JACOBIN - Chumbawamba’s Long VoyageBy Aaron Lake Smith
“Tubthumping became known to some purely as a drinking song. Which is fair enough, because, if nothing else, it didn’t belong to an elite group of musicians—it belonged to people. People at football matches, people singing along to the radio as they drove, people at parties drinking too much whiskey and tripping over the kitchen chairs. People like me. And because it helped beggar the notion that Chumbawamba were boring zealots on a mission from Planet Anarchy.”
— Boff Whalley, founding member of Chumbawamba
THE END RESULT OF POPULIST FAME
Being a shiftless claustrophobe, I often find myself at a party in a strange town with a bunch of people I don’t know. I start taking deep draughts of garbage-can jungle juice concoction so I can get through the inevitable conversations where a stranger might ask what it is that I “do”, what kind of bands I’m into, etc. Having no definitive answer for the first question, I focus on the latter, racking my brain to come up with bands
“Well…there is this one band…”
But before I can finish saying “wamba”, my new acquaintance is already doubled over laughing, pausing just long enough to wipe away the tears.
“Sorry, sorry. But aren’t they that ‘I get knocked down but I get up again’ band?”
There’s that song, the one about getting knocked down and then getting back up again, but their body of work is like an iceberg; the bulk of it is submerged below the surface, difficult to get a hold of.
Wandering aimlessly into record stores across the country, I’m magnetically drawn towards the used CD bins, packed to the brim with scratched and unloved records. Thumbing my way through the alphabet, I happen on half a dozen used copies of the Chumbawamba record Tubthumper, unlistened to except for the one-hit wonder, sitting there gathering dust like some warning against anarchist overreach. Five million CDs—the copies that aren’t in used bins are being used as coffee coasters. BEWARE! They seem to cry out silently, Look at what we’ve become!
The Steve Albini version of the Chumbawamba narrative is by now familiar—they were an awesome underground anarchist squatter punk band who sold out and became a one-hit wonder. They were then quickly tossed away by the record company to make room for the next big thing. Another band came down the the conveyor belt, thinking they’re going to do it differently, and were exploited and used as well, and so on. Like this, bands and careers are made and broken, destined for the landfill.
But Chumbawamba’s journey from squatters to pop stars illustrates a central paradox of music and subculture—what happens when we find ourselves having to play awkward undesirable roles? What happens when anarchists become successful? Crass laid out their qualms with their own success with the brilliant Eve Libertine-shouted lyric:
“We didn’t expect to find ourselves playing this part/we were concerned with IDEAS/not rock and roll.”
Chumbawamba’s story is a kind of allegory: what does a fully realized radical band do when they run up against the contradictions and limits of a conservative subculture? How do you propagandize for your beliefs when you stand to lose your credibility by using mainstraem distribution and airwaves? Does the stale and now-gelatinized debate between “major” and “indie” mean anything when, with the Internet, a divide no longer exists? If you had the opportunity to support yourself, your family, and your local community with one hundred thousand dollars, would you allow your legacy to be reduced to a CGI dancing-baby two-minute pop song?
THE GOOD SHIP LIFESTYLE
“Lifestylism” is the practice of wrapping yourself in a blinkered, self-perfecting, ideologically-sound cocoon. The captain of The Good Ship Lifestyle rarely leaves his bedroom. He makes pronouncements on how other people should live but doesn’t keep his own rules. His idea of politics is not to fight the Power but to fight the imagined enemies on his own side.
—Tubthumper liner notes 
Birthed out of the evanescent post-punk racket of bands like Chimp Eats Banana and The Passion Killers, Chumbawamba formed in 1982. Chimp Eats Banana had been playing shows around the UK for quite a while, changing up their style at each gig — showing up at raucous peace punk shows and playing only toy instruments. The name Chumbawamba was a running joke with band members who competed to see who could tell the most ridiculous story about where it came from. One origin story comes from Boff Whalley’s memoir, when Chimp Eats Banana were busking in Paris:
“Everything went well until the day a troupe of 12 smiling African drummers turned up next to us…They drowned out our weedy rock ‘n’ roll with booming beats and massed chants. And one of the chants went
Chum, chum-ba, wailah!
It just didn’t sound right and written down it lost its rhythm. So we changed it to Chumbawamba. It meant nothing, signified nothing, and it didn’t attach us to any preconceptions.”
A more widely accepted story is that the name came from a dream Danbert Nobacon had about gender confusion. In his dream, he found the male and female public bathrooms labeled “Chumba” and “Wamba.”
