Interview with Boff Whalley of Chumbawamba

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of an extended phone interview with Boff Whalley of Chumbawamba for a piece I was writing about musicians’ contributions to the miner’s strike of 1984-85. Unfortunately, most of that interview was never used – the scope of the story, and the space I was afforded in the magazine, meant some nasty cuts. (“Fight the Cuts!”)

Ever since, I’ve planned on someday arranging the whole interview into an “as-told-by” style piece, and posting it here online. Reminded by the affably dangerous old red, Norman Strike, that this strike anniversary year is ticking away, and by an e-list update from the Chumbies that they’re partaking in a lovely-looking theater performance this December, it seemed like it sure-as-hell was time to get moving.

So, in this 25th anniversary year, roll on the tales of Chumbawamba’s lives during the strike! With the exception of my occasional interjections and explanations, every word below is from the mouth of Mr. Boff Whalley, although in some instances the order has been changed to make it work as a singular piece. (For one of the most fascinating books ever written on punk and post-punk, check Boff’s autobiography, *Footnote. I bought it at a gig in Cardiff, the night before leaving the UK, and had finished it, obsessively, before my plane left Heathrow.)

I hope that this tells the story, as beautifully as Boff’s chat did for me, of how the miner’s strike essentially freed the men and women of Chumbawamba from the bonds of “punk” and taught them that radicalism is about working to help real people, in real situations. Which, to me, is one reason the Chumbies were, and remain, one of punk’s finest contributions.

Hmm – come to think of it, this piece needs some kind of opening sentence, something like,

“It was the Year of Our Lord, 1984…”

…and we were doing Chumbawamba then already – we were playing concerts, but it was within a very insular scene. I think the thing about the strike for this country is, it opened a lot of things up – it was to do with this idea we’d never encountered before, which was to get out of your little shell and into the bigger world.

Basically, we started with a mixed-up agenda, inspired by Crass and such, but also inspired by the rebel politics of sneering bands like the Fall – not that they were political, just that they stuck out like a sore thumb. They were very Northern, they didn’t do what record companies told them to do – and we wanted to do something halfway between that punk thing, and this Northern rebel scrabble thing.

Politically, it was all based around the CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] – they had big rallies against nuclear weapons, and against the siting of weapons, and a lot of anti-Reagan and anti-Thatcher political [rallies]. But we were in a little corner politically – squatting because we thought it was the way forward. We thought that was a political act, [to squat] instead of being a part of the real world. We wanted to create alternatives, and the strike – even just at the beginning of it – woke us up to the idea that, that’s part of our world too.

Politically, in England, “Northern” is always a part of it. There’s a definite poverty line you can draw [geographically]. In the past, you could look at the country, and the South had jobs, education, opportunities, and the North had massively increasing unemployment, with all the big industries in Manchester and Liverpool closing. Those cities were horrible places; it just felt hopeless and gray. It was awful walking around those cities, and what happened? The music that came out of them was fantastic. Like Joy Division, and the whole Liverpool thing – the music people played, the clothes people wore – raincoats and gray trousers – people weren’t being showbusiness-y. A lot of punk – what we called Southern stuff, which we obviously loved and got caught up in – it looked cool and arty and flashy as well. But in the industrial centers, they shy away from that; there’s this sort of austerity and grimness.

When the strike came, it was a totally real thing, in a way that I think a lot of other people [outside of the north] couldn’t understand. Harry, who played the drums, he was told by his Dad, ‘If you don’t put some effort into this thing, this thing you love doing, you’ll end up in the mines – all your life.’ I grew up in Burnley, and had relatives in the pits – we were all right in the middle of that, knowing people who worked in the mines. Suddenly – Ah! – we’re not just supporting some glorious idea of these heroic strikers; we understood.

We were pacifists at the time. Not necessarily all of us [in the squat], but in general, that’s what we were into. We’d gone into this idea of non-violence, and there was debate whether to support miners because [it was obviously not going to be pacifist]. Immediately, from day one, they were attacking the strikes. They immediately started bussing in workers who kept working, so it was straight away. We had discussions – ‘but they’re throwing bricks at coppers?’ – and we had to confront this pacifist thing we’d been hanging on to.

The other point [of contention] was the SWP [Socialist Workers Party] in Britain – who were strict Marxists, which we’ve always been suspicious of. Well, they’d done Rock Against Racism, which I thought was brilliant, one of the first things alerted me to those problems. But once I’d grown up a bit, I realized they were very hard line and strict. So, the first week of the strike, they were out there in [Chumbawamba’s home neighborhood of] Armley in Leeds, collecting for the miners – and immediately [for us] it was, ‘Oh – SWP? Striking miners? Where do we fit in?’ That Trotskyite, strict Marxist thing – it had very little to do with what we were doing.

Then five or six of us went to the SWP meeting, and we said we wanted to go collecting. We had a big van, for the band, and we said we could take people to the picket lines, and we could collect, and they said great! When we set up with Armley SWP, I can’t remember why, but we linked ourselves to a pit [mine] in Frickley. We talked to them, and said, ‘ok, we’re your support group and we’re going to raise money for you, for hardship funds for your families.’

We went and stayed in Frickley three or four times, so we could get up at 3 a.m. to go to the picket lines, and it was a different world. The night before, we’d go down to the miners’ hall and there’d be these terrible cabaret acts on. And at some point there’d always be someone who’d go to front, tap on the mic, and say, ‘we’ve got our friends down here from Leeds, from Armley, supporting us on the pickets in the morning. And they’d all – 200, 300 people – get up and clap. And that was really a two-way thing – it was nothing to do with the band, it was what we wanted to do. We didn’t want to approach it just as a band – as a band, we put out a cassette, we did all the benefits, but we didn’t want that to get in the way of the fact that we wanted to go to Frickley. We wanted to be in the pickets, and to get up on Saturday mornings and go collect for the miners.

