“Art is not an end in itself, but a means of addressing humanity.” – Mussorgsky
“No-one is completely worthless – they can always serve as a bad example”
“Now if only pop (I mean POP) and politics DID mix…” – Robin Gibson reviewing Chumbawamba’s “Never Mind The Ballots” LP, Sounds July 1987.
“Suspended above the courtyard of the Pompidou Centre in Paris is the Genitron, an electric sign-clock flashing the number of seconds left in the twentieth century. Inaugurated in January 1987 by Francois Mitterand, the Genitron is a time machine that conducts its relentless countdown over the heads of the international fauna of Les Halles, the hustlers, punks, dealers, con men, mystics, musicians, strong-men, fire-eaters, rappers, breakers, addicts, sidewalk artists and sidewalk dwellers who seem already to represent the spectres of the apocalypse.” – Elaine Showalter, from “Sexual Anarchy – Gender and Culture At The Fin de Siecle” (1990)
FIVE OR SIX YEARS before the countdown began and Chumbawamba is being born out of that beautiful mess of street performers. Chumbawamba is the trio in the corner busking Clash and Gene Vincent songs on acoustic guitars – fired by punk logic, punk as change, hanging about in Paris during that knife-edge decision-time when rebellion turns into either part of your growing up or part of your life. Politics, or “attitude” to come into it sooner or later.
Back a bit further. Legal Aid and Optical Illusion are the drummer and singer in a Barnsley punk band. Legal’s grandad is taking a polaroid. They’re called `The Threat’ and their music starts and ends this record; the photograph becomes it’s cover. Later they’ll change their names to Harry & Mave and meet up with the others in Leeds, and end up living in a huge squatted Victorian house making pop (I mean POP) records.
Alice Nutter, art school drop-out, is playing drums badly in a group called ‘Ow My Hair’s On Fire’. Lou Watts operating computers for Burnley Building Society, Dunstan singing Velvet Underground cover versions in a Billingham group ‘Men In A Suitcase’. Teams that meet in caffs… and in the background, a woman Prime Minister running her own War in the South Atlantic, kills, maims, parades and gloats for half of 1982. England is dreaming alright: and somebody has to shout about the nightmare even if they are to be damned into obscurity for their pains. Usher in the Never-Has-Beens!
LONG BEFORE Chumbawamba release any records of their own, they pull off a successful guerilla attack which results in their first appearance on vinyl. In response to Garry Bushell’s inane patronage of Oi Punk (before Gary wrote for The Sun, he practised his homophobic brand of tabloid sensationalism in music weekly ‘Sounds’), Chumbawamba fabricate a completely bogus Oi band called ‘Skin Disease’, complete with press pack and four-track demo cassette. Some few weeks later and Bushell lists Skin Disease as “Burnley’s premier Oi band”, and letters appear in Sounds lumping Skin Disease in with “other Northern Oi bands”, as proof of that “good Oi music is not exclusively a London phenomenon.” All this despite the fact that the “band” never actually exist. Eventually Bushell invites the band to appear on an Oi compilation single. Playing the role of Northern oiks, Skin Disease travel to London to record a special-written song called “I’m Think”, a bog-standard punky thrash with the words “I’m Thick” repeated sixty-four times. It appears on the single “Back On The Streets”.
Meanwhile, back to the twentieth century countdown. The first Chumbawamba demo tape is recorded in Hulme, Manchester, a few days after the band’s first gig in January 1982. A snippet of it ends up on a Crass compilation album “Bullshit Detector 2”, alongside a song about nuclear war by Barnsley band Passion Killers. Passion Killers are what became of The Threat. (As in, “1, 2, 3, 4, Let’s Go!”). The two bands meet. Small-town punks in Leeds, with a desire to rise above the mundane, to avoid a lifetime career at the Building Society or down the put at Barnsley Main… sidestepping the alternative of college education. But instead of just escaping those roots, it becomes more and more important as the eighties progress to take them along, to re-write the endings of the Hollywood teenage rites-of-passage movies, to balance the fine line between everyday boredom and rock n roll’s petulant ignorance of real life; and to have fun doing it. Growing up to a soundtrack of punky, alienated noise – religiously watching The Fall, Wire, ATV, Clash – turns everything after it into a choice btween safety – with all it’s inbuilt insecurities and emotional cancers – and challenge. Change or go under. The bad ship Chumbawamba sets sail.
“Chumbawamba: the message is more important than the music.” – Full extent of first ever live review, New Musical Express.
AT THIS POINT CHUMBAWAMBA are fast becoming unmovable flag-burning pacifists, a reaction against Thatcher’s election campaign involving nuclear stockpiling and stepping over dead bodies in the Falklands. This is the decadent 60’s and 70’s hangover, the Pistols’ “No Future” etched across a Boy George mirror. In the early eighties the choice seems straightforward – Brit-pop as complete escapism (Lady Margaret’s “Me, me, me” culture) or the sub-culture of resistance that is burrowing it’s way from underground. Chumbawamba play gigs at peace camps, turning up at demonstrations and rallies like they’re going out of fashion. (Which they are). The band’s home is raided twice in under a year by ten burly drugs squad officers who ask, “You lot them Socialist Worker types, right?” No wonder the likes of the Guildford Four got banged up for fifteen years with authorities like this on the case.
