words: Mark Sturdy
pics: Casey Orr
Boff Whalley, Chumbawamba’s guitarist has just published the story of his band. Mark Sturdy talks to him about the band’s first twenty or so years.
Boff Whalley is the guitarist in Chumbawamba. As we all know, Chumbawamba are smelly squat-dwelling hippies who are far too right-on and anarchic to have a wash or get a proper job. They live off weeds and have spent the past 20 years offending people’s ears and political sensibilities at lentil awareness festivals in Slovenia.
So goes the popular preconception anyway. Which is why it’s a pleasant surprise to find that in ‘Footnote’, Boff has come up with one of the best rock books of 2003. The book is a memoir that follows Boff from a Mormon childhood in Burnley through teenaged punkdom, early ‘80s Hyde Park low-rent studentland, 15 years squatting in a decaying manor house in Armley that turned out to be largely held together by yellow paint, and a certain well-publicised incident at the Brit Awards involving John Prescott and a bucket of ice.
Oh, and there’s some music as well – Boff started Chumbawamba with some friends in 1982 from the ashes of a provincial punk band called Chimp Eats Banana. Since then, they’ve been through at least as many metamorphoses in their time as, say, Pulp: their varied discography takes in scratchy post-punk, brassy pop, acoustic (or even a capella) folk, acid house and more – all recorded, by the way, in the studio where Black Lace did ‘Agadoo’. So ‘Footnote’ is the story of a band that in some ways is solidly grounded and attached to certain values and principles, but musically has no ties at all – the band that six years ago topped charts around the world with an extremely catchy pop song called ‘Tubthumping’, and this year released an acoustic album of ‘English Rebel Songs’.
The title ‘Footnote’ is a reference to that hit and the events that surrounded it – such as the aforementioned Prescott incident. While ‘Tubthumping’ was by far the band’s commercial peak, and drenching the Deputy Prime Minister got them infinitely more column inches than any other worthy stunts they might have pulled over the years, it’s not big news in the horrid context of pop-culture history. When someone finally writes the definitive history of everything, the page headed “England August 1997” will have a dead princess and Elton John in very large letters at the top, and a bunch of northern scallywags (with a fondness for whisky drinks, cider drinks, vodka drinks and lager drinks) in rather smaller letters at the bottom. Chumbawamba are a footnote.
And that’s fine by them, it would seem. That whole business was also a footnote for Chumbawamba themselves: one episode amongst many in a long, strange story. It’s that long, strange story that the book is concerned with exposing: as Boff explains at one point, it’s an attempt to “make a little more of a context to Chumbawamba than a plastic ‘Tubthumping’ gorilla.”
In person, Boff is a far cry from the scruffy political agitator you might expect – smartly dressed, polite and charming to a fault, body piercings, dreadlocks and insufferable earnestness are all very much conspicuous by their absence. “I’m actually very, very normal,” he admits, and for once it seems to be true.
The book displays a refreshing lack of the typical rock-hack clichés: there’s no self-aggrandisement, self-justification or attempts at tying up a lifetime of loose ends into something neat and boring. If ‘Footnote’ is comparable to any other music book, it’s Julian Cope’s ‘Head-On’ (which Boff hasn’t read): both books tell the story of someone growing up through punk and the subsequent ups and downs of the music business, and both have a similar non-linear, episodic structure, characterised in Boff’s book by the footnotes that appear at the bottom of virtually every page.
“It’s the way people think – you don’t think in a linear way. If you think of Preston football team having a player called Michael Jackson, it leads you off to the other Michael Jackson, so you end up with a footnote about him. Someone said to me, ‘I’m reading the book, I’ve got partway through, really enjoying it but I’ve decided I’m not going to read the footnotes because they disrupt the flow.’ But that’s the point – you think that way and I wanted to reflect that.”
The birth of ‘Footnote’ came about in the wake of ‘Tubthumping’ and Prescott, when a few people in the book business began to realise that Chumbawamba’s might be a story worth telling. “We had a couple of writers come to us saying they wanted to write a biography of the band. We all agreed that really, if anyone was going to do it, it should be one of us. So I got on and did it.”
Even so, there are bound to be as many differing versions of Chumbawamba’s story as there are members of Chumbawamba. What did the others think of the book? “They seem to like it, they’ve been really supportive. Dunstan came back with this long list of facts and dates I’d got wrong!”
Boff came to Leeds as a student in 1981 and never left. “The first time I came was in 1979, to see a band from Manchester called The Smirks, who I’d follow round the country whenever The Fall weren’t playing. There was hardly anyone there and it was a bit crap and sad, but I remember coming through this really hard, run-down area and thinking ‘This is Leeds!’ What brought me back later was the music – there was bands like Gang Of Four and The Mekons.”
Chumbawamba coalesced soon after in a cellar on Royal Park Road, and before long, despite a steadily growing following, became one of the least fashionable band of the ‘80s and early ‘90s indie circuit. Few alternative bands can have been on the receiving end of as much constant music press vilification.
