A Short History of Football and Music: the 1990s

Posted by on Oct 9, 2014 in Football and Music, Uncategorized | One Comment
A Short History of Football and Music: the 1990s

If football and music were starting to find common ground as the Nineties dawned, this was still very much at the underground level. The homespun productions of the fanzine movement cut across both disciplines and the offbeat haircut-chronicling and socially conscious When Saturday Comes reader identified more with fans of quintessentially indie jokers Half Man Half Biscuit, purveyors of such memorable ditties as All I want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit, Dickie Davies Eyes and I was a Teenage Armchair Honved Fan. All this said, Bolton’s Tony Philliskirk and David Reeves did bear more than a passing resemblance to the band Bros.

The fanzine and football culture was reflected in stores such as Nottingham and London’s Selectadisc where the wares of companies such as The Old Fashioned Football Shirt Company jostled for house room with band T-shirts of various hues while vintage trainers could be viewed at Brixton Academy and the Academy of Football.

The period is significant for real upswing in football’s fortunes, with hooliganism reduced to sporadic outbursts, attendances rising vertiginously, a spate of new stadium construction and the arrival of the Premier League, with the main watershed moments endlessly debated to this day.

Gazza’s tears during England’s epic 1990 World Cup semi-final, Michael Thomas’s late goal in the 1989 title decider, Nick Hornby, acid house and the Stone Roses (see yesterday’s post covering the 1980s) might all claim some of the credit although in reality, these events were but footnotes compared to the two truly significant landmarks of the day.

The Hillsborough disaster signalled that enough was enough and if the appalling negligence of the South Yorkshire Police and the government of the time was obscured by the Press, the catastrophe did lead to all-encompassing change. The Manic Street Preachers were to chronicle the tragedy with 1998’s SYMM. This was the closing track on an album that was Number 1 in the charts and won Best Album at the Brit Awards, saying something that, at the time, believe it or not, was deemed to be controversial.

Two decades on, much of that, including the second Big Moment – the arrival of Rick Parry and his Premier League along with their pals from Sky Sports – has, in the opinion of many, saddled us with a tawdry market-driven travesty of a sport, one in which we are starting to see serious attrition in terms of fan attendance but which at the time seemed like a ride we wanted to be part of. Indeed, it’s worth quoting at length John McGee’s landmark article on this.

What characterised both football and music in the 1990s, perhaps even more than its foundations in previous generations, was an overwhelming feeling of emancipation. That period between 1993 and 1997 was a coming out party for popular British culture. Guitar music was no longer the property of the middle brow classes who so cherished the Smiths, the Cure and My Bloody Valentine and football, by the same token, was passed back the other way like a huge Panini sticker swap.

 This mirrored British life in the mid-90s. Thatcher was gone, and with her the need for popular culture to hang out at the margins, through illegal raves or hooligan culture. People of all classes could have, do and be what they wanted to, and they generally did. In this climate the sharing of these two vital organs of British cultural heritage must have seemed the most natural of actions – navel gazing, worry, introspection, bombast, the cult of self and neoliberalism were, for a moment, all yesterday’s news. As one youthful chameleon saw it, in an unparalleled act of zeitgeist channelling, ‘things could only get better’ – and for most of us, for a long while, they did.

Before Britpop fully landed, the new optimism swept away not only the hoolies, but also fences and the mooted ID cards while in politics, the Poll Tax was driven off the proposed statute books and in music, the still buoyant Stones Roses and others were starting to form a bridgehead in the charts as well as the wider consciousness of the UK.

The decision to deploy the impeccably referenced New Order to pen England’s World Cup song in 1990 was a volte-face of epic proportions after the dross that had preceded it while Liverpool’s Anfield Rap from two years previously was another bold attempt to connect with ‘yoof’ culture, albeit a far less satisfactory one, despite being endorsed by John Peel.

World in Motion probably doesn’t even rank in the top 40 of New Order’s best songs, but it was zeitgeist writ large as the Three Lions marched to that semi-final and signalled a love affair between football and music which lasted for a good chunk of the decade.