The entries on the Special Branch files get longer. Raids, obstruction, breaches of the peace, even “theft by housebreaking” – twenty-six hours in the custody of the Strathclyde police in December 1983 charged with “removal of dogs, mice and files” from a research bucketload; for single parents, local hospital closure campaigns, hunt saboteurs, the ALF, anti-Sizewell campaign, nurseries. Nine people, three cats and a dog living under one roof, fledging anarchist politics mixed with too-hefty doses of idealism and organic vegetables. The dog, Derek, appears on a couple of the early records and includes in his CV the greatest accolade bestowed upon a canine: that of biting members of the police force (forcing one to have hospital treatment).
TWO EVENTS WHICH RE-ROUTE the agit-pop politics of Chumbawamba, both from 1984. Firstly, the Brighton Bomb. Half the Cabinet covered in rubble, and suddenly political violence – of the type which defeated Hitler, freed Mandela, ended slavery, and overthrew the state communist dictatorships – blows a hole in the pacifist edge to the band’s polemic. Secondly, and more importantly, the beginning of the great Miners’ Strike. From early on, the Armley (Leeds) Miners Support group is twinned with Frickley put in South Elmsall – Armley Socialist Workers make the connections and Chumbawamba supply the van and the street collections on Saturday mornings. The band mix playing benefit gigs for the miners with traveling down to the picket lines at five and six o’clock in the morning. And during this bitter winter some of Chumbawamba join a theatre group who travel from village to village putting on a Christmas pantomime for miner’s kids, down to South Wales and around Yorkshire. Coming from places like Barnsley and Burnley in times when the coal mines were part of the very fabric of these towns, it doesn’t take much effort to know which side of the fence you ought to be standing on; the band makes and sells a fast-selling three-track cassette for the Miners’ Hardship Fund, and Sounds writes:
“The Chumbas, as they are affectionately known, are refreshing and genuine pop anarchists. And no, they won’t go away…” (December 1994)
“What we’re given is any old rubbish that won’t upset the apple cart. The only choice we seem to be left with it to play the part of the bad apple.” – from Chumbawamba’s first single sleevenotes
ON JUNE 1ST, 1985, Chumbawamba are recording their first single “Revolution”, whilst at the same time the Travellers’ Convoy is being attacked and wrecked in a beanfield adjacent to Stonehedge. Cracked heds, massive publicity, and the start of an era of political change: when the marginals begin to come out from the underground.
The Clash, hastily re-formed in new street-cred guide with Joe Strummer passing round the music business hat to pay for his cocaine habit, play rebel chic outside Leeds University. Danbert Nobacon arms himself with a hydraulic-action paint-gun and splatters band and audience before legging it. This is Chumbawamba discovering their real talent: refuting the idea that rock n roll is some huge back-slapping family business where everyone “pulls together”. Putting spanners in their own works, pigheadedly refusing to lie down and become another servile record business lap-dog.
THE HOUSE IS RAIDED AGAIN, this time with sledgehammers. They’re looking for “explosives and bomb-making equipment”. Everyone is hauled down to the station, questioned relentlessly, kept separately, diaries and books confiscated – huge plastic bagfuls of pamphlets, posters, even song lyrics… twenty-three hours in a Leeds copshop. Meanwhile, the first single sells out.
“We haven’t got a masterplan – we react to things as they come along. As Anarchists we live with the contradictions that socialism doesn’t allow.” – From an interview with Melody Maker, Dec 1986
Chumbawamba mocks up as an April Fool’s SDP/Liberal Alliance pop group, calls itself The Middle, and records three tracks for a spoof demo. The Libs love it. Mike Harskin at the Liberal Whips Office in the House of Commons writes to invite the band to play at MP David Owen’s birthday party at Stringfellow’s in London; Chumbawamba are busy playing their own gigs. The single “Smash Clause 28” attacks the government homophobia pushing through a law which, amongst other things, demands the teaching of hetero-only family values in schools. This single is received as “unwashed ghetto grumbling… rock n roll won’t even notice” by Sounds magazine. (Shortly after, few people notice the demise of Sounds.) “Smash Clause 28” is the first of several recorded attacks on homophobia by the band, and significantly it isn’t until 1994’s “Homophobia” that the issue becomes “acceptable” enough to make it into the pop industry’s frame of vision, along with active anti-fascism (as opposed to a general nod in the direction of anti-racism) and anti-sexism. This year’s thing, last year’s thing, next year’s thing.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1985 Live Aid gives Sir Bob Geldof an excuse to get pissed and shout “fucking give, you bastards!” on live TV. Everyone waits to see if they’ll exhume John Lennon’s body and sit it in front of a white piano. Showbiz razzamatazz and displays of public generosity before McCartney sings “Let It Be”. Let what be? Have a party, celebrate decadence, and send a few bob to Africa? The £80 million raised amounts to a little more than half Michael Jackson’s personal fortune, or about what the world spends on arms every two hours forty minutes. And not one of those has-beens up there on the global pulpit ever mentions why there’s a famine in the first place – no-one asks who raps off the African crops and gives only MacCoke culture in return. Band Aid: a sticking plaster on a gaping wound. Revive those flagging careers! And U2 get their first taste of stadium rock…
Chumbawamba’s response is an LP catchily titled “Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records; Starvation, Charity and Rock n Roll – Lies and Traditions”. Which says it all, really. On the home front, Chumbawamba get involved in mass pickets both locally, at the Silentnight factory in Barnoldswick, and nationally, outside Fortress Wapping in London, where Rupert Murdoch mixes upgrading production of The Sun and The Times with all-out attacks on unions. Bundles of newspapers sitting outside newspaper shops across Britain are repeatedly stolen and burn, and several nights in Wapping end in a celebratory and almost ritual battle between cops protecting newspaper lorries and thousands of pickets and supporters. The band plays benefits for both sets of strikers in addition to gigs for Gay Switchboard, Prisoner’s Support group, Leeds Bust Fund and even an Anti-Freemasons concert in Keswick which has to switch venues twice due to local Masonic council threats. Chumbawamba are described in the Keswick press as “the worst of the american satanic backwards message bands”. And a gig with arch-punks Conflict at Leeds University ends in a mini-riot, missiles and riot cops and running battles… and Chumbawamba earn a lifetime ban from the University.
