Chumbawamba was

It seems like only a few weeks ago I was writing a long, elegiac post mourning the passing of one of my favourite bands of all time, REM.  And now here I am again, writing one marking the demise of another: Chumbawamba.  My roster of favourite bands of all time only ever had three entries, so it’s starting to look a little depopulated – the Pet Shop Boys better bloody well not split, that’s all I can say…

I’d been to gigs by friends before, and even helped out on the lighting desk for a couple, but Chumbawamba were my first proper, paid-for gig.  I still remember it, although it was nearly 20 years ago – October 1993.  During the day I’d been on an anti-BNP march in the East End of London (the first time I saw the Metropolitan Police up close and personal in a hostile situation, and realised they were simultaneously scared, incompetent and bellicose), then the train back, and the gig: Chumbawamba, supported by Credit to the Nation.  I remember walking – with my marching, gigging friend – the 9 miles back home, while the frosty grass on the road verge crackled under my feet and my sweat-soaked T-shirt froze on my back.

Chumbawamba were a fantastic live band, and the split means that the largest part of their greatness is now gone – or will be gone, once they fulfil their few remaining live commitments.  Their records are still around, of course, (including the two live albums), and for those of us who saw them live those will help to spark off the memories, but for people who never got the chance to see them live, now they never will.  No doubt this is the kind of thing that would give some people a musical-snob-gasm – “my dear, I was there, you weren’t, and you’ll simply never understand” – but it just makes me rather sad.  I’ve never been the kind of person who wanted exclusivity in my pleasures, and I always wanted to share Chumbawamba with other people, not keep them to myself.  Over the years, I introduced several people to Chumba.*  (Including an ex-boyfriend.  I was worried things wouldn’t work out between us – he kept playing me songs by bands like the Travelling Wilburys and Wings and asking if I agreed they were great – but then he burst out laughing at the right place during ‘Look! No Strings’, and I figured we were compatible enough.)

Of course, introducing people to Chumba got a lot harder after their hit, singular: ‘Tubthumping’.  I didn’t hate the song – in fact, I still have the CD single, bought in the first week of release, and with the John Menzies price sticker still firmly in place on the front because I was so astonished to be able to buy them in such a place – but it’s not their best.  And once they were known as a one hit wonder the chances of persuading anyone to listen to them with an open mind fell precipitously.

Mind you, it had always been a uphill struggle because people had so often read a viciously negative review – the music press, especially the NME, always hated Chumbawamba, for reasons I never quite understood.  It was partly the reaction against political music, and partly that weird geographical prejudice that used to be huge in music journalism (bands from London and Manchester – good; bands from anywhere else – crap), but the level of hatred was greater than any of that could adequately explain.  Maybe it was just that Chumbawamba were serious about their politics – anarchy wasn’t just a word they used to shock their parents, it was something they actually believed in – and that honesty made music journalists uncomfortable: the age-old discomfort of the poseur in the presence of the authentic.

It’s not really possible to talk about Chumbawamba without talking about their politics, but that doesn’t mean talking about something apart from their music.  So far as I could tell, they saw their music as their politics, not a soundtrack to it.  They made music on political subjects, of course – though less insistently than you might imagine – but because they saw politics as life, and because Chumbawamba was their life, they were as interested in the medium as the message.

With a handful of exceptions, the experience of listening to a Chumbawamba song is not that of being lectured by po-faced drones.  In the middle period of their career, especially – the period stretching roughly from 1992’s Shhh to 2000’s WYSIWYG – their records and their live performances were simultaneously funny, surreal and serious.  Often people make a comparison between Chumba and They Might Be Giants, and I can see why.  The sensibility of both bands is the same, as is the sometime use of short fragments of song – like TMBG, they’re not afraid to let a song be its natural length, even if that’s only a few seconds.  The big difference between them is that, although both bands favour a somewhat anarchic approach to their music, Chumbawamba were actually anarchists.  (Or, at least, some of them were; I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the confrontational anarchism has waned a little since the band shed about half its members – including three of its lead vocalists – and went semi-acoustic in 2005.)

