Jul 09

UB40 – “Red Red Wine”

FT + Popular67 comments • 7,652 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. 1
    Tom on 6 Jul 2009 #

    My impression of Astro kind of influenced by how UTTERLY TERRIFIED the dude looks in the vid.

  2. 2
    Kat but logged out innit on 6 Jul 2009 #

    I have a dreadful urge to make a r4c1st calamacho joke. That is, a joke about a r4c1st calamacho, not a r4c1st joke about a calamacho. Though I fear the two are very similar :(

    (see here for more details)

  3. 3
    Billy Smart on 6 Jul 2009 #

    You’re right of course, but the original song must carry some great residual power to still resonate through the greyness of this version. I’m guessing that the majority of people who bought this had never heard the original and bought it because they found it a good song about somebody drinking to forget, rather than that they especially liked this interpretation.

    As a ten year-old, I hadn’t liked UB40 at all before this point – I found then a bit bleak and scary – but this was the first song of theirs that I found myself singing to myself. Now, as a pop-savvy adult, I really like the first two years of UB40 – there seems to be something instinctive about those early songs, perhaps in part because very few successful bands have ever been quite so self-taught as UB40 were – but ‘Red Red Wine’ marks the point where they became bland and tiresome.

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    Steve Mannion on 6 Jul 2009 #

    I didn’t like Sad UB40 at the time, only Happy UB40 (Rat In My Kitchen and a few others musically buoyant enough to rise above Campbell’s general despair), but now it’s the reverse and the ominous gloom in some of their early stuff has strange appeal (Food For Thought, One In Ten, maybe Don’t Break My Heart). Not here tho! Red Red Wine comes close to salvation via that nice fleeting poignant melodic detail just after the chorus but not enough to want to put up with the rest of it.

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    Billy Smart on 6 Jul 2009 #

    Hm. looking it up I’m surprised to discover that two versions of this song were very minor hits in the UK in the late 1960s, The Vagabonds in 1968 and Tony Tribe in 1969, so it was probably less obscure than I’d always thought. I’ve never heard either, though I have heard Neil Diamond who was presumably first.

  6. 6
    Tom on 6 Jul 2009 #

    The Tony Tribe one is the one UB40 are paying tribute to, apparently – they claimed never to have heard the Diamond original.

  7. 7
    Billy Smart on 6 Jul 2009 #

    Number 2 watch: A week of Madness’ ‘Wings Of A Dove’ – not their best moment, perhaps – then a week of Peabo Bryson & Roberta Flack’s ‘Tonight I Celebrate My Love’, certainly my favourite single of the three, but it wouldn’t have been at the time, when it just sounded like yukky lovey-dovey gloop.

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    Kat but logged out innit on 6 Jul 2009 #

    Awwww Peabo & Roberta! I am sad they never got to #1. That is such a good karaoke duet.

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    Tom on 6 Jul 2009 #

    Couple of 5s or 6s there. The Madness VIDEO is of course a landmark at least in Saturday morning TV hype DID YOU SEE terms – a VAN! off a PLANE!! This comments box is not big enough to explain why Peabo & Berta are good.

  10. 10
    CarsmileSteve on 6 Jul 2009 #

    toniiiiiiiiiiiiight, i celebrate my love for you!

  11. 11
    Kat but logged out innit on 6 Jul 2009 #

    It seems the natural thing to do!

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    Erithian on 6 Jul 2009 #

    UB40 are a classic case of Showaddywaddy syndrome – starting out with a couple of great original tunes in a well-established genre, the hits started to run a bit dry so they tried an oldie, and found that worked so well that they fell into a career-long rut of retreads. And although the retreads worked well, and the band served as a human jukebox to promote songs they thought deserved a wider audience, it was a pity that the early promise of the band’s new material was more or less totally forgotten. I loved the likes of “King”, “Food For Thought” and “One in Ten” and would have been interested in more soft-reggae politics to come. (Incidentally, I don’t remember Astro’s toasting on the number one single – is that an album version you’ve listened to Tom?)

    On Boxing Day 1981 I went to a mini-festival called the Christmas Cracker at the NEC in Birmingham, featuring (in this order) Squeeze, Rockpile, The Selecter, Madness, Elvis Costello and UB40. I was surprised Elvis wasn’t top of the bill, but should have realised it was a hometown gig for the ’40. Pity the last train to Manchester was about to leave, so many of us had to go just as Astro was introducing “another Rock Against Thatcher number”.

