03/16/1998 at 01:00 AM EST
A SHORT, BALD MAN IN A SHORT black skirt, Danbert Nobacon, 36, scrambled onto a table at a London music awards show last month and dumped a bucket of cold water on John Prescott, Britain's deputy prime minister. "This," snarled Nobacon, "is for the dockers!"
The dousing, in support of formerly striking Liverpool dockworkers, was just another punkish prank by a member of the British band Chumbawamba, the self-styled anarchists behind the current hit "Tubthumping." The song's rousing beat and never-say-die chorus ("I get knocked down, but I get up again. You're never going to keep me down") have made it a sports-arena anthem in the States, the Macarena of the moment.
The single's success has emancipated the Leeds-based group from 15 years of anonymity, near poverty and critical barbs. "With every album the critics would say, 'Why not hang it up?' " says guitarist Boff—short for Boffin (nerdy)—37. But finally making it hasn't toned the group down. They freely admit to shoplifting and petty thievery in their early years and were often in the thick of animal rights and antinuke protests. Their 1986 album Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records mocked the Live Aid concerts.
"Our role is to cause as much trouble as possible," says vocalist-percussionist Dunstan Bruce, 37. Started in 1982 by six friends who shared an abandoned house and a sense of social injustice, Chumbawamba (the name apparently has no meaning) has "always been highly politicized," says singer Alice Nutter, 36. And outrageous. Recently, on the television show Politically Incorrect with Bill Maker, Nutter encouraged fans to steal the band's albums, but only from major chains.
The singing radicals now find themselves victims of their popularity. Longtime fans have slagged them as sellouts for signing with a major label and going mainstream (the band recently licensed "Tubthumping" for use in karaoke machines). "We're this anti-capitalist band, and we're stuck in this completely capitalist machine," says Bruce of their situation. His solution? "We have to laugh at it."