The last instalment of a series about socialist musicians. Part 1 is about the 60s and Part 2 is about the 70s. In this blog post, we’ll be looking at a few punk musicians, but mostly more indie music.
Founder, vocalist, songwriter, and guitarist of XTC and The Dukes of Stratosphear. He was born Andrew Partridge in Malta to English parents and grew up on a council estate in Swindon, a large town in Wiltshire, equidistant from Bristol and Reading. His father was in the Navy and his mother was a shop assistant. As a teenager, his parents split up after his mum found out that her husband was cheating on her. She had a nervous breakdown that was so bad she had to be institutionalised. Being a teenager during the 60s, Andy got into the popular music of the time: The Beatles, The Monkees, Pink Floyd, as well as many other bands. Because of The Monkees, he wanted to start a band and learn to play guitar and so he taught himself to play guitar and started writing songs. By the early 70s, he worked at a record store, started his own bands, and got into heavier music and glam rock. In 1972, he formed the band that would become XTC with bassist Colin Moulding and drummer Terry Chambers. The first iteration of the band were called Star Park. In 1973, they opened for Thin Lizzy. After that gig, they changed their name to Helium Kidz, but that wasn’t quite the right name. One name suggested was The Dukes of Stratosphear, but Andy didn’t like it because it was too psychedelic and flowery, and so XTC was chosen because it sounded like ecstasy and looked cool written out like that.
In 1977, XTC recorded their debut album, White Music, and released it in January 1978. No singles from it charted, but it got really good reviews from the music press. The group wanted Brian Eno to produce their second album because they found out he was a fan, but Eno rejected the offer, saying they were good enough to produce themselves. Andy Partridge ended up writing “Battery Brides (Andy Paints Brian)” as a tribute to Brian Eno. This song was on their sophomore album, Go 2.
The band’s third album, Drums & Wires was their breakthrough, with their first top 20 hit “Making Plans For Nigel”, a Colin Moulding composition. This song has a working class theme (maybe even relatable to children of immigrants), with it being about parents making plans for their child’s life and being helicopter parents and the child being assumed to be happy, but we never hear from his perspective – maybe it’s one of those cases where people hide the truth: we only see the highlight reels, especially in social media. Nigel works for British Steel, a company that was nationalised in the 60s under Wilson; undermined for 20 years with low efficiency, lack of funds, and outdated equipment, and then privatised under Thatcher in the 80s. Sounds like a familiar Tory tactic: let’s take nationalised industries, screw them over, and then sell them off to our cronies. On the same album, “Day In Day Out” is about the realities of 9-5 life and living for the weekend with the chorus going “Friday is heaven”. The Andy Partridge composition “Reel By Reel” is 1984 inspired and about the surveillance state and lack of privacy, even more of a problem today than it was then, thanks technology! Here’s some of the lyrics:
“In this secret time of invading on our privacy– XTC
Unknowing, we mime
We play for the ministry
They can film you in bed or when you take a bath
They can tape every cry, they can tape every laugh
They can turn you around so you won’t know what’s reel by reel”
On 1980’s Black Sea, you’ll find more political songs with class and anti-war themes like “Respectable Street”, “Generals and Majors”, “Living Through Another Cuba”, and “Paper and Iron (Notes and Coins)”.
The band’s most overtly political album is English Settlement, released in 1982. It’s considered one of the best rock albums of the 80s. If you want to hear an analysis of the album and its political themes, there is a whole episode of What Do You Call That Noise? The XTC Podcast dedicated to it. Andy Partridge later described this album as having a more pastoral, acoustic sound. He wanted to take the band in that direction because he found touring to be mentally exhausting. “Runaways” is about a child feeling the need to run away from home because of violence, “Ball and Chain” is about overdevelopment and preserving the countryside and a response to Thatcher’s policies, “No Thugs in Our House” has an anti-fascist and anti-racist theme, “Melt The Guns” is about gun control (leftists are pretty divided on this issue), “Leisure” is about the monotony of work, “Knuckle Down” is about racial equality, “Fly On The Wall” is about the lack of privacy in society, “Down in the Cockpit” is about feminism, and “English Roundabout” is about suburban life.
