Issue #83: Swingin’ With Raymond by Chumbawamba
September 18, 2017
Released On October 23, 1995
One Little Indian Records
Chumbawamba is one of my favorite bands. I don’t often lead with that when I’m discussing music because generally it’s not a statement that most people believe. However, if I’m pressed to name bands that have made an impact on me, Chumbawamba is there — usually somewhere between number 8 and 15 (depending on how high my list goes). I didn’t intend on becoming such a big fan. I don’t even remember how it happened, but I do know during my second year of college two things occurred: 1. Me and one of my roommates became obsessed with the Chumbawamba discography, and 2. That same roommate and I were in a band and we wanted to cover “Tubthumping.” Whichever of those two things happened first definitely influenced the other, but I can’t for the life of me remember. It’s a real chicken or egg situation.
By the way: I’m not going to go deep into the band’s whole history. I think at this point in time, knowing that Chumbawamba started as an anarcho-punk band in the vein of Crass before transforming into a electronic pop group is the musical trivia equivalent of knowing that the tape at each end of a shoelace is called an aglet — everyone has heard that at one point or another even if they don’t necessarily remember it.
Regardless of how I came to be a fan, I became a fan very fast. While the aforementioned roommate of mine preferred the band’s earliest works (particularly the Revolution single), I was drawn to… well, a mix of periods. On the one hand, I was going through a bit of a folk phase at the time (a bit of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, Nebraska… you know, the usual), so the band’s most recent work as a five piece folk outfit spoke a lot to me, especially A Singsong And A Scrap, which is easily the Chumbawamba album I’ve listened to the most. But then there was something about the sample heavy Anarchy that also called to me. It was accessible, but it also wasn’t. What kind of hardcore music fanatic doesn’t love something like that?
At this point, you might be thinking “Okay, Dustin. But what does this have to do with Swingin’ With Raymond, the album we’re supposed to be discussing?” And I’ll tell you: everything. A loosely — and I mean very loosely — structured concept album about love and hate, Swingin’ With Raymond may not feature the same heavy electronics of Anarchy or the full-on acoustic instrumentation of A Singsong And A Scrap, but the thirteen songs presented here find a happy medium between sickly sweet melodies and in-your-face pop aggression.
The album’s first half is almost too saccharine to be taken seriously — which is intentional. The very first track, “This Girl,” is a lovely sounding tune so it caught me off guard the first time I heard the end of the chorus: “She’s lacing all the party drinks with venom from her poison pen.” Taken at face value, it’s amazing that the first half of this album didn’t make a bigger splash — especially in the ’90s. “The Morning After (The Night Before)” could have joined the ranks of “Here’s To The Night,” and “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)” of being misunderstood and played at every high school prom and graduation ever, and “Love Can Knock You Over” falls in line perfectly with whatever easy-listening acts were big with middle-aged parents at the time. The first six tracks here, much like the sappy Ramones ballad “Something To Believe In” off Animal Boy, have their figurative tongues planted so firmly in their mouths that it’s amazing that Lou Watts (who sings lead on each of these songs) didn’t bite her tongue off during the recording process.
The album’s second half, starting with “All Mixed Up,” is obviously more political in nature. The band causally mentions “Thatcher Youth” in “Salome (Let’s Twist Again)” and the chorus of “Oxymoron” is simply “I don’t believe in the good cop.” Alice Nutter takes the lead in “This Dress Kills,” which bites back against the ideas of how femininity should be defined, and “Waiting, Shouting,” where she turns the volume up against being kept quiet and in line with societal expectations (and gives Fugazi a shout-out: “I am a patient girl, I wait, I wait, I wait”). “Hey! You! Outside Now!” and “Ugh! Your Ugly Houses!” is a two-parter expressing the band’s disgust at the excess celebrity lifestyle when poverty is rampant — the latter even samples “English Country Garden,” the soothing melody contrasts the band’s aggressive music, just as the quaint home described in “English Country Garden” is in stark contrast to the houses of excess of “Ugh! Your Ugly Houses!.”
