It was the year 1998, and Chumbawamba were at an all-time high. They were almost on the top of the world with their hit single “Tubthumping”, which dominated the charts the world over after being released by EMI, and its parent album “Tubthumper” was just as popular. All over the world, pubs, bars and sports teams were singing the song as a sort of theme song.
After spending a long time stuck in small clubs, Chumbawamba were now playing big venues, appearing on TV, and everyone was playing their music. After 15 years of toiling in obscurity, never managing high sales numbers with their work, it looked like all that work was finally paying off.
But that popularity was unstable and looked prone to send them straight into One-Hit Wonderdom. Follow up single “Amnesia” managed to crack the top 10 in the UK and find some success elsewhere, but each subsequent release was increasingly unsuccessful, and although “Tubthumping” remained popular, that fame couldn’t last forever off the strength of just one song.
Along with this, the group were getting into quite a bit of controversy by refusing to play by the rules now they were hitmakers on a major label (a fact which itself had alienated a lot of their older fans). Two of the most infamous of these were when member Alice Nutter appeared on TV and told their fans to just shoplift their record if they couldn’t afford a copy, and then at the 1998 BRIT Awards Danbert Nobacon poured a jug of water on then-UK Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott over the group’s anger on how striking Liverpool dockers had been treated.
Needless to say, this didn’t help the band endear themselves to the masses, but that was never really their goal in the first place. Not when there was a chance to use their position to make some change in the world.
Soon a question began to bubble over: how were the group going to repeat the success of their hit song?
After convening back in the UK after around eight months of touring and promoting their record, Chumbawamba began the process of writing some new songs with the plan of recording a follow up album, eventually coming up with around 10 new songs for it. However, they quickly grew unsatisfied with this new material, finding it samey and uninspired. Worst of all though, it sounded too much like Tubthumper, and they feared they were in danger of repeating themselves.
So, they scrapped what they had and decided to start afresh, determined to produce something new that was inspired from everything they had seen during their brief success in America. Two years of rewrites, refining and recording later and the result was released as WYSIWYG (short for What You SeeIs What You Get).
Whereas Tubthumper relied heavily on an explicitly dance-pop sound, WYSWIYG is as diverse as it is packed with tracks, clocking in at a full 22, and none of them sound quite alike. The styles and ideas that Chumbawamba tinker with include folk (Celebration, Florida), acapella (New York Mining Disaster 1941), and many others.
Use of samples is also heavily utilised and numerous string musicians were hired to provide accompaniment on numerous songs, giving WYSIWYG a lusher soundscape than its predecessor. Perhaps the most radical change was that, unlike before where the group aimed for complete songs, the tracks on WYSIWYG are extremely short, many clocking in at under two minutes after only a couple of verses (and some are even shorter than one minute).
Lyrically, it’s perhaps the group’s most ambitious outing. Their brief time in the American limelight gave them a lot to think about, and it bears out in these new songs. Themes that they tackle include the rise of home computing (Pass It Along), the violent disaster that was Woodstock ’99 (I’m Not Sorry, I was Having Fun), wilful ignorance of societal problems whilst living in suburban bliss (Celebration, Florida), and it only goes on from there, firing cylinders at anything and anyone they believe deserves it.
After a roughly two year writing and recording cycle to complete it, WYSIWYG hit the shelves on the 4th of April, 2000. A few months earlier, on February 28th, the only major single “She’s Got All Her Friends That Money Can Buy” arrived to kick things off, and ended up being the only song on the album the band made a music video for. An attempt was also made to release a rerecorded version of “Pass It Along” as a second single, but it only arrived as a promo in a select few countries.
The album’s packaging was perhaps one of the band’s most provocative since 1994’s “Anarchy”, where they had included an uncensored picture of a baby being born as the front cover. The seemingly innocuous picture of a dog on the front folded out to show it was in fact two dogs mating, and on the other side of the fold-out booklet was extensive liner notes by the band on every track, explaining their thought process, inspiration, and different social and political issues/causes they believed deserved the listener’s attention. From the presentation alone it was clear the band had gone all out on this new project.
Sadly, their attempt to innovate their approach from their experience in the limelight was not a hit with the public at all. The album failed to chart, along with the lead single, and it’s believed that it only sold around 20,000 copies compared to the roughly 4 million that Tubthumper managed to sell. Critics were also mixed on their takeaway on the album, finding it ambitious but unfocused and unmemorable due to how short the songs were. The more critical among them found the political and social satire surface level and irrelevant compared to more biting statements by groups like Rage Against The Machine and Public Enemy.
Not long after, EMI finally decided that the group’s diminishing returns no longer justified their hijinks and dropped them a short time later. The group would remain in the indie circuit for the rest of their existence, eventually reinventing themselves as a folk-rock unit before officially dissolving in late 2012, after 30 years and fourteen studio albums.
Over 20 years later, WYSIWYG has managed to gain some attention from fans who heard Tubthumper and wanted to hear more by the group, but it remains an obscure artefact in the band’s journey that is sorely overdue the reappraisal it deserves. The band may have been one hit wonders, but they had a lot more to give to the world than just that one hit.