Late 1986 and Chumbawamba link up with Dutch band The Ex for a gig-to-gig relationship which is to last several years. Anarchists, squatters, and die-hard musical experimentalists, The Ex introduce Chumbawamba to demonstrations, Amsterdam-style; in a protest against NATO warships being stationed in the harbour, thousand of people create a huge party on the shores with bands playing on warehouse roof-tops and people already in crash helmets and with scarves across their faces. The Dutch riot police repeatedly charge the crowd, there’s a scream, and it’s an English accent. Alice Nutter is caught in the panic and has a broken leg. She completes the tour sitting on stage on a stool with her leg in plaster.
“All good clean fun, and ultimately harmless” – Chumbawamba live review, Birmingham Mermaid 1987
THE “SCAB AID” SINGLE, released under the name “The Scum” in 1987, attacks The Sun newspaper’s hypocrisy and jingoism by parodying that paper’s charity single “Let It Be” – where a host of pop’s greying publicity-fetishists (McCartney, Boy George, etc) sing to raise money for people involved in a ferry disaster. The single, a spoken-word n’ piano piece narrated by long-standing Chumbawamba sidekick Simon Lanzon (later of Credit To The Nation) makes NME’s single of the week and sells out before anyone realizes it’s Chumbawamba. The Sun describes the record as “sick!”. And what more accolade could it get from a paper which described the drowning of hundreds of Argentine soldiers aboard ship in 1982 with the headline “Gotcha!”?
“NEVER MIND THE BALLOTS… Here’s The Rest of Your Life”. Another Thatcher election victory and another round of red-faced Labour politicians shifting further to the right. The Labour Party, sitting on the fence so long it can’t work out which side it’s supposed to be on. Scared to challenge the status quo, wooing big business, turning a blind eye to sexual politicism to the dismantling of the Unions, to Ireland. For some of Chumbawamba, a few days in Belfast to see a little of what’s going on there. Saturday night chucking-out time, blacked-up squaddies creeping through peoples’ front gardens, in armoured cars in daylight asking questions, taking detail at sub-machine gunpoint. And the British media’s propaganda warfare, relentless in it’s blanket-censoring thoroughness… you can sing “Free Nelson Mandela” until the cows come home, but sing a song about Bobby Sands and see what reaction you get.
1988 and trying to cross the border between Switzerland and France. Seven hours in the no-man’s-land between the two, the entire band strip-searched and questioned after being found to have some copies of “Class War”. Extra plain-clothes officers “looking for guns”, the band only managing to cross intro France when the Swiss refuse to have them back; and after signing papers agreeing to the destruction of the confiscated magazines.
BACK IN ENGLAND, and the Centre for Policy Studies has unveiled their brand new baby for the 1990’s – the Poll Tax. Contrary to previous form, this is an attack on the whole of the British working class in one fell swoop; having excelled at picking off sections of it, this time the state proposes to reinvent a sweeping poverty tax which last failed in 1381, the time of the infamous People’s Revolt. Chumbawamba reacts by releasing a collection of acapella songs dating from that revolt up to the present day: “English Rebel Songs” breaks the chain of guitar/drums pop and tells it’s history of trouble-makers, revolutionaries and rebels whilst around the land anti-Poll Tax groups begin to organise and educate.
“If I can’t dance to it… it’s not my revolution” – Emma Goldman
PEOPLE ARE BEGINNING to get their act together – for some, 80’s hedonism is giving way to a recognition that whilst they were at the cocktail bar getting drunk the number of homeless people on the street outside has doubled. Chumbawamba take time off to get crap jobs, record a double LP entitled “101 Songs About Sport” (under the name “Sportchestra!”), and move out of the big home. During this unplanned sabbatical they play only one gig, at Bradford’s long-running (and self-run) Anarchist club the 1 in 12: playing only punk cover versions, God Save The Queen, White Riot, and the rest.
This concert aside, it isn’t until late 1989 that Chumbawamba play again, this time in Japan, as Britain’s contribution to an international conference organised to raise awareness of all things political: unionised struggles, aboriginal rights, women’s groups across the world. From a squat gig in Hackney almost a year earlier, to singing acapella rebel songs in a converted Catholic church in Tokyo. The conference is called “The People’s Plan For the 21st Century” – and the clock outside the Pompidou Centre carries on ticking away.
