Chumbawamba. Yeah, that’s right – the “Tubthumping” band. The group responsible for one of the most obnoxious guilty-pleasure, one-hit-wonder singles in pop music history. “Tubthumping” was maddeningly ubiquitous in 1997. The irony of the song’s massive success was never lost on the band that wrote it from a radical perspective. Fans still debate whether the song is about the drudgery of wage slavery interrupted by weekend bouts of drinking or the Irish Troubles. The contextualizing liner notes were removed from the U.S. release of Tubthumper, but make no mistake: Chumbawamba is an anarchist, radical band.
If you would be so kind as to direct your attention to the release date of Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records, you will notice that it appeared a full 11 years before Tubthumper. Released on CD in the early 1990s as half of the compilation First 2 LP’s (along with the follow-up, the equally vitriolic Never Mind the Ballots), and originally on vinyl in 1986, Pictures is Chumbawamba’s savagely biting debut full-length. The album is a critique of the perceived hypocrisy of the ultra-hyped Live Aid festival, Live 8’s predecessor.
Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records begins with the sprawling “How to Get Your Band on Television.” It’s a sort of manifesto, attacking the “fashion for charity, not change” mentality. The track builds slowly, beginning with a character introduced as “the boss of the company” explaining the “economics of supply and demand.” After a few samples of old pop music and opening beer cans, the 8-minute track launches into its second part, a dramatized variety show on which the major pop stars of the time are called out by name, one by one, for complicity. Musically, it shifts from driving game-show music to slow, mournful acoustic guitar.
And it only gets better. “British Colonialism & The BBC” is an indictment of sensationalistic news coverage, backed by hand drums and a groovy bass line. The track itself is deceptively chilled-out, given the subject matter. “Unilever,” with its sharp snare hits and smooth distortion, gives some indication of the band’s future as (temporarily) an electropop band, but also, through speed and descending bass riff, manages to be one of the punkiest tracks on the record. “More Whitewashing” is catchy, quiet-loud pop rock with a Fat Wreck Chords-worthy final blast. “Dutiful Servants and Political Masters” opens as a calm, sarcastic narrative, but ends with one of the band’s few forays into true hardcore, with vocalists Alice Nutter and Danbert Nobacon screaming breathlessly over each other. The album ends with “Invasion,” a pounding, acidic rant against colonialism and capitalism, with a laid-back, reggae-style interlude and final call to action.
Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records has aged amazingly well, and has far more to offer present-day listeners than the inevitable “Holy shit, this is who, again?” response. At the peak of fashionable punk – not to mention Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as British prime minister – Chumbawamba managed to put together a record with an undeniably punkish DIY ethic and uncompromising politics while pushing themselves forward musically. I’m not sure if the album’s still-current sound is due to Chumbawamba’s talent or to the stagnancy of the punk-rock genre, but either way, it works.
The band avoids the repetition of unrestrained, vague rage that plagues a lot of political punk, opting instead to embrace catchy pop hooks and tongue-in-cheek irony. Take “Commercial Break” for example. The song is a spoken-word, almost nursery rhyme-style track that’s an obvious predecessor to Propagandhi’s “A Public Dis-Service Announcement from Shell” – but it’s a decade older. The album’s genre-bending progression and little bits of borrowed sound – samples of songs, commercials and Nobacon vomiting wetly – give Pictures a collage feel. It’s the musical equivalent of a CrimethInc. flyer.
So what happened to Chumbawamba after “Tubthumping” launched them to international fame? Frankly, not a lot. They continue to make music and experiment with various genres, having released the beats-heavy Un in 2004 and the folk-inflected A Singsong and A Scrap on their own label in 2006. And after 25 years, they’re still one of the most politically radical groups in rock, whether you know it or not.