Who’s Punk?! What’s the score?!…Song #4/25: Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down by Interpol

Today you are getting two posts in one!  The first part of this post will be standard fare regarding an underrated song called “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down” from a superb album called Turn On The Bright Lights by post-punk revival darlings Interpol. The second half of this post will be a trip down the rabbit hole that came about as a result of this song and a warning about being a critical consumer of the information we view on the Interweb. All in all, there is lots to talk about so let’s get down to business. Here is the story of a girl called Stella and a band called Interpol and why sometimes things aren’t always what they appear to be.

Like all music genres, punk music has gone through its share of evolutionary phases. The first phase is generally called pre-punk or proto-punk and involves those bands who introduced punk music to the world. These bands include Iggy and the Stooges, along with MC5. They generally played in the late 1960s and early 70s. The period that most casual fans think of as being the time of punk rock occurred throughout the rest of the 1970s. That is when we saw the emergence of The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees and many more. As the 1970s ended and the 80s began, we entered what is known as the post-punk period. This era saw the birth of The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division and a whole lot more than that. Post-punk branched off into Synth Pop, New Wave and Alternative music, as the bands began branching out by becoming more melodic. Fast forward past Grunge in the 90s (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Bikini Kill) and you have Y2K and the birth of a new generation of bands that were called post-punk revival. These bands included The Strokes, Yeah, Yeah Yeahs, The White Stripes and today’s featured band, Interpol. Many of the post-punk revival bands started playing in and around New York City. They featured fresh and innovative songwriting and a style of musicianship that harkened back to the days of the post-punk bands of the early 1980s, hence the term post-punk revival.

Interpol: Sam Fogarino, Paul Banks, Carlos Dengler and Daniel Kessler.

In August of 2002. Interpol decided to release their debut album entitled Turn on the Bright Lights. This album was very well received by fans and critics alike. It was hailed as one of the Top Ten albums of the year on many year-end lists. Influential music magazine Pitchfork actually named it as Album of the Year for 2002. The biggest hit single that came from Bring on the Bright Lights was called “PDA”. *(I wrote about that song in a previous post that you can read here). One of the things that pleased people the most about the songs on this album was how literate and cinematic they seemed to be. Lead singer and principal songwriter Paul Banks was a graduate of NYU, where he earned a degree in Comparative Literature. Banks also grew up in a family that moved all over the world because of his father’s work. Consequently, Banks approached the songs on Turn on the Bright Lights with a worldly, literary sense that many young writers are unable to draw upon. As a result, many of the song lyrics feature evocative, almost poetic words and phrases that paint intimate portraits of scenes and dramatic scenarios that read like plays or novels. Furthermore, Banks and his bandmates made the deliberate decision to create songs that were open to interpretation. One such perfect example of this is a song called “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down”. 

There are several things that I like about this song but the first thing is that, stylistically, it is an obvious homage to Joy Division. Those post-punk bands such as Joy Division all came from a time period where I was discovering the music that became the foundation of my collection. I always consider The Cure and Dépêche Mode, early Simple Minds, Ultravox and others to be the bands that introduced me to the music that has gone on to become an important part of my life. So, when Paul Banks of Interpol channels his best Ian Curtis and the boys from Interpol jangle their way through this song in down stroke unison, I was immediately drawn to the music. The other thing about “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down” that I like is the story being told. First of all, I like story songs, as a general rule. In the case of this song, in particular, I like that Banks paints a portrait of Stella that reads like a character in a good book. Because ambiguity is such a feature of his songwriting, Banks never says exactly who Stella is or what she is going through but I am invested, just the same. There tend to be three categories of thought as to what this song is actually about. First of all, there are those who think Stella is a prostitute and that “diving” and “always being down” mean the obvious sexual innuendos that one would think they do. Secondly, there is a school of thought that suggests that this song is about addiction and that it is about having a dear friend named Stella fall into addiction and being unable to help her climb out of it. A final theory about the meaning of “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down” relies on the educational background of Paul Banks. This theory states that Banks was influenced by a series of books known as the Illuminatus Trilogy. *(If you want to learn more about these books, click here). For our purposes, all we need to know is that in these books, one of the main characters has a relationship with a girl named Stella aboard a submarine named the Leif Erikson. On Bring On The Bright Lights, there is a song called “Leif Erikson”, too, which adds fuel to the theory that today’s song is based on those books. Whatever the case, “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down” is a modern, dramatic, literate song that plays like a classic throwback tune. I liked it when I first heard it years ago and I still like it today.

This brings us to our rabbit hole.