When asked about where he stood politically, Andy Partridge said:
“Originally, I didn’t want to know. As long as I could afford beer, I didn’t really care. Then just as I got interested in politics, Margaret Thatcher appeared on the horizon, so I voted for her purely because she was a woman. I was that naive. Now I’m very left.”– Andy Partridge
He is also an atheist who likes paganism. He said this about his religious views in 1999:
“I’m interested in the pre-Christian appreciation of the land and the spirit of things, spirits in animate things and inanimate things. I think it’s more of a natural wanting to believe in something natural and something tangible rather than Christianity, which I think is totally fake. Maybe well-meaning, but it’s held together by a terrible web of fibs and stealing other people’s good stories.”– Andy Partridge
Former lead singer/songwriter of punk band Dead Kennedys, San Francisco’s most famous punk band. He was born Eric Reed Boucher in Boulder, Colorado. His family were secular, but he later found out he was ⅛ Jewish. His mum was a librarian and his dad was a psychiatric social worker and poet. Growing up, he had an interest in politics thanks to his parents. Like many other boomers, one of his earliest memories was the JFK assassination – that was to boomers what 9/11 was to millennials, everyone remembers where they were when it happened. One day in 1965, his parents accidentally tuned into a rock radio station and he fell in love with rock and roll and knew that’s what he wanted to do with his life. He ignored his school counsellor’s advice to study and work a day job and followed his dreams. Before becoming a musician, he worked as a roadie for a punk band called The Ravers (later known as The Nails). In 1977, he moved to California to go to university and it wasn’t long until he joined a band. A guitarist known as East Bay Ray placed an advert looking for musicians to form a punk band and Eric responded to it and so Dead Kennedys were born and played their live debut show in the summer of 1978. Eric at first went by the stage name Occupant before settling on Jello Biafra. On the 15th anniversary of the JFK assassination the band played a show and their name landed them in the news and attracted protesters who found the band’s name to be tasteless and crass. The 70s was a very edgy, no chill time. Decades later, East Bay Ray conceded the name was tasteless, but he defended the band by saying that the assassinations were even more poor taste, that they respected the Kennedys, and added that the American Dream was killed when JFK and RFK were assassinated as well as Martin Luther King. He said, “Our name is actually homage to the American Dream.” In those days in San Francisco, the hippies became the authority figures and punk was a response to that and a rebellion. We always need fresh faces and new blood in music, that’s how music evolves and progresses. You can’t be a revolutionary and mainstream forever, eventually you become part of the establishment and mainstream.
The band’s best known songs are the diss track to Governor Jerry Brown “California über alles”, the anti-Khmer Rouge protest song “Holiday in Cambodia”, satire of the elite “Kill The Poor”, and anti-fascist “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”.
Jello Biafra has run for office multiple times: for mayor of San Francisco in 1979 – winning 3.79% of the vote in the first round (he lost to incumbent Dianne Feinstein, who is now a senator who frankly should have retired a long time ago) and in 2000 he ran for president in the Green Party primaries and lost to Ralph Nader – who he later supported. In 2016 and 2020, he endorsed both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
This Guardian article talks about his various positions on issues: he is anti-war, pro-free speech, pro-legalisation of drugs, critical of the police, believes in a maximum wage, supports government subsidies for musicians, and hates SUVs because they’re gas guzzling – here’s him spitting facts about the police:
“US cops are like a biker gang. They don’t obey the law and their main interest is in protecting their own power. Make all officers stand for election. That way they’d have to live in the neighbourhoods they patrol and meet people, rather than hiding in their cars and only jumping out when they want to beat the crap out of somebody.”– Jello Biafra
In more recent news, he made a video in his What Would Jello Do? series saying that America and the West created Putin and shares an anti-war and anti-capitalist message:
Gang of Four:
Post punk band formed by art school students in Leeds, England in the 70s named after the Maoist political faction during the Cultural Revolution made up of four CCP officials: Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen. Some of the band’s influences range from more academic and theory stuff like the Frankfurt School of social criticism and The Situationists to more “popular” stuff like the punk rock movement and Jean-Luc Godard films. The band’s debut album Entertainment! is considered one of the best punk albums by Rolling Stone. While the band never had any hits in their heyday, they were still influential to bands like R.E.M., The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Nirvana. Their best known song, “Damaged Goods” is from that album. Some themes on that album include anti-consumerism, anti-imperialism, criticism of the Great Man theory that claims that history is shaped by powerful individuals, the commodification of relationships, and anti-fascism. Definitely a band with thought provoking, academic lyrics. One example of their anti-establishment actions is they refused to change the word “rubbers” to “rubbish” when they were invited to perform “At Home He’s a Tourist” on Top of the Pops. Good on them for sticking to their principles, but it resulted in the band never achieving mainstream success, making it harder for their message to get out there.
