Say the name UB40 to most people and they’ll probably either say “Red Red Wine” or comment on the very public falling out between Ali Campbell and his former bandmates, which has split this once unified camp into two separate factions, namely UB40, made up of five original members plus vocalist Duncan Campbell, and UB40 Reunited featuring founding members Ali Campbell, Mickey Virtue and Astro.
But there is so much more to these Birmingham-born purveyors of reggae than that. Back in the early 1980s, this bunch of mates, who had previously been languishing on the dole, burst on to the pop music scene with their stunning debut,Signing Off, a politically-charged album of self-penned social commentary that remains an all-time classic.
To the dismay of some, but to the delight of others, UB40 later abandoned their stripped-down reggae sound, complete with biting lyrics, for a more pop-friendly style, probably best exemplified of course by the aforementioned “Red Red Wine.” Now for the first time ever, two of the albums that clearly demonstrate this rather momentus shift are to be released as a three-CD set and a two-LP vinyl set.
The first of these is the group’s second album, released in 1981, Present Arms and its ambitious companion piece, Present Arms in Dub. Revered by fans almost as much as its illustrious predecessor, Present Arms continued to openly and passionately address the burning issues of the day from the band’s collective point-of-view.
Opening track “Present Arms” remains, in my opinion, one of UB40’s most outstanding tunes and is immediately followed by the still-mesmerising, low-key groove of “Sardonicus.” “Don’t Let It Pass You By” incorporates the electronic sound effects that appeared on much of UB40’s early material and also makes effective use of Astro’s toasting skills.
“One in Ten” addresses the issue of unemployment at the time and was a Top 10 hit in the UK, while the beautiful “Don’t Slow Down” offers up a pleasing, summer-esque vibe. Other highlights include “Silent Witness” (memorably covered by Brent Dowe on 2002’s UB40 Present the Fathers of Reggae) and the last track, “Dr. X.”
New tracks on the Deluxe Edition include a 12 inch version of “Don’t Slow Down,” plus songs from a BBC Radio 1 concert, entitled Live from the Paris Theatre, and sessions recorded for the very same radio station, both of which are from 1981.
Two years and two albums after Present Arms and Present Arms in Dub came Labour of Love, beginning a long-running trend for the band taking other artists’ material and making it their own. In fact over time, it has often been forgotten that a number of their most popular songs were actually originals, not covers.
Anyway, when listening to opening track, the positively upbeat “Cherry Oh Baby,” it is clear that this was a new, more polished and less-politically motivated UB40, a UB40 still with their charm intact, who would soon go international thanks largely to this excellent album and its well-chosen singles, “Red Red Wine,” (number one in the UK and in the US), “Cherry Oh Baby,” “Please Don’t Make Me Cry” and “Many Rivers to Cross.”
Although, as previously stated, some fans disliked this new direction, the breakthrough success of Labour of Love undoubtedly set them on course to becoming one of the biggest bands of the ’80s, ’90s and beyond, regularly visiting the charts and selling out stadiums all over the world.
If that wasn’t enough Rolling Stone magazine later put Labour of Love at number 98 on their list of The 100 Greatest Albums of the ‘80s. Not bad for a group of lads from humble backgrounds who taught themselves to play their instruments in a cellar before recording their first album in a ground floor flat.
Special features this time include seven inch versions of “Red Red Wine” and “Many Rivers to Cross,” a dub mix of “Cherry Oh Baby” and an ‘Unexpurgated Version’ (whatever that means!) of track five, “Johnny Too Bad,” an infectious number sung by the group’s percussionist, Norman Hassan.
Some people who already own these records might see little point in purchasing these “new and improved” versions, but for hardcore fans and band completists, these are a must.
Present Arms Deluxe Edition and Labour of Love Deluxe Edition will be available from March 2nd 2015 and can be pre-ordered here.