Affable London record-collectors Saint Etienne, thrillingly sampled the theme music of French radio show, Inter Football, France Football at the start of their brilliant 1991 LP Foxbase Alpha, Black Grape released the boisterous England’s Irie, author of the day Irvine Welsh collaborated with Primal Scream on The Big Man And The Scream Team Meet The Barmy Army Uptown, Blur and Damon Albarn played in a 5-a-side tournament at Warwickshire’s Phoenix Festival while 80,000 people sang along to that year’s In-ger-lund theme tune Three Lions at 1996’s European Football Championships. The tune perfectly capturing the feelgood factor (to be kind) and mindless jingoism (to be probably way too cruel) of the age – indeed, co-composer Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds had already ensured his place in the nation’s consciousness when his Life of Riley soundtracked ‘Goal of the Month’ on Match of the Day. Later, hardly a Wembley occasion would pass without Norman Cook aka Fatboy Slim’s Right Here, Right Now ringing out of the loudspeakers.

That the new, more human but ever so slightly grey Prime Minister John Major was a Chelsea fan signalled soccer’s new found respectability (even if Major’s fellow Tory David Mellor did his best to lay waste to that via toe sucking antics and a Blues replica shirt) but also cast a warning that the home grown, collective ethos that separated grassroots football support and music fandom from the establishment was in serious danger of being sundered – culminating in Major’s successor Tony Blair trading headers with Kevin Keegan at a photo shoot.

Blair infamously courted the representatives of Britain’s fashionable sporting and musical elite by inviting them to Downing Street and the presence of Oasis’s Noel Gallagher at Number 10 highlights the switch in focus – Gallagher and his brother Liam were dyed in the wool Manchester City fanatics but their celebrations from the executive box as City ousted Gillingham in the 1999 play-off final mirrored the distance created by their bloated third album Be Here Now. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Prime Minister did little to deny the probable myth that he had once been a regular on the Gallowgate End.

Nor do Oasis’s esrtwhile rivals Blur escape from criticism, not only due to Albarn’s sudden interest in football as part of the cynical class tourism surrounding the effortlessly tuneful album <i>Parklife</i>, but also for Alex James’ involvement in Vindaloo, a post Three Lions nadir if ever there was one. That’s not to blame all of Britpop, however. The actions of Blur and Oasis contrast markedly with the first wave of that most loose of genres – Pulp and Suede were far too effete and art school to mucky their hands with anything as crass as football. Radiohead didn’t touch it either.

Indie runts such as Sleeper and Echobelly infringed upon the charts as Britpop became a shtick to confer trendiness on those in the mainstream – a kind of former day example of today’s ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ T-shirts. Bands used football to gain quick notoriety with Van Basten, Mexico 70 and Salako now forgotten in the musical pantheon. Worst of all, ersatz violinist Nigel Kennedy emerged as a ubiquitous celeb, touting his love for Aston Villa along the way while Norman Cook’s wife, the DJ Zoë Ball admitted to having supported Manchester United for a sum total of two years and her fellow professionals Chris Evans and Danny Baker chaperoned Paul Gascoigne on a night out on the town. All along, Fantasy Football League hosts Frank Skinner and David Baddiel followed up their collaboration with Broudie by humiliating West Bromwich Albion legend Jeff Astle on a weekly basis

Evans was mystifyingly ubiquitous for a period via his TFI Friday and Radio One Breakfast Show vehicles while Kennedy perhaps became the living embodiment of Roy Keane’s ‘prawn sandwich brigade’ even if he wasn’t the only musician to be vocal about his support for Villa in the 90s – see the considerably less mainstream Barney Greenway’s Villa shorts in this Napalm Death video for a song released in 1997.

So it was perhaps left to the lugubrious Scots, Arab Strap to keep things in perspective; their marvellous The First Big Weekend is a narrative staged on the day of England’s 2-0 win over Scotland in Euro 96 but one in which the protagonist misses the entire match because of an almighty hangover, clearly not giving a monkey’s. Elsewhere, Football’s overly jaunty cockiness was being replicated at gig venues and was beginning to nauseate, reaching its absolute low point with the emergence of Tim Lovejoy and Sky Sports’ Soccer AM and ushering in the term ‘footy’ – surely until then only heard within the confines of the Bullingdon Club and other homes for previously remarked upon class tourists.

As Andy Cole released the single Outstanding, we were left to reflect and scratch our heads as to how football and indie music both went from being cultish concerns at the start of the decade to dominant cultural forces by the time of Euro 96 and beyond.

Rob Langham
Rob Langham (pen name: Lanterne Rouge) is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 47 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Football Attic, The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.

1 Comment

  1. Ben
    October 9, 2014

    Another great post – as is John’s piece on Britpop, which I missed first time around. The first of the two paragraphs you quote is magnificent. I wonder if there are any books on the subject? John Harris’ ‘The Last Party’ is excellent but focuses primarily on music and (to a lesser extent) politics, only briefly touching on football.

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