YouTube, being what it is, uses its algorithm-based formula to throw music videos at me based on my previous choices. I must have spent much of this past spring time listening to/watching The Cure, Dépêche Mode and others because one day when I clicked on YouTube, there was “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down” sitting there waiting for me. I hadn’t listened to the song in a while, so seeing it there was like reconnecting with a long lost friend. The video’s thumbnail was that of a teenage/twenty-something girl who looked like she was high. I clicked on the link and was taken to a video that starts off with the band playing live for a few moments and then launches into a story that plays out like a movie. The story was gritty and harsh. But the action on screen meshed perfectly with the lyrics. As a work of creative Art, I was captivated and thought it was excellent. In order to go down the rabbit hole with me and learn the lesson that I took out of it, I need you to stop reading and watch this video now. Doing so will put the rest of this post into context and will make it a more enjoyable and easier to understand piece for you. However, having said that, this video depicts drug use, prostitution and addiction. The depictions in the video appear to be very real. Viewer discretion is advised. To watch the video of “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down” click here.  

After watching this video several times over the course of the summer and mulling over in my mind whether or not I should launch a blog post series about Punk rock and then deciding to actually do so, I thought that this song would be one that I would include. Having made that call, I thought it prudent to learn as much as I could about the song and the music video so I could talk about both knowledgeably. When I began to focus on the background of the video itself, I did so reading some of the viewer comments that accompanied it. In the past I have often found viewer comments to be quite helpful in determining why others found the video/song important to them, as well as other technical aspects of the video that I may not have been privy to otherwise. In the case of this particular video, I noticed that people in the comments kept referring to an actual movie called Christianne F. I had never heard of this film so I looked it up, and then, this is where the rabbit hole began to swallow me whole.

The real-life Christians F. during her Zoo Station days in Berlin.

Christianne F. is a German film that was based on a book called Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (We Children of Zoo Station) which is the true story of a young 13 year old girl who ran away from her middle-class home and found herself becoming addicted to heroin, acting as a teenage prostitute to support her habit and spending much time at one of Berlin’s main train stations most commonly known as Zoo Station. The people in the video comments raved about this movie, saying how important and influential it was in Germany in the early 1980s. From what I learned while doing my research into Christianne F., there was a thriving drug and teenage prostitution scene that revolved around Zoo Station back then. Berlin, in the late 70s/early 80s was also home to someone named David Bowie. You may recall that during his Berlin period, Bowie lived in Germany with Iggy Pop and ended up writing “China Girl” for Pop and “Heroes” for himself. Bowie plays an important role in the film Christianne F. because it was a nightclub concert of his that acts as the impetus for the teenage Christianne F. to sneak in and watch his show, which, in turn, is when she was introduced to heroin for the first time. Bowie appears as himself in the movie. He also supplied most of the songs for the movie soundtrack. On a different but related note, a decade later Irish band U2 would record an album in Germany called Achtung Baby! The first song on that album was called “Zoo Station”. I guess that station is a place that has more to do than simply catching a train ride.

David Bowie and actress Natja Brunkhorst from the movie Christian F. Brunkhorst was only a teenager herself at the time of filming. Many of the extras in the film were actual addicts from Zoo Station.

After learning all of this background information, I suddenly found myself thinking that the timing of the film and the music from its soundtrack didn’t add up to being in sync with when Interpol became a band and released “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down”. Once I thought that thought, I immediately returned to the video I had watched of the song on YouTube to see what exactly I had been watching and how this video came to be.  This is where the lesson about being a critical consumer of information comes into play. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that the video for this song….a video that I thought was so well put together…was not an Interpol video at all! The band had nothing to do with any of it! To confirm this, I went to Interpol’s official website and checked to see what their “official” video of “Stella” was. There is none. Well, that is not completely true. There is an audio-only video. But there is no live video nor a dramatic recreation video by the band in existence on the planet. So then, what the heck was I watching all these months?!

As it turns out, the video I was watching was the creation of an Interpol fan who goes by the YouTube name of Lichtwerk3. I couldn’t find out anything about this person, but by examining the various other videos on their playlist, it seems like Lichtwerk3 is a fan of the band and focuses on creating videos based on Interpol songs. I am not sure if this is a form of fanzine *(homemade magazines created by fans of bands, sold and/or passed around to other fans), but whatever the case, the video that I had been watching (and that you watched above) was a fan-created video that paired “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down” by Interpol with a German movie starring David Bowie called Christianne F.

Thumbnail image for the YouTube video for Slowdive’s “When the Sun Hits”. Oh look! It’s clips from Christian F. put to music again!