I think why I hold Swingin’ With Raymond, and more importantly Chumbawamba as a whole, in high regard is that they taught me that there isn’t one way for “punk” to be done. Obviously that was a lesson I already kind of knew — I did grow up in an era in which blink-182, The Blood Brothers (OYR Issue #22), Against Me!, Sublime, The Hives, Gogol Bordello, and Good Charlotte had all been described as punk rock by journalists and Amazon reviews alike, but Chumbawamba really hammered it home that what matters isn’t so much your sound, but your intentions and actions. Sure, right after Swingin’ with Raymond, they signed to a major label, continued to move their sound into a more pop oriented direction, and even signed a deal with General Motors to use one of their songs (“Pass It Along” off 2000’s WYSIWYG) in a commercial. But they also took all the money that GM paid them, and donated it to IndyMedia and CorpWatch. The music may not resemble punk rock, but planning and pulling off a move like that definitely is.
But back to Swingin’ With Raymond: Chumbawamba amassed and experimented with a lot of different sounds in their 30-year history as a band, and it’s a bit of a daunting task to try to take it all in at once. Out of their fourteen studio albums, Swingin’ With Raymond is their most accessible album (well.. you know, besides that other one). It mixes up styles and highlights their strengths without ever becoming alienating or too experimental for even the most casual of listeners, but with enough variety, symbolism and lyrical depth to entice enthusiastic of obsessors. It’s worth checking out, especially if you’ve always thought that “Tubthumping” had more merit than people usually give to it.
Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie
The band’s last stop before international fame: a split record of ironic folk love songs and scathing punk outbursts.
Most sentient beings born since 1997 have a relationship with Chumbawamba, even if they don’t realize that it’s the band behind the ubiquitous “Tubthumping,” with its catchy chorus of “I get knocked down / But I get up again!” so ingrained in ’90s history. I didn’t particularly like “Tubthumping,” but I was dimly aware that Chumbawamba had been in the trenches for quite some time, earning their “overnight success” with years in the school of hard knocks. Since I didn’t care enough to look into their past, this is the first time I’ve ever listened to an album by them and I found it quite surprising. When the “This Girl” started, I thought it was perfect twee pop, along the lines of Belle & Sebastian but folkier, with Alice Nutter’s affectless, pretty voice that reminding me a little of Sarah Cracknell from St. Etienne. But as the songs went on, I noticed something odd. While the melodies weren’t the same, it was as if each song came off an assembly-line, with strumming acoustic guitar, ticking drums, maybe an electric guitar or violin for accents, and all at the same mid-tempo, slightly lilting rhythm. The words weren’t pop fluff, instead including lines like (from “Love Can Knock You Over“): “So used to useless metaphors / Lost the battle, won the war / Words to fight another day.” It suddenly occurred to me: there was irony at work here, and a particular British variety, the same kind that led Scritti Politti to put a lyric like “I found a new hermeneutic / I found a new paradigm” into a slick pop song. By the end of the sixth song, my eyebrows were raised, quite pleasantly so, admiring their ability to have their cake and make fun of it, too… and then the album changed completely. The strummed acoustic gave way to chugging electric, brassy synths bleated away, the tempos increased, and most of the singing was by a man, maybe Boff Whalley, barking out clever, slightly bitter lyrics. They were firmly enough in rock territory that even “Oxymoron,” with it’s greedy bite of “Suffragette City,” didn’t sound out of place. Both halves of the record are polished, professional, and tuneful, a far cry from early influences like Crass, The Fall, and PiL, so I’m not sure why it took “Tubthumping” to get them more attention. Hopefully, ’90s revivalists and other curious listeners will look beyond that song to their deeper catalog. Trust me — for all the brain-power Chumbawamba used putting this stuff together, there is much fun to be had on Swingin’ With Raymond.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
