Tubthumping - Because The Only Thing You Can Do To Music That Will Damage It Is Not To Change It



written and performed by chumbawumba

4 chumbas out of 5 wambas


Should you find yourself on the living room floor at 5:30am, still fruitlessly trying to lull your restless mind to sleep with some generic fantasy paperback, cursing the lightening sky and the cowardly night for fleeing before dawn’s pink eye, I don’t recommend allowing your brain seize onto chumbawamba’s tubthumping as any kind of distraction.  As insomniac anthems go, it’s somewhere between ‘oh, canada’ and the barney song. Enough to turn a lousy night into an unforgettable one. Death would almost be preferable. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if you look closely at the hell panel of bosch’s garden of earthly delights there’s a tiny recumbent man clutching his head as a horned devil recites, ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again, I get knocked down…’  

Turns out, though, that tubthumping is a great song in the light of day.

It was released in 1997 on chumbawumba’s somewhat-eponymous album tubthumper  (tubthumping is the british cognate of ‘stumping,’ as in a politician campaigning by making stump speeches and appearances).  If you’re a millennial, chances are you’ll remember this song well, and possibly hate me for stirring it from whatever neuronal island you’d marooned it on long ago.  I hadn’t thought about it since high school, when the album got plenty of play in my stereo. My musical tastes were still in that questionable teenage phase and anyone would’ve been forgiven for brushing off my insistence that it was, ‘really pretty good.’  In this one instance, my teenage self was correct.

The lyrics have party anthem feel.  The tale of unapologetic british workingclass benders that meet adversity with alcohol and belligerence.  The main chant (‘I get knocked down…’ I know you know it) conjures up picket lines, soccer hooligans, watery english fascism, margaret thatcher, and tony blair’s love for bush 2.  It’s simple and repetitive and deceptively unsophisticated. Combined with another refrain (‘he takes a whisky drink, he takes a vodka drink…’) it presents as prototypical onehitwonder material---catchy, and that’s it.  

The broader ear finds a more schizophrenic soundscape.  Bookended by bizarre intro/outro samples, it can feel like the radio is skipping around, giving you three different songs.  One selfstyled music ‘blogger’ (a title only just above ‘pedophile,’ surely, groping at your online attention (and yeah I’m aware of the hypocrisy of making that point on this platform, shove off)) was so peeved at tubthumping’s experimental weirdness he wrote [sic] ‘why would you have an outro to a song that’s already faded out?  That s stupid and completely pointless.’

Indeed, our, ahem, blogger friend is right that the song is strange collection of musical styles and influences.  It’s built out of four refrains, each with a different focus and different backing music. We get heavy poprock guitar chords (‘I get knocked down…’), wistful acoustic melodies (‘we’ll be singing/when we’re winning…’), easy-listening percussion under throaty female vocals (‘pissing the night away…’), and a upward-twisting harmonica bar (‘he sings the songs that remind him of the good times…’).  The bridge is an unlikely keyboard-trumpet duet that wouldn’t be out of place in a mariachi ballad. It should be a discordant mess. You’d expect the song to be a staircase tumble, but it flows deftly. Abrupt transitions are somehow fun instead of jarring, like being swept along to a surprise party when you’re on your way to the laundromat. And then the finale zips everything together, a feat that should be impossible.  The band counterpoints their disparate ingredients gracefully (perusing the rest of the album shows this to be a theme----male&female voices set against each other in unexpected but excellent harmonic combinations, reinforced by similarly-contradictory instruments). It’s a peanut butter and pickle sandwich---weird but delicious. Its catchiness is its proof of concept.

Chumbawamba were an unusual band.  Their brand of satirical poppunk was fun, catchy, subversive, and surprisingly disciplined.  As slapdash as their electronic samples and voiceovers might seem, they reveal the band’s anticorporate, antigreed sensibilities.  The end of the song amnesia, for example, has a matteroffact lecture on how to remove the brain from the skull, a man asking plaintively, ‘but what about free speech?’ and another man’s answer, ‘but that’s not the point, I’ve got my position to think of.’  Tubthumping itself starts with a the sample, ‘I thought that music mattered. Bollocks. Not as much people matter.’

This pointed anarchism went beyond the music.  The band turned down $1.5 million from nike to use their music in a world cup ad, saying it took about ‘thirty seconds to say no.’  From wikipedia: ‘in 2002, General Motors paid Chumbawamba a large sum of money (either $70,000 or $100,000, sources differ) to use the song “Pass It Along”...for a Pontiac Vibe television advertisement.  Chumbawamba gave the money to the anti-corporate activist groups Indymedia and CorpWatch, who used the money to launch and information and environmental campaign against GM.’ They made headlines in the US by advising fans to steal their albums from virgin music and emi records if they couldn’t afford to buy them.  Signing with emi in the first place was a controversial move (emi’s a corporate behemoth), but the band apparently went in with their eyes open, saying, ‘we released some great records, we travelled all over the world, appeared on all these tv programmes, and we made tons of money, most of which we gave away or ploughed into worthwhile causes.’  Granted, a band can’t be objective about whether signing with the man truly advances their punk purposes or just their greed, but their track record shows them to be a band with a conscience.

[They went so far as to title their thirteenth album with a manifesto (setting the record for longest album title in the process): The Boy Bands Have Won, and All the Copyists and the Tribute Bands and the TV Talent Show Producers Have Won, If We Allow Our Culture to Be Shaped by Mimicry, Whether from Lack of Ideas or from Exaggerated Respect. You Should Never Try to Freeze Culture. What You Can Do Is Recycle That Culture. Take Your Older Brother's Hand-Me-Down Jacket and Re-Style It, Re-Fashion It to the Point Where It Becomes Your Own. But Don't Just Regurgitate Creative History, or Hold Art and Music and Literature as Fixed, Untouchable and Kept Under Glass. The People Who Try to 'Guard' Any Particular Form of Music Are, Like the Copyists and Manufactured Bands, Doing It the Worst Disservice, Because the Only Thing That You Can Do to Music That Will Damage It Is Not Change It, Not Make It Your Own. Because Then It Dies, Then It's Over, Then It's Done, and the Boy Bands Have Won]

Chumbawamba are often unfairly lumped in with other memorable pop hits from the 90s, like smash mouth or len.  But a flip through their discography, or a careful listen of tubthumping, should exonerate them. They were more musically talented, conscious, politically active, and progressive than most bands, era regardless.  Catchiness may be their handshake, but all their music is, like tubthumping, layered, smart, and interesting. It’s a relief to find a band where the argument of separating art from artist doesn’t crop up. Their honorable actions lend a pleasant flavor to an already-outstanding song.

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