Chumbawamba - Tubthumper (Cover Artwork)


Chumbawamba: TubthumperTubthumper (1997)
Universal Music Group

Reviewer Rating: 3.5

Contributed by: MisanthropeeMisanthropee
(others by this writer | submit your own)

Anyone first encountering British anarcho-punk may find confusing Chumbawamba's veneration alongside bands like Crass and Flux of Pink Indians. It's true, though; mainstream pop's most infamous one-hit-wonders carry formidable punk cred. Their releases up to 1992's Shhh are often considered genre la.
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Anyone first encountering British anarcho-punk may find confusing Chumbawamba's veneration alongside bands like Crass and Flux of Pink Indians. It's true, though; mainstream pop's most infamous one-hit-wonders carry formidable punk cred. Their releases up to 1992's Shhh are often considered genre landmarks, and innumerable appearances on seminal anok compilations and at period activist events further attest to their former prolificness. They committed the ultimate sin, however, by signing to EMI for their 1997 full-length. Hardcore fans were unsurprisingly infuriated by this overt collaboration with a hated corporate conglomerate, and while the album sold millions worldwide, Chumbawamba lost many longtime supporters and were promptly forgotten by everyone else. Several core members eventually left, and the band now exists in a stripped-down acoustic incarnation.

Right now, though, disregard all that. In 1997, the band is at the peak of a long stylistic change--the logical conclusion of a career progression predating any hint of popular success. Nothing substantial here is new to Chumbawamba's output. Punk invective shines through pop simplicity and radio-friendly production as they attempt to marshal the best of both worlds, using finely polished hooks to disguise angry anarchist mantras as dancehall chants and dopey alt-rock refrains. Business as usual, in other words, but more consistently composed and with greater production values. Pictures of Starving Children is seminal, but this is Chumbawamba's defining release, and they apparently intended it as such at the time--despite later statements to the contrary.

The musical style overall is still cut-and-paste syncretic, but Tubthumper is more aggressive and modern rock-oriented than their previous outing, Anarchy. This is a pop record from beginning to end, and Chumbawamba keeps the energy high by avoiding somber acoustic ballads like "Homophobia." There's no folk or song length a cappella here, this time only hinted at by an abundance of rich vocal harmonies and rootsy flourishes--and maybe for the best. The band's most interesting work has always been its loudest and most exuberant.

It's impossible to further discuss Tubthumper's content, though, without first addressing notorious popular hit "Tubthumping," which bafflingly opens the album and is guaranteed to give any first-time listener a false impression of the band's music. In a shining example of Chumbawamba's worst songwriting habit, "Tubthumping" repeats its banal chorus couplet more than enough times to drive any listener insane with rage (at least 24, by my count). No other track in their catalog better exemplifies this infuriating tendency to extend one minute's worth of music into five of repetitive pablum. I guess it's meant as both a celebration of working-class resilience and a rebuke of the apathy engendered by boozing one's problems away, or something; but the American booklet is missing explanatory liner notes, so us Yanks are left assuming it's a yobbish pub anthem.

Fortunately, unlike every other record you've ever heard, it's all uphill after the first song. "Amnesia" turns things around with a thumping four-on-the-floor beat and metallic guitars, like a female-fronted pop mutation of early Nine Inch Nails. Strong hooks and sardonic lyrics assailing representative democracy make it the most memorable track here, and it sets the tone for what follows far more appropriately than the actual opener. Fun fact: It was a major hit in Britain but didn't even register Stateside. In "The Good Ship Lifestyle," another highlight, a sparse breakbeat-driven verse dives into a thundering deathpunk chorus. Breezily paced "Drip, Drip, Drip" masquerades as an average alt-rock single, but it demands attention with assertive drum loops and trumpet riffs recalling mainstream two-tone. Industrial-tinged "Mary, Mary," meanwhile, is almost heavy enough at times to pass for a Ministry song. There's ostensibly a lot of stylistic variety among tracks, and the production sounds great. But as a whole, the soft verse/loud chorus/ad nauseam formula and derivative dance rhythms on every goddamned song can make for an unpleasant listen. This is especially true if you appreciate the genres being diluted here. Excluding the samples bookending every track, the music on Tubthumper barely amounts to 40 minutes, but it tends to drag on like 400.

If it weren't for the lyrics, delivered by no less than five highly capable vocalists, Tubthumper would deserve its place in the dustbin of 1990s radio-ready alternative. When you're in the business of making music for agit-prop's sake, though, instrumentation is just a slick vehicle for invective. As such, Chumbawamba mostly delivers on the lyrical front with their trademark celebratory and sarcastic anti-authoritarian screeds. Most of the subject matter is cleverly tackled, with typical concerns of British anarchists and fellow travelers addressed in a novel-enough way to make the ideas accessible to outsiders. Ebullient rocker "The Big Issue" is a prescient and weirdly cheerful ode to the modern cycle of indebted ownership, foreclosure and homelessness, directing those stranded on the street to enact a different kind of repossession: "But there's a house / That I know / Safe and warm / And no one ever goes there." Attacking Western xenophobia, "Scapegoat" laments that while "This island is big enough / For every castaway," people often project blame for their own hardships onto innocent cultural outsiders. Over a decade later, with irrational anti-immigration sentiment in the U.S. and E.U. still fierce, it's just as relevant.

Like its instrumentation, though, in places the album suffers lyrically from maddening repetitiveness and oversimplification. "Outsider" was seemingly intended as an inspirational dance floor paean to free thought, but five short lyric lines stretched over nearly four minutes of insufferable glowstick-worthy trance lose all potential impact by the end. That's probably part of the point, as certain subjects that may seem inscrutably British to international listeners benefit from this dumbing down. It's hard to miss the point of class-warrior "I Want More," whose chorus declares that "This is tearoom England / They'll kick your face in so politely." But of course, it's all attached to more endless, vapid chanting à la "Tubthumping," and boredom soon smothers any potential appreciation of the meaning behind it all.

