ike many in England, I became dimly aware of this thing called football during World Cup Italia ‘90. A talented national side had reached the semi-final stages, only to be heartbreakingly bested once again by those pesky West Germans. Yet, despite this loss, the players would return to find an enthused country gradually falling back in love with the game.
According to legend, this was the era during which domestic English football transformed from the domain of skinhead Nazi thugs, racism, and Thatcher-approved calls for supporter ID cards, into a beautiful, sanitized spectacle. An overly-romanticized version of events, but football thrives on delicious narrative. What had actually begun was a steady process of stadium regeneration following the recommendations of Lord Justice Taylor, whose Home Office inquiry into the 1989 Hillsborough disaster called for the phasing out of terraced stands. With Taylor’s report insisting that grounds be transformed there was no longer any place for more extreme suggestions regarding crowd control, meaning “eccentric” Chelsea chairman Ken Bates would have to shelve his blueprints for caging fans behind electric fences. A new epoch of secure, family-friendly footy was ushered in, where the only chance of getting robbed was at the turnstiles, or in the last minute of injury time at Old Trafford.
Safer, and more popular than ever, the sport achieved financial liftoff in 1992 as Sky Television jumped into bed with a newly formed FA Premier League, comprised of the top sides in the land. This was a combination of factors which could only lead to one thing—full blown commercialization. As well as clearing the way for magnificent home furnishing accessories like Manchester United curtains or the Chelsea FC biscuit barrel, the merchandise explosion included the football single.
Handily, there was already a certain amount of life in football-related records. “Back Home,” England’s anthem for the 1970 World Cup featuring dinner-jacketed members of the squad insisting that they’d “give all we’ve got to give for the folks back home” and an unstoppably memorable sing-a-long melody, had stormed to number one. Indeed, the slightly bizarre wartime vibe of this song still lives on in curious synthesiser performances from dingy nightclubs. Meanwhile, on the domestic side of the game, it had become something of a tradition for FA Cup Finalists to record a riotous single gleefully proclaiming their certain triumph. What the bold, new commercial era of the ‘90s really needed though, was something a bit special. Something which could define a genre.
New Order’s “World in Motion”
Just as England’s semi-final penalty defeat in 1990 was helping to shape an archetypal “magnificent defeat” mentality (soon to be spotted at Euro ‘96, World Cup ‘98, Euro ‘04 and World Cup ‘06), the accompanying tournament record was also establishing a pattern. New Order’s “World in Motion” was the encapsulation of previous successes (a positive message, team singing the chorus, video awash with football skills) and strides into the future so bold that they would inevitably be adopted as standard practise (popular band, comedian does some lyrics, video awash with japery). This template was carefully followed and refined for the perpetually re-released and preposterously successful “Three Lions” (presented here in its 1998 incarnation), but all the midfield donkey work had really been done six years earlier.
Today, football singles recorded for national tournaments are de rigueur. Look no further than the last World Cup, where, in England alone, more than 100 efforts of varying quality were unleashed upon the general public. Amongst these were pieces of moving subtlety (“Tits Out for the Lads”), charming xenophobia (“Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Jurgen Klinsmann?”) and an FA-sanctioned number by Embrace, who manfully ignored the stereotypical image of upbeat, memorable football tunes and opted instead for the sounds of barely-concealed anguish behind a cheerful facade. Though, in retrospect, their theme was the perfect companion for wallowing in England’s woeful displays on the pitch.
Commercialization, then, has been as much of a mixed bag for these audio spin-offs as it has for the sport itself. But for every half-arsed summer compilation of tournament “classics,” there is an equivalent moment of karmic balance and beauty.
In 1989, the independent London label Cherry Red issued a tentative 16-track football compilation to, they acknowledge, little financial reward. Nonetheless, 4-2-4 had sown the seeds of interest, and as football dragged itself from the doldrums, the label were fleshing out their squad. They now have around 50 releases—each packed with songs written for a specific English or Scottish league club (plus a handful of compilations and records aimed at national sides). Though most of these records do not have the same popular appeal as a mass-marketed World Cup release with the weight of In-ger-land! behind it, each can be relied upon to provide moments of laughter, bewilderment and, yes, a few flashes of genius.
