From The Cockney Rejects to Oasis via Half Man Half Biscuit – Richard Newson explored how football and music went from opposites to best friends
As a Sounds writer in the ’80s I met lots of rock artists. Many of them, like me, had been born in the early or mid 1960s. Very often, after a long hard interview, we’d end up talking football. Again and again these musicians told me how, for them, the game became less important when punk arrived in 1976-77 and made pop exciting again.
This was also a time when a generation of old heroes was hanging up its boots; skinheads were reappearing at grounds; and once-sublime soccer kits had become itchy acrylic nightmares. In the minds of pop fans and musicians alike, football equalled thuggery; an artless pursuit diametrically opposed to the glamour of rock’n’roll.
We’d all seen trouble at grounds in the early ’70s, but somehow that era’s ‘crews’ and their songs – at least when witnessed from a safe distance – were all part of the fun. The bootboys’ billowing clothes and shaggy hairstyles reflected the flamboyance of lad-rockers like Mud and Slade, and their songs were often lovingly bowered-up re-writes of the latest pop hits (Gary Glitter, come on down!). It was all part of the same glamtastic teen package.
There’s little doubt that in the late ’70s a large chunk of the football community went AWOL. Some deserters kept an eye on their team’s results, but for most fans football became an irrelevance as the exploits of Joy Division and The Jam became an all-consuming passion.
From a music buff's point of view at the time, football had little to offer. If the newspapers were to be believed, games were taking place in an atmosphere of terror, with the grounds and surrounding streets ruled by gangs of ultra-violent, dart-throwing psychos. It sounded petrifying. What’s more, an unlikely new link between soccer and rock’n’roll was about to make things worse…
In 1980, tattooed yob-pop geezers The Cockney Rejects marked West Ham’s FA Cup Final appearance of that year with a noisy, shouty version of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles. It reached number 35 and got the band on Top of The Pops.
As the Rejects toured the UK, their gigs frequently ended in punch-ups as local supporters turned up to take on the claret’n’blue clad rockers. Amazingly, the band seemed to relish the challenge and continued to bare their Hammers tattoos at every opportunity. By 1981, inspired by the Rejects, groups like the 4-Skins and The Last Resort were flying the flag for a scene that had come to be known as Oi!. The crudely tuneful music came complete with grim portrayals of inner-city life and gang warfare; football was the easiest way for bands to prove their authenticity. Oi! musicians revealed their terrace loyalties, and accounts of football-related violence were common in music press interviews.
All this fed the anti-football instincts of mainstream rock fans and, not surprisingly, the early ’80s were virtually free of soccer/pop moments. Sure, there was John Lydon’s Arsenal bag in his 1983 film debut Order Of Death; Iron Maiden were high-profile West Ham fans; and Pat Nevin’s NME interviews and love for The Smiths and New Order proved that intelligent life still lurked within football grounds. Despite this, music types remained suspicious of football. After all, you’d hardly go and get your head kicked in at The Den when you could watch the Cocteau Twins at the Royal Festival Hall instead.
By the mid ’80s, though, football had become a hot political issue and the gap between it and rock narrowed considerably. Political pop satirists Half Man Half Biscuit were one of the first bands to use their interest in football as a selling point and upset TV bosses by turning down a live Tube slot because it clashed with a Tranmere Rovers game.
In many ways, the band’s decision to opt for Friday night soccer instead of priceless TV exposure was a revolutionary act: The Biscuits were cool; they loved football; therefore it followed that football must also be cool.
TV coverage of the 1986 World Cup came complete with the dramatic, stomping Official Colourbox World Cup Theme by trendy 4AD synth band Colourbox – an open invitation for arty types to come along and take their places in the tea queue. In Viz, Sid The Sexist flew the flag for NUFC, and Frank bloody Sidebottom was recruiting hordes of Student Grants to the new age soccer army with endless plugs for his local club Altrincham...
The new football fanzine scene was getting heaps of media coverage and, naturally, the network’s DIY ethos rang lots of bells for ex-punks. Rock musicians became linked with certain football clubs (The Cult’s Billy Duffy was a Man City fan, The Mission’s Craig Adams loved Leeds); South London’s I, Ludicrous released the touching Three English Football Grounds; and in 1987, The Wedding Present paid homage to a top soccer icon by releasing an LP called George Best – complete with classic action shot of Best on the sleeve. In the same year Steve Redhead raised fanciful theories about socio-political links between pop and soccer in his book Sing When You’re Winning.
In 1988, Liverpool FC acknowledged the pop/football crossover with the not-bad-really Liverpool Rap and two years later, the England team joined up with New Order to record World In Motion, which became a huge hit and still captures perfectly that summer’s optimistic mood. The links between football and pop have increased ever since.
At first, bands like The Farm (Liverpool/Everton), Mega City Four (Farnborough) and Lush (Spurs) were happy to mention their favourite clubs in passing. Then Lush – helped by Simon Raymonde of the Cocteau Twins – took things a step further by recording a flexi-disc, And David Seaman Will Be Very Disappointed About That (an ethereal pisstake at the Arsenal goalie’s expense) for The Spur.
The phenomenon reached its logical conclusion when St Etienne and Pelé decided to go the whole hog and named themselves after their soccer heroes. But the mid ’90s soccer vibe is so strong that many band T-shirts are designed to look like football tops and as the pressure to be fashionably football-conscious grows, rock artists feel obliged to declare their allegiances as loudly as possible.
The Wildhearts turned Top of The Pops into a Toon Army propaganda coup, Oasis wear Man City shirts in photo sessions and Blur’s Damon Albarn flaunts his Chelsea season ticket just as artists like Gary Glitter once wore sparkly make-up and platform boots. The big difference is Glitter’s gimmicks were meant to distance himself from his fans and make him seem magical and, er, godlike. Albarn, on the other hand, presents him self as yer ordinary football-mad geezer – because today’s pop fans like to imagine their idols moving in next door.
So, it’s fashionable for ’90s pop stars to like football, with its groovy new image of all-seater stadia, the Premier League, John Major, Sky TV, David Mellor... Er, what’s that Damon? You never liked football anyway? That’s funny. Neither did I. Richard Newson