Chumbawamba’s ”Tubthumping” has had a surprisingly enduring life since it first emerged in 1997, flooding the airwaves with its “I get knocked down, but I get up again” sing-along refrain. It became the theme song of the FIFA World Cup ’98 video game. In 2003, it was remixed (in a more somber, minor key) by The Flaming Lips. As selected by astronaut Sandra Magnus, it was played in 2011 as the “wake-up call” aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis. To the band’s abject horror, it was co-opted by right-wing U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage. And of course, it’s been heard in too many movie trailers to count, often accompanying slapstick comedies where someone gets knocked down, then gets up again.
The ubiquity of “Tubthumping,” right up there with Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” has only further obscured its origins as a political tune cloaked in silly pop music. And it’s not something the members of the members of the band have always been comfortable with—both then and now. The A.V. Club spoke to Chumbawamba co-founder Danbert Nobacon and vocalist Alice Nutter to discuss their lingering strong feelings about its legacy, as well as how an anarchist punk collective who wrote a song partially inspired by a drunk neighbor became unlikely pop superstars.
The A.V. Club: How did Chumbawamba first come together?
Danbert Nobacon: Three of us were in a band previously called Chimp Eats Banana. We grew up in the same town, went to college, and dropped out because we wanted to be in a band again. That’s when Chumbawamba started in 1982 in Leeds. There were six of us that remained core members to the end. When we first started, we became involved with the the bands who were on the Crass record label. We’d been punk rockers since the Sex Pistols. Crass took it a step further, where they actually looked into the politics of anarchism, and Chumbawamba grew out of that. They called it the “peace punk” scene in England.
Alice Nutter: We were a commune for years. We shared our money. We shared cooking. We bought everything together. If we worked, we put our money into the shared pot. We lived differently than most bands. By the time we did have a hit, we knew the best and worst of each other. Most bands fall out because of money at that point. We shared everything equally.
AVC: You have that punk ethos but your music is pop. It feels like intentional subversion—to get your ideas out there through the most accessible music.
Nutter: We liked pop music. When we first started we copied Crass, but we realized we loved pop music and we bled it in. We didn’t want to be just a punk band. It wasn’t joyous enough, and it was too narrow a label. But we did want to express political ideas.
Nobacon: As we evolved, we began incorporating more pop influence. Then we started changing direction, lyrically, around 1990. We became obsessed with pop culture, so it seemed apt to try and express that in the music. That pissed some people off in the hardcore movement. Maximum Rocknroll totally disowned us. The first tour, we stayed at their offices in San Francisco. And with the next album, the reviewer said we’d “gone disco” and we weren’t punk anymore—which was kind of funny, because we thought it was so much more than just the style. We were doing something with a bit more depth.
AVC: By 1997, you’d been a band for 15 years. Did the success of “Tubthumping” feel like a long time coming?
Nobacon: The success of that song came as a surprise, really. We had similar-sounding songs which we played live, certain uplifting songs that the audience recognized. It taking off like that was a shock. It wasn’t by design. It was very interesting, because we’d been immersing ourselves in pop culture and to be suddenly thrust into the belly of the beast at that level… We were cynical. When that happens to you in your early 20s, and suddenly you’re on David Letterman, you don’t realize [that] all the limos and aircrafts the label is booking, you’re paying for them. We did. We were wise about it. We did think, in the beginning, that it would probably last for a year. And then, being with a major label, it lasted a bit longer than that.
Nutter: We were a gigging band before [“Tubthumping”]. We had an underground audience. I found America strange, going from radical politics to finding myself at radio stations at 7 in the morning. You’ve got to be polite. I met a lot of DJs with ponytails. I enjoyed the surreal novelty of it, but I thought, “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing this.” I’m not talking about being in a band. I’m talking about having a taste of fame. I didn’t really like it.
We always said we were only going to do what we want to do. I think we were a bit of a shock to people, being a band that would say no, but also do things like Letterman or Jay Leno. On Letterman we changed the lyrics to “Free Mumia Abu-Jamal.” They recorded it an hour before it went out. They said, “You can’t do that. You have to record another one.” We said “No. You either use it or you don’t.” They had to decide to pull it, or play it with this chorus of freeing a Black Panther. They ended up putting it on.
AVC: “Tubthumping” isn’t a phrase a lot of Americans are familiar with. Can you explain it?
