‘Tubthumping” is so 1997. Even the members of Chumbawamba think so.
Rather than rest on its laurels, after the sing-along hit went Top 10 on the U.S. charts and No. 1 worldwide and the “Tubthumper” album sold millions, the Leeds, England-based group went to great pains to avoid making another “Tubthumper.”
They even ditched a half-recorded follow-up album.
“We felt it was sounding too much like the last album,” guitarist-vocalist Boff Whalley said recently. “It was like 13 separate songs with big choruses and a couple of quiet ones. It felt too much like ‘Tubthumper,’ and we wanted to do something a bit different with it.
“What we usually do is record for a bit and everybody writes bits of things and we stick them all together and then we do a rough demo. Then we sit back on it for like two weeks, just like we did with this one, but then we came back to it and listened to it and went ‘Oh, no, we fucked up.’ ”
The eight-member pop-rock collective – Whalley, Lou Watts (vocals, keyboards), Harry Hamer (drums, vocals), Danbert Nobacon (vocals, banjo), Dunstan Bruce (vocals), Jude Abbot (trumpet), Alice Nutter (vocals) and Neil Ferguson (bass) – returned to the drawing board and set off to create a concept album encompassing their biting political and social commentary with a whimsical mixture of genres, from punk and ska to country and hip-hop.
Their instincts were right. They have delivered the goods with “WYSIWYG” (computerese for “What you see is what you get”), released April 4 on Republic/Universal.
There are no obvious “Tubthumping”-like hits – though the lead-off single, “She’s Got All the Friends,” comes closest – but it doesn’t matter. Thinking-man’s rock doesn’t always translate into instant radio airplay.
“It would have been too obvious to try and carry on doing the same thing,” Whalley said. “I know it may sound smug, but we could’ve gone and written three or more ‘Tubthumpings’ that were along the same sort of line that would’ve worked in the same sort of way. But it would’ve been such a stupid thing to do. We really enjoy what we’re doing, and we enjoy the fact that we try and push and challenge ourselves a bit. We don’t want to be thinking, ‘Oh, this is just a career, and we have to follow this certain pattern.’ That’s a sign of getting bored and all that.”
Originally, the band considered throwing all their musical and lyrical ideas into one album-long song. Realizing no one would stand for a 47-minute, one-track disc, they broke it down into bits.
“We like to throw everything in there,” Whalley said. “One of the reasons the album turned out that way was because we decided we didn’t want to write about 12 separate ideas about separate things. We wanted there to be a link between the songs, a throwback to ‘Howl’ by Allen Ginsberg. It was a 1960s weird, rambling poem. It’s like walking through a modern city and you’re just looking at everything that’s going on. It’s a massive bombardment of ideas, images and cliches. So we decided to do that all the way through.”
It’s a quite a trip. “WYSIWYG” begins with “I’m With Stupid,” which flogs boy bands and drama school graduates; “Pass It Along” tries to make sense of security-driven logic; “Hey Hey We’re the Junkies” targets consumerism; “I’m Coming Out” rags on newspaper scandal sheets; “I’m Not Sorry, I Was Having Fun” lambastes last year’s Woodstock and the advertising generation, and “She’s Got All the Friends” is a “Clueless” look at spoiled rich girls.
Everybody’s fair game, from Charlton Heston (“Moses With a Gun”), Calvin Klein (“Knickers”), PMRC-types like Tipper Gore (“Ladies For Compassionate Lynching”) to Jerry Springer (“The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Jerry Springer”).
The tour de force is “Celebration, Florida,” a country-flavored indictment of the Disney World-owned planned community. Even without having ever visited “the exclusive housing regime,” Chumbawamba nails it: “There’s a bake sale at the schoolhouse and they’re selling innocence. They’re keeping out the deviants to protect the residents of Celebration, Florida.”
“About a year ago, Celebration came up in a conversation, and I thought, ‘God, that’s funny’ and then forgot about it,” Whalley said. “Earlier, when we were putting this album together, Alice was writing bits of stuff and she just wrote a couple of lines referring to it, not really knowing much about it.
“We thought it was a great idea, then we went off and looked it up on the Internet and saw loads of different sites about it. There’s people’s thesis papers about it, criticisms of it, as well as the town’s own site. It’s fascinating.
