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Apr 12

UB40 – “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You”

Popular59 comments • 6,779 views

#690, 12th June 1993

Pop reggae wasn’t invented in Gothenburg, more’s the pity. Back in 1983, UB40 had made a record celebrating the Jamaican music they grew up loving, and discovered that a lot of other people had loved it too, and even more loved the idea of loving it so long as it was filtered through the curatorial larynx of Ali Campbell. Labour Of Love made the band a fortune and froze their career: gentle weddings’n’parties reggae was what they did now.

“I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” was another single which seemed to grab the chart by the bollocks for weeks on end – though this turns out to be my loathing of it magnifying the situation. I have to admit it doesn’t sound quite as Satanic now – the backing in particular has a bit more weight than I remember (or perhaps than my cheap TV set could muster). But it’s far from a good single – the brass sounds thin, the digital whomp becomes too rigid after a while, and all the instruments are fighting a particularly pedestrian Campbell. He seems to have no idea what to make of the song, which is a flexible one – it’s been done well as seduction and addiction, but Campbell takes “can’t help” and turns it into habit. By the end “falling in love” might as well be “going to Homebase”.

(Some tiny degree of interest might be generated by the video, exploiting the song’s position as soundtrack single to Sharon Stone vehicle Sliver, and featuring mush-mouthed Ali C as a sleazeball video voyeur. Alas there’s nothing on the record to back this reading up.)

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Comments

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  1. 1
    JonnyB on 17 Apr 2012 #

    Just erased a long comment from me, as essentially all it really said was ‘yes,’ but in several dozen too many words.

    I’m trying to think of a positive, but I can’t. I know very, very little about reggae, but it strikes me as a genre – like blues – that loses everything when you polish it. I may be totally wrong.

  2. 2

    What we’d probably end up fighting about there is the exact meaning of “polish” I think: plenty of (utterly lovely) “non-roots” reggae came out of JA itself in the 70s and 80s (from John Bolt and Ken Boothe to Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs), and Lovers’ Rock was an entire fabulous genre of reggae as daft producer-driven chart-pop. All of which sounded polished and sweet by contrast with the dub and dread and blood and fire of U Roy and the like.

  3. 3

    John Holt, I mean.

  4. 4
    weej on 17 Apr 2012 #

    Completely agreed about the backing being much better than memory suggested. Ali Campbell’s voice is still there though, so it doesn’t really matter. Nothing he sings on can ever get more than a ‘2’ from me.

  5. 5
    Steve Mannion on 17 Apr 2012 #

    This always felt so knocked out in one take using a stockpile of sounds they built up and then ‘refined’ to the point where it’s just featureless mush (what Jonny is getting at I guess) – at least after the intro and initial beat drop – rather than presenting a befitting deftness and emotional tug as found in a few other big reggae-tagged hits of the time (e.g. Searching, Housecall). Pretty dull.

    Will always think of Ali C’s odd pronunciation style tho – “Burraahh haaaayn’t help…”

  6. 6
    punctum on 17 Apr 2012 #

    Don’t get me wrong – yes, I know that’s a Pretenders song, but it sounds so like a UB40 song title – when I say that prior to their financial collapse (Neil Diamond got the residuals for “Red, Red Wine,” not UB40 – all those cover versions weren’t exactly lining the kitty), I had immense and thorough respect for UB40, not only for maintaining the same eight-piece line-up for nearly thirty years, unchanged (a remarkable feat in itself), but also because they were one of the very few groups to operate on unsullied socialist principles (or so it seemed); all of their own songs have always been credited to “UB40,” all of their writing, publishing and performance royalties were strictly divided in eight equal ways and they remained true and stalwart to their original political and musical beliefs – whatever they have done, it has always been, in one way or an eighth other, reggae. Moreover, their early musical output remains magnificent; the airy desolation skanks of their Signing Off debut began waves which continued to radiate through the work of, amongst others, Roots Manuva and Mike Skinner, and the top ten success of “The Earth Dies Screaming” in late 1980 continues to boggle the mind; this latter I find an exceptional single, not least because it suggests, musically, what Joy Division in dub might really have gone on to sound like, and also because Ali Campbell’s deceptively restrained voice (a major influence on Boy George) recites sternly intricate images of horror and gruesome decay which would not have disgraced Throbbing Gristle or Coil.

    All of which makes their trio of chart-topping cover versions the more regrettable. Granted, “Red, Red Wine” did stem from a genuine love of the music which originally inspired them to form a band, and even “I Got You Babe” could be excused as a nice little thank you note to Chrissie Hynde, who gave UB40 their first big break by inviting them to support the Pretenders on tour in early 1980. “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” however, is inexcusable. It has been a UK hit single four times; the 1962 Elvis original performs the miracle of extracting holiness from the surrounding aquatack of Blue Hawaii – when he sings “Take my hand…take my whole life too” with the exact correlation of tenderness to worship that the line requires, he is back in the Church, as the rosary imagery (“Wise men say,” “Like a river flows”) more than implies.

