UB40’s mass appeal from the 1980s onwards, and their move into a more comfortable pop-reggae niche as the years went on, sometimes means that the strength of their early albums is overlooked. This is a mistake as there is power and authenticity in these early albums. These two ‘deluxe’ releases revisit ‘Present Arms’ (their second album, initially released in 1981) and ‘Labour of Love’ (their fourth album, released in 1983, which would bring them mass international success).
For this re-release, each album is issued as a 3-CD collection. ‘Present Arms’ is accompanied for the first time by ‘Present Arms in Dub’, originally issued a few months after the parent vocal album. The music within is well-known. Highlights on disc 1 include the striking sound of still-relevant ‘One in Ten’, ‘Don’t Let it Pass You By’, and the welcome addition of the 12” version of ‘Don’t Slow Down’, which curiously enough does slow down to take us into a great extended dub fadeout. Disc 2 is ‘Present Arms in Dub’. This previously seemed a little disappointing in its interpretation of dub, but now sounds more impressive, perhaps through the improvement in sound quality or the simple passage of time. The dub of ‘One in Ten’, and the classic bass line of the closing track ‘Neon Haze’ (the dub of ‘Silent Witness’), are as good as ever. Disc 3 adds something different in the shape of live BBC radio sessions from 1981. These begin at a cracking pace with (again) ‘One in Ten’ but there are also performances of tracks from the their first album ‘Signing Off’ including ‘Food for Thought’ and ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’, the latter as part of a closing run-together of three tracks. The production of these songs is excellent. Whatever view you take of UB40’s latter-day output, or which current incarnation of the band you favour, there is some great reggae music here, sharp and politically informed, mirroring some of the urban anger of the Specials’ output of the time.
‘Labour of Love’ was even more of a commercial breakthrough for UB40, and, unusually for a reggae band, charted highly in the USA as well as the UK. It consisted wholly of covers, not only of classic reggae songs like ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ but also of less likely targets such as Neil Diamond’s ‘Red Red Wine’ (which had previously been performed in a reggae style by Tony Tribe). Disc 1 is the original album, featuring the long version of ‘Red Red Wine’ and a good account of Dandy Livingstone’s (aka Boy Friday’s) ‘Version Girl’ although it ultimately sounds a little thin in comparison with Livingstone’s rugged DJ-ing take on the song. Disc 2 features ‘singles and B sides’ and there is interesting music here, including strong dubs of ‘Sufferin’ and ‘Cherry Oh Baby’, a live version of ‘Food for Thought’ and a different version of ‘Johnny Too Bad’ from that on Disc 1. The third disc is composed of BBC live tracks from 1983 and 1984, including the sweet but neglected single ‘Love is All is Alright’.
There would of course be ‘Labour of Love’ volumes II and III in later years, and the commercial appeal of covers would be evident in single hits like ‘I Got You Babe’ and ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ but something of the spark of a creative band started to be lost with this immersion in crossover pop reggae. But that original sound is still there in these ‘deluxe’ releases. What would be even better? Maybe an album-set consisting wholly of 12” versions as originally released, ideally including ‘The Earth Dies Screaming’ where unusually the instrumental dub precedes rather than follows the vocal track; or the lengthy dub takes on ‘I Think it’s Going to Rain Today’ or ‘Dream a Lie’, or the hard-to-get- hold-of 12” version of ‘King’. If that release ever happens you’ll hear about it here.
UB40 are touring in the UK in May and June 2015.
UB40 ‘Present Arms’ and ‘Labour of Love’, each available as 3-CD Deluxe Editions and also as 2-LP 180g vinyl, released 2nd March 2015.