UB40 are a British reggae band formed in 1978 in Birmingham. The band has placed more than 50 singles in the UK Singles Chart, and has also achieved considerable international success. One of the world’s best-selling music artists, UB40 have sold over 70 million records.
Their No.1 hit singles include their first number 1 “Food For Thought” and two U.S. Billboard Hot 100 number ones with “Red Red Wine” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love”, while “I Got You Babe” also topped the UK singles chart.
The band members began as friends who knew each other from various schools across Birmingham. The name “UB40” was selected in reference to the document issued to people claiming unemployment benefit from the UK government’s Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS) at the time of the band’s formation. The designation UB40 stood for Unemployment Benefit, Form 40.
Brian Travers saved up and bought his first saxophone whilst working as an electrical apprentice for NG Bailey, leaving after a few years to become a founding member of UB40 alongside Jimmy Brown, Earl Falconer and Ali Campbell.
Before some of them could play their instruments, Ali Campbell and Brian Travers travelled around Birmingham promoting the band, putting up UB40 posters.
Their sound was created and honed through many long jam sessions at various locations in Birmingham. Their first gig took place on 9 February 1979 at The Hare & Hounds Pub in Kings Heath, Birmingham for a friend’s birthday party.
UB40 caught their first break when Chrissie Hynde noticed them at a pub and gave them an opportunity as a support act to her band, The Pretenders. UB40’s first single, “King”/”Food for Thought” was released on Graduate Records, a local independent label run by David Virr. It reached No. 4 on the UK Singles Chart.
Their first album was titled Signing Off, as the band were signing off from or closing their claim on the unemployment benefit. It was recorded in a bedsit in Birmingham and was produced by Bob Lamb. Norman Hassan said of the recording: “if you stripped my track down, you could hear the birds in the background.” This is because his tracks were recorded outside in the garden. Signing Off was released on 29 August 1980, and entered the UK Albums Chart on 2 October 1980. It reached as high as No. 2 in the UK and spent 71 weeks in total on the chart. Signing Off is now a Platinum album.
After great success in the UK, UB40’s popularity in the United States was established when they released Labour of Love, an album of cover songs, in 1983. The album reached No. 1 on the UK Albums Chart and No. 8 on the Billboard 200 in the US. The album featured the song “Red Red Wine”, a cover version of a Neil Diamond song (in an arrangement similar to that of Tony Tribe’s version); it stayed on the charts for over a hundred weeks. Three years later UB40 performed at the Birmingham Heart Beat Charity Concert 1986.
Their most successful worldwide single release is the cover of the Elvis Presley ballad “(I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You” which was the main title to the 1993 Sharon Stone movie Sliver and was a number one hit across Europe and in the US.
UB40 toured South Africa in July 2007 and headlined the Live Earth concert at the Cradle of Humankind, near Johannesburg. They performed one of the longest sets for the event at approximately 54 minutes.
On 21 August 2007, they performed with Cas Haley on the America’s Got Talent season finale.
On 24 January 2008 it was announced that Ali Campbell would be leaving the group after 30 years. It was originally stated that this was in order for Campbell to concentrate on solo projects, but Campbell later said he was leaving due to management and business disputes. The remaining seven members released a statement saying: “Ali made a very simple decision, he chose to pursue and put his solo career over and above continuing to work with UB40 after February 2008, it’s as simple as that”.
It was reported by some Birmingham newspapers on 13 March 2008, that Maxi Priest would be the new lead singer of UB40 and had recorded a cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” with the band, based on information from an unnamed “source close to the band.” Priest had joined UB40 on their arena tour in 2007, culminating in sell-out shows at the NEC Birmingham in December. Another local newspaper reporting that Maxi Priest would be the new UB40 frontman, also included a statement from band spokesman Gerard Franklyn which contradicted this claim: “Maxi is collaborating with the band to record material but there is no decision been made to replace Ali Campbell with one definitive singer. The reports are half correct he will be appearing with them for this new recording.” In April 2008, the BBC reported that Campbell was to be replaced in the band by his brother Duncan, with reggae singer Maxi Priest also bolstering the line-up on tour. Since Duncan Campbell joined UB40 as lead singer the band have carried on touring throughout the world to critical acclaim.
