NFB Listens To Number Ones: “Red, Red Wine” – UB40

Here’s a genuine question for you: what do you think that “Red, Red Wine” is actually about (bar the obvious beverage)? For many years I didn’t really think too much about that question whenever I heard this song, which I knew mostly for the easily sung-along-with lines of its chorus and its easy-going reggae beat. It’s only now, having the motivation to look into it in further detail, that I realise just how depressing the song is: an ode to the memory obliterating powers of alcohol sung by a guy drunkenly pining for the one that got away. It’s a rather depressing image that does not match the music that accompanies it, that has always seemed at least partially upbeat and laid back to me. For me I always associated the song more with the positive power of alcohol, with the titular words perceived more as an ode than as a note of despair.

My ignorance is my own problem, but I do not feel that it is unjust to wonder if others have had similar interpretations, given the occasional scratchiness of Ali Campbell’s lyrics (for a long time I thought “Don’t let me be alone” was “Don’t let me be in love” for example) that treads a fine line between groovy and unintelligible. Neil Diamond’s version is clearer in that regard, with appropriate music to match, but like a lot of Neil Diamond is also bland and forgettable: the reggae elevates it into higher notoriety at the very least. The radio version of the UB40 song is what got to number one for three weeks in 1983, but there is a longer version that includes a lengthy “toasting” section by Astro, that gets really clear on the depressing picture being painted: “Red red wine, you make me feel so sad, Any time I see you go, it make me feel bad”. It’s a very weird feeling inclusion, and it is no surprise at all that it was left out of the more commercial release. In a more strictly musical sense, this is Baby’s First Reggae really, nothing too special or, crucially, too challenging.

The music video is perhaps required to really get the idea that UB40 is trying to impart, a black-and-white depiction of a drunken night out for a very sad looking young guy (where he’s drinking beer, come on guys, stay on message). Now that is misery territory, but the dissonance is here too, in how the reggae beat just has no business playing over such a scene. I suppose what I am trying to say is that UB40 didn’t really seem to know what they wanted to portray in either the song or the video. Not that it mattered much, because this has been a radio staple since. If people really delved into the song I have a feeling that it might not be quite as popular, because alcohol-fuelled shame spiraling typically doesn’t make for Classic FM residency. Also, red wine sucks. Rose forever.

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