Image: UB40 performing at Massey hall in Canada. Credit - Samira Khan, Flickr.

UB40 have been entertaining audiences for over four decades and are a joy to watch live. See how the reggae band grew over the years and how their live shows became a spectacle to behold.

Last Updated: 27/06/23 at 11:41

Hailing from Birmingham, England, no one could’ve expected the rise of UB40 into becoming one of the greatest reggae bands of all time.

Their smooth sound and diverse line-up added to the authenticity of the group and endeared them to their fans, from starting out performing in local pubs around the city to playing sold-out arena shows.

In this blog, we’re going to be dating back to the early days of the band and their live performances, as we take a look at how a UB40 concert evolved over the years to what they are now.

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UB40’s Early Years

UB40 was formed in Birmingham, England, in 1978. The name ‘UB40’ derived from the attendance cards issued to people claiming unemployment benefits from the UK government - Unemployment Benefit, Form 40. The name was suggested due to the unemployed status of the members at the time.

The band played two shows in early 1979 - 9th February was the date of their first-ever show at the iconic Hare & Hounds in Kings Heath, a somewhat testing ground for up-and-coming music talents.

The Hare & Hounds in Birmingham, the site of UB40s first ever gig. Credit - Elliott Brown, Flickr.
Image: The Hare & Hounds in Birmingham taken in 2012. Credit - Elliott Brown, Flickr.

The band underwent their first lineup change, providing them with what would become their classic lineup.

Before they had all properly learnt how to play together, lead vocalist Ali Campbell and saxophonist Brain Travers travelled the city promoting the band by putting up posters everywhere they could.

Soon the group started honing their sound through various gigs around Birmingham until lead singer and guitarist of The Pretenders, Chrissie Hynde, saw them playing at a pub and gave them an opportunity as a support act to the band.

UB40 had started to gain traction as one of the must-see local bands in the city due to their highly energetic performances would have a penchant to run well into the night.

UB40’s first single ‘King/Food for Thought’ was released almost a year to the date of their first show. The song performed so well that it reached number four on the UK singles charts. From that, their popularity started to grow hard and fast.

Their first album, ‘Signing Off’ was released in the summer of 1980. It peaked at number two on the UK’s official albums chart and spent 71 weeks in total on the chart. Today, the album is considered by fans and critics as the band's best album.

Due to the success of the album, UB40 started playing in bigger venues and got invites to play with other big-name UK groups. In December 1980, they shared the Birmingham Resorts World Arena stage with the likes of Elvis Costello, Madness and Squeeze.

Continued success through the 80s, 90s and 2000s

UB40 in the 1980s

UB40s popularity soared to heights that were unprecedented for a band so young in the early part of the decade. Before they knew it, the group was playing at larger venues and festivals more often, such as the Eventim Apollo in London and Glastonbury Festival in 1983.

They even started performing outside the UK, in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and the United States. One of their biggest shows was the Frankfurt Boellenfalltor Stadium in September 1983, where they performed with The Police, Hall & Oates and Joan Jett & The Blackhearts.

‘Labour of Love’, the band's fourth album released in 1983, opened the door to mainstream popularity in the US for UB40. The album was composed of cover songs and featured ‘Red Red Wine’, a cover version of a Neil Diamond song.

It reached number one in the UK chart but more interestingly reached number 14 on the US Billboard 200 - five years after its release.

‘Red Red Wine’ even managed to reach the top spot in the US in 1988, five years after it had done the same in the UK charts.

After their show together in Germany, UB40 joined The Police on a number of shows in the US as part of later bands ‘Synchronicity Tour’.

In 1984, they played at the Golden Rose Pop Festival in Switzerland. This incredible festival featured some of the biggest artists of the time, such as Queen, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Cyndi Lauper, and many more.

They continued playing large sold-out shows at some of the biggest venues in the UK and around the world and were often invited to play at some of the biggest events in music, alongside other big names in the industry of the time.

Throughout the 1980s, the band's sound had evolved, incorporating elements of ska, rock, and pop into their reggae roots. Their live shows became even more dynamic, with elaborate lighting and sound systems and even pyrotechnics.

UB40 in the 1990s

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, UB40 had become one of the biggest bands in the world. They were selling out stadiums, playing to tens of thousands of fans at a time.

UB40 concerts had now become a major production, with elaborate sets and an impressive light show. The band had also expanded their lineup, adding musicians and dancers to their shows.

One of their most beloved shows was their ‘A Family Affair’ show in front of 30,000 fans in London’s Finsbury Park on 22nd June 1991.

September 1994 saw the group visit South America for a number of shows and as part of their ‘Promises And Lies World Tour’ of that year.

Party in the Park 1999 was quite possibly the biggest music event in the UK that year. UB40 joined the likes of Westlife, Boyzone, Mary J. Blige, Pet Shop Boys and many more in the big summer event that year.

UB40 in the 2000s

As the music industry changed, so did UB40's live performances. In the 2000s, the band began incorporating new technology into their shows, such as video screens and cutting-edge lighting. They also experimented with different stages and setups, trying new things to keep their live shows fresh and exciting.

In the 2000s, they continued to see success in the way of sold-out arena shows, popular tours and major festival appearances.

The Montreux Jazz Festival in 2002 with other acts such as Muse, The Strokes and David Bowie, were big occasions and kept them very much at the forefront of the reggae scene.

Live Earth 2007 was a one-off event similar to Live Aid 1985, with simultaneous concerts happening across the globe in 12 locations. UB40 were invited to play at the Coca-Cola Dome in South Africa.

Despite the popularity and success still evident in the 2000s, lead vocalist and one of the founding members of the band Ali Campbell announced in January 2008 that he would be leaving after 30 years.

The exact cause for his leaving wasn’t made clear at the time - the band originally stated Campbell wanted to focus on solo projects, while Campbell later revealed that it was due to management and business disputes.

Shortly after he left, Mickey Virtue, the keyboard player since 1979, also left, stating the same issues as Campbell had made.

Even after the departures, UB40 carried on playing, selling out arena shows and conducting tours with new frontman Duncan Campbell, brother of Ali.

UB40 today

After many tours and a few more departures, including Astro in late 2013, UB40 are still going strong - although there are now confusingly technically two UB40s.

The members who had left (Ali Campbell, Mickey Virtue and Astro) went into business on their own, naming their version of the band UB40 featuring Ali, Astro and Mickey. It has since been renamed to UB40 featuring Ali Campbell.

Since Robin Campbell, one of the founding members of the original UB40, had the rights to the official name, they were and still are able to continue performing and releasing music without a name change and as the classic UB40.

Divided as they are, UB40 are still a fantastic act to see live. If you enjoy listening to their music, you will no doubt enjoy experiencing it live - especially when you can watch them from the best seats.

With premium UB40 tickets and hospitality packages, you can benefit from seeing the group from comfortable padded seats with unrivalled stage views, food and drink offerings, fast-tracked entry through the dedicated VIP entrance, and more.

You can see UB40 featuring Ali Campbell supporting rock legends The Who this July, or head to UB40's 2024 Birmingham and Leeds tour dates by booking tickets with us now.

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