Saturday, July 14, 2012

30 years of anarchy: a chumbawamba retrospective - 1982 - beginnings

Some one-hit wonders are just that - they release a single song off a single album, and then disappear into the ether, never to be heard of again. But most aren't - in fact, VH1 has made many a show investigating the one-hit wonders since the beginning of recording, digging into their history and the people who created the music, often times ignoring the music that band made before and after the one-hit, and almost certainly ignoring the politics and views that shaped the music as a whole.

This isn't going to be like that. Not just because this band had a thirty-year run spanning multiple genres and labels, but because Chumbawamba epitomized the best of their genre: good punk musicians and artists that actually had something to say, and were clever enough to say it well. You'd be surprised how truly rare that is.

But even great things must come to an end. On July 9, 2012, the band Chumbawamba announced they were splitting up after a thirty year run. It wasn't with a bang, or a whimper - it simply was. The group had reached a parting of the ways, the best possible way for a group to split. 

But then a thought struck me and gave me pause - did anyone care? Who remembered this band? Who cared now? Sure, the band has a Wikipedia page, but who would bother to maintain it, to chronicle and analyze the strident political message of a band of anarchists? They represented a piece of ephemeral punk culture - would it be like so many other punk acts, lost to anonymity and irrelevance?

Well, it won't happen on my watch. I still don't know who reads this blog, but on every Saturday, this will be my project: a chronicle of the music of Chumbawamba, and an analysis of the political messages behind them. I can't promise that it'll be complete, mostly because some of the music is already lost, but I will try. 

Why am I doing this? Well, Chumbawamba is one of the great forgotten bands - and if it's up to me to be the lone chronicler, I'll do it. Pop culture - particularly punk pop culture - is ephemeral in the best of times, and if I can capture a snapshot of one of the most successful anarchist acts of all time, someone might remember, and maybe the dying embers of punk will be stoked again.

So let's travel back to 1982 - the beginning.

Beginnings: 1982

Chumbawamba began in the town of Burnley, an English post-industrial town already decades into its decline. Once a booming center in the production of cotton cloth, the town had become increasingly irrelevant in a globalized world, and the economy in the region proved it. Unemployment was steadily rising, and there was plenty of discontentment to captivate the minds of punk musicians. It's also clear that Chumbawamba never forgot their roots, as most of their music is filled with sympathies for the disaffected working class people around them. 

The band was formed from a jumble of three punk/post-punk bands. The first band was called Chimp Eats Banana, and contributed Boff Whalley (vocals, guitar, ukulele and clarinet) and Danbert Nobacon (vocals and keyboards), who then recruited Lou Watts (vocals, guitar, percussion, and keyboards) and Man In A Suitcase member Dunstan Bruce (vocals, sax, bass, turntables, percussion). The second band that contributed members was the Passion Killers, a punk act that had fallen apart in 1978. From that band, Mavis Dillon (vocals, trumpet, french horn, bass) and Harry 'Daz' Hammer (vocals, drums, programming, percussion) stepped in. The last contributor was Alice Nutter (vocals, percussion), a screenwriter formerly from the band 'Ow, my hair's on fire'. Together, they would form the first incarnation of Chumbawamba. At the time, they were living in typical post-punk conditions: in a squat in Armley, Leeds, in an abandoned Victorian house. Here, they fully embraced the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) lifestyle, growing their own food, teaching themselves electrics and plumbing, and living as a functional anarchist collective.

But what is really telling about Chumbawamba, particularly in their early years, are their field of influences. According to The Day The Country Died: A History of Anarcho-Punk, the band were inspired by The Fall, Wire, Public Image Ltd., and Adam And The Ants. None of these influences are remotely surprising, and they do make a certain amount of sense. The Fall, an avant-garde post punk band that still exists today, likely provided the inspiration for the cryptic style and generally abrasive sound that early Chumbawamba possessed, while the art-punk of Wire provided the template of sound on their first three albums that every post-punk act were trying to emulate. And of course they were influenced by Public Image Ltd.'s Metal Box - every post-punk band in that era was. However, I find the influence of Adam And The Ants significantly more intriguing - as a post-punk band on the threshold of the New Romanticism wave, Adam Ant's blend of trashy glam and punk styling really does come across in Chumbawamba's theatrical bent (particularly in performance), where the image is just as pertinent as the song itself (I recommend anyone looking to understand this further to watch the punk cult film Jubilee, you'll get something of an idea what I'm talking about).

