6
Jul 09

UB40 – “Red Red Wine”

FT + Popular65 comments • 6,703 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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Comments

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  1. 31
    Tim on 8 Jul 2009 #

    I’m not sure why I’d want to write anything in UB40’s defence but in their defence, it’s quite possible that the big Jamaican (and Jamaican-style) hits we’re all merrily calling “reggae” seemed really, really old to them, then, and felt like a different style of music altogether. Ska and rocksteady are distinct forms, after all…

    There hadn’t been much pop chart roots reggae action by the time of “One In Ten” had there? “Uptown Top Ranking”?

  2. 32
    The Intl on 8 Jul 2009 #

    I remember hearing “King” for the 1st time in a record shop. I thought it was kinda cool with it’s dubby start-off.

    That’s all, thanks.

  3. 33
    LondonLee on 8 Jul 2009 #

    Re: 31. No, but Bob Marley was hugely popular, to use the most obvious example, and ‘Silly Games’ of course.

  4. 34
    Tim on 8 Jul 2009 #

    Bob Marley, yes, though by the late ’70s he was well off the leading edge of reggae, and “Silly Games” is pretty much down-the line lovers rock and probably falls outside what the UB lads would have considered proper roots.

    I completely love “Silly Games” but if – if – the UB40 quote above was about them making a case for roots reggae in the charts (i.e. if they were being roots rock reggae rockists, if you will) then “Silly Games” wouldn’t have counted. Like claiming Joe Jackson or The Jags as punk, or something (NB this is not a precise analogy but I hope you know what I mean).

  5. 35
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 8 Jul 2009 #

    who was the first non-ja band to release a distinct dub version? basement5? xtc?

  6. 36
    Billy Smart on 8 Jul 2009 #

    I claim ‘Offshore Banking Business’ by The Members, 1979!

  7. 37
    Tim on 8 Jul 2009 #

    XTC beats the Members: the Go+ EP featured dubs of songs on Go2, which was ’78. Surely that can’t be the first?

  8. 38
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 8 Jul 2009 #

    xtc had a bonus “dub” disc with go2 (in 1978): but you don’t have to be very purist to scoff that it counts

  9. 39
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 8 Jul 2009 #

    78 is the year of the 12″ single in the UK, isn’t it? the early ones tended not to be distinct as per proper dub platters

    the pop group’s “she is beyond good and evil” is 78, as produced by d.bovell — but it’s not a dub version

    PiL?

  10. 40
    Tim on 8 Jul 2009 #

    The b-side of SIBG+E was a dub, wasn’t it? It was certainly a “version”.

    I think the first PiL-related thing you’d count as a dub version was that Steel Leg vs the Electric Dread thing, which (the interweb tells me) was Dec 78, putting them behind XTC also.

    (edited for accuracy!)

  11. 41
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 8 Jul 2009 #

    yes yr right (if my auld chum mixmaster morris is): “3.38” is “a howling cataclysm of backwards feedback and pounding drums that predates Adrian Sherwood and is probably the best punk rock / dub crossover in existance”

  12. 42
    AndyPandy on 8 Jul 2009 #

    Tim @31, 34

    Even if for the sake of argument I agreed with UB40s contention then what did they do to remedy the situation and put anything the remotest bit roots in any shape or form in the charts…

    And then theres the question as to what is meant by roots in the quote ie are we saying “roots and culture” or just underground/street level reggae? And of course lovers rock was in everyone (but the white boys from the rock world’s conception)pretty authentic and just as likely to be heard at a Blues as dub/roots.

    And just off the top of my head I can think of Junior Murvin ‘Police and Thieves’, Dennis Brown ‘Money In My Pocket’, one by Pluto Shervington (not novelty stuff like’Dat’ or ‘Your Honour’), and a track I remember from the mid70s which I’ve forgotten the title of but which went Top 10 and was if I remember correctly was almost a pure dub track which crossed over) – all of which were Top10/20 hits (straight from underground play) before UB40 got near a recording studio.

    And thats excluding the countless Top 10 (sometimes Top5) reggae hits from the original 1968-71 (ie when it became reggae in its narrower defintion)skinhead era.

    I might have a slightly skewed idea growing up as I did in the London in the mid-late70s in the London area as I seem to remember as a small kid Capital Radio (undoubtedly due to demographics)used to feature the reggae hits quite heavily (and listeners sometimes even got reggae tracks that werent even minor pop hits into the ‘Capital Hitline’ – nb this was a show every weekday evening where listeners phoned in to vote for a track of their choice and the more phone votes the higher the position in that night’s Hitline Top Ten) and even Radio London had programmes like ,Black Londoners’ in peak listening spots where you couldnt help hearing reggae as a part of the background of growing up.

    But having said that I still think UB40 were talking out of their arses.I’d rather have ‘Dreadlock Holiday’anyday!

  13. 43
    AndyPandy on 8 Jul 2009 #

    ps the seemingly extremely un-mainstream dub-type track and UK pop hit I couldnt remember the title of in my post above was Rupie Edwards and ‘Irie Feelings’.

