Friday, 2 May 2014

Misbehaving with Chumbawamba

Hypocrisy lies at the heart of journalism. Music journalism is no exception. Why, for instance, is it perfectly acceptable to champion certain artists who espouse certain political or social beliefs or opinions, while others who hold similar views are chastised, ridiculed even, regardless of their musical styles?

Chumbawamba is a case in point. They have never been the media’s favourite band. On the contrary, the music press did practically nothing but pour scorn, contempt and derision on them for the best part of 30 years. They were one of the great misunderstood bands of our generation, probably because our media is lazy and inadequate and its audiences likewise. While some live the lifestyle and ideology of anarchy and subversion, deploring the mainstream and the establishment, Chumba confronted it head on. You can’t pour a bucket of water over the Deputy Prime Minister from a squat in Yorkshire, you have to be prepared to get yourselves into a position to bloody well do it. While the zealots published their DIY manifestos and gave them away to a few hundred like-minded souls, Chumba signed to EMI (amid screams and taunts of “sell outs!”) and spoke openly about anarchy on Breakfast TV to millions. Johnny Rotten did adverts for butter to fund a PiL reformation. Chumbawamba took $100,000 from a huge corporation (for the use of one of their songs in an advertising campaign) and promptly donated every penny to anti-corporate activists. Using corporate money to fight corporate greed is a hilariously paradoxical statement and far more productive than handing out a few leaflets proclaiming “Bankers Out!” And while it’s encouraged to rail against racists, homophobes and other similarly ignorant shitheads through ‘peaceful demonstration’ (which, let’s be honest here, ultimately achieves absolutely nothing), would you physically confront a bunch of National Front skinheads who gatecrash your gig intent on causing trouble? Would you get off stage and beat the living crap out of them? Chumbawamba did, and got themselves banned from the venue as a result. Banned for kicking the arses of utter scumbags who were looking for it. Because ACTUALLY DOING SOMETHING is wrong, isn’t it.

This was, of course, all hopelessly lost on the media. Jarvis Cocker mooning at Michael Jackson at the Brits? “Ha! Naughty old Jarvis, but how we love him.” Chumba drenching Prescott?  “Unacceptable, what an example to set our young people!” We’ll sneer and rail against those in charge, but once they’re genuinely threatened, we’ll tut, shake our heads and wag our fingers in the collective, self-righteous manner that’s expected of us. Oh how very Daily Mail of us.

I say “we”. I don’t include myself in that. I like to think I’m one of those “we” tut and shake “our” heads at. I certainly was back in 1992, the years I first saw Chumbawamba in concert (see previous article). Maybe that show proved to me that I was right and that the “we” were nothing more than ignorant sheep, capable of little more than being manoeuvred by the evil shepherd (Government) and border collie (media) into our pens until such time as were we ready for slaughter. Or maybe I already believed that anyway. I don’t rightfully remember.

Either way, from that moment on I was a Chumba acolyte. Within two months, I had seen them another three times, including once at the semi-legendary Anchor in Westward Ho![1] By this time I was practically living the band’s fourth album ‘Shhh!’, a largely anti-censorship record that rose from the ashes of the scrapped ‘Jesus H. Christ’ album that suffered at the hands of the censors for using elements of other people’s songs that Chumba couldn’t get permission for. ‘Shhh!’, therefore, was the newly re-recorded censored version. Yet more irony. In spite of this, it was by far the most popular CD on the jukebox of my fave pub, the West of England.

For the next couple of years, I saw Chumbawamba time and time again, each time no less entertaining than the last. The costumes and theatrics continued to add that visual flourish (Alice shadow-boxing through Bad Dog being a particular favourite of mine), while the songs became more and more catchy, even embracing the synthetics and beats of dance music, without losing their political and social messages.

The last time I saw them was in 1996 during the ‘Swingin’ With Raymond’ tour. They happened to be in Portsmouth at the time I was doing my journalism exams, so I dragged my fellow student Paul along to the Pyramids Centre with me. It was the one and only time I’ve had the privilege to see the magnificent Cardiacs live – a newly-trimmed four-piece line-up provided the support. It was probably the tenth time I'd seen Chumba and while I never tired of seeing them, I did feel the time was right for a change. They didn’t quite have the same impact on me by this point and their show was becoming a tad predictable.

A year later, Chumbawamba sat at number two in the charts and were watched by the nation on Top of The Pops. The band I’d raved about for five years, that drew sneers or puzzled expressions from others at the very mention of the name, were now part of the mainstream. Radio One airplay, Breakfast TV, awards shows. Another irony? Well, we know what happened in the immediate aftermath, but once the fuss had died down, Chumba went back into relative obscurity, releasing several more albums and evolving into a slimmed-down acoustic folk unit in the process before finally splitting up in 2012.

I recently compiled a load of Chumba MP3s, a bumper best of, if you like; 75 songs from their very first EP in 1985 right up to their farewell release, last year's ‘Margaret Thatcher: In Memorium’ (a celebration of the overdue demise of our reviled former PM). I was surprised how much of it remained relevant, both musically and lyrically. While it could be argued that for all their political activism and controversy-courting Chumbawamba didn’t change anything, there’s no denying (as far as I’m concerned anyway) that they went about it in a far more captivating manner than many of their self-righteous peers who not only didn’t dare to infiltrate the ‘mainstream’, but who avoided it at all cost, thereby changing nothing at all. Chumba certainly influenced my own views and gave me an awful lot more to think about than your average so-called anarchist.


Further reading:

[1] Legendary at least to a certain generation of local music fans in the late 80s-mid 90s. Westward Ho! is an otherwise dreary seaside town near Bideford named after Charles Kingsley’s novel (and to my knowledge, is one of only two towns in the world with an exclamation mark in its name[4]). The Anchor was a pub with a function room upstairs that housed pool tables and darts boards through the week, and live music at weekends. It was an awesome venue, beloved by local promoters, performers and audiences alike. I never once saw a fight there, though the police raided it several times believing (foolishly) the place to be full of drug dealers. It was sold sometime in 1994-5 to a bloke who didn’t want to attract “that sort of crowd” anymore and started hosting discos instead. Needless to say, there was trouble every week; the police were regularly called in numbers thanks to the alcohol-fuelled numbskulls who now frequented the place. A couple years later it closed for good and is now a block of sea-view apartments.
[2] For South West Correspondent following his recommendation a couple weeks ago...
[3] "Metallica's lead singer James Hetfield expressed his satisfaction when told that the US army used one of the group's songs to break the will of Iraqi prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Chumbawamba imagines retaliation..." (NME, 2010) One of Chumba's most hilarious songs, Boff Whalley cites it as a fave of his.
[4] The other being the intriguingly named Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!, Quebec, Canada.


  1. Great post. I'm not an anarchist but I agree a lot with you.

  2. chumbas also threw water over the clash when they played outside leeds uni for selling out to cbs ( i was there ! )