In the end, one must judge Tubthumper not just on its musical merits, but also on its success in justifying those arguments Chumbawamba clung to at the time in defense of "going major." Did they reach a bigger, broader audience? Of course. But did they succeed in spreading "The Message"? Not in the slightest. Having intended to use popular music as a Trojan horse for radical politics, the last of British punk's capital-A old guard is instead doomed forever to an association with the Macarena in the public consciousness.

In aforementioned "The Good Ship Lifestyle," Chumbawamba cautions against solipsism, depicting a lone sea captain defiantly--and purposelessly--sailing onward long after his crew has abandoned him. A critique of so-called lifestyle anarchism, it's also an obvious rejoinder to the blind anger rightly expected from lefter-than-thou critics following the EMI signing. There's a valid point here; conviction that only one's own viewpoint is ideologically sound approaches nihilism. But more than a decade after the album's release, the song in retrospect takes on an unintentionally ironic tone. EMI may have long divested itself of arms manufacturing, and previous label One Little Indian may have been no less capitalistic in the first place. But the symbolic gesture of collaborating with "the enemy" saw Chumbawamba impulsively strike out on their own, away from longtime socio-political moorings and into known shark-infested waters. And we all now know how the voyage ended.

"So steer a course / A course for nowhere / And drop the anchor / My little empire."


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Fine Print: The following comments are owned by whoever posted them. We are not respon sible for them in any way. Seriously.
THobbes (March 11, 2011)

that was quite a mouthful, but i guess you're used to that kind of thing.

alchron77 (February 16, 2010)

I take a whiskey drink, I take a vodka drink, and when I have to pee I use the kitchen sink

skankbook (February 16, 2010)

Very well written review. I know my mom had this on cassette.

lushj (February 16, 2010)

I believe that- like Offspring "Smash," this was written as a regular, non-hit record- as in one for an indie label. "Smash" didn't become ginormous until months after its release. With this record, their previous indie label, One Little Indian, either didn't like it, or wanted to change too many things, or something, and the major label came a-calling. That label released this record and voila, they were able to push the (insanely catchy) "Tub Thumping" to hit status.

While I'd never advocate signing to a major, these guys & gals took the majors as much as possible & took all of the opportunities they could. They funnelled tons of $ to anarchist & leftist causes over the years by exploiting their own song, "Tub Thumping," to the max.

burntorangepeel (February 16, 2010)

One of the most underrated bands. Love them.

TSOL (February 15, 2010)

Chumbawamba's entire disco rocks. This isn't their best, but it ain't half bad either.

drewcifer (February 14, 2010)

Holy shit, can someone get this guy a fucking editor? You're not getting paid by the word, pal.

telegraphrocks (February 14, 2010)

This album is terrible.
The only tolerable thing from them is Un, and that's pushing it.

RevolutionJoe (February 14, 2010)

You do know the story behind "Tubthumping" dont you? They were going to be dropped by their lable unless they could get a song in the charts. So they said they'd do one better and have a number one single. They wrote "Tubthumping", which reached number 1 in the charts. I respect them for that really. It's like "Fuck you. We know we can make music that will sell and be commercially successful, but we want to make music we enjoy."

xIxKilledxJesusx (February 14, 2010)

to be honest i never heard this album but I am a fan of both their older punk stuff and their newest folksy acoustic stuff

new album in 2010 i think

eazyd2 (February 14, 2010)

i aint gonna read this fuckin review cuz its too long all i know that these posers wrote than one stupid song about drinking the whiskey drink and the vodka drink and all that shit. i cant believe this was posted on this website. i thought this was meant to be PUNKNEWS!?!??

scientistrock (February 14, 2010)

This was a hell of good review.

wearestillalive (February 14, 2010)

Haha, I always have to explain to people that actually Chumbawamba were anarchist punks, not just one hit wonders. They always look at me like I'm crazy.

ZachLeg (February 13, 2010)

great band. the early releases are great, as well as the "newer" stuff

neffernin (February 13, 2010)

Their newer stuff is like folk rock... "Everything you know is wrong" is a pretty fun song.

clam_tears (February 13, 2010)

I would like to say that I'm gong to spend the rest of the night watching UCB, thanks to I-Type-Poorly.

Hulka (February 13, 2010)

Thanks for the intelligent, informed review; I've been seeing fewer and fewer of these on this site lately.

Chumbawamba's acoustic stuff is also pretty good ... it's punk in attitude if not in sound.

milesqtoast (February 13, 2010)

you're a good writer opee

Misanthropee (February 13, 2010)

Boo editors for replacing "prolificacy" with the verbal abortion known as "prolificness." I feel dirty even typing it in protest.

This review is way too long. Did I wander onto Pitchfork by mistake or something?

facetofacereunion08 (February 13, 2010)

Believe it or not they once had some Reinventing Axl Rose in them...


i-type-poorly (February 13, 2010)

Lady of The Lake spitefully disapproves.

d_boons_ghost (February 13, 2010)

You can say all you want about how they're sellouts, but I think Chumbawamba used their (well-earned) short-lived fame to their advantage. Sure there were pointless events like when Danbert Nobacon poured ice-water on John Prescott, but then there's shit like the whole GM debacle. Any band who licenses their music for use in a car commercial and then uses the profits to immediately start a campaign AGAINST said car manufacturer is automatically cool in my book. Plus the followup to this album, "WYSIWYG," has to be one of the most baffling records ever put out by a major label, from the content of the music right down to the album art.

danperrone (February 13, 2010)

nine paragraphs on chumbawamba!!!!

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