Secondly, as I researched the film, I discovered that there is a veritable cottage industry online of people who pair clips from the movie with songs that they like. There are dozens of songs used in this manner. Just for the sake of interest, click here to watch a video for a song called “When the Sun Hits” by a band called Slowdive. This is just one example of the movie being used as the backdrop to a song. There are literally dozens and dozens of music videos available that all use Christianne F. movie clips. It just goes to illustrate how important it is to know exactly what it is you are watching and/or reading when online. I spent months thinking that I was watching the official Interpol video for their song “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down”, when no such video ever existed. Instead, I was unknowingly watching what was essentially a movie trailer for a foreign film. It makes me wonder how many other things that I see and/or read are actually one thing when I thought they were something else. Perhaps this is how Nazi soldiers from WWII turn into Ukrainian freedom fighters who then morph back into Nazi soldiers before our bewildered eyes in Canada’s parliament, too. Things aren’t always what they appear at first blush in politics or in music..

I will end this post with the simple declaration that I like Interpol’s music. I adore their album Turn on the Bright Lights. I have liked “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down” from the very first time I heard it. I still like it today. I have learned a lot about being more careful with what I am watching on YouTube as well. You should, too. I want to give a shout-out to an online friend of mine who runs his own blog called Christian’s Music Musings. Like me, Christian writes about music. He grew up in Germany and was a big help in filling me in on the popularity and importance of the movie Christianne F. and of the goings on at Zoo Station. His blog can be reached by clicking here. Have a great rest of your day, everyone! Bye for now.

The link to the official Interpol audio-only video for their song “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down” can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.

The link to a video of a live performance of “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down” by Interpol…as filmed by a fan…can be found here. ***This is an excellent live recording and shows why the band is so highly respected and why the song is such a fan favourite. 

The link to the official website for Interpol can be found here.

The link to the official website for Pitchfork Magazine can be found here.

The link to the video for the trailer for the movie Christianne F. can be found here.

The link to the video for the song “Station to Station” by David Bowie from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the movie, Christianne F. can be found here.

***NOTE: The title for this series on punk rock is taken from the lyrics of a song called “Boxcar” by an amazing punk band out of San Francisco called Jawbreaker. Please show these guys some love and visit their website. While you are there, feel free to pick up some tickets to a show or to buy some cool merch. I thank the band for helping to inspire the writing of this post and for the creation of this series, as a whole. You can find their official website here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

Who’s Punk?! What’s the score?!: Song #3/50: Pinhead by The Ramones

You can tell a lot about a person and a society by how they treat those who, for whatever reason, come to be viewed as being different. For the sake of this post, I am going to refer to the term “different” as being people who possess intellectual and/or physical challenges. When I started working as an elementary school teacher in Ontario, it was the 1989/90 school year. Back in the early stages of my career, those students who possessed intellectual or physical challenges were often segregated from classrooms such as mine. They weren’t being punished or regarded with disdain. But the thinking definitely existed that these students were better off in a self-contained setting that could be designed specifically to meet their many needs. But, as my career reached the one-third mark in the mid-1990s, government legislation was introduced in Ontario that mandated a policy known as integration. What this meant in practical terms was that students with special needs would become part of so-called regular classroom life as much as was possible. Being Mr. Cynical Pants as I tend to be when it comes to the motives of governments, I believe that part of the impetus for this legislation was that it was the government’s way of reducing education expenditures by eliminating/scaling back the existence of parallel spaces within schools that were being dedicated for students with special needs. But, one of the very clear benefits that came about both for students with special needs and for the students in regular classrooms like mine was the opportunity to get to know one another and break down the walls of ignorance that kept us separated for so long. Working with students with special needs and the wonderful staff who accompanied them was a game changer for me as a teacher. In addition to teaching ABCs and 1-2-3s, we were all provided with real-time lessons in compassion and empathy and caring for others who were different from ourselves. The personal growth we received was self-evident. The students with special needs that joined our classroom ceased being mysterious entities and soon became friends that we welcomed without question. As they became part of our classroom world, the kids grew to become protective of their new friends. They viewed these children as being the same as anybody else, minus a few quirks and quarks that may have existed. A level of understanding and acceptance grew. We became a complete classroom family.  

