December 1, 2015
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A 1990s pop hit reveals how the Adams feel about capitalism.
"Chumbawamba's Long Voyage," Aaron Lake Smith, Jacobin
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Adam Davidson: From Gimlet Media, this is Surprisingly Awesome.
Adam McKay: I am Adam McKay.
AD: And I am Adam Davidson.
AM: This is the podcast where we take a subject that seems very boring, very lame and ...
AD: We try and make it awesome. Or we try and reveal its internal awesomeness that has been hidden and locked away behind a kernel of boring.
AM: That’s it and uh, today's subject, which you do not know. Is that correct?
AD: I do not know.
AM: I'm not even going to say it, I’m just gonna say today's subject is:
AD: So yes, that is our topic. “Tubthumping” by the band Chumbawamba. It was a big hit in 1997. The band Chumbawamba in American culture has sort of been categorized as a one-hit wonder and that’s a song that got played to death for about six months. Reactions please.
AD: Okay, um so initial reaction is ... I mean I obviously remember that, I think everyone remembers that song. It's... yeah... it's a nice song. Yeah. I enjoy listening to it.
AM: Alright well what if I told you that Tubthumping, this song that everyone remembers as a what, silly, feel-good pop song, was actually the work of an anarchist slash socialistic collective, and it was part of their deliberate 30-year strategy to empower the working class and to overthrow the status quo of England.
AD: I honestly don’t know if you’re doing a bit right now. I mean it seems like I could imagine they said that in an interview or something. But I’m skeptical.
AM: So the first thing you gotta get straight is that Chumbawamba is not this silly, ridiculous one-hit wonder. They’re not Baha Men; they’re not Vanilla Ice. They’re closer to the Sex Pistols or The X. Chumbawamba started all the way back in 1982, as a punk band in the north of England, and this is what they sounded like then.
[harsh punk plays]
Boff Whalley: One of the reasons we came together as a band is ‘cause we found a huge, old, empty Victorian house.
AM: This is Boff Whalley, one of the founding members of Chumbawamba.
BW: And we thought, let's take it over, so it was about two or three of us went in or moved in, and then over the next year we just gathered these people that needed somewhere to stay. And usually when they moved in, ‘cause they moved in because we were friends with them, and we’d say do you fancy being in this band. We don't really know, you know you don't have to be able play instruments or anything, we just got this idea for a band, what do you think, do you want to get involved? Everything that we did we based on the anarchist principle of everybody has an equal say, equal pay, we all get treated the same way, we've all got an equal amount of participation in this idea. And we just made the best of it, basically. And we didn't pay rent, so it was great.
Fraser McAlpine: They came out of a scene in which bands do not make melodic pop music at all.
AM: So this is Fraser McAlpine. He reviews albums for the BBC. He's very familiar with Chumbawamba.
FM: They come out of really, really like fanzine culture, homemade music. It's similar to DC punk, and uh, you know the LA punk scene as well, that sort of thing. It was all about attitude, but not necessarily about able to make music work.
AM: So that's what our band Chumbawamba was up to in the early 80s. They were having a blast, causing trouble, they’re living in a squat, playing shows in basements. Writing a global hit like Tubthumping was the furthest thing from their minds at that time, but then, at the beginning of 1984, this happens.
Soundbite of newscast: Good morning, you're watching TVN. Now faced with the loss of 20000 jobs in the next year, will the miners be driven into a nationwide strike? Scottish miners are being called out ...
AM: So Davidson, remember a little while back, I asked you to prepare some background on the 1984 miner’s strike in Britain?
AD: Yeah I actually had no idea why you asked me to do that.
AM: So this is where you come in. This is your chance. Brief us on the coal miner’s strike of 1984.
AD: I mean as I remember it, Great Britain had nationalized its coal industry and many parts of Britain were dependent on that coal industry. When Margaret Thatcher became prime minister she felt that this nationalized coal industry had become a drain on the economy. There were all these mines that weren’t really productive. So in 1984, Thatcher sought to close about 20 of these coal mines and of course for the areas where those coal mines would be closed it was devastating news. So the coal miners went on strike, in an attempt not just to get the coal mines open, but it became pretty quickly, an attempt to take down Margaret Thatcher.
AM: So this strike spread and spread, and soon communities all across the north of England, where Chumbawamba lived, found themselves consumed by this strike. And as the number of striking miners grew, so did the police presence trying to stop them. In other words, things got very ugly.
Soundbite of newscast: Police came under a hail of missiles from a group of miners who disobeyed strict NUM [National Union of Mineworkers] instructions. Then an in angry reaction, police drew their truncheons and charged.
