The Chumbawamba Mixtape, Volume One

Written by Elli Belle Mayhem

This is about a band called Chumbawamba. They were around from 1982 – 2012.

Many people have a variety of opinions about this group, both positive and negative.

That is not what this story is about. This is about Chumbawamba as a history lesson, and this is about Chumbawamba as artists who continually evolved over time.

For most people, this band was a one-hit wonder, but in my life, they served a greater purpose. In a world saturated with songs about love, sex, and money, as subject matter grew increasingly limited and shallow, this band spent its tenure writing songs about people, events, and ideas.

Chumbawamba was a unique voice both musically and ideologically, and when they decided it was time to stop, they retired. Many, many people contributed to their ever-evolving sound over three decades. This was one of the reasons they had staying power in my playlists. They continually reinvented their sound while holding a consistent vision. These influences encouraged me to to be very collaborative and to continually experiment with new techniques and styles.

The band had many musical flavors over its tenure but it was consistently Anarchist and Anti-Fascist. While they did in-your-face attitude and did it well, a lot of their songs offered tidbits about people in history who had taken an anti-authoritarian stance.

I was late to the party, as I first encountered their music as a college student in 1990. The first song I heard that immediately drew me in was Stagnation Liberation from an extended single called Revolution.

“There’s always been a pattern of struggle and defeat
Never that cycle incomplete
Never enough to tip the scales
Too many people rotting in jails
Or bloodied on the battlefields
The history books from every age
Have the same words written on every page
Always starting with ‘Revolution’
And ending with ‘Capitulation’
Always silenced by the truncheon
Or bought out with concessions
Always repetition…”

 

Over the following years, I kept following this band, because every song told a different story. There was always that over-riding theme of empowering the underdogs, taking down bigots and corrupt leaders.

They always maintained a rebellious and uplifting spirit. They weren’t the greatest music ever, but rarely is pure musical virtuosity about meaning.  They shouted consistently and at the top of their lungs against all the -isms they were told had been defeated in WWII, defeated in the Civil Rights era. In retrospect, this little band from the UK left us with anthems to fight those same monsters on our doorsteps today. This little punk band and the ragtag artists who followed them were paving the way for some of the most important fights we’re facing as a planet. We still fight these battles.

I’m descended from people who believed in education and fair labor.  People like the parents and grandparents of the band members, as well as my own. Much of their work is based in old workhouse songs. My own grandfather was a newsboy son of a coal miner in West Virginia born about a decade after the time period in the musical Newsies. He lied about his age to serve in the Navy at 15, and was honorably discharged before WWII began. He spent some nights on the Arizona, but was back in the Appalachians when it was bombed. He worked in a rayon factory, stood up for his coworkers, became a union leader, and spent his life fighting for fair job treatment for factory workers. He lived to be 80 and we buried him on labor day. I’m sharing this so the reader will understand my love of this band. I share their working class roots. I come from people who were teachers, nurses, and advocates for change in a time when the lines were sharper and the social structure harder.

Screen Shot 2019-04-10 at 5.12.11 PM

My grandfather

The roughshod early work of the band shows its roots in the English punk scene. Soon after the band’s inception, Alice Nutter joined, and she and Danbert Nobacon drove their lyrical evolution. They didn’t do love songs. Much of this early work involved the lyrical takedown of the social and financial stratification of English society. This is reflected in their 1986 album Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records and their 1987 album Never Mind the Ballots. But it was their 1988 release English Rebel Songs 1381-1984 where the group really began to influence my understanding of history, power, and the spirit of liberty.

It was from English Rebel Songs that I first learned about the Luddite Rebellion, the Diggers, the strikes at the Idris factory, and much more. It created in me a new awareness about the power of music. Most haunting of all, World War I marching song Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire gave me an understanding of the relationship between money, power, and warfare. I could feel the injustice faced by the foot soldiers who expired in those trenches.

 

“If you want to find the General
I know where he is
If you want to find the General
I know where he is
He’s pinning another medal on his chest
I saw him, I saw him
Pinning another medal on his chest

If you want to find the Colonel
I know where he is
If you want to find the Colonel
I know where he is
He’s sitting in comfort stuffing his bloody gut
I saw him, I saw him
Sitting in comfort stuffing his bloody gut

If you want to find the Sergeant
I know where he is
If you want to find the Sergeant
I know where he is
He’s drinking all the company rum
I saw him, I saw him
Drinking all the company rum

If you want to find the Private
I know where he is
If you want to find the Private
I know where he is
He’s hanging on the old barbed wire
I saw him, I saw him
Hanging on the old barbed wire
I saw him, hanging on the old barbed wire”

 

Most of the versions of this song on YouTube contain graphic images of war. This version features the album cover instead. It’s a great example of the added impact of music enhanced with visual media, but out of consideration, I will leave it for the reader to choose whether they see such imagery.

In 1990 the band followed with its album Slap! with songs about Tiananmen Square, a wonderful story from the life of writer Zora Neale Hurston, and a spirited lesson from those who survived Nazi concentration camps. This song, Rappaport’s Testament, bears a strong reminder for the present-day USA.

“And if I meet Hitler in the other place
I’ll spit this precious soup in his face
And all my accounts will be settled, you see
‘Cause Hitler never ever got the better of me
I never gave up, I never gave up
I crawled in the mud but I never gave up”

S

lap! remains one of my favorite albums in part because of its positive message, showing that the human spirit is a resilient one and can, in fact, survive the worst inhumanity that humanity has to offer.


