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Chumbawamba - Chumbawamba

  by Helen Tipping

published: 7 / 10 / 2012

Chumbawamba - Chumbawamba


Anarchic folk-punks Chumbawamba have recently announced their decision to split up after playing a short farewell tour, concluding with a date in their native Leeds. Helen Tipping looks back on their extraordinary career

I was never a Chumbawamba fan from the beginning. I was a latecomer. Partly through not having heard of them in the early days, and partly because by the time that I did I didn’t like what I heard. Now don’t get me wrong,. I’m no John Prescott fan – the events at the Brits in 1998 when their singer Danbert Nobocan emptied a jug of water over him did nothing to sway my likes or dislikes. In fact it was more likely to endear them to me. No it was more down to that song. The hit. I just hated ‘Tubthumping'. It was everywhere, it was annoying, and I was not impressed in the slightest. Fast forward a few years, and they weren’t even a blip on my musical interests. I’d gone past hating ‘Tubthumping’, and learnt to turn off my ears when it came on TV, or radio, or in the shops. After all by this time it was ubiquitous and used in TV programmes at every turn. I had become immune to it. So imagine my surprise, when Neil (Bailey, photographer for PB) suggested we go and see them at the Sheffield Boardwalk. “Chumbawamba?” I asked.“I don’t like them. I’ve only heard one song by them, but I don’t like it.” Neil sounded disappointed, and suggested I should give them a chance and that he’d lend me a CD and, no, it wouldn’t be the one with the hit on it. So armed with the CD, as MP3s were still a thing of the future for me, I took the train into work and gave it a listen. And it wasn’t bad; it seemed that they had done some good stuff. I had done them a disservice. So I agreed to go along, hoping they didn’t play their hit, and I don’t think they did. Or if they did I chose that point to “pay a visit”. Well every band has a song that you go and “pay a visit” to, doesn’t it? That was the only time I saw the play with the full band. After that they split the band and started doing folk songs a cappella or with minimal musical accompaniment, and it was then that I really enjoyed their music and got what they were about. There followed nine years of going to see them at festivals and gigs, going to see plays written by the band members, and listening to CDs, but not that one. Until earlier this year they announced that they were to split up. Yes, they would retain the rights to reform, should they wish to, but they felt that they had come to the end of the road and wanted to concentrate on other things. The band has an interesting history, and has had many members and changes of style. Originally formed by Boff Whalley, Midge and Danbert Nobacon as an anarcho punk band in Burnley in the late 70s, they moved to Leeds in the early 1980s and by 1982 had changed their name from Chimp Eats Banana to Chumbawamba. Whilst in Leeds they met Dunstan Bruce, with Boff initially joining his band until realising they weren’t all that good, Dunstan ended up instead in Chumbawamba. Inspired by Crass, they set up a commune in a squat in Armley. It wasn’t quite the same as Dial House. After all they were a bunch of Northern working class Burnley fans (Okay, not all of them were), but they shared the idealism and the commitment to living communally and sharing responsibility. This was to inform the way the band operated, as well as the way they lived. The original group were joined in the band, and the house, by Harry Hamer, Dave Dillon, Alice Nutter and Lou Watts. Initially gigs were not just musical performances but also theatrical performances, in which they made good use of props outside of usual instruments. This also led them into satirical territory, including pretending to be a skinhead band called Skin Disease and getting a song called ‘I’m Thick’ recorded on an Oi compilation LP put together by Gary Bushell. Yet another thing that would, had I known it back then, endeared them to me. I am no fan of Oi, racist skinheads or Gary Bushell. Their 1985 first single, ‘Revolution’, was picked up by John Peel. Gradually they moved away from their anarcho roots and became more influenced by pop and dance music, mixing it in with folk. They released an a cappella album of folk songs in 1988, ‘English Rebel Songs’, which I feel paved the way for their later trimmed down folk performances, and was the album that Neil lent me to convince me that there was more to them than ‘Tubthumping’. Signing to EMI and releasing the ‘Tubthumper’ album in 1997 did not go down well in anarcho circles, and Chumbawamba found themselves vilified by bands with whom they had toured previously, rather than just scorned by the music press for whom they were not cool enough. I realise now that I never listened to the lyrics of the song, just the chorus and the music and decided that it was an annoying song that drunks liked. Maybe because lots of drunks seemed to sing it… anyway, even listening to the lyrics I can’t honestly say I like it. There are plenty of better Chumbwamba songs, in my opinion. My favourite remains their cover of ‘Bella Ciao2’, and ‘Homophobia’ is a very memorable rage against homophobic attacks. In 2005 Chumbawamba changed again. I suppose it could be regarded as their first split. Boff Whalley, Lou Watts, Jude Abbot and Neil Ferguson started touring playing as a slimmed down version with much more of a folk sound, to be later joined by Harry Hamer. Danbert Nobacon went solo, and Alice Nutter went into writing drama pretty much full time. She wasn’t the only one. The rest of the group also wrote a musical,‘Riot, Rebellion and Bloody Insurrection’, which they toured with. I saw it in Leeds at the Viaduct Theatre, Halifax and it was quite enjoyable although very much a product of its time. This was followed up by another musical, 'Big Society’ earlier this year which was performed at the Royal Varieties in Leeds. The musicals are, obviously from the titles, very political in content; they work to a certain degree, but can be a bit bombastic. Still that’s part of the fun. It was meant to be music hall after all. We will be going to the last gig at Leeds Varieties. The audience have been asked to dress up, with the theme being Day of the Dead. Well it is on Halloween, so it’s the least we can do – be part of the spectacle. We also went to one of the last small gigs at the Red Shed in Wakefield. It’s a fantastic little venue, but mainly has folk related acts. As usual Boff talked and told stories through most of it, but everyone appeared to enjoy themselves and had a sing-a-long to most of the songs, which is positively encouraged by the band, even if some of the more finger-in-the-ear folkies looked a bit perturbed. So I’m looking forward to Leeds Varieties. It’s a great venue and was used by the BBC to film ‘The Good Old Days,’ if anyone remembers that. You can even get ice cream during the break. So it is goodbye to Chumbawamba, much maligned for being uncool, much appreciated on the punk-folk circuit and much different to how you might imagine them to be. You probably won’t get to see them now, unless they run low on funds and reform, but they have left a good few albums for us to listen to.

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Chumbawamba - Chumbawamba

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live reviews

Boardwalk, Sheffield, London, 15/6/2004
Chumbawamba - Boardwalk, Sheffield, London, 15/6/2004
At the Sheffield Boardwalk Helen Tipping finds long-serving anarchists Chumbawamba still able to bridge the gap between politics and cabaret with their unique blend of punk-pop

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Un (2004)
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