Labour of Love, by Britain's UB40, was exactly that: an enjoyable way of paying tribute to the reggae tunes that meant the most to the band members when they were growing up. The ten numbers they chose to cover from among hundreds they knew and loved were originally recorded between 1969 and 1972 — a period that corresponded to the band members' early exposure to reggae at weekend-long parties in the ethnic neighborhood of Balsall Heath, in their hometown of Birmingham.
In the Sixties, the term reggae was used interchangeably with bluebeat, ska and rock steady. It was Jamaican pop music, meant for dancing. "In those days," read Labour of Love's liner notes, "reggae appealed not to the intellect or the social conscience, but to the heart and hips." Although UB40's own material has often been topical, the group felt that the historical perception of reggae as purely political music was off base, and Labour of Love was its way of setting the record straight.
"It's African and calypso rhythms fused together with American rhythm & blues," says guitarist Robin Campbell. "All it's ever been is homemade pop music, and it just gets up my nose when people start talking about reggae as a political or religious music."
The group chose material ranging from the well known (Jimmy Cliff's classic "Many Rivers to Cross") to the unknown (Winston Groovey's "Please Don't Make Me Cry"). UB40's lilting rhythms, uncluttered arrangements and sweet, soulful vocals proved irresistible, and Labour of Love helped break UB40, which had been famous in Europe since 1980, in the U.S.
Through a convoluted string of events, "Red Red Wine" — written by Neil Diamond, covered by Tony Tribe and rediscovered by UB40 — became a Number One hit in 1988, four years after its first appearance on Labour of Love. The album also reentered the charts, doing better the second time around and outselling the band's then-current release, simply titled UB40. "I think it's purely the fact that American radio is now prepared to play reggae, whereas before it wasn't," Campbell says of UB40's long-overdue recognition in the States.
Sax player Brian Travers claims that UB40 may someday do a second volume of reggae covers. "We're going to do another version when we get the chance, just to preserve them," he says. "We do it because the originals are such a turn-on."