A Short History of Football and Music: the 1980s

Posted by on Oct 8, 2014 in Football and Music | 5 Comments
A Short History of Football and Music: the 1980s
Image available under Creative Commons (c) Arthur John Picton

For all out tendency to view the past through rose tinted spectacles, the 1980s were abysmal. If we had just had the haircuts to suffer (and this already balding teenager resented any obligation to mimic Nick Rhodes or a A Flock of Seagulls), those years would have perhaps been tolerable, but the malaise they brought with them impacted upon all aspects of our lives, often in a vicious and violent way.

Queen playing Apartheid South Africa’s Sun City, a Live Aid concert with not a single decent performance for all its worth in other respects, Fame, Steve Wright in the Afternoon, Cutting Crew, Mister Mister, Foreigner droning on for weeks at Number 1, roller discos and gold lamà© — the litany of musical crimes was as overblown as a Frankie Goes to Hollywood 12-inch.

Ditto in football, for which the Eighties were the true doldrums — crowds plummeting to record lows (just over 8,000 saw Cambridge United visit Stamford Bridge at one point), stadia literally falling apart before our eyes, Elton Welsby presenting ITV’s Sunday afternoon coverage (glued to it though I was) and, considerably more seriously, Heysel as the terrible end point of a decade and a half of hooliganism.

Rampant selfishness and neglect were at the heart of the problems in both industries. The well-chronicled premiership of Margaret Thatcher (see Tom Furnival-Adams’ post for us from earlier this year) brought with it soaring unemployment, the destruction of the mining industry, the money-for-the-boys land grab of privatization, financial excess and war in the South Atlantic, as notably evoked by Jeremy Clarkson this past week.

Music was acceptable as long as it was safe and appropriate for the early Saturday evening lite entertainment shows then, as now, in vogue; while football as an activity was a complete and total outcast. No self-respecting dinner party attendee would admit to a liking for the game and despite a couple of entertaining world cups in 1982 and 1986, the domestic arm of the sport was in high dudgeon.

But it was the disdain of mainstream society and culture which perhaps sowed the seeds of football’s renaissance while at the same time a burgeoning musical counterculture was forged. With bands providing an alternative view such as New Order and The Smiths denied daytime radio play despite the achievement of lofty chart positions, a conspiracy could be detected. This deliberate suppression of anything a bit ‘weird’ or worse, ‘political’, became widespread while the fact that Genesis played to four sell out Wembley Stadium audiences in 1987 shows how ill-educated the musical public could be.

That led to an underground scene which those of us who didn’t buy into the status quo — or, indeed, Status Quo — could believe in, although the outsiderdom of the independent music scene was also largely contemptuous of the macho characteristics of sport — see The Smiths’ The Headmaster Ritual for an example of the tyranny of the playing field (although this music and football mad youth preferred to regard singer Morrissey’s target as the always deserving one of the oval ball).

Although I never quite reconciled John Peel’s championing of the alternative in musical terms with his support of the then all-conquering Great Satan Liverpool Football Club, the DJ did at least show that it was possible to like both football and music and the fact that he was later to place shepherding the ball out of play into his own personal Room 101 showed his heart was in the right place.

Parallel to this, the odd footballer who didn’t see Luther Vandross as his musical hero provided hope. Pat Nevin emerged in an exciting Scottish youth side and his mazy runs from the wing in an exciting Chelsea team, coupled with a floppy fringe and love for the Cocteau Twins singled him out as a hero to have faith in.

Nevin’s interests showed there was life outside soporific Cup Final ditties such as Everton’s 1985 Here We Go and Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle’s toe curlingly vapid Diamond Lights. But Elton forged on as Watford climbed the leagues and as my musically interested pals continued to grunt embarrassedly whenever I mentioned soccer, I desperately needed more credible justification for my dual interests.

Half Man Half Biscuit were famously unable to appear on Channel 4’s trailblazing show The Tube because their beloved Tranmere Rovers played on Friday nights while it subsequently turns out that that most ethereal of bands, the Cocteau Twins, included a member who enjoys a 5-a-side kickabout on occasion. The emergent figurehead publication of the fanzine movement, When Saturday Comes campaigned hard against the authorities’ meddling (ID cards, fences electric and otherwise) and helped forge an underground movement among thinking football fans that had its close cousin among the indie kids.

So there was a hint that the two activities could unite in resistance to the mainstream’s ignorance and contempt, along with other counter cultural currents such as realist film-making and radical left politics — the sheer odiousness of the Conservative hierarchy required an across the board thumbs-down as a response.

As The Wedding Present thrust George Best on to the cover of the eponymous classic album, the almost impossibly cool Tackhead released The Game (You’ll Never Walk Alone) , a fusion of rave culture and terrace chanting that featured commentator Brian Moore on the A side and those arch representatives of the enemy, Maggie Thatcher and Ronnie Reagan on the other. As a symbol of how football, music and politics could come together to kick against the pricks, there was no better example.

That Tackhead were the link between the uncompromising funk of post-punk pioneers The Pop Group and the dance scene that emerged so thrillingly in the summer of 1988, is significant as suddenly, the looser limbed, more relaxed and more lovey-dovey direction of the nation’s youth found further common ground with the round ball.

Much has been written about the impact of drugs — and ecstasy in particular — on the decline in hooliganism in the latter years of the 1980s and personally, I feel that the link is overstated. If the appallingly attired football ‘casuals’ of the argy-bargy era did calm down a little as the pill replaced the pint, a look around the terraces of those days did indicate just as many grizzled old timers, kids and spods as there ever had been, give or take a few inflatable bananas.

But Chris Ledger’s fine article for In Bed with Maradona, How The Stone Roses Stopped the Hooligans cites John Kerr, author of Understanding Soccer Hooliganism , published in 1994 thus:

…when supporters are anxious, bored, angry or sullen, their reactions would be unpleasant – irrespective of their arousal status. But if supporters are relaxed, placid, excited or proactive – their behaviour is usually pleasant. The Madchester and acid house era, therefore, led to relaxed and excited supporters who wanted to be active participants and the stars of the shows, as well as having the buzz that confused the line between love and hatred.

So, as the nineties dawned, football and music both had the potential to be in good shape. The few years spanning that switch in decade, however, were to prove to be quite a watershed.

Rob Langham
Rob Langham 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 50 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 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. Ben
    October 8, 2014

    Great stuff, again.

    There was of course a precursor to Hoddle and Waddle’s ‘Diamond Lights’ – Kevin Keegan’s equally execrable 1979 single ‘Head Over Heels in Love’. I could forgive the man almost anything, but not that.

    Fair play for not making mention of Chas & Dave’s ‘Ossie’s Dream’ – no one needs to be reminded of that. Ah, sorry…

    As for Pat Nevin, he both turned out on the 5-a-side pitch and span a few records at a Belle & Sebastian-curated ATP a few years back.

    Re: Half Man Half Biscuit – their 1989 album ACD features ‘Dickie Davies Eyes’, ‘I Was A Teenage Armchair Honved Fan’ and ‘All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit’.

  2. Lanterne Rouge
    October 8, 2014

    How did I forget Ossie’s Dream?

  3. Ben
    October 8, 2014

    Be grateful, Rob – I hadn’t but wish I had.


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