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The Life and Death of the English Football Song

Photo from Oliver!, Cain Park Evans Ampthitheater, Summer 2007 (Cleveland Heights)

Collapsed Lung's "Eat My Goal" is but one indication that the cute, fun, just 'getting behind the team' football song of days gone by had now become big business.

Considering that sport occupies the hearts and minds of countless millions around the world, it remains an eternal mystery why the dramas of tracks and fields have been noticeabley absent from the lyrical canon of popular music. Eagle-eared listeners will have their own favourites from this rare species; "Piazza, New York Catcher" by Belle and Sebastian and Kraftwerk’s "Tour De France" immediately spring to mind. But still, it’s tough work exhausting the fingers on two hands counting songs on the subject of sport.

Unless, of course, one looks to Britain and its long history of football songs. A genre yet to receive even the slightest degree of respect, or a dedicated section in any known record store, it’s still a musical phenomenon worth investigating.

The first football smash hit was also the archetype for the entire genre. Sung (in the loosest sense of the word) by the England squad that contested the 1970 World Cup "Back Home" was old fashioned even then. It sounded like a bunch of tone-deaf players in the shower belting out a sing-along after a victory. Which was essentially what it was supposed to be.

Yet inexplicably, people bought it. Replacing Norman Greenbaum’s "Spirit in the Sky" at the top of the British singles chart, "Back Home" stayed there for three weeks, and in doing so set a vital football song precedent: if people feel a connection to the team in question, they will buy any crap.

It was a revelation not lost of the sport’s fledgling marketing minds. Every time a team would qualify for a final, the players would be wheeled into a nearby studio, taught some new words to an old terrace chant, and told to do their best. The expectations were not high, and the results could only ever appeal to the hopelessly devoted. “Blue is the colour/ Football is the game,” Chelsea stated the facts in 1971. Even that was sophisticated when compared to Leeds United’s eponymous “Leeds, Leeds, Leeds”.

This artless assault on the ears continued until the early '80s. But a change was around the corner in the shape of a duo from North London.

Chas’n’Dave were never big stars, although they had shared a bill with Led Zeppelin and occasionally scraped into the Top Ten with their cheeky cockney, piano-based pub rock they termed ‘Rockney’. But they were genuine Tottenham Hotspur fans. And when the club reached the 1981 FA Cup Final, the duo was commissioned to write the commemorative song.

It was at this point that the football song took its first steps to respectability. Because even though "Ossie’s Dream" ticked all the traditional boxes – namely a terrace-friendly tune and self-aggrandising lyrics – the addition of a sense of humour and a dose of lyrical self-awareness moved the goalposts entirely.

Based around the idea that Argentinean Osvaldo Ardiles was excited to play at historic Wembley Stadium, “Ossie’s going to Wembley, his knees have gone all trembley” placed the team’s tongue in its collective cheek while the song’s payoff line, Ardiles’ peculiar pronunciation of “Tottingham”, stole the show.

Ossie's Dream - 1980/81 Cup Final Squad with Chas & Dave

The football song had taken its first steps to maturity. Unfortunately, not every club was blessed with songwriter supporters of Chas’n’Dave’s calibre. Compare 1984’s “Here we go, here we go, here we go/ Everton are the best, we all know” with the dexterous wordplay from Tottenham’s ill-fated 1987 opus, “Hot shot Tottenham, we are the super Spurs/ Everybody knows we’re the football connoisseurs.” Poetry.

The appeal of the football song spread abroad. The Chicago Bears head office saw dollar signs flashings, and somehow convinced the 1985 team to make fools of themselves performing the "Superbowl Shuffle", the darkest moment in Walter Payton’s otherwise glorious career. Failing to see the historical error of the Bears’ way, the New York Mets did the same the next year with "Let’s Go Mets Go".

Of course, music itself was changing. But no one could have predicted how the football song was about to evolve.

If 1988’s "Anfield Rap" didn’t exist, you couldn’t make it up. Performed by that year’s Liverpool squad, the song (if it can be called that) is half celebration of sporting multiculturalism, half decent into Dante’s Inferno’s bargain bin.

