It’s Sept. 25, 1985 at the Palace Theatre in downtown New Haven, Conn., and the buoyant staccato guitar rhythm, breezy sax and distinctly ’80s synth-pop has the crowd footloose.
UB40, which has since enticed countless people worldwide into pouring a glass of red red wine, is on stage. The British reggae-pop band has just put out a hot new single, a silky cover of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” put to a Jamaican drum beat, springing the band into the Top 40. And the crowd, full of Yale college students and many cheering “prepubescent girls,” is “wildly enthusiastic” about the performance, as one student wrote in the Yale Daily News then.
For UB40, the night is but a liner note in the band’s 30-year run. But for Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh, the night has found its way into the dramatic narrative surrounding his confirmation hearings — in turn dragging the ’80s band named after a British unemployment benefits form (UB40) back into a spotlight.
By Monday evening, the band had become a trending hashtag on social media as a result of a report in the New York Times. The Times story detailed a bar fight on Sept. 25, 1985, that police say involved Kavanaugh, his friends and a random person mistaken for the lead singer of UB40. The new report comes as the FBI is investigating sexual misconduct allegations made against him by three women, with each allegation involving drinking in some way.
After the show that night, Kavanaugh, then 20, and his friends were drinking at a bar called Demery’s when they spotted a guy who looked just like UB40’s frontman, Ali Campbell, as Kavanaugh’s Yale classmate and former Yale basketball player Chad Ludington told The Washington Post. They began staring at him, Ludington said. So Ludington went over to the guy’s table to ask if he was Campbell.
“Turns out it wasn’t him,” Ludington told The Post. “He was New Haven tough. He said something aggressive like, ‘Screw off.’ ”
That’s when things escalated. According to the police report, Kavanaugh threw ice at the guy, resulting in what Ludington described as a brief melee. Ludington said the Campbell look-alike responded by taking a swing at Kavanaugh. And Kavanaugh’s friend responded by throwing his glass at the man, striking his ear and causing it to bleed, according to the police report.
Kavanaugh “did not want to say if he threw the ice or not” when speaking with police, the report states. The report doesn’t say whether anyone was arrested, according to the Times.
The reaction on social media to this newly revealed piece of information? A heavy dose of nostalgia for “Red Red Wine,” UB40’s hit Neil Diamond cover, and, alternatively, confusion as to why UB40 and “Red Red Wine” were suddenly trending.
By the time Kavanaugh may or may not have been a fan in 1985, UB40 was a band on the cusp of a boom, fresh off being named by Rolling Stone as the reggae band of the year and viewed by some as the next best thing since Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff brought reggae to the mainstream.
The members of UB40, who had been childhood friends, got together in the British industrial town of Birmingham in 1978, while most of the members were unemployed — hence their band name. One day, Campbell received compensation money for an accident that happened in a bar and used it to buy drums, as Campbell’s brother and original band member Robin Campbell told the Gannett News Service in 1985.
When they started practicing in a Birmingham cellar in 1978, none of the eight band members — a mix of Jamaicans, Britons, Scots and Irish — had much experience playing instruments, People reported in 1984.
But by 1980 they had dropped their first record, “Signing Off.” It was a political statement more in tune with traditional reggae that railed against social ills of the day, cementing their early image as working-class underdogs.
On “Madam Medusa,” they called for Margaret Thatcher’s head. On “Tyler,” they decried the wrongful conviction of a black man. Their idea of a Christmas song — “Food for Thought” — was pointing out the hypocrisy of feasting on the holiday while people were starving in Africa.
But with more fame came more pop, birthing the vino lover’s anthem “Red Red Wine,” for which the band is best remembered.
UB40 is still touring these days — but two bands share that name now, the result of a split in 2008. Ali Campbell, the lead singer whose resemblance caused a bar fight, left the band. Two others followed. They play under the name “UB40 featuring Ali, Astro and Mickey.” The other UB40 claims to be the official one. It appears to be a point of contention.
Neither UB40 band returned requests for comment from The Post regarding how they feel about their cameo appearance in the web of allegations surrounding Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.