Directors: Dunstan Bruce, Sophie Robinson (UK). Year of Release: 2021
Dunstan Bruce is starting to look old. He now wears a dark suit and tie pin, with an old man’s coat and scarf. His hair is greying. This may be expected or a man of 59, but you may remember Bruce (if you remember him at all) as the red-haired shouty singer of the band Chumbawamba. Can it really be 25 years since their hit single Tubthumping was everywhere? (as witnesses for the prosecution we see endless home made videos of people singing along, plus a toy singing Gorilla).
In 1997 I was, for one brief period in my life, faintly credible. As Tubthumping mania hit Germany (I remember the band playing a couple of songs before the European Cup Winners Cup final in the VfB Stuttgart stadium – even though the actual game was being played in Stockholm), I mentioned that they were a West Yorkshire band who I’d been following for years. The interns at work were suitably impressed. At least until another song got to number 1 and another band became hip.
This film is, to a large part, about how a band goes from 15 years of relative obscurity to appearing on Letterman, to even more obscurity than before. It is also about Bruce’s mid-life crisis. Is there a place in this world for Angry Old Men? Can a man who’s approaching 60 get on stage every night and denounce capitalism? Is it ok now that the songs he writes are more about his troubled relationship with his father than about why Ulrike Meinhof would never have been a Green MP?
Before all the introspection, we get a potted history of the band, with help of its ex-members, who have also aged. The group was formed in a squat in Leeds in the early 1980s, when the city was the centre of post-punk. We hear a blast of the Mekons, but other bands form the city at the time included the Gang of Four, the Three Johns and early Scritti Politti. It was a very vibrant musical scene but also one that was intensely political.
Band members recall regular visits from the police. One day, they were raided, accused of planting a bomb. The police found nothing, but returned shortly afterwards asking if they’d stolen some beagles. In the squat, members of the band learned how to design and copy leaflets pre-Photo Shop. Around that time, singer Alice Nutter had a regular column in the Leeds Other Paper, though if I remember correctly, she spent more time writing about her sex life than about politics.
Such a political atmosphere infused the band’s attitude. A lack of talent was no barrier to people joining the band, which swapped instruments between songs anyway. They were inspired by the DIY ethos of bands like Crass who were less bothered about memorable melodies than in invective lyrics. Then all of a sudden, Chumbawamba decided to write songs with decent tunes, and released a string of albums which were both musically inventive and politically invective.
This period is an important part of my life, and I’ve have loved to see more of it, even though that’s not the point of this particular film. Just like the media coverage, we can’t avoid Tubthumping. Was it a great sell out for an anarchist band to have a hit single and to sign for a major label? Bruce says no, arguing it was a way of reaching a larger audience. Then his alter ego appears, asking if he really believes that the EMI which the band had protested against in the 1980s had really changed.
The alter ego turns up quite a bit in I Get Knocked Down, which could be accused of trying to have its cake and eat it. Nonetheless, it looks like the film’s introspection reflects real discussions going on in Bruce’s head. Was it all worth it? Did he manage to change anything at all? Is there a point in trying to mix pop and politics? To try and answer these questions. Bruce visits Penny Rimbaud of Crass to ask for absolution. Rimbaud says everything was worth it, if only for the Brits Incident.
If you’ve forgotten, or are too young to have been aware of it first time round, this happened in 1998, as Britpop and Cool Britannia were starting to go stratospheric. The most self-congratulary awards ceremony of the British music industry was introduced by former radical comedian Ben Elton, who had already started the slide in credibility that would lead him to write the libretto for the Queen musical We Will Rock You. Members of the Labour cabinet were also in attendance.
Chumbawamba were also there to perform the Hit Single (whose lyrics they altered to attack Labour’s sell out of the striking Liverpool dockers). Suddenly, Danbert Nobacon, one of the band’s other singers, leapt onto a table and threw a carafe of water over Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. It was an excellent counterweight to the nationalistic pomposity of the awards, and an event that sticks in the memory. But it also showed a large contradiction in Chumbawamba’s career.
For their first 15 years, Chumbawamba played countless benefits, They organised tour schedules to allow them to attend picket lines and demonstrations. They were an active part of a political movement. After the Hit Single, this was no longer possible, so they engaged in performative acts at the Brits and did adverts for General Motors and gave the money to a campaign against GM. They stayed committed and active, but it was a different sort of activism.
I Get Knocked Down is a little too close to the band, a little too concerned with Bruce’s introspection to look at this dilemma in any depth, but it would be wrong to criticise the film too much for this. It never intended to be that film. Instead, it tells a different story with wit and charm. And the music is as good as it ever was.
The tragedy of Tubthumping was not that it was a bad song – its still great – nor that it was “unpolitical” – what’s not political about carrying on fighting back? But the band never subsequently released anything anywhere near as good as Tumthumping or many of the songs which came before it.
What’s the worst thing that can happen to a band which releases a single which is, briefly, more popular than anything else in the world? This film gives you some idea what.