This lyric from “Return The Gift” is very relevant today with the exploitative gig economy and zero hours contracts:
“It’s on the market. You’re on the price list. In the spring, who can say? Please send me evenings and weekends”– Gang of Four
These lyrics from “I Found That Essence Rare” sum up what crooked politicians think of the people they represent:
“The last thing they’ll ever do, act in your interest– Gang of Four
Look at the world through your Polaroid glasses
Things’ll look a whole lot better for the working classes”
Their song “Cheeseburger” pokes fun at American capitalism and the consumerist, workaholic lifestyle under that system:
“On the road and all alone. Sometimes I think money is my only goal. It makes me sad. Work on up another four miles. Coffee, fries, and a cheeseburger”– Gang of Four
You can even find some feminist messages in their music. In “A Hole in the Wallet”, Gang of Four criticises sexist attitudes in society:
“Makeup makes up for your nature
You’re for seeing and not for hearing
Their commands are in your interest
Why work for love if it shows no profit?– Gang of Four
You’ll only earn emotional losses
Wasting time’s a hole in the wallet”
Folk punk and protest singer-songwriter and activist. He was born Stephen William Bragg to a milliner father and his Italian wife. While he failed his 11-plus exam, he developed an interest in poetry after that and from there started writing poems and learnt to play guitar. His early influences were The Rolling Stones, Small Faces, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, The Impressions, Bob Dylan, and Simon & Garfunkel. He also is a fan of Phil Ochs. Later on, he was inspired by Elvis Costello, The Jam, and The Clash, who inspired him to be more political in his songwriting and music got him into politics in general. He went to the 1978 Rock Against Racism carnival, which he later said was his first foray into political activism, and was really inspired to use music to advocate for left wing ideals he believed in, but it took a while for him to get famous. He had to work various day jobs before the big break in the mid 80s. He even felt so disillusioned with the music industry and the slow burn that he joined the Army, but he left after three months of basic training. His best known songs are “A New England”, “Levi Stubbs’ Tears”, his cover of The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home”, and “Sexuality”. He also recorded versions of socialist classics like “The Internationale” and “The Red Flag”. He formed Red Wedge in the 80s and supported the Miners’ Strike. He came up with a term called “Socialism of the Heart”, which he coined after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He still releases music and tours to this day.
In his own words…
From his song “To Have and To Have Not” (honestly all the lyrics are amazing)
“At twenty one you’re on top of the scrapheap– Billy Bragg
At sixteen you were top of the class
All they taught you at school
Was how to be a good worker
The system has failed you, don’t fail yourself”
In his song “Accident Waiting To Happen”, he gives a nod to fellow leftist Ray Davies’ anti-consumerist “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” with the lyrics:
“There you are standing at the bar– Billy Bragg
And you’re giving me grief about the DDR
And that chip on your shoulder gets bigger as you get older
One of these night you’re gonna get caught
It’ll give you a pregnant pause for thought
You’re a dedicated swallower of fascism”
In 2022, Billy Bragg performed his pro-union song “There is Power in a Union” for Starbucks workers unionising in Buffalo, New York:
I particularly love these lyrics:
“There’s power in a factory, power in the land– Billy Bragg
Power in the hand of the worker
But it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand
There is power in a union”
“Now I long for the morning that they realise– Billy Bragg
Brutality and unjust laws cannot defeat us
But who’ll defend the workers who cannot organise
When the bosses send their lackeys out to cheat us?”
