2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack.
Somewhere in the depths of my childhood bedroom — maybe on a shelf in the closet, or stashed in a little ceramic jewelry box atop a dresser — is a cerulean, second-generation iPod Nano. On that iPod Nano, one might find various Good Charlotte songs misattributed to blink-182, and vice versa. On that pop-punk mix, however, one would also find a track that, with its raucous horns and frat-boy style chanting, didn’t sound quite like the rest: “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba.
I was a year old when the song was first released in 1997, and I surely caught blips of it throughout my childhood. But it wasn’t until age 12, when I watched the 2009 movie Fired Up!, that I became perpetually hooked. In it, the female protagonist’s douchebag boyfriend sings along to the song with his similarly douchebaggy friends. “Awesome song, Chumbawamba. That’s the soundtrack to my life,” he says. I promptly downloaded the song on Limewire. In the context of the movie, “Tubthumping” didn’t seem all that cool, but god, was it catchy. More than that, though, it was uplifting. Who doesn’t need a good dose of encouragement? Even as a preteen, I did get knocked down, plenty. And I would get back up again. I wouldn’t let anyone ever keep me down, and I would keep listening to “Tubthumping” as a reminder of that.
Honestly, even 25 years later, everyone can still sing along to “Tubthumping” (on global music charts, “Tubthumping” reached number two in the U.K., number six on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and number one in Australia, Canada, Ireland, Italy and New Zealand). It’s a song so persistent, so repetitive and so unwilling to not exist that we all know the words.
Yet, there’s little the general public can recite about Chumbawamba. After “Tubthumping,” they were scarcely heard from, so most of the world never got to know the band who had made such a ubiquitous song. It’s worth telling their story, though. Because despite their relative obscurity, one fact remains: Chumbawamba is the most outwardly anarchist group to ever sneak their radical leftist messages into mainstream consciousness via the slick camouflage of a Top 40 pop song.
“The song has become part of popular culture, and that’s been an incredibly powerful thing for us,” Dunstan Bruce, lead vocalist of Chumbawamba, tells me. “We were never interested in the career of a successful band. We just wanted to live in the moment.” Now 61, Bruce lives in Brighton, England, and was a founding member of Chumbawamba back in 1982. He’s since traded his bleach blond hair for grey and his 1990s flannels for suits in the style of David Byrne. But his anarchist ideology remains the same. I Get Knocked Down, his forthcoming documentary on the band, and his own artistic future, is due sometime later this year.
As Bruce explains in the documentary, Chumbawamba spent 15 years as active members of the music and counterculture scene around the working-class town of Leeds, where the band lived together in a squat house. They worked as little as possible, sharing resources amongst each other while participating in miner’s strikes and protests like Stop the City, an anti-military demonstration that took place in London in 1983 and 1984. Much of their music was explicitly political in nature, exploring topics like anti-fascism, union strikes and animal welfare. In terms of sound, their work is best described as experimental, crossing the boundaries of punk into folk, ska and even electronica. The list of instruments played by members includes everything from the flugelhorn to the turntable. But with “Tubthumping,” the band seemed to want to stumble into popular music. It was all an experiment — they just wanted to see if they could.
“They were overt anarchists,” says Max Collins, lead singer of Eve 6 and a prominent Chumbawamba defender on Twitter (his song “Inside Out” hit the Billboard Hot 100 in 1998). “Politically, they were on the left of the left at a time when that really wasn’t on people’s radar. They were incredibly subversive, but they also were trolls.”
By “trolls,” Collins is referring to the ways in which Chumbawamba managed to dabble in a variety of genres without ever taking any of them too seriously. By 1997, the band had seven albums to their name. In that time, they messed around as punks, as a ska group and as pop performers, all while continuing the real work of anarchism. At one point, they even snuck their way onto an Oi! compilation album under the name Skin Disease with a track that only featured the lyric “I’m thick” repeated over and over, seemingly just for the hell of it.
But “Tubthumping” was different. Although the element of repetition remained, the lyrics were more like an optimistic mantra surrounded by boisterous trumpets, glittering guitars and subtle techno beats — it was gleeful Top of the Pops stuff, not a hardcore, harsh sound. “That song worked on a couple of different levels,” says Collins. “It was an undeniable smash of a feel-good song at the surface, while simultaneously being an anthem for the working class.” CNN immediately clocked it as such, though many others cited it as a dumb, if not catchy, song about drinking.
Bruce’s attitude toward the intentionality of “Tubthumping”’s success is mixed. On the one hand, he says it was a complete accident that the song blew up. On the other hand, the song was kind of a last-ditch effort for the group — it was either find success with this, or give up. But once “Tubthumping” somehow found an audience, they took every advantage of every ounce of fame it brought.
“When the song went mainstream and became a massive hit, we had to make a decision about whether to go along with it and use that situation to do something creative and worthwhile,” says Bruce. “We decided to use the situation to our own ends. At that time, we thought, ‘What can we do with this?’ The song itself is evidence of the fact that if you can find ways to invade your way into culture — you can use that as a kind of smokescreen to say the other stuff that you want to say.” Even the song’s title snuck that message in — ”tubthumping” is another word for aggressive political protest.
