Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, when asked to reveal our deepest wishes many of us would love to be famous. Glamour, glitz, people falling over themselves to give you things for free – who wouldn’t dream of that? One person in particular never imagined a life beyond the squat shows he calls home, and that’s Charlie Manning Walker – lead singer of the rowdy West London punk quintet Chubby and the Gang, who have jumped out of the UK’s DIY hardcore scene directly into a hotbed of international acclaim.
It’s a hype that’s caught Manning Walker, who usually spends his time away from clutches of social media and at his full-time job as an electrician in the film industry, by surprise after he was recently recognised on the street by a fan. “Someone come up to me and was like, ‘you're in that band’,” he says in his cheeky wide boy accent, questioning how he could be that well known. “My manager was like, ‘mate there's posters everywhere’. Then it clicked in my head: shit, people know about the band.”
Photo: Pooneh Ghana
People certainly do know about the band. Since the release of their debut album Speed Kills in January 2020 on the DIY punk label Static Shock (re-released on Partisan Records in November 2020), Chubby and the Gang have received rave reviews at home and abroad, including from Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. Their music is a collection of old school punk chaos and Ramones-esque pop melodies, sung with the gusto of a full pub belting out football chants after a winning goal. It’s a heady mix that leaves you longing for the next opportunity to throw your limbs about in a sweaty crowd, which is a sensation that could only have helped them grow in popularity over the pandemic.
For such an English band, the group has a diehard fanbase in the states – a fact Manning Walker puts down to an anglophile obsession and the immense press attention they received. “When we was on tour in America every fucking time we got put in something, the next show you can see a lot more people coming. So like Rolling Stone done on a little thing, next show there’s fifty more people.”
Though the pandemic put an end to the ever-growing crowds on tour, it didn’t halt the spread of Chubby and the Gang mania. After playing their last show in March 2020 at the annual DIY punk festival Static Shock, they returned this summer at Download Festival, which is a pretty mighty jump up the ranks for any band within such a short space of time, let alone one who hadn’t been able to play a single show in-between. So how does Manning Walker really feel about becoming so popular?
“Fine,” he says with a grunt, trying to play down the level the band has reached. “But success and failure are the same thing,” he pauses, “I really don’t know what to make of it.”
We meet in the early evening shade of an East London pub garden as Manning Walker slowly nurses a shot of whiskey and ice all evening. A recent diabetes diagnosis has forced him to restrict his drinking and diet. “It’s fucking annoying because booze really affects it, and I fucking love booze,” he adds with a smile, “but what are you gonna do.”
You’re never left in any doubt that Manning Walker is the steam behind the Chubby and the Gang machine. From the moment he sits down, the working-class pride, leftist politics and no-nonsense attitude heard on record spew forth in person, as he opens up about his love for his job and workers union.
A similar message can be heard on the band’s latest album, The Mutt’s Nuts, with lyrics rooted in themes of workers’ rights, government failure, the exploitation of working people, police brutality, and racial injustice. Sonically, the band has ventured beyond the cathartic, but sometimes rudimentary, boundaries of punk to explore a mass of opposing genres. The lairy pub rock stomp of Dublin’s own Thin Lizzy ignites “Life on the Bayou”, a tale of the deindustrialisation of the Brentford Docks; “Lightning Don’t Strike Twice” opens with a twangy, blues influenced guitar lick; “Life’s Lemons” is a singalong crooner pop classic that wouldn’t look out of place on a Sinatra setlist. No matter what inspiration is brought into the mix, though, it always sounds like a Chubby song.
Photo: Pooneh Ghana
“I've spent so long in punk that if I tried to fold in some influence from Lightning Hopkins it’s automatically going to have a punk edge to it, because that's where I come from,” says Manning Walker, whose own roots are never far away from the album – detailed in late-night escapades rolling along the city streets as a taxi driver (“On The Meter”) or memories of being written off from opportunities because of his class (“Lightning Don’t Strike Twice”). Elsewhere, the aim is fired at the prison system on “Coming Up Tough”, inspired by the story of a family member who went to prison for twenty years at a young age and came out to no support (“How can you prove ‘em wrong if no one gives you a chance?”).
The drudgery and disaffection of a life spent bouncing from dead end jobs to scraping by on Universal Credit, ignored by those in power while being sold the lie of meritocracy, is a heavy reality to see laid out. It’s refreshing to hear a working-class story told by a working-class person, devoid of the voyeurism that can occur when those stories are seen through the eyes of the more well off.
Manning Walker has been deliberate in his retelling, certain that he didn’t want to sugar coat what was happening. “I don't want [the lyrics] to be flowery, because I want you to realise how upsetting this has been,” he insists. “There's no light at the end of the tunnel, so why should I have to make that into a beautiful painting when it's not? It’s a shit show.”
The band’s politics are also on show on “White Rags”, a sombre march with lyrics sparked by the murder of George Floyd. “It used to be by the rope and now it’s by the knee,” Manning Walker sings, his voice gruff with disgust. Though the song was almost cut from the album (“I’m a white man from England, what fucking right do I have to comment on stuff?”), it was ultimately kept because the band wanted to show solidarity to the Black Lives Matter movement and remind the UK that police brutality isn’t as distant an issue as some like to think. “To me you're so naive if you think that [police brutality] stops in the Atlantic Ocean because Mark Duggan was not that long ago. You cannot sit there and tell me the Metropolitan Police Force does not act like that.”
Photo: Pooneh Ghana
It’s a message that sees Chubby and the Gang well positioned to take part in the reawakened political spirit that has propelled many bands from the UK alternative scene to wider success. However, white male bands like Bristol’s favourite lads IDLES and South London post-punk act Shame continue to ride the charts with their fist in the air chants, while very few political bands with members from marginalised backgrounds have enjoyed the same level of success. As an all-white band themselves, are Chubby and the Gang worried that their new platform is part of an industry that ignores the voices of artists of colour making similar political statements?
“The discussion that needs to occur within guitar music about racism also needs to touch on the internalised racism within guitar music,” Manning Walker says, sitting up straight as he considers the question. “A lot of [white people] can handle some fucking janky art student talking about [politics], but they can't handle it when it comes directly from someone of colour.”
The future for Chubby and the Gang for now will see the band head off on a two-month UK and Ireland tour. Beyond that, Manning Walker isn’t hedging his bets. “I’m having a good time. I’m not doing anything I don’t want to do.” What looks certain is the rousing call for working-class pride and politics that Manning Walker weaves into every song will continue.
“It can be quite alienating if the only political opinions being put out through guitar music is through the lens of an art student. I would like to try and diversify where these opinions are coming from. I'm not trying to say that we're a diverse band or whatever, but at least background-wise we’re probably more [diverse] than...” he pauses, catching himself before reeling off the names of any of the many middle-class bands that could have filled that gap. “I'm not gonna name drop. They don’t want beef with me.”
The Mutt’s Nuts is out now via Partisan Records