Chumbawamba’s first album release, in 1986, was called Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records, and was a response to Live Aid.  It’s sometimes assumed that this was an attention seeking stunt – that they were saying something shocking just to shock – but the album had two serious points.  First, that the multimillionaire artists who took part in Live Aid – and who saw a big increase in sales thanks to the ‘global jukebox’ effect – could easily have matched the amount raised by the public if they had wanted to.  And second that charity campaigns like Live Aid could never be a real solution to the underlying problem of global inequality.  As Chumbawamba sing on the album, ‘I know there must be more/ Than giving just a little bit more/ When half of this world is so helplessly poor’.  It’s interesting to note that 20 years later, by the time of Live 8, Bob Geldof had been converted to precisely this view.  I wouldn’t want you to come away, though, with the idea that, even on their first album and even with the serious subject matter, the tone is po-faced and lecturing: ‘Slag Aid’, for example, is a lot of fun.

Their next album was Never Mind The Ballots, but since I don’t have much to say about that (it’s not a favourite of mine; apparently even the band think it’s a bit dodgy) I’m going to skip forward to 1988, when Chumbawamba released an album that is a bit of an oddity: English Rebel Songs 1381-1914 is an a cappella collection of political folk songs through the ages.  It’s the kind of thing that serious (and seriously bearded) folkies of the 1970s used to record as part of their laudable attempts to preserve the folk tradition of England as living songs not dead sheet music in books.  This album is quite hard to listen to in a single sitting, and is best treated, I think, as an archive to dip in and out of.  The song I listen to most often is ‘Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire’, which was written by soldiers in the First World War.  It’s an antidote to the cloying sentimentality which erupts every Armistice Day, and a useful reminder that the soldiers of the time weren’t abstract avatars of nobility but actual flesh and blood people who were only too aware their lives were being pointlessly – and unfairly – squandered.

1988 also saw the release of a standalone single, ‘Smash Clause 28! Fight the Alton Bill!’.  (Clause 28 was the law which forbade local authorities from promoting homosexuality as ‘a pretended family relationship’, while the Alton Bill was an attempt to restrict access to abortion.)  I mention it here because it raised the band’s profile fairly significantly (opposition to Thatcherite ‘Victorian values’ was a big deal at the time, and the single helped to crystallise some of that).  It’s also quite often cited by the old-schooliest of old-school fans as ‘the last thing they did that wasn’t utter shite’.  Personally, I appreciate the sentiments but I find the two songs almost unlistenable; they’re exactly the kind of po-faced lectures that Chumbawamba usually manage to avoid.

Let’s skate swiftly over 1990’s Slap! (which I really, really don’t like), and think instead about the 1992 album Shhh.  This album had a complicated birth, in that what was officially released is a stand-in for the ‘legendary lost album’, Jesus H Christ.  (It’s not really lost – the link takes you to You Tube where you can listen to the whole thing – but every band worth their salt have to have a legendary lost album, don’t they?)  Christ was never formally released because it was a collage that combined original material with riffs, lyrics and choruses ‘poplifted’ from other bands’ songs, and Chumbawamba were unable to persuade either the copyright holders to grant permission, or distributors to handle a record that would have been vulnerable to multiple copyright claims.  It’s actually a little hard to believe the band were so naïve as to believe they would have been able to distribute the album in the version they first recorded it, but perhaps they had got so used to the ‘cassette culture’ way of doing things they hadn’t thought about the problems they would face releasing the album in the traditional way.  In any case, the brick wall they faced forced them to re-record the songs in new arrangements that excluded (most of) the copyright material.

The received wisdom seems to be that Jesus H Christ was a better album than Shhh, and that the songs suffered for being re-recorded and/or edited.  I don’t actually think that’s true.  I think most of the songs come off at least as well as they do in their original versions, several are improved by having naff second-hand material removed (as in the song ‘You Can’t Trust Anyone Nowadays’ – not available online; sorry – which is much better for not referencing ‘I Should Be So Lucky’) and others are made a great deal sharper by being re-purposed to protest against what the band saw as censorship.

Despite the complicated genesis – or maybe because of it – Shhh is my third-favourite Chumbawamba album.  Stand-out tracks include ‘Sometimes Plunder’, ‘Happiness Is Just A Chant Away’ (let’s just say they’re not Hare Krishna fans…) and ‘Stitch That’, probably my favourite domestic violence revenge song.  The real masterpiece for me, though, is the song ‘Behave!’, which exists in two distinct versions.