AM: To get a sense of this massive collision of powers, we talked to Jonathan Schneer, who is a professor of British History at Georgia Tech.
Jonathan Schneer: The miners struck long and hard, and they were saying that they were defending a way of life, and that they were defending an ethos, an ethos of solidarity, and they were you know often second, third, fourth generation coal miners, and that Thatcher was trying to destroy an essential part of English culture, or British culture.
BW: Most of the members of Chumbawamba grew up in very sort of working class areas. So when the miners' strike came along, it was a wake up call that said to us, look, this is where you came from. This is your heritage and your family and your history. Suddenly we thought yes, our ideas of things like veganism and pacifism took a backseat to the idea of look, this is about community and friends and family, and this is the stuff we want to be involved in.
AM: So Chumbawamba gets involved, right. And they’re Chumbawamba, so they don’t just get involved by holding picket signs. You know, they start touring around England and they’re playing shows at the picket lines. They helped the miners raise money. They even recorded an entire EP about the strike. And when the whole thing was over, they realized, they liked this. They liked doing music that was about something. Yeah, it was fun to do the punk stuff and spray paint a wall and cause trouble, but this actually meant something. So they didn’t want to go back to the basement shows and suddenly the whole punk scene to them looked a little silly. They wanted to continue fighting injustice where they saw it, and they wanted to try and bring about real change with their music. So they realize they’re gonna need a broader audience than their small but devoted punk fans. So they look to reinvent themselves; they look to expand to a larger audience and this is a really fascinating and seminal moment. Not just for Chumbawamba but for all of music. Here’s Boff Whalley to explain.
BW: Very early on when we first got interested in politics and political music, it seemed that there were two strands of political music. On the one hand there was this very sort of dry finger in the air sort of folk music, protest music, often one man and his acoustic guitar. And on the other hand there was sort of 3 or 4 angry young men shouting very loud, and turning their amplifiers up really loud and again it was about being quite dry and angry. And we just thought in our daily lives we were constantly sort of having fun with each other and playing practical jokes and we thought want to bring that into what we do and we want to make humor part of what we do. And there are some precedents, you know like very early sort of Frank Zappa albums that we used to love which are very political and biting and biting and satirical but really, really funny. You know we wanted to make people laugh, but at the same time there’s a lot of serious stuff here. Let’s think about what this is saying. And try to get it out into the world instead of keeping it in a little enclosed sort of club.
AM: This band is now on a full on mission. You know they start trying different things. They try everything. Instead of ranting about Margaret Thatcher, they try sampling her voice.
AM: Instead of guitars, they try drum machines.
[music plays ]
AM: Instead of shouting about economic inequality, they tried singing about it.
[acapella music plays]
BW: And for a so-called punk band at the time, that was completely unusual. But for us, it was like the most sort of the most punk thing that we could do. And up until then we had really good relations with the people from the magazine Maximum Rock and Roll in America, and they had a lot of influence at the time, and the used to review our records, and they were very, very supportive, and they stayed at our house in San Francisco, and it was really, really good relationship. Now we brought out this album of acapella folk songs, which are very, very political. And uh, they said, no, it's not punk, we're not reviewing it. And they refused to review it. And to us that summed up a lot of those arguments about what punk was. It burst from this idea of not having rules, and about opposing authority and all that sort of thing, and it very, very quickly became, became a set of rules. And the extent to which people held onto those rules was incredible to watch really.
AM: So coming up after the break, we’re gonna see how Chumbawamba met their greatest musical ally, Boy George.
AD: Oh he’s good.
AM: I’m kidding, that is not what we’re doing after the break. That would be a great twist though. No we’re going to hear about how Chumbawamba went from making music like this:
[punk music plays]
AM: To this:
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AM: Ok so welcome back. So by 1996, Chumbawamba have become these musical drifters. Their punk friends -- and punk labels -- they’re not really into them anymore, ‘cause they’re not punk. And it’s not clear if they’ve actually made any difference in the world.
AM: And then a weird thing happens. The type of music they’ve started playing around with - experimental, sort of dancey, electronic beats - starts to become popular. And suddenly Chumbawamba grabs the attention of a major record label: EMI.
AM: EMI is against everything that Chumbawamba stands for. They’d even had a song on a compilation album that was called BEEP EMI. But when this offer comes in they were just like wait a minute, okay, we’ve spent all these years searching for the best possible way to reach people. And maybe, despite the fact, we still have punk leanings, we still have cool friends who won’t respect us, we think maybe this is it. So they think about this long and hard, and they go back and forth ‘cause after all they’re a democracy right. And so finally eventually they say “yes.” And a few months later, you would turn on your radio and you would hear this.
