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Chumbawamba's anarchic pop

By Linda Laban

APRIL 17, 2000:  The cover of the new Chumbawamba album WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get), their second for Universal, is a picture of a cute doggie. But as the eight-member British band's Alice Nutter points out, "Once you open it up, there's two dogs fucking." In other words, as vocalist/percussionist Nutter is also happy to mention in the broadest of Lancashire accents (think Daphne on Frasier), what you see is not always exactly what you get. Such are the contradictions inherent in being the world's only Top 40 anarchist pop combo.

Most of Chumbawamba hail from Burnley, in Lancashire and, as Nutter tells it, "You wouldn't want to live in Burnley unless you really had to. All it's got going on fo' it is incest and drug abuse." The band formed in the early '80s in nearby metropolitan Leeds. True to the times, the group squatted in a house and followed the artistic and political dictates of late-'70s punk: "Anarchy in the UK" might have been just a song and/or fashion statement to some, but to Chumbawamba it became a raison d'être.

Indeed, their stoic, beer-hoisting anthem "Tubthumping" -- the single that helped push 1997's Tubthumper (Universal) to triple-platinum status -- is a simple, catchy dance-pop melange that begins with a sample of Pete Postlethwaite's rousing speech nicked from the anti-Thatcherite movie Brassed Off. Following its release Chumbawamba started to make newspaper headlines. Band co-founder Danbert Nobacon got arrested in Italy for wearing a skirt. Alice Nutter was lambasted on Politically Incorrect for encouraging kids to steal Tubthumper from record megastores. A performance of "Tubthumping" on Letterman was almost censored when the chorus was changed to a chant of "Free Mumia Abu Jamal." And the band poured a pitcher of water over Labour Party luminary Neil Prescott at the Brit Awards.

"Fame is transferable and you only have a few seconds of power, so we've tried to use that power," is how Nutter accounts for the incidents. "We let ourselves be a mouthpiece for a lot of groups and we were pleased to do it. Fame gave us political access we didn't have before -- to all these people who think they are untouchable. Politicians make huge decisions about people's lives all the time and they get no comeback."

WYSIWYG pursues Chumbawamba's mission to bring attention to prickly societal ills, but it's also a head-spinning collage of easy melodies and pop hooks inspired by sources as varied as nursery rhymes, sambas, and traditional English folk, as well as by dance music and punk rock. The first single, "She's Got All the Friends," is a shout-along rabble rouser. Closer to the populist emotive mark of "Tubthumping" is the gentler "Pass It Along," a stately anthem about the increasing isolation that wealth brings. The title, however, does not refer to one of the band's favorite pet causes, wealth redistribution: "People like to think we stick that in every sentence," laughs Nutter. "But sometimes we say things because it sounds good, and sometimes we say things just to be rock-and-roll fuck-ups."

Conspicuous among the original tunes on WYSIWYG is a cover of the Bee Gees' "New York Mining Disaster" that's stripped down to painfully precise, close vocal harmonies over a monochromatic, hushed, bass-heavy backing. "We are well known for a cappella songs, and we didn't want to just stick one on," says Nutter. "So we chose that; it is an amazing song, and who'd have thought the Bee Gees did it?"

One number Chumbawamba were determined to include on WYSIWYG is "The Physical Impossibility of the Death of the Mind of Jerry Springer." "We wanted to do a song with that title," Nutter explains. "We didn't know what that song was going to be like, we just wanted to do it because he's a manipulative person with no respect at all for working-class people. The way he treats people, the way he sees it, he thinks he's cleverer than the people he's got on his show." The result is a short, tuneful, sweetly sung, not too offensive indictment of the talk-show host.

If WYSIWYG is like a dizzying channel-surfing spree, that's a reflection of Chumbawamba's world view as much as the social criticism of the lyrics. This is an accessible pop album that doesn't mine proven formulas so much as fine-tune Chumbawamba's ad lib style of making music. "We wanted to have this sort of a movie going on," says Nutter. "You know, life is contradictory; culture is contradictory. It isn't a simple and one-dimensional choice. We wanted to make an album that was fucked up but joyous in some ways too, just like everything around us."


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