I like the album version, which opens with a fantastic rap from MC Fusion (‘Hey diddle diddle, here’s a brand new riddle/ What’s shallow and cheap with a hole in the middle?’ Answer: a Stock, Aitken & Waterman record), but I love the single version.  Where the album track is about sexless manufactured pop, the single version is a quiet, understated celebration of queer sexuality.  It’s worth remembering that at the time this came out the Western AIDS crisis was raging, and queer sexuality was associated with disease, death, and an embattled minority struggling to hold onto even the most basic of human rights.  For Chumbawamba to release, in this context, a single that presents queer sexuality as something celebratory and life-affirming was a deeply political act, and one that had a profound impact on me as I took my first Bambi-like steps out of the closet and into a world that seemed almost overwhelmingly hostile.  For a while I treated the final verse almost as a manifesto to live by (‘Farewell to all the smiling angels/ I have a date with some little devil/ Girls will be boys and boys will be girls/ I found a bed full of heaven in this hell of a world’), and I still think this is a great, chilled pop song – one of Chumbawamba’s finest moments.

Their next album, 1994’s Anarchy, is my favourite Chumbawamba album.  It’s pretty much a pure pop record, but that’s pop as everything it can be – guitar-driven, synth-driven, funny, serious, moving, angry – not pop as it’s usually thought of – bland, formulaic and disposable.  Picking stand-out tracks from this is really quite difficult, because I want basically to say “the whole album”.  But if I have to chose: ‘Give the Anarchist a Cigarette’, ‘Homophobia’ (sad album version here; angry single version here), ‘Heaven/Hell’, ‘This Year’s Thing’ (doesn’t seem to be available online), and ‘Never Do What You Are Told’ are all great.  The pinnacle of the album, though, is the coldly furious ‘Enough is Enough’.  The song is a collaboration with MC Fusion of Credit to the Nation, and was written as a response to the election of the BNP’s first ever councillor.  This means it was sparked by the same event that sent me to the anti-BNP march on the day of my first ever live experience of Chumbawamba – and this song was the climax of that gig.

I’m going to skip over the next couple of releases, the 1995 album Swingin’ With Raymond and the 1996 EP Portraits of Anarchists, not so much because I hate them (though they don’t entirely work) as because I’m already more than 2000 words into this post and I’m not halfway through the band’s career yet.  The following album, 1997’s Tubthumper, is also not a favourite of mine, but there are other things from this period that are worth mentioning.  The first of these is that those of us who had assumed that Anarchy’s respectable #29 would be Chumbawamba’s high-water mark in terms of chart success (Swingin’ didn’t trouble the top 50) suffered a  period of sustained shock.  First ‘Tubthumping’ got to #2 in the UK singles chart (held off the top spot by Will Smith’s ‘Men in Black’), before becoming a bona fide global hit; then Tubthumper broke the top 20 in the UK album chart; and then – this is the one that astonishes me how ever many times I look at it – Tubthumper reached #3 on the US album charts.

Of course, that success was achieved at the expense of signing to a major record label – EMI – that the band had slagged off earlier in their career.  There was a very definite feeling that they had sold out to the devil, and, indeed, many of their fans refused to have anything to do with them from this point on.  Personally, I was a little torn.  On the one hand, Chumbawamba’s whole political and aesthetic stance up to this point – anarchist, DIY, anti-corporate – was radically at odds with what was at the time probably the most corporate of the major labels.  At the same time, I could see the sense in Chumba’s argument that, once they had decided to sign to a commercial label (Anarchy and Swingin’ had come out on One Little Indian, where their earlier records had been self-released), it didn’t really make much difference which commercial label they were signed to – all of them were motivated by profit rather than political or artistic concerns.  There’s really no getting away, though, from the fact that Tubthumper is their most apolitical album, which is either a sign of the band making changes to appeal to EMI or, at best, a missed opportunity.

To be fair to the band, while the album – with one or two exceptions like ‘Scapegoat’ – may have veiled its politics pretty heavily, some of the bands other actions around this time were as overtly political as ever.  Performing ‘Tubthumping’ on the Letterman show in America, for example, they changed the words of the song to call for the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal, and when they were performing the same song at the 1998 Brit Awards they again changed the words to highlight that New Labour – then regarded as the shining saviours of the country – had ‘sold out the dockers, just like they’ll sell out the rest of us’.  That evening was also the time they emptied the contents of an ice bucket over the then deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott.  This was widely reported as a brattish stunt, but it had a serious point related to their earlier decision to change the words of their song – despite his much-vaunted union background, and despite being the minister responsible, Prescott had refused to intervene on the Liverpool dockers behalf.