Up until the years of the Covid pandemic, I would have been willing to state that we, as a society, had made progress in how we view and treat those that we deem as being different from us. But, the Covid pandemic turned out to be more than just a health scare. It became a social experiment that was weaponized by people with certain right wing views. Those views included a return to a world in which white is right and only Christians need bother to apply for membership. All other minority groups have seen setbacks in the past few years that are both societal and legislative. It isn’t easy being a person of colour, a woman seeking bodily autonomy, a child with special needs in schools, someone experiencing poverty, an immigrant, almost anyone on the LGBQTIA2S+ spectrum and so on. Our world has gotten crueler and colder as those harbouring hateful thoughts have gone on the march. The whole notion of racial purity and strength being one of the foundational aspects of these political movements does not bode well for those who are viewed as being different. If allowed to proceed unabated, it is not too far-fetched a notion to envision a world in which people with physical and/or intellectual challenges will be segregated away again …or even worse.  

Despite how it may seem so far, this is actually a music post about a song that is based upon a famous/infamous movie about the very topic of how we treat those we view as being different from ourselves. That movie is called Freaks. The song of the day is called “Pinhead” by The Ramones. I will end this post by connecting the dots to reveal a television show that drew the inspiration for its creation directly from a line in “Pinhead” and, by doing so, offers us all a utopian vision of how we can all live together in harmony regardless of our appearance and our capabilities. Let’s get on with the show!

The world was very different in 1923. One of the most common ways that society dealt with people who possessed intellectual and/or physical challenges was to lock them away in sanitariums or insane asylums. Mental illness was not viewed as an acceptable condition that was treatable. In fact, even shell shocked soldiers returning from the battlefields of Europe in WWI were often locked away from the general public. There was a very out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality at play. However, every now and again, it was deemed as being socially acceptable for the general public to come into contact with people who would otherwise be locked away. One of those socially acceptable times occurred whenever a circus would come to town. In those days, many traveling circuses had acts called Sideshow Freaks. In essence, the people who performed in sideshows tended to be advertised as being frightening creatures, maybe even dangerous, some were even billed as being evil. In reality, they were people with medical conditions such as being conjoined twins, people born without limbs or with smaller than usual heads or tiny bodies and so on. Many of these performers were kept in very cruel and inhumane conditions behind the scenes. Many were intellectually disabled and unable to advocate for themselves. It was an awful life for these vulnerable people who required protection and compassion and only ever received exploitation. It says a lot about the state of social mores back in 1923 that the most common reactions from paying customers to these “freak shows” was fear and revulsion. 

Against this backdrop, an author named Tod Robbins wrote a short story in 1923 called Spurs. This story was a murder mystery set in the world of a traveling circus in France. The plot involved one of the sideshow performers known as “The Dwarf” inheriting a large sum of money. Afterwards, a beautiful female con artist of “normal height and looks” decides to trick the man out of his money by pretending to fall in love with him. Needless to say, the story does not end well for this woman. Readers were given a glimpse of the environment of a traveling circus, along with the details of a crime plot gone wrong. In the end, the film rights to Spurs was purchased by MGM Studios. In 1931, MGM Studios released one of the first great horror movies called Dracula. This movie introduced the world to Bela Lugosi. The director of Dracula was a man called Tod Browning.  Because of the success of his movie with Lugosi, Browning was given free rein to choose his next project. Out of several that were brought to his attention, Browning opted to adapt for the screen the short story Spurs.

Browning discarded much of the storyline of the short story because he realized that the real story that needed to be explored was the world of the sideshow performers. Browning understood how society viewed them and wondered what it must be like to live one’s entire life being viewed with fear and hostility, living essentially in indentured servitude, with no one to care for you in any regard at all. So Browning created a film that came to be known as Freaks. The film followed some of the storyline from the short story Spurs, but it really focussed on exposing the attitudes of those who claimed to be “normal”. Browning hired actual sideshow performers and dared film audiences to look at them in all their humanity and then look at themselves as reflected in the performance of the blonde femme fatale who tries to con “The Dwarf” out of his money. Browning used his horror skills to good use. Because people were not used to being confronted by others who were missing limbs or had misshapen heads, etc., many audience members found Freaks to be horrifying in the extreme and unsettling at best. The movie’s pivotal scene involves a gathering of all the performers at a dinner. There is a sense of community among them all. The reason for the gathering is that they had all fallen for the charms of this con artist and had prepared a community dinner at which time they were going to officially welcome her into their traveling family. There is a clip for the movie that I urge you to watch by clicking here. If you watch the clip, you will see the reaction this woman has when she realizes that the performers consider her to be one of them now as they chant, “Gobble! Gobble! We Accept you!  We accept you!  One of us! One of us!”.  The scene is not gruesome or horrifying. To me, it plays more like an episode of The Twilight Zone TV show. However, Freaks ended up being banned for decades in the US and around the world. People were just not prepared to welcome into their lives other people who may have been different from them. It says a lot about the state of society back then, and as Browning was trying to point out, it accurately showcased who the real freaks were. And they weren’t the sideshow performers.