We were learning so much. Once, we went to a picket line, and that night we stayed at somebody’s house – a miner’s house – and Alice [Nutter] was sleeping in this room and there was a stack of porn mags in there, which was a bit weird – a bit of an issue. And we thought, ‘OK, well, that’s fine. That’s where we’ve come from, and we can’t run away from these things screaming. If we’re going to be into it, we’ve got to be into it.’

At Christmas in 1984, there were so many reports about the miners welfare coming out. The local hall [I assume in Frickley] that was owned by the union, every year they’d put on a panto and a show for the kids, and reports were coming out that they wouldn’t have it this year, so we wrote a panto about the strike, but for kids. There were about four of us that did it with a theater group, and went around Yorkshire and South Wales doing this panto.

We didn’t stick with the larger group of the anarchist-punk scene, right from the beginning. In 1982, with the Falklands War, there was a lot of togetherness. But by the time of the strike, we’d moved a way from that group and were questioning that a bit – particularly with the music.

That whole punk-rock thing had a strict code of its own, and it was essential for us that we played with that and moved away from it – to prove that it wasn’t just another conservative kind of music. We go on tour today, and it seems like every city center in Europe has a fountain with 15 punks around it begging, and that’s what people think punk came to. I’m not being critical of that, but for me, that’s got nothing to do with punk as I experienced it.

At that time [of the strike], we were starting to catch on to the fact that there were people like Dick Gaughan out there, who’d been making whole albums [about these political subjects]. And that’s when we discovered Tony Harrison, a poet from around [Leeds] – an extremely literate working-class poet, who did poetry for the miners. And we thought – ‘this is fantastic! Protest doesn’t have to be wearing black and spitting!’

Right at the beginning of the strike, we didn’t know any of [the bands Chumbawamba would become associated with]. We started sending graphics to a fanzine, and Jon Langford [of Mekons and Three Johns] was involved in the ‘zine, and that’s how we met him. We never thought, ‘we’re a band, they’re a band, got to sing together.’ So we organized a squat gig in Leeds, and the Three Johns played it, and The Ex, people we’d never met before, and that was really the first we’d had anything to do with those groups.

Hilariously, of course, playing benefits raised hardly any money. We used to go out on Saturday morning with yellow buckets that asked people to ‘Dig Deep for the Miners.’ And we raised more in about 30 minutes outside a supermarket than at a gig. But the benefits were more about getting people involved. The audience that we’d just started getting was still wondering – they weren’t sure about the strike, about trade unions and workers rights and strikes.

[Crass Records punk band] Flux of Pink Indians lived in London and they got in touch and they put together a joint miner’s benefit tour with us and Kukl, all in one battered old bus.

[Icelandic punks Kukl, another band on Crass Records, featured an elfin singer named Bjork]

We got quite big audiences, we’d get maybe a thousand people, though some gigs got canceled because of worried promoters. We broke down at one point – there were 17 people pushing a broken bus on the side of the road. The whole thing was a total mess, but certainly interesting!

Of course, the door policy was [to keep things very cheap], because it was a punk gig – so we got to the end of it, we’d done ten gigs, and the total profit [donated to strike funds] was about 100 pounds! It seemed ridiculous. We were doing things like Bingo nights in the local pub that raised more!

There was a point – I can’t remember when exactly, but after Christmas, going into 1985 – there was a sense that, ‘this isn’t going to work. Thatcher’s going to pull this off.’ And you could feel it creeping in, so by the time it happened, it wasn’t a total shock.

When we were out collecting, we never got abuse from people – they might walk past and not care, but we never got any sort of abuse or antagonizing. But the slant against the miners you encountered in the media was incredible. We’d read about something where – we were there, and then read this article, and think, what? Someone is getting away with printing this?

There were a couple of big marches in London, and one had violence, and all the reporting about that was just incredible – it was as if they’d got together and decided what to say. And everyone was talking about it for ages – but it wasn’t like that. It was just a big angry, but also sort-of joyous, mass of people.

The day the strike was called off, when they went back to work – to lose their jobs eventually – we went to Frickley and marched with the miners down to the gates. There was a great feeling of defiance, and they were holding their heads up high, a lot of chants about defiance, but we knew we were walking down here because we lost.

The strike had a big effect on Chumbawamba. In 1985, we recorded our first single, and the lyrics were all written around the idea that if you want things to change, you have to reach out to other people, you can’t stick in your own box. Those other bands [like Mekons, The Ex] were a lot more out in the world already than we were. We’d painted ourselves into a bit of a corner, and needed a kick up the arse. The Mekons didn’t need any excuses for getting into country, you know? But a lot of those punky bands, they carried on in their own blissful way, and we got shunned by some people for stepping outside it – which was fine. We recorded our first folk song during strike, and straight away it was a feeling that ‘this is different.’

At that time, in the punk scene, people would write nasty articles and have big debates about whether or not you should put soap on [mail] so someone can wipe off the postmark! And there was the huge animal rights debate – it was all so insular; it was all rules. That’s when we stopped being pacifists, and decided we couldn’t write songs about animals – not while people are in prisons, and people are starving to death.

The strike was ordinary people getting out of jobs, and ordinary communities losing their homes and their jobs. That was our lesson – to get out of this box we’re in. The world is a much bigger place, and we have to be a part of that.

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One Comment

  1. Excellent interview Justin. Brought back a lot more memories and once again makes me wish I had been musically gifted enough to be in a band. Thanks

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