The long and ignoble history of World Cup songs, from Rod Stewart to Jurgen Klinsmann
They say you can judge your ‘era’ by when music stops having an impact on your life.
That period in which the charts become a noise, when commercial radio is forsaken – God forsak-en in many respects – in favour of BBC Radio 6 Music and, of course, when you realise your score on Popmaster will fail to make double figures, all because the contestant opted for “Songs from 2010s”.
Football songs fall into this category. If you remember “Three Lions”, then it’s unlikely you’ll re-member many other soccer songs since.
Much like a distant Barry Davies commentary piped down an overseas’ telephone line or a giant ‘R’ appearing in the corner of the TV screen during replays, we can only lament the passing of the tra-ditional pre-tournament football song. Whether it’s a jolly jape or a melancholic melody, the ballad of the beautiful game isn’t what it used to be.
How this happened, we can only guess.
It would be easy to point the anger at the England 1970 squad for raising the bar too high. All bow-ties, dinner jackets, smiles, no hint of awkwardness or self-awareness. We will return to them later. And then there’s Keith Allen, persistent irritant of England’s tournament songs in the 1990s. Skinner and Baddiel? They’re not innocent, by any means.
But let’s head north. Please hold our jackets while we roll up our sleeves and aim our clenched set of fives at Rod Stewart.
You have to hand it to Stewart. When he’s not asking us, hopefully rhetorically, “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” or singing about “Hot Legs” – presumably involving a rolled up Liverpool Echo, a bladder-full of beer and an afternoon spent on the Kop in the 1970s – he manages to combine sporting and mu-sical hell.
Football and songs are an uneasy fusion at the best of times. Worse when someone of the musical pedigree of Stewart has put their name to it, adding no small amount of fevered expectation to Scotland’s 1978 World Cup.
Andy Cameron went down the straightforward “Tartan Army” line with the official song – a simple outing, which could easily almost be chanted on the terraces: “We’re on the March wi’ Ally’s Army”. It was tub-thumping, foot-tapping, rousing nonsense. The single sold more than 360,000 copies and reached number six in the charts.
But that wasn’t enough for Rod Stewart. Long before he brought his unique personality to Scottish FA Cup draws, Rod was already thinking outside the box. The crooner came up with “Ole Ola” for the 1978 Mundial. The chorus went as follows: “Ole ola, Ole ola… We’re gonna bring that World Cup back from over there.”
Yes, he rhymed “ola” with “over there”.
Our Rod was also a visionary. Check out the following verse:
“Oh, Brazil, this time I don’t think so [spot on, they finished third]
Holland without Cruyff just ain’t the same [again, great observation - they were good, but not as good as in ‘74]
Germany will, we feel, be a challenge [knocked out at the second group phase, but still…]
The Italians can still play the game.” [fourth place to Brazil]
He then goes and ruins it: “But there’s really only one team in it. We’ll be singing as we’ll get off of the plane…”
He was half right. The Scotland fans were certainly singing as their team got off the plane following their ignominious exit. But something entirely different.
These days you’d need extraordinarily unfortunate timing with Pick of the Pops to hear either Scot-land chart entry. And it got worse.
John Gordon Sinclair – the one who wasn’t Dorothy in Gregory’s Girl – provided a more melanchol-ic anthem four years later. As the Scotland players swayed uneasily behind him, this particular moment of televisual joy provided Tottenham’s Steve Archibald with his own personal milestone as the first footballer to appear on Top of the Pops with two different groups, Chas’n’ Dave’s pounding FA Cup anthem “Tottenham Tottenham” being the other.
Before we leave Scotland, it would be remiss not going to mention Del Amitri’s truly awful “Don’t Come Home Too Soon” from 1998. Guess what happened next?
Back to England for 1982 – the year of the pullover and “This Time (We’ll Get It Right)”.
Naturally, they didn’t.
