Mine” in the locker.

    Commercially this got them back on their feet but critically it was over for them.

    Incidentally this was the first “indie” number one. By the definition used to compile The Independent Charts – that the label wasn’t a part of the distribution cartel- Dep International qualified while others generally thought of as independent labels such as Stiff and Island didn’t.

  4. 54
    Martin Barden on 27 Sep 2009 #

    This is so perfectly expressed. I could never quite nail why this record was so dreadful – but you have. This heralded their descent into Aswaddywaddy from which they never returned. It’s a bit like reggae for people who don’t like reggae, as Katie Melua is music for people who don’t like music. Oh well.

  5. 55
    DV on 28 Dec 2009 #

    Is it just in Ireland that UB40 fandom is a good signifier of skangerness?

    I remember being fond of this record and, unlike Tom, concluding that I was therefore a fan or reggae.

  6. 56
    sleazoid on 25 Feb 2010 #

    It’s amazing that people can actually make a living by reviewing art (music, video, movies, etc). Does it actually influence anyone? The author’s opinion is no more important than anyone else’s.

  7. 57
    Tom on 25 Feb 2010 #

    Where’s this “living” you speak of?

  8. 58
    taDOW on 25 Feb 2010 #

    where’s this “art” for that matter

  9. 59
    Brooksie on 2 Mar 2010 #

    @ Tom # 57
    @ taDOW # 58

    “Dere’s a Rat in mi kitchen wha amma’ gonna do, dere’s a Rat in mi kitchen wha amma’ gonna do? I’m gonna fix dat Rat dat’s what I’m gonna do, I’m gonna fix dat Rat dat’s what I’m gonna do!”

  10. 60
    wichita lineman on 3 Mar 2010 #

    Thanks Brooksie. That little gem has been constantly scampering around my brain since I disposed of a semi-live (but live enough) mouse first thing on monday morning. Hackney super mice. What are we gonna do?

  11. 61
    MildredBumble on 7 Jun 2010 #

    Red Red Whine. Gave me a hate frenzy the very first time I heard it and its got worse since. I hate hate hate hate hate hate hate this record. I cannot get over that this was the band who were justa couple of years out from “Food For Thought”

    As for dub, someone should have released a 45 (or, better, an EP) from Augustus Pablo’s Ital Dub. Released in summer 75, this was a later mainstay of the punk/reggae fusion and hell, if Tipper Irie could make the Top 20 in 74 (Skenger!) then this was worth pushing onto the R1/Crapital playlist

  12. 62
    vinylscot on 7 Jun 2010 #

    I think you’ll find that was Rupie Edwards, and not Tippa Irie. – possible confusion as the first of Edwards “Skanga” hits was “Ire Feelings (Skanga)”

    And can anyone else listen to the (far superior) Tony Tribe version of this without thinking “Tom Jones”?

  13. 63
    punctum on 18 Mar 2014 #

    TPL didn’t go to sleep while listening to the album, but wasn’t exactly awakened by it either: http://nobilliards.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/ub40-labour-of-love.html

  14. 64
    hectorthebat on 20 Nov 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1002
    Dave Marsh (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) 559
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1980s (2001) 101
    Woxy.com (USA) – Modern Rock 500 Songs of All Time (combined rank 1989-2009) 568
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  15. 65
    mapman132 on 30 Nov 2014 #

    As was alluded to prior posts, UB40’s recording of RRW has the quite rare distinction of being an older recording topping the Billboard Hot 100 the second time around. The first time (officially without the toast, according to Wikipedia) it made #34. According to Fred Bronson’s Book of Number One Hits, RRW got its second life in 1988 when a DJ in Arizona started playing it as a song that “should have” been a hit. For whatever reason, requests for it started coming in, it spread to other stations, and next thing you know, it got re-released and went all the way to #1 – this time including the toast. This began a brief trend in the US of other attempts to get previously failed singles back in the charts, some of which were more successful than others. One of these attempts (“When I’m With You” by a long forgotten Canadian band called Sheriff) even got to #1 itself.

    As for RRW, I don’t share in the UB40-hate that seems prevalent here. I usually don’t like groups that rely too much on covers, but UB40 at least puts their own spin on things and tries to make it their own. Admittedly they’re never going to be in the pantheon of all time greats, but they’re enjoyable enough for my ears. 7/10.

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