THE POLL TAX is introduced in Scotland, and Thatcher suddenly realises why the Romans built Hadrian’s Wall in the first place. No way are most of the Scots going to pay – for that initial year, the fightback against the tax – demonstrations, non-payment, attacks on tax collectors – shows the rest of Britain just how we can deal with the Poll Tax (and with Thatcher) once and for all. Of course, the Tories don’t even plan to introduce the tax in the Six Counties of Northern Ireland; they just wouldn’t dare. And the Chumbawamba machine spins on, recording songs for benefit compilation LP’s and surviving the bankruptcy of their distribution company and the general indifference of most folk to the continuing combination of pop and politics.
“As a reggae horn section kicks up dust, a duet from beyond the grave: a pseudo-Meinhof (German woman urban guerilla), insisting in a clear, unsolemn voice that she’s not sorry (“don’t think I walked into banks to stand in the queue” – Raymond Chandler wouldn’t have minded having written that); then Elvis, not pseudo but sampled (credited as a band member doubling on Quaaludes and Placydil), aiming `Can’t Help Falling In Love’ right back.” – Greil Marcus, March 1991
“Don’t urinate on the floor – your son will have to clean it up” – graffiti carved into the wall in visitors’ waiting room toilets, inside Armley Jail
YEARS ON, AND CHUMBAWAMBA still awkwardly hanging around, balancing on that knife-edge between boredom of everyday life and the ignorance of pop (knowing that when a band, smacked out or coked up, gets up in it’s boy’s playroom antics in the hotel room, chucking around tellies and food and chairs and champagne… that someone’s mum comes in the next morning and gets paid £3 an hour to wipe up the mess on her hands n’ knees). The turn of the decade, and the pop clock begins to bring politics into fashion as organised raves and warehouse parties are busted, banned and trashed by cops throughout Britain. Just south of Leeds, the biggest mass arrest ever seen in this country as hundreds of people are shunted into cells, jails and cop-shops around West Yorkshire during one large outdoor rave. A handful of people out of the hundreds get charged for possession – but more importantly, the authorities are putting the scare on pop culture.
Dance music, new (different) drugs, people organising outside the established clubs: suddenly you can go for a night out without having to stand in the corner of some pick-up joint listening to daytime radio disco; the threatening, sexist, macho atmosphere connected to nightclubs is swapped by something new, exciting and even joyous. And suddenly, thousands of people are putting together records on their own tiny labels, home-computers undermining the pop/rock company stranglehold.
CHUMBAWAMBA RELEASE “SLAP!”, sampling everything from Mark E Smith to Philip Glass. Live they mutate dangerously close to an all-singing, all-dancing cabaret spectacle; karaoke culture, sampling, even theft (they cheekily call it “poplifting”) enables the band to run riot, costumes and characters and do-it-yourself situationist sillyness in the name of revolution, art and fun… not in any particular order.
A concert raising about £1000 for the striking Ambulance Workers in February 1990 is memorably chiefly for the showbiz spectacle of five ambulance workers on stage with their collection buckets, wearing yellow fluorescent jackets and uniforms, one of them yelling into the mic above some quiet, sub-cabaret lounge music the band are playing. There’s a sense of people waking up; students, for so long an entrenched hotbed of quiet conversation, are leaning leftwards and upwards upon seeing the government chip away at their grants and services. And the timebomb is counting down to the anti-Poll Tax march: the whole world descending upon London to say “we’ve had enough of being pushed!”.
A QUARTER OF A MILLION PEOPLE will remember this day, March 31st, as the day we won – a quarter of a million anti-Poll Tax demonstrators to represent the many millions of British people who didn’t pay it, organised around it, formed local unions to prevent it, and leafleted, sung, shouted and nattered against it. Chumbawamba’s local banner, held amongst the drums and whistles of the march, is lost as riot cops are chased down Whitehall, the South African Embassy in flames, rich West End shops smashed and looted. This day is to see the beginning of the end of Margaret Thatcher – by November she’s out on her arse, the Tory tax discredited and unworkable. After years’ worth of demonstrations, being bullied, beaten, and arrested, after years of being raided, searched, stripped, charged, fined, banned and censored, this day is to remain a cornerstone in this band’s raison d’etre: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle 8, revolution… repeat chorus.