A collection of England players donned sweaters and walked into a recording studio like a rabble of C&A modelling outcasts. Taking it way too seriously was Kevin Keegan. Clutching his headphones tight against his perm with such a conviction it’s a small wonder he didn’t do himself harm and miss most of the tournament with an inju… ah. Anyway, it was a brilliant start, slightly ordinary and un-spectacular in the middle bits, followed by a slow fade. Like song, like England’s World Cup as it happens.
But ‘82 was nowhere near as painful as “We’ve Got the Whole World at Our Feet” in 1986 or the dreadful “We’re Going All the Way” pap of Euro ‘88, which involved England players going through the motions on weight-free gym equipment, dancing like a collection of uncles and handling foot-balls with great unease during a particularly uncomfortable episode of Wogan. As any man does with a mad dog, Terry Wogan merely backed away and swiftly called for help – in this case, by in-troducing his next guest.
And then came 1990. When the football-music relationship changed.
New Order were to provide the shift in credibility football songs so desperately needed. No longer did we expect our finest 22 or 23 to huddle around a few microphones, expose themselves to ridi-cule or sway like drunks at a wedding. “World in Motion” took football songs onto a new level – al-beit for an all-too-short period. Phil Bloomfield, a senior member of the Football Association, was inspired by the hugely underrated Colourbox’s pitch for BBC’s 1986 World Cup coverage called “The Official Colourbox World Cup Theme”. Having been a huge Joy Division and New Order fan, he contacted the co-founder of Factory Records, Tony Wilson, via the football agent Jon Smith, and the result of their collaboration was arguably the greatest-ever football song.
An invite was sent out to all of Bobby Robson’s likely World Cup squad. Returning the call were John Barnes, Paul Gascoigne, Peter Beardsley, Steve McMahon and Des Walker. Joining them was the comedian and song co-writer Keith Allen – or, as a school friend put it, “that bloke who looks a bit like Steve Bull”.
The song featured a specially recorded sample of the 1966 World Cup commentator Kenneth Wol-stenholme’s famous “They think it’s all over” line, with “We want goals” and “A beauty scored by Bobby Charlton” lifted from the official Fifa film of the 66 World Cup, Goal!
The crowning moment was, of course, Barnes rapping towards the end of the song – with the Liv-erpool winger earning his slot with what could only have been a have-to-be-there-to-believe-it “rap-off” involving McMahon and Beardsley. Other potential titles of the song included “E for England”, which was vetoed for all the obvious reasons, with “Let’s Face It” also rejected. “World in Motion” it was.
There was very little chant element to it. There was no orchestra. There were no bored footballers standing around gurning awkwardly at the nearest camera. This lyrical and musical classic sounded fresh, different and the few players who turned up were having fun – where Keegan once moulded his headphones against his head, Gazza simply did a few keepy-uppies. It was the kind of song fans could buy into. If Gazza’s tears were to be the enduring image of Italia 90, “World in Motion” was to become a soundtrack of that particular summer.
Back in 1970, there were no raps, no tracksuits and plenty of pomp. “Back Home” was the daddy of all World Cup songs. It could easily be considered as a potential national anthem, such was the musical gravitas of those tub-thumping two minutes and seven seconds.
Written by Bill Martin and Phil Coulter, and released as a single in late April, the song spent three weeks at number one. England players, decked out in dinner suits, bow ties and, in Nobby Stiles’ case, a full set of teeth, belted out the song with pride and gusto. Meanwhile, the B-side was called “Cinnamon Stick“. Nope, nor me.
Roll on a few years.
The mid-1990s were all about Britpop. In one corner were the comedians Frank Skinner and David Baddiel in collaboration with the Lightning Seeds. Elsewhere, perhaps for the FHM crowd, you’d find “England’s Irie” by Shaun Ryder’s Black Grape, featuring Joe Strummer. The former lead vo-calist of the Clash Joe Strummer, for goodness sake. And in the, say, NME spot, was Primal Scream with “The Big Man and Team Scream Meet the Barmy Army Uptown”, featuring Irvine Welsh. The whole football music scene reeked of 1996, frankly.
