Had Leeds’ most famous knock-down-able (but get-up-able) anarchists been around in the early 1980s instead of today, my guess is that Chumbawamba would’ve played some kind of ill-informed, untutored guitar thrash over which to scream anti-establishment lyrics, rather than singing them (often in four-part harmony) over simplistic dancefloor beats. If that were the case, my bet is that the same critics who despise the band’s populist pop would adore its post-Crass crash-rock. In the ‘80s, groups like Crass, Flux of Pink Indians, and Kukl influenced a myriad of artists—both contemporary and to come—into mixing politics with art-rock, multi-media presentation, and a general anti-Thatcherite/anti-yobbo attitude. In fact, if Chumbawamba had been around back then, I bet they would’ve even participated in that music world’s campaign to aid the massive UK miner’s strike in 1984-85, perhaps the single greatest movement (and most significant historical failure) in British punk music’s short history. Yeah, they would’ve been on the rock-band picket lines with The Ex, Mekons, Gang of Four, and loads of other acts that those Chumba-hating critics adore.
Wait—what’s that you’re saying? Chumbawamba was a Crass-influenced poli-punk band in the early ‘80s? And rather than while away the years in obscure anarcho-stasis, the group has modified its music while sticking to its political-message guns and pop-dadaist style? Huh. (Next you’ll tell me that, along with Leeds-based alumni like Mekons and the brilliant-yet-obscure Redskins, they really were out there for the miners.) Well, that makes sense, I guess, because—synths, samplers and drum machines and all—the Chumbies have always essentially been a folk group. And just as they realized that punk was the folk music of ‘80s Britain, they realized in 1990 (around the time of Slap!) that acid house’s sample-heavy everyman rebellion was the real deal, and hastily incorporated it into their already pop-worthy songwriting. Like the contemporaries mentioned above, the Chumbies have moved on gracefully in their music, and not budged an inch in their uncompromising artistry. (The singer from Crass Records punks Kukl, for example, made it big being weird when she dropped her last name to become just “Bjork”.)
Now, more so even than on its a cappella collection of English Rebel Songs, Chumbawamba delves into the more traditional “folk” music of the British Isles in a manner that not only pays tribute to it, but places traditional music in a contemporary setting that reinforces its power. The group samples from icons such as Irish sean nos master Joe Heany, Scottish poet Jock Purdon and rebel folkie Dick Gaughan, and English traditional singers Belle Stewart and the legendary Harry Cox, whose line from “The Pretty Ploughboy” (“And they sent him to the war / to be slain, to be slain”) is Readymades’ most powerful moment. In doing so, the Chumbies have written a new character for their own constant development: that of sort of rural crate diggers, matching themselves up with folk like the centuries-old Copper Family of singers and brilliant ‘60s icons the Watersons, and contemporaries such as Kate Rusby. In doing so, Chumbawamba’s become the white, rural, English equivalent of, say, Madlib’s jazz hip-hop remixing work.
Chumbawamba’s experiments haven’t always worked, the obvious example being the band’s most successful effort, the Tubthumper album, which was, at times, pop to an extreme that even the most generous fans couldn’t quite bear. But punk—and, for that matter, folk—has never been about “talent” per se, but taste, something Chumbawamba has buckets full of. With Readymades and Then Some Chumbawamba has made its best record since 1994’s Anarchy, and it’s largely down to two matters of that taste: The band’s ever-broadening taste in quality music, and its ability to disseminate political messages in tastefully subtle ways. So, rather than scream about Bush and Blair, it sings about common sailors dying by Churchill’s decision in “Jacob’s Ladder.” And rather than a black-and-tans pub stormer about Parliament screwing over Ireland, or a save-the-starving-children speech, Chumbawamba offers Shelley set to music, simply—and rather beautifully—implying the 1845 famine. The music is still the Chumbies’ mongrel electro-Brit-pop—they’re a bit stuck in 1993 on the music-technology front—but the songs are more beautiful and subtle than the electro-funky-drummer rhythms might suggest.
For those not schooled in Chumbawamba’s crusty past, Readymades includes a DVD disc containing portions of Well Done, Now Sod Off, a documentary film about the band including footage from early gigs (including those bloody miner’s fund raisers) and the participants less-than-desirable early ‘80s squat. These are not people who jumped onto the politics bandwagon because the Criminal Justice Bill was selling records—listen to those broad Yorkshire accents, and look at those dodgy hairstyles, and try to tell me it’s about money.
Chumbawamba is a band that’s learned to live—even to thrive—with its legion of music-crit detractors. Likewise, it’s a band that has earned to live with its own shortcomings (technical skill) and thrive on its strengths (onstage theatrics, audience communication, taste). So while perhaps these po-mo folkies and unrepentant punk-populists will be panned by the dozens, they’ll continue to be adored by the thousands. And when some kind of tiny revolution’s your goal, that seems like a fair trade.