01 March 2008

How The Punks Saved English Football

Written by Published in Music Interviews

Hijacked by the National Front and dogged by tragedy, football in the mid-1980s appeared to be dying a death. But punk-style fanzines and the support of musicians helped revitalise the image of the game. Sublime looks back to a time when the punks helped save English football.

While football-terrace chants are usually either witty or brimming with genuine emotion, records released by footballers themselves are invariably dire. However, there was a time not so long ago when loud guitars and crashing drums changed English football for ever. This is an abiding memory: Chelsea playing a home game sometime in the mid-1980s against Norwich City in the old English First Division.


Plenty of empty spaces in the stands. Plenty of empty seats, too. Everyone smoking. Some of us – arms folded, cigarettes hanging off the corners of our mouths – leaning on the metal bars dotted around the terraces to break up the hordes into smaller groups. The football served up on that bright spring day was anything but bright. What remains fixed in the memory, however, is the extraordinary spectacle of the massed convergence of Chelsea skulls. Pear-shaped skulls, melon-shaped skulls, skulls with large jowls attached to them, skulls with tattoos, asymmetrical skulls and skulls with bumps – all laid bare by brutal barbers who knew only two cuts: the shave and the number one. This was at a time when no one in their right mind wore their hair shorter than an inch. Even a mullet or a post-disco bouffant was regarded as cooler, or at least a little less sinister, then a skinhead. Skinheads were then rarely seen in broad daylight or in groups of more than two. Even though there was a brassy, militant-left post-punk band that called itself The Redskins in protest against stereotyping, it was still the general perception that a closely cropped head signalled a racist thug. Ironic, really, since the early British skinheads had been reggae fans who had copied their fashion from their Jamaican pals.


In Britain, more than anywhere else, fashion since the 1950s has often been much more than a season’s trendy garb. Being a fan of a certain band often meant more than an allegiance to a certain sound. To be a fan of a certain band and a wearer of a certain type of duffle coat was the reflection of an attitude to the whole of life, including politics, arts, food, TV and sports. It was pretty much a general assumption among its fans that rock music was an expression of rebellion against all things conservative and restrictive. ‘Pop’, on the other hand, was ‘commercial’ music and therefore not bound by any kind of social or political allegiances. David Bowie’s ill-thought-out flirtation with Nazi imagery and Eric Clapton’s drunken praise for MP Enoch Powell and his call for the repatriation of West Indian immigrants were a great shock to the system for most British music fans: until then it had been a generally held assumption that it was impossible to be a right-wing or even a conservative rock musician.


In response to Clapton’s outburst, as well as the growing threat of the National Front – a gang of racist thugs camouflaged as a political party on the edge of legality – some of these shocked fans started Rock Against Racism, an organisation designed to bring black and white youths together and foster mutual understanding. RAR enjoyed massive support from the then flourishing weekly music press but also distributed its own magazine and organised live gigs on whose bills reggae bands alternated with punk bands. One of their rallies attracted 80,000 fans to London’s Trafalgar Square from where they marched to a park in the East End in the middle of National Front ‘territory’ to see the likes of The Clash, Steel Pulse, The Tom Robinson Band and The Ruts perform for free. Shortly after, the left-wing fringe Socialist Workers’ Party, aided by Trade Union funding, formed the Anti-Nazi League, an organisation that pursued similar aims. Both RAR and ANL helped to make a new generation of music fans vastly more aware of issues of racist stereotyping and social stereotyping in general. The National Front, unused to being paid so much attention, then fell apart in a prolonged bout of infighting, in the process losing many of its more moderate members to Margaret Thatcher’s Tory party, which had come to power in 1979.