Flash forward to the 1970s. Punk rock had taken root in America. One of the bands who became the face of the genre in the U.S was The Ramones. As you may know from previous posts about The Ramones *(that you can read here and here), they were a band who played songs with lightning speed. Although the lyrical content was often sparse, The Ramones were songwriters who had a flair for coining terms that captured the mood of the world at the time. For example, they are credited with introducing the term punk rock in their song “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker”. In any case, one thing that The Ramones understood as well as anyone was that their music was different from much of what passed for rock n’ roll in the 1970s. By extension, they understood that a majority of their fans felt as though they were different, too. These fans felt like outsiders who were being given voice by these skinny dudes in leather jackets and tight, tight jeans.

And so it was that The Ramones found themselves in Cleveland, Ohio one day. They had been scheduled to play at an outdoor event, but unfortunately, there was lightning in the area and the event was canceled. Suddenly, the band had time on their hands so they decided to spend the afternoon by seeing a movie. As it turned out, the movie Freaks had been given a new lease on life by folks who had come to realize that its portrayal of sideshow performers was nowhere as frightening in the 1970s as it had been in the 1930s. The ban on the film was lifted, and as it happened, the film was playing that rainy day in Cleveland. Immediately, the members of The Ramones identified with the sideshow performers’ sense of alienation as well as their sense of community. The boys were particularly drawn to a performer known as Pinhead in the film. This character was based upon a real person who went by the name of Schlitzie. In real life, Schlitzie suffered from a medical condition known as microcephaly.  This condition causes the skull to become misshapen, which, in turn, often causes pressures on the brain which result in speech and language impairments, intellectual difficulties and so on. The whole idea that these sideshow performers, who had so much going against them, exercised such solidarity and humanity by the end of the film struck a chord within the band. In particular, they recognized the rallying cry inherent in the chanted phrases of “Gobble! Gobble! We Accept You! We Accept You! One of us! One of us!”. The Ramones felt they could apply the same sort of rallying cry at their concerts. In doing so, there would be a tacit acknowledgement between the band and their fans that they may be outsiders, but they were outsiders together as a community. When the band left the theatre, they came up with the song called “Pinhead”. Within the sparse lyrical content of the song is the rallying cry at the end that goes, “Gabba Gabba Hey!” This was their take on the “Gobble! Gobble!” chant from Freaks. One of the things that allowed The Ramones to become such a fan-friendly punk band was their ability to build in audience participation moments throughout their show. They were known for starting songs with “1-2-3-4!” or using chants such as “Hey ho! Let’s go!” Add to that, “Gabba Gabba Hey!” and you have a fun evening singing, chanting and dancing with friends.

While The Ramones did much to bring punk rock into the mainstream of American music, the truth was that many “normal” music lovers still regarded them and their fans as being a niche group that occupied their own small space on the musical spectrum way off to the side, away from the rest of the bands and their fans. But, there was no denying the influence of The Ramones. One of the best examples of the groundwork that The Ramones laid with “Pinhead” and the “Gabba Gabba Hey!” chants bearing the fruit of social acceptance happened with two musicians named Christian Jacobs and Scott Schultz. These guys decided to develop the idea of creating a utopian version of Freaks, but for children, that was based directly on The Ramones’ song “Pinhead”. That show aired for the first time in 2007 and was called Yo Gabba Gabba. While Sesame Street remains the gold standard of children’s television shows, Yo Gabba Gabba is one that, for me, ranks right up there! It was an awesome show to watch as an adult when my girls were younger. The show had a DJ as host (DJ Lance) and was populated by a community of characters, none of whom looked like they were human. The segments on the show dealt with things you would expect, such as lessons on kindness and courage and sharing. But the best part was that cutting edge music was played all throughout the show. Real alternative and indie bands such as Hot, Hot Heat, Devo, MGMT, Sean Kingston, Eryka Badu, The Flaming Lips, The Roots, Weezer, My Chemical Romance and even Paul Williams singing an artsy, trippy rendition of “The Rainbow Connection” all appeared on the show. ***Manchester band, The Ting Tings performed a song that they called “Happy Birthday” which was something I used to play for my kids in class whenever it was their birthday. The whole show was filled with colour and music and characters who looked nothing like you or me, all living in harmony. Yo Gabba Gabba was a quirky show, but there was something there for everyone, if only we would take the time to look. 

