"All music is folk music, I ain't never heard no horse sing a song." --Louis Armstrong
Chumbawamba have always been risk takers and mavericks; loving pop music and hating cultural conservatism. In the era of Popstars and Pop Idol and "we met at stage school" bands singing cover versions of anodyne retro ballads, Chumbawamba stick out like eight sore thumbs. Formed in the '80s, Chumbawamba were always willfully anarchic, with an ethos that punk rock is an attitude rather than a style of music. Chumbawamba's albums have spanned everything from sweet barbed pop, to acappella harmonies, to break beats and big choruses punctuated by Memphis horn sections. Their latest release, READYMADES, is a sonic departure for the band with its break beats layered with atmospheric folk samples by the likes of Kate Rusby, a young folk singer from Barnsley, England, who was up for last year's Mercury Award. The big shouty choruses have been replaced by plaintive melodies and four-part harmonies. Although inhabiting a different soundscape, Chumbawamba are still a band who are much more interested in the world outside themselves than they are in making records about personal angst: "There are enough great records around about falling in and out of love," said vocalist Dunstan Bruce "We don't need to make another one."
Still a collective, the band put their longevity down to a willingness to change, everybody having a say and an equal share in the band's fortunes, thick skins and a sense of humour. "Minds are like parachutes... " said Bruce "Useless unless they're open. We've always encouraged each other to embrace change and not stay in ghettos, whether they be artistic or political. Working collectively takes up a lot more time than one person having a massive tantrum and getting his/her own way but it's a lot better for the soul and it cuts down on the resentment factor."
Throughout their long and chequered career. Chumbawamba have inspired such glowing headlines as the English national newspaper, the Sun's "Heartless Bastards!" and managed to have two albums removed from the shelves of major record chains on the grounds that a sleeve depicting a newborn baby was 'pornographic' (ANARCHY) and the band were inciting shoplifting (TUBTHUMPER). Chumbawamba were well used to controversy by the time they finished their 9th album TUBTHUMPER in 1997, and the band were also used to surviving the vagaries of the music industry, so when their label One Little Indian refused to put the album out on the grounds "that it wouldn't sell", Chumbawamba set out to find another label for the finished album. EMI released the album in Europe and Asia and Republic/Universal put it out in the North America. The album went on to sell 5 million copies worldwide. Accusations of "sell out" from longtime fans, faded away as the band continued to function as a collective, and to use their new found access to the media to push campaigns, and their financial success to fund the emerging anti-globalization movement. "When we signed to EMI and Universal, there was a mass chorus of 'hypocrites!'" said Bruce, "the lead mostly by people who weren't part of the movement and defined politics as some vague thing that we vote for and governments do. The name calling didn't really affect us, we knew that time would tell and the people we worked with in the movement knew us well enough to give us the benefit of doubt."
Chumbawamba's next album WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) captured the zeitgeist and was a barbed swipe at the business and celebrity culture which puts the drive for profit before human life, replacing news and real information with yet another picture of any and every wasted female celebrity badly in need of three square meals a day. It was all a bit too much for EMI who'd hoped for a 'Bob The Builder' novelty record [the #1 UK single, Christmas 2000, from a children's television show]." Chumbawamba and EMI parted company. "We knew we hadn't made a 'commercial' record," said Bruce "But we had made a record which was fired and passionate and would stand the test of time."
Last year Chumbawamba completed the film "Well Done, Now Sod Off!" with Director Ben Unwin. The film was a potted history of Chumbawamba, which premiered at the Leeds Film Festival . "Well Done, Now Sod Off!" supplies answers to why Chumbawamba are so loved and loathed. Unusual for a band documentary, it contains footage of their critics as well as fans. Throughout "Well Done, Now Sod Off!" Chumbawamba break the unwritten rule that rebellion in the pop world is limited to misbehaving while under the influence. "I suppose we are hedonists," said Bruce. "We like to party but we generally clean up our own vomit." Chumbawamba have never smashed up a hotel or dressing room but they did refuse to join in the campaign of misinformation distributed by the UK government about Leah Betts' death from the drug Ecstacy. The band produced posters similar to the government's, which replaced the word "Sorted" with "Distorted." And they have soaked England's Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott in retaliation for New Labour's refusal to support the striking Liverpool Dockers.
Chumbawamba's approach to supplying music for advertising also departs from the standard rock n' roll approach. When offered ads the band contact anti-capitalist groups in the country where the ad will be screened and ask them if they want to use the proceeds, if the group says "Yes," the band accept the ad. "It seemed madness to turn down hundreds of thousands of dollars when groups are struggling to raise hundreds," said Bruce. Pontiac is presently using "Pass It Along" from WYSIWYG in an ad campaign in the US. Because of Chumbawamba songs, Ford and Renault have financed anti-capitalist groups in South Africa, Italy, Brazil and India. General Electric recently offered Chumbawamba $750,000 to use the mega-hit "Tubthumping" on an ad for an x-ray machine. But since General Electric manufacture engines for military planes the band refused the ad. As Dunstan Bruce put it: "We have to deal with each one of these ads as they come along, but we simply couldn't find a reason big enough to excuse the fact that GE's engines were flying over Afghanistan dropping bombs and incinerating civilians."
