He drinks a whiskey drink, etc.
Release Tubthumper on vinyl, you cowards.
|Satan Laughing||Aug 26, 2019|
If Tubthumper, the 1997 Chumbawumba record known then, now, and forever for its almost-title track “Tubthumping,” has a flaw, it’s that it is a record made for the CD era. I don’t remember burnable CDs entering general usage until a few years later, but when they did it made clear just how much information could be stored on one: 70, sometimes 80 minutes of crystal clear audio, ready to be jammed into a CD wallet and accidentally stepped on until no player, regardless of its sophistication, could read your bootlegged copy of The Amazing Jeckel Brothers. Tubthumper feels like an album built both to maximize the experience of the listener by offering as much music as possible while foreshadowing the music industry’s bid to make it harder to skip songs or pirate them by putting extra seconds of ancillary noise at the beginning and end, meaning that unless you knew how to trim those seconds, you’d be living with the psychic barb of disjointed notes or bits of dialog amounting to nothing.
In 1997, I knew all of the bits before and after every song on Tubthumper and loved the fact that, at 60 minutes, it was a long album, longer than anything I’d listened to before. Tubthumper’s length and variety felt like a challenge. Being nine-years-old, I didn’t know that Chumbawumba had been around longer than me, that they’d been putting out albums with titles like Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records, that I was catching them at their most commercial. I still have no idea how a band like Chumbawumba ends up on a label like EMI, but I’m glad they did—due to the constant radio airplay of “Tubthumping,” I was obsessed with how weird they sounded compared to everything else on the FM dial. I loved that song so much that, when my sister and I got Discmans for Christmas, mine came with a copy of Tubthumper.
What neither my mom nor I knew was that beneath the glittery surface of a song about getting fucking wasted and worrying your neighbors lay an album full of songs about the fruitlessness of capitalism, religion, and government. I grew up in a union household, my mom is a lifelong Democrat, but even in what I knew about labor struggle or the UAW, I’d never been exposed to anything like anarchism before listening to Tubthumper. While I’ve never met anybody who has said as much, my suspicion is that there’s a microgeneration of anarchists and communists my age to whom “Tubthumping” isn’t a one-hit wonder, but the sound of the door to class-consciousness opening.
1997 was also the year my mom introduced my sister and I to punk music and let us start watching MTV, where, in 1998, I saw the video for Limp Bizkit’s cover of “Faith.” From there, I started listening to nu-metal, which was much easier to access than the genres Tubthumper dabbled in. While bands like Rage Against the Machine and System of a Down were important to my developing politics, nu-metal was largely recursive, my adolescent frustration mirrored by adults and sold back to me as something we somehow shared. Chumbawumba didn’t release a follow-up to Tubthumper until 2000, and while I gave it a shot, WYSIWYG wasn’t a record I cottoned to. Tubthumper, though, is an album I’ve carried with me my whole life, the same CD I got in 1997 traveling from car to car, apartment to apartment, state to state, because I have a hard time letting things go. The one time I ditched it at a Goodwill, I went back the next day and bought it back. There’s something eternal about the album for me, even if some of it feels irony-poisoned now. The fact of the matter is that it’s a fucking good pop album, like plenty of albums made punchlines by time and distance from their initial moment.
In 2019, I regularly order albums I was obsessed with as a kid for UGA students who weren’t alive for the ascendance of nu-metal. Unlike when they buy a copy of Rumours or Hotel California, for which their love is genuine and rooted in their parents’ love of those records, I can never tell if a request for Significant Other comes from a place of appreciation or from some kids having $30 to blow on an object of derision. It’s not my job to question their motives, but the burgeoning cultural fascination for some of the darker corners of my youth makes me wish it was possible to stock something like Tubthumper. While I tend to buck against pointless vinyl reissues of detritus like Filter’s Title of Record, Tubthumper is another matter entirely, an album that reads like a joke but becomes quite serious in short order, the charming emptiness of its hit giving way to the horrifying emptiness of 90s culture.
I want to believe Tubthumper still capable of the surprise it held for me. Given the current fascination the 1980s hold, it’s not at all inconceivable that in the next five years they’ll be making shows about suburban kids in 1997, shitty headphones bleeding “Tubthumping” into the open air. The next-door neighbor cries, but not for the protagonist of the show, nor for the protagonist of the song. The next-door neighbor cries for their own burdens, as large and unknowable as ours.
NEXT: Family Values Tour 1999 Part Two, Sleater-Kinney and the allure of the break-up record.