We’ve visited the nineties before, in our Four Word Reviewing Time Machine, and found it a strange place. Suggs was there, of course, which wasn’t so bad, but on other visits we were left traumatised by Clock and Vanilla Ice. So it was with some understandable trepidation that I opened the CD case for “Tubthumper” by Chumbawamba. Released in 1997, this might be the most nineties album ever made – the first single, Tubthumping, was a massive worldwide hit, but nowadays it doesn’t get the nostalgic airplay that, say, Oasis or the Spice Girls or Dee-Lite do. It belonged so much to its own era that it seems to have stayed there.
You might remember Chumbawamba as being an anarchist band from Leeds, who had members including Alice Nutter and Danbert Nobacon. The latter tipped a jug of water over John Prescott at the 1998 Brit Awards, which is a memory we can all enjoy. What you might not have known is that they had been going since 1982, starting out as a punk band. To many of their longstanding fans this album marked the point at which they sold out. They released it as part of a massive deal with EMI, a global record company they had vilified in multiple songs during the 1980s, including an appearance on a 1989 compilation LP unambiguously titled “Fuck EMI”. The complex history of the band is detailed in full on their Wikipedia page, which I wholeheartedly recommend you read, if only to enjoy the brilliant array of band names and album titles they came up with over the years.
Anyway, by 1997 they were still feeling very punky and anti-establishment, and still very angry about everything, but they were also up for making some mass-appeal pop music. In here you will find some tirades against capitalism and right wing politics, which is what you expect, but also attacks against the left, and the trade unions, and lots of other stuff besides, because to Chumbawamba they’re all part of the disappointing neo-con elite. But you’ll find it all layered up in the absolute epitome of 1990s music production.
Charge up your punk tanks. We’re going in.
|3. Drip, Drip, Drip
|4. The Big Issue
|5. The Good Ship Lifestyle
|6. One by One
|8. Creepy Crawling
|9. Mary, Mary
|11. I Want More
Chumbawamba say their early influences – beyond all the punk you expect – were people like Public Image Limited and the Fall. You can still hear those things in here, but to me a lot of this was somewhere between Black Grape and Terrorvision. There’s a lot of very hard, driving guitar – angry, stop-start riffs hammering away – accompanied by a synthy horn section and a drum machine. And shouting. So much shouting. Alice Nutter has a good voice, high and pure, which sounds almost angelic against the hard-driving music, but she’s accompanied by a lot of very shouty rapping that is a bit like Shaun Ryder at his most noisy.
The album is full of incongruous samples and strange noises – every track finishes with a sort of interstitial piece tacked on the end, anything up to a minute long, with its own little melody and a cacophony of sampled voices and sound effects. In here somewhere is Pete Postlethwaite, the sound of an ice cream van and parts of the shipping forecast.
Lyrically, it’s happy to bang you over the head with all the subtlety of a brick. A punk brick. A brick with a safety pin through it, shouting in your face about the failure of trickle down economic theory or how union leaders end up too close to the political classes to ever serve the interests of their working class members. I don’t know how that would have landed in 1997 but today it sounds really overbearing. They want to change the world but they’re pushing way too hard.
Still, it’s hard to write this off as a load of rubbish. Tubthumping is fun and I don’t mind hearing it again, and the follow-up single Amnesia was also catchy and likeable. I don’t think I’d heard it since 1997. And the band themselves sound like a great bunch. They lied about the lyrics to Tubthumping, of course, insisting it was “kissing the night away” so the uncensored version entered the charts, only admitting that it was actually “pissing the night away” once the song had clocked up thousands of radio plays. They also accepted $100,000 from General Motors for the use of one of their songs in a car advert, and then donated all of it to activists who used it in campaigns against General Motors. I have a lot of time for that.
In summary, my favourite thing was rediscovering Amnesia, with its ridiculously silly chorus line “do you suffer from long term memory loss? I don’t remember”. My least favourite thing was the confusion induced by the introduction to One by One, which was an extended a capella choral hymn about Pontius Pilate. It’s weird. This album is weird.