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.
According to a meme that was floating around on Twitter a few years ago, the song that’s at #1 on your 14th birthday tells you who you are. When I looked up my song, I was not very happy with the result. I don’t think it says too much about who I am, either. I happened to turn 14 one day before UB40’s version of the Elvis oldie “Can’t Help Falling In Love” finished its interminable reign at the top of the Hot 100. I would’ve much rather claimed the song that came right after.
I don’t remember my 14th birthday as any kind of important life moment. But during the stretch of time that UB40’s cover sat at #1, a few big things did happen to me. My family moved out of Baltimore city into a drab, boring suburb, and I started eighth grade at a school where virtually everyone rocked bowl cuts and Starter jackets. I wasn’t happy about any of those life changes, and I probably harbor some deep-seated resentment for UB40’s “(I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You,” with its pointlessly elongated title and its random-ass parentheses. But it’s not like I really need any extra reasons for disliking UB40’s cover. It’s a cynical exercise, presented cynically, for cynical reasons. So maybe it really was a fitting introduction to suburban life.
The tale of UB40’s first #1 hit is a glorious little piece of fun chart-history chaos: A British reggae band covers a Neil Diamond song without realizing they’re covering a Neil Diamond song. (They thought they were covering Tony Tribe, the Jamaican reggae singer who’d covered the Neil Diamond song.) That cover becomes the band’s first US hit, but it stalls out at #34. Then, five years later, a radio programmer in Phoenix decides that he doesn’t like UB40’s latest single. He goes rogue and starts playing the group’s old Neil Diamond cover instead. That cover gains steam, and eventually, a reissued “Red Red Wine” goes all the way to #1. Through no real effort of their own, UB40 won the chart lottery.
The second time that UB40 reached #1 in the US, their success was a whole lot more predictable. In the wake of “Red Red Wine” blowing up, UB40 had reinvented themselves as a group who played pleasantly breezy lite-reggae covers of beloved old hits. This hadn’t been the plan for the leftist, working-class Birmingham band. Sometimes, though, you have to go with what works. UB40’s second and final Hot 100 chart-topper was another smoothed-out take on an old song, and it showed up on the soundtrack of an erotic thriller. On the Hot 100 in the early ’90s, that was like entering two different cheat codes into your Game Genie at once. UB40 didn’t even like their cover. It didn’t matter. They had a hit on their hands.
After “Red Red Wine” belatedly blew up, UB40 released 1989’s Labour Of Love II, their second album of covers. Instead of important reggae songs, the LP mostly focused on supremely familiar soul oldies. This turned out to be a winning strategy. Labour Of Love II went platinum, and two of its covers made the top 10. The band’s take on Al Green’s “Here I Am (Come And Take Me)” peaked at #7. (It’s a 4. Al Green’s 1973 original peaked at #10. That one is a 9.) Shortly afterwards, UB40 got to #6 with their version of the Temptations’ “The Way You Do The Things You Do.” (UB40’s cover is a 3. The Temptations’ 1964 original peaked at #11.)
Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love” wasn’t one of the songs that UB40 recorded for Labour Of Love II. When they cut their version of that song, UB40 were working on 1993’s Promises And Lies, which is mostly an album of originals. UB40 were asked to do that Elvis cover for the soundtrack of the antic 1992 Nicolas Cage/Sarah Jessica Parker romantic comedy Honeymoon In Vegas. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, UB40 guitarist Robin Campbell says, “We thought that they would really like [the cover], but we weren’t that pleased with it ourselves.” UB40 didn’t realize that everyone had been asked to cover Elvis songs for that particular soundtrack. UB40’s version of the song didn’t make it into Honeymoon In Vegas. Instead, their cover got bumped for Bono’s version of the same song.
You can see why more than one artist would want to sing this particular Elvis song. The original “Can’t Help Falling In Love” might be the best thing to come out of the much-derided early-’60s stretch when Elvis got out of the Army and made a lot of cheesy movies and easy-listening hits. “Can’t Help Falling In Love” is itself an easy-listening hit from a cheesy movie. (Elvis sang it in 1961’s Blue Hawaii.) But it’s also something more than that.
“Can’t Help Falling In Love” is a product of the New York pop-music assembly line; writers George David Weiss, Hugo Peretti, and Luigi Creatore were all workers within that world. There’s nothing rock ‘n’ roll about “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” and it makes no attempt to recapture the early danger of Elvis. Instead, it’s Elvis hitting his romantic-crooner stride, his voice hitting a deep puppydog quaver and harmonizing beautifully with the Jordanaires’ gospel-informed backing vocals. The lyrics are all sweet little romantic nothings, but Elvis sings them with enough grace and emotion to make them sound somehow profound.
The original Elvis version of “Can’t Help Falling In Love” was a big hit, but it wasn’t a chart-topper. Instead, it peaked at #2 behind Joey Dee And The Starliters’ “Peppermint Twist – Part 1.” (That means that the UB40 cover is, at least in terms of pure chart numbers, a bigger hit, even if nobody remembers it half as well. Never underestimate the power of a viral dance craze. The Elvis original is a 9.) “Can’t Help Falling In Love” stuck around and became a wedding perennial. Over the years, a whole lot of other people — Andy Williams, Bob Dylan, the Stylistics — recorded their own versions of the song. The members of UB40 haven’t exactly spoken of that Elvis original with great reverence, but it was the Elvis song that they remembered best.
