The Number Ones

October 15, 1988

The Number Ones: UB40’s “Red Red Wine”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.


“Red Red Wine” had a wild ride. The UK band UB40 first released the single in 1983. At the time, UB40 didn’t even realize they were covering a song from cheese-pop master Neil Diamond. Their version was a cover of a cover, intended as a salute to a beloved reggae oldie. In its original form, “Red Red Wine” became UB40’s first #1 hit in their homeland, and it did respectably well on the American charts. But “Red Red Wine” didn’t truly become a smash in America until nearly five years later, when a pop-radio program director, unsatisfied with the new music he was getting, went rogue and threw the song into rotation.

UB40’s label had to scramble to keep up with this new demand for a half-forgotten song, and “Red Red Wine” ultimately became the most straight-up reggae song that had ever reached #1 in America. By the time “Red Red Wine” topped the US charts, the song’s co-producer was dead. “Red Red Wine” might be a simple song, but its trip to #1 was very, very complicated. Lots of elements went into the song’s eventual triumph: Musical evolutions, shifting tastes, random happenstance, and the sort of music-business maverick shit that simply could not happen today. That song had a journey.

The “Red Red Wine” journey starts in 1967. At the time, Neil Diamond was an up-and-coming Brill Building songwriter who was also starting to make some noise as a solo artist. A year earlier, Diamond had landed his first-ever top-10 hit when the garage-rock rave-up “Cherry Cherry” peaked at #6. (It’s a 10.) He’d also just scored his first-ever chart-topper as a songwriter; the Monkees’ version of the Diamond-written “I’m A Believer” hit #1 on the last day of 1966. Diamond had written “I’m A Believer” for himself, and he included his own version of the track on his second solo album, 1967’s Just For You. That same album, which Diamond recorded with Brill Building greats Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich as producers, included the original version of “Red Red Wine.”

Diamond wrote “Red Red Wine” from the perspective of a heartbroken man who can only forget the love he’s lost with the help of the titular beverage. (Diamond’s first #1 hit as a solo artist, 1970’s “Cracklin’ Rosie,” is about the same thing, more or less.) In its original form, “Red Red Wine” is a stately weeper. Diamond belts out these lyrics about his own misfortunes while strings and organs and rhythm-guitar clicks murmur consolingly. The song wasn’t a hit; released as a single in 1968, it peaked at #62. But “Red Red Wine” went out into the world, and it found its way.

When they recorded their version of “Red Red Wine,” UB40 had never heard Neil Diamond’s original, and they didn’t even know that he’d written the song. Instead, UB40 thought they were paying tribute to Tony Tribe, a Jamaican rocksteady singer who’d recorded his own version of “Red Red Wine” in 1969. Tribe had turned “Red Red Wine” into an uptempo dance number — less of a sulk, more of a celebration. His version of the song was a minor hit in the UK, where it peaked at #46. That’s the version that UB40 knew. Tony Tribe never got much of a chance to make an impact beyond that one single; he died in a car accident in 1970.

Years later, UB40 percussionist and vocalist Astro said, “Even when we saw the writing credit, which said ‘N. Diamond,’ we thought it was a Jamaican artist called Negus Diamond or something.” The eight members of UB40 grew up listening to reggae in Birmingham, a working-class English town with a big West Indian population. The members of the biracial band had all grown up loving reggae; the music had been part of their environment. They became a band after singer Ali Campbell got a glass smashed into his face in a barfight on his 17th birthday. Campbell got a corneal implant and 90 stitches, and he spent a month in the hospital. The UK has a thing called Criminal Injuries Compensation, where victims of violent crimes get payouts from the government. Campbell used that money to buy some instruments, and UB40 started.

Campbell put the band together with his brother Robin and with a whole crew of his childhood friends. They named themselves after the form — Unemployment Benefits form 40 — that broke young people would use to sign up for the dole. The band members were mostly unemployed when they started, and that name works as a kind of sly statement of working-class solidarity. UB40 played their first show at a Birmingham pub in 1979, and they’d only been a band for a few months when Pretenders leader Chrissie Hynde saw them play a London pub. She invited UB40 to tour the UK as the Pretenders’ opening act, singlehandedly yanking them out of obscurity. (In the US, the Pretenders’ highest-charting single is 1982’s “Back On The Chain Gang,” which peaked at #5. It’s an 8.)

