"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 10 March 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Tuning Fork


[the cat slept the whole night curled up at my back with his feet on my back and his tail just slightly under me.

"An anarchist pop group made up

of squatters and punk rockers

has committed the ultimate

sellout by reaching number two

in the UK charts. To their

bemusement the members of

Chumbawamba, which opposes the

commercialization of rock music

... have become overnight


- "Pop Goes Anarchy as

Band Cashes In," Carol Midgley,

The New York Times, 19 August



Last year's best record was a

career retrospective by the most

obscure band in the universe.

The songs on Royal Trux's

Singles, Live, Unreleased (Drag

City) combine limitless

possibility, instant dirty

pleasure, and total confusion.

The liner notes suggest a

concomitant politics: "Write off

immediately the temporal

materialism of the political and

search for the horizon. Our

records rest there for an

indeterminate need." Whether or

not the music on Singles is the

rock of the future, it's got the

potential to mean new things.

But if you're impatient to know

what it means right now, you're

shit out of luck. Stripped and

rebuilt according to rules that

might only apply in dreams,

Trux's drifting, stumbling,

gossamer rock is the furthest

thing from propaganda you could

imagine. So what does overtly

political rock sound like?


[in the morning he'll wake up with me but not move, as i can look right into his eyes at lower pillow level.  

As you might expect, it sounds a

hell of a lot like Roxette.


Chumbawamba's approach to music

is both deliberate and a good

deal smarter and more inspired

than you'd expect from a band

that played on a record called

Smash Fascism! (a "seven-song

attack on fascism"). Indeed,

when it comes to artistic

property and theft, the group

resembles Puff Daddy packing

theory rather than excuses: "You

see someone walking down the

street with something you like,

you want to buy it. So you do,

if you have money and find the

right shop. There is no

uniqueness when it comes to

clothes, even when it comes to

haute couture. So why can't it

be the same way about riffs?"

The idea of pure originality in

visual or literary art is tied

up with a cult of the isolated,

unique genius whose basic

function today is to sell big

sculptures to office lobbies.

But when it comes to something

like Royal Trux's early,

monumental Twin Infinitives,

that seriously threatens

rhythmic or lyrical structure,

people (like me when I first

heard it) may run screaming.

We'd rather have familiar stolen

riffs with just the owner's name

and serial numbers rubbed off to

ease our conscience.


[some people think we have a sick relationship.  it's just cozy.

And we'd rather it fucking

rocked - right away, with no

excuses or distractions. This is

precisely where Tubthumper,


Chumbawamba's platinum album,

seems to get into trouble.

Though the politics bleed

through the music as intensely

as ever (from a song about being

sold out by union leaders to an

evocation of the homosexual as

outsider - and the outsider as

homosexual - via Bronski Beat's

"Smalltown Boy"), anything this

smooth and exuberant works as an

advertisement for anything it's

placed next to. That's why, as

MTV notes, "Chumbawamba has

previously authorized the use of

their song for an Italian car

commercial and stateside

'Tubthumping' has appeared in

the trailer for Home Alone 3 and

on such television shows as

Beverly Hills 90210, Veronica's

Closet, and for the upcoming

winter X Games."


That's why it was both overkill

and turnabout as fair play to

actually go to the trouble of

rewriting the lyrics to

"Tubthumping," as some US Army

hacks did recently. Chumbawamba,

which has made a career out of

repurposing pop to nobler

purposes, seems to have been

trumped at its own game, sold

out by the very compelling

slickness of its own music,

repurposed as propaganda for

Gulf War II: Electric Boogaloo.


"Saddambombing (The Iraq Song)"

We should kill 'em
Would be thrillin'
Just to kill 'em

Let's hunt him down
And shoot 'em in the head
Let's beat the crap out of Saddam
Let's hunt him down
And shoot 'em in the head
And bomb Iraq to the ground

Don't screw with the USA
Don't screw with the USA

Now if he does attack
We're gonna drop a stack
Of missiles on Iraq
And get 'em off our back
And if he won't let us look for all his nerve gas
The US Army is gonna kick 'em in the ass

We should destroy
Should destroy
That Iraqi boy

Let's hunt him down
And shoot 'em in the head
Let's beat the crap out of Saddam
Let's hunt him down
And shoot him in the head
And bomb Iraq to the ground


But is it defeat when your

opponents change your words but

sing your song? That depends on

what kind of game you're



Veterans of this particular game

will know that as a parody,

"Saddambombing" is dependent on

the listener's recognition -

"Oh, that's funny, it sounds

exactly like that other song."

This parasitical play on what

the listener already knows can

turn out different ways: We

remember (or forget) that

"Yankee Doodle Dandy" is a

cannibalized British army tune.

The mere idea of a parody can

float free from how a specific

parody, as song, is disseminated

over time and received.

Chumbawamba brilliantly

exploited this when it proved to

the Prodigy's Keith Flint that

words do matter in music. After

Flint blew off his

responsibility for titling a

song "Smack My Bitch Up,"

Chumbawamba simply claimed to

have recorded a satire called

"Smack My Keith Up," prompting

heated verbal retaliation from

Flint. Recorded or only

imagined, once someone's heard

them, they may not be mere words

anymore; the outcome is up for

grabs each time, dependent on

context and listener response.


[the next night i woke to feel a paw on my nose, patting it over and over again.  i told him to fuck off.

And if Desert Thunder turns out

to be a wash, and the troops

come home? "Saddambombing" will

start to suck even as a novelty

tune. The battle Chumbawamba has

entered, to "reclaim pop - to

reinforce the meaning of what is

sung" is pitched, fought on

shifting terrain against diffuse

forces. The English press has

been implacably hostile to the

group for 15 years, and MTV's

bemused, mocking coverage

reminds us that our media tends

to view people of any political

stripe other than Business

Democrat with distrust. And it's

over MTV's channels and a

million stereos that the

question of what "Tubthumping"

will mean is being contested as

you read this. The notion of a

political act dependent on

stimulating the imaginations of

10-year-olds, mall shoppers,

yuppies, and old punks all at

once is both dismaying and

tantalizing. Oddly enough, this

brings us back to Royal Trux,

for whom "the possibility of a

relationship between a

misreading and an obsession is

foremost in our work." In

opposite ways, these records

conjure the forces of misreading

and obsession and raise the

stakes for both.

courtesy of Seth Sanders