At a concert in 2012, he introduced the song with a message about how to reach out to the young working class and the importance of political organising and how politicians and political parties are out of touch with the voters:
“…Marxist model, that’s gone, that’s over. That was the 20th century. We’re past that. Young people are out on the streets, occupying the streets trying to make a new politics that is not tainted by totalitarianism. You’re not supposed to go down there and hand them Das Kapitals and say ‘This is how you do it mate’. Forget it! They’re not interested. They’re making the world new. And these are very exciting times. These are new politics and some of us who learnt about politics in the 20th century are going to have to adapt to how these new politics and how they work. But one thing I believe will remain true, whether it’s in Europe, in North America, wherever it is in the world where people want to change things, where people want to confront the kind of abuses that we’re seeing in the top of the tree now. Where people want to change the whole way society’s built. To make a situation where people are more important than markets. If people want to do that and people want to achieve that, there’s one absolute basic fundamental that has not changed and that is you got to organise. And my hunch is that the political parties will either be too slow or too in the pocket of big business to realise what’s happening.”– Billy Bragg
Billy Bragg likes The Clash because they weren’t all talk, here’s what he had to say about them in 2000:
“When I heard the Clash, it swept away all my dreams of playing in a stadium and replaced them with dreams of changing the world by playing very loud fast songs. We immediately cut our hair and threw away our flare trousers. Now I realise I was naive to think the Clash could change the world by singing about it. But it wasn’t so much their lyrics as what they stood for and the actions they took. That became really important to me. Phil Collins might write a song about the homeless, but if he doesn’t have the action to go with it he’s just exploiting that for a subject. I got that from the Clash, and I try to remain true to that tradition as best I can.”– Billy Bragg
On Socialism of the Heart and what it means to him:
“I’ve always believed that if socialism is not, at heart, a form of organised compassion, then it is really not worthy of the name. So I began to find ways of expressing the compassionate politics that I felt had to form the bedrock of our attempts to forge a new ideology that connected with people’s everyday experiences and socialism of the heart was the first term I came up with.”– Billy Bragg
On Thatcher, the coal miners’ strike, and how it made him a socialist, he told Democracy Now!:
“My parents’ generation and my grandparents’ generation fought very hard for a welfare state in my country in which the rights of the individual are underpinned by the collective provision of free healthcare, free education, decent affordable housing, proper pensions, and that was what we referred to in my country as the postwar consensus. Parties came and went, later the Conservative and Liberal, nobody changed that until Margaret Thatcher came along and she decided that it will be better to pay less taxes so she began to take apart the welfare state and that provision and the government owned the coal mines and although there was plenty of coal under our country, she began to close them down so they went on strike and really the strike became a defence of that welfare state, of those ideals of collective responsibility, collective provision. As a singer-songwriter, I grew up listening to Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie and The Clash, it seemed to me that my place was to be there on the picket line playing songs.”– Billy Bragg
The Flying Pickets:
An a capella vocal group best known for their cover of Yazoo’s “Only You” and who were popular around the time of the Miners’ Strike. They were formed by members of socialist fringe theatre group 7:84 in 1982. The lead vocalist was Welsh actor Brian Hibbard, who grew up in a working class socialist family in Ebbw Vale. He later went on to act in Coronation Street, EastEnders, and Emmerdale. The group had socialist views and their name refers to mobile strikers who travel to join a picket and they would perform benefit gigs for the miners. This activism came at a cost though and there were record stores that wouldn’t sell their music because of their politics. In 1989, the group wrote a musical theatre production about working life for the Theatre Royal Stratford in London. Oddly enough, Margaret Thatcher called their cover of “Only You” one of her favourite songs.
An ironic band name for a far left band, and yes they named themselves after one Joseph McCarthy as a joke. They picked it on purpose, referencing the anti-communist Joseph McCarthy, and it’s appropriate considering that a lot of their lyrics are satirical. The group were formed in Barking (now part of London) in 1984 by school friends Malcolm Eden, Tim Gane, John Williamson, and Gary Baker. They were fans of punk bands like The Clash, Buzzcocks, and Sex Pistols, and happened to go to the same school as Billy Bragg. Lyricist Malcolm Eden cited the election of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister as the reason he got into Marxism. Of that, he said this in a 2007 interview:
“She had a very forceful way of putting her arguments. Nobody in the opposition really had an answer to her. That’s why she kept winning elections in fact. To find a good answer to the Tories, you had to go to the root of the matter. That’s what got me interested in Marxism.”– Malcolm Eden
How did the other band members feel about politics, well, here’s Malcolm Eden’s answer to that:
“The other members were always very supportive. They agreed with the general tendency in my lyrics, I think. I had a few big arguments with Gary about politics. But generally we were all on the same wavelength.”– Malcolm Eden
The band released their first album I Am a Wallet in 1987. Malcolm Eden’s lyrics are sung in the point of view of a character and he doesn’t necessarily agree with the character’s views, as the lyrics are often written in a satirical way. If you’re a fan of bands like The Smiths and The Byrds, you’ll love their sound. If you’re a republican, you’ll love the song “Charles Windsor”, which is critical of the then prince, now king. I also like the anti-capitalist lyric “we’re all money’s fools” from “The Way of the World”. “Antinature” reminds me musically of The Byrds’ “I See You”. Atheists will love the song “God Made The Virus”.
