The anarchists are taking over the charts (and the world)

The Majestic in Cannes, a more exclusive than thou hotel on the seafront (previous guests: Charles de Gaulle, Madonna, European…

The Majestic in Cannes, a more exclusive than thou hotel on the seafront (previous guests: Charles de Gaulle, Madonna, European royals) does not quite know what is about to hit it: in a massive function room, an eight-piece anarchist musical co-operative band called Chumbawamba are about storm the citadels of capitalist decadence and unleash their "class war" slogans and electronic beats onto the gathered masses - probably just after checking to see if the hotel's staff is unionised.

Chumbawamba are the troublesome jewel in the crown of this year's Midem - the music industry feeding frenzy held each year in the Mediterranean town. With album sales of three million and rising, and one of the biggest-selling singles of all time - the gloriously addictive Tubthumping - Chumbawamba are being paraded around the seafront by their record company bosses, EMI, as the definitive success story of the year. It's the unlikeliest rock 'n' roll marriage since Michael and Lisa-Marie.

It's been a long and troubled courtship. Go back 15 years and you'll see the members of Chumbawamba, all from the Leeds area of England and all well versed in anarcho-syndicalist politics, picketing outside EMI's head office in London. They are deeply unhappy about EMI's involvement with a company called Thorn, which they claim manufacture armaments used in the Falklands/Las Malvinas conflict. A couple of years later Chumbawamba appear on a compilation album that is snappily titled Fuck EMI.

On through the 1980s and 1990s and Chumbawamba bring their agit-prop set to music around small, dingy venues, selling just a handful of records and supplementing their income by various painting/decorating jobs and signing on. Two years ago, having been dropped by a small, indie label, they record demos for what is to be their last ever album. In the studio one night they come up with some lyrics that represent both their resilience in the face of music industry indifference and the general resilience of the working class: I get knocked down, but I get up again, you're never going to keep me down. Once the album is finished they send it off to record companies to see if anyone will release it. EMI turn it down, but EMI in Germany like what they hear and agree to release it.


The album came out last year and the single sold, sold and sold - all around the world. It has now sold more than Radiohead's OK Computer and Chumbawamba are currently one of the biggest bands in the world. They have made millions of pounds for themselves and ironically, millions of pounds for EMI.

This is where we come in: before the gig, the band meet a sizeable chunk of the international media corps where the questions are not of the "who are your influences?" and "what's your favourite colour?" variety. "Are you going to give all your money away to beggars?" asks a man from France. "Exactly how far have you sold out?" shrieks someone from Britain. Later on, and far from the maddening crowd, singer Alice Nutter and all-rounder Dunston Bruce settle down with The Irish Times for an amiable discussion about wealth distribution.

"Look, our consciences are clear" says Alice. "There's going to be a lot of money coming our way but we're not going to spend it on champagne and cocaine. We will support Class War revolutionaries and issues like the Liverpool dockers' strike. We are anarchists and the groups we will be supporting will not be of the respectable, reformist nature. We've only ever supported those causes that are not deemed acceptable by the political establishment. At the moment we are paying ourselves £120 a week and all the money goes into the band's joint bank account - which is in the Co-Op, naturally".

All very laudable, but isn't your ideological purity being tainted by association with a corporate multinational like EMI? "We want to subvert popular culture," says Alice, "and to do that you need to be popular. We've very polite to EMI but that disguises a ruthlessness we have."

We want to bring our message into people's homes."

Dressed in matching regulation black jacket, black jeans and Doc Martens and speaking with the same broad Yorkshire accent, Dunston Bruce rhapsodies about what mainstream success has helped them to accomplish in the US. "The album has sold millions in America and on various promo trips there, we've been able to raise issues in each and every town we've been to," he says. "For example, when we were in Detroit there was a massive printers strike on, so when we got invited to do radio interviews and television appearances, we were able to raise the issue of the strike and inform listeners and viewers about the political issues underlying it. It built up to such a momentum that when we arrived in Buffalo, New York, there was a bunch of strikers waiting for us off the bus, handing us literature and asking us to publicise their plight on mainstream television."

Alice adds that their media-friendly ways are part of their grand design: "We are anarchists and people know that. In America they don't know what to expect from us when we arrive in a television studio. They expect us to be spitting on the floor and saying `f--- off' on live television all the time. But we're not like that. We prefer to focus on the politics."

Always consistent, always militant, they were only ever a footnote in the journals of popular music until Tubthumping exposed them on a global level. After playing benefits for every left-wing organisation in Britain, they made a small dent in 1986 with an album whose title summed up their disillusionment with the Band-Aid phenomenon - it was called Pictures Of Starving Children Sell Records.

Further albums like Never Mind The Ballots and Anarchy sold about 20,000 copies each. "When we were recording this current album, we really didn't latch on to Tubthumping when we did it in the studio," says Dunston Bruce.

"The chorus we selected was one of 67 other choruses that we had for the song. Originally we didn't think much of the song, we weren't even going to play it live. But friends who heard the advance tapes started to comment on it and when it was released, no one was surprised as much as us about how well it did." The word "well" being something of an understatement: the song has gone to Number One in almost every country around the world. The Norwegian soccer team want it as their World Cup anthem, the band's home team Leeds United has ditched Tina Turner's Simply The Best and replaced it with Tubthumping and most every single ice hockey/baseball team in the US uses it whenever there is a fight/home run (respectively).

Every advertising agency wants the song: "There's an advertisement for Martini in Italy with Sharon Stone and they offered us £40,000 for 30 seconds of the song," says Alice. "Our initial reaction was `no' but then we thought, why don't we do it and give the money to a socialist community centre in Italy" - which they did. The song works so well because, despite having a very 1990s feel to it, it is basically a folk song and its lyrics can be appropriated by anybody who has ever felt hard done by, whether politically, economically or emotionally.

"I think there is a huge ignored audience out there, between Phil Collins and Blur, that the song appeals to" says Dunston. "And its success has not come from the hip or cool press, the so-called taste makers, because as an anarchist co-operative we're not exactly trendy. There was just a huge groundswell from ordinary people."

With millions of pounds rolling into their Co-Op bank account, the backlash against the Chumbas has already started, in earnest. Outside a recent gig in San Francisco, a woman was handing out anarchist leaflets which read "Why have the Chumbas sold out to a huge corporation like EMI? Is getting your song played on the radio worth selling your soul for?" "Being signed to EMI is a massive contradiction for a band like us and there's no avoiding that," says Alice. "I can understand people's disillusionment but back in the 1980s it did look like the indies could challenge the majors. Now there are no real independents because the majors have bought them all," she says.

"I can see their argument" says Dunston, "and if I wasn't in this band, I might well be crying `sell out' also."

And with that, the two millionaire anarchists set off down the beachfront looking for "a nice cup of tea".