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Have Chumbawamba sold out or bought in?

By Douglas Wolk

DECEMBER 8, 1997: 

November 1997: Chumbawamba's Danbert Nobacon, sitting in the office of the English band's New York label, laughs nervously when the subject of a couple of politically radical solo records he made in the '80s comes up: "They're a bit cringeworthy, aren't they?" But does he think differently now from the way he did then? He pauses for a moment. "I'm more realistic." The gold record of the band's album Tubthumper is visible behind him, hung on the wall next to a gold record of Hall and Oates's Big Bam Boom.

1985: the extensive liner notes to Chumbawamba's self-released first single, "Revolution," read, in part: "Packaged and marketed, we become the product. . . . [The] music industry is capitalism in practice: the manipulation and selling of people as commodities, to an audience of consumers. Everything within it is dictated by big business -- from the passive, diluted radio crap to our taste for that product."

1990: Chumbawamba and Danbert Nobacon both contribute tracks to Fuck EMI, a compilation of "peace punk" bands -- others include Snuff, Wat Tyler, and Thatcher on Acid -- covering songs originally released on EMI in the UK ("Bohemian Rhapsody," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Yellow Submarine," and so on). The point of the album, the liner notes explain, "is to reveal some of the dirty dealings of multinationals such as Thorn EMI -- who make millions out of exploiting people. The music and home entertainment side of EMI is just one way they make a fast buck -- using pop stars as puppets and manufacturing them as product, until they too become part of the money-making machine and exploit too, in their bid to make millions."

Summer 1997: on behalf of Chumbawamba, vocalist Alice Nutter sends a letter to various punk magazines. "I thought I'd write and tell you which labels we've decided to release Tubthumper [the album] on," it begins. "In the UK, Europe and Asia it will be on EMI Electrola and in the States it'll be released on Republic Records."

November 1997: the band Quixote, interviewed in Punk Planet, are asked "What is 'selling out'?" Their reply: "Very simple. I'll give you a very recent and all-encompassing example: Chumbawamba."

Selling out is a subjective matter -- up to a point. Chumbawamba have been accused of it since they first took the blatantly commercial step of actually putting out a record. Usually, bands get fingers pointed at them when they do something that betrays the expectations of their more fanatical admirers: making a TV ad, recording a novelty hit, appearing in a fashion spread, firing the drummer, whatever. That tends to say a lot more about the fans' expectations than about the band members' values. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with aiming for mass distribution of your art, with getting rich from it, even with changing its form or content to make it more popular.

But what Chumbawamba have done in signing to major labels, and in making an album whose political content is all but absent, passes the point of subjectivity. They haven't just mellowed with time, or eased away from ill-considered youthful dogma. They've abandoned principles that they themselves had explicitly articulated, principles on which they'd built their reputation.

That reputation developed in earnest with their earliest records: competent, abrasive art punk, along the lines of what the Ex were doing around the same time, with lyrics that mostly concerned the counter-revolutionary treachery of the music business. Within a few years, Chumbawamba had established themselves as pranksters, music-biz gadflies, and stylistic chameleons. Their first album was an attack on "Live Aid" titled Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records; two years later, they stuck a tongue out at diehard punks by recording an album of a cappella folk songs. They also appeared on countless compilation albums, doing songs like "Rich Pop Stars Make Good Socialists."

With 1990's Slap!, they started incorporating dance beats into their songs and making their records more accessible. "From that point on," Nobacon says, "we acknowledged that we actually loved pop culture, and hated it as well, but before that I think we'd been in denial about being popular. And since that time, we've thought we want to be part of pop culture, and to be part of pop culture you've got to be popular."

Chumbawamba's records did become more popular, at least in Europe and Britain (almost nothing they did before this year was released in the US). Their lyrics remained slyly political, and they continued to jab mercilessly at the mainstream music biz, but a string of dance-pop singles like "Enough Is Enough" and "Timebomb" became minor hits. In the wake of legal problems over Jesus H. Christ, a 1992 album built mostly out of un-cleared samples (later rewritten and released as Shhh), they abandoned agitprop and signed up with the British indie One Little Indian.