I can remember conversations in my early teens about bands losing legitimacy because their music showed up in a commercial, or because they signed to a too-big label. In truth I was probably parroting what other kids were saying; looking back, a fair amount of my listening at that point was haphazardly exploratory and performative. Now that we’re in a post-CD financial hellscape where it’s hard-to-impossible to make good money as a musician, I couldn’t be happier to hear my favorite bands’ songs on TV. Back then I didn’t catch the part of the “Tubthumping” phenomenon that involved longtime fans objecting to the band’s signing with EMI. It’s interesting listening to Swingin’ With Raymond — the album just before Tubthumper — in that light, especially given Chumbawamba’s anarchic roots. “The Morning After (The Night Before)” sounds like something that could soundtrack a movie scene depicting domestic bliss, especially if you were to loop the chorus. Then again, “This Dress Kills” is just as bold and acerbic as I’d expect after learning about the band’s political leanings. But that unevenness makes Swingin’ With Raymond feel true in a crucial way. You can’t control how people receive your art; you have to keep doing what you feel is right. A quote from the band’s Wikipedia page offers the following EMI epilogue: “We released some great records, we travelled all over the world, appeared on all these TV programmes, and we made loads of money, a lot of which we gave away or ploughed into worthwhile causes.”
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
I really enjoyed the aggressive turn this record took about halfway through. Of course, I was caught off guard by the well-placed reversing of the snare drums on “All Mixed Up.” Simple, but so effective, and as an added bonus it totally fits the theme of the song. But the album really kicks into high gear with “Salome (Let’s Twist Again)” and “Oxymoron.” Surely, the band played these songs back to back at their shows whenever they wanted to work the crowd into a mosh-frenzy. My favorite track was “Waiting, Shouting.” It’s one of those really creative records that you just can’t squeeze into any particular genre. There’s elements of rock, ska, and even industrial techno all seamlessly woven together to create a high energy masterpiece. Albums like this are what make OYR so special to me — purely based on my (and probably everyone else’s) late-’90s bias in seeing the group as a one hit wonder, I never would’ve picked up this record in a million years. But there’s no such thing as an overnight success. Thanks to this week’s pick, we can all have an appreciation for a group that put in a massive amount of work before hitting it big that one time.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
The thrashing menace of Danbert Nobacon alone makes this the best overlooked ’90s video.
I didn’t know what to expect from Chumbawumba’s Swingin’ With Raymond — would I get the punk band or the folk band? While the band is best remembered by pop music fans for a dance hit, their catalog is notoriously varied and deep. I certainly didn’t expect a straight-up love song like “The Morning After (The Night Before).” or its lyrics: “Nowhere to go, nothing to do / But roll up into a ball with you / The morning after / The night before.” I liked the romantic, Sunday-morning-in-bed story, but also the Sarah Records-esque melody and the lovely violin. “Just Look At Me Now” bops like the best Magnetic Fields song — it’s corny to admit this, but I can see it being a good pump-up jam when I go on a run (“Just look at me now / Both feet on the ground / My sights are fixed on the horizon”). The record takes a darker turn after track six, as it’s split into a “Love” and a “Hate” half — the former features songs with more positive, introspective themes, while the latter takes on more political or external issues. This side of music is also more upbeat — “All Mixed Up” features a peppy horn section and sounds more like the indie and punk records of the mid-’90s and “Salome (Let’s Twist Again)” is an insanely fun song. I didn’t look at the track listing and misheard one song as “This desk is killing me!” I was so excited for a song about banal office work, but it is actually “This Dress Kills” — the message is a strong “fuck you” to female beauty standards. If this song was written today, I would probably roll my eyes at the entry-level feminism, but it was 1996, so I’ll give it a pass. I am not sure if Raymond is a great entrée into the world of Chumbawumba, but the songwriting is great, and the band serves it all up with a healthy sense of humor.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