With that, “Tubthumping,” a goofy, anthemic, horn-filled pop song, became Chumbawamba’s Trojan horse for spreading leftism to the masses. Its popularity gave them the chance to pull outlandish stunts and make controversial, wide-reaching public statements that spread their gospel. Case in point: In 1997, they famously announced that they liked it when cops are killed, saying, “We mean that. You choose sides, don’t you?” On Letterman, they replaced the lyrics of “Tubthumping” to say “Free Mumia Abu-Jamal,” and at the BRIT Awards, they voiced support for the Liverpool Dockworkers Union. At that same event, drummer Danbert Nobacon dumped water on the U.K.’s Deputy Prime Minister. They made no concessions about their politics, no apologies for their statements. Of course, they did have to sign to EMI Records, despite having previously contributed to an indie compilation album titled Fuck EMI due to the label’s links to weapons manufacturing. But this was one of the necessary hoops to jump through in order to get messages of anarchism out into the world — or so they told themselves.
“There’s an interesting line here in the anarchist-outsider-to-mainstream pipeline,” Steve Albini, a musician and producer best known for his work with Nirvana and Pixies, tells me. He compares Chumbawamba to musician Derek Birkett of the group Flux of Pink Indians, now manager of the label One Little Independent Records, to which Chumbawamba was once signed. According to Albini, One Little Independent Records is now “a huge music conglomerate,” having lost many of the anarchist values Birkett and the label claim to have held.
“There’s the argument that broadly appealing commercial music can ‘smuggle’ progressive ideas into mainstream culture,” Albini says. “I’ve always been suspicious of this idea, as it’s a convenient cover for the more conventional aspirations of making good money and being generally popular. I don’t think Birkett has acquitted himself well in this regard. Chumbawamba, on the other hand, had made more pop-and-dance-inflected music within the underground prior to their breakthrough hit, and they wear the populist mantle a little more cleanly.”
The fact that Chumbawamba didn’t have continued commercial success or latch on to the mainstream music industry in any major way only further establishes their bona fides as legitimate anarchists — and again, while other bands like the Sex Pistols or Black Flag seemed willing to give up their politics for these “conventional aspirations,” Chumbawamba never was. Instead, Albini points out, they used the money they made to support anti-corporate groups like Indymedia and CorpWatch, and to “help underwrite their friends’ unprofitable projects.”
In other words, they put their newfound cash where their mouth was. Sometimes, they even forced corporations to do the same. In 2002, they allowed General Motors to use their music for a Pontiac spot, only to turn around and donate all the profits to anti-GM groups. They also turned down $1.5 million from Nike and announced on Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect that anyone who couldn’t afford their album should steal it from a megastore.
All of which might also explain why we didn’t hear from Chumbawamba much after that. Once their agenda became clear, they seemed to go silent. And though they weren’t censored or “canceled” as we know it today, they were never given the same platform after “Tubthumping.” They got in, spread their message and got out.
The attachment to “Tubthumping,” however, has never wavered. The song has 145 million listens on Spotify alone, and a still-active comments section on the official YouTube listing. During the pandemic, the song also became a renewed anthem for the historically working-class city of Leeds.
Bruce, though, chalks up such longevity to something far different than politics. “The message appears to be very much about drinking,” he points out. He’s absolutely correct. The lyrics “He drinks a whiskey drink / He drinks a vodka drink / He drinks a lager drink / He drinks a cider drink / He sings the songs that remind him of the good times / He sings the songs that remind him of the best times,” describes the situation many people find themselves in when they hear the song — drunk in a dive bar, singing along.
The thing is, a song about drinking and a song about the working class aren’t antithetical. The pub has always been a locus of worker camaraderie, and drinking songs are practically their own genre of working-class folk music. “99 Bottles of Beer” is one of the sillier examples, with its emphasis on communal singing giving it the same sort of “all-for-one” feeling “Tubthumping” conveys. Songs like these represent the voice of the common man, his woes mirrored in hordes of comrades who sing and drink to escape the crush of oppression. “It has an implicit class consciousness,” Bruce explains. “I don’t think that song has middle-class intentions, at all.”
“It’s not a song for the rich, really,” band member Alice Nutter said in 1997. “[It’s] all about surviving the daily grind, but doing it with dignity.”
The other thing is — at least in terms of “Tubthumping”’s continued relevance — left-leaning politics are now a part of mainstream political discourse. “People [now] are more amenable to ideas like Chumbawamba’s,” explains Collins. “In the late 1990s, even for people who fancied themselves as ‘left-leaning,’ the word ‘communist’ might have been a bridge too far. But not so much anymore. Not even the most cynical conservative in the late 1990s could have predicted the amount of wealth such a tiny few would hold while the cost of living and income stays stagnant for everyone else. We’re not at a critical mass yet, but these things have certainly moved the needle in more people being amenable to the ideas of leftism.”
And so, perhaps now more than ever, we need a song about the resistance and resilience of the working class. We need “Tubthumping” as a reminder of the radical potentials of camaraderie — maybe only then we can escape the tyranny of capitalism and the One Percent.
In the end, the answer to the staying power of “Tubthumping” after 25 years is right there in the chorus: It might get knocked down, but it will get back up again. The rest of us will, too — the workers of the world and the oppressed and the subjugated, or maybe even just the 12-year-olds who need an extra push of confidence.
After all, you’re never gonna keep us down.