Oct 12

Neil Diamond Wrote My Hit!, Part 3: UB40, “Red Red Wine”

UB40 -- Labour of Love

A fine album — but they could have done without  Labour of Love II and/or III.

UB40 (1983)

Neil Diamond (1967)

Of all the songs I’m featuring in this Neil Diamond cover series on Cover Fridays of late, I’d have to say that “Red Red Wine,” as done by UB40, would be the hardest to hear as a Neil Diamond song if you didn’t already know it. And I’d say it’s pretty likely that most people, including myself, had no idea it was a Neil Diamond song when UB40 first released their cover version of it in 1983 on the Labour of Love album. The song fit their style so well that it was truly seamless; it fit the reggae beat too well for anyone to have caught on. (Unless, of course, they bought the whole album and realized that Labour of Love referred to the fact that all the songs on the album were covers of songs the band loved.) And here’s the really funny thing: even UB40 didn’t know it was a Neil Diamond song. They were performing it as a cover of a previous 1969 rocksteady/reggae cover version by Jamaican singer Tony Tribe (its sound is reminiscent of Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites”); they didn’t know its origins prior to that.

I would have to rate UB40’s version as one of the best covers to ever reach #1 on the U.S. charts (which it did in 1988 upon being reissued with an extended rap; the original release reached #34). Neil Diamond’s version didn’t come anywhere near that kind of popularity, only reaching #62 upon its release as a single in 1968 (it appeared on 1967’s Just for You album, the same album “I’m a Believer” was on). It may be because his version was just a bit too melodramatic — he was feeling pathetic and wanted all the world to know it. By contrast, UB40’s version sounds like lead singer Ali Campbell is sitting alone staring into the glass of wine as he sings; Diamond sounds like he’s got that glass of wine in his hand, spilling it all over the place while he throws his arms open wide on a theater stage and belts it out and over-emotes.

In case you can’t tell, I like UB40’s version better.

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