One of the oddest moments of cultural exchange between Britain and the US over the past century, is the heady period during which “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba – who announced this week that they have called it a day – became a hit.
You know the song, they get knocked down, but they get up again, that one.
It’s odd because it managed to entirely dwarf the band who made it, making them appear entirely anonymous next to their one big moment. And this is no small achievement, bearing in mind the incredible prickly singularity of the people involved.
Chumbawamba came out of dole-dodging, flat-squatting early ’80s punk rock. a theatrical, satirical pop troupe with dole-queue pseudonyms like Alice Nutter and Danbert Nobacon. Their first album “Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records” was a massive dig at Live Aid, and the rock acts whose record sales went through the roof as a result of this charitable hot ticket. Subsequent releases took the time to poke the eye of organised religion, Nazis, wife-beaters and homophobics, earning them a reputation for being painfully right on, despite the evident glee with which they attacked their targets.
In 1988 they released the album “English Rebel Songs 1381 – 1914,” on which they resurrected twelve anti-establishment, pro-revolutionary songs from English history, going back as far as the peasant’s revolt of 1381, and sang them a capella. Not the first punk band to draw a line between themselves and historical insurrection, but definitely the most accomplished.
But 1988 was also the year of acid house, and being keen pop fans, the band started to bolster their righteous ire with dance beats, gaining significant attention along the way. Subsequent albums “Slap!” and “Shhh!” were written using samples of hit songs (a move which saw them re-record the latter album, having had to strip the copyrighted samples out). By 1997, they’d evolved into a well-respected (if occasionally pious and stroppy) left wing pop band, with a liking for trouble and a hugely sardonic songbook.
And then this happened:
As a song, “Tubthumping” is a defiant, strutting thing, entirely in keeping with the band’s back catalogue, but largely unhampered by their politics. It’s more social observation than revolutionary rhetoric, and so perfectly was it suited to TV sports coverage and drunken shoutalongs that it quickly became a No.2 hit in the UK, and a No.6 hit in the US.
This lead to some surreal scenes, of the sort you’d expect when taking an unimpressable bunch of narky squatpunkers and putting them at the heart of the entertainment establishment they’d railed against for years. The most notable occasion being Danbert Nobacon throwing a bucket of water over Labour’s deputy leader John Prescott at the 1998 Brit Awards, in protest at the government’s refusal to support a dockworker’s strike. You don’t get this kind of thing from Mumford and Sons.
Subsequent singles, albums and gestures struggled to match “Tubthumping” in sales or impact, and the band’s hectoring, needling approach to the matey world of showbiz won them few friends on the inside. But they soldiered on, fusing folk and dance, then going fully acoustic, losing the odd band member here and there to theatrical work or writing scripts for Casualty. They provided the soundtrack to the 2003 Alex Cox film Revenger’s Tragedy, and spent the money General Motors gave them for a song on an anti-corporate film that pointed the finger at General Motors. How very occupy of them.
That none of this is common knowledge, that they’re forever held in the amber walking stick glow of “Tubthumping,” and bucket-related gesture politics, is simply the way pop music tends to work. You either continue to compete at the same level, or you’re over. No matter how enthralling the music before and afterwards may be, few people get to escape the shadow cast by a monolithic international hit single with their full story intact.