Monday, June 07, 2010

World cup willies

In James Nice's new book Shadowplayers (highly recommended BTW), the author, in writing about EnglandNewOrder's World In Motion, suggests it was the best football-related song since The Official Colourbox World Cup Theme. One could infer from reading this sentence that the list of football songs is long and glorious. In fact, the two mentioned above are, as far as I'm concerned, pretty much the only ones worth mentioning, with Colourbox's 1986 effort just edging out New Order's. Before we get to Colourbox, though, let's remind ourselves of some of the efforts against which these two can be measured.

Lonnie Donegan's World Cup Willie was an early attempt at the form, but while Donegan's place in the rock and roll annals is assured (and Rock Island Line still sounds wonderful), this was pretty woeful fare with none of the merit of his work from the previous decade. In truth, Donegan was, at this point in his career, seen as deeply square and unfashionable, and from 1966 to 1986, England (and, for that matter, Scottish) World Cup songs, both official and unofficial would be similarly toe-curling, and would bear scant resemblance to what the majority of fans were actually listening to when not on the terraces.

By far the worst are those on which the teams themselves performed, with England's 1970 effort Back Home, and the 1974 monstrosity Scotland, Scotland among the worst offenders. Rod Stewart's Ole, Ola from 1978 at least had the merit of aping something you might conceivably hear in the host country (i.e. Argentina), but 1982's This Time by the England World Cup squad was a return to the turgid, leaden terrace sing-along that was the English FA's default setting for soccer songs. To whom, exactly, were these meant to appeal? Time and again, the songs deemed acceptable by the various footballing organisations were throwbacks to the 1950s, a time before teenagers, before Cliff, before Elvis.

That's not to say that when football did try to "get with it" musically, the results were any better. It's probably best to pass quickly over songs by footballers (but that weren't football-related), which were, without exception, execrable. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I give you exhibits A and B, Kevin Keegan's Head Over Heels and Waddle and Hoddle's Diamond Lights.

By 1986, then, something had to change. Stephanie Lawrence's official World Cup theme Special Kind of Hero was written by Rick Wakeman, and while I have to doff my cap to Rick Wakeman, (a particularly skilled and amusing raconteur and a pretty good keyboardist to boot), only a cloth-eared ninny would think that commissioning a song in 1986 by Wakeman was going to capture the zeitgeist. Step up then, 4AD stalwarts Colourbox who, completely uninvited, gave us The Official Colourbox World Cup Theme. Note the clever title. This wasn't The Official World Cup Theme by Colourbox; sadly, as we've already mentioned, Special Kind of Hero was the official song. Instead, this was the Official Colourbox World Cup Theme, i.e. the official theme within the confines of their world. The song manages to capture both the spirit of the times (clattering, programmed instruments and an indie dancefloor sensibility- think Age of Chance, World Domination Enterprises, Tackhead) and the spirit of the tournament at the same time. I'm very surprised we don't hear it more often on BBC or ITV sports shows, as, to my mind, it's a perfect song to use as a musical bed for a montage of goals, dives, fouls and penalties.

New Order's effort four years later, is, rightly, remembered as a football/music high point (though these things are relative: it's actually a New Order low point when compared to, e.g., Cries and Whispers, Age of Consent or Love Vigilantes, but football songs being so uniformly poor, it easily bests all others in the genre). However, while it's not quite up there with World In Motion, we shouldn't overlook Pop Will Eat Itself's unofficial Italia '90 anthem, Touched By The Hand of Cicciolina. It wasn't enough to spur England to victory, but it's a smart song and actually more subversive than New Order's, though not as easy to sing while munching on a meat pie and sipping a Bovril. It also features future soundtrack composer Clint Mansell and references Jeff Koons' ex-wife, so it's worth a look.

Since then, we've been subsumed by the unremitting dreck of, among others, Del Amitri's dirge-like Don't Come Home Too Soon from 1998 (a realistic assessment of Scotland's chances, some would say) and England United, by the unholy quartet of Space, Echo & the Bunnymen, Ocean Colour Scene, and the Spice Girls (no, I don't remember it either). This year, the floodgates have well and truly opened, and along with James Corden and Dizzee Rascal's opus, we've been subjected to abysmal stuff from Stan Boardman, Terry Venables, Clint Boon and Gideon Conn and (Jesus, how the mighty are fallen) Rik Mayall. All (except Corden's) rely on cliches of Englishness, cleave to the idea of a nation that reached its zenith (musically and sportingly) in 1966, and sound little different in tone and form from World Cup Willie. All of which makes Colourbox's sublime, unofficial anthem seem even more urgent and appropriate even 24 years after it was made. I'd like to think that if the FA had commissioned an update by the group for this year's World Cup (or better still, simply re-released it, officially sanctioned), it would spur our team of donkeys on to, ooh, at least the quarter-finals. As it stands, if England's performance in South Africa reflects the quality of the music that's been composed to spur them on this year, they'll probably crash out before the knockout stage.

Download The Official Colourbox World Cup Theme by Colourbox (mp3) (deleted Aug 2010)

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