I make no bones about it, I have always had a special spot in my heart for the underdog. I believe that the very essence of their humanity is as valid and vital as anything that a so-called normal guy like me can share with the world. That so many of our fellow humans may require extra care or assistance to be their true selves does not diminish their right to be allowed to thrive. I was always happy to help. I would rather spend one thousand days in a row in the company of some of those kids who joined our classroom in the 2000s or those sideshow performers from Freaks or the fans of The Ramones or in the world of Yo Gabba Gabba than I would one single second in the company of those who recently protested against the rights of trans children recently in Canada. In the end, I want to live in a world where everyone is welcome and all are respected and cared for and loved. That is all. Gabba Gabba Hey!

The link to the official website for The Ramones can be found here

The link to the video for the song “Pinhead” by The Ramones can be found here.

***The lyrics version can be found here.  

NOTE: The lyrics in this song borrow from the plot of Freaks but with a small change. Instead of a female con artist, The Ramones sing of a nurse who is going to take them away from being a pinhead and give them a normal life. However, in the end, the nurse accuses them of being “dumb” because they are pinheads after all. The song is mostly thrashing guitars, with the famous “Gabba Gabba Hey!” line at the end of the song. PS: A member of their crew will appear on stage as Schlitzie.

The link to the official website for Yo Gabba Gabba can be found here.

The link to the video for the song “Happy Birthday” by The Ting Tings that I showed to my students in class whenever it was someone’s birthday can be found here.

***The title for this series comes from a song “Boxcar” by the band Jawbreaker. I encourage all who read this post to go and check out their website, maybe buy some merch, purchase a concert ticket and/or listen to some other songs from their catalogue of great tunes. You can reach their website by clicking here. To Jawbreaker, thanks for helping to inspire the writing of this series on Punk music.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

Who’s Punk!? What’s The Score!?: Song 2/25: Tubthumping by Chumbawamba

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 the video for the song “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba can be found here. ***The lyrics version is 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.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

Who’s Punk?! What’s the score?! Song #1/25: Boxcar by Jawbreaker.

NOTE: This post marks the start of a brand new series that is dedicated to one of my favourite genres of music….Punk Rock! There is just something about the energy, intimacy, idealism and simplicity of Punk music that does it for me. In each of the twenty-five posts in this series, it is my hope to profile one of Punk’s most influential, successful and/or notorious bands and, in doing so, hopefully provide you all with a greater understanding of the depth and breadth of this musical form. Now having said all of that, I am fully aware that Punk music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If that is true for you, then by all means, feel free to read these posts if you like. Perhaps you will end up broadening your musical perspectives. If not, then you can move on to the other genres I cover in the Classical, Canadian, Soundtrack/Show Tune or Reader’s Choice categories. I like lots of music. There is something for everyone. Today, that something revolves around one of Punk Rock’s most influential bands, Jawbreaker. So, welcome aboard to those of you who have decided to stay. I am happy that you are here. Let’s go!!!!!!

The title for this series, Who’s Punk?! What’s the Score?! is taken from a line in the song “Boxcar” by Jawbreaker. The song itself, and this line, in particular, serve as an appropriate place to begin this series because they deal with the fundamental question of what exactly constitutes a Punk band in the first place. So let’s start with that. There are several traits that are demonstrated consistently by most singers/bands that are regarded as being Punk. First of all, the music is loud. Secondly, it is often played at breakneck speed. Thirdly, the music often has a political element to it. Punk bands tend to play in smaller, more intimate settings and interact with their fans more easily than standard arena rock bands tend to do. Finally, the lyrical structures and musical arrangements are usually simplistic and repetitive. Quick, loud, fast, forceful and sweaty are good attributes to define Punk music. However, there are also some misconceptions about Punk that people have. For example, the image that often comes to mind for people who have not spent a lot of time experiencing the Punk music genre is of bands like The Sex Pistols out of the UK. They were a band who ushered in the look of Punk music, with the torn clothing, the piercings, the spiked hair and so on. Well, that look was certainly part of the Punk Rock world for a time, but it was not how Punk bands originally looked, nor is it how bands look today, as Punk has evolved over the years. The other great misconception about Punk is that all Punk bands are Sex Pistols clones. That is not the case at all. Like many other musical genres, Punk Rock tends to be an umbrella term, under which reside several sub-genres of that style of music. So, as we move through this twenty-five post series, you will be introduced to many bands who came from the various evolutionary eras of this genre. Some will look like the Sex Pistols did but many will not. One of those bands that looks and sounds different is the focus of today’s post: Jawbreaker. Their story is an important one because it helps bring the question of who the real punk bands actually are out into the open. Here is their story. Welcome to the series everyone.