AM: And practically overnight this little group of squatters and punk rockers and anarchists, they become a giant household name. Tubthumping was one of the biggest hits in 1997. Topping the charts all over the globe, it was without exaggeration, everywhere. And you know, we remember Tubthumping as this big, fun, happy, party song - it’s actually more of a portrait of the working class in the UK. And how you can knock ‘em down, but they’re gonna get up again. Here’s Boff Whalley to explain.
BW: The place where I lived, in Leeds, in North England, there was a pub nearby called the Ford Green, and every weekend our next door neighbor, who was an old Irish guy, would get ridiculously drunk and stagger up the street, usually whiles, you know after we've gone to bed, and try and get his key in the door, and he couldn't do it, and he would fall over, and his wife would lean out the window and "say come on." You know? "Get in the door." And he'd be like "oh God I can't make it." And it was just funny, and he eventually would get himself up and dust himself off and he'd be fine, and then he'd go off back to work on a Monday. And so we wanted to write a song about this ordinary, very, very ordinary sequence of events, which is basically, that a lot of people have jobs they don't particularly enjoy doing, and they don't have much money or opportunity. But they find ways to enjoy themselves. And they go out and they have a good time and at the end of it they'll always get up off the floor and get on with life.
AM: So my co-host, Adam Davidson, is a financial reporter, very aware of economics, very knowledgeable guy, you know has worked in public radio over here, writes for The New York Times. Uh, I would say he's a little conservative to moderate. We have many arguments about free trade.
BW: I'm assuming he's not there with you, is he?
AM: He is not. He comes from the economist point of view, I come from the 50 cents an hour is slave labor, is never good, point of view. He does not. So we argue quite a bit about it. If you were to sum up what Tubthumping’s about, if you were going to tell Adam Davidson what it's about, and what you wanted that song to do, and how you wanted people to react to it, what would you say to him?
BW: Let's say that, that the way the song's meant to work is that, is that on a very personal level everybody has a sense of dignity, and I think that a lot of capitalism is about trying to strip people of that dignity, and to get them to fit into a mold, which serves the bigger machine of economics and of moneymaking and of wealth distribution.
BW: And so I think if you can, if you can sort of sort of try, for us just as a songwriters, if we could try and give people that sense of you know, you can be something, and you can have that resilience, and you can have some sort of optimism in the face of this mass wage slavery system that seems to be going on everywhere, then that's a good thing. And so one of our roles as a pop group, as a music group, is to try and provide that, that sense of being able to be uplifted, rather than oh, isn't everything awful, all the time.
AM: Yeah so Adam, obviously you're a lovely person, you're a father, you're a husband, you're a good friend. But we do know you view the working people of the world as statistics to be manipulated, bent and destroyed for the amusement of oligarchs, billionaires, and the power elite. Is that fair?
AD: I mean that - I would definitely change a few of those words. I mean I don't disagree with what you said, I just feel like it misses - but I will say, I do like the idea of ‘I get knocked down, and I get up again’. Um, I think the human condition is one of power and powerful people taking from the less powerful. And I don’t ...
AM: So far this is beautiful.
AD: [laughing] And I think that the reason I am a capitalist, the reason I like capitalism, is not because it's perfect, it's not because it doesn't do that, it's not because there isn't shredding of dignity. It’s because there’s less. Because before that, capitalism came to England, and then spread, to the rest of Europe, and North America, and then eventually Japan and other places. If everywhere capitalism hadn't existed, you see the starkest version of not, not some kind of quote unquote wage slavery, but actual real slavery. You saw the majority of children dying before the age of 5, you saw people with extremely limited choices, not enough calories to survive and capitalism, I think, moved the needle in the right direction. Definitely didn't move it all the way, or even necessarily far enough. And I am pretty open to the arguments that in the last 30 years, the needle in a lot of countries has moved in the wrong direction. And power is rearing its head in ways that are, that are bad.
AD: But I don't think that simply observing that I live in a capitalist system and I see injustice and I see bad things, therefore I can say capitalism is bad. That I reject. I just don't know that there's a non-capitalist system where you would rather live. Or you would find more dignity. This actually gets to I think, our like argument number one. This really gets to our essential - I don't want to say - is it disagreement, or different perspective? My inclination is to go very deep. Read the technical literature, understand the real policy issues. That's my inclination. That's the opposite of Tubthumping. It's the opposite of a big, chanty, fun song that's going to get a big crowd dancing.
