Like all genres of music, Punk music exists on a spectrum that is made up of sub-genres. Today’s featured band, Chumbawamba, occupied two places on this musical spectrum. They were a political punk band that operated under the term Anarcho Punk, but as time went by, they evolved into one of the UK’s most successful Pop Punk bands. Their hit song “Tubthumping” is one that made it all the way to #1 on the Pop charts. Even my lovely wife, who normally expresses disdain for Punk music, has been known to sing the chorus to this song aloud as she bustles about the house. Chumbawamba stayed together and remained relevant for over thirty years, which, in a genre where band members come and go all of the time, is no small feat of longevity. They may be best known for their one chart hit “Tubthumping”, but their career was full and rich beyond that. Without further delay, here is the story of Chumbawamba…the punk band that you may actually already know.
When Punk music exploded onto the UK music scene in the late 1970s, it did so as a reaction to the state of the nation’s politics at the time. Unemployment, class stratification and social segregation, racial discontentment and poverty were all lightning rod talking points for those who felt as though the game of life was rigged and that they were trapped in a system that worked against them for their whole lives. The anger of England’s disaffected youth bubbled to the surface in numerous ways. One of the most public and visible was in the emergence of Punk rock. There were some, more famous bands such as The Sex Pistols, for whom anger was an energy that was just as much theatre as it was actual social unrest. But there were other, less famous local bands, for whom the anger and the vitriol was very real. One such band was Chumbawamba.
Right from the very beginning, Chumbawamba took square aim at the political scene in England and lampooned it unmercifully. Their roots were in local community halls, small pubs and even town squares. The members of the band sympathized with those whose lives were oppressed, and often, as a result, Chumbawamba would appear at political rallies for striking workers or for poverty-related protests. Needless to say, to someone like Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a band like Chumbawamba was viewed as more of an annoyance than a threat, like ants at a picnic, but just the same, the disapproval of all such anti-government protests became part of her unofficial government policy. It is easy to rail at perceived injustices and to criticize the powers that be, but when the powers that be push back, protesters are placed at a crossroads.
For a small indie collective like Chumbawamba, who certainly did not have the financial resources to take out newspaper ads or to produce glossy record albums filled with protest songs, it is tough to battle a behemoth such as Margaret Thatcher and come out of the battle unscathed. So, the band made a decision that helped them find the career path that would lead to longevity and make their existence count for something. That decision was to stay true to their roots but, at the same time, to broaden their range of targets to include larger, more systemic issues at play in England. This led to the release of their first album called Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records. This album was released in response to the Bob Geldof-led Live Aid Famine Relief concerts. To a band like Chumbawamba, Live Aid was performative politics at its worst. They claimed that it was all feel-good marketing aimed at raising the business profiles of those taking part, while actually doing nothing to address the root causes of global poverty and famine. While sales of Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records were dwarfed by the money raised through Live Aid, this album was the start of a career that saw Chumbawamba monetize their anger in ways that actually helped those most directly affected. From the very beginning, Chumbawamba have always directed a percentage of profits realized from the sales of their albums back into the coffers of community groups. Thus, their albums have funded labour union activism, helped to provide rent money for groups seeking to provide safe injection sites for those fighting drug addictions, helped to fund legal aid challenges for people falsely accused of crimes and/or those seeking to address instances of alleged police brutality, as well as funding organizations on the leading edge of the HIV crisis of the 1980s and many who are working on projects aimed at issues of gender identity and sexual orientation today.
For a band that, quite literally, put their money where their mouths were, Chumbawamba made one final tweak to their music that helped exponentially to raise even more funds for community groups…they went Pop. Like many punk bands, the music that characterized the early phase of their career was stereotypical punk rock. It was raw, fast, angry and political. Needless to say, that sort of thing played well to audiences looking to hear the Monarchy slammed or Prime Minister Thatcher publicly rebuked. But, it did little to gain airplay on the BBC, and thus the potential inherent within their song catalogue to help generate funds for the very people they were seeking to represent was always going to be limited had they stayed on their initial, angry, fiery tract. So, after a decade of wearing their punk rock uniform proudly, the members of Chumbawamba made the pragmatic decision to diversify their sound in the hopes of reaching a wider audience and increasing their revenue. As you may know from previous posts, the punk rock community has exacting standards of purity that they expect all bands to adhere to. One of those standards was to never sign a major label recording contract. Chumbawamba did just that. They signed with EMI as a means of reaching a wider audience with their message. The backlash from within the UK punk community was instant and vicious. A collection of punk bands came together and released an album called Bare Faced Hypocrisy Sells Records. Thus, Chumbawamba found themselves in the musical wilderness just like bands such as Jawbreaker did when they signed their deal.
