Thursday, 9 April 2009

1983 UB40: Red Red Wine

As unlikely a credit behind a reggae hit as you are ever going to find, Mr Neil Diamond was the writer of 'Red Red Wine'. And he wrote it as a typically brooding, overwrought ballad for him to angst all over as if the end of the world was imminent. Which, to be fair, is what Neil does best. Tony Tribe gave it a rocksteady makeover in 1969 and it's this version that UB40 based their single on rather than Diamond's (which they claim not to have heard previously), making it a cover version twice removed. If you see what I mean.

In Tribe's hands, 'Red Red Wine' plays as a musically fast skank with his voice closely mimicking Diamond's original guide vocal. This results in it sitting so far behind the beat that it's constantly playing catch up. It literally sounds like it was intended for a different tune altogether. UB40 redress the balance by slowing down the rhythm to match the speed of the vocal so that both run in harmony. The only major departure from both these versions is the:

"Red red wine you really know how fi love

Your kind of loving like a blessing from above"

rap/toast shoehorned in toward the end and which stands out awkwardly and is as welcome as finding a hair in your food; it's neither needed nor wanted and only serves to disrupt the 'till then grooving ambience of a song
that tells the familiar tale of trying to drown a departed lover's memory in alcohol. And the tale was ably illustrated with a memorable black and white video that had Ali Campbell on a night out that boiled down to him getting robbed and then ejected from a pub for getting too pissed after seeing his ex with another bloke. It's not your typical reggae scenario, but by updating the message of the song in a visual way that everyman in the UK could relate to, the whole mood and theme of the song was effectively presented in an empathetic third dimension that undoubtedly helped it's popularity far more than it would had they filmed something on a sunny Jamaican beach.

So, emotive and evocative, but in the final analysis 'Red Red Wine' remains reggae by numbers, and somebody else's numbers at that. And why shouldn't it? The track is from the band's 'Labour Of Love' album, a set of cover versions of the Jamaican music they'd grown up with and it's unlikely that anyone could have imagined the nerve that 'Red Red Wine' struck and it becoming the success that it did. Had it been a minor hit or remained solely an album track then I would have had more sympathy, a lot more in fact because although the song itself would remain the same, the effect of 'Red Red Wine''s success on UB40 would be long term and damaging.

In a nutshell, the first eight singles from the group were all self composed, topically hard hitting songs of social injustice, unemployment and unrest that would have struck a chord with any fan of the Two Tone movement. From 'Red Red Wine' on, the motherlode of formulas was struck and from here on in cover versions would be the rule rather than the expectation and 'Labour Of Love' was eventually stretched into three volumes of ever diminishing returns until the seam was picked clean.

True enough, workaday versions of Elvis Presley ballads will always have a far more universal appeal and make far more money than something like 'One In Ten' ever would, but the direction sucked the heart and soul out of a once angry band and turned their music into ideal fodder for the casual 'oh I like that one' brigade at the filling station and the supermarket checkout.
'Red Red Wine' marks the year zero, the precise point that the terminal rot set in and the moment the once angry dog was castrated to leave it happy and content to spend it's days on a rug in front of the fire licking it's own balls for pleasure instead of putting them to better use. And with credible white reggae acts a rare commodity, that is a terrible shame.

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