While touring with the Pretenders, UB40 released a double-sided indie single, “King” b/w “Food For Thought,” which took off in the UK, reaching #4. UB40 had showed up at the exact right moment; their sound and working-class leftist perspective fit perfectly with the British pop zeitgeist. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, groups like the Specials and the Beat were playing around with early-’60s Jamaican ska, and they were scoring huge UK hits. (That whole two-tone movement never took off in the US; the only real hit from any of the British ska bands was Madness’ “Our House,” which is not a ska song and which peaked at #7 on the Hot 100. It’s a 7.) UB40 played reggae, not ska, but their whole approach and lyrical focus wasn’t too far from what those bands were doing. Within a couple of years, UB40 cranked out two albums and sent four singles into the UK top 10.

None of UB40’s early singles charted in the US, and their third album, 1982’s UB44, didn’t do as well in the UK as its predecessors. But UB40 turned their fortunes around with 1983’s Labour Of Love, a collection of covers. That album, recorded when UB40 didn’t have enough new originals to make a whole new record of their own, was made up entirely of the band’s versions of reggae classics from the late ’60s and early ’70s. UB40 wanted to bring pop attention to this music that they loved, and they had no idea that the most immediate of those covers was a damn Neil Diamond song.

UB40’s version of “Red Red Wine” fits right in with the rest of Labour Of Love. Musically, their take fits somewhere between the Tony Tribe version that the band members knew and the Neil Diamond original that they’d never heard. UB40 slow the tempo to a crawl, building the song around a digital bassline and a breezy, loping drum track. They were playing around in the studio at the time, messing with some of the same electronic techniques that Jamaican reggae artists were using at the same time, and some of “Red Red Wine” sounds closer to early dancehall, which was being born at the time, than it does to UB40’s earliest singles.

On UB40’s “Red Red Wine,” Ali Campbell sings lead in a high, reedy sigh. He sounds both fond and regretful, and his voice almost effortlessly floats through those cleverly phrased Neil Diamond lyrics: “I just thought that, with time, thoughts of you would leave my head/ I was wrong, now I find just one thing makes me forget.” (I love the little hesitation between that line and the chorus.) There’s real yearning in Campbell’s voice, but the rest of the band won’t let the song get too sad. Instead, the groove bubbles away pleasantly, and Astro comes in with a thick-accented toast. Astro starts out by saying that red red wine makes him feel so fine and keeps him rockin’ all of the time, and by the end, he’s gotten into a story about, I’m pretty sure, a monkey who smokes weed. (Shout out to that simian. I bet he’s a great hang.)

Working with Bernard Rose, the director who would later make the modern horror classic Candyman, UB40 built a half-hour black-and-white short film around the songs from Labour Of Love; the “Red Red Wine” video comes straight from that. On that video, and on the single version of “Red Red Wine,” Astro’s toast has been edited out. That’s the version of “Red Red Wine” that took off in the UK, giving the band its first #1 hit over there. In the US, the toast-free edit of “Red Red Wine” was also a respectable hit in an era when reggae only rarely made a dent in the charts. In March of 1984, “Red Red Wine” peaked at #34 on the Hot 100; it was UB40’s first single to chart in America.

None of the other singles from Labour Of Love charted in the US, but the album eventually went gold over here. In the UK, UB40 kept cranking out hits. In 1985, UB40 teamed up with Chrissie Hynde for a reggae cover of Sonny and Cher’s 1965 smash “I Got You Babe,” and that became their second UK chart-topper. In the US, “I Got You Babe” did better than “Red Red Wine” had done, peaking at #28. UB40 had found a lane for themselves, doing digital-skank versions of old pop songs. It would serve them well over the years.