It’s very important to me that, when writing this, I don’t go on and on about how blown away I was by Chumbawamba, who I had previously written off as a one-hit wonder/novelty rock band. Because whoa was I blown away. It’s also hard to think about this album without the context of “Tubthumping” existing at all. Oh, it’s also very important to me that I not mention “Tubthumping.” If this had been the follow-up to their smash success, I would be able to comment on how punk it was to start the follow-up with half an album of soft acoustic-y music. The first half might actually be more “system smashy” than the second half but to a ’90s kid living in suburban America, it would have been very jarring. The fact that they did it on the album before their international acclaim, in my opinion, is even more subversive. I lean toward preferring the first half (called “Love it!” on media where sides are labeled) so let’s talk about the second half (called “Hate it!”) for a moment. “This Dress Kills” is an obvious James Favorite (female vocals, horn line, et cetera) but each song has something that I love. (Yes, the retching sounds on “Ugh! Your Ugly Houses!” have a very special place in my heart.) Overall, this is one of the most varied and interesting albums I’ve listened to in quite a while.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
Right from that first wail of the harmonica and the perfectly open toned acoustic guitar strum on “This Girl,” nostalgia of 1990s singer-songwriter jangle pop came rushing in. Add to that a movement minimal melody and lyrics of a matter-of-fact diary nature (“When they put her in the car she said, ‘Jesus made me do it’ / But all the priests in all the world couldn’t save this girl”), and it’s impossible not to want to go digging for Sixpence None The Richer, The Coors, and 10,000 Maniacs. (And that’s not even including the occasional appearance of the electric violin on tracks like “Not The Girl I Used To Be” and “Love Can Knock You Over.”) Coming out in 1995, Swingin’ With Raymond falls easily among the company of the aforementioned groups and for its pleasant alignment with such, would almost be suitable labeled as a “cruise control record” if not for cuts like “All Mixed Up” which turn on the amplifiers to get a bit more dynamically loud, vocally rowdy, and less sway-in-the-breeze folky (“We take a fool for a king / All mixed up!”). It’s these two halves of music stylization iconic to the 1990s, that are most appealing about Swingin’ With Raymond. The ability to process “what came before” and “what’s come since,” not just a year or two past release but with decades longer context, and having them together on one album, is what makes the record worthwhile to reflect on through listening, in spite of knowing exactly what you’re in for the minute the music begins.
Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier
The band can write engaging melodies for any mood & groove, which leaves their sardonic & searing words truly ingrained in the listener’s mind.
One of the lines from the iconic of Montreal album Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse goes, “Don’t say that I have changed / cuz man of course I have.” Floating in the sea of your day to day, it’s easy to miss your tiny evolutions. Only when you revisit your hometown, or see an ex-lover or friend you lost years before are we confronted with the summation of years of change. If Chumbawumba was an anarchist punk band that sold out for money in the form of royalties from one of the singularly most annoying songs I’ve ever heard, then Swingin’ With Raymond, released smack in the middle of that transformation, evidences part of their shift. Bearing that in mind, the album plays like a change of heart. The dichotomous album splits its time between a nostalgic beginning and leftover punk ending. With the first couple of tracks playing like the last dance at your junior prom, there’s this mellow, I-don’t-want-to-go-home-yet feeling thumped out right around halfway through the album. The fading vocals saying, with a quietly resolute tone, “love can knock you over,” are followed by the boomerang, ragged guitar and screams of “All Mixed Up” like a slap in the face. Frenetic energy in pace and vocals I associate with ’90s pop punk kept me going through the last half, but I found myself returning to those few slower beginning tracks, clearly my preferred part of this album. Still, though, probably the best part of this album will be the showing it to people and watching those pop melody expectations crack and fall under the reality that plays in these 50 minutes.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
