Like most people, I first became aware of Chumbawamba with 1997’s ‘Tubthumping’. Unlike most people, my interest in the band endured beyond it. I was a big fan for a few years, eagerly searching Glasgow’s second-hand record shops to find copies of their old albums. Whilst not as aesthetically appealing as the Manic Street Preachers they were similarly a way of life rather than a band. It almost seems ridiculously quaint in 2012 but their record sleeves were treasure troves of inspiration, filled with explanations of each song’s back-story, relevant historical events, references to other texts and quotes from activists, artists and intellectuals I’d never heard of. It’s no understatement to say that whenever I discovered one of their albums in those shops I was almost more excited about reading the sleeve than listening to the record, such was the wealth of inspiration and information I would gain from them. Between them, Chumbawamba and the Manics were responsible for an alternative political history to that which I was concurrently learning in university – it’s certainly because of them that I ended up writing my final dissertation on the Situationists.
‘Tubthumping’’s ode to alcohol may have slotted neatly into 1997’s charts but Chumbawamba were always a band out of sorts with mainstream musical trends. Their first ‘proper’ album, Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records, was a coruscating and intelligent response to the then almost entirely-uncriticised Live Aid. They sang about and against homophobia, racism and sexism when the charts were ruled by Britpop and plastic pop; they sang about capitalist exploitation and class struggle when Britain’s left was still largely in love with New Labour. The multi-million selling Tubthumper features songs about New Labour’s betrayal of the working-class, the link between exploitative landlords and homelessness, the false consciousness pushed by the media and the Liverpool Dockers’ strike. The (almost) title track is typically presented as a sneering attack of ‘booze Britain’ these days but to my ears it always sounded like a joyous celebration of working-class community – indeed, in the context of the album’s lament on New Labour’s failure the repeated refrain ‘We’ll be singing when we’re winning’ sounds immensely poignant. Their sound was never static and, while they recorded an early album of traditional English rebel songs, their latter work involved a strident move into folk. To understand how strident, one of their final albums has a title to make Fiona Apple weep: 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 From 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 Particular 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. There’s so much in that title but the main thing to take away from it is that as a band they were deeply passionate about their music, a markedly different idea of them than that of the leaden comedy trots they were portrayed as after the John Prescott/Brits event. Sure, they were idiosyncratic but wonderfully, brilliantly so.
The faux-outrage over that Prescott incident perfectly illustrated a music industry that was bloated, pompous and self-absorbed. Many seemed indignant that a band would dare bring politics to the Brits, as if the Brits existed in an apolitical vacuum and there was no consequence from hosting politicians like Blair and Prescott. Of course, the prank happened early on in New Labour’s reign – I suspect once hatred of that government became fashionable many Brit attendees would have briefly raised their heads from their lines to laugh and applaud. Jimmy McGovern’s film ‘Dockers’, about the industrial dispute Chumbawamba were trying to highlight, is a desperately sad requiem for the power of organised labour in Britain and is well worth checking out if you think throwing water over a politician is inexcusable.
The live album Showbusiness! remains my favourite record of theirs. It kicks off with a medley combining a brief manifesto, ‘Never Do What You Are Told’ with an angry, moving song about human spirit in a Nazi concentration camp. That song, ‘”Rappoport’s Testament: I Never Gave Up”, is everything that was great about Chumbawamba: it’s deeply humane and inspiring, it’s catchy as hell and it urges you to action. Don’t let the bastards grind you down was their enduring message and the UK needs that more than ever.