In English slang, a tubthumper is someone who stands on a tub at a political meeting and “thumps” home their point with an excess of emotion, and it perfectly describes Chumbawamba. The irony of the fact that this old and radical agitpop band’s current single, “Tubthumping,” is a huge hit in America can only be expressed by a comparison: It’s as if Fugazi struck it rich with a song called “Rant.” Like another Leeds-based band, the Mekons, Chumbawamba’s record includes explanatory quotes from a host of “radical” thinkers — people like Jerry Rubin, Baudelaire, Plato, Malcolm McLaren and the inevitable bit of Parisian graffiti. But unfortunately, few things are more irritating than bands who want to educate their audience. Whether it’s Billy Bragg preaching about voting Labor or Rage Against the Machine yelping on about Leonard Peltier, political rock is invariably didactic and boring.
The British press has not been shy about ridiculing Chumbawamba on these grounds alone, calling them clayfooted, dogmatic, smug, self-righteous and full of old leftist rhetoric. And judging by their Web site, “the First Church of Chumbawamba,” Chumbawamba are all those things and worse. But the fact remains that “Tubthumping” is one of the best songs of the year. Set in a bar where a drunken prole is singing out “the music that reminds of the good times,” it contains a lilting chorus of “Danny Boy” that elevates its chanted verses into something really special. Singer Alice Nutter sounds (and looks) like a less drunk Sally Timms of the Mekons; and in spite of the fact that Chumbawamba probably mean it as an anti-alcohol message, “Tubthumpers” is the perfect expression of drunken bonhomie.
That’s where the resemblence to the Mekons ends, however, since Chumbawamba are neither subtle nor particularly humorous. In the past, their lefty songs have been split between clunky parodies — “Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records” a concept LP ridiculing Live Aid, for example — or strident rants with titles like “Homophobia,” “Timebomb,” “Criminal Injustice” and even, “Ugh! Your Ugly Houses!” “Tubthumpers” also takes social injustice as its text, but although lyrically it boasts a lot of sputtering indignation, it isn’t nearly as dogmatic as previous releases. “One By One,” for example, is a fairly measured number about the Liverpool dockworkers strike. “The Big Issue” (named for the British equivalent of the Street Sheet) is about homelessness, and its description of one unfortunate as “skating frozen chaos till the no-good Gods are dead” is particularly apt.
The worst offenders are songs criticizing the New Labor movement, like “Amnesia” and “The Good Ship Lifestyle,” but even these have their moments, tune-wise. This is because Chumbawamba’s music doesn’t sound conventionally political, i.e., folky, punky or thrashy. It sounds instead like a mildly rhythmic and very catchy English pop band. Critics have ridiculed the band on this point, but I think it’s Chumbawamba’s great strength. In fact, if they could only get rid of the strident snippets of between-song rhetoric and learn a little restraint, they could be one of the better lesson-bands of the decade.