With musicians of English, Welsh, Irish, Jamaican, Scottish and Yemeni parentage, the group was an unusually multiracial affair from the start, but one representative of the mixed urban areas in which they grew up — the members mostly knew each other from various schools across Birmingham. They took their name from that of the UK's unemployment benefit form of the time, a sign towards the intensely politically-aware subject matter of their early material.
A first big break came when Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders saw them playing at a pub and gave them an opportunity to be a support act to her band, before in March 1980 their debut single "King"/"Food For Thought" was released and made no.4 in the UK charts. It was the first of four consecutive double-A-sided singles, all of which made the Top 20, across the next year and a quarter — a period that also saw their debut album Signing Off (the cover of which replicated a 'UB40' benefit form in its entirety) and its follow-up Present Arms (only 9 months later) each reach number 2 in the charts and firmly establish them as a major musical force. The latter album was also followed by a largely instrumental dub-style remix, Present Arms in Dub, which became the first dub reggae album ever to enter the UK top 40.
This rapid success culminated with "One In Ten" (a statistic referring to the approximately 10% of their local West Midlands workforce claiming unemployment benefit in the summer of 1981), another Top 10 single and enduring favourite. However late 1982's third 'proper' album UB44 went in and out of the charts quickly and its attendant singles saw a sharp dropoff from the band's earlier chart heights.
All changed though with the inspired decision, made when the group was pressed for material for their next LP, to record a Cover Album of reggae songs from 1969-72 that the members were already fond of. Although it dismayed some fans by turning away from their political themes to a 'softer' lovers' rock style, the resultant Labour of Love was an enormous commercial smash, becoming UB40's first UK chart-topper and spawning a Number One single with "Red Red Wine" — which the band had based on Jamaican-born singer Tony Tribe's reggaefied version, and were therefore stunned to learn (after the fact) had actually been originated by Neil Diamond.
This kicked off a second wave of success that spanned the rest of the decade, including a second UK Number One single with a cover of Sonny & Cher's iconic "I Got You Babe" in duet with old pal Chrissie Hynde. Five years after its success in the rest of the world, "Red Red Wine" even became an unexpected US Number One in 1988 when rereleased in the wake of UB40's performance at the televised 70th Birthday Concert for Nelson Mandela. They rounded off The '80s with a second hugely successful album of classic reggae covers, Labour of Love II, including the likes of worldwide smash hit "Kingston Town". Then, after a hiatus of four years, the band arguably climbed to their greatest commercial heights with 1993's Promises and Lies, a UK albums chart-topper for 6 weeks, and its leadoff single "(I Can't Help) Falling In Love With You" — a funked-up cover of the Elvis Presley standard that gave them a platinum UK and US Number One. A memorable second single "Higher Ground" also gave them a first self-penned UK Top 10 since 1986.
After this period however another four-year absence (during which singer Ali Campbell put out a well-received solo album, and he and brother Robin both appeared on Pato Banton's UK Number One single "Baby Come Back") seemed to see the band lose momentum and tip over the edge into 'heritage act' status. They were never again to make long-lasting impacts on the charts despite moderate success in the late '90s with next album Guns in the Ghetto and another set of covers on Labour of Love III, and the new millennium brought declining chart positions — although they received good reviews for returning to a more urgent, political sound on 2005's Who You Fighting For?.
Then, in 2008, a lineup that had been stable for nearly three decades finally splintered. Ali went solo following a dispute with band management, quickly followed out by keyboardist Mickey Virtue. The remainder of the group soldiered on, even keeping things in the family by bringing in Ali & Robin's younger brother Duncan Campbell as new lead singer, but the later defection of toaster/rapper/trumpeter Astro to join Ali and Virtue in 2013 saw the trio form a new act — confusingly, both groups have since laid claim to the UB40 name, which has led to some legal issues and ongoing bad blood.