Nobacon: The word “tubthumping” isn’t even in the lyrics, never mind the chorus. “Tubthumping” is an old English word. It’s someone getting up on a soapbox, before electricity, and just saying whatever they wanted to say. People still do it. They stand and they talk with no amplification—“getting this off me chest,” whatever it is. That’s what tubthumping is. I’m not sure why we called that song “Tubthumping.”
Nutter: Boff [Whalley, vocalist and guitarist] wrote most of the words and Harry [Hamer, drums] came up with the original tune. I came up with “Pissing the night away.” We did everything collectively. Someone would do the music and we’d sing nonsense nursery rhymes over it, and we would have to write the lyrics. Quite a few of us would do that. It was freakish—most bands don’t work that way. I was never really a musician—I couldn’t have fit into another band outside Chumbawamba. We were more of a gang than a band.
Nobacon: The actual origin of the story was that Boff was in bed at night with his wife and they heard the next-door neighbor coming home. He was super drunk, making a lot of noise. He’s singing “Danny Boy,” which became a lyric in the song. He goes up to the door, he puts his key in, he falls over, and he gets back up. It happened two or three times—he was just so drunk he kept falling over. Eventually he went in and went to bed, presumably, and fell asleep. It just clicked in Boff’s brain when he woke up the next morning. It fit the chorus.
AVC: Your political side became more apparent when you performed at the 1998 Brit Awards. You changed the lyrics to “Tubthumping” and poured water on Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.
Nobacon: We had a band meeting about whether we should even go. It’s sellout territory. The record company said, “You have to go. They’ll give you a budget, and you can do whatever you want with your performance.” At the time, the local dockworkers were on strike, and we’d done a huge benefit show for them. So we changed the lyrics: “New Labour sold out the dockers / Just like they’ll sell out the rest of us.”
They give you these big tables, you’re served a meal, and they have these big buckets with chilled champagne and chilled white wine full of ice water. Towards the end of the night, our bass player Paul [Greco] said, “Oh, Prescott’s sat over there.” We’d been drinking, and I was always the one most easily convinced to do a dare. Paul and Alice were behind him with another bucket. They probably actually got more water on him than I did, but I was the one who got caught for it. I jumped on his table and threw it on him and said, “Look, this is for the dockworkers!” The record company was like, “You’ve got to apologize, you got water on his daughter and his wife.” And we were like, “No way.” They sent flowers to him the next day. It meant we burned a bridge, essentially. You’re not supposed to do that if you go to a pop awards thing. You’re supposed to behave yourself and be part of that establishment, but we never were.
Nutter: The British government owned 40 percent of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company. Nobody knew it. The people thought the dockers were striking against some faceless company. Now it’s really obvious what happened: Containers came in, and they got rid of manpower. They didn’t need humans anymore. We invited a few dockers we knew to the BRITs, and if we won, instead of us going up on stage, [they] would go up and talk about what had happened. We didn’t win a BRIT. We got drunk, and we felt terrible that they weren’t going to get a voice on national television. Paul said, “Dan’s going to throw water on John Prescott. Shall we get him from behind?” The reason he was significant is that he used to be a docker, and the dockers had faith he was going to help them. They felt sold out. Paul and I dumped eight liters of ice water from a champagne bucket on his head. Dan got arrested.
AVC: What do you think of “Tubthumping” now, 20 years later? How does it differ, if at all, from the way you felt about it then?
Nobacon: At the time it was great, because we had these platforms like the BRITs or David Letterman that we never thought we’d have. We were on Barbara Walters’ show talking about anarchism. We were never like, “We hate the song, we’ll never play it.” It did us good. It still contributes to me being able to live and exist as a working artist. Without royalties, it would be much more difficult.
Nutter: That song still has a life, and I still love it. I was watching Billions the other night, and we’d approved it to use in Billions but I forgot about it. Suddenly it came up at the end of the episode, and I found myself feeling proud and thinking, “Ah, that’s a good song.”
Nobacon: My daughter Stella’s favorite band is Twenty One Pilots. She went to go see them at a festival, Memorial Day weekend. She stood in the same spot for seven hours. A month later, someone sent me a link and it was Twenty One Pilots doing a version of “Tubthumping.” I sent her the link. It’s interesting that a whole new generation is finding it.
Nutter: We made “Tubthumping” at a point when people had written us off. We made a really terrible record before it. We felt like our backs were against a wall, and if we were going to continue to exist as a band, we were going to have to pull together and be really tight. We wanted to prove ourselves to ourselves. It has a whole feel of “if you like it, fine. If you don’t, fuck you.” We all wanted to be there. When I hear the song, I hear that spirit.