The enduring legacy of Chumbawamba, pop's greatest anarchists

The enduring legacy of Chumbawamba, pop's greatest anarchists

With the release of a new documentary about the band, founding member Dunstan Bruce tells us about their unlikely fame, breaking the curse of the one-hit-wonder, and remaining politically active while growing older.

“Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba is a certified banger. A burst of euphoria about spiritual resilience and getting properly pissed, it distils the glory and gusto of a good night out into 4 minutes and 38 seconds of anthemic brilliance. It's unsurprising, then, that the single has proven to be both universally beloved and timeless.

Released in 1997, “Tubthumping” sold 880,000 copies in the UK, topped charts around the world and still appears on video games, sports coverage, adverts and films today – most recently featuring in 2022’s critically acclaimed Aftersun. Around the time of its release, the band, who described themselves as “pop anarchists,” used every opportunity to shout about injustice, oppression and political corruption (which, in 1998, included pouring a bucket of ice cold water over John Prescott at the Brit Awards for “selling out the dockers.”) But while the tune that thrust them into the limelight has stood the test of time, the history and ethos of Chumbawamba isn’t as well-known.

The eight-piece came together in Leeds in 1982 as an anarchist punk collective. They squatted together, tirelessly gigged all over the country and released seven political punk, post-punk and pop albums in their first 15 years. With the release of “Tubthumping”, everything changed. They suddenly found themselves on American talk shows, on the covers of magazines and signed to a major label (EMI). Their mainstream success lasted for about four years, with their Tubthumper album going triple platinum in the USA. After parting ways with EMI in 2001, they continued putting out records and touring, before eventually breaking up in 2012.

Now, forty years after the band formed, singer Dunstan Bruce has made a documentary about it all. I Get Knocked Down is the story of Chumbawamba’s journey from political squatters to smash hit-makers as told through intimate home videos, live footage and interviews with former band members, old label bosses, younger political bands like Petrol Girls and Dream Nails as well as left-wing elders like Ken Loach and Crass's Penny Rimbaud. Co-director Dunstan also tackles big questions around remaining politically active while growing older, the challenges of feeling powerless to change things and of worrying about the future of humankind.

I caught up with Dunstan to talk about his unique journey, the documentary and trying to release Chumbawamba’s legacy from the curse of the one-hit-wonder.

Top to bottom: Photos courtesy of Dunstan Bruce

Hi Dunstan. Hope you’re well. I read that you’re from Billingham, which is just near where I’m from. Do you think that growing up in the north in the 1970’s and 80s inspired Chumbawamba’s politics and creativity?

We all came from small industrial Northern towns and we’d been influenced by the first wave of punk in the 70s. When we all met we had this Northern, state-educated, working class thing in common. We had similar backgrounds and were into similar bands.

I found out about politics from bands like The Clash, The Ruts, The Specials. All these bands who were saying stuff in their music and attaching themselves to movements like Rock Against Racism, the CND and the Anti-Nazi League. When Crass came along they made anarchism sound really accessible and simple to understand, really exciting and actually attainable in the way that they lived. And they were so powerful live. So we developed our politics through seeing them and reading record sleeves. It wasn't that we had an academic view of anarchism, although those books were knocking around the house. We didn’t use books to decide the practicalities of living together or being a collective. We were looking closer to home, at people like Crass, of experiences where the people like them were trying to live in a similar way.

What was the reality of squatting and living communally as a band for all those years?

It was a total experiment. In the film I wanted to portray that world as being a really positive experience, which it was. It was a really amazing, incredible, intense experience, but it wasn't always easy because we were making it up as we were going along, you know? There wasn't a rulebook. We couldn’t really go and ask anybody else how to do it. We had to unlearn lots of stuff. That could be sexist behaviour or selfish behaviour or just not knowing how to communicate properly. We were having a baptism by fire, in a way. When you have eight people in a band, you know that some are going to be stronger characters than others, some are going to be musicians and some are not musicians. You have to work out how to balance it all and keep everybody involved and let everybody have a voice. We were obsessed with the idea of us all having equal responsibility and equal say in stuff. Being from similar backgrounds really helped with the decision-making process. It sounds weird, but it was almost like we had to learn how to be kind to each other. We had to learn empathy and kindness, in a way. At times it was quite a painful process. I mean, we were only like 21/22 when we were trying to do that!

