526. ‘Red Red Wine’, by UB40

If writing blog posts on the past five hundred and twenty-six UK #1s has taught me anything – and I’m not sure that it really has – then it is this: I like reggae…

Red Red Wine, by UB40 (their 1st of three #1s)

3 weeks, from 28th August – 18th September 1983

I was never that convinced by the genre, having spent too much time in beach bars on holiday, where the same dull ‘reggae chill-out’ playlists are looped year on year. But tracking the genre’s progress, from Desmond Dekker, past ‘Double Barrell’, Johnny Nash and Althea & Donna, to last year’s Reggae Autumn, I realise that I’ve enjoyed most of it. And when this record’s slow-shuffling rhythm kicks in, my heart does a little flip…

Red, red wine… Goes to my head… It’s a song about drinking, which is usually a good thing, even if it is about drinking away your misery… Just one thing, Makes me forget… Red, red wine… It’s laid-back, it’s cool, the chimes in the background sound like my school bell. It’s a bit lightweight, I guess, if you wanted to nit-pick, but it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

The video ties in with the theme, set as it is in a pub. The band order beers, though, not red, red wine. I suppose it would have been a bit of a stretch, in 1983, to have a bunch of Birmingham lads ordering bottles of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Sadly, though, this #1 isn’t heralding a second consecutive Reggae Autumn. Unlike in 1982, when we went from Musical Youth, to Culture Club, to Eddy Grant, this is an isolated outbreak.

UB40 had been around since the end of the seventies, and were no strangers to the Top 10 in the early eighties. Their name famously derives from the form used to sign-on for benefits at the time (Unemployment Benefit, Form 40). I suppose their early fans might have viewed their first chart-topping hit as a bit of a sell-out moment, lacking the edge of some of their earlier hits, but I have no such history with the band and am enjoying it!

I have to admit, though, my shock in discovering that this isn’t the original version of ‘Red Red Wine’. OK, the fact it’s a cover doesn’t shock me… The fact that it was written in the first place by the famously un-reggae Neil Diamond, does. UB40 didn’t base their cover on his country-ish ballad, but on Jamaican singer Tony Tribe’s version from a couple of years later. Diamond, though, loves these takes on his original, and often performs it live in a reggae style nowadays.

There is an six-minute, extended version of this record, featuring an extended toast/rap from band member Astro (who sadly passed away just last year), but I doubt many people have heard it. That version does start to outstay its welcome… Perhaps, though, it explains the record’s belated success in the US. (It wouldn’t reach #1 there for another five years, until UB40 performed it at a concert for Nelson Mandela.)

They’ll be back on top of the charts shortly, UB40. In fact, they have a pretty impressive span between their three chart-toppers (almost a decade), and are tied with Madness for the most weeks on the UK charts in the 1980s. Impressive longevity. I’ll finish with a joke (not an original one, sadly, but still…) If you were one year old when this record came out, UB40 now…

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46 thoughts on “526. ‘Red Red Wine’, by UB40

  1. Right away, “Red Red Wine” annoys the hell out of me with Ali Campbell’s nasally and whiny singing voice and the cheap reggae production that sounds like a karaoke backing track. The whole story is honestly much more interesting to me than the song itself. The song’s journey is already weird before you get into its delayed success in America as a #1 hit in October 1988 so much so that it was the inspiration for the first episode of one of my favorite podcasts Hit Parade. The Neil Diamond original charted at #62 while UB40’s cover peaked at #34 upon its initial 1983 release which is pretty solid considering how reggae-adverse the Hot 100 usually is. But the real spark for its rise to #1 five years later is a DJ in Pheonix refusing to play their “Breakfast In Bed” cover with Chrissy Hynde feeling “Red Red Wine” should’ve been a bigger hit so started playing it leading to other stations catching on and UB40’s label A&M reissuing it as a single in the US. In Tom Breihan’s review, he points out a big part of its renewed success is Americans in 1988 being very into tropical sounding vacation considering it hit #1 in the same fall when the two songs from the Cocktail movie, “Don’t Worry Be Happy” and “Kokomo,” were #1 hits. From there, “Red Red Wine” kicked off a weird late-’80s trend of radio people reviving songs from the recent past with some becoming bigger hits including another #1 a few months later with the six-year-old power ballad “When I’m With You” from the Canadian band Sheriff, a band already broken up by then. Breihan also points out that in terms of the US charts, “Red Red Wine” was probably the most reggae #1 up to that point, ““Red Red Wine” is a distinctly pop version of reggae, made by a half-white band from the UK. But reggae was always more closely entwined with the British charts than the Hot 100, and UB40 were a full-time reggae band. They were fully immersed in the genre, and they never tried to venture outside it. Instead, they brought pop sounds — and, increasingly, actual mainstream pop songs — into reggae. The success of “Red Red Wine” helped clear the lane for Jamaican artists to score American chart-toppers, something that would start happening in the ’90s.”

  2. In their day, they were one of my favourite bands an have seen them ‘live’ a few times. It’s so sad, the brothers going their separate ways and in that manner. But even though Red red Wine and other covers that followed weren’t as ‘hard reggae’ as their own early stuff, it provided an easily accessible route into the genre for others.

    (I have too say though, that Astro’s ‘toasting’ on the extended version is fantastic. I was sad enough to learn the words myself!) 🙂

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  4. I’ve also seen UB40 live a couple of times and with Chrissie Hynde to boot. Good throughout their career and as they all grew up in the same area on reggae music its totally fine they would be inspired by it and do a covers album of their fave oldies. Yes im a purist who prefers their own songs up to this point of their career, the fab Food For Thought the political One In Ten especially but I never begrudge them a bit of global pop reggaecover promo. Even if I prefer Many Rivers To Cross to Red Red Wine of the hits off Labour Of Love m’self…

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