From Leeds to America and back again. An up and down tour, up and down the West coast of USA, avoiding the gunfire outside the gig in Las Vegas, stealing petrol to make it to concerts, Jello Biafra doing an Elvis impersonation with the band in Berkeley, and exchanging punches with the promotor in San Francisco. Chumbawamba almost ten years old and still coming out fighting, albeit under a variety of names:
Beeston YMCA 1983 Chumbawunba
Princess Charlotte, Leicester 1986 Jumba Wumba
Van Hall, Amsterdam 1987 Shum Bawanba
Swiss Customs Office 1988 Zhuma Vamba
Blue Gallery, Portland 1990 Chumbawunga
Fronte 79, Ingolstadt 1991 Tschamba Wamba
“‘The first time I was really shitting it’, he recalls, spinning one of the many sovereign rings on his fingers, ‘The only performing I’d done before was in church, and here I was playing a Methodist Hall with a group of Anarchists. In the middle of the set Boff, the guitarist, stops everything, looks up into the raffters and shouts, “If there is a God, strike me down!’. Then Danbert comes onstage dressed up as Jesus. And I’m thinking, fuck me, we’re all going to die! But I got used to it. They’ve corrupted me. It’s much more fun.'” – MCFusion speaking in NME 1993 about first ever Credit To The Nation/Chumbawamba gig, Liverpool 1991
THE SLOW BURNING FUSE OF ANARCHY continues to glow as Chumbawamba face the aftermath of a war fought in the Gulf for the sake of American oil prices. A studio audience of schoolchildren is shown via satellite on ITN’s news coverage. A general feeling emerges that many of the children oppose the war because “killing is bad”, and war is “not right”. Some way into the discussion a child suggests that the war is being fought “just for the oil” and a subsequent show of hands shows that a large number of these children feel the same. At this point the screen goes black and the sound cuts. It returns a few second later in a London studio, where a surprised anchor-woman, brain scrambling to readjust, announces the next bulletin.
PASSION KILLERS, revived briefly as a Chumbawamba offshoot, release a four track EP “Whoopee! We’re All Going To Die!” a handful of songs protesting against the war in the Gulf. Chumbawamba begin work on “Shhh”, an LP based around the idea of censorship (whether by state or by oneself); originally titled “Jesus H Christ”, the first version of the album is banned even before it’s release due to the intervention of a number of publishing companies whose artists’ songs are being covered (in small part) on this heavily irreligious collection of pop songs. Stock Aitkin Waterman “were not happy with the tone or mood of the section including ‘I Should Be So Lucky'”, McCartney’s people said simply, “we refuse to allow ‘Silly Love Songs’ to be included.” The band are forced to throw the protesting superstars overboard the good ship “Shhh”.
Seems like you can do cover versions until you’re blue in the face if you’re not part of the pop/rock old boy’s club. Little wonder, really – everyone’s in this boat together, rowing away to the Promised Land where the bands, the press, the companies, the agencies and managers have some idyllic cocaine paradise where we all wear backstage passes and drink the everlasting rider – everyone rowing away, and here comes some band standing up and shouting, rocking everyone all over the place and spoiling the ambience.
AND SO CHUMBAWAMBA give up the day-jobs, give up working in the café, running a removals firm, serving in the shop, working as a garage mechanic, working cleaning toilets in an old folk’s home. Now it’s Chumbawamba Inc, and the touring schedules get heavy so we can afford to live. To Europe, USA, life from the back of a van: countless variations on a theme of “if you can’t beat ’em, subvert ’em”. Playing in Dublin, in a venue owned by the Catholic Church, Alice swaggers onstage as a whiskey-swigging nun and throws a thousand condoms into the audience – the availability of rubbers in Holy Roman Ireland being illegal. Say three Hail Marys and pull that tongue from your cheek.
“Chumbawamba’s next single… is a tribute to the much-maligned Princess Di. All proceeds will go to a charity of the Princess’ choice. The record is ‘Never Say Di’ backed by ‘For The Love of a Princess’.” – From a press release printed by music papers, 1992
A PEEL SESSION is recorded in late 1992 to the accompaniment of outraged letters to the Radio One DJ complaining that “Chumbawamba are taking the piss”. In fact, and in fitting with Peel’s eclectic taste, the four songs broadcast are all kitsch classics from the band’s northern England cabaret WMC heritage. Don’t knock it, mate! These are songs heard as background to skiving off school, to the Miner’s Strike, to growing up; Agadoo, Knock Three Times, Y Viva Espana and The Birdy Song. Earlier, from the mid-eighties onwards, “Agadoo”s original producer Neil Ferguson (late of punkpop band The Donkeys) somehow ends up working with Chumbawamba on a regular basis and the swing towards camp throwaway pop, still mixed up with punk and folk, turns the whole “think ” – revolution, art and fun – into something daringly unclassifiable.
Chumbawamba, slight changes in line-up, haircuts and dress-sense, confront an audience in Memphis, Tennessee. Before the gig and across the road, a gathering of religious nuts carrying anti-abortion placards; inside the gig, these idiots have a youth wing called “Vegan Reich”. Their position is supporting the rights of the unborn foetus; they have a local reputation for attacking people wearing leather jackets. The atmosphere is charged and tense and they stand, around fifteen of them, in a group in front of the stage. Through the first two songs they chant and shove people around who want to dance, and after a stage/audience shouting match Chumbawamba down tools and climb off the stage. Harry continues to play a gentle swing as the band square up, yell, argue, punch, kick and force the kooks to leave the hall. On with the show!
“A revolution cannot be made without terror, disorganisation, and even wanton destruction, any more than an omelette can be made without breaking eggs.” – Nikolai Bukharin.
CHUMBAWAMBA VISITS GRACELAND: Danbert wearing his Elvis costume and wig. A sequined, huge-belted, high-collared jumpsuit with black fur-fabric wig held onto his head by gaffer tape. Incensed at not being allowed to visit the actual toilet where the King died, he ran from the mansion, through the gardens towards the front gates, eschewing the shuttle-busses which you are supposed to use. Suddenly the grounds are filled with security guards chasing Danbert across the lawns. A blue-rinsed tourist shouts, “Elvis has escaped!” and cockloads of people whoop and cheer as Elvis is chased out of his home. The guards catch him… and escort him from the premises.
