Football and music have been forever intertwined. Two of Britain’s most mythologised and beloved cultural exports, each intrinsically inclusive national passions which hold in them the unparalleled potential for brutal heartbreak and pure elation, have shared each other’s highs, lows, controversies and evolutions for the best part of 70 years.
Long before Keegan, Cole and Gascoigne fleetingly swapped dressing rooms for vocal booths, clubs across the nation adopted pop songs as tribal calls-to-arms, replacing the clitter-clatter of wooden rattles which had long rained upon players from terraces. It was a constant-yet-respectfully distanced accord between two worlds which, at a populist level, be it McCartney or Moore, celebrated the well-mannered Boy Next Door.
But then Britpop happened, and we saw an altogether different relationship begin to emerge between the two; popular music became a celebration of the working class, a unifying force in post-Thatcher Britain. On the pitch, football was enjoying a similar reawakening. The Premier League, Sky Sports and Cantona’s collar had modernised the sport, making it cool, aspirational and, most importantly of all, accessible. As Gallagher, Cocker and Albarn became household names, so did Beckham, Giggs and Shearer. Football and music were each experiencing a renaissance in terms of cultural relevance; separate, yes, but ultimately united as a celebration of celebrity, innovation and the global mass appeal of character. Whether it was Oasis brawling their way through an Amsterdam-bound ferry’s worth of West Ham fans, or King Eric’s karate showcase at Selhurst Park, a country who’d for centuries worn its misplaced pride in reservedness as a badge of honour was embracing brashness in a way it never had done before.
Almost 30 years on, then, what has changed? Most of the era’s Boys In The Bands are now deep in the throes of their 50s and, if not now totally forgotten, blazing different sorts of musical trails (though this can’t be said for Burnage’s finest, nor his older brother). Elsewhere, a combination of too-lucrative-to-be-risked endorsement deals and a bloodthirsty mainstream media desperate to hound any of our country’s finest players into nationwide villainy at the very hint of moral discrepancy have left us with a bill of proper characters headlined by your mum’s new fella Jurgen Klopp, human radiator leak Roy Keane and that bloke off Arsenal Fan TV.
The relationship between the two has, if not soured, settled into the sort of gentle malaise long-term relationships often do. The affection is still there, sure, but any semblance of true passion has long diminished. Tired, corporate football events and tired, formulaic lad rock have now become entwined to the point of synonymity. Each Saturday morning, four lads in parkas appear on Soccer A.M, players exit their respective tunnels to the sound of Ian Brown and every once in a while, if we’re lucky, stuff like this happens. It’s all gotten pretty desperate. But in recent years the beautiful game has found a new musical home, finding itself peppered across some of the most exciting and beloved releases from DIY scenes up and down the country.
In the same way that Britpop was never a true genre (sonically speaking, how much do Blur, Pulp and Oasis really have in common?) neither is the emphatically vague idea of DIY music. Britpop was a cultural movement that captured the zeitgeist more dramatically than any other musical revolution we’ve seen, yet the DIY scene has, perhaps by design, perhaps not, remained an underground counterculture; largely eschewing maintained mainstream recognition in favour of an undefinable-yet-integral sense of self-contained community. Whichever O2 Academy city you find yourself in, you’re likely to find an autonomous scene of bands sharing bills, basement stages and members, often making music more leftfield than their above-ground counterparts.
These scenes often comprise safe spaces for artists and audiences who’ve otherwise struggled to find sanctums of acceptance. Be it the lack of opportunities for non-white performers, lack of protection for non-male participants or, simply, larger crowds bringing with them the heightened probability of encountering dickheads, these smaller, inclusive arenas can often be a haven for those otherwise marginalised by wider society. British football, on the other hand, arguably the country’s widest-reaching, most mainstream cultural touchstone, has long struggled with its highly publicised issues surrounding homophobia, racism and hooliganism. It’s no surprise that there is a defined commonality in those shunned from major sporting arenas and those accepted by opened minded countercultures. How can we expect marginalised people to find love in football when it doesn’t love them back?
Recent years have seen the rise of Italia 90, Soccer96 and Football FC; three excellent, politically outspoken, leftist punk bands taking their names from the beautiful game, each with differing levels of sincerity. Whilst their monikers may conjure images of brutish laments of modernity, Woke Politics and the like, their music speaks to anti-fascist, socialist sensibilities. Italia 90’s ‘New Factory’, a shining example, takes aim at the chokehold held by white-collar industrialism over their local London landscape.
Soccer96’s ‘I Was Gonna Fight Fascism (ft. Alabaster De Plume)’ is a wry sneer at the apathy of armchair socialists. These aren’t football songs, but they astutely tap into political and cultural issues which also tar the sport. It’s not hard to find direct links between societal divides and issues within football; the wealth divide separating top tier clubs and smaller institutions and the pricing out of local, ticket-buying fans in favour of eye-watering television deals. It’s class discordance and gentrification. Football is, as it has been since Britpop, a reflection of the world it dominates.
Other bands have used football as a romantic touchstone within their songs. Los Campesinos!, in describing a young love, gave us the all-timer of a lyric; “People laugh, they call it folly, but we connected like a Yeboah volley”. What could ever possibly speak better to the power of a newfound infatuation than the pureness of strike only a small fraction of us mere mortal back-garden-Beckhams could ever experience? Trust Fund bemoaned the inevitability of broken bodies precipitated by oldening age with the most joyous of refrains; “And when you stop feeling weird, in 10 or 12 or 15 years, what will we even have to talk about? Football!”. It’s peculiar how the youthful left’s mostly justified disdain for hankerings of yore doesn’t disseminate quite as forcefully with regards to football. There’s still a lingering romanticism surrounding days, often teenage days, spent watching local heroes booting cheap Mitres around a waterlogged local park. The unifying qualities of our nation’s pastime have perhaps dwindled, but they still remain. We’ll always be able to chat footy.
Why then, 30 years since Britpop, is there such an audience divide? Could it be no more complicated than many of us who often find ourselves questioning our sense of self simply feel more comfortable surrounded by 40 likeminded people as opposed to 40,000 screaming sports fans? Or conversely, must we look to the classism that is so deeply ingrained in the alternative music scene? Though it’s a largely welcoming and inclusive community, costs of equipment, studio and practice space can often alienate and exclude those from poorer communities. Football, despite its multi-billion-pound global worth, is, at its core, a game available to all; and often it’s biggest individual winners are kids from working-class families who have opportunities to play almost from the minute they can kick a ball.
Perhaps football’s lack of presence in alternative music is a product of a wider inaccessibility issue within the scene. It’s worth noting, too, that the love affair between underground music and football is a one-sided one. For every adoring reference to Championship Manager ‘01/02’, Portuguese cup ties and Pat Nevin’s peepers, there’s an indie band being met with stony silence by the sport it loves. Halftime stadiums and Sky Sports idents are still peppered with repeated outings of ‘Not Nineteen Forever’ and ‘Right Here, Right Now’; maybe weird indie songs by bands who write about Carson McCullers and listed buildings just aren’t what the pre-match pint committee are looking for. Shame.