But tied to Chumbawamba music was its politics, and with that, we have to examine their initial influence - one of the founding members of the punk movement, Crass. It's complicated to talk about Crass, because they were a complicated act. The band influenced so much of punk tradition (including the 'do-it-yourself' element, the twisting and perversion of iconography, and the 'direct action' method of graffiti and art) that it's hard to remember that they were just as critical of the modern punk movement themselves. Very early, the band made repeated critiques of the auto-cannibalistic nature of punk music, advocating a rare brand of anarcho-pacifism (that would be adopted by Chumbawamba) instead of the volatile protests of the typical punk movement (a conflict that would eventually factor into Crass' planned breakup in 1984). 

But here's the interesting thing about Crass - outside of the broad anarchistic themes of feminism, anti-racism, and pacifism, Crass never really had a coherent political message. The juxtaposition of imagery and their Dadaism embrace of sound collages and film was cynical to be sure, but outside of the issues, Crass never took on a defined political stance. They may have been deemed profane, obscene, and all sorts of other mean words under Thatcher's Britain, but at the core of it, Crass' blend of opposing iconography showed at most a contempt for symbolism and the themes behind it. Outside of general anarchist themes, Crass was less willing to shape the discourse (and often seemed surprised and conflicted when they did) and more willing to comment on it. They weren't a band that wanted to be popular and influential, and they were actively criticized by other punk acts for not always living the rough lifestyle of most in the English punk movement. 

Crass would actually prove to be quite important in Chumbawamba's early development, thanks to the founding of Crass Records, an independent label where Crass could promote the music of small, post-punk acts that shared a similar world-view. Chumbawamba, at this time only a fledgling band struggling in the cassette culture scene, were looking for a second break, and they got it on Crass' second compilation album in 1982, Bullshit Detector Volume II. Boff Whalley had a presence early on the album with a cover of the Clash's 'Garageland' (a song intended as an accusatory parody against the Clash selling out -which, ironically, was the song that also provided the name 'bullshit detector'), but Chumbawamba's song was 'Three Years Later'. The song is a very clear demo for the band - the lo-fi sound is unsurprising, due to the DIY-aesthetic the band had adopted - but the lyrics and message of the song are interesting enough to warrant a closer look. It talks about the depression and complacency one falls into after being out of work for a long time, but despite the influx of minor keys and droning horns, the double negative in the last verse adds an interesting connotation. 'You can't do nothing if you haven't got money' can be easily interpreted to mean, 'You can do anything if you haven't got money', which fit with the post-punk squatting lifestyle that gave Chumbawamba a real sense of freedom.

Of course, this wasn't Chumbawamba's first official break - that was the result of a prank. In early 1982, a few members of the band presented themselves as a fake act called 'Skin Disease', and cut a song for Back On The Streets EP, a record affiliated with the Oi! movement. It's pretty obvious that Chumbawamba didn't support the right-leaning, skinhead-supporting movement, and the song they cut proved it. Titled 'I'm Thick', it's just under two minutes of shouting 'I'm Thick' sixty-four times. As it is, the song is grating as all hell, but it was intended as a parody of the movement, and it works reasonably well. 

But at this point, Chumbawamba wanted to do more. The band wasn't as insular or inwardly focused as Crass and some of the punk bands surrounding it - Chumbawamba was active in the community, working at animal shelters and organizing community daycare services between small gigs. They didn't just want to sit on Crass Records, so with the remnants of the Passion Killers, they founded their own record label, Sky & Tree. From there, they would produce their first cassette, an album called Be Happy Despite It All. And that's where our story really begins.


  1. I know it's been 2 and a half years since you posted this, and now you have a crazy schedule and are posting in video form, but it would be awesome if you could continue this retrospective at some point.

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