England's World Cup musical efforts have often been rewarded on the pitch
The official 2018 World Cup anthem – Live It Up, by reggaeton star Nicky Jam, dancehall singer Era Istrefi, and polite fast-talker Will Smith – was released at the weekend, and met by the worlds of football and music with thundering indifference ... just as committee-approved pop, designed to please everybody but satisfying no one, always should be. File alongside spirit-sapping efforts such as R Kelly’s Sign Of A Victory, Ricky Martin’s Cup of Life, and Anastacia’s admittedly memorable Sepp’s Gonna Sexx Ya Up.
Still, at least Fifa are trying. England don’t bother any more, which is a terrible shame, as for a while they’d been world leaders in the field. Spin back to 1965 when the FA commissioned over-the-brow skiffle legend Lonnie Donegan to write a song for their upcoming tournament. He introduced us to World Cup Willie, tough as a lion, who never will give up. “That’s why Willie is favourite for the Cup!” The trad-jazz swinger wasn’t Lonnie’s best, but he did record the definitive version of Rock Island Line, and without his influence you’re getting no Beatles, so he had plenty of credit in the bank. Also England lifted the trophy with this ringing in their lugs, and there’s no arguing with results.
Five years on, Sir Alf Ramsey’s squad reached the toppermost of the poppermost with Back Home. Penned by Bill Martin and Phil Coulter, the men behind Sandie Shaw’s 1967 Eurovision winner Puppet on a String and Cliff’s 1968 near-miss Congratulations, it was a catchy but emotional paean to across-the-sea yearning. Hipsters in search of deep cuts are advised to flip the single over for Cinnamon Stick, a bubblegum love song sprinkled with dreamy summer harmonies, Nobby the spiritual successor to Harry Nilsson, Big Jack channelling his inner Mama Cass. Totally Mexico.
By the time England got to No 1 again with World in Motion, John Barnes was shouldering the creative burden on his own, the art of 1990 imitating the life of 1986. His daisy-age-inflected rap is commonly regarded as the 31-second pinnacle of the genre: from this point onwards, World Cup singles would never be as good again. (Neither would New Order or Barnes himself, but that’s for another day.) Embrace? James Corden? A supergroup starring members of Space and Ocean Colour Scene? No thanks! No thank you! No thanks!
If 1990 represented England’s artistic peak, then 1982 was the year the squad was most prolific. Ron’s 22 were on their way to their first World Cup in a dozen years; all that pent-up frustration burst the creative dam. A double A-side was issued. England, We’ll Fly The Flag was a patriotic reworking of a 1975 advertising jingle for British Airways composed by Jake Holmes, who was getting used to having his work adapted for bespoke purposes. In 1967 he wrote Dazed and Confused, a song which “inspired” Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin to fashion his own version.
John Barnes' daisy-age-inflected rap is regarded as England's World Cup musical pinnacle
On the other side: the more popular This Time (We’ll Get It Right), penned by a couple of chaps from 1970s soft-rockers and future Roy Chubby Brown enablers Smokie. This Time is identical to tracks such as Layla, How Soon Is Now and Smells Like Teen Spirit, in so much as it’s recognisable from the very first note. That takes some doing, although while the aforementioned rock classics instantly whisk the listener away on a transcendent spiritual journey, the synthesised pipes of This Time succeed only in plummeting supporters of a certain generation into an unwelcome Pavlovian funk, a reminder of childhood promises made and broken. And that three minutes of turgid oompah stomp is coming right up.
The single reached No 2, no mean feat given 1982 was a great year for pop, forcing England to elbow for position near the top of the chart alongside big hitters such as ABC, Joan Jett, Simple Minds, and the Scotland squad featuring John Gordon Sinclair. For the record, Dana and Northern Ireland’s magnificent Yer Man – “Well times have been tough / Now it’s time to do our stuff!” - failed to bother the top 10.
It was followed by a long player, This Time: The Album (K-Tel), which contained several seminal performances: Glenn Hoddle taking on Queen’s We Are The Champions in a note-straining style later popularised by Alan Partridge’s rendition of Close To You; Viv Anderson and Trevor Francis running through You’ll Never Walk Alone, the melody line spoken with much feeling, like Elvis delivering the last stanza of Are You Lonesome Tonight; and a narration by Ray Clemence, The Road to Spain, which served only to emphasise how fortunate England had been to scrape into the finals, and concluded with this rousing call to arms: “I know that we didn’t qualify in the way we would have liked, but hopefully that’s in the past.”
Throw in singalongs of Land of Hope and Glory, Abide With Me and God Save The Queen so bombastic that even Jacob Rees-Mogg might suggest moving the sliders on the mixing desk down a notch or two, and K-Tel had a number-37 sized hit on their hands. England went home from that tournament unbeaten. Eagle-eyed readers will have noted that whenever they put some effort into a song, they end up doing OK. This doesn’t augur well for the summer.