fortunes changed at the beginning of 1980. Having spent the previous
years working live, and rapidly developing an instant "buzz" among
the movers & shakers, they were asked to join The Pretenders'
triumphant national tour. The Pretenders were then at the top
of the charts, and very hot indeed. They could have hardly have
chosen a hotter support act.
The first single with Graduate, their initial label, was a double-A
coupling of "Food For Thought" a bitter meditation on third-world
poverty, and "King", a lament for Dr. Martin Luther King.
"King" had seemed to be the favourite with live audiences, but
it was "Food For Thought", that got the airplay and became the
The single was released during the tour, without the benefit of
major-label marketing or promotion, and headed straight for the
top five. Such was the band's impact on their first major live
The first album was released on September of that year. The sleeve
was a reproduction of the familiar buff-coloured dole card (more
familiar, at that time, than it had ever been), with the title
"Signing Off" apparently rubber-stamped in red. It referred to
"signing off" the dole, i.e. getting a job. It was both an acknowledgement
of the band's inception, and a celebration of their new status.
Because they were from the West Midlands, and because they were
a large mixed race group playing music of Jamaican origin, UB40
were initially thought to be part of the Two-Tone phenomenon which
had burst out of nearby Coventry. "Signing Off" made it clear
that they were nothing of the sort. They were part of the same
social and political tendency, of course, but their musical approach
was quite different. Their sound was more relaxed, more sophisticated
and sexier. You couldn't help dancing to it, but you could do
so without having to hold your hat on.
At the end of 1980, the contract with Graduate expired, and UB40
formed their own record company, DEP International.
Only nine months after "Signing Off", and while it was still in
the chart, they released their second album "Present Arms". It
was eagerly awaited, and did not disappoint. It was as good as
its predecessor, and featured "One In Ten", an anthem to rival
"Food For Thought" and "Medusa". It even included another bonus
Four months later, in October 1981, the UBs asserted their allegiance
to their mentors by releasing a dub version of the album "Present
Arms". It could hardly be expected to match the extraordinary
popularity of the first two albums, but it did resoundingly well
for a dub album and went some way to establishing the band's credentials
as serious students of reggae.
That commitment to innovation was further demonstrated by 1982's
album, UB44. It was an excellent record, unfortunately obscured
by over-ambitious packaging. The first pressing was released in
a plain black sleeve with a seemingly plain silver square, which
actually contained the album's title in the form of a hologram.
It was the first such use of holography, which was in its infancy,
and the result proved rather too much for the casual purchaser.
A brave failure.
The subsequent sleeve featured the monumental logo, now mercifully
legible, in the background of an African landscape. It was a souvenir
of the band's visit that year, to Zimbabwe - a bizarre story that
has to wait for another time...
One year later, in September 1983, UB40 released the album they'd
been planning, and putting off, since their first faltering efforts
in that cellar in Moseley. It was their first direct tribute to
the musicians who had inspired and influenced them, and the title
"Labour Of Love" said it all.
"Labour Of Love", including the astonishingly popular single "Red
Red Wine", was in the British chart for two years. It gave UBs
their first truly worldwide hit and, eventually, their first American
UB40 have maintained their instantly recognisable and highly distinctive
style through nine more albums, as well as two hits compilations.
"The Best Of UB40 - Volume One", released in November '87, It
stayed in the UK charts for 123 weeks. "Baggariddim", their adventurous
1985 collaboration with local DJ's also contained "Don't Break
My Heart" and "I Got You Babe" (with Chrissie Hynde), both memorable
hit singles. Chrissie Hynde joined the band again for "Breakfast
In Bed", the hit of the 1988 album simply called "UB40".
1989 saw the release of a second helping of "Labour Of Love",
from which "Kingston Town" and "Homely Girl" were hits throughout
Europe, while "Here I Am" and "The Way You Do The Things You Do"
were similarly successful in the United States.
In the last decade, "Promises & Lies" brought us "I Can't Help
Falling In Love With You", the band's biggest American hit to
date, and "Guns In The Ghetto" included "Tell Me Is It True",
which featured in the film "Speed II". The UBs reaffirmed their
commitment to reggae with "UB40 Present The Dancehall Album",
a collaboration with leading Jamaican artists, some of which are
now recording for the Oracabessa label, founded by Ali and Brian.
There are now three volumes of "Labour Of Love", as the third
was released in 1998.
For twenty years, UB40 have continued the job of popularising
reggae around the globe. In the process, they continue to give
enormous pleasure to a public too vast to be defined by age, generation
tribe or fashion, Welcome to the party!