Here’s a great quote from their psychedelic sounding song “I’m On The Side of Mankind As Much As The Next Man”:
“There comes a time when we must ask ourselves whether money or mankind are of better time. There comes a day when we must ask ourselves if the dollar or our fellow man comes first. Oh human life, we would like to value it, but if there’s no profit in it. What’s the point?”– McCarthy
The band broke up in 1990 because they felt they were at a plateau creatively and never reunited since. Tim Gane formed Stereolab with his wife Laetitia Sadier, Malcolm Eden formed Herzfeld and worked as a translator translating from French to English, John Williamson worked behind the scenes at various record labels, and Gary Baker left the music industry to work in radiography and later at The Guardian and possibly a book publisher. The band didn’t make very much at all money wise: no advances and the band members all signed on the dole. However, they did get some royalty cheques because the Manic Street Preachers covered some of their songs.
Leftist punk/soul band formed in York, England in 1982 during the Thatcher years. The band’s name means that they are Marxist skinheads with red being the colour of Marxism and skins referring to skinheads, nothing to do with the racist slur against Native Americans. Vocalist and guitarist Chris Dean and bassist Martin Hewes were both members of the Socialist Workers Party. As you can expect, the band’s debut single is “Lev Bronstein”, named after the birth name of Soviet revolutionary and politician Leon Trotsky. NME ranked their single “Lean On Me” as #6 on their list of top 10 tracks for 1983. The band only released one album Neither Washington, Nor Moscow in 1986. An article about them from the 80s describes the band as an uncompromising band with a flashy, forceful sound who don’t believe in mincing words.
In that same article there are some interesting quotes from Chris Dean about his philosophy as a musician who is very political. In short, he doesn’t think that popularity is necessarily selling out.
“If people aren’t listening to the music they certainly aren’t listening to the words. Take the Gang Of Four, ideologically they might have been perfect, but who the fuck was listening? ‘A Town Called Malice’, ‘Ghost Town’, ‘The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum’ – they were all great because they were popular and they had something to say. ‘Course, the easiest way to get a hit is to forget politics all together.”– Chris Dean
He continued with basically a message of don’t be a hipster:
“Cult bands are really criminal, a real waste. If a band’s got something to say they should use every platform they can rather than being deliberately inaccessible. I’d much rather our name be linked with The Jam, or Case, or JoBoxers – all those hard brassy bands. Who want’s to end up in a musical ghetto? What does that achieve?”– Chris Dean
Some inspiring leftist unity/solidarity lyrics from “Lean On Me” – a message that is needed especially in this day and age:
“The struggle’s hard and the struggle’s long. Lean on me and I’ll pull you through. We may argue right & wrong, but together we are strong. A flame that can’t be dimmed.”
The funky B-side, “Unionise” is another song with a great message about how it’s not enough to talk, you must organise if you want to see change. Here’s a quote about workers from that single – no lies detected:
“The bosses have the money and the workers have no rights. But our muscle is our labour and we flex it when we go on strike.”
There’s an interesting article about the group on Socialist Worker called “Struggling for soul-cialism”.
Indie rock band formed in Hull in the 80s that have Marxist and Christian views. Founders Paul Heaton and Stan Cullimore were a busking duo and they later decided to expand the lineup to make a full band. In 1986, they released their first album, London 0 Hull 4. The album had two hit singles: “Happy Hour” (#3 UK) and “Think For a Minute” (#18 UK), both of which have political themes. On the back of the album there’s a message that reads “Take Jesus – Take Marx – Take Hope”. Musically, the album has a jangle pop sound, which has some 60s influences. If you’re a fan of The Smiths, you’ll like their music, but Johnny Marr has accused them of ripping off their sound. The following year, they released their second and final album The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death.