“There’s a social critic in Britain who has a newspaper column, and he’s really good, actually, but he’s just done a film about Celebration and he came away with this idea that even though it’s freaky, it just might work. We sent him a copy of the album, and he discussed the song in his column and said, ‘Well, yeah, I can see they have a good point,’ but he’s saying we’re coming from a cynical point of view and he’s trying to come from a hopeful point of view.”
Social architecture would never fly in Britain, Whalley says.
“Every time we come to the states, there’s this beautiful recognition that everything comes in nice straight lines and all the streets go 1, 2, 3, 4,” he said. “It’s all very ordered, whereas if you come to Britain, you go out for a walk and you get lost in five minutes. None of the streets are parallel, and you suddenly find yourself somewhere you thought you were walking away from. But I like it, it’s a mess. It’s our mess.”
Most of the sociopolitical criticisms throughout “WYSWIYG” are directed at the United States, but Whalley says Americans shouldn’t take offense. They’re not being anti-American.
“All the American references in there, and there are a lot of them, they’re the kind of references that people from America, at least all of the people from America that we know, would laugh at and say, ‘Yeah, I recognize that,’ ” he said. “What we’re trying to say, really, is if you’re living in Tokyo or Cologne, everyone understands those reference points, the same shops and adverts. Everyone understands the Americanization wherever you are in the world.
“It’s amazing the kind of power American industry has. It’s like America tried really hard to have a lot of control over the world militarily; it sort of succeeded with NATO, but it had a lot of setbacks with obviously Vietnam, whereas I think the globalization of culture and marketing and advertising products, they’re onto a winner. They know that’s the way to colonize the world, not going in with guns, but with The Gap.”
That pop-culture invasion has even reached Leeds, Whalley says.
“Leeds has been transformed in the last five, 10 years into a big shopping area and a lot of the stuff that’s coming in is American-based, American-owned stores,” he said. “It’s just weird. I’m not saying it’s particularly a nasty thing. For me, it’s good that there’s a Borders book store in Leeds, because we didn’t really have a good book shop in Leeds before. At the same time, I can’t help thinking, ‘Wow, this is a bit strange that this is the same book shop that’s all over the world.’ ”
Detractors may dismiss Chumbawamba as a one-hit wonder, but to Whalley and his band mates, it doesn’t matter one bloody bit. “WYSIWYG” is the best album of their nearly 20-year career, and they know it.
“I think a lot of people think if we don’t sell a lot of records – obviously we’re not going to sell the same as last time – but if we don’t do that and we don’t have lots of hit singles, that that’s a sign that things have gotten worse,” Whalley said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. We definitely wanted to make an album this time, and I appreciate the idea that people have to have hit singles that get played on the radio, but it was really important that we made an album we loved and we thought this is the album. We don’t care if it doesn’t have any big singles on it; we just want to go back to the old-fashioned idea of making a really nice concept album. For us, that’s enough.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “The first single I bought was called ‘Lady Barbara’ by Herman’s Hermits and a single by Redbone called ‘Witch Queen of New Orleans.’ I was too young to actually understand what music was, but somebody gave me some money for Easter and I went to a record shop and bought those two records, having never heard them before. I suddenly decided I absolutely loved them, even though I didn’t have any idea who they were. I was like 5. The first album I bought was (the Beatles’) ‘The White Album,’ which is really lucky because it set me up for life. I bought it secondhand years after it came out and I just thought, ‘Wow, two albums for the price of one.’ I got it purely for the value.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “Apart from youth club gigs, it was a band called Albertos, a satirical British comedy group, and it was supported by Devo on their second British gig. I was amazed by a bunch of kids in yellow boiler suits, and they played a video onstage while they played.”
THE LAST CD I BOUGHT: “The new Mekons album, ‘Journey to the End of the Night.’ I just bought it about three days ago, and I was listening to it last night. I love it. It’s the best thing they’ve done in years and years. They used to be based in Leeds, so there’s a lot of references I understand.”
BWF (before we forget): What you see is what you get on the Web @ www.chumba.com. … The Chumbawamba album discography – “Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records” (Agit Pop, 1986); “Never Mind the Ballots” (1987); “English Rebel Songs” (1988); “Slap!” (1990); “Shhh” (1992); “Anarchy” (One Little Indian, 1994); “Showbusiness!” (1995); “Swingin’ With Raymond” (1995); “Tubthumper” (Republic/Universal, 1997). “WYSIWYG” (2000).