  14. 44
    wichita lineman on 9 Jul 2009 #

    Is Ire Feelings the only dub top 10 hit ever? It sounded utterly alien – during its 2 weeks in the top 10 in Dec 74, competition included You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet by Bachman Turner Overdrive, Gonna Make You A Star, the Rubettes’ Jukebox Jive and Gary Glitter’s Oh Yes You’re Beautiful. No one (Andy aside) tends to remember it.

    Another nod to King, especially for the desolate electric harpsichord – at least I think that’s what it is. They stopped using it once they invented the “UB40 button”, a fearsome device that automatically created a backing track for any oldie whose guts they felt like smearing all over the walls.

    Another nod, too, to Neil Diamond’s deeply melancholy original. It wasn’t a songwriter’s demo, it was a proper single. Real end-of-the-line self-obliterating stuff, as well. How UB40 managed to make it sound so chirpy and soulless, God knows. But they spent the next decade refining their ugly art, the bastards.

  15. 45
    thevisitor on 9 Jul 2009 #

    I remember once playing the magnificent 12-inch dub blowout of Dream A Lie to my teenage brother-in-law, who liked to regard his musical tastes as being relatively leftfield and esoteric. He hadn’t even been born when Red Red Wine came out. When I told him who it was, he was utterly speechless. UB40 pretty much torched a formidable reputation with one single – quite an achievement in its way. Have any other bands achieved a similar feat?

  16. 46
    Tim on 9 Jul 2009 #

    Andy – as I say I hold no brief for UB40 but what I was trying to do was work out why someone might have said something like that – and it was me, not them who first mentioned “roots”.

    Actually what the quote – not even really a quote, as it goes – reminds me of is the way I and my friends in the mid-80s would talk about the grievous unfairness of our beloved indie not being fully represented in the charts – it made us furious but I could surely mention a greater number of broadly “indie” hits from 85-90 than I could chart reggae stuff in 76-81. I hated pretty much every one of those indie hits, incidentally, because they didn’t conform to my/our very tight definitions of what was good. I certainly would have told you that the British public needed to be introduced properly to indie pop. So I’m trying to map those feelings onto this imaginary UB40, I suppose. I rather like frustratingly narrow-minded obsessives.

    I do remember a Smash Hits interview with Musical Youth in which they were asked what they were listening to – one of them made a point of saying that he listend to a lot of “hard jam-down reggae” (I think he mentioned Dillinger), which I took to mean as opposed to, um, other kinds of reggae.

    And I agree that growing up outside London lessened ones daily contact with reggae fairly substantially. Certainly in Devon where I grew up, you had to make an effort to hear much of anything past the hits already mentioned.

  17. 47
    LondonLee on 9 Jul 2009 #

    Yes, I was going to say that growing up in London might give you a warped view of how popular reggae was on the “street” so to speak. I mean, they all listened to Black Sabbath oop North, didn’t they?

  18. 48
    wichitalineman on 9 Jul 2009 #

    Re 45: Can only think of a Scottish group, once Self Abusers, later a pile of toss, but very good in between. They’ll be troubling Popular with a single some way past their prime. Reputation sunk for good by weight of bombast.

    Tim – I agree that UB40 were surely paying tribute to a “reggae” they had grown up with. Labour Of Love is much like Pin Ups. Imagine if Pin Ups had sold so well that Bowie spent the rest of his career singing Kinks and Who songs in an uncomfortable baritone – he would be a joke, Starman and Space Oddity as thoroughly swept under the carpet as King and Dream A Lie.

    Andy – it’s true, there was almost always a reggae presence on K-Tel and Ronco albums in the mid-late 70s. 1972’s Believe In Music featured 5 in a row (if you include Big Six). There were just less top tenners in the few years before King/Food For Thought, that’s all.

    Thevisitor might be able to tell us how popular reggae was in Birmingham in the late seventies. I’m guessing the answer is very.

  19. 49
    Glue Factory on 9 Jul 2009 #

    Re: 48, I think you’re 100% right about the ex-Self-Abusers. I once played the instrumental Theme For Great Cities to a friend who refused to believe it was them and argued that it was “obviously” a modern remix.

  20. 50
    Matthew H on 10 Jul 2009 #

    Yep, no Astro-toast on the 7″ – another I perplexingly own despite never feeling much affinity for the record. Must have been a scattergun shopper that summer; perhaps I’d had a pocket money raise. The sleeve is a lovely dull grey, with a record label to match – marvellously apt.

    ‘Don’t Break My Heart’ is the UB40 track for me. The bassline, I think.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 57
    Tom on 25 Feb 2010 #

    Where’s this “living” you speak of?

  28. 58
    taDOW on 25 Feb 2010 #

    where’s this “art” for that matter

  29. 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!”

  30. 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?

  31. 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

  32. 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”?

  33. 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

  34. 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)

  35. 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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