Chumbawamba’s next album – WYSIWYG, released in 2000 – suffers from a rather desperate attempt to produce another single hit, but is for my money noticeably better than its predecessor.  It’s a return to the ‘collage’ format of Jesus H Christ (though comprising original compositions with only one cover version), with 23 songs included in the track list.  Several of the key musical themes return at different points in the album, which makes it a satisfying album to listen to as a complete piece of work.  There are also some stand-out individual tracks, like ‘Celebration, Florida’, ‘Jesus in Vegas’ and ‘Dumbing Down’ (which I interpret as the band’s apology for the lack of sharp content on Tubthumper).  I’ve thought, ever since I heard it, that it’s a real shame this wasn’t their big-selling album.  If ‘She’s Got All The Friends That Money Can Buy’ had been replaced by ‘Tubthumping’ and ‘Scapegoat’ had been added on as the 24th track the resulting hybrid would have worked as an album, and would have given all the people who bought it a much better idea of what the band was all about.  But then again, fumbling their big moment in the limelight seems very appropriate for Chumbawamba, somehow.

The aftermath of that album saw Chumbawamba’s return to the wilderness.  They were dropped by EMI (or left; accounts vary), ended up self-releasing albums on their own label again – hence losing the services of the pluggers who got them radio and TV exposure – and were back to playing venues of a size they’d outgrown years earlier.  That kind of experience is the sort of thing that kills a lot of bands, especially bands who are approaching the 20th year of their career, so just keeping going was an achievement.  That they managed in these circumstances to release what is my second-favourite album of theirs is pretty remarkable.

That album is 2002’s Readymades, and it’s a significant shift in musical direction.  The title refers to the fact that most of the songs on this album are built round ‘found objects’ – samples of folk records, for the most part.  This is clearly in some ways an extension of the collage technique they’d employed on other albums, but it’s a much more sophisticated version of it, with the samples being surrounded by complete organic structures rather than being simply tacked onto the end or the beginning of another song.  The use of folk samples, rather than material from pop culture, also helps to give this album a very different texture and mood.  I loved the ‘camp cabaret’ approach that Chumba had taken in the mid period of their career – as I keep saying, it was a glorious thing to witness live – but it was probably time for them to leave that behind, and this smaller, more intimate record achieved that brilliantly.  As with Anarchy, I find it hard to single out individual songs because I basically want to recommend the whole album, but ‘Salt Fare, North Sea’, ‘Home With Me’, ‘If It Is To Be, It Is Up To Me’, and ‘Without Reason Or Rhyme (The Killing of Harry Stanley)’ are all stand-out tracks.  Probably my favourite of all is ‘Don’t Try This At Home’, which manages to be both understated and anthemic.

I’m trying to avoid using a particular phrase here – ‘grown-up music’ – because it has such dreadful AOR associations, and manages to simultaneously imply that the band’s previous albums were juvenile and this one is deathly dull.  But this is a remarkable album, showcasing a band moving decisively in a new direction while keeping true to their founding principles, and without denigrating or devaluing anything they’ve done before.  Sorry, I know I’m gushing, but I find it hard to articulate just how great this album is, and it breaks my heart that it’s so little known, even amongst Chumbawamba fans.

Well, you may be relieved to hear that we’re on the home stretch now.  The next album – 2004’s Un – is worth mentioning mainly because it’s the last outing by the full, electric band (from this point on, Chumbawamba were a much smaller, semi-acoustic, folk-tinged outfit).  Much of the album misfires, and even as a dedicated fan I have to concede that, in the light of the glorious Readymades, this sounds too much like an unsuccessful attempt to return to a past version of the band.  The single, ‘On Ebay’, deserved radio play and ‘Rebel Code’ is especially worth a listen – a song quietly celebrating the work of ‘hactivists’ years before most people were even aware of the concept.

Next up is A Singsong and a Scrap, from 2005.  This is the first album from the self-defined ‘folk’ Chumbawamba (it doesn’t sound much like folk music to me, but that probably just reflects my unfamiliarity with the contemporary folk scene – it can’t all be Mumford & Sons, presumably).  Before looking up the track-listing online I could only remember two songs from this album, which is probably not a good sign.  On the other hand, both of those songs – ‘The Land of Do What You’re Told’, and the untitled final track which is sometimes known as ‘The Untraditional’ – are really excellent.  I particularly like ‘The Untraditional’ – it wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack, although it’s actually about all the silenced same-sex love affairs in earlier centuries.

