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Article published on 15 December 2003
last modification on 27 March 2004

Chumbawamba is a band mainly from the North of England. They started in the 1980s as anarcho-punk and think of themselves as

"Punk. Always. Not punk rock - punk. Thus we can encompass folk, doo-wop, acapella, techno, trip-hop, pop, emo, Frutiger, Amarillo, Geneva, Helvetica and Times bold." Chumbawamba *

Indeed, their web page even includes an English version of "Bella Ciao"

See their Home page.

"Chumbawamba doesn’t mean anything. At the time we formed (early 80’s) there was a rush of bands with obvious names. It was the time of ‘peace punk’ and you couldn’t get across a youth club dance floor without bumping into a Disorder, a Subhumans, a Decadent Youth or an Anthrax t shirt. We liked the sound of Chumbawamba because it wasn’t nailing ourselves down. We wanted a name which wouldn’t date"

Crass had "a huge influence on us in the early eighties, mainly because they were a whole package. They had a very theatrical set-up and we were attracted by their austerity and the way they controlled everything from the posters in records, to the banners and door prices at gigs. The music was very much a secondary thing."

"Please, explain why everyone keeps saying you’re punk!! Peace, Jane

Because we’ve got big punk hearts and it’s an attitude rather than a sound. And as for anarcho punk... that was 15 years ago. I’m frightened by people who want to live in time warps and only listen to one sort of music, it seems a very conservative approach to life and not one that I’d encourage. If you only listen to anarcho punk I’d suggest you get out more."

"Chumbawamba wants access to the media, access to radio; we weren’t content to be carefully and quietly shunted gently into a dead-end siding, shouting our heads off and ignored.

Times changed before we did. We reacted to change. We felt that we were one of the very few ‘anarcho-punk’ bands (us, Citizen Fish, Oi Polloi...) who’d survived the eighties, and we weren’t prepared to sit out the nineties as a punky irrelevant footnote. Thatcher was defeated, new Labour began to shape itself, the nature of anarchist and radical politics was changing... why couldn’t we? It was essential that we change to address our context.

Radically-politicised people have had to change strategies from year to year. We can’t be continually reactive, we have to also be proactive, not just answering back but creating situations, being one step ahead.

For instance, it was important to us as a band that we criticised the new Labour government in Britain before the government was elected (by a popular majority). Because we know the lessons of history, and we know that politicians will change their colours as time rolls over... but I digress.

So yes, the times changed, and so did Chumbawamba. Let it be remembered that when Bob Dylan went electric, we weren’t stood at the back shouting ‘Judas!’

And Alice’s twopennethworth:

The conditions in the eighties were significantly different. It wasn’t just ’punk’ parameters which had narrowed by the nineties; if you look at what happened to industry, workers’ rights and the the welfare state then it’s obvious that conditions in Britain changed drastically in a very short period of time. The Miners’ Strike of 1984 really was a benchmark. The attack on what was the strongest union in the country (it was the Miners who brought down the Conservative government in 1974) was the government and business’s first major assault on all the gains ordinary people had made in the post war period. Since 1984 we’ve moved from production to service industries - with their short term contracts, crap wages and job insecurity. The safety net of the welfare state has been all but withdrawn and we’re seeing the return of poverty related diseases like tuberculosis and malnutrition to Britain’s housing estates. Capitalism has undergone what it sees as a successful revolution, wiping out a lot of the gains of the last 50 years and taking its’ factories wherever the labour is cheapest. The left was slow to realise just how ’radical’ the changes were going to be. By the time it caught on it was punch drunk. I can’t look at how ’punk’ has changed and how we’ve changed without situating us in the wider world. Everybody was forced to adapt to the economic and social changes. Carrying on running our own label was no longer effective because most of the ’alternative’ avenues of communication had been closed off by the end of the eighties. We realised long ago while still running Agit-Prop that we were existing within a capitalist system, and belonging to a small but pure indie ghetto wasn’t going to have any effect other than making us feel holy. Signing to EMI and Universal was a risk we took to get into people’s living rooms. The surprise is that it worked. The old adage ’if you can’t beat ’em absorb em’ hasn’t happened to us. Having increased exposure has made Chumbawamba into a more, rather than less effective, propaganda machine. During a time when it’s increasingly difficult for people to have access to ideas which are at odds with capitalism, we try and use Chumbawamba’s media time to push ideas. If we hadn’t changed strategy that wouldn’t be an option."

* All the quotations that follow come from the same source.


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