“Tubthumping” Turns 20
In 1982, in the British town of Burnley, a bunch of former members of a band called Chimp Eats Banana formed an anarchist collective named Chumbawamba. They lived together in a squat in Leeds, and they molded themselves on the example of Crass, the beloved British institution who pretty much defined crust-punk tactics and aesthetics. One of Chumbawamba’s first songs was a riotously dumb oi! parody called “I’m Thick” — literally just the phrase “I’m thick!” chanted over and over — which was still convincing enough that it made its way onto an oi! compilation. Their first album was called Pictures Of Starving Children Sell Records. And 15 years after they formed, Chumbawamba topped charts worldwide with a huge, honking, obvious drinking song, a song that sounded like a roomful of British soccer fans had stormed their way into a Sugar Ray band practice and taken over. That was the ’90s. The ’90s were weird.
There are unlikely chart successes, and then there are unlikely chart successes. Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” — better known to the entire universe as the I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down song — doesn’t sound like a remotely subversive song. But the band’s path to making a song like that — and to the song blowing up the way it did — is a fascinating one. Chumbawamba signed with EMI in 1997, eight years after contributing a “Heartbreak Hotel” cover to a compilation called Fuck EMI. Their decision to sign with the label was, as you can imagine, not uncontroversial. After they hit with “Tubthumping,” their old tourmates Oi Polloi released an EP called Bare Faced Hypocrisy Sells Records. In the liner notes to their 1997 album Tubthumper, which came out 20 years ago today, Chumbawamba made allusions to historical protests and to absurdist art, doing their part to draw connections between their huge hit song and class war. It didn’t work. Most people listened to “Tubthumping” and heard a fun, dumb drinking song, and the members of Chumbawamba didn’t seem to mind that much.
“Tubthumping” was a phenomenon: #6 in the US, #2 in England, #1 in Australia, Canada, Italy, and a bunch of other countries. To this day, it has the power to snap you into a 1997 memory-fugue just like “MMMBop” or “I’ll Be Mising You” or “Wannabe” or “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” The members of Chumbawamba have talked about how shocked they were to see “Tubthumping” blow up the way it did, but they had to know there was some possibility that it would happen. The other songs on the Tubthumper album mostly went unheard, though the follow-up single “Amnesia” did manage to go top-10 in the UK. But that’s a pop album full of slick production and canny genre recombinations and no-shit hooks. It has political ideas, but it Trojan-horses those ideas so effectively that you might never notice them. And that sound didn’t come out of nowhere. The members of Chumbawamba, like so many other Brits in the late-’80s, had become infatuated with acid-house sonics, and they’d been toying with synthy melodies and sticky, immediate hooks for years. “Tubthumping” wasn’t an anomaly; it was a vaguely logical end result of an old punk band retraining itself to become a pop-music force without quite working out what it would mean to become a pop-music force.
And they had fun with it. At the 1998 Brit Awards, band member Danbert Nobacon dumped a bucket of cold water over the head of John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister of Great Britain, as he sat in the audience. On an episode of Bill Maher’s old Politically Correct show, singer Alice Nutter advised fans who couldn’t afford their album to steal it from chain stores. (In the pre-Napster days, artists who advocated the theft of music were talking about actual shoplifting.) The band got the pre-Soft Bulletin Flaming Lips to remix “Tubthumping,” turning it into a psychedelic funk-dirge, and then they put that remix on their maxi-single. And Chumbawamba kept soldiering after “Tubthumping” came and went; they only just broke up in 2012.
But fascinating history or no, Chumbawamba will probably always be remembered as one-hit wonders, and even their one hit isn’t even particularly well-regarded. (In 2011, the readers of Rolling Stone voted “Tubthumping the fifth-worst song of the ’90s.) It makes sense; it’s an ultra-repetitive song, with a production style that was almost instantly dated from a band with a silly name and dog-ass ugly cover art. Songs like that are bound to become novelties. It’s like a law of nature.
But here’s what I have to tell you about “Tubthumping”: “Tubthumping” fucking ruled. Even without knowing Chumbawamba’s whole history, without knowing that the song was supposed to be a sly commentary on something or other, it ruled. It’s a song about drinking, of course — people made a drinking game out of all the beverages mentioned in the lyrics — but it’s also about strength and resilience. It’s a celebration of overcoming all the bullshit that life throws at you. There’s a powerful undercurrent of melancholy to the way Nutter sang bits of “Danny Boy” and to the “songs that remind him of the good days” chanted refrain and to that lonely trumpet solo. And the steamroller hook — the one that echoed around in so many of our heads for months — was big and dumb and obvious in all the best ways, the way so many of the best rock anthems are. The production is immaculate, and it represents a fusion of genres — post-Beck Euro-pop, soccer-chant street-punk, boldly garish late-’90s chart-pop — that nobody else ever even attempted. It worked. I can’t call it an important or influential song, but in its moment, it was fun as hell. And its story, the story of what might be the unlikeliest underdog victory, was fun as hell too. Chumbawamba were singing for a long, long time. And for one brief, glorious moment, they were winning.