Above all, the albums are a historical document, capturing vital moments from each club’s past. At the more successful end of the scale, this may be the aural commemoration of a European Cup victory or League and Cup “double” triumph—but all sides have generally tasted glory in some form or another, even if it’s just the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy or discontinued silverware like the Anglo-Italian Cup. Fortunes ebb and flow in football, so, for example, although the Nottingham Forest album is unlikely to contain recordings of their recent adventures down the league ladder, their years of success under Brian Clough provide plenty of rousing material.
Legendary players, of course, also feature heavily. Indeed, some of the more interesting tracks in terms of raw historical information are spoken word interview pieces which reflect the playing conditions of different eras. Sunderland’s Roker Roar! contains a three-parter with Charlie Hurley (voted “Player of the Century” in 1979 by fans of the club) who reflects upon then-manager Alan Brown’s persistence in signing him from Millwall in 1957. Brown’s ingenious tactics extended to visiting Hurley’s house and smooth-talking his parents into allowing their son’s transfer, upon the successful completion of which the manager leapt into the air for joy. Just how different the sums of money involved were is highlighted by Hurley’s summary of the deal; “I signed there and then ... I got ten quid.” Though, as he says in conclusion, “It was ten pence a pint—good beer as well!”
Joining these tracks in the “goalscoring superstar heroes” category are a number of mini musical homages to great players, such as the just-the-right-side-of-weird-obsession ditty on Highbury Anthems—”Mr Bergkamp.” This mid-tempo tribute to the majestic Arsenal and Netherlands striker, enlivened by some whirlwhitzer organ riding and enthused chanting of “Mr Bergkamp!”, dramatically clicks into place when it hits the immortal line, “He’s got everything we need / Yes, he’s very good indeed.” Despite the song’s best efforts however, it doesn’t quite manage to express as much Dennis-love this chap.
Often, the tribute to a particularly gifted individual will collide with another staple of the football record—the cover version with cunningly altered words. Some performers are able to take this to extraordinary lengths. One can do little but quietly marvel at Dave Chance’s decision to use “New York, New York” as the basis for his celebration of Dwight Yorke’s unparalleled ability to sleep with glamour models (or possibly to score goals during his time with Aston Villa) in “It’s Up to You Dwight Yorke.” The potential for utter disaster in this concept is great, but Chance manages to carry it off with a passable Sinatra croon. Elsewhere in the Villa songbook, the oft-mentioned relationship between football and religion is made explicit as “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” is lifted from the hymn sheet and given a crafty makeover as “Come All You Villa.” However, it leaves a slightly nagging feeling that the open goal of turning it into “Come On You Villa,” which surely would have made more sense, has been missed.
Back on Highbury Anthems (itself a title passing into history, in light of Arsenal’s recent move to the Emirates Stadium), the unlikely combination of Donna Summer and a meticulously executed offside trap is explored as “Hot Stuff” gets all sweaty and bothered about the 1998 Gunners team. Again, efforts have been made to secure a reasonable sound-a-like vocalist, but the choice moment arrives with a somewhat pouted exclamation that “you’re telling us we’re boring / We’ll just keep on scoring.” Amongst these disco antics, a rapid namecheck of various squad members throws out a reference to Nelson Vivas—at best a bit-part player during his stay in London—which just goes to show that all men are of equal value when the necessities of poetic meter come calling.
Such reminders of times past are a sure-fire way to prompt a warm glow of nostalgia in casual scholars of the game, and a similar kind of novelty value can be found with Sunderland’s heartwarming mid-90s plea to their curmudgeonly, chimp-faced ex-manager, Peter Reid. Called simply “Cheer Up Peter Reid,” this adaptation of “Daydream Believer” automatically gains additional pun points by virtue of the inferred Monkeys/Monkees reference. Naturally, the stirring refrain of “cheer up Peter Reid / Oh what can it mean / To a Sunderland supporter / To be top of the league” was quickly borrowed by rival fans and deftly recrafted as “cheer up (hated manager) / Oh what can it mean / To be (some kind of topical insult) / With a shit football team.” To the delight of many.
