The pop-reggae band's latest album, ''Labour of Love II,'' hit it big, eventually

‘Tis the season when record companies set their sights on albums they hope will be hot for the holidays. High on Virgin’s Christmas list is the latest by the British pop-reggae band UB40. Odd, since UB40’s ”latest,” Labour of Love II, came out in December 1989. Like red, red wine, this collection of Motown covers seems to improve with age. It has sold 1.5 million copies to date and Virgin is sure it can squeeze another Noel out of the disc.

Labour‘s long legs, however, didn’t sprout overnight. The first single from the album, ”Here I Am,” bowed in January 1990 — and bombed. Four months later, Virgin put out another single, ”The Way You Do the Things You Do,” to coincide with the band’s American tour — and still only a handful of radio stations picked up the track. Undaunted, the Virgin promotion staff kept working Labour — hyping the tour, snagging UB40 on-air guest spots, hauling radio programmers to their 10,000-seat sellout concerts. The problem, says Virgin product manager Diana Fried, was that ”reggae is a sound that consumers want to hear yet that radio has traditionally shied away from.” A case of audience misperception, perhaps. ”Programmers think reggae fans are all stoned, dreadlocked hippies, but I’ve heard more reggae coming out of Mercedes and BMWs than Volkswagen Rabbits — and that’s the kind of affluent audience radio wants,” says senior VP of promotions Michael Plen, pointing out that major corporations use the sound to sell everything from beer to sneakers nowadays. ”That was one of our rationales. We said, ‘Look, these companies spent millions on research and found that reggae music represents a good-time feeling to people. Shouldn’t you give your listeners a chance to experience a summer vacation in four minutes?”’

Eventually, the stick-to-itiveness paid off. By September 1990, KIIS-FM, one of L.A.’s top two pop stations, added ”The Way You Do.” Three months later, the song was No. 6 on Billboard‘s Hot Singles chart. One full year after its debut, Virgin rereleased ”Here I Am,” and by summer it had reached No. 7. Two weeks ago, a third single, ”Groovin’,” was offered. ”The indications are that it will move faster — six weeks instead of six months,” says Plen. A fair estimate, since more radio stations started playing the track before it was officially sanctioned as a single.

The success of Labour of Love II is a testament to Virgin’s tenacity, an in-it-for-the-long-term strategy that also established UB40’s labelmate Paula Abdul. (The first two singles from her 1988 debut fared poorly, but eventually — over a year later in the case of ”The Way That You Love Me” — became hits on the heels of ”Straight Up.”) ”There’s no patience in this business anymore. Everything goes on a ‘We’ve got to have a hit tomorrow’ mentality,” says Plen. ”But we don’t work that way. We believe that good records that are paid attention to survive.”