Chumbawamba

TrackSingle / Album
(Someone's Always Telling You How To) BehaveAgitProp Agit666
Sometimes PlunderShhh
Look! No Strings!Shhh
Unilever - How To Succeed In BusinessPictures of Starving Children Sell Records
How To Get Your Band On TelevisionPictures of Starving Children Sell Records
Always Tell The Voter What The Voter Wants To HearNever Mind The Ballots
The Candidates Find Common GroundNever Mind The Ballots
Chase PC's Flee Attack By Own DogSlap!
That's How Grateful We AreSlap!
Give The Anarchist A CigaretteAnarchy

 

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Chumbawamba (back row l to r): Jude Abbott, Neil Ferguson, Danbert Nobacon, Dunstan Bruce (front row l to r): Boff Whalley, Alice Nutter, Harry Hamer, Lou Watts

 

 

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Chumbawamba playlist

 

Contributor: John Hartley

9th February 1998: the moment when Chumbawamba undid all their hard work in one moment of ice-bucket tomfoolery. It is hard enough trying to make it as a band, and when your band has a message it is even harder. When that message is not even a widely-held viewpoint, the odds are stacked yet higher. It is quite incredible really that the loose creative anarchist cooperative that toured and recorded under the name Chumbawamba had even been invited to the UK music industry’s glamorous event of glitzy self-celebration. However, they were there on merit. While 1997 single Tubthumping might have reached number two in the UK Singles Chart (and indeed topped the charts in another five countries), this was no flash in the pan; it merely was the quite unexpected summit of a long journey. Unfortunately, when the journey in question involves sharing a political message, there is never any room to hide, and when Danbert Nobacon gave the Labour Party’s deputy leader John Prescott an impromptu taste of a future internet-sensation every holder of an opposing viewpoint was given the easiest opportunity to say “I told you so …”.

It would seem that, just as they themselves had once proclaimed in gloriously catchy fashion, Someone’s Always Telling You How To Behave, throwing a bucket of champagne-chilling ice over a senior politician is not acceptable behaviour if you are a band who have previously spent time and effort writing clever and thoughtful songs challenging the status quo. The track in question itself was an instantly-hummable protest against homophobia in pop music which, while not setting the charts alight by any means (to make matters worse, it didn’t even qualify for the indie charts as a result of its distribution deal) certainly consolidated a path towards dance-rhythm and sample-infused music that would become popular with an increasingly large fan base.

(Someone’s Always Telling You How To) Behave was a re-recording of a track from Chumbawamba’s album Shhh. This album in turn was effectively a revision of an otherwise-unreleased album Jesus H. Christ; the band’s liberal use of samples was frowned upon by some sources and blocked by others. The resulting Shhh was largely a commentary on censorship. But not exclusively … Stitch That is a cover version of a folk song which tells the story of an emotionally and physically-battered woman’s revenge with samples from Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band while Happiness Is Just A Chant Away references Harry Roberts.

Borrowing a line from one of their own songs, Sometimes Plunder is a protest about sampling, and the royalty-seeking actions of those representing established artists and features a rap from MC Fusion; he will appear again later in Chumbawamba’s tale. Look! No Strings! meanwhile contains choralistics, the theme tune to children’s TV show Rainbow and the beautifully narrated “true story of an American housewife who claims to have taken mid-air photographs of Jesus Christ in the skies of Indiana”.

Shhh was my introduction to Chumbawamba, and that I came to hear about them at all was due to a large slice of chance. Making my way home from the land of the lost (more commonly known by people outside my immediate family as Market Street, Westhoughton) I walked past a youth. He looked familiar. I carried on walking, then stopped. He, it transpired had done exactly the same and in a rare moment of happy synchronicity we turned, said each other’s name and reignited a friendship that had lain dormant in the ten years since we had left primary school. Christopher Greenhalgh, a soldier trying to earn himself a discharge from the army by decorating his limited room space with CND banners and paraphernalia, reintroduced me to other old school friends, including Dale. It was Dale who had Shhh on his stereo, and who gave me a cassette which prompted my self-education of anarchism.

Dale loved the grungier side of alternative music – Ozric Tentacles, Sonic Youth and some band called Nirvana. This largely passed me by; what did stand out, however, was the punchy, forthright Unilever – How To Succeed In Business. A passionately punchy rant against big business was just the thing to prick my ears; with its bubbly bass line and flat-vowelled assault on the hypocrisy of capitalism whitewashing inconvenient truths, the track was almost guaranteed to hook this political undergraduate in. If any more hooking was needed it would be readily available in the next song on Dale’s cassette, How To Get Your Band On Television. While I felt – and still do – that some of the song’s targets were a bit unfair (I don’t think the emotional response of Live Aid was “crocodile tears”) there was undeniably some hypocrisy going on: the cocaine habits of Jagger and Richards “financed by hunger and disease” by way of example. There was also the mirthfully cruel suggestion that the biggest donation to be made in Chumbawamba’s very own Slag Aid would be to nail Cliff Richard to a cross.