Here are some of my favourite lyrics from their songs:
From “Flag Day”, a song that’s critical of charity:
“It’s a waste of time if you know what they mean / Try shaking your box in front of the Queen / ‘Cause her purse is fat and bursting at the seams / It’s a waste of time if you know what they mean”– The Housemartins
From “Sheep”, a song that expresses frustration at brainwashed voters voting against their best interests:
“Sometimes I get so angry with the simple life they lead / The shepherd’s smile seems to confirm my fears / And they’ve never questioned anything, never disagreed / Sometimes I think they must have wool in their ears”– The Housemartins
From “The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death”, a song critical of the monarchy:
“The people who grinned themselves to death– The Housemartins
Smiled so much, they failed to take a breath
And even when their kids were starving
They all thought the queen was charming”
Lead singer Paul Heaton got into politics because of the miners’ strike. Before that, he thought politics was just something middle class hippies got into, but in the 80s with the strike, he saw working class people rising up and women getting involved as well on the frontlines. Reflecting on that, he told The Mirror in 2014:
“I don’t want to hark back to those days for ever but we’ve lost something. Working people have less power. There are fewer working people in a Labour Party that was taken away from them by Tony Blair. It’s like these lights are going out in the House of Commons. Tony Benn’s gone. Dennis Skinner is one of a rare breed. I watch TV and Question Time, and where are our sort of politicians? The reason UKIP is winning support is they stand for something, filling a vacuum Labour is leaving. I don’t back UKIP. In fact I’m proud that the school in Manchester my children go to has kids from all sorts of backgrounds and we get on fantastically. It’s a National Front or UKIP nightmare. But there’ll be problems unless Labour gives the working class an authentic voice.”– Paul Heaton
Indie rock/jangle pop band formed in the 80s in Manchester, named after a working class suburb of Glasgow. Founders Ivor and Andy Perry were interested in communism and were inspired by Bob Marley and the messages in his music. Early on in their career, they opened for The Smiths at Dingwalls in London. The Smiths even considered hiring Ivor Perry as a replacement for Johnny Marr, but they broke up because they saw no point in going on without Johnny Marr. While they weren’t a mainstream band, they had success on the indie charts with top 5 hits “Whistling in the Dark” (I can hear some Clash influences in the guitar sound) and “Inspiration” and Contenders peaked at #3 on the Indie albums charts in the UK. Overall, they were very critical of the Labour Party, criticising them from the left, a refreshing perspective. The band only released two albums, Contenders and Waiting For The Redbird, the latter of which was released after Ivor Perry left the band. Politically, the band were members of the Revolutionary Communist Party and were supportive of a United Ireland, even using a picture of Irish socialist Bobby Sands, MP and IRA member who died on hunger strike at the age of 27. Songs like “1969” talk about The Troubles. This article talks about Easterhouse and other British leftist bands from the 80s.
Andy Perry said this about his politics and the importance to Easterhouse’s music:
“Communist thought was central to this process as it was the single most cohesive, consistent, different way of interpreting the world, Britain only had a vague idea of the subcultures that existed here. Green peppers were considered exotic!”– Andy Perry
Here’s another quote from Andy about his politics and the approach he took in his lyrics:
“It was important that the lyrical content was not based around protest or anger in a reactive sense, the purpose was not to reform or improve what was around but to offer a complete alternative. I understood that injustice was inevitable in the society we had”– Andy Perry
Some great, class conscious lyrics from the anti-imperialist, pro-United Ireland song “1969”:
“No man can serve two masters– Easterhouse
This surely is the truth
Your country or your class
When it comes down our kind
From Dark chains of Oppression
We must forge ourselves a lesson;
While we are part of this
Then we cannot make ourselves free”
If you want to read a really good in depth article about them, check out this one on Jacobin. If you want to watch a good video about their hit “Tubthumping”, check out Todd in the Shadows’ One Hit Wonderland about it.
