CHUMBAWAMBA – Tubthumper (Republic/Universal ’97): Were the second half of this album as solid as the first, I’d hail Tubthumper as one of the Great Overlooked Albums of the 90s. Chumbawamba—an anarcho-punk collective from Burnley, Lancashire chugging along steadily since the early 80s—alienated everyone in the immediate aftermath of their one and only smash hit, “Tubthumping.” Longtime supporters criticized the group for violating their anarchist principles by selling out to the corporate behemoth EMI. Though Tubthumper sold over three million copies in just the US, the group never produced anything else that could be considered even a moderate hit. And their disposability in the eyes of consumers sounded alarms about an unsustainable business practice consultants warned music executives against, the practice of hoping that the general public would be continually duped into spending extra money for an entire album instead of the cheaper option of a single if everything but the hit wasn’t considered to be worth it, a practice dubbed “The Chumbawamba Effect.” So with devoted fans, fickle customers, and the music industry turning their backs on the band, the last hope of critical recognition didn’t come through. In the most positive review from a notable publication, Allmusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine, despite the 4 ½ out of 5 stars review, said “there’s a handful of cuts scattered throughout the record that make the album worthwhile.” I heartily disagree. It’s not a masterpiece, but Tubthumper is a very fine record unfairly maligned by those who ironically rock out to its lead single anytime they’re in a sports arena.
At risk of revealing my age, Tubthumper came out when I was in fourth grade. Everyone I knew owned the album and played the song incessantly. It never struck me as terribly different from a lot of the pop I was hearing on the radio, and it never occurred to me that it was punk (I didn’t know what punk was). And at first listen “punk” probably seems a strange description of an album that’s definitely more pop in nature, with its big anthems, deceptively friendly vocals, and brass arrangements every which way. There’s guitar but it’s not guitar-based. Some of the tunes are quick and catchy but none are short (only “Smalltown” dips below four minutes). And you can actually dance to quite a few songs. It’s the attitude, the casual and sometimes sneering criticism that rests beneath the bright pop sheen that carries Chumbawamba’s punk cred. “Amnesia” lands the album’s first big joke about the erasure of history both old and new in the electorate’s minds with the Q&A chorus: “Do you suffer from long-term memory loss?” “I can’t remember.” “Drip, Drip, Drip” warns of the slow but sure sinking of a societal ship that can’t stay afloat so long as it allows more and more people to trickle down into lower and lower levels of standards of living. In “The Good Ship Lifestyle,” the narrator describes his own personal empire, a personal fantasy built and sustained by isolation, feasting on “TV dinners for one at the captain’s table” as he draws the curtains tighter to “repel all boarders.”
I was also taken in by the bizarre non-song spoken bits largely pulled from BBC documentaries that at the time I did not associate with antiestablishment sentiments or the plight of the working class: Goes a dialogue after “Amnesia”: “What about free speech?” “That’s not the point. You’re giving this place a bad name, I’ve got my position to think of.” Says a snarling mother with her finger in someone’s face: “You don’t know how it feels when your son tells you to sell his bike so you can pay the electricity bill.” Slurs some Cockney fellow: “I only recognize two tunes: ‘Silent Night’ and ‘God Save the Queen,’ and I only know which is which because one of them everybody stands up for.” Notable, too, are the numerous tongue-in-cheek Christian references: the dinky piano with the child singer thanking God “for every sky of blue.” The organ hymn in which the choir equates a dockyard union leader (and Labour Party leader at the time Tony Blair) to Pontius Pilate dreaming of a place in the House of Lords. For a politically explicit punk group, they spend little time attacking politicians directly in the songs, instead feeling their way around the edges (and filling the liner notes with laundry lists of quotes) of issues dear to them.
Think whatever you will, but never again should Chumbawamba be dismissed as a pop group looking for fame who stumbled upon it too soon and didn’t have the talent to sustain it. They were hard-working grinders, who slipped into the public consciousness a message of resilience that resonates even if it’s not immediately apparent why. And it doesn’t matter whether you think “Tubthumping” is just that funny song from your late 90s youth, an inevitable track when the home team’s down in the fourth quarter, a complete joke used to literally describe what was happening to the thieves in the trailer for Home Alone 3: More Aloner or whatever it was called. Because if “I get knocked down / But I get up again / You’re never gonna keep me down” isn’t a rallying cry oppressed people from all walks of life can’t identify with, then the fight in which Chumbawamba fought all their careers really is over. Well, it ain’t over for me. A MINUS