Punk had not been an overtly political movement, beyond the pleasure it took in baiting the establishment in any way possible. However, the fact that many punk bands had been active participants in RAR and ANL, coupled with the focusing effect Thatcher had on anyone vaguely opposed to her dogma of ‘free enterprise’, meant that many bands of the first couple of post-punk generations wrote much more explicitly and militantly political lyrics and spoke accordingly in interviews. Punks had not just toppled the stadium rock dinosaurs and their copyists that had dominated mainstream music in the mid-70s; having found it difficult initially to get their bands written about by conventional music publications, they had begun to produce their own magazines, created their own design style. These ‘fanzines’ were resolutely homemade – usually typed or even written by hand, duplicated by stencil and personally delivered to the handful of record shops around the country willing to deal in alternative produce. Sometimes they were brilliantly written, just as often they were as defiantly and joyfully unintelligible as a Fall record. Common to all was a feisty sense of humour, an assumption that any reader worth his salt would spit on Margaret Thatcher should he come across her, and an expectation that these readers would share the New Wave preoccupation with tearing down all musical frontiers. Following an early film/punk crossover illustrated by Derek Jarman’s Jubilee, the New Wave generation showed a keen interest in experimental film, while the design innovations of the Punks had naturally fostered new perspectives in art. Furthermore, Punk and New Wave, having always shown a strong affiliation to working-class politics and values (even though many practitioners came from very different backgrounds), had no qualms about admitting to enjoying football.


Up to this point, the concerns of football and music had rarely overlapped. True, since 1970, when the English World Cup squad had blazed a trail with their number one hit ‘Back Home’, every team about to reach some pinnacle of achievement had felt the need to inflict some invariably dire team sing-along on the nation’s hit parade. Of course, there were one or two, like Rod Stewart and Bob Marley, who liked to talk about football and were photographed playing the game. There was also the group Hotlegs, named after a common technique of relieving oneself on a crowded football terrace: roll up program, pee through it – the result, a hot leg for the man in front (Hotlegs had one hit, the appropriately titled and surreally wonderful ‘Neanderthal Man’, before renaming themselves 10CC). There was the Grease Band, too, who, in a song called ‘Willie & The Pig’, reported the gloriously implausible score of ‘Sheffield Wednesday 2, West Bromwich Albion 21’. And that was about it. In the mid-1980s, however, this was about to change. Football was about to receive a new lease of life, thanks, in part, to the New Wave fanzine culture.


By the mid-80s, English football was in deep crisis. For years, the football authorities and the owners of the clubs themselves had done very little to modernise the game and its facilities. Many stadiums sported ‘conveniences’ barely fit for a zoo, the catering was abysmal and police charged with the task of preventing trouble between supporters rarely bothered to hide their distaste for the people around them. Football supporters themselves had an appalling reputation. Fights between visiting and home supporters were seen by some as ‘sport’ and part of the fun. While this kind of fight subculture had been just as prevalent during the two previous decades, by the 80s it had become a favourite topic of the media. There was a political subtext to this. The Thatcher government had identified the Trade Unions and those they represented as the main obstacle in their aim to push through certain changes in the economics of the country. It was therefore politic to portray their role in any dispute or strike in the most unfavourable light possible so that they would lose the sympathy of those segments of society who didn’t feel directly involved. In this respect, the miners’ strike of 1984/5 was the most important battleground – often in the literal sense of the word.


Football fitted perfectly into this strategy. By now, with the exception of Chelsea, there were barely any skinheads to be seen on the terraces of the stadiums. Skinheads had become too easy to pick out as potential troublemakers by the authorities. Many had therefore picked up on the Mod revival in music and were now dressing ‘casual’: that is, they wore their hair with a neat side-parting and clad themselves equally neatly in Pringle, Fred Perry or Le Coq Sportif. This uniform of suburban normality made their identification as ‘hooligans’ very much more difficult, and for a few years the police struggled to get a hold on the situation. By cracking down on troublemakers in the stadiums themselves, they had mainly succeeded in shifting the battle into the surrounding streets or town centres. Several tragedies gave the government carte blanche to act. First, on 11 May 1985, a wooden stand at Bradford City’s stadium caught fire, killing 56 people. While this tragedy had nothing to do with hooligans, it fitted into the picture of football grounds as places of danger. Then, on 29 May 1985, Liverpool and Juventus fans clashed inside the Heysel stadium before the European Cup Final in Brussels. Thirty-nine people were killed and 454 injured (a subsequent report concluded that the terrible state of the stadium and the clueless attitude of the police had been serious contributing factors to the disaster). Up and down the country – and abroad – there was a wave of much-publicised football-related riots. It became all too easy to portray football supporters as a tribe of mindless barbarians. In response, the government proposed a scheme whereby anyone intending to attend a football game would first have to acquire an identity card. As the present opposition to a new plan to introduce a national ID card in Britain shows, all sorts of issues of personal freedom are raised by such a scheme. Almost certainly, the Thatcher government, buoyed by the anti-football views of the general public, expected barely any opposition to their idea from a football scene it regarded as uneducated, apolitical and unorganised.