    In 1970 Andy Williams sang it at exactly the same tempo, and with even more extraneous wonder (that astonishing high C on the first syllable of the last “help” – since he manages to make two syllables out of that word), except that he is backed by a bustling double-tempo shuffle. The Stylistics gave it the pallid, cabaret disco once-over in 1976 but Russell Tompkins’ voice still betrayed the notion that he meant it. Whereas UB40’s reading is a grotesquely mechanical one, with horrid pear-shaped synth figures, an entirely inapposite crunching drum machine track, and no sense of modulation (the original’s ascending harmonic progressions, betraying its debt to Martini’s eighteenth-century ballad “Plaisir D’Amour,” are disregarded entirely). Meanwhile, Ali Campbell simply sounds bored and immersed in something far more involving and intriguing to him than any notion of “love.” Perhaps the alienation was designed to fit in with the rather silly Sharon Stone film Sliver – all about sex, surveillance and stalking – for which the performance was commissioned. It drags everything into a mushroom of grey.

  7. 7
    JonnyB on 17 Apr 2012 #

    #1/#5 – yes, sorry – woolly phrase. For ‘polish’ I suppose I mean ‘made polite and inoffensive’, which you can say kills every type of music, but you seem to be able to get away with that more in pop and rock than you can in ‘roots’ genres. I might now be digging myself a hole – as I say, it’s hardly my area of expertise, so I shall put down the shovel.

  8. 8

    I think I’d argue that — like soul and country — MOR is a mode that suits reggae very well. But of course not all MOR reggae is good.

    (It also fascinates me how many singers who like to put themselves around as quite scary dudes, ragga-gangsta-style, have genuine gorgeous, subtle voices, capable of startling gentleness and delicacy.)

  9. 9
    Mark G on 17 Apr 2012 #

    Actually, the acapella intro is OK, in a sort of “I’m laughing as I sing this” way.

    Then the clappclapp drum machine ‘kicks’ in (sponges in morelike), and the record is lost.

  10. 10
    thefatgit on 17 Apr 2012 #

    I’m in the Tom camp with this one. Unsurprisingly, I was in the thrall of Francis Wright at the time. I must have found it disappointing that the group that gave us “1 in 10” had become a bland covers band. There’s little else to say really.

    The song itself seems pretty bulletproof even in the most careless of hands. I’ve heard it mangled by drunken karaoke singers, but I’m still quite fond of the lyrics. I kinda like the idea of placing everything on the line in the name of love, although in the real world other stuff gets in the way. I’m repping for Elvis as my preferred reading, but that’s not to say there aren’t some interesting versions out there like this for instance:

    http://youtu.be/16Ia3prdYxs

    Of course, it’s the darker and more disturbing reading that you wish UB40 had the balls to have a crack at, especially in relation to the Sharon Stone film.

  11. 11
    chelovek na lune on 17 Apr 2012 #

    Yeah, a great pity that a band that started off promisingly (if not consistently so) – and, like, with stuff to say, and the ability to capture one’s imagination – essentially became a blanded-out idiot jukebox.

    It’s almost as if (ALMOST) early OMD,so disillusioned at the commercial near-failure of Dazzle Ships, had transformed themselves into Big Fun (or – at the risk of stretching an analogy perhaps a little too far – but the idiot jukebox thing definitely does apply – W***life). Ha, that thought makes me appreciate the ludicrously watered down and misnamed OMD of the early-mid 90s more than they deserve to be appreciated.

    That said, this version of the song, while indeed a bit churned-out and over-commercial, is still preferable to the Stylistics take on it, which messes with the tune and the flow. Though still I think I prefer the first take on this song I ever heard, as kid – by the Techno Twins…

  12. 12
    lonepilgrim on 17 Apr 2012 #

    this song is so dull that it’s a struggle to say anything about it – everything about it sounds processed and manipulated so that music and vocal inhabit the same frequency. There’s very little dynamic to the band’s performance and Ali Campbell sounds like a semi-comatose pub singer

  13. 13
    Special Girl AKA on 17 Apr 2012 #

    #4 That’s a shame, because this record with his voice on is perfect:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mOBZ6ygWk7I

    I’m very conflicted on the subject of UB40. LOVE all of Signing Off, love Red Red Wine, hate IGYB and can’t stand the fact that most of them are Birmingham City fans (apart from the saxophonist).

    I have a clear memory of eating a Twister whilst listening to this for the first time, therefore good associations.

  14. 14
    anto on 17 Apr 2012 #

    One of the funniest Popular reviews for this plodding cover.
    Around the same time there was a celtic-rock version of Can’t Help… which appeared in the film version of Roddy Doyles The Snapper.
    It was better than this one but I’m not sure who it was by.