Conceived and written by an actual player, Australian striker Craig Johnston, the "Anfield Rap" is the football genre’s "Paul’s Boutique". Sampling LL Cool J, and incorporating sound bites from The Beatles, "You’ll Never Walk Alone" and Liverpool’s greats of the past, in theory at least, the "Anfield Rap" was a bold, creative endeavour.

Liverpool FC - Anfield Rap (Full version)

The Rap’s high concept, unbelievably as it still seems, is that only two of the team that season actually came from Liverpool. After discussing the fact that none of their colleagues possess the city’s particular accent (in rhyme, naturally), they conclude that they teach the rest of the players “to talk proper”.

The premise may have been shaky, but the performances were worse. Twenty years later and many of the players involved (now respected TV analysts and coaches) still wince at the song’s very mention.

The one player/rapper to whom the word ‘flow’ could apply was John Barnes – “I come from Jamaica/ My name is John Barn-es/ When I do my thing the crowd goes bananas” – and a year later his skills were put on display again as he dropped a verse on the first football song that could have been considered cool, "World In Motion" by New Order.

England New Order - World in Motion

Critically respected and still at the height of their popularity, New Order were an inspired choice to be England’s musical herald for the 1990 World Cup. With lyrics from comedian Keith Allen (Lily’s Dad), New Order delivered their standard electro indie fare, and for the first time, football fans felt like they were buying into something with genuine musical merit.

Coinciding with England’s excellent performance at that year’s World Cup, "World In Motion" was one of the springboards for what was to become the game’s greatest decade. Football had become cool, everyone was talking about it, and the music played its part. Emerging rock stars like Noel and Liam Gallagher of Oasis (Manchester City) and Blur’s Damon Albarn (Chelsea) shamelessly flaunted their football fandom to engage the new football demographic.

By 1996 the football song had reached its apex. England’s officially sanctioned song for that summer’s European Championships was "Three Lions", written and performed by melodic Britpoppers The Lightning Seeds, with the help of comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner. Tuneful, easy to sing, with lyrics a goldfish could remember, it was note perfect for 1996’s summer of soccer. No one even noticed that the actual England team, once the sole performers of the football song, were entirely absent from the process.

The die had been cast. Rap-rockers Collapsed Lung had their sole hit with their ode to the game, "Eat My Goal". Coca-Cola even used the track on a football-themed advertising campaign. The sport had overrun the nation’s consciousness, and what was once seen as musically cute, or fun, or just getting behind the team, had become big business.

It was hard to not be cynical, and TV bedroom comedians Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish delivered the first blow. While admitting to knowing nothing about football, they demonstrated just how simple it was to write a brainless song on the subject. Banal lyrics like “Ball, ball, ball – footy, footy, footy” were simple, but effortlessly satirical, too.

Adam and Joe - The Footie Song

Everyone who saw it instantly understood that the football song was doomed. Everyone that is, apart from the people commissioning the official song to celebrate England’s entry into the 1998 World Cup. Whoever thought that a combination of the Spice Girls and Echo and the Bunnymen on a single would produce musical magic was sorely mistaken. The record sunk without trace.

An unauthorised anthem, Keith Allen and Blur bassist Alex James, "Vindaloo", was released on the sole premise of being easy to sing in stadiums. The fans never sang it. Even they recognised it as an unnecessary exercise in self-promotion.

Fat Les - Vindaloo

The final whistle had blown. The era of the football song was over.

•••

I don’t actually own any of the records that have been discussed in this column, but still, one can’t help feel sad about the demise of the football song. Because despite the musical tawdriness that accompanied almost all of these releases, they were, up to the mid-'90s at least, ways for fans to feel closer to the team. If nothing else, they demonstrated that the players were down to earth guys who couldn’t sing (or rap), but didn’t mind having a bit of fun in the cause of team spirit.

So it’s no surprise that the football song doesn’t exist any more. Multi-millionaires like David Beckham (or his wife for that matter) wouldn’t be caught dead near a recording studio. Players can’t sing about their love of their teams when even their fans know they’d jump ship for a bigger paycheque at the drop of a hat. The big team’s brand values don’t need to be demeaned by novelty singles. English football has evolved beyond its musical genre.

If Ossie were going to Wembley this year, his knees wouldn’t be trembley in the slightest. Why would they be? He’d be driving home in his Ferrari, win or lose.

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