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Black Sky Thinking

The Seven Ages Of The World Cup Song
Jeremy Allen , March 20th, 2014 09:12

With this weekend seeing Gary Barlow and Gary Lineker unveiling the latest stirring anthem to inspire the national XI to success in Brazil, Jeremy Allen looks back at the world cup songs of yesteryear and finds them to be surprisingly telling signs of the times

Photograph courtesy of Gary Lineker/Twitter

There are less than 90 days until the Brazilian World Cup kicks off, the first time the FIFA tournament has returned to South America since 1978, and the first in Brazil since 1950. Naturally in the home of the seleção, it'll hopefully be a starry and quixotic spectacle whether England manage to acclimatise to the humidity or not. England's national team are 25/1 to win it with some bookmakers, and that seems generous. A patriotic punter is a poor punter, and given the youth and relative inexperience of the squad and the fact that no European team has ever taken the cup away from the South American continent (and if one does it'll more likely be Spain or Germany, or even World Cup wildcards Belgium) then perhaps we should all concentrate on the one thing we know we're world beaters at: the World Cup song.

This year the Football Association has endorsed a track with so many appealing aspects to it that actually liking football isn't obligatory to aid your enjoyment of it. All of the boxes have been ticked, and the PR and marketing departments will be able to dine out long after the last ball is kicked at the Estádio do Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro on July 13. This time they've managed to get the BBC involved, and with the corporation naturally comes Match Of The Day anchorman, crisp salesman and the chap that Stewart Lee calls "the velvet owl", Gary Lineker. Not only that, but the whole thing is tied up with Sport Relief, meaning the unveiling of the song will be the jewel in the crown of scheduling this Friday.

It comes as part of a weekend of programming that also includes highlights of Robbie Savage and Alan Shearer's Battle Of The Backsides, and Davina Beyond Breaking Point, where TV presenter Davina McCall completes a 500-mile Sport Relief challenge under extreme duress with the piano part from Coldplay's 'The Scientist' piped in at any moment where it looks like she might not make it. There'll be winners and losers here, but the real winner is charity.

If all this weren't nearly enough then there are celebrity endorsements as far as the eye can see on the soon-to-be hit record. Not only are there ex-footballers involved (Michael Owen, David Seaman, Martin Keown, Peter Shilton, Dion Dublin, etc) but popstars and ex-popstars too (Kimberley Walsh, Katy B, Mel B, Emma Bunton), and it was all recorded at the world-famous Sarm Studios in West London where the legendary Band Aid single was made in 1984.

It seems you can have your cake and eat it, and yet, that's not even the best bit. Because the pièce de résistance this year (or maybe the coup de grâce depending on how you look at it) is the involvement of one Gary Barlow, popular with Queen and country, wingman for our right honourable Prime Minister David Cameron and performing monkey for ITV ringmaster Simon Cowell. Barlow is bringing with him his own song - the Take That no. 1 'Greatest Day' - which he will generously share with the rest of us for no personal monetary gain whatsoever. And why? Because he knows and we know that if England win this World Cup, it'll surely be the greatest day of all our lives. Probably.

It's a campaign that cannot and must not fail. But how did we get to this point? Football used to just be 22 grown men kicking a pig's bladder around a field, but not before they'd recorded a hopelessly optimistic and out-of-tune proclamation of intent based on terrace chants borrowed from old Irish rebel songs. What happened? The World Cup song has undergone a gradual transformation over the last 50 years, because everybody knows you've got to adapt to survive. Every four years it rears its head once again (aside from 1974, 1978 and 1994 when England didn't qualify) with the tweaks that are made to the format perhaps giving a telling reflection of what is happening in wider society at that time. Here, then, are the seven ages of the World Cup song.

Age I: "The new sensation of the age..."

Lonnie Donegan - 'World Cup Willie' (1966)

The lead-up to the World Cup in England got off to an inauspicious start when the Jules Rimet trophy was stolen from Westminster Central Hall in March 1966, four months ahead of the tournament. It went on display at an exhibition there and was guarded by two members of security, though clearly there were lapses in duty or concentration. Holders Brazil complained that the trophy would never have gone missing back home, and the disappearance threatened to cause a diplomatic incident. Thankfully it was soon recovered by a small dog called Pickles out walking on an A road in South East London. The trophy was handed into Gypsy Hill Police Station and the day was saved. Pickles wouldn't be the only animal celebrated for heroism that year.

World Cup Willie - a cartoon lion - was created for the tournament, becoming the first mascot at the footballing event and one of the first mascots in sport. This humble creation precipitated football's first whiff of showbiz, with legendary skiffle merchant Lonnie Donegan - a man who'd had a barrage of hits throughout the 50s and 60s - drafted in to perform a song about the big cat. "Wherever he goes, he'll be all the rage," sang Lonnie, "'Cause he's the new sensation of the age."