In the early 80s, Chumbawamba was a stalwart of cassette culture, releasing a string of great tapes with icy titles like: History Luddite, Be Happy Despite it All, and Another Year of the Same Old Shit. They found an abandoned house in Leeds and started squatting it. The South View House would be Chumbawamba HQ until the mid-90s. In 1982, they began their long career as pranksters, sending out a four-track recording of themselves posturing as an Oi band called Skin Disease for a comp called Back to the Streets. After their song “I’m Thick” came out (the only words in it being “I’m thick” repeated 64 times) they dressed up like skinheads to go to a London studio and meet with the producer. Later that year, the first released Chumbawamba track appeared on the classic Crass Records comp Bullshit Detector 2.
Chumbawamba’s early ideology was influenced in no small part by the pioneering British anarcho-punk band Crass. Their stitched-together ideological tapestry involved pacifism, veganism, squatting houses and organizing benefit concerts. Unlike the humorless, puritanical Crass, Chumbawamba approached politics satirically, mocking MPs and offensive British laws and clauses by name. From the inception, their ethical consistency was the launch pad from which they delivered their scathing attacks. They lived together in a squatted house, liberated animals on the weekends, wrote about local and national politics, and spent their days organizing community daycare services.
Today, many people, myself included, have an idealized picture of the bands early years. “Why couldn’t the perfect anarchist band last forever?” their critics seem to sigh. but sometimes the situations that seem the most perfect from the outside are those in the most dire need of change. It is paradoxical that the strength of Chumbawamba’s consistency is directly proportional to the amount of bile their former fans spewed against them when they signed a major label and turned in a different direction—if you look closely enough at the frames, you can almost see the love slowly turn to hate.
In 1984, as Crass Records and the peace punk scene they had been bottom-lining came to an end, groups and individuals splintered off into several different directions. The British Miners’ Strike, called in response to Thatcher union busting, was a decisive event in Chumbawamba’s political evolution. The group supported political bombings against South Africa’s corrupt racist leaders. This forced them to reexamine their pacifist stance. Diet and lifestyle became less important than solidarity with organized labor. The band recorded a three-track Miner’s benefit single, distributed pamphlets and food to worker’s families, and even started a theatre troupe to perform for the miner’s children. Boff describes the transition into a Popular Front belief system the group was undergoing in’84:
“… us living in the Armley squat began a process of unlearning some of the insular and anti-social ideas we’d picked up from an insular and anti-social political movement.”
This was the first crack in what would soon become a fissure between Chumbawamba and the punk scene they were part of. No longer spouting the expected pacifist line, they were decried as “sell-outs.” Chumbawamba worked to incorporate themselves into their community in Leeds rather than to be punks standing apart from it. They chose to venture into uncomfortable situations with people who were different from them. As Chumbwamba became closer and closer with the miners, they distanced themselves from “the punks,” whom they increasingly viewed as petty, hardline, ineffective, and humorless.
In his book, Boff makes allusions to Chumbawamba growing frustrated with the punk scene’s “stamp-soaping” culture—their obsession with micro-managerial acts like saving change on postage or “scamming” rather than just participating in the economy like everyone else: Political action took a backseat to the romance of ripping off the system.
They were not alone in these sentiments. A Honeybane 7” [Crass Records] insert from the time says: “You say you’re an anarchist but you’re begging the system for help. You’re standing the dole lines but you want to be independent.”
Like some guilt-ridden Dr. Frankenstein, Crass lamented their major part in the creation of anarcho-punk. On the prophetic Crass album Yes Sir, I Will, Penny Rimbaud sings,
Punk has become another word for “got 10p to spare”
Crass went as far as to deconstruct their own success in one of the trademark Gee Vaucher posters, which read:
AN INSTITUTION IS A LENGTHENED SHADOW OF ONE PERSON
Crass sought to provide a cut-away view of their organization, in hopes of conveying their message of “We did this, and so can you.” But these attempts to foment successors, to be the yeast of a broader movement, had little result—the new bands didn’t want to start their own record labels, they just wanted to be on Crass Records. Crass had been too efficient at their task. Their polished media and aesthetic had become a desirable brand.
Like so many anarchists (David Graeber most recently), they were a reluctant vanguard, generating power but unwilling to take it; accidental leaders because of the high quality of their work. The more Crass attempted to shroud themselves in mystery and prevent a cult of personality, the more intrigued people became. In this way, they became another institution to accept or reject.
Chumbawamba described the influence of Crass:
“The way they lived communally was to be an inspiration for our squatting South View House in Armley, obviously. But we were aware from the very start that our solidly Northern sensibilities didn’t match what we saw as Crass’s post-hippy, middle-class fondness for herbal tea and eastern philosophies…I reckon we could have sold ourselves as the Northern Crass, apart from our:
Love of football
Sense of our own ridiculousness
Ability to throw a good party
Lack of restraint
Hop over to Jacobin to read the rest of the article.