But Chumbawamba stuck to their guns and released their major label debut album Tubthumper. The first single was “Tubthumping”. It was a song written about the resiliency of common, working class people. The song famously opens with the verse:
“I get knocked down but I get up again
You are never gonna keep me down.” repeated four times.
The song then segues into a list of the drinks that the locals like to drink in the pubs the band played in.
“He drinks a whiskey drink. He drinks a vodka drink.
He drinks a lager drink. He drinks a cider drink.
He sings the songs that remind him of the good times.
He sings the songs that remind him of the better times.
Oh Danny boy, Danny boy, Danny boy.”
Thus, “Tubthumping” became an ode to the people who supported the band during their early days. It was these very people that Chumbawamba aimed to help via their music and the money they were able to raise from playing it.This didn’t stop others from calling Chumbawamba out as having sold out to the corporate world that they claimed to rail against. But those original punk fans needn’t have worried about where Chumbawamba’s allegiances lay. As “Tubthumping” raced up the charts, the band suddenly found itself as the UK flavour of the month. They were invited to play on all kinds of television shows, and their music was being played on the BBC, too. All of this attention provided the members of Chumbawamba with a public platform the likes of which they could only have dreamed of just a short time earlier. They made wise use of their time. For example, one of the band members was a lady named Alice Nutter. She is the voice you hear during the “Oh, Danny boy, Danny boy, Danny boy” segment of “Tubthumping”. She was invited to appear as one of four guests on the US TV talk show, Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. Mr. Maher decided to accuse Nutter of being the very sellout that those in the punk community claimed by stating that the Tubthumper CD that was rocketing up the charts was being sold at a price point that the band’s very fans couldn’t actually afford. Maher went on to say that this showed that the band was really just about the money at this point in their career. Nutter replied that the band didn’t set the price point and that she agreed that it was too high. Then she advocated that their fans simply “nick” the CDs from corporate record chains and only pay for them at independent shops or if they could afford to at all. As a result of this, no one can be certain as to how many units of Tubthumper actually were sold. The official totals came in at approximately 800,000 units, but most insiders speculate that well over a million and a half CDs made it into the hands of fans, many of whom had followed Nutter’s advice and stole the CD from places like HMV.
Fast forward to 2012, the members of the band were looking for other ways to branch out and take advantage of new opportunities that were presenting themselves in the form of technological advancements. Thus, Chumbawamba decided to officially retire as a band. But they did so on their terms by recording a live concert DVD called Going, Going…that included every musician who had ever played on any of their records. The album/DVD sold well and helped fund many community-based groups with one last big payout. While no longer a performing band, Chumbawamba continue to collect royalties from their work; especially from the song “Tubthumping”, which has been licensed for use in a host of movies and television shows. In true Chumbawamba fashion, they always included clauses in any licensing agreement that reserve a percentage of any funds generated as being dedicated to local community groups. In this way, their music continues to act like a benevolent trust fund that keeps on giving and giving to those who benefit most. It is a legacy that the band is most proud of and one that, despite the accusations of selling out to corporate interests, is something that they feel maximized their ability to make an impactful difference in the lives of real people because of their music. Margaret Thatcher may have come and gone, but “Tubthumping” lives on and on. Even my wife knows the words and continues to sing it aloud, so you know what I say must be true.
The link to the official website for Chumbawamba can be found here.
The link to a news story about Alice Nutter saying she didn’t care if fans steal the Tubthumper CD can be found here.
PS: The title of this series, Who’s Punk!? What’s the score!? comes from the song “Boxcar” by the band Jawbreaker. Please show this great band some live and visit their website, listen to some of their music, buy a ticket to a show in your area, purchase some merch., whatever tickles your fancy. The link to their official website can be found here. Thanks.
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