Jawbreaker became popular in the Punk music scene in the early 1990s. If you know your musical history then you will know that the early 1990s was when the big Grunge scene erupted, led by a band out of Seattle called Nirvana. And, if you know anything at all about Nirvana, then you will be aware that all throughout his life, lead singer Kurt Cobain wrestled with his involvement in the business side of the music industry. Ultimately, the pressure of trying to stay true to his musical vision and to who he was as a person while having to deal with money managers and promoters who cared mainly about money was a major factor in his decision to end his life via suicide. When Nirvana was first formed, they embodied a Punk Rock mentality. Their first album, Bleach, is heralded by Punk purists as being their best album. Nirvana’s commercial breakthrough album, Nevermind, was deemed by those same purists as being the beginning of the band becoming a corporate sellout. While Nirvana were the poster boys for bands who were caught in that endless tug of war between commercialism and idealism, there were many other local bands who were experiencing the very same thing.

Jawbreaker found themselves living and performing in and around San Francisco as Grunge exploded to the north. Like many smaller local bands, Jawbreaker began by playing at parties in basements and backyards, before moving on to play in Battle-of-the-Bands events in parks, and then to small pubs and community halls when they became old enough to be allowed inside. Jawbreaker was a trio that consisted of lead singer Blake Schwarzenbach, guitarist Chris Bauermeister and drummer Adam Pfahler. In time, Jawbreaker began to garner some word-of-mouth local buzz and ended up being invited to play at a Punk Rock hall known as Gilman’s. As it turned out, Gilman’s was more than just a physical space for bands to perform in. In a way, the space itself and those who ran it, became church-like in their influence. Part of how this came to be is that there was a rigid set of rules for those who attended Gilman concerts as well as those for bands who played there. For audiences, there were rules such as no violence being permitted. That may seem like an obvious expectation, but it was actually a very important means of separating themselves from the more rightwing, hardcore Punk acts who promoted violence as a means of enacting social change. At Gilman’s, safety was priority #1. Dancing and having fun in a safe, inclusive, alcohol and drug-free environment was strictly enforced. Consequently, Gilman’s developed a reputation in the Punk community as a safe place to be, which was especially important since many of the audience members were still in their teens. For the bands, there was one main rule and that was that no band who sought to play at Gilman’s could be signed to a major record label. The owners of Gilman’s and the kids who flocked there believed in the purity of Punk music. In their minds, even the mere hint that a band might be considering signing a contract with a record label tainted that band and would cause them to be banned from the premises permanently. The first band of note to feel the wrath of the Gilman world was Green Day. Green Day cut their musical teeth at Gilman’s only to find themselves permanently banned when they signed with a major label and released their major label debut album, Dookie, which launched them into superstardom.

So there sat the boys in Jawbreaker. Nirvana and Grunge had taken off. Local bands such as Green Day were being scouted by A & R types from major labels all in search of the next big thing. All the while, bands such as Jawbreaker were playing at Gilman’s and trying to live by the code of purity that fans and management insisted upon. For a while, it all worked well. Jawbreaker signed with a local record label and released their debut album, Unfun, locally only. That album, like Nirvana’s Bleach, was met with approval by the Gilman fans. Jawbreaker had managed to channel their frenetic live shows onto vinyl in a way that helped maintain their street cred. Unfortunately, Unfun didn’t sell that well. It wasn’t because the music was subpar or was poorly produced or received. It was simply because their small, local label didn’t have the marketing infrastructure necessary to promote the album beyond their small, devoted fanbase in San Francisco. Thus, the potential market for their music was limited before the album was ever even made. This placed the men from Jawbreaker squarely in the crosshairs of a conundrum.

The band loved making music. They were happy with the songs on Unfun and were proud to sing them anywhere. But, at the end of the day, they had rent to pay and food to buy and studio time didn’t come cheaply, either. The idealism of being a Punk rocker was crashing headlong into the reality of having to exist in a world that runs on commerce. All of this happened at a time when the band was given what appeared on the surface to be a big break. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana had become aware of Unfun and liked it a lot. He thought that Jawbreaker would be a perfect band to open for them as they toured California, so he invited them to open for Nirvana for six shows. When word leaked out that Jawbreaker might open for a band like Nirvana, who were now considered to be corporate sellouts by Punk purists, the stink of that association was enough to taint Jawbreaker as well. Before they knew what had happened, the fanbase that had nurtured them for years turned on them in an instant. The owners of Gilman’s demanded that the band make a public pledge of allegiance to the local punk scene and declare that they were not going to use this opportunity to open for Nirvana as a way to sign with a major record label. At the last Gilman’s show before embarking on the Nirvana tour, Jawbreaker’s lead singer announced that the band would never sell out. The crowd inside Gilman’s gave them a tepid round of applause. But, the truth was that the audience didn’t completely trust Jawbreaker anymore, and the bonds between audience and band were broken. Lead singer Blake Schwarzenbach took the fallout personally. All he and his bandmates ever wanted was to make music on their terms that they could be proud of. That’s all.