AM: So my side of it is that I believe that well crafted intelligent populism is essential to allowing the policy wonks to do their job, that you have to have a popular consensus. There has to be a grassroots movement for real change to happen. That's why I love Tubthumping. I think it’s one thing to go on and on about all of the details of wage decline and the middle class decreasing, and it's another thing hear a song like that as a beginning point. I think what's exciting about this band, and what personally resonates for me, is I'm a guy who does, you know, mostly has done big commercial comedies. And we used to do street theater when we were in Chicago, and you know I advertised my own suicide, and more performance art sort of stuff, and when I started doing these comedies, I got a little flack from some of my friends, like how can you do a movie for a big studio …
AD: When you did Anchorman …
AM: Yeah, yeah, and we always went back to the fact, you know, guess what, that these moves play in Mississippi, they play in Oklahoma. Like we’re able to reach audiences that would never get to hear this. And talking to Boff, from Chumbawamba, he had the same thing.
BW: We would getting the opportunities to play this song on telly, talk to people on national radio all over the world, and you know we'd be on like some breakfast shows with lots of ridiculously happy smiley DJs, disc jockeys, and wanting us to be just fun fun fun, and we'd be sort of just trying to subvert it by basically talking about, for instance, we would find out that there was a big strike going on, in town, at the time of where the radio station was. And we'd say "yeah we’ve noticed this strike's going on, and we'd just like to say that we support the workers that are involved in that.” And you just get that stuff in like, “oh, that's really funny, that's really great.” Trying desperately to move off the subject. And that was great, it was a really good challenge to try and use it in some way.
AM: So at the height of their fame, Chumbawamba looked for all kinds of ways to draw attention to issues they felt strongly about. Cause that’s why they did this, right?
FM: Chumbawamba over in Britain are known for two things.
AD: Once again this is Fraser McAlpine. He reviews albums for the BBC.
FM: They’re known for the song Tubthumping, and they’re known for the 1998 Brit Awards where Danbert Nobacon, one of the challenging members of the band, took an ice bucket filled with ice water and tipped it over the deputy prime minister’s head.
AM: There was another one where a member of the band was on a TV interview and said they’re perfectly fine with people shoplifting their album.
AD: Really? Because it’s big corporations that are selling the album?
AM: Exactly, so eff ‘em. Which - can you imagine Britney Spears saying that? Actually maybe I could imagine her saying that. So the band sold their music to General Motors to use in a car commercial - and everyone was like, what the - you can’t do that, you’re supposed to be cool! But what they did was they took the $100,000 they earned and they gave it directly to social justice outlets and charities.
AD: So I have to say McKay, it is very clear to me why you love them. Cause they are your model. They are who you are in your heart. And you are them.
AM: They are kind of the ultimate, populist, activist story. I mean I don’t know who else has done it this well on such a, you know, on such a large stage. Green Day had American Idiot, was a giant hit, that was pretty good. But Chumbawamba man, they never blinked, they were always pushing at every chance they had. So about two or three years ago, this band breaks up. And I tweeted about their breakup and I said I'm really sad, and people thought I was kidding. But I really was. This is really one of the most interesting bands, and the song Tubthumping is a really important song that signaled the end of an era - an era dominated by unions and the working class, an opportunity for all, that changed. And this song is a sad acknowledgement of that time passed, and also a victorious vow for the future that the working class will rise again.
AD: I'm really interested. I like Tubthumping. I will never listen to that song the same way again. I think I'm thinking about pop music differently. If I'm at a party, and someone says, oh that guy over there is Boff, he created Chumbawamba, I'm running over to him. I want to talk to him. I want to learn from him. I think this is a success.
AM: I'll take it. Pretty damn good. Now I want to end the podcast with another Chumbawamba song that I think maybe even should become the theme song of this podcast, a song called "Everything You Know is Wrong." And thanks again for listening, everyone.
[Everything You Know is Wrong plays]
AM: This episode of Surprisingly Awesome was produced by Jesse Rudoy, Caitlin Kenney. It was edited by Peter Clowney and Alex Blumberg. Our theme music is by the fabulous Nicholas Britell. Jesse Rudoy mixed this episode. And our ad music is by Build Buildings.
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AM: I remember when the song hit, I was working at Saturday Night Live, and our legendary producer, and the creator of the show, Lorne Michaels, who’s a very dry, intimidating figure, I was alone in the office with him, I was head writer at the time and he just said, “I haven’t told anyone this but I really like that I get knocked down song.”