“I remember one gig we did, 1000 people in a hall, and it was brilliant – everybody there had a really good time, it was a great gig, probably one of the best we’ve done. And then the review came out in the NME – it totally slagged us off, and slagged off all the audience.”
“It doesn’t happen anywhere else – it’s only in Britain that we’ve got a stigma attached to us. Anywhere else in the world, they might like us, they might not like us, but they’re not vitriolic because they don’t have a history with us.”
Of course, the press has always had its bete noires, bands that have rubbed the wrong people up the wrong way at the wrong time and paid for it: just ask Cud, Kingmaker or Venini. Boff maintains that the slaggings that Chumbawamba have received over the years have been to do with more than fashion.
“At least with us, I can understand there was a reason behind it. With bands like Kingmaker, Cud, Ocean Colour Scene, Moloko, it’s about cool, whereas with us it was to do with the politics. We were mouthy about things, and it doesn’t always go down well with a magazine where part of its culture is about being ‘radical’ – and that’s not necessarily anything to do with the political left, it’s just rebelling against your parents or teachers or whatever. So when we were there for instance, saying ‘We think the whole New Labour thing is really crap’, before they got elected, we got slaughtered for that by a lot of people.
They were like, ‘No, we’re radical, and we think you should support Tony Blair and the new revolution’ and all that. I can understand it. Also, we’re really old and we’ve been around a long time, and for magazines and music papers it’s in their interest to discard old stuff and latch on to new things. The music industry has to bring up new acts, keep new things going, otherwise it’ll die. If all the bands that were coming up today were like the Animals, the Stones, the Beatles and the Hollies, nobody would buy anything new. So it’s fair enough, you know.”
Chumbawamba’s musical eclecticism and political awkwardness sticks out as much as ever in the current climate of bands that have such an overpowering aura of coolness that you sometimes wonder why they’re bothering to do anything as blatantly crowd-pleasing as make records or play in front of an audience.
“Some of those bands, like the Strokes and White Stripes, I’ve heard and I really like, but you wish they’d just go out on a limb once in a while – it’s like, you’ve established who you are, now do something that’ll surprise me! Take some risks!”
Considering the importance Boff attaches to the punk ethos of sticking out and doing your own thing, there’s a very surprising constant in the book: numerous references to those now ultra-conventional old showbiz faithfuls, The Beatles.
“Yeah. I was into the Beatles and the Stones just before punk because to me they represented weirdness and politics and drugs, and long hair and rebellion, in a way that Abba and that sort of thing didn’t. So I got into them then, and kept them with me. When I first discovered music and started buying records, apart from the ones everybody quotes, Slade, Bowie, Roxy and Alice Cooper, there was a real wasteland. That’s when I latched on to the Bonzos, about five years after they’d split up. I’d suddenly got into this weird band.
“It’s funny, because for people that were into punk, you can always ask them what they were into just before they got into punk. Johnny Rotten was into Hawkwind – our manager used to manage Hawkwind and you find from talking to all these old Hawkwind fans that Johnny Rotten was famous for going to all their gigs with his Afghan coat on. You just think, Wow, that’s superb.
“Punk was like, year zero, click, eject everything that’s gone before. But in the back of my mind, there was still the White Album. It’s obviously about the music, but also I got so into them that I knew why they’d done certain things at certain times and what it meant and what it related to, and how much people were shocked by it. Which I think was the appeal. They would bring an album out and everybody else in the music world would be like, What have the Beatles done? Oh my God, they’ve done something new, again! For Noel and Liam, however much they talk about them and how much they love them, they’d never do that – they’ve done one great album and just repeated it.”
There’s an impressive lack of bitterness and anger in the book – few autobiographers can claim to have avoided regret, self-righteousness and score-settling so completely. And yet you don’t get the feeling you’re reading a whitewash – ‘Footnote’ seems to be an honest account of a life that has, overall, usually been alright.
“It wasn’t intentional – that was just how it came out. I’m lucky. I never get depressed. You look at people sometimes, even if they’re aged 12 or something, and you can just tell, ‘You’re going to have problems.’” His mum’s oft-repeated mantra from that Burnley Mormon upbringing seems to have stuck: “Just cheer up and get on with it.” Good trick if you can do it.
Refreshingly, Boff claims Chumbawamba were unscathed and unchanged by their brush with the mainstream. He’s also adamant that the massive pop success of ‘Tubthumping’ was a one-off – there has been no attempt to produce a follow-up hit, nor will there ever be. “Although now I’ve said that, we’ll probably write one tomorrow!”
The greatest satisfaction of Chumbawamba’s brief period as primetime chart fodder for Boff is the small minority of those who got the single, and hung around thereafter. “We do get letters occasionally – one came the other day from a girl who was 15 when ‘Tubthumping’ came out, obviously hadn’t heard of us before, but then got the albums and got into some of the ideas and the politics we talk about. She was saying we’d had a really big effect on her. I think that kind of thing’s great.”