Who Are They?
A group of anarchists from the UK who managed to churn out one of the most popular songs of the ‘90s.
Chumbawamba began as Skin Disease, a parody of the Oi! punk bands of the time. Once the band changed its name to Chumbawamba, it became one of the forerunners of the ‘80s anarcho-punk movement. (Just remember, these are the guys who brought you “Tubthumping.”)
Chumbawamba’s first few releases were politically-charged punk records. Their first LP, 1986’s Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records, was a critique of the Live Aid concert. How can you critique something like Live Aid, you ask? Well, Chumbawamba argued that the concert was primarily a “cosmetic spectacle” designed to draw attention away from the real political causes of world hunger. Makes sense, right?
If criticizing Live Aid wasn’t radical enough for you, let me direct your attention to the band’s second album, 1987’s Never Mind the Ballots…Here’s the Rest of Your Lives. That one questioned the validity of the British democratic system and mocked the charity campaign of popstar supergroup Ferry Aid.
So when did Chumbawamba start writing catchy pop songs about “pissing the night away?"
By the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, our anarchist heroes had begun to absorb influences from techno music and rave culture (because everyone had a rave phase in the ‘90s). They moved away from their anarcho-punk roots and displayed their pop sensibilites with 1990’s Slap! and 1992’s Shhh.
After signing to indie label One Little Indian in 1994, Chumbawamba revisited their anarchist roots with the appropriately titled Anarchy. The band parted with the label less than two years later and made the controversial decision to move to major label EMI. Like every other band that has opted for a major label (Green Day and Soundgarden, for example), Chumbawamba was met with animosity from fans. (And when your fans are also anarchists, things can get a little more intense.)
Fellow anarcho-punk band Oi Polloi took the so-called “selling out” thing to heart and released an “anti-Chumbawamba” EP called Bare Faced Hypocrisy Sells Records. But Chumbawamba stayed firm with their decision, claiming that the move brought with it the opportunity to spread the band’s message to a wider audience.
What message they were trying to across in “Tubthumping” was anybody’s guess. The karaoke hit was Chumbawamba’s highest charting single and prompted thousands of drunken bar patrons to shout, “I get knocked down, but I get up again!”
But the band didn’t let mainstream success get in the way of their anarchist attitudes. During an appearance on American political talk show Politically Incorrect in 1998, vocalist/drummer Alice Nutter told fans to steal Tubthumping from large chains like Virgin. Well, Virgin didn’t really appreciate that, so the chain began removing the album from shelves and selling it from behind the counter.
Where Are They Now?
Still churning out albums (and a musical)!
After the “Tubthumping” hype died down at the end of the ‘90s, Chumbawamba left EMI and formed their own record label, MUTT.
In 2002, the band released Readymades, an album that mixed samples of folk music and dance beats.
That same year, General Motors paid Chumbawamba $100,000 to use their song “Pass It Along” for a Pontiac Vibe ad. Much to everyone’s surprise, the band agreed, but ended up giving the money they received to anti-corporate activist groups.
And what did those groups do with the cash? Why, they launched an information and environmental campaign against GM. Ah, those clever anarchists.
Subsequent releases Un, A Singsong and a Scrap, and The Boys Bands Have Won were a little more on the folksy side. After a few more tours, the lineup began to change.
As of right now, there are five members of Chumbawamba (that number has fluctuated since the band formed in 1982). Former members have gone on to work in the film industry, like former vocalist Dunstan Bruce. He founded Dandy Films, an independent film and video company in the UK.
Alice Nutter and former drummer Harry Hamer collaborated on a handful of musical dramas, most notably 2006’s Love and Petrol and 2008’s Where’s Vietnam?. Both of them continue to work in theater.
But Why Chumbawamba?
Believe it or not, this band still churns out albums. They also churn out musicals now, apparently. While the musical has yet to surface, Chumbawamba went ahead and made a soundtrack for it anyway. It’s called Chumbawamba & Red Ladder Present: Big Society! and it was released back in January of this year. So hopefully we’ll have a real musical to go along with the soundtrack sometime soon.
What Does Sam Think?
In terms of commercial appeal, Chumbawamba is definitely a one-hit-wonder band. Don’t lie to me and say that you’re hoarding their entire discography in your attic because, let’s face it, you probably didn’t know they had more than two albums until today.
I was aware that these guys were huge anarchists before I wrote this entry, but I had no idea they had such a rich history. The sections above are condensed accounts of Chumbawamba’s adventures throughout the years because I know nobody would read the novel I could have written.
That said, it’s very unusual for a one-hit-wonder band to keep on keepin’ on after the success of their one hit. It’s normal for that kind of band to release a couple more albums before calling it quits, but dropping album after album a decade after your popularity diminishes? That takes dedication.
While I really can’t analyze Chumbawamba’s 17-album discography (yes, I said 17), I can always comment on “Tubthumping.”
The song is pretty simplistic, even for a punk band. But at the same time, it’s not surprising that it was written by a bunch of anarchists.
Why? Well, look at the lyrics:
I get knocked down, but I get up again.
No, you’re never gonna keep me down.
No, you’re never gonna keep me down.
How punk rock is that for you? As catchy as “Tubthumping” is, it’s really a song about being oppressed. I have a feeling that the band knew the appeal the song would have and used that as a way to spread their message. The message wasn’t that everyone should be an anarchist; the message was that you shouldn’t let someone or something hold you down.
So that middle-aged drunk guy slurring “Tubthumping” at karaoke night may actually be a victim of oppression. Or maybe he just really likes embarrassing himself.
-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.