Monday, October 15, 2007

One-Hit Wonder Week: "Tubthumping," by Chumbawamba

I could never quite figure out what Chumbawamba was. They -- six men and two women -- were often descibred as a collective, which I understood meant they all lived in the same house, and were all really solicitous toward the one woman in the group who had a trust fund. I'm not going to list all their names, but some of the members were named Dunstan and Boff and Danbert.

They actually started up the band in 1982, when they lived in a commune in Leeds and played punk music. They put out mostly anarchy-tinged records, foisting what they saw as clever political commentary into their work, such as making an answer album to the Live Aid concerts called Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records. Chumba's Danbert once interrupted a live Smashing Pumpkins performance on German television by stripping naked, writing the word PUNK on his chest, and going to stand in front of the band as they played. Upon the release of their single "Her Majesty," an elongated version of the Beatles' song, they put out a press release announcing that Queen Elizabeth had died. Ha! Ha!

I don't know any of Chumbawamba's music from this period, although it doesn't sound too promising. But it was good enough to get a contract from EMI in 1997, a move that occasioned much tut-tutting from the British punk scene. EMI knew what it was doing, though, because right out of the box, Chumba came up with "Tubthumping," an exhilarating mix of soccer-hooligan chanting, Brit fake R&B horns, "Danny Boy," crunchy guitars, hip-hop beats, and God knows what else. The shouted chorus -- "I get knocked down, but I get up again/You're not ever gonna keep me down" -- was inescapable in the fall of 1997, a wonderful time to be alive. I have seen references to this song being atypically apolitical for Chumbawamba, but it seems to me to be political in the best possible way: strong, defiant, self-reliant, both personal and universal, working-class and proud of it. (It also provided the greatest opening sentence in the history of rock journalism, if not in journalism period, when Rob Sheffield wrote of Madonna's Ray of Light, the dance-oriented album that was her first post-pregnancy record, "She gets knocked up, but she gets down again.")

The Chumbas got a little bit of MTV play for their follow-up single, a wan slice of Brit R&B called "Amnesia," but that was more or less the last anyone heard of them. But for three minutes and 34 seconds back in 1997, they were as good as an anarchist collective could ever be. Here's Chumbawamba, selling out to the man with their video for "Tubthumping":


Mark Lerner said...

Here's where I should point out that I have just about every Chumbawamba record and think they're brilliant. And they're still at it. Though their one hit is very very good, it's not from a very great record. I'd strongly recommend ANARCHY and READYMADES.

T. Nawrocki said...

Thank you, Mr. Lerner. I'm pretty sure the only other Chumba song I've heard is "Amnesia," so I am more than willing to entertain the possibility that there's more to them than "Tubthumping."