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UB40 are a British reggae/pop band formed in 1978 in Birmingham, England. The band has had more than 50 singles in the UK Singles Chart, and has also achieved considerable international success. They have been nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album four times, and in 1984 were nominated for the Brit Award for Best British Group. One of the world's best-selling music artists, UB40 have sold over 70 million records.
Their hit singles include their debut "Food for Thought" and two US Billboard Hot 100 number ones with "Red Red Wine" and "Can't Help Falling in Love". Both of these also topped the UK Singles Chart, as did the band's version of "I Got You Babe".
The ethnic makeup of the band's original line-up was diverse, with musicians of English, Scottish, Irish, Yemeni and Jamaican parentage. The band's line-up remained unchanged for 30 years, from its formation in 1978 until January 2008, when frontman Ali Campbell left the band; followed shortly thereafter by keyboardist Mickey Virtue. Another member, Astro, remained with the band until November 2013; when he departed the original band to team up with Campbell and Virtue in a new version of UB40. In 2014, legal advice was sought by the original band (now consisting of remaining co-founding members drummer Jimmy Brown, guitarist Robin Campbell, bassist Earl Falconer, percussionist Norman Hassan, and saxophonist Brian Travers, along with new vocalist Duncan Campbell) against the group containing Campbell, Virtue, and Astro over usage of the band name, due to it being used by both parties.
1978–2008: Formation and rise to stardom
The band members began as friends who knew each other from various schools across Birmingham. The name "UB40" was selected in reference to the signing-on document issued to people claiming unemployment benefit from the UK government's Department of Employment at the time of the band's formation. The designation UB40 stood for Unemployment Benefit, Form 40.The UB40 no longer exists, although the term is still well understood to refer to unemployment claims in the UK.
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 Astro, James Brown, Ali Campbell, Robin Campbell, Earl Falconer, Norman Hassan and Mickey Virtue. Astro had been working for Duke Alloy's sound system attending reggae dances in Birmingham. Robin Campbell had been an apprentice toolmaker.
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. This was commemorated in October 2011 by the unveiling of a plaque at the venue, indicating the band receiving the Performing Rights Society's Music Heritage Award.
UB40 caught their first break when Chrissie Hynde saw 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.
The title of their first album, Signing Off, indicates the band was signing off from, or ending, their claim for unemployment benefits. 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. It 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. As UB40 grew in popularity, they encouraged and supported local musicians and bands from Birmingham, such as Beshara, often bringing them on tour.
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 100 weeks. Three years later UB40 performed at the Birmingham Heart Beat Charity Concert 1986.
In 1987 Ray "Pablo" Falconer, producer of UB40 music, died in a car crash. His brother, Earl Falconer, the band's bassist, was driving with nearly twice the legal limit of alcohol in his blood. Earl was sentenced to six months' imprisonment in June 1988 and banned from driving for three years.
Their most successful worldwide single release is their reggae/pop version of "(I Can't Help) Falling in Love With You", which was the main title to the 1993 Sharon Stone movie Sliver. It was a number one hit across Europe and in the US and in 1995, they covered the Stevie Wonder song "Superstition" for the Eddie Murphy movie Vampire in Brooklyn and it appears on their album The Best of UB40 – Volume Two which they released that year. The group also made a guest appearance in the 1997 feature film Speed 2: Cruise Control. UB40 is featured in the 1988 film The Yob.
UB40 toured South Africa in July 2007 and headlined the Live Earth concert at the Cradle of Humankind, near Johannesburg.
2008-present: Line-up changes and the current era
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". Mickey Virtue departed shortly afterwards citing the same issues that Campbell had as reasons for his departure.
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.
The band released their next album, TwentyFourSeven, UB40's last with the original line-up, by way of a free insert in The Mail on Sunday's 4 May 2008 issue. The newspaper 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 made the Top 50 on the UK Albums Chart. Their next release, on EMI, was a collection called Love Songs, which was a compilation of hits mainly from the Labour of Love series and all featuring Ali Campbell on vocals – it reached number 3 in the UK. The band toured the US, which included their first show at the Hollywood Bowl. During the 2009 US Tour UB40 offered fans live concert recordings on USB wristbands. The wristbands also included the Dub Sessions remix album and photos.
In 2009 the band released the first new album with their new lead singer Duncan Campbell; another in the Labour of Love cover series entitled Labour of Love IV. The album was in the charts for only two weeks reaching number 24.
UB40 announced that after completing a coast-to-coast 2010 American tour they would be playing a nationwide UK tour of theatres in October/November 2010 performing their seminal album Signing Off, in full, along with a second set of popular UB40 songs. To coincide, on 1 November 2010 a remastered 2CD+DVD of Signing Off was released as a '30th Anniversary Special Edition'.
In 2011 five founder members of the group and directors of their DEP International label, had bankruptcy proceedings started against them relating to debts of the record label. In October 2011 Travers, Wilson, Hassan and Brown were declared bankrupt. Former member Ali Campbell was also declared bankrupt. In 2013 a new album, Getting Over the Storm was announced, their first since 2010 and Labour of Love IV.
In November 2013, UB40 revealed dates in anticipation of their UK Tour in Spring 2014. The announcement of the tour follows the success of the band's latest Top 30 album, Getting Over The Storm, which was awarded BBC Radio 2's 'Album of the Week' accolade and received 5-star reviews from the UK's music press on its release in September 2013. However, on 22 November 2013 Astro announced in a statement that he had left the band, describing it as a "rudderless ship" and criticising the "serious lack of communication between the band and management" and the country-orientated direction of their latest album. Astro joined former UB40 members Ali Campbell and Mickey Virtue on stage at the indigO2 Arena in London on 6 December 2013, and on 17 January 2014 the trio announced on their website that they were in the studio recording new music. Ali Campbell was highly critical of his replacement in UB40, stating "I sat back for five years and watched my brother Duncan murdering my songs." Ali Campbell toured as UB40 with Astro and Virtue over the summer, including an appearance at the Brentwood Festival. The new album Silhouette, featuring the trio is now set for release on 6 October 2014.
In September 2014 the band served writs against Ali Campbell, Virtue, and Astro, claiming that they were illegally using the UB40 name. The case is due to be heard in November. In December 2014 Ali Campbell claimed that he would be prepared to go to the High Court over the matter rather than settle out of court.
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.
The Campbell brothers are the sons of the late folk musician, Ian Campbell. Their father regularly took them to folk festivals and gigs and introduced them to music and to touring. It was at his father's folk club "Jug O' Punch" that Ali Campbell made his singing debut with Dave Swarbrick's daughter, Suss, singing "Why Does It have To Be Me?".
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 US 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.