In 2020 Duncan stepped down as vocalist of the original band for health reasons, being replaced by Matt Doyle, former singer of reggae band KIOKO. Brian Travers announced his retirement in June 2021 after a recurrence of brain cancer; he died on August 22 2021, aged 62. Virtue left the 'UB40 featuring Ali, Astro & Mickey' line-up in 2018. Astro died on November 6 2021, aged 64, leaving Ali's version of the band without any members other than himself.
UB40 are the most successfully reggae group in history: they have had over 50 singles chart in the UK charts and have sold over 70 million records worldwide.
Despite (or because) of this, they have long attracted scorn from critics, some of whom disdain the music as a Lighter and Softer version of the Caribbean original, and some of whom merely like to criticise them for making 'white' reggae... even though the band has always been a racial melting pot and all its members were immersed in the genre from childhood. The ultimate defence against this, meanwhile, has always been that those old-time reggae artists themselves love the band — because regardless of how authentic and well-regarded they may have been, many of them never saw any commercial success in their own careers. After UB40 covered their songs and sold millions, though, they got paid at last.
Principal Members (Founding members in bold, current members in italic):
- Yomi Babayemi – percussion (1978–1979)
- Jimmy Brown – drums (1978–present)
- Alistair "Ali" Campbell – guitar, vocals (1978–2008)
- Duncan Campbell – vocals (2008–2020)
- Robin Campbell – guitar, vocals (1978–present)
- Earl Falconer – bass guitar, vocals (1978–present)
- Norman Hassan – percussion, trombone, vocals (1978–present)
- Jimmy Lynn – keyboards (1978–1979)
- Brian Travers – saxophone (1978–2021; died 2021)
- Michael "Mickey" Virtue – keyboards (1979–2008)
- Terence "Astro" Wilson – percussion, trumpet, vocals (1979–2013; died 2021)
- Matt Doyle - vocals (2020-present)
- Signing Off (1980)
- Present Arms (1981)
- UB44 (1982)
- Labour of Love (1983)
- Geffery Morgan (1984)
- Baggariddim (1985)
- Rat in the Kitchen (1986)
- UB40 (1988)
- Labour of Love II (1989)
- Promises and Lies (1993)
- Guns in the Ghetto (1997)
- Labour of Love III (1998)
- Cover Up (2001)
- Homegrown (2003)
- Who You Fighting For? (2005)
- TwentyFourSeven (2008)
The discography splits here due to disputes over the band name:
- Labour of Love IV (2010)
- Getting Over the Storm (2013)
- For the Many (2019)
- Bigga Baggariddim (2021)
UB40 albums featuring Ali, Astro & Mickey
- Silhouette (credited to Ali Campbell reunited with Astro and Mickey) (2014)
- A Real Labour of Love (credited to UB40 featuring Ali, Astro and Mickey) (2018)
- Unprecedented (credited to UB40 featuring Ali Campbell & Astro) (2020)
UB40 provides examples of the following tropes:
- The Band Minus the Face: Played with since 2008, following Ali Campbell's departure and his replacement by his brother Duncan, then again in 2020 when Duncan had to step down for health reasons.
- Covered Up: Many songs covered by the band are better known to Western audiences than the originals. The Labour of Love albums are composed entirely of covers of songs that the band members grew up listening to.
- Especially notable is one of the band's breakthrough hits, "Red Red Wine" - their version is a cover (Tony Tribe's version) of a cover (Neil Diamond's original).
- Line-of-Sight Name: The band took its name from the Unemployment Benefit, Form 40, or UB40 for short, while the members were waiting in a dole queue to fill out their paperwork.
- Astro's nickname came from a pair of 'Astronaut'-model Dr Marten's boots he habitually wore as a child.
- Pretty Fly for a White Guy: Partly justified, since some of its members are actually of Afro-Caribbean descent, and the other members grew up amongst them.
- Protest Song: Before going radio-friendly, many of their early songs were about racial injustice and unemployment.
- Three Chords and the Truth: They were especially this early in their career, since they had just stepped off the dole queue (hence the band's name) and hadn't yet learned to play their instruments. They did, however, more than make up for it with uplifting enthusiasm.