Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.
It can be hard work being in a band for 30 years. Not everyone survives with their friendships and dignity intact. The Anarcho-Punk outfit Chumbawamba originated in the North of England in 1982, and survived as a band until 2012. A marvelous recent documentary showed that they still get on with each other, on the whole. In addition to the precarious living that is common in the early stages (and other) of being a musical combo outside the mainstream, they had principles that restricted their ability to grow and make money. They gave their time and music to a lot of unpaid causes. They encouraged their fans to record their concerts and circulate them as cassettes, even though they didn’t have as many people at their gigs, and buying merchandise, as the Grateful Dead. Each member of their fan club had an entirely individual interpretation of their mission and how to fulfil it, and were vocal with their opinions, and quick to boycott. And yet they thrived.
What does a One Hit Wonder add to that mix? Chumbawamba’s career is neatly divided around 1997: the period before they had one of the biggest singles in the world, and the period after. Having already alienated a section of their fanbase (as usual) by “selling out” by signing with a “Big” label, they then produced an overtly “pop” single, “Tubthumping,” and everything changed. They appeared in media throughout the world and played concerts across the globe. They generated a lot of cash from sales and licensing the hit, which they could direct to their causes if they wanted. They humiliated a bloviating politician in a way that they could not have before. If one of the band encouraged fans, on national television in the US, to steal their record if they cannot afford, what was it? Loose, unthinking talk? A dada-ist prank? Evidence of an excellent eye for PR? All three? Whatever the reason, it did not harm sales.
The song itself is a singalong anthem to resilience and a positive celebration of an active social life. It was written after a member of the band watched a neighbor try, and for a long time fail, to get the key into the lock of his house after a long night on the tiles, singing “Danny Boy” all the way. Eventually, he was successful, to face whatever fate was waiting for him at home. The song celebrates those who stick to a task, which is a message that most people need to hear sometimes. The talky lyrics reminded some of Britpop classics by Blur and others. For those unfamiliar, the term “pissing” can have multiple interpretations. It can refer to heavy drinking and/or wasting your life on fun times with friends rather than building a career. However we know that Chumbawamba were huge fans of the social value of drinking and community singing, in the pub or the football stadium, so they probably meant this ironically. (It also, of course, refers to the need to let the alcohol out somehow). The song sold millions and has remained in the consciousness since.
There have been several cover versions of the song over the years, not all of which reflect the sensibilities of the band or their message, it must be said. More sympathetic fellow travelers, like Phish, have played the song live. Homer Simpson has given a somewhat ramshackle rendition. Here are some versions which add to the legacy, rather than mock or misunderstand it.
The Angus and Julia Stone version is good.
The Pub Choir version is better.
And the Skatune Network version is best.
Angus and Julia Stone – Tubthumping (Chumbawamba cover)
This is a version that does something radical with the work. Most versions, if they do anything at all, just transpose the song from one genre to another. There are heavy metal versions, punk versions, electro versions, and they can all meld into one amorphous mass, sounding similar. This Australian folk duo genuinely deconstruct the song and bring something new.
The Pub Choir – Tubthumping (Chumbawamba cover)
The song was clearly written as a sing-along anthem, preferably in a pub. Or even on the Football Terraces, where it did sometimes make an appearance when the team was not doing well. We know that Chumbawamba loved community singing. This version reflects the diversity, and social drinking, that the song celebrates.
Skatune Network – Tubthumping (Chumbawamba cover)
Ska music was closely associated with punk in the UK, at least in the ‘80s. This version has brio and energy, and significant musical competence. Of course, it also has the home-made feel of anarcho-punk. YouTuber Jer Hunter’s vehicle is a perfect fit for the song. His fans requested it, and they were right!
Chumbawamba continued to make music after “Tubthumping.” Their last album before their final split, 2010’s ABCDEFG, is some of the best music about music ever made. The themes are still overtly political, and the music comes from the folk tradition rather than punk. Whether mocking far-right politicians, academics who presume to understand what working people bring to music, or even the idea that the devil could live in the space between three tones, it is musically astute and accomplished, and retains the passion that drove the band. It also contains the song “Torturing James Hetfield,” which is an arresting title and premise. The story of the song, and unique use of a One Hit Wonder, is best told by the band themselves. “Tubthumping” is not mentioned directly, but we all know what they mean when they sing about their “Greatest Hit.”