“WE WALKED around for a while before we could find someone to tell us where the gig was. We went up these endless dark steps up to a massive hall with lots of people with funny hairstyles, selling ace fanzines called Kill Your Pet Puppy, while other people with green and red dreadlocks smoked sweet-smelling ciggies. We sat in front of the stage and read some fanzines.
The Passion Killers came on and did a lot of songs and I liked them all. There were three of them and the drummer was very good. They went off and I went to the toilet.
When I came back, D&V were on and by now the hall was filling up with girls with fluffy pink hair and studded leather jackets with ‘The Destructors’ painted on the back. There were lots of other people as well but I didn’t really notice them. Anyway, D&V were ace. They did the stuff off their Crass record and most people seemed to like them.
Zillions of people came onstage and started to put a washing line up on stage. A bloke started sweeping up in the middle of the audience. Chumbawamba’s set was very theatrical, with people swapping instruments, chalking stuff on the floor, and splashing red paint over Action Men and themselves. Some of the songs were slow, gentle ballads, I suppose, and others were like wall of noise aaaaargh-type things. I liked it…”
The first time I saw Chumbawamba live, at the Coop Hall in Doncaster, was sometime towards the end of 1983, when the local CND organiser filled a transit van with Scunthorpe’s more discerning punk rockers and travelled down the A18 to see what would turn out to be the last gig by the Mob (well, until Kate Moss married Jamie Hince, but that’s another story). Benjamin Zephaniah was on last. Inevitably, I reviewed the gig for my fanzine.
We booked the Chumbas and the Passion Killers for a big CND benefit at the Baths a few months later, which was a resounding success – and which, thanks to the generosity of that same CND organiser, paid for the print run on my first fanzine (a grand total of 40 quid). That night, at the Baths I did the first of many, many interviews with Chumbawamba. I remember them being slightly outraged by my description of their lovingly-rehearsed onstage theatrical moments as being “a bit ham fisted” (like I knew the difference).
I’m pretty sure this is that interview, but in my zine it’s just attributed to Midge (who ended up leaving the band a year or so later), and I remember talking to them all. I’ve no idea. It was 30-odd years ago. You’re lucky I can even remember my own name.
It’s followed up by another interview from about a couple of years later, just after they’d brought out a debut album railing against the injustice and hypocrisy of Live Aid, Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records. Where I’d once managed to preserve some kind of ‘semi-professional’ scepticism, by this time I’d fallen for what they had to say hook, line and sinker. As a result, it’s not actually very good, but it has a certain resonance at the present moment in time. Sort of.
* * *
CHUMBAWAMBA are Anne, Boffo, Dan, Dunst, Midge, Lou and Daz. You can get in touch with them through their secretary at the offices of their OFFICIAL fan club at Southview House, 60 Carr Crofts, Leeds LS12 3HB. You can also buy loads of sweatshirts and posters and badges from here, as well as they usual tapes. Midge answered the questions …
Although your ‘commune’ lifestyle works for you, surely you can’t hope that everyone adopts it?
“Well, we could hope for that, but it’s obviously not very realistic. But I would expect that more people could get into it, especially the people who are into the same things as us. Obviously, if you’re someone who believes in love and respect and anarchism etc, then, in theory, you should be able to live with like-minded people.
“Where this theory breaks down is when you try to hold onto the same values of possession and property that you get in most living situations, having individual food and money etc. The only reason our lifestyle works is because we’ve rejected all that. I think shared money is the basis of communal living, or at least not being a bit possessive about money.
“But then, that only works if you can all trust each other, which means you have to have the right people living together. Obviously, if you have a house full of fair, reasonable people and only one person goes out and spends £20 a week on drugs then communal money won’t work.
“The reason I put so much emphasis on sharing money is that until I personally did it, I never thought it could work – I just couldn’t help thinking, I might get ripped off – but once you do it, you lose all that, it seems absurd.
“So what I’m saying is, communal living is workable if everyone involved is fair about it. But I think more people are learning to be that way. We don’t preach to anyone about it, but at least we’re setting an example.”
Why have you concentrated on releasing tapes rather than records?
“Probably one of the main reasons is that by putting music out on tapes, we can be completely independent and self sufficient, so to speak, and that’s a good feeling for us. We wouldn’t want to sign to a conventional record label, as most are involved in some kind of oppression in one way or another.
“There’s only one or two sound record labels, from our point of view, and even then we’re not the kind of people to push ourselves, so we haven’t been going round knocking on doors saying, please give us a record.”
Do you think you’re actually getting through to people? Or do they listen to you and not really understand?
“I’m fairly sure that most people listen to us and understand what we say. The only stumbling block is that people don’t necessarily agree.”
Did you make a conscious effort to make your music more accessible than the usual punk rock three-chord thrash?
“Yes, we did. To a certain extent, it comes naturally – we wouldn’t really play three-chord thrash because none of us like it that much. I mean, some of us do like listening to it, but it does get boring. I think we all agree on that. Mind you, I shouldn’t really speak for the others as I don’t know for sure.