  15. 15
    flahr on 17 Apr 2012 #

    Ugh. In music lessons at the start of secondary school we all had to learn this song: I was at the time still young enough that I could just about get away with singing it falsetto, though I have no doubt that that combined with my plodding attempts at keyboard rendered the performance at most distasteful.

    Nonetheless, I feel confident suggesting it was a thousand times better than this clock-watching pallid Godawful bilge. One in Ten.

  16. 16
    Alan Connor on 17 Apr 2012 #

    #14: It was by Lick The Tins. I heard it on the radio as a teenager at the same time as discovering my dad’s RCA Elvis comp and fell in love with both, though the Elvis had to keep alive the memory of the polkajiggy version as I didn’t hear who did it. I might not be sold by its fey ways today, but I spent most of the ’80s and early ’90s with an ear out for it, in that long-term back-burner memory that we no longer have a need for. The recording that took its place in my brain-iPod was by Jungle Wonz.

    Lick The Tins’ is still my favourite version, though I’m not sure if I’m talking about the actual recording or the one in my teenage mind.

  17. 17
    swanstep on 17 Apr 2012 #

    I find this one almost impossible to get all the way through. It makes UB40’s Red Red Wine cover seem positively sparkling by comparison.

    Strange what gets to the top of the charts. After all, Chris Isaak was all over the early ’90s doing Elvisy/Orbisony slow stuff (including Two Hearts from the end of True Romance soundtrack in 1993), but he’s not going to come close to bothering Popular.

    Listening again to the Elvis original for the first time in a while… wow, it’s pretty great! The arrangement has subtle harmonic touches throughout, and the drummer makes the whole thing feel zippier than I’d remembered.

    Sliver w/ Sharon Stone and some Baldwin. Never seen it. It got poor reviews at the time, and to me, this as its big s/track hit acted as fair warning that it was terrible. I remember Stone doing promotion for the film on MTV (in the US), basically acting too cool for her own film, and winking to the interviewer and the audience that the film was bad, saying something like, ‘To get people to see a movie like this, you need the hits.’ One of those moments where you know a star has just made an unforced error that the money won’t forgive lightly…

  18. 18
    Billy Hicks on 17 Apr 2012 #

    As normally a staunch supporter of anything 1990s (oh boy, the amount of 9s and 10s I’m going to be giving at the end of the decade – I apologise in advance but it was my era) even I agree with this. And I adore ‘Red Red Wine’ and consider it one of the best singles of 1993, but although this has some nice atmospherics, it just doesn’t do anything for me.

    One thing I’ll give it is that it didn’t stop any other potential songs from hitting the top – the two #2s during its fortnight at the top were ‘All That She Wants’ and the next number 1.

  19. 19
    23 Daves on 18 Apr 2012 #

    Given that this version followed not far behind Blue Peter presenter Simon Groom’s attempt, perhaps they just felt they should give up entirely.

    http://youtu.be/_xEjYI_y-a0

    I actually can’t think of anything to say about either effort, to be honest.

  20. 20
    Snif on 18 Apr 2012 #

    Very lightweight recording….love the Elvis version, which I’d never heard until the late 80s when I saw “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”, the Alan Bleasdale-penned musical starring Martin Shaw. Up till that point, Elvis had just been a popular singer who’d died in 1977, and Shaw was Doyle from “The Professionals”. I came away from the show with a newfound respect for both artists, and this tune’s had a special place since (the karaoke industry would have shrivelled up and died years ago if not for it).

  21. 21
    wichita lineman on 18 Apr 2012 #

    This reminds me of sitting in a pie and mash shop (plastic seats, it was a NEW pie and mash shop) on Hornsey Road. Hungover on a Saturday afternoon. (ICH) FILWY and another bunnied soft reggae cover on the radio. Urgh.

    This will be the Popular point at which to ask if anyone remembers the Soft Reggae TV advertised album. The ad kicked off with a generic Capitol Radio-like DJ voice shouting “Soft Reggae – the SOFTEST reggae YET!”, as if Ali C and his gang of evil scientists were in a lab trying to concoct the blandest noise possible.

    It probably did contain Compliments On Your Kiss and China Black’s Searching, maybe even Tease Me, which showed how reggae could – as Lord Pnk Skrt has said – lend itself very well to softness.

    Re 5: It sounds like Ali C’s trying to put in the absolute minimum amount of effort, including skipping consonants: “Take my ah, take me oh lah too”.

    The “coda” doesn’t last as long as I remember but is still weird and unpleasant (why add that bend in “caaa-yyyyy-aaaant”?)

    And why have they fucked about with the title? Probably because they couldn’t be bothered to check what the song was actually called.

    OK. It raises more questions than I expected it to.