The next album, Jesus H Christ, became an early battleground in the intellectual property wars and was never officially released. Always embracing musical innovation, the band had taken a page from the burgeoning hip-hop movement and incorporated a great deal of sampling into “Jesus H. Christ”.  Upon losing their battle to release the album as originally recorded, it was reworked into their 1992 album Shhh. The rewritten album featured strong commentary on censorship and intellectual property featuring tracks about the comedian Lenny Bruce, the derivative nature of creativity, and religious fanaticism.

 It also included a song, “Stitch That”, itself an uncredited cover of “A Stitch In Time” (Waterson/Carthy).   a song that is woven from a fairytale about fighting back. While this song does a bit of playing out a revenge fantasy, ultimately it’s about ending cycles of abuse. In a live recording of this song (not available on YouTube) Alice Nutter talks about her own experience:

“When I was about fourteen I used to go out with complete dickheads– blokes that thought they had a right to hit ya. Only I didn’t realize, and one day a bloke called young Collet, punched me And I pulled him down by the hair and I punched his f*cking head in.”

I think this gets at the underlying theme at work in this group’s discography. It’s not about skin. It’s not about gender. It’s not about sex. It’s not even really about money, though the two are not unrelated. If you think you have the right to “hit” people, eventually they’ll pull you down and kick your head in. It is the part of the human spirit that refuses to be defeated by the shackles of poverty and discrimination. We have played this narrative over and over again throughout centuries of human history.

Throughout the 1990’s they continued to produce albums with both shock value and social impact. With 1994’s Anarchy and the live album Showbusiness, they took on topics such as homophobia, feminism, and political complacency. They revealed a softer, more acoustic sound with their 1995 album Swinging With Raymond. This record, reveals the more personal side of a life spent battling oppression using weaponized music.

Then in 1997, out came Tubthumping and suddenly Chumbawamba was a household name with a song chanted by legions of drunken people across the world. Its message about the joy in camaraderie found when people come together resonated beyond the band’s small but dedicated following and it became a huge mainstream hit. This is the song most people think of when they hear the word Chumbawamba.

 

When the hubbub died down, they went on to release 7 more albums full of tales of rebellion and social criticism before finally hanging up their mantle in 2012. The membership of the band changed a lot during this time but I personally have a great fondness for their later albums in part because of the direction their music took as they emerged into the new millennium.

Though not pioneers of beats or scratching they embraced both fiercely. Their evolution is singular. The world they disbanded in is as far from us now as the world they started in and the history they preserve in spirit and song. Musically they were always changing, which kept them interesting. But there can be no arguing that their greatest strength was in meaning. Modern lyricists could take a lesson in eloquence and importance from them.

There are many bands and many stories about them, and not all are about the notes they played.

Today we face a more complicated battle and live in a media-driven world. Their later works remain a salient voice throughout these great changes. That voice grew over time, and while the place and message of their early works dissolved in a digital world market like a quaint headache remedy, these contributions are full of insight and criticism vital to this changing landscape.

We still have headaches. More headaches, different headaches.

We no longer have Chumbawamba. More than a musical group, their legacy is a preservationist history of the eternal struggle against greed and oppression. Love them or hate them, they left behind a diverse body of work that consistently addresses important themes that are still playing out in our lives. 

My experience following these artists had an impact on my own creative path. It made me push to create work on more meaningful topics. I was inspired to pursue a creative evolution through emerging techniques and technologies. 

I decided to write this after a discussion with a younger musician who had only heard Tubthumping. I wanted to encapsulate the qualities that made these artists unique while providing abroad foundation in a fairly large catalog of music. That’s how the Chumbawamba Mixtape was born. Don’t forget to follow the Big Book of Mayhem, as part 2 will delve more deeply into the post-Tubthumping albums.

In the meantime, check these tracks out:

Give the Anarchist A Cigarette – The one time I got to see Chumbawamba live was not long after the release of Tubthumper. Most of the crowd didn’t know this song, but those who did shouted along with “Burn Baby Burn!”

 

Homophobia – This one is pretty self-explanatory.

 

Tiananmen Square – song about Tiananmen Square Massacre

 

Cartrouble – a story about Zora Neale Hurston getting the better of the system after running a red light.

 

Big Mouth Strikes Again – a song about Lenny Bruce and censorship.

 

Look No Strings! – a satirical, whimsical song about televangelism

 

Jacob’s Ladder (Not in My Name) – A song about the Iraq War

 

 

Bella Ciao – Italian folk song and anthem of the Resistance to the Fascist regime in World War II

 

Pass it Along – A song about how the internet was changing our lives. General Motors purchased rights to use the song for a 2002 commercial. Chumbawamba gave the money to the anti-corporate activist groups who used the money to launch an information and environmental campaign.

 

A Man Walks Into A Bar – A song about alcoholism and US/Cuba relations

 

On eBay – Song about relics from the Iraq war being looted and sold online

 

Rebel Code – a song about Linux and Open Source

 

If It Is to Be, It is Up to Me. This track has always been a great motivation song for me.

 

This Girl, a reflection on a lifetime of civil and social action:

 

 You can learn more and listen at their still extant website:  www.chumba.com

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s