Seemingly echoing the “Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough” mantra, “England’s Irie” should have been one of the great football songs. Only it wasn’t, and isn’t. Lyrically it was sus-pect. “Hey diddle-diddle, there's a fella in the middle, and I think he's pulling my string. My wife's lactating and I'm spectating. It’s a football thing.”
But it did have the perfect storm feel to it in the football music genre, lots of noise, chanting and a memorable melody. Alas it wasn’t to be, climbing to top weight of number six in the British charts, below Céline Dion, The Fugees and Peter Andre. Further humiliation followed when it was to be used as the theme tune for the midnight hour ITV Nationwide Football League highlights.
Instead, 1996 remains the domain of “Three Lions”, more singalong than rousing, with references to England’s past throughout the lyrical sheet. Importantly, it was ably assisted by the ultimate en-dorsement: the England team and fans adopting it as the Euro 96 anthem. Skinner and co were on-to a winner from the moment of release. In summary, “England’s Irie” was better than it was, while “Three Lions” wasn’t as good as we think it was. Is it any surprise Ryder swore a lot?
And then there was “The Big Man…” song. Sprinkled with slurs, cursing and no shortage of ‘who are ya?’ some felt it was anti-English, others an anti-Protestant song. Most just didn’t see the point to it. It wasn’t Primal Scream’s finest moment. Number 17 was its best finish, in case you’re won-dering.
“Three Lions” was re-worked and updated two years later, but France 98 was all about “Vindaloo”. Fat Les was a mash-up of 1990s hanger-on Keith Allen, who wrote the lyrics, and Alex James of Blur and Pink Floyd’s occasional bassist Guy Pratt, who put together the music. Initially released as a satire of football chants and songs, it was to become the backing track to Michael Owen’s goal against Argentina, David Beckham’s sending off and Glenn Hoddle’s ill-advised diaries.
And once a song starts to parody a genre that is beyond mockery to start with, the end is near. The home nations haven’t produced a football song worth its salt since.
The back catalogue of World Cup songs has generally been a compendium of dirge and noise. But it’s not just our fault.
Take Germany, whose first foray into the World Cup as a newly unified nation was to end in shame and embarrassment. What better way to celebrate their participation, as holders, in the 1994 World Cup than with 1970s’ icons The Village People?
You won’t be surprised to know it was a football-disco mongrel of a song. A mongrel with fleas and flatulence. “Far away in America” was truly awful. “You know the game is up, that will change your life in America” went the lyric. Although that was to be the case when Bulgaria sent them packing in the quarter-finals.
It still has nothing on their 1986 Eurovision-style effort, “Mexico mi amor”, featuring Franz Becken-bauer rocking his head side-to-side and dangerously close to a ceiling fan, with added tomfoolery from Harald Schumacher pretending to play the trumpet – oh, how Patrick Battiston would have laughed.
The nonsense extends to other regions of Europe too. Mexico 86 might have been about the Dan-ish Dynamite, but it didn’t prevent that nation’s finest squeezing themselves into bad tracksuits and tunelessly bawling into microphones for “Re-Sepp-Ten: Vi er røde, vi er hvide” (“We are Red, We are White”) produced by VM Holdet. You simply must listen to this belting, crowd-lifting musical montage of Europop, fused by the Kim Wilde-esque voice of Dodo Gad. There is good reason why we loved that Danish side of the mid-1980s and it wasn’t just Michael Laudrup.
Yet, having started with Scotland, it would be remiss of us not to end with the Tartan Army.
“Back Home” collaborators Martin and Coulter ditched their dinner jackets to record “Easy Easy” with magnificent, foot-stomping, tartan-waving Bay City Rollers-style results. “Yabba dabba doo, we support the boys in blue, and it’s easy, easy! Yabba dabba doo, we are gonna follow you, and it’s easy, easy!” Repeat till death do us part.
You get the drift.
So maybe England missing out on the 1974 World Cup wasn’t such a bad thing, after all.
Yet, musically, the nadir wasn’t even close. Since those late 90s, music’s relationship with football hasn’t been the same – and probably never will be again.