2008’s The Boy Bands Have Won** is a better album overall, I think, in part because they seem to have understood better how to arrange songs for their new, stripped-back sound.  Stand-out tracks on this one are ‘El Fusilado’, ‘All Fur Coat & No Knickers’, ‘Lord Bateman’s Motorbike’ and ‘Waiting for the Bus’.   It would be fair to say that I don’t find as much pure pleasure in the ‘folk’ Chumbawamba’s albums as I did in their earlier ones, but their song writing was continuing to develop; ‘Lord Bateman’s Motorbike’ in particular is probably as intricate a lyric as they ever wrote.

And then finally there is one more album in Chumba’s discography – ABCDEFG, released in 2010 – but as I haven’t got round to listening to that one yet, I can’t tell you anything about it.

So, how to sum up this band, or what they mean to me?  I’m struggling because, as with REM,  Chumbawamba’s music has been threaded through my life so intimately that it feels like part of it.  Without Chumbawamba I think I would have blundered around for much longer before I worked out that I was attracted to the anti-authoritarian end of leftwing politics.  They helped me to understand that leftwing politics could be about optimism for the future as much as anger at the present, and they helped me to understand how queer politics and feminism weren’t a sideshow (as many – straight, cisgendered, male – leftists did and still do treat them) but integral parts of the change we are trying to enact.

Just as important, though, without Chumbawamba I would have had a whole lot less fun.  I wouldn’t have had the excitement of their live gigs, or the pleasure of listening to their recordings.  I wouldn’t have laughed as much as I have.  I wouldn’t have got into as many arguments as I did with people who spouted the old line “politics and music don’t mix”, or who couldn’t understand that having a good time in defiance of a system that wants us all to be solid, safe and predictable is a political act.

I said further up this post that the time of Chumbawamba’s greatest success coincided with a time when they were at their most apolitical, and I stand by that, but that’s not to say they were entirely apolitical.  I’m not going to make a case for ‘Tubthumping’ as a revolutionary song; it’s not a call to arms like ‘Enough is Enough’, or a celebration of quiet subversion like ‘You Can’t Trust Anyone Nowadays’.  But it’s still a song about resisting defeat, about refusing to give in, about standing back up no matter how many times they knock you down.  It’s about refusing to give up, or sit down, or shut up.  It’s a song about being resolutely, defiantly yourself in the face of endless conformity.  That’s very much what Chumbawamba were always about, and it’s why I’ll miss them.

* – A small footnote re. the band name.  Chumbawamba – pronounced “chum-buh-wum-buh”, stress on the first and third syllables – is probably just a nonsense word; although the band have given alternative explanations over the years it’s fairly obvious most of them are not intended to be serious.  It’s acceptable to shorten the name to Chumba from time to time, especially if you’re as clumsy a typist as I am.  If you’re a proper, long standing fan then you’re allowed (by the strange etiquette that governs these things) to call them The ‘Wamba, but only if you do so in a deeply ironic and postmodern fashion.  If you call them The Chumbas people will look at you pityingly and start shuffling away.

** – The Boy Bands Have Won is actually the short form of the title.  The full version is (I hope you’re sitting comfortably): The boy bands have won, and all the copyists and the tribute bands and the TV talent show producers have won, if we allow our culture to be shaped by mimicry, whether from lack of ideas or exaggerated respect. You should never try to freeze culture. What you can do is recycle that culture. Take your older brother’s hand-me-down jacket and re-style it, re-fashion it to the point where it becomes your own. But don’t just regurgitate creative history, or hold art and music and literature as fixed, untouchable and kept under glass. The people who try to ‘guard’ any form of music are, like the copyists and manufactured bands, doing it the worst disservice, because the only thing that you can do to music that will damage it is not change it, not make it your own. Because then it dies, then it’s over, then it’s done, and the boy bands have won.  It’s supposedly the longest album title in history, and shows them worrying away at the same ideas that lay behind the desire to re-purpose the songs they ‘poplifted’ for Jesus H Christ.

This entry was posted in About me, Music, Political commentary, Sexuality. Bookmark the permalink.