    This was number one when I had the ultimate “Sliding Doors” moment of my life, one which, appropriately enough with UB40 in mind, involved a benefit office. My summer job had come to an end a couple of weeks before the start of final year at RHC, so I had to sign on for a short while. I decided, stupidly, to combine the trip to the benefit office with taking the dog for a walk, only to find that the mutt, a yappy little Yorkie, wasn’t in the mood to behave. So I aborted that trip and returned later sans dog. In front of me in the queue this time was an attractive brunette who was telling the clerk that she’d been teaching English in Germany as part of a uni course and her summer job had finished – i.e. pretty much exactly the same circumstances as me. So I stopped her as she left with the immortal words “Excuse me, I wasn’t eavesdropping but I just happened to overhear…”

    We arranged to meet and compare notes, and finished up as an item for the next four years. And because of her insistence on confining job-hunting to the Manchester area after we graduated, which I reluctantly went along with, it was 18 months before we cast the net further afield than the recession-hit North West. Otherwise I would almost certainly have finished up with a different job, wouldn’t have met my wife and had our three kids. So everything my life is now stems from a bad call over walkies while “Red Red Wine” was number one!

  13. 13
    Billy Smart on 6 Jul 2009 #

    Have I got false memory syndrome? I can vividly remember a video that was black and white apart from some wine that was coloured in red (do you see what they did there?) and don’t remember any toasting on this, either.

  14. 14
    Tom on 6 Jul 2009 #

    Ah, OK, it may well be that I have the wrong version. I suspect my recorded version is the 12″. Anyway even without Astro it would have got a 3 so no harm done.

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    lonepilgrim on 6 Jul 2009 #

    it’s a catchy tune (courtesy of Neil Diamond’s Brill Building skills) made dreadfully dreary – like the opposite of those ‘colorised’ B&W movies. Didn’t this get them to number 1 in the USA as well?

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    Chris Brown on 6 Jul 2009 #

    It was indeed a US chart topper, though not until later.

    I concluded (in the post I’ve linked to) that it sounds like the exact opposite of what it is: a reggae song being covered by a band who can’t play reggae.

  17. 17
    LondonLee on 7 Jul 2009 #

    Neil Diamond’s version is a bit dreary too.

    Shame what happened to this lot. I loved their early singles and first couple of albums. I saw them supporting The Pretenders in 1980 before they had any records in the chart and they were very, very good and far more dynamic than they ever were on record, I bought my copy of ‘Food For Thought’ at the concert. This one killed them stone dead for me though and saw them taking the easy and bland road to riches.

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    TomLane on 7 Jul 2009 #

    A good example of a remake being better than the original. Makes me wonder (and if anyone knows the answer to this) if Diamond himself was surprised that somebody covered this song.

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    lonepilgrim on 7 Jul 2009 #

    Given that Neil Diamond had early success working as a songwriter for hire I’m pretty sure he expected it to be covered (which according to Wikipedia it was -several times). Apparently, following the UB40 version getting to number 1 in the USA in 1988 he began performing it in a reggae style – which is not a pretty thought.

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    Billy Smart on 7 Jul 2009 #

    TOTPWatch: UB40 twice performed ‘Red Red Wine’ on Top Of The Pops;

    25 August 1983. Also in the studio that week were; David Grant, carmel, Shalamar, Level 42, The Style Council and KC & The Sunshine Band. Simon Bates & Mike Smith were the hosts.

    25 December 1983. Also in the studio that Christmas were; Freeez, Shakin’ Stevens, Eurythmics, Adam Ant, Bucks Fizz, Heaven 17, The Flying Pickets and KC & The Sunshine Band. Simon Bates, Janice Long, Mike Smith, Andy Peebles, Adrian John & Gary Davies were the hosts.

  21. 21
    Rory on 7 Jul 2009 #

    They had early singles? I was oblivious to them, but then the same was true of Dexy’s Midnight Runners: one-hit wonders and established acts finally breaking through all look the same to the teenage pop-newbie. “Red, Red Wine” certainly felt like a one-hit wonder, because I can’t remember any other hits for UB40 in Australia, although the album was pretty ubiquitous for a while. (Oops, hang on. The bunny reminds me of one. Their only Australian number one, in fact.)

