Reggae engine drives pop power of UB40

UB40, the multiracial British band that took its name from an unemployment form, has pumped out infectious Caribbean rhythms, sweet vocal harmonies and tightly textured instrumentals for 20 years. Stylish reinterpretations of Neil Diamond's "Red, Red Wine" and Sonny and Cher's "I Got You, Babe" have led the former Birmingham, England, schoolmates up the charts.

But that hasn't stopped naysayers from questioning the band's integrity. Rolling Stone bashed the group's latest release, "Labour of Love III": "Despite their radical origins in the London punk scene, UB40 have proved to be the Huey Lewis, not Huey Newton, of international reggae sounds."

"We're a pop band that has very strong reggae influences," says saxophonist Brian Travers. "It's our English-y version of it. Our personal tastes go deeper and darker, but we understand what we are, where we're from. As UB40, we enjoy the audience we've got."

The members of UB40 -- centered around lead singer Ali Campbell and his guitar-playing brother Robin -- were drawn to the Caribbean sounds of their lower-class environs, unlike some of their punk-loving friends. "The neighborhood we came from was primarily West Indian, and that's the music we'd hear in the cafes and bars: Gregory Isaacs, Bob Marley, Dennis Brown," Travers says. "We were just emulating the stuff that we were listening to."

It was a do-it-yourself approach to making music that organized UB40. Travers, the Campbells, toaster Astro Wilson, drummer James Brown, bassist Earl Falconer, percussionist Norman Hassan and keyboardist Mickey Virtue decided to put together a band, bought instruments and learned how to play. In approximately that order.

"We probably wouldn't have had the `gumption` if that punk thing wasn't going on," Travers says. "Anybody could start a band. ... You didn't have to be that good to get an audience. We left school at 16 and couldn't get jobs. We sat in a cellar for a year, with everybody copying Dennis Brown or Bim Sherman records. We really didn't have a clue. I didn't even know that saxophone was tuned in B-flat."

What they lacked in experience they made up for with enthusiasm, giving their first public performance in February 1979, playing on radio legend John Peel's show in early 1980 and supporting the Pretenders on a U.K. tour. Experience led to a commercial breakthrough with "Red, Red Wine," from 1983's "Labour of Love." They struck again with the platinum-selling 1993 "Promises and Lies" disc and the No. 1 smash "(I Can't Help) Falling in Love With You."

"When we did 'Red, Red Wine,' we didn't even know it was a Neil Diamond song," Travers says. "In the '60s and early '70s a lot of Jamaican artists covered his songs. 'Red, Red Wine' we knew through Tony Tribes. 'Holly Holy' `a Diamond track on the new disc` we knew through the Fabulous Flames. `The "Labour" albums` are not really tributes to the artists. It's to the songs."

"On Labour of Love III" the band takes on Marley's "Soul Rebel," Tosh's pro-pot anthem "Legalize It" plus cuts by the Melodians, Freddy McGregor and the Mighty Diamonds, among others.

"When we did the first one, we drew up a list of songs, something like 300 tunes," Travers says. "We did the first album of the ones we could play. We were just young musicians. We didn't know a great deal. The second album we played some that were a little harder. For this album, we recorded 27 songs from the list, and I think 15 made it. Genuinely, to us it's about the songs and about how good the tunes are."

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