By Douglas Wolk
The members of the band Quixote, interviewed in the most recent issue of the zine Punk Planet, were asked "What is 'selling out'?" They replied: "Very simple... Chumbawamba."
Obviously an outfit called Quixote is bound to have higher ideals than most of us. A hundred people asked the same question would probably give a hundred different answers: signing with a major label, licensing music for advertising, appearing in a fashion spread, firing a drummer who can't keep time, whatever. Cries of "sellout" usually have more to do with fans and their expectations than with a band's own goals. Chumbawamba have been accused of selling out ever since 1985, when the anticapitalist Leeds collective first took the blatantly commercial step of putting out an actual record.
But what Chumbawamba have done this time, in signing to two major labels (Republic in the U.S. and, notably, EMI in Europe) and in making an album whose political content is all but absent, leaves no gray areas to niggle over. This isn't a case of just mellowing with time, nor a relaxation of ill-considered youthful dogma: it's a deliberate abandonment of explicitly articulated principles, principles on which a band staked its claim to existence.
Chumbawamba's first single--"Revolution," on the band's own Agit-Prop label--was competent, abrasive art-punk, along the lines of what the Ex were doing around the same time. The lyrics mostly concerned the counterrevolutionary treachery of the music business. "Packaged and marketed, we become the product," the extensive liner notes read. "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."
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 called Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records; two years later, they stuck their tongues out at diehard punks by recording an album of a cappella folk songs. They appeared on countless compilation albums, contributing songs like "Rich Pop Stars Make Good Socialists."
One of those comps was 1990's Fuck EMI, on which "peace punk" types--including both Chumbawamba and covocalist Danbert Nobacon on his own--detourned versions of "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Yellow Submarine," and other songs originally released on EMI in the UK. ("He's just a poor boy, from a poor family / Sell him a dream on our latest LP.") The point of the album, the liner notes needlessly 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."
Around that time, there came a major change in Chumbawamba's sound, and more important, in their attitude. With 1990's Slap! they started incorporating dance beats into their songs, consciously 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 did get more popular, at least in Europe and Britain--almost nothing they did before this year was released in the U.S. Their lyrics remained slyly political, and they continued to mercilessly jab 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 1992's Jesus H. Christ, an album built mostly of unauthorized samples (later rewritten and released as Shhh), they abandoned Agit-Prop and signed with the British indie One Little Indian.
When relations with that label broke down last year, though, Chumbawamba were still 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; then they made a deal with American major Republic. "We realize that some people are going to be unhappy with our choices," vocalist and frequent spokesperson Alice Nutter wrote this summer in a letter to various punk zines, "but it's not our job to placate people with false distinctions between 'good' and 'bad' bosses."
As a sellout, Tubthumper has at least done what it's supposed to do: it's sold. A gold copy of it hangs on a wall of the Republic offices in New York, next to a gold copy of Hall and Oates's Big Bam Boom. Tubthumper, Republic is happy to proclaim, has now gone platinum in the U.S., meaning that it's shipped a million copies. The SoundScan sales figure, according to a label spokesperson, is around 238,000--not quite as great but still pretty amazing for a bunch of anarchists in their mid-30s.
Nobacon claims that left politics are still an important part of the band's work. "We're in the top ten or whatever, but we're not, like, a top ten 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." But what does that mean, to be "in the top ten but not a top ten act"? Either what you have to offer is widely consumed or it's 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 earlier singles were)--it's largely about drinking and singing.
Any remaining anarchist ideas are hardly apparent to American fans, many of whom are picking up Tubthumper thinking it's the band's first record. 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!") The packaging was supposed to undermine the party-time vibe of the music with a set of quotations for each song, to clarify its political context and subtext. But on the American edition, they're not there. It would have taken too long to navigate international copyright law, Nobacon explains, but omitting them turned out to be "a real fuckup, which we've realized since coming here." The notes (which indicate, for instance, that the cheerful "Drip, Drip, Drip" is about exploitative landlords) can now be seen on the band's Web site, at www.chumba.com.
On the new album's "One by One," Chumbawamba sings, "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 absent liner notes explain that the song's about unions refusing to support striking dockworkers in Liverpool, but it could just as well apply to the band itself. Chumbawamba claim major-label 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, they have sold out their principles like no other musicians in recent memory. Steve Albini would have to become an A & R scout for Dreamworks, Tom Lehrer would have to play the opening of a Henry Kissinger museum, to match their achievement.
Considered purely as music, Tubthumper happens to be 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 great 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 inextricable from their art. They can't expect to be judged by any other standard now.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Casey Orr/ album cover.