    I lumped this at the time with Paul Young’s “Wherever I Lay My Hat” in the slow and dull category, and I’m not sure which I would give the edge. I’m instinctively thinking a 4 for this, so I suppose Young wins by a red, red nose.

    Now there’s a thought. “Rudolph” sung to this tune, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue style: Red, red nose / Shout out with glee / You will go do-ow-own / In history…

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    Martin Skidmore on 7 Jul 2009 #

    I remember when One In Ten was a hit, reading an interview with them where they said that they were on a campaign to introduce the British public to reggae, and this was a soft, commercial starting point, and from there they would lead everyone by the hand to the more demanding stuff, dub et al. Red Red Wine seemed to represent an overt abandoning of that idea. I quite like the Tony Tribe version, but there are plenty of better songs on the same lines (mostly within C&W), and this always truck me as a miserable dirge.

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    Izzy on 7 Jul 2009 #

    I quite like their idea of introducing the uk to reggae, it seems quite noble – the problem being that it negates any reason to actually listen to UB40…

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    LondonLee on 7 Jul 2009 #

    I think the English were already pretty familiar with reggae weren’t they? It was well popular ’round my way – even among kids I knew who supported the NF.

    They did do longer dub versions of their songs on 12″ which were pretty good and released a whole dub version of their second album ‘Present Arms’

    I always thought Tony Tribe’s version of this was too fast though, the beat seems to be racing ahead of the vocal. At least UB40 had the sense to slow it down.

  25. 25
    anto on 7 Jul 2009 #

    Lonepilgrim. Neil does perform this song reggae-style and it has to be heard to be believed. He even attemps some toasting.

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    rosie on 7 Jul 2009 #

    LondonLee @ 24: Indeed, and we covered the fact way back in 1969, when reggae went with shaved heads, braces and bovver-boots in the heads of greasers!

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    anto on 7 Jul 2009 #

    Because of Ali Cambells odd Brummie/cod-Jamaican vocals for a long time I thought the line ” I still need here so.” was actually the darker ” I’m stealing her soul ” so I assumed it was a song about a cruel womaniser getting a girl drunk in order to seduce her, but as the monochrome video confirms it’s really a drink-that-girl-off-my-mind type of song.
    By the way is it any wonder he gets so hammered in that video.
    He’s drinking red red wine IN PINTS – the silly ass.

  28. 28
    AndyPandy on 7 Jul 2009 #

    Agree with Lee @24 – in fact if UB40 really did say they hoped ‘to introduce reggae to the UK’ it must verge on one of the most ridiculous things I’ve heard (and that’s saying something from a music business that seems to pride itself on talking absolute shit)
    – after all by their time there’d only been about 4 or 5 reggae number ones in the pop chart and stretching all the way back to the ’60s!

  29. 29
    thevisitor on 7 Jul 2009 #

    I vaguely remember UB40 saying (in a South Bank show, I think) that they had wanted to do covers from the start, but they weren’t technically gifted enough as musicians to play other people’s songs – hence they had to write their own! I love the idea that Food For Thought and Dream A Lie were just the sound of a band biding their time until they got “good” enough to learn Red Red Wine!

    This being towards the end of the summer holidays in 1983, I remember the Co-Op department store in Birmingham offering a free top ten single to anyone who bought over £20 of school uniform. I persuaded my mum to get me an extra shirt, thus pushing the total up to the required amount, then affected pleasant surprise at the sign that said we were entitled to a free record. I didn’t think it through properly though, because I realised that I liked very little of what was in the top ten that week. I plumped for Red Red Wine as the best of a bad bunch – not a good decision. Only years later, when I heard the Neil Diamond original with its exquisitely mournful arrangement, did I realise how bad UB40’s version was. That said, when Neil Diamond performs this live, he “covers” UB40’s version.

  30. 30
    Billy Smart on 8 Jul 2009 #

    Aha – it got to number 34 in America in 1983, but later “The song received a second life in the US in 1988 when DJ Bobby Stark started playing it at a dance club in Atlanta called Scenario. UB40’s label, A&M Records, re-released the song as a single, and it reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 that October”

    I wouldn’t have danced much at that club.

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