  22. 22
    thefatgit on 18 Apr 2012 #

    Despite the UB40 howler, the movie’s Soundtrack album isn’t too bad.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sliver_(soundtrack)

  23. 23

    Lords of Acid!

  24. 24
    punctum on 18 Apr 2012 #

    #21: I’ve still got Soft Reggae (on cassette)! Pretty much the sort of compilation you would expect from the time and probably the only reason I kept it was that it’s the only time “Silly Games” by Janet Kay is represented in our collection.

  25. 25
    Rory on 18 Apr 2012 #

    I’m struggling to think of something to say about this, other than wishing I’d spent the time listening to the new Spiritualized album instead. A three sounds generous.

    (This comment sat unposted for a few hours while I went and listened to the new Spiritualized album instead.)

  26. 26
    swanstep on 18 Apr 2012 #

    @Rory. We could always talk about football. Is anyone seriously picking Chelsea tonight? (There must be some great odds available. Might be worth a punt?) Also, the 1966 WC final was on Mad Men this week. (Lane: England just won the World Cup. Roger: Cup of what?) Discuss!

  27. 27
    Cumbrian on 18 Apr 2012 #

    Speaking of Spiritualized, one of the most electrifying moments I have ever had at a gig was seeing them perform “Ladies and Gentlemen…” a couple of years ago. Playing the Elvis version of the title track, all the instruments dropped out halfway through leaving the gospel choir alone singing the chorus of ICHFILWY. Genuine hair on neck raising moment.

    As many have said, this song in and of itself is pretty good but the reading of it is all important, as you can make it sound really quite insipid otherwise. This one falls well short.

    I’m sure you can get good odds on Chelsea tonight – prior to the Champions League Final last year, you could get Man Utd at basically 3/1 which in a 2 horse race is incredibly good value, especially since you could always sneak one on the break and park the bus. Nevertheless, the odds will be stacked as they are for a reason – i.e. Chelsea have next to no chance. It might well be closer than we expect but I still reckon Barca are going to be comfortable.

    Other thing I was going to mention, perhaps more on topic: what drove the chart success of reggae/ragga in the early part of the 1990s? As I’ve said numerous times over a few entries, I was 12 or so about this time and in Cumbria, so was not necessarily exposed to pirate radio stations or other fashionable stuff that pushed this as a form. It seems notable that Shaggy, Ace of Base, UB40 and at least one spoiler bunny act all had chart success around the same time, only for it to dissipate a bit once the Britpop wars start.

  28. 28
    Rory on 18 Apr 2012 #

    @swanstep Football isn’t my game, although the general principle is tempting (and that’s a nice Mad Men gag). But it might not be doing justice to Tom’s return to veer off so soon in the thread. So, forcing myself to listen to the thing a second time today (/this century): how did this ever not sound like bad karaoke to everyone? Was there ever a time when that backing track sounded novel? Or was the novelty in Ali Campbell’s vocals (but we’d had “I Got You, Babe” not that long before, so that can’t be it)? Surely it wasn’t the song itself? I suppose the clash between the jolly jingle on offer here and everyone’s memories of Elvis was novel; although that assumes that “everyone” remembered Elvis’s original, which may not at all have been true of early-’90s singles-buyers.

  29. 29
    Erithian on 18 Apr 2012 #

    Since you’ve started talking football on here and since I’ve been mentioning Manchester United on the “Save Your Kisses For Me” thread, the stars are aligned for me to bring this up: circa 1980 Piccadilly Radio gave an evening show over to Gary Bailey and Steve Coppell to DJ and play selections chosen by their team-mates. One notable choice was that of Mike Duxbury (stalwart right-back who won 10 England caps) who went for the Punctum-acclaimed “The Earth Dies Screaming” by UB40.

    I had a cassette of this show for some time, but can’t remember many of the other selections. Martin Buchan chose Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds”, Bailey went for David Bowie’s “1984” and Coppell picked “Black Magic Woman” and yarned about chatting with “Carlos” backstage at a recent Santana gig in Manchester.

    As for the UB40 song under consideration, I agree with the general disapproval of the direction their career was taking, although this track was redeemed somewhat by Brian Travers’ trumpet flourishes which add an element of originality to the cover. I’d still choose to hear the Elvis version over all the others though.

    (I note, incidentally, that Brian Travers was voted Brummie of the Year 2009 in a poll on the “Birmingham: It’s Not Shit” website – worth a google.)

  30. 30
    thefatgit on 18 Apr 2012 #

    Of course, Chelsea nailed on 8-0!

    I’m not buying this suggestion UB40 were swept up in the early ’90s ragga-boom. I’d be more inclined to believe there were a large number of punters who didn’t “get” grunge and didn’t “get” ragga either, but did identify with the “soft” reggae that UB40 were knocking out.

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