“There’s a lot to be said for PC bands… but there’s too many Chumbawamba and not enough Rolling Stones.” – Paddy from These Animal Men in Melody Maker, 1994
AFTER SINGER JASON DONOVAN takes The Face to court for printing a mocked-up photograph of him wearing a “Queer As Fuck” t-shirt, Chumbawamba anonymously print up hundreds of “Jason Donovan – Queer As Fuck” shirts and distribute them free. Shhh…
1993, and in the swirling, beautiful but irrelevant whirlpool that is pop, organised politics is beginning to float to the surface. In the face of a fascist candidate being elected to a seat on Tower Hamlets council in London, both Anti-Fascist Action and the newly-reformed Anti-Nazi League see large increases in active membership. Carnivals, marches and a general raised awareness of the years and years of racist thuggery begins to infiltrate pop culture. Chumbawamba join with Credit To The Nation to produce “Enough Is Enough”, written as a warning of, and released as a reaction to, the increasing popularity of the nazi programme.
IT SUMS UP THE YEAR, gets slagged off by Jamiroquai, and burdens Chumbawamba with a reputation amongst Leeds nazis that the band (and their records) are targets for violence and intimidation. Local record shops who stock Chumbawamba’s “anti-fascist” t-shirt have their windows repeatedly smashed; Leeds Virgin and HMV staff are threatened with firebombing if they continue to sell Chumbawamba records. Ironic, as both Virgin and HMV have in the past refused to stock the band’s LP’s on grounds of political content. Still, hearing the line “Come kill the fascist with a gun!” on national day-time radio vindicates much of Chumbawamba’s brand of sugar-coated karaoke subversion.
Still counting down, and Chumbawamba release an album, “Anarchy”, their first for One Little Indian, still rocking the boat along the way: the cover of the album – a baby being born – is instantly banned by several record shop chains, sold under wraps or under-the-counter in others. As a way of coaxing out the double-standard moralities of the frightened rabbits who make these decisions, it works above and beyond the call of pop. (Which, of course, is the intention all along).
CHUMBAWAMBA: IN SHORT, troublemakers. What was that about pop (I mean POP) and politics mixing? Welcome to the end of the Twentieth Century… As a heckler at an early Chumbawamba gig said, “fucking weird!”.
“Art for art’s sake: a serpent which bites it’s own tail.” – Nietzsche
INTERVIEWS with CHUMBAWAMBA
Taken from Mutual Aid Recordings Double CD Release of
“For A Free Humanity: For Anarchy”
The following interview was done by Chris Burnett. The questions were sent via e-mail to Chumbawamba on June 2, 1996. The answers were received on July 15, 1996.
BURNETT: Chumbawamba is an unusual band: an anarchist pop-band that has been very successful over your 15 year existence. Can you talk a little bit about the politics of the band and the types of activities that you are involved in today?
CHUMBAWAMBA: British culture and the political climate has changed dramatically over the last 15 years. We’ve taken risks and changed with it. In the early to mid eighties the anarchist movement got a tremendous boot up the backside in the form of the punk/political band Crass; in fact, Crass were probably the catalyst for many of the 25 to 30-something anarchists who are active today.
By 1980 the original punk scene had got complacent; it was becoming the life blood of an industry it was supposed to despise. Crass appeared. They were critical and awkward. They didn’t fit into the music industry or the media’s idea of what a band should be. Mixing rock ‘n roll with subversive ideas gave Crass a sense of danger. The Sex Pistols had crooked a finger at the establishment, then Crass pointed out that the Sex Pistols had become the establishment. Crass redefined rock ‘n roll rebellion so that it no longer followed a path of cocaine, groupies and vandalism. If you come from a small town (as we did) then your influences are a mix of experience and pop culture. Clashes with authority supplied the gut feeling; pop culture supplied a sense of shared rebellion.
Crass was an antidote to easy listening but they were quite conservative in some ways. Unwittingly, they introduced lifestylism as an antidote to capitalism. There was a definite feeling that if you dressed in black, didn’t eat meat, banned all ‘unclean’ sexist or even sexy thoughts, and grew your own vegetables – or at least bought them at a health food shop instead of a supermarket – you were on your way to changing the world.
The “peace punk” thing had its own style… though it’s hard to see it now. We’d always been attracted to style and glamour – but not at the expense of content. The problem was that it was more about musical style than anarchist ideology. Class politics were noticeably absent. Everything was looked at in terms of single issues, whilst the biggest problem of all, capitalism (otherwise known as one small group of people shitting on the majority, with a few perks thrown in for the middle men who keep the ‘peace’) was rarely touched upon.
By the time of the Miners’ Strike in 1984 it was obvious that Chumbawamba weren’t ‘peace punx’. We wanted all out war. All of us thought that the sound of the ‘peace movement’ was too limiting in terms of music and ideology. The bands that were involved fell into two categories: Crass and imitation Crass. During the Miners’ Strike half the ‘peace punx’ declared that they couldn’t support the Miners because they were sexist, violent and ate meat. The Miners had taken on the might of the British state and snotty nosed punks were ignoring them for not being revolutionary enough. The whole “peace punk” ethos was exclusive: you had to wear the right rags, eat the right food, say the right things and listen to/make music that gave your Grandma a headache. Chumbawamba wanted to make pop music that Grandma liked; but we wanted each tune to carry a sucker punch.