“I couldn’t be in a band playing that all the time. It’d be alright for a couple of songs, but I like playing nice, subtle, tuneful music. I think, with a lot of bands, there’s a temptation to get faster and faster and louder and louder, it’s just very easy to play that way. You’ve got to have a bit of self restraint.
“There came a point where I thought it might feel good to bash about as much as I can and do really flashy drum rolls but maybe that is not what sounds best. Now, I try to be subtle and not over do things. And then we all decide what each other plays so that we’re not just concerned with our own particular instrument – that way, you’ve got more idea what the overall sound is like.”
Even so, don’t you think you’re playing to a very limited audience?
“A limited audience, maybe. There are a couple of factors on which we decide to play gigs – we won’t play if it’s a lot of money to get in and people are getting ripped off, or if there are bouncers on the door. And we prefer to play in places with no bar so everybody can get in. We don’t like playing for entertainment only, like in cabaret situations where the band is there to get pissed to and you turn your back on them.
“And we’d rather it was a benefit for a good cause rather than just a gig. So all this limits where we play. But even so, taking all this into account, we do play to quite a diverse audience, because we do a lot of gigs and we haven’t got to the stage where most people at the gig have seen us before.”
Is there a limit of non-cooperation with ‘the system’?
“Of course there is – you’ve got to toe the line somewhere. We all recognise that you can’t get away from the system altogether, unless you die, which is fairly useless. In my opinion, you draw the line where you think it causes least suffering and most good. Like, none of us would ever get a job in a bank, or have any respect for the law as a set of rules, but we still play at the Baths Hall, which is presumably owned by the council.
“I think you’ve got to be careful not to cut yourself off from ordinary people, because even if their views differ from yours, they’re the people who make up the majority of the population, and so that’s where the capacity for change lies. You can’t say ‘fuck the system’ all the time, because no one listens to you. There’s a lot more thinking involved, like thinking carefully about whether what you’re doing is causing suffering somewhere, and looking for a better alternative.”
Isn’t there a contradiction in trying to live outside the system and still accepting its dole money?
“No, not at all. If the government were nice, maybe I’d think that, but they’re bastards so I don’t mind. If I could get more money out of them, I would. There’s certainly no pride involved – which is what stops a lot of people claiming dole. If they hadn’t created such a crappy system, where you need money to live, then we’d probably be able to grow our own food and feed ourselves.
“It happens that they’ve built a society where you’ve no way of being in touch with the means of production. The money they give us belongs to us anyway, it represents our share of the wealth of the earth, which we were born onto, which belongs to us. To me, it’s a contradiction saying you shouldn’t want to take money off the government. If you don’t like the government, you should want to take their money off them, so they can’t spend it on their dirty projects.”
Despite your feelings on the subject, won’t your average listener be more worried about getting a job than, say, Nestle’s profiteering killing kids in the third world?
“Unfortunately, a lot of people probably do get their priorities wrong like this – although maybe your average Chumbawamba-type listener is more sussed out. The problem is that if people aren’t actually confronted with these injustices, they won’t think about them, because it’s easy to push things out of your mind, especially when something happens in a different country. It’s hard to be emotional about it.
“But, at least in this case, people can boycott Nestle, and write in and tell them why – even though they say they’ve suspended all their third world activities due to all the pressure. Which proves that ordinary people can have an effect on multinationals.”
Why did you decide to incorporate theatre into what you do live?
“At first I think we were just concerned with being different, but then we realised that it helped people to understand what we were about, and also it would keep them interested and less inclined to wander off. We don’t go for theatre if it’s too complicated or difficult to understand or cryptic. What we do is about simplifying, elaborating on what we sing about.”
Of all the issues you write songs about, what is most important?
“That’s a difficult question. What it all boils down to .. There’s only one issue, really. We should try to live our lives without causing suffering, having consideration and respect for each other, for animals, and for our environment. All our problems – war, sexism, violence, prejudice, racism, selfishness, animal exploitation – all of them would be solved if people had more consideration and respect, if they stopped being selfish.”
* * *
Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records is the title of the first album by Chumbawamba. It isn’t part of a promotional package of single/tour/album, just the opposite in fact. It’s a sustained and powerful attack on the link between the whole way of life we enjoy in the west and ‘third world’ deprivation and hunger.
The rock and roll industry isn’t exempt from this. In some ways, it’s even more sickening than the obvious evils of arms dealing and so on, because it pretends to be concerned. Watching the most sick, perverted and decadent specimens of western debauchery prance about on Live Aid would have been funny if it wasn’t so ghastly.
These rock stars claimed it was all about ‘feeding the world’ when it was their whole way of life that starved the world in the first place. They’re the epitome of the well-fed glamour paradise that we’ve created for ourselves at countries like Ethiopia’s expense. If someone beat you up in the street and then put a plaster on your finger, and was proclaimed a hero in the papers and on the television, you’d feel a bit pissed off, wouldn’t you?
“Live Aid made compassion a hit” – Bob Geldof
And it wasn’t too bad for Queen’s sales either, eh Freddie? Question: By how many percent did Queen’s sales increase after Live Aid? Answer: Probably about the same number of times that Queen have played in Sun City.