When relations with OLI broke down last year, though, Chumbawamba perceived their semi-popularity had taken them only so far. They were on shaky financial ground and wondering how they'd be able to continue. They recorded Tubthumper on their own, shopped it around, and found themselves wooed and won by their old enemy, EMI. Subsequently they made a deal with an American major label as well. "We realize that some people are going to be unhappy with our choices," Nutter wrote in her letter to the 'zines, "but it's not our job to placate people with false distinctions between 'good' and 'bad' bosses."

She's right in thinking that Chumbawamba's longtime admirers will feel betrayed. Chanel Wheeler, former music director of Stanford radio station KZSU, says, "I respected them for living their lives [such that] what they believed in took precedence over being a greedy suit. They've now made a mockery of what they seemed to be striving for before. . . . If I were bitter because a band that wrote love songs had signed to a major, that would be one thing, but I'm bitter because a band that chose to make a statement against the system a large part of their existence just signed on to take part in the manipulation of the masses."

As a sellout, Tubthumper has at least done what it's supposed to do: it's sold. The album, Republic is happy to proclaim, has now "gone platinum" in the US, meaning that it's shipped a million copies. The actual Soundscan sales figure, according to a label spokesperson, is around 238,000 -- still pretty impressive for an anarchist collective from Leeds.

But there's something missing from this album: the explicitly political lyrics of earlier Chumbawamba records have mostly been replaced by glib catchphrases that don't mean much on their own ("This is the good ship lifestyle!"). Nobacon claims that leftist politics are still an important part of the band's work. "We're in the Top 10 or whatever, but we're not, like, a Top 10 act. . . . We have anarchist ideas and we want to express them. We want to put these ideas out that you normally don't see in mass culture."

Said anarchist ideas would hardly be apparent to those Americans who pick up Tubthumper thinking it's the band's first record. The packaging was supposed to belie the party-time vibe of the album with extensive liner-note commentary and political quotations for each song, explaining its context and subtext. But on the American edition, the commentary is absent: it would have taken too long to clear the legal rights to use the quotes, the band explain. ("It's been a real fuck-up, which we've realized since coming here," Nobacon says.) Instead, the quotations -- which would, for example, tell you that the cheerful "Drip Drip Drip" is about exploitive landlords -- can be found on the band's Web site, at www.chumba.com.

Then too, what does it mean to be "in the Top 10 but not a Top 10 act"? Either your music and your ideas are mainstream -- widely consumed, widely received -- or they're not. If Chumbawamba had introduced rarely discussed ideas to mass culture, they'd have something to crow about, but "Tubthumping" isn't about radical sexuality or urban planning (as their earlier singles were), it's about drinking and singing. And claiming that they're in mass culture but not of it is a weird kind of condescension.

On the new album's "One by One," Chumbawamba sing, "You tell the world your hands are tied/History three times denied/The sea of change is three miles wide/Whose side are you on?" The import-only liner notes explain that this is a reference to unions that are refusing to support striking dockers in Liverpool, but it could just as well apply to the band. They claim that big-business money is the only thing that enabled them to stay together, and they may well be right. But by getting into bed with the companies they once existed to fight, and leaving the articulation of their old convictions strewn on the floor, they have sold their principles out like no other musicians in recent memory. Steve Albini would have to become an A&R scout for DreamWorks, or Tom Lehrer play at the opening of a Henry Kissinger museum, to match their achievement.

Considered purely as music, Tubthumper is a triumph -- varied, rich, instantly appealing, the culmination of everything they've done to date, blending fist-in-the-air rock and drum 'n' bass and close-harmony singing and sound collage into gorgeous pop songs. But if Chumbawamba's earlier records had any message, it was that they couldn't be considered purely as music, that the band's actions were inextricably tied to their art. Chumbawamba can't expect to be judged by any other standard.

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