Last week Chumbawamba, the nonsensically named band responsible for the ubiquitous nonsensically named hit "Tubthumping," announced it was calling it quits after 30 years. The news item drew reactions ranging from "Oh yeah, that 'I get knocked down' '90's band?" to "They were still around?" and also "God, that song blows." In the midst of their 15 minutes of fame, the word "anarchist" was always casually bandied about, but never in a serious way. I recall seeing an appearance the band made on Rosie O'Donnell's daytime talk show in which she introduced them as "the nicest bunch of anarchists I've ever met!"
Yet shortly after the split-up announcement last week, Aaron Lake Smith wrote a fascinating Chumbawamba retrospective for Jacobin Magazine that spells out how subversive the band truly was over its three decades in action.
Smith, who's now an editor at Vice Magazine, self-published an extensive Chumbawamba fanzine in 2008 as part of his Big Hands series that he wrote under the moniker Aaron Asshat.
His Jacobin piece is a distillation of that zine, examining how a virulent anarchist band many dispose as a one-hit wonder went from performance art spectacles in British squats to dumping water on a deputy Prime Minister at an awards show.
After years of community activism and playing punk shows, the band became fascinated with the underground (and oftentimes illegal) activities in the '80s British rave scene, inspiring them to start playing electronic music. Soon enough, Chumbawamba were offered a record contract by EMI, a conglomerate they had roundly criticized in their punk past, having once smeared blood on an EMI building.
The decision didn't come easy, but it was decided that more positive work could be done with EMI's dirty money than giving the deal a petulant middle finger. As the story goes, Chumbawamba gave away $100,000 they earned from licensing a song for a GM commercial to anarchist and anti-corporate groups like Indymedia and Corpwatch. Band member Alice Nutter went on late-night talk show "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher" and said she didn't care if people stole their albums, prompting Virgin Megastore to stash their stock of Tubthumper behind the counter.
Beyond these and other anecdotes, one of the most interesting parts of Smith's retrospective is his assertion that Chumbawamba's flexible anarchy could be seen as a counterpoint to D.C. punks Fugazi and leader Ian MacKaye's legendary hard-line practices. Whereas Fugazi was unwavering in its $5 all-ages shows and straight-edge politics, Chumbawamba embodied the sell-out-and-subvert-from-the-inside school of punk moralizing.
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It's hard to say, which group had a more profound impact on the self-described "anti-capitalist" punk scene. Fugazi's symbolic rejection of fame and the profit motive was certainly more popular within it though. Ironically though, some of the bands from the scene they had spent time mothering used their association with Fugazi as a stepping stone to become commercially successful. Fugazi hit a brick wall with their American-style, "less talk more rock" radicalism in the same way that Chumbawamba were consumed by their experience as celebrities, and began to criticize the music industry from an insidery perspective.
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Smith asserts that Chumbawamba's major label dealings may have turned them into a pop punchline, but their willingness to try bending the music industry to their will was more effective than merely embodying a radical lifestyle.
Chumbawamba stopped focusing on their diets and started focusing on political action. They knew that real change wouldn't come from forming little ultra-radical tribes and cadres. They broke out of the punk ghetto and became normal people, spending time at workingman's clubs, at bars, at bus stops and day care centers. They brought their explicitly anarchist message onto the morning television programs and interviews and talked and performed on amphitheater stages in front of hundreds of thousands of people.
So basically, that annoying song about pissing the night away could be considered an act of revolutionary populism, and the band responsible for that song encouraged people to steal it. If they didn't feel like underachievers already, Right Said Fred and OMC should be ashamed.