It was simple, effective and a bit daft, though nobody could have foreseen the quadrennial kerfuffle it would trigger. When England captain Bobby Moore started his career at West Ham in 1958 he was on £12 a week. The abolition of the maximum wage of £20 in 1961 meant players could earn a bit more - and the England team who won the World Cup in '66 were given an unprecedented £1,000 bonus each - but wages were still modest. The swinging sixties were in full flow but football was definitely still largely unsullied and anti-corporatist. This then was inadvertently the first World Cup of the modern age, with its sideshows and frivolities, and with people given carte blanche to drink heavily over sustained periods.

Age II: The Coming Of Age

The England World Cup squad - 'Back Home' (1970)

The 60s were over, America had put someone on the moon, and Great Britain was struggling to find its place in the world. In the 20 years between 1945 and 1965 those under British rule outside the UK fell from 700 million to five million, and three million of those lived in Hong Kong.

1970 saw the introduction of an enduring template, the World Cup squad singing in unison. Like school assembly everybody had to join in regardless of ability, and this amateurishness is best exemplified at the moments where you can hear some players rushing the words, either through lack of rehearsal or lack of natural rhythm. 'Back Home' is a catchy music hall-inspired number with three key changes and no verse. There’s something cheerfully naive and yet melancholically haunting about this song, which inexplicably reminds you of soldiers heading for certain death at World War I as they volunteer to do their bit and give the Gerries a good thumping. As it turned out, England played West Germany in the quarter finals and lost 3-2 in extra time having gone 2-0 up, with some contentious decisions from the game still smarting in some parts even to this day.

Actually what did for England in this game and throughout the ensuing seventies was a vainglorious complacency, a sense of entitlement that had a whiff of noblesse oblige about it. While the English usually expect their team to turn up and win every World Cup, 1970 was the last tournament where the rest of the world thought they might. Declining English fortunes due to incompetence and mismanagement against the effectiveness and organisation of a German side that were on their way to becoming one of the dominant superpowers in football, looks now like some kind of microcosmic allegory for the car industry.

"Back home, they'll be watching and waiting
And cheering every move
Back home, though they think we're the greatest
That's what we've got to prove…"

The team came home empty handed, but the singing squad format was duly adopted and would remain in place as the default formation for club and country for the best part of 20 years.

Age III: The Age Of Chance

The England World Cup squad - 'This Time (We'll Get It Right)' (1982) / 'We've Got The Whole World At Our Feet' (1986)

During the decade of greed the football song would carry all the lyrical arrogance of a braggadocio-packed hip hop track, however one backed with an oompah backing band plucked straight from a German beer hall. "We're gonna beat the world so here we go," sang the squad in '86, though Diego Maradona had other ideas. "Two World Wars and one World Cup" goes the antagonistic chant aimed at the Germans, and now the press and plenty enough of its readers were spoiling for more proverbial blood four years on from a little dispute over an archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean that its neighbours call the Malvinas. The infamous Hand of God occurred, and then an indisputable moment of genius where Maradona picked up the ball in his own half and ran for 11 seconds with it at his feet, before sliding it past Peter Shilton for the goal of the century. The English didn’t quite see it like that at the time.

'We've Got The Whole World At Our Feet' only made no. 66 in the charts in '86, possibly on account of the fact the public had heard it all before. 'This Time (We'll Get It Right)' had got as far as the No. 2 spot when England travelled to Spain in '82 for the previous campaign, only to be eliminated from the tournament in the second round. To be fair, Scotland had done something similar in '78 when they were so certain 'Ally's Tartan Army' would bring the spoils home, that they had a hubristic victory parade before they'd even got on the flight to Argentina. They failed to navigate their way out of a first round group that included Peru, Iran and the Netherlands.

Age IV: The Golden Age

New Order - 'World In Motion' (1990)

'E Is For England' was supposed to be the name, though clearly the suits at Lancaster Gate were wary of anything that might be a cheeky wink to rave culture and the popular dance drug ecstasy. The government were also clearly worried, bringing in the Increased Penalties Bill in July 1990, which raised the punishment for organising an illegal rave to £20,000 and 6 months imprisonment. It would have been prudent had the Commons also introduced a bill prohibiting Keith Allen from popping up everywhere, because that’s exactly what he did for the next decade, on this song and every other football record, in every film (where at some point he’d have to bare his penis), at Glastonbury festival (where at some point he’d have to bare his penis), and so on...

Whether or not it was an aberration or a rare lapse in judgement at the FA, the official England World Cup song was recorded by New Order in 1990 and it was brilliant for it. It was a rare moment of excellence that even made you forget about Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease for four minutes and four seconds. 'World In Motion' is the greatest football record ever made, even with the John Barnes 'rap'. A small section of the squad, including Paul Gascoigne, Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley, but held at arms length and only required to chant percussively over the chorus and outro to add to the maelstrom of magnificence. However, in the same way that Mike Patton is blamed for nu metal, without 'World In Motion', 'Three Lions' wouldn't have happened and nor would the ensuing 12 years' worth of songs that completely missed the mark.