People reacted in very strange ways when we started playing more dance and pop. Some were offended, whilst others gave us knowing looks and decided that what we were doing was in terms of political strategy rather than a combination of love and necessity. But mostly people just said we’d sold out. It seemed obvious to us that if you come across ideas which excite you, then the next step is to make them accessible to the widest number of people. The purists said that we’d diluted the ideas and sentiments by making them easy to listen to; the media, at the opposite end of the scale, said we were one-dimensional purists.
None of it kept us awake at night. If people are disappointed because we don’t fit their expectations… that’s a good thing. We’re anarchists not just because the present system doesn’t work, but because it’s common sense that nobody is better than us and we’re no better than anybody else. The myth of the hero/heroine is too strong in this culture. It ends in leaders and vanguards; we don’t want to lead a revolution, we just want to chip our ideas in along with everybody else.
Chumbawamba has existed as long as it has because of other people’s – often unconscious – input. Whenever we come across an idea or sound that moves or excites us, we steal it and with a bit of adapting it becomes a part of Chumbawamba. There’s a lot of situationism, working class history and class struggle anarchism about what we do but there’s also hedonism, fashion, drug culture, sex, football, cinema, etc. etc. Part of the problem with the eighties was that people got so wrapped up in the politics of denial that they forgot to have a good time. Rather than admitting that they’d been tight-arsed while confusing rebellion with martyrdom and saintliness, they claimed that it was impossible to be political AND enjoy life. They blamed politics rather than their own delusion. We’ve always maintained that the whole point of having politics is to improve the quality of your own life and other people’s.
We have a lot of contradictions but our integrity lies in our not trying to hide them. Chumbawamba has become a full-time occupation which just about pays the rent. There are problems with mixing politics and a pay cheque – but none that are so big that we can’t sort them out with hours and hours of discussion or arguing. None of us feel guilty about being able to pay the electric bill. Only the middle classes or Trust Fund babies glamorise poverty. We think ourselves lucky; not many of us get to make a living from doing work we love.
Interviewers often ask what we do away from Chumbawamba – as if that’s where the real credibility lies. Chumbawamba takes up vast amounts of our time, and all of us end up shelving personal projects in favour of the whole. It’s worth it; Chumbawamba is so much better than anything we could produce individually. The bonus is that Chumbawamba is a changing platform. What keeps us interested is being able to shift from working with convicted political prisoners to recording a radio-friendly pop song to writing for “Class War” newspaper to playing municipal halls in Poland…
BURNETT: I think there is a lot of mutual aid that goes on within the music industry, particularly among bands that express some sort of political consciousness. For example, shows are organized to benefit some local organization or to raise money for those in the midst of a heated struggle. Can you talk a little bit about who Chumbawamba has helped throughout the years and the process and/or criteria you use to make benefit decisions?
CHUMBAWAMBA: It’s something else that’s continually changed. Our early shows were all benefits; for years and years we refused to play for anything above our expenses getting to the show. As the band got bigger we played more and more, travelled farther and farther, and became burnt-out from playing every weekend and working “normal” jobs during the week. Something had to change; basically we became “professional” at a point where it was impractical to carry on as we were doing. Thus the idea of “benefits” changed also – now we were having to pay ourselves to live, too. (We rationalised this – and still do today – by believing that our role as a “pop group” is no less valid than many politically-active pressure groups. We are a part of, and party to, any movement for revolutionary change.) Ironically, whilst this change cut down on the number of shows we played to raise money for causes, it also directly led to much bigger audiences – we now had time and energy to tour places we’d never been to, to make records, to make better and more accessible propaganda. And so, when we do benefit shows now – or when we donate money to something – we can raise more in one night than we could raise over a whole tour several years ago. And as we’ve changed politically, we’ve also changed how we work within a “mutual aid” network – we began to identify the mutually irresponsible (!) notion of giving away lots of money to national animal rights groups (for instance) when we were living in a community where the pre-school nursery/infant’s daycare centre was threatened with closure for lack of funds.
So the early years of the band saw us playing benefits for lots of politically “soft” groups; this changed gradually to a definite policy of putting local and community-based projects at the top of any “benefit” list. If we do give money to national political organisations like Anti-Fascist Action or Class War, we give it to people in local groups, people whose work we respect and know about. Most times it’s not publicised that we’re making a donation unless it’s important to make it an informative gesture – like making sure someone we’re playing a benefit for can explain their position from the stage or distribute information at a show.
BURNETT: Chumbawamba is now on the internet. You recently did a project with Casey Orr called “i – Portraits of Anarchists” which is being displayed on the BURN! web site. As I am sure you know, there are many activists using the net as a decentralized organizing tool. What does Chumbawamba use the net for? Can you talk briefly about your impressions of the internet and its potential?