“Bit of a hot potato at the moment, South Africa, eh Freddie? Still, I’m sure there’s a video in there somewhere.”
Boffo: “It’s really dangerous to say, “Oh Live Aid is crap, I think we’ve done loads more’, because people will think, whoever is saying this obviously doesn’t give a shit about starving people – when in fact, I think it’s because of Live Aid that people are starving.”
“This is what the Geldofs of this world think: Rock n roll is bad, it’s lost its heart, so we’ll find it again by sending Ethiopia loads of cash. But to do it, they’ve used all the old rock n roll processes, which defeats the object. It’s the glitzy glamour multi-national western lifestyle which has created the problem, and they’ve never questioned that, in fact they’ve used that to raise money.”
A lot of people will see Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records simply as an attack on Live Aid and that holy of holies Bob Geldof, but that’s taking an extremely simplified view. It’s an attack on hunger. Geldof is a well-meaning dupe. Live Aid wasn’t a symptom, and it certainly wasn’t a cure. It was the disease itself.
I’m sure all readers of a left-wing persuasion are rubbing their hands together with glee, thinking: they’re against multi-nationals, they’re against apartheid, they’re probably against the Tories too.
But Chumbawamba are anarchists. Yes, I know it’s silly to try to sum up a group of people’s entire worldview in one word, but it’ll do for now.
“And the cycle of hungry children will keep on going round … will keep on going round … will keep on going round … until we burn the House of Commons to the ground.”
Anne: “I wouldn’t vote Labour because of their defence policy. I have had times when I thought I might, even though I know that the Labour party are a load of absolute wankers, but I think that phase has passed in my life now. I used to think, well, Thatcher’s so dangerous, we must get rid of her and then we can start again with Kinnock. But what are we going to do after that? Try to get somebody else in after Kinnock?”
Dan: “Well, Labour say they’re going to get rid of American bases with nuclear missiles in them, and they’re going to get rid of nuclear power but they’ve already started backtreading on that, saying it’ll take decades to phase them out. If Neil Kinnock was prime minister, I just don’t think he’s have the power to do that. There are too many vested interests above parliament.”
Anne: “He’s such a wet bastard anyway.”
Boffo: “Yes, but having said that, you’re justifying not voting Labour because of what they may or may not do when they’re in power. Really, it should be a question of supporting the same system, supporting a party that uses the same processes that exist today.”
Anne: “The way I feel about the Labour party, it’s not just a case of them being the lesser of two evils, they’re a set of wimps who still get their orders from above, certainly not from the working classes.”
Dan: “And if someone like the Ecology party ever did get into power, they’d be as wet as Labour or they wouldn’t be there in the first place.”
Boffo: “I think it’s a real red herring to see politics in terms of conservatism on the right, socialism on the left, and us sort of even further left. It’s all one process, left or right. Derek Hatton and Tony Benn are just as much a part of it as Thatcher and Tebbitt.”
The trouble with many bands who try to articulate political ideas in their songs is that they often come across as a bit joyless and puritanical – something which Chumbawamba have been accused of a few times. They admit it’s a bit of a problem.
Anne: “There is humour there, it might be dry, but it is there. We use humour on stage but people don’t notice it because we use it with straight faces. You can’t wet your knickers laughing when you’re talking about starvation, can you?”
Some of the funniest – and most effective – stunts Chumbawamba have pulled have involved them infiltrating opposing movements and organisations – and taking the piss. When Oi was in its drunken heyday, they sent a tape of a song to Secret Records, who put it out on a four-band EP. The track solely consisted of skunk rock thrash with the words “I’m thick!” repeated over and over again.
They also highlighted the aggressive working class machismo of the Class War organisation when they sent in photos of some Leeds ‘comrades’ pelting some “rich bastards” with shit-filled condoms. Class War printed the photos with a message of congratulation to the two ‘street heroes’.
That’d be great on a national scale, I tell them. Maybe something taking advantage of the Sun’s jingoism, or the NME’s elitism?
Boffo: “It’s a good point but I think we’re really good at what we do. Small asides, which is like us sniping at things rather than concentrating on them. If we did that, we might get bogged down and lose what we’re actually good at.”
Do you have any plans for other scams?
They tell me their hush-hush ultra secret plan to record a song for the Social Democratic Party under the guise of a band named the Middle.
Boffo: “We’re doing this thing with the SDP, but I can’t really say what it is. It’s going to be a really goods laugh anyway.”
Chumbawamba are not your average rock n roll band, but they do reside in a rambling old hippy commune-style house almost in the shadow of Armley jail in west Leeds.
“We all moved to live in this house, we all come from either Burnley or Barnsley”.
The ages of the six people in the band range from 19 to “thirty-odd”, (“you make your own decision about Dan’s age”) and they’re all involved for various reasons: “It’s a creative and enjoyable way of living … I just really like playing drums … I want total control over the world.”
They’re one of the most inspiring bands in Britain today.
[Originally published in Primitive Patriot and Fun & Games fanzine, sometime in 1983 and 1985. Chumbas live photo by Graham Burnett]
For all your Chumbawamba needs