19 September 02003

#1 Reasons to live in England

I love Chumbawamba. The first thing that impressed me was their snappy way with a title, releasing first album Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records after Live Aid, and following it with Never Mind the Ballots... Here's the Rest of Your Life to coincide with the 1987 General Election (you can now get both of these albums on a single CD for less than a tenner).

What's impressed me ever since is the mix of joy and seriousness that they bring to their music as well as their politics. It's not an obvious journey that they've taken from punk-pop in the 1980s to the a cappella folk performance they gave tonight at the Barbican (notwithstanding a glorious version of the Clash's Bank Robber), but it's an English journey, and in the process they're renewing the country's culture, making it a better place to live.

I can't think of anything released in the 1990s to match the joyous pop of 1994's Anarchy album — another great title, unusual cover. Britpop didn't have such good tunes or (with the possible exception of Pulp) the same wit. Madonna and the big pop names cannot better the arrangements or harmonies. Belle and Sebastian don't have the same energy. And Chumbawamba are savvy enough to borrow from rap, doo-wop, or use a string section, without ever being gauche or sounding forced.

All this, and they're still able to find plenty of critic soundbites to use in their Well Done, Now Sod Off! documentary, saying things like "they make appalling music" and "they've inflicted aural torture on the innocent listening public" — ha! That's another thing that could only happen in England: Chumbawamba have only been going for twenty years; maybe when they've notched up forty — like, say, Martin Carthy — people will start to realise that they are a national treasure.

When the band took the creative left turn from brassy sassy pop to championing and emulating the English folk tradition embodied by the likes of Carthy, that really did it for me. The CD booklet for last year's Readymades cites Dadaists from Duchamp to Tzara and Richter but the objets trouvés are samples of traditional folk music, around which they weave new songs, and the notes say "We recommend in particular listening to anything by Dick Gaughan, Coope Boyes & Simpson [who joined them on stage for one song tonight], Kate Rusby and the late Lal Waterson." The album is an eccentric but sublime new direction. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, the samples that were online at the original Readymades site are not working.

An inspired but maverick shift in a band's work is often a sign of a prima donna leader at work, but Chumbawamba appear still to be walking the anarchist collective talk. Whereas Alice Nutter and Danbert Nobacon are the usual front-people in a Chumba gig, they were absent tonight, and Boff and Jude took turns introducing the songs.

Like the side that fellow punk anarchists Crass showed with their Romantic Acts of Love album, Chumbawamba are committed to a revolution that has love and joy in its heart. Another thing I treasure in England is the surprising range of places where the establishment and the dangerous ideas of radical traditions co-exist, sometimes rubbing up against each other, sometimes embracing. Many folk songs dramatise this co-existence, usually in rural settings. But it happens in the centuries-old institutions of the City as well, and I'd like to think that Chumbawamba were, like me, relishing this tension as they performed in the Corporation of London's premier arts venue. They did what they wanted to do at the Barbican and they enjoyed themselves. They didn't sneer at the setting and the occasion — though they acknowledged it was harder for the audience to sing along than it would be in a folk club — in the way that the Levellers, who followed them on tonight's bill, did.

I haven't seen Chumbawamba as often as I should have, but if you ever get the chance, whether in a cappella folk form or as full band with the costume changes, brass section and full works, please go, and see if you can imagine anywhere else in the world where this could happen.

Here's Wikipedia's profile and history of Chumbawamba.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Cultural Calendar, Reviews on 19 September 02003 | TrackBack