I’ll come right out and say it: Chumbawamba are a severely underrated band. Before listening to Swingin’ With Raymond, I wrote this band off as just another ’90s one-trick-pony-show that thinks its lyrics are clever enough to settle for bland acoustic accompaniments. I couldn’t have been more wrong and if you find yourself sharing the same reservations, then you’ve never really given them a chance… just like me. Although mainstream music outlets like large radio stations, record companies, and television channels like MTV often introduce us to bands we would have never heard of otherwise, I feel as though the sudden spikes in exposure they provide to singles over albums can be very limiting for a multifaceted band like Chumbawamba. To give you a better idea of just what you’re missing, I’d like you to indulge me for a moment. Just imagine an alternate universe where bands could spawn musical offspring. Chumbawamba would be the quirky lovechild of The Doors and Fleetwood Mac. It’s Chumbawamba’s dynamic range, catchy melodies, and relentless energy paired with cleverly sardonic and melancholy messages that give this band an edge over other classic ’90s bands. With their 1995 release Swingin’ with Raymond, Chumbawamba explore the full spectrum of the love, longing, and loathing that come with relationships. This coming-of-age album is an essential for any manic pixie dream girl and their perpetually perplexed lovers. Tracks like “This Girl” and “Love Can Knock You Over” are two of my favourite tracks off this album, both being poignant and catchy, yet they have also mastered a unique technique of holding the attention of listeners without exhausting any extraneous bells and whistles. Contrary to the early tracks on this album, Chumbawamba’s high energy hits, “All Mixed Up,” “This Dress Kills,” and “Ugh! Your Ugly Houses!” showcase the range of talents and creativity this band possesses. Simply stated, Chumbawamba is unlike any other so get over your ’90s skepticism and give them a chance.
Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making
The subtle “less is more” approach to the words & music of Swingin’ With Raymond really grabbed me. It’s not that I thought little of Chumbawamba — there’s always some dude at a record fair ready to name a dozen songs as soon as someone disses “Tubthumping.” But presenting a record in dual sonic spaces, with the focus inverted on each, which is… well, pretty masterful actually. The “Love it!” side of things opens up the record through track six with basic pop laissez faire — fundamental songs with sugary melodies that feel like they’re hot off an assembly line. But that’s just the music because the words of the first half… they are anything but simple. Yes, there’s a degree of irony in their love songs (which itself isn’t simple), but the band doesn’t stop there as they sneer at cliché metaphors (“Love Can Knock You Over“) and even hint at upcoming class warfare in (“Just Look At Me Now“). Go back and listen to that last one. Yes, you might get a cavity from the sugary melody, but the lyrics are clearly hinting at the empire versus the working class. Not something you hear every day in songs destined for Adult Contemporary radio, huh? Starting with track seven, the “Hate it!” side flips this, making the music more compelling and intricate, while the lyrics take a more simple approach. “Oxymoron” is basically three minutes and thirty seconds reinforcing the belief that there is no such thing as a good cop, while “This Dress Kills” is as basic an approach on femininity as you can get. What really works is that side one conditions you to expect more out of the lyrics, thanks to some complex verses and hidden meanings. You’re paying attention more to these words and since they are simple to digest in the second half, they latch on that much easier, allowing the band’s ideology to leave a firm imprint on your brain. All of this comes to a head on the memorably great closing track “Ugh! Your Ugly Houses!” which is both the most straightforward and most complex song on the record. It’s a song Frank Black wishes he wrote: memorably short, brutally scathing, and completely effortless. And it would have worked as just two and a half minutes of those six words being shouted over that driving guitar line, but the band doesn’t stop there. They throw in a twenty second bridge of “English Country Garden” to really highlight the difference in class and character that their six words are targeted at. And it’s effective, and ingenious, much like the rest of the music and words the band created for this record. You can approach “less is more” in a lot of ways through music and on Swingin’ With Raymond, Chumbawamba showed you two strong methods, as well as how you can stack them next to each other for maximum effect. Genius.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
We Fucked A Flame Into Being by Warhaus
Chosen By Jeremy Shatan