Chumbawamba, House of Blues, March 31, 1998
Chumbawamba's Alice Nutter deems the career choices for the average rebellious working-class kid in the U.K. as relatively limited. "The two things you want to be is either a footballer or in a band," says the percussionist and vocalist for the Leeds, England, collective.
Exhibit No. 1 for Nutter's theorem may be those bad boys of British rock, Oasis, but Chumbawamba exhibits rebellion of a more principled kind. Nutter says that in the wake of the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K." topping the British pop charts, mainstream radio shunned punk rock despite overwhelming excitement about the new, fierce and restless sound. "That's how we were introduced to anti-establishment politics," Nutter recalls. "What brought us together were punk attitudes, because at the time it was like a secret that you shared apart from the rest of the normal world."
The young Chumbawambans took Johnny Rotten and com-pany at their word. "The word ‘anarchism' gets bad press," suggests trumpeter Jude Abbott. "Probably due to the Sex Pistols and their lot, people imagine that anarchism is always violent and angry and chaotic."
Chumbawamba developed a more utilitarian approach to anarchism. Before they had written a note for their latest album, "Tubthumping," the band -- which includes keyboardists Lou Watts and Danbert Nobacon, guitarist Boff, percussionist Dunstan Bruce, bassist Paul Greco and drummer Harry Hamer -- argued incessantly over the subject matter. They finally chose Great Britain itself, employing a backbone of dance beats and big pop choruses in order to create a political but entertaining album.
Politics and entertainment make awkward bedfellows when the politics are socialist and the entertainment is major-label. Asked about this apparent inconsistency, Abbott heaves a tired sigh, as though she's fielded the capitalist-pawn question a few too many times. She acknowledges that Chumbawamba's recent media drenching probably led a lot of people to believe that the group's anarchism is nothing more than a gimmick designed to gain some mileage off of a one-hit wonder. The title track of "Tubthumping" is not just the biggest sleeper hit in recent memory -- it is also the most inescapable. It's ubiquitous "I get knocked down but I get up again" chorus is destined to be shouted in bars and pubs on both sides of the Atlantic for years to come.
Abbott is similarly circumspect when asked whether the recent controversies surrounding Chumbawamba have helped or hindered them. The band has encouraged people to steal their music from the shelves of Virgin Records, and Nobacon dumped a pail of water on British cabinet minister John Prescott at the Brit Awards last month. "The good thing about tabloid-style shock tactics is that they work," explains Abbott. "People write about things like the Prescott incident, which gave us an opportunity to explain why we felt it was necessary to make that statement. -- I've seen the word ‘anarchism' in the press more times in the last six months than in my entire life up to that point."
Nutter didn't expect people to latch on to the band's politics. She emphasizes that their roots are in pop culture, recalling an interviewer's query about their quirky live shows. "He asked me what our inspiration was, and I told him the dead truth. Television. He couldn't believe it! I mean, I guess he was expecting me to say, you know, Brecht or something absurd like that," Nutter laughs. "We're working-class kids, we watch the telly like everyone else."