You can’t be serious! That’s an expected response to British anarcho-punks Chumbawamba’s greatest hit, Tubthumping, taking its turn as political song of the week.
Released in 1997, the frothy, singalong song certainly has a lot going against it. It’s an earworm more potent than a third Jägermeister shooter on an empty stomach. It also came fifth in a Rolling Stone reader poll of worst songs of the 1990s, just below Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby (for the record, Barbie Girl by Aqua came first). It certainly isn’t going to be the best firestarter to ignite the revolution.
But as the lyrics go, I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down…
Chumbawamba formed in Leeds in 1982, a six-piece that were part of the peace punk scene.
“We were a commune for years,” singer Alice Nutter told AVClub.com in a 2017 interview. “We shared our money. We shared cooking. We bought everything together. If we worked, we put our money into the shared pot. We lived differently than most bands. By the time we did have a hit, we knew the best and worst of each other. Most bands fall out because of money at that point. We shared everything equally.”
Like other contemporary anarchists, Chumbawamba were clearly inspired by the surrealists and the Situationists, using humour liberally over their 30-year career.
But their humour was never a gentle rib-tickle, more a powerful and well-aimed kick to a strategic area of the ruling class’ anatomy. They played benefit concerts for left-wing causes such as strikes, picket lines, antiwar events, and gay and women’s rights. These subversive class warriors creatively took on fascists and racists, capitalists and rulers, without ever taking themselves too seriously. Their song and album titles – Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records, Homophobia, She’s Got All the Friends That Money Can Buy and Never Mind the Ballots – further reflect this injection of humour into their work.
In the group’s early days, there was a musical movement called Oi! that attracted a lot of fascists. Chumbawamba invented a parody, Oi!-style band called Skin Disease that contributed a track to an EP compiled by right-wing journalist Garry Bushell. The band’s guitarist, Boff Whalley, told The Guardian that their “song” consisted of them shouting “I’m thick!” 64 times.
And then there was 1997’s massive international hit, Tubthumping. It was the story of Whalley’s neighbour, who would come home smashed, put his key into the door lock, fall over and get back up again – repeatedly. “Tubthumping was written as a collective, like everything else,” Whalley said. “We wanted to make a very English album and the song is about the resilience of ordinary people.”
It literally bought the band a lot of freedom, showing that political principle and pragmatism needn’t be mutually exclusive.
“On [American TV programme] Letterman, we changed the lyrics to ‘Free Mumia Abu-Jamal’,” Nutter told AVClub.com. “They recorded it an hour before it went out. They said, ‘You can’t do that. You have to record another one.’
“We said, ‘No. You either use it or you don’t.’ They had to decide to pull it, or play it with this chorus of freeing a Black Panther. They ended up putting it on.”
In their performance at the next year’s annual Brit Awards, the band again changed the lyrics, this time to “New Labour sold out the dockers. Just like they’ll sell out the rest of us.”
Afterwards, two of the band members poured eight litres of iced water from a champagne bucket over the head of then British deputy prime minister John Prescott.
In a later interview with The Guardian, vocalist Dunstan Bruce admitted that while Tubthumping wasn’t the band’s best or most political song, it was “about us, as a class and as a band. The beauty of it was we had no idea how big it would be.
“Suddenly we were a political band who were being listened to; people were coming to us to ask what we thought of New Labour or Tony Blair. Especially after the Brits.
“I never gave a shit about people saying we had sold out. 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.”
Chumbawamba certainly didn’t disappear in a cloud of coke, forgetting their leftist, anticapitalist political roots. Nutter advised on an American television programme that fans who couldn’t afford their album should simply steal it from one of the large chain stores.
When Nike offered them $1.5 million to use Tubthumping as the music for their World Cup ad in 1998, the band said no. General Electric offered them £500 000 for the song to advertise an X-ray machine. After discovering that GE also makes engines for military aircraft, it was another no.
In 2002, General Motors paid Chumbawamba $100 000 to use their song Pass it Along for a car advertisement, according to The Observer. The band took GM’s money and gave it to anticorporate activist groups Indymedia and CorpWatch to mount an aggressive information and environmental campaign – against GM.