The band released their next album, TwentyFourSeven, UB40’s last with the original lineup, by way of a free insert in The Mail on Sunday’s 4 May 2008 issue. which sold nearly three million copies. This led to a backlash when the full 17 track version was released 21 June 2008, and most of the big retailers refused to stock it. It failed to reach the Top 75 in the UK, which was a first, as all their official albums had previously gone Top 50 on the UK Albums Chart. Their next release, on EMI, was a collection called Love Songs, which reached number 3 in the UK.
The band played numerous outdoor shows in the UK in 2008. They also toured the US, which included their first show at the Hollywood Bowl. During the 2009 U.S. Tour UB40 offered fans live concert recordings on USB wristbands. The wristbands also included the Dub Sessions remix album and photos.
On 12 June 2010, UB40 played a one-off concert to motor racing fans at the Le Mans 24 hour race. The playlist included Red Red Wine, Can’t Help Falling in Love and Kingston Town. UB40 announced that after completing a coast to coast 2010 American tour they will be playing a nationwide UK tour in October/November 2010 performing their seminal album ‘Signing Off’, in full, along with a second set of popular UB40 songs following an interval during which DJ Gold will be playing a UB40 dub set. To coincide, on 1 Nov 2010 a remastered 2CD+DVD of ‘Signing Off’ is released as a ’30th Anniversary Special Edition’
UB40 were influenced by the many blues parties they attended as teenagers in the multicultural Balsall Heath area of Birmingham. Their love of ska, reggae and early lovers rock inspired such original tracks as “King”, “Madam Medusa”, “Food for Thought”, “Signing Off” and “One in Ten”.
Their early musical style was unique, with a heavy influence of analogue synthesisers, psychedelic rock guitar, saxophone and dub producer techniques which were later perfected by Pablo Falconer.
The Campbell brothers are the sons of the folk musician, Ian Campbell
UB40 is one of the most commercially successful reggae acts of all time in terms of record sales (over 70 million), chart positions and touring schedule. During their three-decade long career, they have been performing sell-out shows worldwide and headlining the Reggae Sunsplash music festival in Jamaica, as well as spreading reggae to Russia, South America, etc. They have performed twice at the Night of the Proms, in 2000 and in 2006. In 2006 UB40 was nominated for a Grammy Award (Reggae category) for their album Who You Fighting For.
All three of their UK number one hits and four of their five U.S. top ten hits were cover versions.
UB40 collaborators include: Pato Banton, Madness, Bitty McLean, Chrissie Hynde, Maxi Priest, Robert Palmer, Hunterz, Japanese artist Mikidozan, French artist Nuttea, Lady Saw, Afrika Bambaataa, 808 State
The ethnic makeup of the band is diverse, with musicians of English, Scottish, Irish, Yemeni and Jamaican parentage. From the band’s 1978 inception through early 2008, UB40’s line-up was constant. In 2008 Ali Campbell left the band, followed shortly thereafter by Mickey Virtue, marking the first lineup change in the band’s history. Founding members are listed in bold.
- Robin Campbell – born 25 December 1954, Birmingham – lead guitar, vocals (1978–present)
- Earl Falconer – born 23 January 1957, Birmingham – bass guitar, vocals (1978–present)
- James (Jimmy) Brown – born 20 November 1957, Birmingham – drums (1978–present)
- Brian Travers – born 7 February 1959, Birmingham – saxophone, Lyricon, wind synth (1978–present)
- Astro – born Terence Wilson, 24 June 1957, Birmingham – toasting vocals, percussion, trumpet (1978–present)
- Norman Hassan (Arabic: نورمان حسن) – born 26 January 1958, Birmingham – percussion, trombone, vocals (1978–present)
- Tony Mullings – keyboards (2008–present)
- Duncan Campbell – vocals (2008–present)
- Martin Meredith – saxophone (1997–present) (live band member)
- Laurence Parry – trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone (1995–present) (live band member)
- Ali Campbell – born Alistair Campbell, 15 February 1959, Birmingham – guitar, lead vocals (1978–2008)
- Mickey Virtue – born Michael Virtue, 19 January 1957, Birmingham – keyboards (1978–2008)
- Patrick Tenyue – trumpet – (1983–94) (live band member)
- Henry Tenyue – trombone (1983–94) (live band member)
- Maxi Priest – vocals (2008) (live band member)