Everyone knows them for “Tubthumping” and might think they’re just a one hit wonder band, but you might not be aware of their revolutionary roots. The band formed in the north of England in the early 80s. Their name was derived from a chant they heard from an African musician that they slightly changed, and they liked the name because it didn’t have any meaning and therefore, no preconceptions. Their early sound was inspired by punk and new wave groups and politically they were inspired by the anarchist punk band, Crass. In 1982, the band lived in a squat and became part of the cassette culture scene, releasing their music on tapes. They would play benefit gigs for animal rights and anti-war causes, and they would talk about the miners’ strike in their music. They later started their own label called Agit-Prop, which comes from a Soviet Russian portmanteau: agitatsiya (agitation) and propaganda that refers to literature, films, art, and pamphlets that have an explicitly pro-communist message. Their first release under their own label was the Revolution EP in 1985. Their next release had a title that criticised Live Aid, Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records – where’s the lie? They described Live Aid as a performative spectacle that centred the musicians rather than the people they claimed they were trying to help. The millions of dollars raised ended up in the wrong hands. In 1987, they released another cleverly titled album, Never Mind The Ballots… Here’s The Rest of Your Lives, which refers to the election that year and their critiques of the current electoral system. In 1988, they released an album of cover versions of English Rebel songs from 1341-1984. By the 90s, the band members quit their day jobs to focus on music full time and moved into a more poppy direction.
While singing anarchist songs is great, it didn’t quite pay the bills and as your band get more and more popular and get noticed by major labels, there’s pressure to write and perform hits, something that doesn’t rock the boat. And so we get to their 90s one hit wonder, “Tubthumping”. Still, there’s an inspiring and uplifting message in the song for activists. As Chris Dean of the Redskins basically said, popularity isn’t a bad thing and people can’t listen to the lyrics if they’ve never heard the music.
The song title itself is a political term meaning to aggressively attract attention for something, something that activists and progressives have been doing since the beginning of time. Asking politely doesn’t work. You have to make a ruckus. The song has a political start with a quote from the 1996 film Brassed Off, which is about a colliery brass band during the 1984-1985 coalminers strike that goes, “Truth is, I thought it mattered. I thought that music mattered. But does it? Bollocks! Not compared to how people matter.” In the film the speech goes on about how the government systematically destroyed an industry, leaving people out of work but not helping out the workers and their communities, instead leaving them in poverty and despair. Then the song goes into “We’ll be singin’ when we’re winnin'” before getting to the catchy, uplifting chorus, the one that will have you singing along:
“I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down”– Chumbawamba
Much like Dafydd Iwan’s “Yma O Hyd” (Still Here), it has a very empowering message that can resonate with people who have felt marginalised by society: people of colour, LGBT people, working class people, disabled people, people from countries that are/have been colonised, and beyond. It’s a thing that happens a lot in socialist and progressive movements, we get knocked down but we keep getting up again and we’re not going to allow oppressors to keep us down. Change doesn’t happen overnight and it’s important to keep fighting for what matters. So many times throughout history people had to keep pushing for change.
Of the song and how it helped bring the band back together, vocalist Dunstan Bruce said:
“It’s not our most political or best song, but it brought us back together. The song is about us – as a class and as a band. The beauty of it was we had no idea how big it would be.”– Dunstan Bruce
Vocalist Alice Nutter even made a tongue in cheek statement encouraging fans to steal the album from big chain record stores if they couldn’t afford it, echoing the sentiment on Abbie Hoffman’s counterculture Steal This Book. She later told MTV:
“They wanted to talk about people stealing our record, which is irrelevant in the scheme of things. What I wanted to talk about was why people shoplift and why in some cases it’s absolutely valid. Some people have two houses and two cars and luxuries for far more than themselves, and other people struggle to survive day by day.”– Alice Nutter
Not the most political song from Chumbawamba, but it’s still a good song with a good message when you think about it and read about the story of the band and the background of the song. The rest of the album, Tubthumper has political themes: mainly about class issues such as homelessness, trickle down economics, and criticising New Labour, who sold out the people that they were supposed to defend in favour of being neoliberal and Tory-lite. What made this album stand out was that it had a dancier, poppier, more commercial sound than their previous anarcho-punk sound, although “The Good Ship Lifestyle” has some rock influences mixed in with the dance beats. Overall a great album for a socialist themed club night and a fun way to introduce socialism to pop-music minded friends. The vibes of this album remind me of Big Audio Dynamite’s “Rush”, with the pop/dance sound and use of sampling spoken word.
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