To the uninitiated, British sensation Chumbawamba was one of the hottest new acts of 1997, popping out of nowhere to crack the U.S. Top 10 with the anthemic single “Tubthumping” and selling more than 3 million copies of their “Tubthumper” album.
In reality, the eight-member band began mixing pop, punk and politics in 1982, when techno-pop groups such as the Human League and A Flock of Seagulls ruled the airwaves, Argentine troops invaded the British-held Falkland Islands, tainted Tylenol capsules killed eight people and “Late Night With David Letterman” debuted on NBC.
For vocalist-keyboardist Danbert Nobacon, it has been a long, interesting ride on the good-ship Chumbawamba.
“The first 10 years we all had other jobs or were at school and almost exclusively played benefit shows,” Nobacon said recently. “We didn’t start taking wages from Chumbawamba until 1992 when we were fed up with crap jobs and felt that Chumbawamba deserved our full energies.
“Between 1992 and mid-1997, we were always on the fringes of the mainstream. We wanted to be part of popular culture, so we wanted to be popular in that sense, and every now and then something we did would slip into the mainstream.
“For example, our 1993 single ‘Enough Is Enough’ containing the line ‘Give the Fascist Man a gunshot,’ being played on national daytime radio in the U.K. Coincidentally, a Nazi had just been elected to a local council in London, so anti-fascism was ‘this year’s thing’ for six months in the liberal media, but a year later there were still fascists on the streets and we were as unpopular as we had ever been now that politics was no longer hip.”
The phenomenal success of “Tubthumping” – its defiant chant, “I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down,” is now a mainstay at sporting events – caught Nobacon and his band mates (Lou Watts, Boff, Dunstan Bruce, Harry Hamer, Alice Nutter, Paul Greco and Jude Abbott) all by surprise.
“To us, we had simply carried on what we had always done, making interesting sounding records with politics,” Nobacon said. “We were very proud of the ‘Tubthumper’ album, especially since our English label (One Little Indian Records) rejected it in the early stages. They said ‘take a year off, go and write some stronger songs, maybe we’ll bring the album out in a year’s time.’ We couldn’t wait that long.
“For them not to bring the record out, they were defaulting on the contract, so we walked, right back into part-time jobs, plastering, waiting in restaurants, etc., to be able to finish the record and pay the bills. Biggest favor they ever did us.
“The huge success of it was a bonus, really, and the big change was suddenly everyone wanted to talk to us and know about our history and our politics. We don’t really feel any different as people. We still hold the same beliefs and are as full of contradictions as we ever were. It is a triumph for us, and it gives us this whole new platform to put interesting pop and radical ideas into a mainstream context. It is bizarre, but fascinating as well.”
Nobacon isn’t sure if fans are in tune to the rebellious messages behind “Tubthumping” and other standout tracks, such as “Amnesia” and “I Want More.” Frankly, he doesn’t care.
“We’re putting radical ideas out there and then saying it’s up to you. Take ’em or leave ’em,” he said. “We don’t have the answers, we’re not into telling people do this or do that. We just wanna spark debate, encourage people to think for themselves.
“They are not our ideas. Anarchist, anti-authoritarian ideas have been around as long as society has. We are just putting them in a pop music context, where they don’t often get through. I think if people buy our albums or see us live then there is no hiding the politics, no matter how subtle the words may or may not be. We take each opportunity as it arises and think what can we do with this.
“Maybe it’s enough to just play the song. Maybe we wanna change the words like we did on ‘David Letterman,’ inserting the chant ‘Free Mumia Abu Jamal,’ the black rights activist prisoner on death row in Philadelphia, into ‘Tubthumping.’ We take risks … some work, some don’t, but it’s in our natures to fuck with the pop rules.”
And what has happened to Chumbawamba’s early fans? Did they stand by the group or abandon them when the stakes got too high? Nobacon said people always have accused them of selling out.
“In 1986, when we stopped doing mail-order cassettes and put out our first album on our second U.S. tour,” he said, “people walked out of gigs saying we were ‘too disco’ or ‘not punk enough.’ Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll stopped reviewing our records for that very same reason. We didn’t care. It was always more important for us to change than to stay like how people expected us to be. If you have politics, then you are always gonna disappoint someone. It’s part of the territory.
“Having said that, there’s a lot of people we know from way back, who were perhaps in bands in the mid-’80s or just old mates, who are totally behind what we are doing. A lot of them grew up with us, and the same as we narrowed our options down to being in a pop band with politics, a lot of them have gone into socially useful work – nurses, trade unionists, youth workers, activists – and they fully understand the difficulties and contradictions of balancing political idealism with the realities of making a living.”
Finally, once and for all, all of America wants to know: Who or what is a Chumbawamba? And a Tubthumper?
“(Chumbawamba) is the baby on the front of ‘Tubthumper,’ ” Nobacon said. “Well, we have always used the baby theme throughout Chumbawamba’s existence, and it came from a dream that Boff had, around the time we were thinking of names for the band, and (in his dream), a baby was trying to speak and say words, and the first word she said, in baby language sounded something like ‘chummberwummer’ and it sort of got abbreviated from that. A baby with a big mouth.
“A ‘tubthumper’ is an actual word from the English dictionary, and it describes someone in history, who before the invention of electricity and microphones, would stand on a soap box on the street corner and spout their view to anyone who would listen. People still do it in Hyde Park in London. In the song, it describes a bloke in the pub, who after a crap week at work, is doing the same from the bar, railing against his boss or his crap wages, but rising above it, and having the dignity to go home singing ‘Danny Boy’ at the end of the night.”