In 1988, UB40 and Chrissie Hynde teamed up again, this time for a cover of the Dusty Springfield classic “Breakfast In Bed.” When Guy Zapoleon, a program director at a Phoenix radio station, heard the band’s version of “Breakfast In Bed,” he wasn’t impressed. Zapoleon decided that UB40’s new single wasn’t a hit and that “Red Red Wine,” which had been a hit, should’ve been bigger. Zapoleon had a Saturday-night dance party show called Party Patrol, and he started playing the full original version of “Red Red Wine,” with Astro’s toast included. People in Phoenix loved it, so Zapoleon put the song in rotation on his station. Other pop stations started playing the song.

Zapoleon started telling A&M, UB40’s American label, that they needed to reissue “Red Red Wine” and to promote it like it was a new single. The people at A&M were trying to push UB40’s new music, so they weren’t into the idea, but they couldn’t deny the demand. Eventually, they gave in, and the reissued “Red Red Wine” took off nationwide. Ray “Pablo” Falconer, who’d co-produced the song with UB40, didn’t live to see the track climb back up the American charts. Falconer died in a 1987 car crash. His brother Earl, UB40’s bassist, was driving. Earl served a six-month prison sentence for drunk driving; he’d only just gotten out when “Red Red Wine” reached #1.

“Red Red Wine” made its its improbable comeback at a time when there was a serious demand in America for breezy vacation-sounding music — “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was a #1 jam — and I guess “Red Red Wine” fit that bill. But I maintain that “Red Red Wine,” repetitive as it may be, is a whole lot richer and prettier than the other tiki-bar jams that were floating up the pop charts at the time. The bass is heavier. The groove is punchier. And while “Red Red Wine” isn’t an actual Jamaican record, it’s still the first real reggae song that ever reached #1 in America.

That distinction is up for debate, of course. Reggae had been influencing the Hot 100 ever since the late ’60s; Desmond Dekker’s outright classic “Israelites” made it to #9 in 1969. (It’s a 10.) Over the years, a bunch of #1 hits attempted to engage with Jamaican music in one way or another: Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now,” the Staples Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” the Hues Corporation’s “Rock The Boat,” Elton John’s “Island Girl,” Eric Clapton’s cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff.” In 1981, Blondie got to #1 with their cover of “The Tide Is High,” the Paragons’ 1967 rocksteady classic. But “Red Red Wine” was different.

“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.

The success of “Red Red Wine” also cleared the way for something else. Once a five-year-old single reached #1 in America, other radio programmers started digging through their stacks of songs that had never reached their full pop-chart potential. Those re-released songs, usually just a few years old, started hitting the Hot 100 in a serious way in the late ’80s. This craze didn’t last long, but it must’ve made life tough for record-label promotional teams, who were stuck with the task of pushing new songs to audiences who were suddenly very into rediscovering near-miss hits from the recent past. “Red Red Wine” will not be the last reissued single to appear in this column.

If you like this column, I would heartily recommend my friend Chris Molanphy’s Hit Parade podcast, which goes deep on fun, weird little chart-history stories like this one. When Chris started doing his podcast a few years ago, he did his first episode on “Red Red Wine,” a song that rode a freaky and unpredictable path to #1. “Red Red Wine” was a song with ripple-effects, not least for UB40 themselves. The band will appear in this column again.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: There’s a great scene in Steven Soderbergh’s underrated 2019 film The Laundromat where Will Forte hears “Red Red Wine” in a Mexican bar, gets into a conversation about how Neil Diamond wrote the song, and then promptly walks into the wrong bathroom and gets murdered. Unfortunately, that scene’s not online anywhere except for Netflix. So instead, here’s the bit from a 2019 Community episode where a local band plays an easygoing reggae song called “Pierce You’re A B,” which I’m pretty sure is supposed to be a “Red Red Wine” parody, mostly because of the “poopoo in his pants and poopoo in my heart” bit:

(Donald Glover will eventually appear in this column.)

THE 10S: Bobby Brown’s sleek percussive glide “Don’t Be Cruel” peaked at #8 behind “Red Red Wine.” It’s a real troop-trooper, aiming for the top, and it’s a 10.

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