But once on tour, as fans had suspected, the siren song of the corporate rock world played for the boys in Jawbreaker. Knowing what would happen if they signed, the band negotiated a deal which allowed for creative control so they could still sing about their values and beliefs as they had always done. But, as soon as rumours began to swirl that discussions on a contract were being held, that was enough for the band to be banned from Gilman’s and for their fanbase to turn their backs for good. The very second that Jawbreaker signed their contract with Nirvana’s corporate label, they were cast out by their once devoted fanbase into the musical wilderness. With the release of their second album (and major label debut) 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, Jawbreaker found themselves a band in search of a new audience. Since they couldn’t return to San Francisco, Jawbreaker became a touring band. They played everywhere in search of new fans. But the fact was, outside of San Francisco, they were an unknown band, so it was hard for them to find themselves having to return to the beginning and invest years again building up word-of-mouth momentum. They couldn’t afford that creatively nor financially. The frustration and sense of betrayal that they all felt at the complete lack of support and encouragement from those folks who were there from the very beginning manifested itself in the lyrics of a song called “Boxcar”.

“Boxcar” is from 24 Hour Revenge Therapy and is a scathing indictment of Punk purists, especially those at Gilman’s. In a furious two and a half minutes, the song talks about how the scene that nurtured the band turned out to be akin to being with an obsessive dating partner who claimed to love you but would never actually let you exist out of their sight. In the video links I will provide below, listen to the lyrics video first. It will tell a far greater story now that you are aware of the context behind the lyrics. The second video is one that the band made at the time that “Boxcar” was attempting to gain some traction on college radio and on Alternative music radio stations across the U.S. The third video is a live recording of Jawbreaker’s two biggest commercial hits: “I Want You” and “Boxcar”. Besides the fact that both songs are rippin’ versions by a band that knows what it is doing, the key thing to note is that this video was recorded in 2019 at…..wait for it….Gilman’s!!! Wait, what? As time went on, Jawbreaker imploded from the financial pressures the band found itself under, The constant touring under those conditions led to conflicts within the band. Like too many other talented bands, Jawbreaker decided to break up. For over a decade, the members of the band did not play together at all. Meanwhile, back at Gilman’s, those who live by the purity sword ended up dying by it, too. Gilman’s fell upon hard financial times and was forced to close. The fall of Gilman’s created a musical vacuum within the San Francisco community. Eventually, diehard Gilman devotees rallied together and found the funding necessary to relaunch the club. However, in doing so, the new owners learned from the mistakes of the previous regime, specifically, that maintaining such rigid expectations of the bands that played there and helped to generate revenue for them was wrong and needed to be changed. Thus, the new owners of Gilman’s reached out to many of the original successful local acts that had received bans because of their attempts to better themselves and reach a wider audience through the help of major record labels and invited them to return to play. Green Day has played there three times now. As for Jawbreaker, the band reunited and remains playing and touring today. In the third video I will link to, you can see how intimate a venue Gilman’s really was, how close the fans were to the band and, most importantly, how great a band Jawbreaker remains today. “I Want You” and “Boxcar” look like lots of fun. I wish I was there. What a hoot that would have been.

So there you go. Post #1 in the new Punk Rock series has reached its conclusion. How was it? Hopefully, you will be able to see that Punk Rock exists in forms that extend beyond the stereotypical Sex Pistols imagery. When you watch Jawbreaker perform, there are no mohawk haircuts, no piercings that I can see and no violent imagery of any sort. All that there is are three guys who have created great music, playing as hard as they can for their fans and basking in the warm glow of their audience’s enthusiasm. To me, that is what music is all about. Please feel free to leave your comments below. I look forward to seeing where this Punk Rock journey takes us in the twenty-four weeks to come. I hope that you will come along for the ride. Until next time, that’s it for Who’s Punk?! What’s the Score?! Bye for now.

The link for the lyrics video for the song “Boxcar” by Jawbreaker can be found here.

The link to the official video for the song “Boxcar” by Jawbreaker can be found here.

The link to the video for the live version of the songs “I Want You” and “Boxcar” as performed at Gilman’s in San Francisco can be found here.

The link to the official website for Jawbreaker can be found here.

The link to the official website for Gilman’s can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com