Looking back at the UK anarchist rockers’ unsung follow-up to their biggest hit
It was another case of right place, right time, music industry style. A band that most people in the US had never heard of suddenly appeared, as if out of nowhere, with a song that exploded across the airwaves.
Chumbawamba’s rollicking singalong “Tubthumping” didn’t just rock the US charts (No. 6 in Billboard’s Hot 100, No. 1 in the magazine’s Mainstream Top 40, Adult Top 40, and Alternative Songs charts), it swept the world; No. 2 in the band’s native Britain and Top 10 in 13 other countries.
A rush to capitalize on that success quickly followed, and Chumbawamba jetted off to America. The frisky anarchist collective played radio station festivals, sandwiched between Hanson and Aerosmith. They performed on the Late Show with David Letterman, throwing in a chant of “Free Mumia Abu-Jamal!” in the middle of singing their big hit. They recorded snatches of the touring experience on a handheld tape deck, capturing such incidents as a cab driver offering to set them up with prostitutes for the evening (“We’ll pick up some booze … the girls’ll be all over you”). When band member Alice Nutter appeared on Politically Incorrect, she suggested that if fans couldn’t afford to buy their album, they should shoplift it. The record company was not amused.
VIDEO: Dunstan and Alice of Chumbawamba interviewed by Jyrki, 1997
So there was much to draw on when it came time to make the next album, billed as WYSIWYG on the cover: “What You See Is What You Get.” The record is more like a symphonic piece than an album of individual tracks. In just under 48 minutes, the 22 numbers (some no longer than two lines), segue neatly into each other, depicting a sprawling landscape of excess, of “Kodak babies in the land of plenty,” dogs in Celebration, Florida who get facelifts, and Jesus in Vegas, busy mixing it up with Frank Sinatra and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Musically, it’s an exhilarating mash-up of dance rock, pure pop, sweet country, surf guitar, and orchestral pomp and circumstance, punctuated by random music samples and soundbites, such as this pearl of wisdom: “Mothers never work. Single women always do.” “Are you happy here, in Theme Park U.S.A.?” they ask with wry amusement in the album’s final song, “Dumbing Down.” “And do you sometimes wish that your life was plug and play?” As a last fillip, they even poke fun at their own newfound celebrity, splicing in a clip of an American singing an off-kilter bit of “Tubthumping.”
While the album’s lyrical content was drawn from “Our experience of being in the full public glare for a short window, particularly in the United States,” as one of the band’s co-founders, Danbert Nobacon, puts it, the album’s panoramic sweep was inspired by the experimental work of another musical outlier. “When we got over the punk rock ideology that ‘Everything in the past is rubbish!,’ when we started exploring our collective musical roots, we rediscovered Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention,” Nobacon explains. The band was “fascinated” by the seamless flow of the Mothers’ first three albums, “and that kind of leaked into the way we made records.” The aural collage approach makes WYSIWYG — Nobacon pronounces the title as “Wizzywig” — a giddy, breathless experience. You’re never sure in which direction the band will veer off into next.
“The album to me is like a comment on that whole charade of what mainstream pop culture is,” says Nobacon. “How pop culture, when it’s under that corporate umbrella, is really quite shallow.” Chumbawamba had never expected to be part of that mainstream. Formed in 1982, the band was a veteran of the independent label realm, and was surprised when they were eventually approached by major labels (“In Britain we had such a reputation for being troublesome anarchists, they didn’t want to touch us”) Ultimately, they chose to signing with Republic/Universal in the US and EMI in the rest of the world, more for a lark than any other reason. “We basically thought, we’ll probably have a really good time for a year,” says Nobacon, “and then they’ll dump us.”
Then came “Tubthumping.”
“It snowballed way beyond our expectations,” Nobacon says. “I still get royalty statements, and that one song is still over 95% of the royalties.”
Unexpectedly thrust into the mainstream arena, they were able to see the pop beast up close and personal, seeing the kind of traps bands can fall into while riding that first wave of success, being caught in what Nobacon calls the “Pop Bubble.”
“You’re in your 20s, and suddenly you get all this attention, and people are sending you limousines and private jets. And some of those bands, they burn through all their money, and then the next record doesn’t sell, and they’re in debt or have a drug habit. You’re in a world where you’re in that bubble, and if you don’t keep your wits about you, you lose sight of where you come from. We were older and wiser and we said, ‘No’ to things on occasion. But it seemed like other bands were just totally in that world.”
