It would be easy enough to dismiss Chumbawamba as nothing more than a dance-floor novelty. With a name that borders on the unpronounceable -- and whose meaning is purposefully indecipherable -- the coed British octet has recently made itself conspicuous on our shores with "Tubthumping," a bouncy, synthetic tune that pins itself to the subconscious in a simulated heartbeat. It's a single with everything: infectious grooves, an ingenious melody, of-the-moment techno trappings and a lion's roar of a chorus. As a bonus, it's littered with the sort of lyrical sloganeering any rebellious teen can empathize with. "I get knocked down / But I get up again / You're never gonna keep me down," sounds like something straight out of the civil-rights marches of the 1960s, and it's in digital stereo, to boot.
Still, there's something about the image and attitude of these Leeds, England, subversives that implies well-calculated bullshit. Because their political agenda is largely alien to Americans, it's as if the group were peddling little more than sound-bite anarchy of the sort best suited to MOR rock formats.
But not so fast -- there's actual relevance in Chumbawamba's seemingly superficial rallying cry. Back in the mid-'80s, the band, anticipating resistance to its message, convened under its own label, Agit-Prop. Quickly, they released the single "Revolution," which set forth Chumbawamba's game plan for outspoken nonconformism. The plan? Basically, that there are no ground rules. The group wasted little time acting on their rhetoric, following "Revolution," an indie smash in England, with the full-length release Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records, its title a rip on 1986's Live Aid spectacle.
Keeping to its revolutionary bent, Chumbawamba then uncapped Never Mind the Ballots! as a response to the U.K. election of 1987. At that point, the group's sound was a fairly one-dimensional mix of punk and pop. Soon enough, though, Chumbawamba was layering on genres as if they were jungle camouflage. English Rebel Songs found the band in a cappella folkie mode, while the dancy Slap! rang in the '90s with throbbing house grooves. Slap!'s planned follow-up, Jesus H. Christ, was to celebrate the band's thieving ways, lifting entire choruses from the songs of other artists. Not surprisingly, it's never been released for risk of legal repercussions (though a few bootlegs made their way out).
The first Chumbawamba CD to meet with success in America was 1992's censorship-bashing Shhh, which was a hit on college campuses. About the same time, the group decided for financial reasons to abandon its Agit-Prop imprint and sign on with the One Little Indian label. The group's first OLI CD, 1994's subtly titled Anarchy, featured cover art of a woman giving birth, which resulted in its being banned from some record stores in the U.K. The subsequent Swinging with Raymond was equally disconcerting to some, though for its contents rather than for its packaging: The disc's first half featured wispy reflections on love; the second, grating, white-noisy espousals of hate.
Early this year, Chumbawamba signed to EMI in Europe and Republic/Universal Records in the U.S., evidence, perhaps, that the group has largely toned down its manifestos to a level that even the dimmest listener can handle. The cheery, format-friendly "Tubthumper" -- and much of the rest of the Tubthumper CD, for that matter -- offers resounding proof of just how presentable the group's politics have become. Even so, Chumbawamba ought to be proud of themselves. The music may be friendlier, but the message remains. It's a little polished, perhaps, but it's still there. Chumbawamba have brought the revolution straight to American ears -- and done so right under our noses.
-- Hobart Rowland
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Chumbawamba performs with Sneaker Pimps Monday, December 8, at City Streets, 5078 Richmond Avenue, as part of the KRBE/104.1-FM holiday concert. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $10. For info, call 266-1000.
311 -- This Omaha, Nebraska, band has made a career of incorporating an exhausting array of styles into its music -- from hard rock, hip-hop and reggae to pop, jazz fusion and funk -- many times doing so within a single song. Slagged by critics for their hodgepodge aesthetic, 311 have nonetheless built a huge fan base. And they've gone about it the hard way, touring incessantly behind their 1993 debut, Music, the subsequent Grassroots and Blue Album, and their most recent CD, the sprawling 21-song collection Transistor. 311 claim they had this world-domination thing mapped all along. They just figured on getting a little more sleep before popularity hit. At 8 p.m. Sunday, December 7, at Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas. Tickets are $22.50. 629-3700. (Allen Sculley)
Lords of Acid -- For more than a decade, Lords of Acid have been whipping the most titillating elements of European-style industrial dance music and fetish sex into an orgy of Bacchanalian proportions. But what sets the band apart from the current electronica trends is their sense of humor. The Lords come on with a wink, a nudge and a throbbing hard-on. With their new CD, Our Little Secret, boasting songs such as "Pussy" and the destined-to-be-classic "Spank My Bootie," the band is unlikely to be accused of subtlety. Still, it's on-stage that the Lords really put out, indulging audiences in a swirling barrage of flesh, leather, latex and noise, topped off by Nikkie Van Lierop's deliciously arousing vocals. At 8 p.m. Tuesday, December 9, at Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas. Tickets are $16.50. 629-3700. (David Simutis