Meanwhile, Chumbawamba have provided the sound track to "Revenger's
Tragedy," an Alex Cox film ("Repo Man," "Sid & Nancy") that will be released
later this year. The film stars Christopher Ecclestone ("Shallow Grave"),
Eddie Izzard , Margi Clarke ("Letter to Breshnev") and Derek Jacobi, and is
a tale adapted from a Shakespear-era play about warring brothers, murder and
READYMADES is the band's 11th studio album and was released in June 2002.
Chumbawamba All Music Guide Biography
Chumbawamba were originally comprised of former Men in a Suitcase frontman Dunstan Bruce, onetime Ow My Hair's on Fire drummer Alice Nutter, and computer technician Lou Watts. After recording a song for a compilation album, the trio teamed with Harry Hamer and Mavis Dillon -- members of one of the LP's other contributors, the Passion Killers -- and the Chumbawamba lineup was thus complete. The band quickly became a thorn in the side of British conservatives, mounting a series of benefit concerts for a variety of anti-Thatcherite causes and campaigns; before long, they were also the subject of frequent police raids.
Released at the height of Live Aid-era goodwill, Chumbawamba's debut LP, Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records: Starvation, Charity and Rock 'n' Roll -- Lies and Tradition, appeared in 1986, brutally attacking the principles of media limelight and career-boosting they perceived at the heart of the charitable event. (The subject resurfaced in 1987, when a celebrity cover of "Let It Be" mounted to raise money for ferry disaster victims was followed by the Chumbawamba single "Scab Aid," recorded as the pseudonymous Scum.) Never Mind the Ballots...Here's the Rest of Your Lives was rush-released in 1987 to coincide with the year's general elections, while the 1989 follow-up EP, English Rebel Songs 1391-1914, consisted primarily of authentic 14th century anti-poll tax protest songs. With 1990's Slap!, Chumbawamba began experimenting with sampling; the follow-up, to be titled Jesus H. Christ, was banned on the eve of its release after the band failed to obtain the right to cover songs by Kylie Minogue, Paul McCartney, and ABBA. (Consequently, the focus of 1992's Shhh was censorship.)
With 1993's anti-fascism rant "Enough Is Enough," Chumbawamba scored their biggest indie hit to date, and 1994's Anarchy LP was also a success. After the 1995 live LP Showbusiness!, the group returned the next year with Swingin' with Raymond, a concept album about a man with the word "LOVE" tattooed on the knuckles of one hand and "HATE" tattooed on the other. All appeared to be business as usual until it was announced that Chumbawamba had signed to EMI, a move that angered and confused many fans who subscribed to the band's anti-corporation ideals. Nevertheless, their 1997 major-label debut, Tubthumper, became a smash success thanks to the infectious "Tubthumping," a Top Ten hit in the U.S. and throughout Europe. A second single, "Amnesia," was also a success. Their newfound popularity also allowed the group to bring its anarchist message to a new audience -- Nutter even found herself in the middle of a major scandal when she appeared on the American panel discussion show Politically Incorrect to advocate shoplifting from major record chains, prompting some retailers to pull Chumbawamba's discs from their shelves. The ABCs of Anarchy, a split EP with Negativland, followed in 1999, and in the spring of 2000 the group resurfaced with What You See Is What You Get.
Worried about the public reaction to the lyrics, which were critical of big business and the media, EMI decided to drop the group. The band was unusually quiet for a period, but director Alex Cox soon approached them about scoring Revenger's Tragedy and they jumped at the chance. A documentary about the band, Well Done, Now Sod Off!, appeared in 2001. That same year, they stirred attention by licensing songs to certain companies that fit their political standards. They reappeared in 2002 for a reunion show and released Readymades that summer, followed by a second pressing of the album (augmented with additional content and rebranded as Readymades and Then Some) in October 2003 via Koch Records. Next up on the release roster was Shhhlap!, which compiled the early Chumba releases Shhh and Slap!, and June 2004 saw the arrival of UN, which built on the folktronic sound of Readymades and was as ideologically feisty as ever.
Change was in the wind for Chumbawamba soon after the release of UN, however, as the group signed to the No Masters Co-operative and issued a stripped-down acoustic album called Singsong and a Scrap. Released in 2006, the album abandoned the electronic, clubby sound of the band's previous work and focused instead on lush vocal harmonies and traditional Irish folk instruments. Chumbawamba then released their second album with No Masters Co-operative in 2007, an equally stripped-down affair called Get on with It: Live, and returned in 2008 with a folk-based studio effort titled The Boy Bands Have Won. ~ Jason Ankeny, All Music Guide