Self-proclaimed "anarcho-pop funsters" Chumbawamba were unique in becoming the first anarchist collective indie band to sign to a major label and have a massive worldwide one hit wonder, after which they gave most of the money they earned to social welfare projects and striking dockers. And then they followed up their huge US success with the distinctly anti-American Jesus in Vegas.
Formed in 1982, Chumbawamba were largely unknown for the first half of their 30 year career except to a devout following of like-minded fans. The band embraced an alternative anarchist lifestyle, living in a squat, surviving on a very modest income which they all shared and supporting the causes they believed in by playing benefit gigs.
But in 1997 they decided to take the King's Shilling and sign a deal with EMI Records, much to the chagrin of some hardcore fans, who immediately dismissed them as sell-outs. And EMI appeared to have made a very smart move when, in 1997, Chumbawamba scored their first ever hit single with the hugely catchy Tubthumping. Think you don't know it? Of course you do: it's the one that goes "I get knocked down, but I get up again..."
"I never gave a shit about people saying we had sold out," recalled singer Dunstan in an interview with The Guardian in 2015. "It was much more important to be part of popular culture as a political band. We gave a lot of the money away and it was a real opportunity to do something positive."
The accompanying album Tubthumper went to No.3 in the Billboard chart. And then along came the follow-up album. EMI launched WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) with a barrage of press and advertising... and it was a commercial disaster, selling fewer than 1% of the three million copies notched up by its predecessor. Within a year, the EMI contract was over. Chumbawamba continued largely unscathed until 2012 and released seven more albums, but their 15 minutes of fame was over.
And it's a great shame that more people didn't get to hear WYSIWYG, because it contains a very generous 22 tracks of top quality "anarcho-pop", including the acidic indictment of hypocritical, spiritually bereft, toxic American culture that is Jesus in Vegas.
The uncredited sleeve notes for the song are a bit vague. "History collides with itself ('Don't I know you?') and is re-written before it happens," is the distinctly unhelpful opening explanation for this song, continuing. "In the name of the Father, the Son and Saint Augustine with a golden gun, still the franchise persists, doling out 57 varieties of ruthlessly Christian values and telling the networks what will and won't be seen on primetime TV. Here's the predominant culture: every show is an advertisement disguised as entertainment."
The refrain of "I'll pull your goddamn tongue right out by the roots" is a reference to Elvis Presley from bootleg tapes that had recently surfaced in which Elvis was on stage at the Las Vegas Hilton ranting about the media, who had insinuated that his recent stay in hospital was due to drug use.
"If I find or hear an individual that has said that about me, I'm going to break their god-damn neck your son of a bitch," Elvis told his bemused audience back in 1974, whilst clearly under the influence of something mood-altering. "I will pull your god-damn tongue out by the roots."
Most of Chumbawamba's back catalogue is not available on streaming services, but you should seek out Anarchy (1994), featuring the anti-Fascist singalong Enough is Enough with a guest appearance by Credit to the Nation's brilliant rapper MC Fusion. And, sounding very different, try to find the 1988 Chumbawamba album English Rebel Songs 1381–1984, which is exactly what the title suggests: recordings of traditional English protest songs dating from the Peasants' Revolt to the Miners' Strike.
Finally, this may not be the last you hear of Chumbawamba in 2018 - after raising more than £40,000 via Kickstarter, Dunstan Bruce is currently making a documentary film about the crazy rollercoaster success of Tubthumping, called I Get Knocked Down.
You can learn more about Chumbawamba here
About the curator: Jon Ewing
After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.
4 March 2021
A high-speed combination of punk chorus and ska verse, Mustard Plug’s singalong Unite and Fight is just one of a sensational 28 tracks on the Ska Against Racism album compiled by Bad Time Records in 2020 to raise funds for non-profit organisations working to improve education, opportunity and justice for black people in the USA and beyond. With a barrelling momentum and a repudiation of violent action, this uplifting song is a call to arms for those of us committed to disarmament.
8 September 2020
Celebrating the determination of “one hundred thousand teenagers” to take over the streets of London to save their future from calamity, KIDSTRIKE! by novelist and singer songwriter JB Morrison – aka Jim Bob – is taken from the UK Top 40 album Pop Up Jim Bob released in August 2020 and inspired by the real life activism of countless young activists. But the song is run through with a rueful recognition of the singer’s own fading urge to save the world.
28 July 2020
Inspired in part by the fatal shooting in New York of a ten-year-old black boy by a white plain-clothes policeman, the audacious centrepiece of Stevie Wonder’s experimental 1973 album was a seven-and-a-half-minute meditation on the brutality of black America: Living for the City…