Age V: The Middle Age

England United - 'How Does It Feel To Be On Top Of The World' (1998) / Ant & Dec - 'We're On The Ball' (2002) / Embrace - 'World At Your Feet' (2006)

The mediocrity of the songs chosen by the Football Association from '98 to '06 also happened to coincide with the years of New Labour. The FA's attempts to align itself with what it perceived as indie credibility only to faceplant spectacularly had a familiar ring to it. At the one end (1998), Ian McCulloch was called upon to try to recreate the magic of 'Three Lions' - the ubiquitous hit from the home tournament Euro '96, and McCulloch in turn called upon the Spice Girls just as their collective career was on the slide (as well as the guy from Space and the guy from Ocean Colour Scene). As England United, none of the components fitted together, and the song was lacklustre. It was no Baddiel & Skinner & The Lightning Seeds. It wasn't even Fat Les.

At the other end (2006), Embrace were chosen presumably because, like England, they were a bunch of plucky no-hopers who'd had great things expected of them only to languish in a bin marked "unfulfilled promise". They soundtracked the capitulation of England's supposed 'golden generation' led by David Beckham, and the final death throes of Sven-Göran Eriksson's career as national coach when he was suckered by a News Of The World sting (their Fake Sheik posed as a wealthy oil baron pretending he'd snapped up Aston Villa and was interested in appointing the Swede at the helm).

Ant & Dec did a song called 'We're On The Ball' in 2002. It was balls.

Age VI: The Age Of Austerity

Shout For England feat. Dizzee Rascal & James Corden - 'Shout' (2010)

For whatever reason the FA decided not to officially sanction a song for the World Cup in South Africa, leaving it up to the baying vuvuzelas to soundtrack the event at a drone frequency that sent many an armchair fan around the bend. Their strange decision to cut back without much of an explanation seemed mean, oddly mimicked the swingeing cuts of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Eventually, the governing body, perhaps realising we were all in this together, gave a nod and a wink to a scaled down duo - rapper Dizzee Rascal and TV wag James Corden - instead of any kind of squad. The boys borrowed liberally from a Tears for Fears classic for their no nonsense hit, and yet it was complete nonsense. Like the Tories, you had to wonder if they knew what they were doing or if they were making it up as they went along.

Age VII: The Age Of Hypocrisy

And so here we are, back once again with the ill behaviour. A cast of what seems like thousands throw their weight behind a good cause, charities get money, the England team are sprinkled in stardust and celebrities get themselves huge exposure in a circle jerk of tainted altruism. Interestingly this isn't the first time Gary Barlow has pimped out 'Greatest Day', playing it with somebody other than his man band, Take That. On April 16, 2010 he went along to Brine Leas School in Nantwich, Cheshire along with his chum, David Cameron. The PM and Barlow were there to introduce a new initiative called School Stars, a competition where the winner would get to record a song with the help of Gary. The event was captured on Web Cameron UK, the Conservative leader's own YouTube channel.

"The competition will use the inspirational power of music to reach as many pupils as possible," said the Tory leader a few months ahead of the general election, "with a format which will unearth talent, ability and excellence around the country."

The initiative appears to have taken a back seat now the Conservatives are in power, and no little Garys or budding Dizzee Rascals have yet recorded their song with the Take That man as promised. As for Sport Relief, well, it's keen to impress that not all the money raised goes abroad, with a lot invested here in the UK.

"It's probably a good idea to start by dispelling a couple of myths," the organisation says in a pamphlet called 'Where The Money Goes'. "Firstly, that Sport Relief cash is all spent in Africa. In fact, Comic Relief spends half of all the money that's raised for Sport Relief right here in the UK to help a wide range of people."

Phew, thank goodness it's not all going to 'Bongo Bongo land', eh? So like who is getting this cash then?

"£1 could provide a hot meal for a child in the UK living in extreme poverty," it says, a responsibility you'd think would fall to the government rather than viewers watching TV who've already paid tax as well as for their TV licences.

On Sport Relief's website, the explanations about where the money goes are a little more nebulous and conceptual, though homeless charities get a chunk. Had Boris Johnson kept to his pledge to end homelessness by 2012 then there'd be no need to give money to charities in London. Homelessness has increased for the last three years in a row, with 185,000 people now believed to be affected. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Crisis says that one in 50 have found themselves sleeping rough in the last five years.

Sport Relief hopes to offer "better futures… improving the lives of vulnerable young people in the UK, and enabling some of the world's poorest people to gain access to vital services such as health and education," it adds. These things could be taken care of easily, all the government has to do is cancel Trident. And then it claims to be striving towards a "fairer society" and "healthier finances… tackling financial poverty, and enabling economic resilience in families and communities, as well as supporting enterprise and employment." If David Cameron's party tightened up rules regarding tax shelters for the rich invested in by popstars like Gary Barlow (who allegedly uses "aggressive" tax avoidance measures worth millions), then better futures and healthier finances could be achieved for all. In fact, there'd be no need for Sport Relief, and football songs could go back to being about football without the added distraction of a telethon to sucker yet more money out of the poor. If a government selling us down the river for short-termist capital gain turned around and stated that from now on it would look after the interests of the whole electorate and not just fill the pockets of the corporate elite, then that would surely be the greatest day for most of us.