WYSIWYG describes that very dilemma in its opening track, “I’m With Stupid,” mourning the fate of “Another white boy band/They’re happy on demand/Everything is grand/Until the singer gets a habit.” Other lyrics have a spooky new resonance today. “Save the world, don’t leave the house,” the song “Pass It Along” advises. “Because a virtual office in a virtual home/means you never have to drive through the wrong part of town….”
The Internet wasn’t yet the kind of dominant force that it is now, but the band could already sense which way the wind was blowing, recognizing it as “amazing technology, but it also has a dark side to it. We were very aware that this kind of medium is instantly colonized and exploited by corporate agendas. And we were on a major record label, part of this huge entertainment corporation, so we were in the middle of it.” In “WWW Dot,” the web is seen as an untapped resource promoting economic gain, a “New religion/No beat, no rhythm/Just Wal-Mart wall to wall.”
Elsewhere there are jokey shots at Jerry Springer, Charlton Heston (memorably dubbed “Moses with a gun”), and the PMRC, aka the “Ladies For Compassionate Lynching.” Then, in the middle of the sonic maelstrom, there’s an unexpected moment of calm, when the band delivers a poignant acapella rendition of the Bee Gees’ “New York Mining Disaster 1941.” It’s a song the band easily identified with, both for their own roots in Northern England with its own mining industry, and as a reflection of their interest in songs championing the working class; in 1988, they’d even released an album of such material, English Rebel Songs 1381-1914. It also gives the group the chance to show off their fine vocal chops; behind the audio tricks, Chumbawamba was also a band of highly skilled performers.
Nobacon recalls the record company as “bemused” by the final product. “Basically, they just wanted a repeat formula of the big song. And we didn’t give it to them. But it’s pop music, it’s very listenable. I know the lyrics, the undercurrents, may have been challenging. But it was still something that, in theory, the record company could’ve worked with. But they couldn’t. They failed miserably at what they were supposed to be good at. They couldn’t sell the record.”
And the band found their promotional efforts were hampered by their previous antics. After the “Free Mumia” stunt, Letterman didn’t want them back. It was a situation perhaps anticipated in one of WYSIWYG’s most dynamic numbers, “I’m in Trouble Again,” with its supposed lament “Tried to be so squeaky clean/but I’m in trouble again, oh yeah,” delivered with a cheery wink to the audience. “Being on TV in America, we very quickly burned all our bridges,” Nobacon chuckles. “But we thought, well, this is who we are, and we have this platform for now, so we’ll try and put our point of view forward. And it became very quickly evident that it wasn’t palatable in the mainstream. You’re not allowed to make waves. And if you don’t play by the rules, you get swallowed up and spat out. And that’s what happened to us.”
The Tubthumper album had sold over three million copies in the US, “More than the sales of all our previous records put together!” Nobacon says. Six months after its release, WYSIWYG had barely limped to 10,000 copies total in America. Ironically, just four years later the politically-themed American Idiot would sell over six million copies stateside, and many more millions around the world. “Every few years, there’ll be a little bit of, ooh, politics is in for this month!” Nobacon says, but the timing was wrong for WYSIWYG. Green Day’s “Jesus of Suburbia” went to market, while Chumbawamba’s “Jesus of Vegas” stayed home.
Not that there were many regrets; the band had always expected their own Pop Bubble would burst someday. And Nobacon’s pleased by what they left behind. “WYSIWYG is one of my favorite Chumbawamba albums,” he says. “Coming from punk rock, we always held on to that ethic that you should question the status quo; that was part of our job to do that. And I think this album does that. It comes out of us being in that Pop Bubble with the big album, and trying to question it from the inside a little bit. Whether we like it or not, we’re all entrapped in some way by corporations, because they have so much power. If you buy a car, for example, you’ve got to buy gas from a corporation. So I think we’re all entrapped by it, to some degree. But that doesn’t prevent us from speaking out or trying to change it. And I think that’s what we were trying to do in Chumbawamba. And we managed to come out the other side without being too badly bruised or destroyed by it.” And as WYSIWYG shows, it was one wild ride.