CHUMBAWAMBA: Well… pop groups on the internet are notoriously lame. Record company blurb, hard-sell, press pictures, the art of using a huge space to say nothing whatsoever. Before we set up our web site we looked at all the corporate rock n roll cornflakes sitting like mulch on the WWW, boring irrelevant mulch, and decided instead to take our cue from the political/radical sources of information on the net. If only to use the resources there to join in the information free-for-all (though it isn’t free… but I won’t go into that now), to counterbalance the idea that “band pages” have to follow a formula. We’d like it to work for us like a song ought to work: either suck in the music people and steer them towards a link to, for instance, an anti-fascist resource or a discussion on sexuality; or tempt the radicals into looking at the pop-culture politics of football, pop music, drugs, etc.
The internet is at a frightening point where it can claim to be both a haven for the spreading of great ideas and the newest platform for the advertising of capitalism. Cynically, I’d say it’s inevitable that we’re about to see the Coca-Colanisation of this medium in the same way we’ve seen it with print, with TV, with sport, with music… but realistically I’d add that, for the revolutionary, any media is there to be exploited, infiltrated, used, abused, stolen, corrupted, and embraced.
BURNETT: In the November 1995 issue of Love and Rage, Alice said, in response to a question about the record industry and ‘selling out’, “I don’t automatically think indies are better than majors. There’s no such thing as a benevolent boss. If he’s your boss, he’s a bastard. I hate the small businessman. I hate the lot of businessmen.” What is interesting is that Chumbawamba appears to be in a position to choose its boss. What are you looking for when you sign contracts?
CHUMBAWAMBA: Chumbawamba are in almost the same position as every other worker – apart from our enjoyment of the job. We’re powerful in that we have enough guts to do the musical equivalent of going on strike; but we’re sometimes powerless because someone else is holding the purse strings. We’ve learned that we can’t allow record company business heads to have any creative input. Creatively we trust each other and almost no-one else. But it would be a fallacy to pretend that we’ve outwitted capitalism so that the boss has to do our bidding. We chose our boss in the sense that we chose one record company over another BUT we have no illusions about the relationship. Capitalism works on profit; if Chumbawamba lost money for the record company they’d be less likely to support us.
I’m sure that OLI (One Little Indian Records) likes our ideas and our music but that doesn’t mean our motives run on a par. I’m not saying that we’ll see it, but what we’re after is the complete destruction of capitalism; that isn’t what the record company wants. When we sign a contract we’re looking for the small print.
The perks of the job lie in meeting people, and having an avenue to push ideas down. The music industry is no different from any other capitalist industry. For the most part the ‘enthusiasts’ are at the bottom of the pecking order and the money men are at the top. Some record company bosses may claim to be enthusiasts but its rare to find a label sticking with a band who lose them money.
BURNETT: In the same interview, Boff made a really interesting comparison between the comments of your working class friends who gave Chumbawamba support for your success and the comments of the middle class people who sort of looked down on the success of Chumbawamba. Have you noticed any changes in the audience that supports you? In addition to class, what else might explain the difference in attitudes?
CHUMBAWAMBA: Perhaps unfairly, we can tend to see all of our “radical” critics as suffering from middle-class guilt complex, still rebelling against the niceties of clean suburban homes and boring suburban parents. That’s our get-out clause when we’re accused of selling out radical ideas by young white males who quote their political ideas from other peoples’ records. It’s a long-standing bugbear! Sometimes we feel like a lot of people in the anarchist movement aren’t enough aware of the way the world looks outside the peculiar corner of it which is forever radical… that corner where the language, the patterns of social behaviour, the laws, the rates of human exchange are so separate from the “real” world. Some people treat political ideas like cults – the similarities are frightening.
All we’re doing is trying to encourage the idea that there can exist a politically radical culture within popular culture. Where Emma Goldman used a soapbox we now have TV and compact discs. Significantly, we’re often facing flak from both the pop and political sides for not being enough part of their gameplan – this we like. We’d hate to feel we were in anyone’s pocket.
Chumbawamba aren’t exclusively a working class band, and between us eight that’s completely irrelevant to how we work. It isn’t in our gameplan to feel guilty for anything we do, it’s in our gameplan to have a good time, stick some anarchist politics into the world, and avoid being boring. Then there’s always sex and football, of course.
BURNETT: Do you have any last comments that you would like to make? Is there anything Chumbawamba has been working on that you would like to share?
CHUMBAWAMBA: ‘No ideas, no revolution.’ (Crane Brinton) We love pop music and we never took a conscious decision to be political; experience made us that way.
CHUMBAWAMBA ON THIS RECORDING ARE:
Harry: showbusiness drums
Danbert Nobacon: vocals, tiny dresses
Dunst: ever-expanding percussion tree
Lou: vocals, keyboards
Alice Nutter: vocals, boxing gloves
Mavis Dillon: full-on trumpet captain, vocals
Paul Greco: faff bass
Boff: guitar, vocals
Neil Ferguson: mobile & Studio recording/engineering
Ed Derby: live sound, little tips
Casey Orr: backline tech (whatever that means)
Spot: backline tech, piercings
Jimmy Echo: vocals on “Timebomb”
ALL SONGS are written and arranged by Chumbawamba.
CHUMBAWAMBA THANKS everyone at the Duchess, those working there and those who paid to get in. Thanks (of course) to Leeds AFA, to Pete for doing the monitors, to Daisy for interviewing the audience, to Aaron Stuart whose Elvis Tribute Show was support both nights…