UB40’s version of “Can’t Help Falling In Love” probably would’ve gone unreleased if a different soundtrack supervisor hadn’t discovered it. In 1992, Sharon Stone got super-famous for starring in Paul Verhoeven’s erotic thriller Basic Instinct. A year later, she attempted to cash in on that fame with the much-hyped follow-up Sliver. Everyone involved in Sliver definitely hoped to recapture what they had with Basic Instinct; the Sliver script came from the famously skeezy Basic Instinct screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. But the whole Sliver enterprise went badly for everyone who wasn’t in UB40.
I’ve never seen Sliver, but general consensus is that it fucking sucks. Director Phillip Noyce has made a few bangers, but he’s no Paul Verhoeven, and Sharon Stone’s co-star Billy Baldwin is no Michael Douglas. The plot is something to do with stalkers and surveillance cameras. Sliver did middling box-office business, and critics hated it. Today, Sliver might as well not exist, except that its soundtrack goes pretty hard.
In the Bronson book, Sliver music supervisor Tim Sexton says, “The idea was to take a seductive, sexy sort of industrial rock approach, blending dance rhythms with a kind of hard-edged, odd sound that you wouldn’t normally hear in a movie.” (Sexton also admits that the movie was pretty bad. I wonder if he got the Sliver job because he has “sex” in his name.) The soundtrack does a pretty good job at tapping into the cool, fringey trip-hop and industrial sounds that were coming out at the time. It’s got Massive Attack, Neneh Cherry, the Young Gods, Enigma, and the Verve, back when the Verve were still basically a shoegaze band. It’s also got “Oh Carolina,” the early dancehall hit from Shaggy, a guy who will eventually appear in this column.
None of those tracks were likely to become hits in the US, and Sliver needed a hit. (“Oh Carolina” was a chart-topper in the UK, but it peaked at #59 here.) In the Bronson book, Tim Sexton says, “I needed a song that was radio-friendly, and the UB40 song existed in the vaults at Virgin. I convinced Phillip Noyce to use it in the film.” UB40 also made a video that went heavy on the Sliver surveillance-camera imagery, even though “Can’t Help Falling In Love” is definitely not a song about sexual voyeurism.
I don’t know how “(I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You” plays during Sliver, but it definitely sticks out in the context of the soundtrack. Parts of it git with the overall aesthetic, I suppose. UB40’s cover has soft synth-drones and a slowed-down version of the James Brown “Funky Drummer” loop, and those are definitely the kinds of things that Massive Attack would’ve used. It’s also got a slow, skanking digital bassline a bit like the one on “Oh Carolina.” But UB40’s take on the song is also a complete mess. It doesn’t know what it wants to be.
I’ve always liked UB40 leader Ali Campbell’s thin, reedy tenor, and his voice contrasts starkly with what Elvis did on the original. Rather than crooning to the cheap seats like Elvis, Campbell slyly insinuates his way through the song. That delivery undercuts the song’s message, since it makes Campbell sound slippery and dishonest rather than true-blue romantic, but that’s not necessarily a problem. The problem is everything else — the horns that won’t stop triumphantly trilling, the indolent groove, the chorus that keeps repeating itself. The stark simplicity of the Elvis original was one of its secret weapons; it’s what allowed Elvis to really sell that line about wise men saying that only fools rush in. The UB40 version, on the other hand, trips all over itself, and its elements all clash jarringly with one another.
Mess or not, the UB40 cover was a smash. By not fitting neatly into any genre, it could play in a bunch of different radio formats. By the time “(I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You” reached #1, Sliver had already been in theaters for months, and it was a distant memory. UB40 included their cover on their Promises And Lies album. That record went platinum, and the Sliver soundtrack went gold. UB40’s pop-chart success didn’t last. Their follow-up single “Higher Ground” — not a Stevie Wonder cover, somehow — peaked at #45, and that was the band’s last time on the Hot 100.
UB40 kept touring and recording for years, and they continued to do pretty well in the UK. In 2008, Ali Campbell left the band, and his brother Duncan took over as lead singer. Ali wasn’t happy about that, and he later complained about how badly Duncan sucked. Eventually, Ali formed his own version of UB40 with some other former members, so there were two competing UB40s happening for a while. In 2018, when Brett Kavanaugh was up for the Supreme Court, there was a story about Kavanaugh and his friend, the future clumsy Knicks center Chris Dudley, getting into a drunken barfight in college with someone who thought Kavanaugh was Ali Campbell. That was pretty funny, but it didn’t stop Kavanaugh from becoming a Supreme Court justice. Last year, two former members of UB40, saxophonist Brian Travers and toaster Astro, both died.
“(I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You” hit #1 a few months after Snow’s “Informer,” another pop-reggae song from a white singer. “(I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You” and “Informer” don’t really sound anything like each other, but this was the biggest moment of pop-chart visibility that reggae had ever had in America. Maybe that broke some kind of dam. We’ll see plenty more reggae songs in this column, and most of them won’t come from goofy white guys.
BONUS BEATS: Less than a decade after “(I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You,” another cover of “Can’t Help Falling In Love” would appear on another motion picture soundtrack. Here’s the deranged uptempo teen-pop version that the A*Teens recorded for the 2002 Disney film Lilo & Stitch:
(The A*Teen’s highest-charting US single, 2000’s “Bouncing Off The Ceiling (Upside Down),” peaked at #93.)