Yet if entertaining cover versions are cheeky dribbles and neatly executed drag-backs, original material provides the speculative shots from 30 yards. They could find the top corner of the net and confirm the singer-striker’s genius, or they may fly ineffectively over the goal for the fifth time as the kop hang their heads in shame. A lack of solid clues in the liner notes means that it’s difficult to confirm whether the smooth soul vibe of “Aston Villa Claret and Blue” by David James and the Villa Squad features the David James, currently to be found in tip-top form at Portsmouth and delighting fashionistas with an ever-changing range of hairstyles. As he was at Villa in 1999, it seems possible they are one and the same. Still, whoever is providing the laid-back jazz lounge vocals, they’re doing a fine job—ably supported by a doo-wop chorus. It’s crying out to be used over a slo-mo montage of silky skills and dramatic triumph in the face of adversity.
James, though, is not the only surprise contributor. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, keen to prove he has a sense of humor after all, breaks out his acoustic guitar to extol the talents of one Thierry Henry. Alas, it turns out to merely be someone putting on a dubious French accent and contains no references whatsoever to Henry’s penchant for disappearing in big games. Disappointment all round, there.
Someone who is definitely present in the Cherry Red back catalogue though is ex-Wimbledon midfield “enforcer” (or “dirty fouling bastard”), Vinnie Jones. The 1992 cover of “Wooly Bully” offered few hints at Jones’ forthcoming cinematic portrayal of an assortment of gangsters and hard-men, though his general conduct on the pitch possibly did. Crucially however, the label confirm that the single, and recognition it gained on BBC Radio 1, “helped to further encourage us to move into the world of football records.” A hint, perhaps, that without the aid of the mental pseudo-Welshman, all of this may never have taken place.
Crazy Gang contributions aside, perhaps the weirdest aspect of this collection of albums is the unrelenting stream of positive feelings they express. In one sense this is not too puzzling—everyone believes their team are the best. From the summit of the Premiership to the lowest semi-professional outfit, fans will proudly declare they are “the finest football team / The world has ever seen.” Alongside this bravado, however, supporters can also be extremely deft at conjuring dry wit from utterly hopeless situations. Many a relegation-threatened side will have found themselves 3-0 down and expressing a tongue-in-cheek “4-3, we’re gonna win 4-3.”
Clearly, no album is ever going to contain the more blatantly unsavoury elements of football chanting—wishing death on members of a player’s family or disgraceful exhibitions of racism are unlikely to find favor with the general listening public—but there are plenty of examples of good-natured “banter” or self-depreciating humor which could serve as a break in mood from the overwhelming triumphalism. For teams who have been through their fair share of poor form, tactically inept managers or corrupt chairmen (in other words, most of them), a careful penned heartbreaker about that season where absolutely nothing went right would be just as valid as a League Cup semi-final anthem. This is no fault of the label, as they can only work with the selection of tracks available for compiling, but as football records inevitably begin to search for new ground to cover, perhaps this is a direction which could be richly mined.
That, though, is a consideration for the future. For now, the past is being lovingly archived by Cherry Red with considerable skill and attention. Their dedication to the game is obvious, from the records themselves, to their continued sponsorship of the Middlesex County Football League. Beyond the sparkle and allure of populist World Cup singles, each league club has a wealth of stories, memorable achievements and, if they’re lucky, ancient crackling FA Cup Final records transferred from dodgy vinyl to recall and celebrate. As the listings stray further from the peak of the Premier League, the niche-factor may grow and the interest levels presumably begin to diminish—but Cherry Red know that someone, somewhere, will always benefit from having a selection of Coventry City-related musical moments in their life.
Cherry Red Records