Over time, UB40’s melodic take on reggae music has become the dominating voice of pop reggae in the United States. Somehow, the group of blonde-haired Brits and dread-locked rasta rockers have managed to stay true to reggae’s roots, while gaining a landslide of popularity on mainstream Top 40 radio.
And those recognizable rhythms will be flowing from the Celebrity Showroom at John Ascuaga’s Nugget tonight.
Although the band has gained popularity in the past 20 years in the Unites States with Billboard hits like “Red Red Wine” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” their beginnings were a little obscure. The group of friends met at colleges around Birmingham, sharing a love of reggae. Their leap from the pubs of England to the national stage came on the heels of British rock band The Pretenders, for whom UB40 opened in the early 1980s. Their first big hit, “King,” seemed to be a favorite with local audiences, according to the band’s Web site. The slow ballad was a tribute to the martyred Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. However, it was “Food for Thought,” a reggae reflection on the stark realities of third-world starvation, that reached No. 4 on the U.K. Singles Charts.
The group’s first album, “Signing Off,” was extremely raw. Band member Norman Hassan has been quoted as saying “If you stripped my track down, you could hear the birds in the background.” This is because the tracks were recorded outside in the garden. “Signing Off” was released on Sept. 6, 1980 and reached as high as No. 2 in the U.K. and spent 72 weeks in total on the chart. “Signing Off” has since gone platinum.
The album’s name was an appropriate throwback to the band’s title, as signing off in Britain means giving up your unemployment benefits.
With instruments purchased with settlement money one member gained from a bar fight gone wrong, the group of 10 traveled about Europe gaining popularity.
It was Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond and the album “Labour of Love” that brought the band across the Atlantic to the ears of Americans.
“Labour,” the band’s eighth album, was a compilation of covers, included a remake of Diamond’s “Red Red Wine,” which catapulted the group to No. 1 on both the U.K. and U.S. charts.
In a 1997 review of the album, Rolling Stone magazine writer J.D. Considine said, “When a remake succeeds that well, it’s the result of more than talent and planning; it is truly the fruits of a Labour of Love.”
After that the group was almost constantly in the Top 50 on the U.K. charts.
But after “Labour of Love,” the band didn’t make another appearance in the Top 10 spot on the U.S. charts for seven years. Then “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” put them at No. 7 in the United States charts. That hit was immediately followed by “The Way you do the Things you do” and 1993’s remake of the Elvis song “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
All of the hits resonated with U.S. listeners as they put a new spin on the ballads of Elvis Presley and The Temptations.
“UB40 has a sound wholly its own,” Considine said in the same 1997 review. “The group draws as much from R&B and contemporary British pop as from standard Jamaican fare, and it’s this catholic approach that makes it all worthwhile.”
Other Rolling Stone critics have hailed the group as one of the few successful crossovers, bringing reggae sounds to mass appeal.
“UB40 earned its status as Britain’s most popular reggae act not because the group is racially mixed or homegrown but because it has consistently taken a pop-friendly approach to the music,” The Rolling Stone Album guide stated in 2004. “That’s not to denigrate UB40’s way with riddim, for the group has done a remarkable job in keeping up with the changes in reggae over the decades. But however supple or insinuating the beat, it’s Ali Campbell’s warm tenor and the group’s melody-centered songwriting that make UB40 consistently worth hearing.”
However, audiences will not see the famed Campbell tonight at the Nugget. Campbell left the group in early 2008. According to an official release from the band, “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.”
However, Campbell has said in recent interviews that he left because of bad management issues.
On June 21, Ali plays the Clyde Auditorium in Glasgow to launch his solo album, “Flying High.” He’ll perform new songs, plus classic UB40 hits such as “Red Red Wine,” and “I Got You Babe.”
Although Campbell’s voice is what fans associate with the band’s glory days in the early 1990s, they have maintained their core idea: Keep melodies flowing and the beat steady.
UB40 plays tonight in the Celebrity Showroom at 8 p.m. Tickets are $69 and are still available by calling (800) 648-1177 or 356-3300 or by visiting www.janugget.com. Dinner and show packages are available.