Both tracks, it transpired, were on Chumbawamba’s first full length album Pictures Of Starving Children Sell Records (1986), a response to the celebrity fundraising efforts of high profile musicians. The sleeve notes to the album gave a considered and well-constructed argument interspersed with lyrics, and plenty cause to question what I already thought I knew. And although the tracks were full of criticism of the world in which we live, they did at least also raise a challenge. This was evident in the two songs mentioned above. Unilever, with its refrain of “Somewhere in this cycle is me and you/ What are we prepared to do?” laid down a reasonable enough gauntlet; How To Get Your Band On Television bluntly reminds us “Ladies and gentlemen, just imagine it, someone comes along, takes everything you own, your space, your house, separates you from your family and then hits you in the face if you say anything different. Well, that’s what we’ve been doing to the third world for the past four hundred years. That’s you and me. You the viewers at home, me in the studio, the pop stars, everyone. That’s how we make the third world, every day, today and every day.”

I began to read about anarchism and discovered a few things. Most strikingly was that ‘anarchy’ does not necessarily mean the chaos the term is generally used to describe, being derived from Greek to mean ‘without chief’. No hierarchy: it is not necessarily a bad thing. I learned that most commentators describe anarchy as an ideal, a utopia, an unworkable dream. And then I read about the many communities that provide sustainable models: some intentionally manufactured, some naturally developed. I then began to read about the various disagreements within anarchist thinking, with a spectrum ranging from aggressively violent to almost hippy-like peaceful revolutionaries. There was quite a bit to read. I concluded that I might not be an anarchist, but that questioning the status quo, something I had developed since my mid teens, was the right thing to do.

Handy for me then that, heading into my final year of studying Government and Public Policy, I decided to investigate Chumbawamba’s follow-up album Never Mind The Ballots. Thirty two years after its 1987 release it is starkly clear that very little has changed in British politics and that our political representatives will stop at nothing to get our support. It only takes a quick search of YouTube to find an equal match of outlandish claims from would-be Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his denials and bumbling pleas of misinterpretation. Always Tell The Voter What The Voter Wants To Hear provides a deserving pop at the nonsense claimed by politicians, especially – but not exclusively – those of the major parties with a guitar and drum-driven rush as quick as that of somebody seeking your mark on the ballot paper. The Candidates Find Common Ground, meanwhile, takes the value of compromise – necessary for a successful society – and questions what we might actually be presented with as consensus: “Conventional weapons to kill people nicely” or “Nuclear weapons to keep the peace”? Well, actually, some of us would like no weapons at all. Which party will provide that option for me …? As the old joke goes, no matter who you vote for, the government always wins.

Chumbawamba’s releases seemed to cherish the prospect of education and information almost as much as the opportunity to make and distribute music. Their recording of a selection of historical English folk songs and its release as a 10″ mini-LP served the purpose of providing an effective background and context for their take on modern-day lifestyle. However, for the first time investigator of Chumbawamba, English Rebel Songs 1381-1914 is not the most representative of the band’s body of work. Its 1990 follow-up Slap!, on the other hand, gives a much better indication of the direction Chumbawamba’s music was heading as they found their feet and an increasing following. Here was an album that seemed to celebrate anarchism and small victories over the state as opposed to bemoaning the injustices around. Perhaps the best example of this could be found in Chase PC’s Flee Attack By Own Dog. Never huge fans of the forces of law and order, Chumbawamba took inspiration and a large dose of humour from a story reported in a local newspaper, whose headline provided the title: “I wasn’t put on this earth to be bossed around by someone wearing flares” complains the police dog when explaining its decision to bite the hands that feed it. Meanwhile, That’s How Grateful We Are provided a reminder that, despite their attacks on western Capitalist ideologies, the far left was no better in the eyes of Chumbawamba, telling the story of an attack on a statue of Stalin by oppressed Hungarian workers revolting against the imposition of working conditions Communism was supposed to stand against.

By the time Chumbawamba released Anarchy in 1994 their profile was about to peak. With its front cover showing a baby in the process of being born – no cuddly, casual-shopper-friendly artwork here, you know – the album was filled with plenty songs of uncompromising message. A collaboration with Credit to the Nation on Enough Is Enough exemplified the no-nonsense stance, and rightly so. It’s a pity people still don’t take notice. See also Homophobia – “you can’t love who you want to love” seems a bizarre concept to me but still, twenty five years on, there are people who just don’t accept that it is ok for us all to not be the same.

However, as that collection of rebel songs proved with its range of over 500 years, change takes time and sometimes that change needs a bit of a prod. A fact that did not escape Chumbawamba, who pointed out in Give The Anarchist A Cigarette “nothing ever burns down by itself/every fire needs a little bit of help”.

Three years later Chumbawamba were topping national charts. Unfortunately for them the fire of their moment of opportunity was doused alongside a deputy Prime Minister. They would go on to release another eight albums, but by then they would forever be known as the band that chucked ice over John Prescott.

 

 

 

Chumbawamba website

Chumbawamba facebook

Chumbawamba on Discogs

Boff Whalley’s website

Danbert Nobacon’s website

Chumbawamba biography (iTunes)

John Hartley has written several posts for the Toppermost site. He is the author of “Capturing The Wry”, a memoir of the early stages in his quest to write the perfect pop song. He tweets as @Johny Nocash and the music he creates can be found at Broken Down Records.

TopperPost #802

1 Comment

  1. Keith Shackleton
    Jul 16, 2019

    Good work, sir. English Rebel Songs has returned to my turntable very recently! The sheer ubiquity of Tubthumping probably precludes a top ten selection, but I’d like to put a word in for the Dave Fridmann remix which is just dandy.

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