I guess the musicians amongst you had to unlearn any rock star egos you might have had too.

Yeah, there was a lot of self-policing of egos and behaviour. We were all policing each other to check that we were still adhering to the central tenets of what Chumbawamba was about. Someone who had never written a lyric, or melody, or musical idea was just as important as someone who had done those things. We were all irreplaceable for different reasons.

Top to bottom: Photos courtesy of Dunstan Bruce

In the mid-90s you’d moved away from the post-punk sound and were writing big pop songs. Did you have a game plan for if you had a hit single?

I think if you ask different people in the band they would have different ideas about whether there was a game plan or not. If you go through Chumbawamba’s back catalogue you can find songs that are almost the same structure as “Tubthumping.” What changed our musical style massively was the explosion of that Manchester sound in the late-80s, with those bands along with like Primal Scream and whoever else getting remixed by Andrew Weatherall and Paul Oakenfold at the time. We really embraced that and we wanted to be part of that, so our music changed quite drastically to the point where everybody thought we'd turned disco [laughs]. Disco was still a dirty word back then.

We were absorbing what was going on around us and changing our music accordingly because we wanted to play music that we enjoyed. We never set out to have a hit record – well, definitely not on the scale of “Tubthumping.” But I think we'd always wanted to be a band who were relevant and who had a position in the pop world and weren’t just always on the fringes and completely dismissed. We were aware that our audience was getting bigger and our music was getting more accessible. I think we were getting closer to maybe having a hit single, but part of the problem was the fact that the lyrical content was usually really specific or aggressive in some way. Our lyrics were becoming vaguer, or more subversive in trying to convey a political message. Maybe that was a subconscious thing, or maybe we thought that this is how we talk to more people.

Photos courtesy of Dunstan Bruce

How did you come to make the documentary?

I was obsessed with the idea of what you can do as a political band when you enter the mainstream. Can you subvert anything? Can you make a difference? Can you change the world? At the same time, I didn't want the lasting story of Chumbawamba to be that we were just one-hit-wonders.

I got to an age where I wondered whether what we did could be some sort of learning experience or template or watchword to other bands who were politically motivated? I wondered whether doing what we did is a good thing or a bad thing, and does it corrupt your soul, you know? Is it a pointless desire to think that you can change anything? So I was really interested in doing a film about that and using the Chumbawamba story as the jumping off point. I took my ideas to Sophie [Robinson, director] and she immediately said, ‘look, we've got to discover some sort of universal theme to this film that people can relate to or understand.’ The contemporary element is the fact that I was trying to do it again with my new band Interrobang‽. I was going back out and playing the small venues in the same way that we did back in the 80s. The film starts out as: I'm a 55-year-old man who doesn’t know what he’s doing. By the end, the idea is that I've worked out where I failed, what I'm capable of achieving and what’s important to me as an activist.

There’s a scene where a label exec from Warner says your political messages went over everyone’s heads. Do you feel like you made a difference?

I think we did something on a small scale. When I asked Alice [Nutter, from the band] that question she was irritated by it. She said that we can't necessarily judge it, and there's no way to judge how or if you've made a difference. She said that we should make the measure that at least we tried to do something. I think that's a really comforting way to think about it.

I like that too. Outside of the band members, how did you choose the people to include in the film? You’ve got Ken Loach, Penny Rimbaud from Crass, Professor Lucy Robinson from Sussex University…

I guess those three examples are three people who are my heroes, in a way. Ken Loach is an absolute hero because he's in his eighties and is still making films and still speaking out about stuff. Penny was a massive influence on me and had a huge impact on my life. I visited him because I’d never before been able to tell him that, or to talk about how he saw Chumbawamba and what we did. Lucy Robinson is a friend, to be honest. I love her scene because she has that academic approach to things. All of these people were heroes of mine who I was maybe looking for acceptance from, or some sort of resolution from each of them about what we had actually achieved.

