UB40 — after running 30 years with the exact same lineup — were a unique contradiction of a band. Yes, they were one of the undeniably great reggae groups of our time, but they never did anything profoundly groundbreaking or unique. They started off with more political fire in their belly, but gradually mellowed out in favor of clandestine pop hits, of which they had several (especially in the UK). The group got their break opening for the Pretenders (Chrissie Hynde collaborated with the band a few times), went on to become one of the best-selling reggae groups of all time, yet all of their best-known songs were covers.
Needless to say, there’s a lot more going on in UB40’s music than you would initially be led to believe, which is perhaps why Greatest Hits may very well be the flat-out best introduction to the group. Though the 2000 compilation The Very Best of UB40 did an admirable job of rounding up 18 of the group’s finest, this compilation improves it in just about every way, tossing in important tracks like the Hynde collaboration “Breakfast in Bed” and charting single “Groovin’ (Out on Life)”, all while smartly excising songs like the bumbling Doors cover “Light My Fire” and the heavy-handed “Food for Thought”. In the end, Greatest Hits is a much stronger compilation, but it underscores one very surprising aspect of the group’s music …
Most of it hasn’t aged a day. Though this octet’s glory years were primarily grounded in the ’80s (especially with the worldwide dominance of their 1984 Neil Diamond cover “Red Red Wine”), most of their music doesn’t feel particularly dated. Yes, the synth line in “Sing Our Own Song” is unabashedly cheesy-sounding by today’s standards, but in the context of the song itself, it feels completely natural. This was often a crucial element to the group’s success: the guys knew how to pull of a groove, which, in some ways, was more important than remaining faithful to the songs themselves. “(I Can’t Help) Falling in Love With You”, for example, is practically inseparable from its tinny horn stabs at the end of the song, which, in some ways, has become one of the track’s defining characteristics. Frontman Ali Campbell’s voice was always decorated with reverb, but it was his flow and delivery that made his voice so endearing — just listen to “Rat in Mi Kitchen”, in which Ali repeats the line “There’s a rat in mi kitchen / What I’m a-gonna do?” ad-nauseum, somehow making the line’s infinite repetition both endearing and fun at the same time. Musical acts, by law, should never be able to get away with this sort of monotonous rehashing of lyrics, but UB40’s keen sense of melody is what always elevated them beyond their numerous soundalike contemporaries.
Yet the fact that the group’s music remains fresh is more of a testament to the group’s importance than just their sales clout. No, the group didn’t break any new ground with their recordings, but UB40 often acted as a powerful catalyst to reggae’s emerging prominence in the mid-’80s. The band’s first hit following “Red Red Wine” was the Hynde duet take on “I Got You Babe”, which, though still an iconic Sonny & Cher carryover, got a reworking that was both forward-thinking and respectful at the same time, anchoring the whole thing with a steady rasta beat while retaining the easy-going and romantic vibe of the original. Though people were undoubtedly familiar with the song to begin with, its recontextualization opened doors for the reggae world and allowed the whole genre to be approached by a legion of pop fans who may not have heard reggae in any other context. That UB40 kept cranking out hits leading into the ’90s wasn’t as much a sign of the group’s strength as it was reggae firmly growing its commercial presence in the ever-expanding world of pop music.
At the end of the day, however, Greatest Hits is just a fun compilation, as tracks like the synth-heavy “Until My Dying Day”, the political (and Thatcher-baiting) “One in Ten”, and the vaguely anthemic “Swing Low” still retain quite a bit of punch in 2008, a year that started with Ali Campbell’s departure from the group after nearly 30 years. Though UB40’s future may be somewhat in doubt, there’s no denying the legacy that they have left so far, and Greatest Hits is as perfect a summation of the band’s successes as you can possibly get.