Top to bottom: Stills from 'I Get Knocked Down'

In 2002 you famously licensed a song to General Motors for $70,000 and then gave all the money to an activist campaign against the firm. This got coverage in national newspapers. Was it important to you to make the band’s direct action public?

We wanted to be very, very public about what we were doing. I think that was partly because we got so much criticism about signing to a major label. So we thought, let's be clear that we are giving money away and trying to support people who don't have that platform or don't have the funds and the resources. In a way I think we had to be public about it to enable us to feel sure about what we were doing and trying to do, you know? If you're a band now and you do something, it's on Twitter in five seconds. It's immediately available as a piece of information. Those channels of communication weren’t there back in the late-90s. People in the UK wouldn’t always hear about the stuff we were doing in the States, for example. We couldn't tweet, “We went on the David Letterman show and changed the words of ‘Tubthumping’ to be about freeing Mumia Abu-Jamal.”

Is there anyone who has asked to use the song and you’ve flat-out refused?

Yeah, that happens a lot. The most recent example was Jeremy Clarkson for his farming show or something. We turned it down because he's a twat! [laughs]. He's a horrible, obnoxious person. We're still really precious about the song. So although you might think it’s everywhere, we take great care as to where and when it is used. We got offered a lot of money a few years ago from General Electric, who wanted to use it in an advert for a really innocuous product. But General Electric has an arms department and they were making parts for fighter jets that at that time were bombing Iraq. We didn’t want to be connected to a company like that. We said no to Nike back in the 90s too, because it came out that they were using sweatshops. Nigel Farage used it once. A few years ago he had a plane crash and he survived, unfortunately. On the back of that he started using the song at his rallies. We found out and had to insist that he stop using it.

Do you think there are any mainstream bands out there now using their platform to speak out about the same causes you did?

The most mainstream I can think of is someone like Self Esteem, who I think is brilliant, and I love what she does. I think it’s brilliant what Dawn Ray’d are doing too. They’re talking publicly about their anarchist politics and they’re a heavy metal band. It’s a brilliant step forward because it's unexpected.

Top to bottom: Dunstan Bruce and Martine McCutcheon Robbie Williams and Dunstan Bruce,

I read in the Truth of Revolution, Brother that you said “humour and a great melody was a far better tool than aggression as a way to get people to listen.” Do you still think the arts are important in the fight for social change?

I think it’s massively important, because they’re a really important part of life and who we are and what we are. Art just seems like a much purer way of sharing important ideas than listening to a politician speak.

In the film you’re haunted by the ‘baby head’ character from the cover of the Tubthumper album. It follows you round questioning and belittling you at every turn. Where did that come from?

Baby head was basically a tool that we used to ask all the questions that we thought everybody would like to know the answer to, and to raise particular ideas.

To me it seems to represent the ghost of “Tubthumping.” How do you feel about the song now?

I actually have a really good relationship with the song. It's enabled me to live a creative existence for the last 25 years, so it would be really churlish of me to criticise it. I still enjoy it when people send me text messages saying they’ve heard the song on this film or on football highlights or something like that. That’s brilliant because it feels as though it's part of popular culture, you know? It still gets played as much now as it did 25 years ago. I make a living from that song, which is crazy. In fact, eight of us make a living from that song. That’s absolutely ridiculous! I’ve always been very protective of the song, it’s really important to me.

One of the big themes in the film is feeling helpless to change the world, and worrying about the future. How do you fight that doubt and does anything give you hope for the future?

The younger generation. This is the first time where I've been in a situation where I'm looking to a younger generation for inspiration. When I was growing up, and even in my twenties and thirties, I always looked to the older generation for that wisdom, for an elder who would speak truth to power. But in the last five or ten years there’s been so much activism coming from a younger generation, whether that's around Extinction Rebellion, or when kids were doing the school protests, or Emma Gonzalez and her speeches around the time of police shootings in Texas, or Tamika Mallory and her speeches after the death of George Floyd. Those women who stood up and stepped forward were so inspiring. Greta Thunberg too. I still think she's absolutely brilliant. It’s brilliant to see a new generation of people who are taking on that responsibility.

I Get Knocked Down is screening all over the UK through March, April and May. Tickets and info here.

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