The clubs themselves were in no position to argue. Spectator figures as well as television-viewing figures had fallen dramatically during previous years. The television companies, BBC and ITV, had downgraded their football coverage, arguing that snooker was now more popular than soccer. Few investors were willing to pump any money at all into the sport. Looking at it from the outside, the future seemed bleak indeed. Among the supporters themselves, a change of attitude had recently taken place that was as massive as it was positive. First and foremost, these supporters had at last gained a communal voice. Utterly fed up with the way football was being portrayed in the media, and equally fed up with the asinine, humourless and sycophantic gush dished up by conventional old-fashioned football magazines, football supporters of a certain bent took up the concept of the music fanzine and translated it into their own realm. Critical pieces about the way their own clubs were handling various issues would alternate with punky cartoons, satirical portraits of underperforming players or officials, interviews with open-minded players, gossip from the terraces (as opposed to the tabloids) and even album reviews and interviews with bands that happened to be supporters of the club. A great hero to most music-loving football fans, and therefore often the subject of fanzine admiration, was Pat Nevin, a cultured Scottish winger who played for Chelsea between 1983 and 1988 (not a skinhead, he!) and befriended a fair few indie musicians. More and more artists ‘came out’ as football supporters. Leeds band The Wedding Present titled their debut album George Best, in tribute to the Ulster genius. London-based reggae producer Adrian Sherwood recorded a whole album under the pseudonym The Barmy Army – each song incorporating crowd chants in praise of different West Ham United players. An affiliation with football became like a badge of honour for bands with a certain attitude.


Soon every club had one or two, sometimes even more, fanzines written in their name. Their titles tended to be witty reflections of the writers’ state of mind, often steeped in gallows humour. Tired and Weary, for instance, was the Birmingham City magazine. A fanzine for Southern Welsh football was called Intifada, Blackburn Rovers had Loadsamoney, Everton When The Skies Are Grey, Manchester United Red Attitude, Sunderland, following in the footsteps of John Coltrane, A Love Supreme. In 1986, two nationally distributed fanzines were launched almost simultaneously; one of these, When Saturday Comes, is still the most original, amusing and insightful football publication around. These fanzines, together with the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA), a self-help organisation originating from a similar background, led a concerted effort by football supporters to change the attitudes not only of the general public towards them, but also those of the clubs themselves.


Many clubs were initially deeply hostile towards the ‘trouble-making’ fanzines. However, when the FSA’s and the fanzines campaign against the absurd ID scheme proved to be so successful that even the government saw sense and finally dropped the idea, attitudes changed somewhat. By the time one more tragedy occurred, the Hillsborough disaster of 15 April 1989, when overcrowding and inadequate policing left 96 people dead, it was no longer possible to stereotype football fans as brainless Neanderthals. In fact, the tabloid newspaper the Sun, which had done exactly that, was punished with a well-coordinated boycott in Liverpool that is observed by many to this day. Now, at last, the authorities too recognised the fact that football deserved respect.


Lord Justice Taylor, who had been set the task to analyse the sequence of events that had led to the Hillsborough disaster, produced a report which recommended a raft of changes, ranging from the compulsory introduction of all-seater stadiums to the removal of perimeter fencing and spikes and a clampdown on racist chanting as well as missile-throwing. England’s erratic and yet rousing performances during the 1990 World Cup in Italy gave the impending football renaissance another great boost, marking the start of a boom that shows few signs of slackening off today.


Many of the New Wave-inspired fanzines that stood at the beginning of this revolution are still in existence – although most have shifted from the printed page to the internet. One of the most frequently discussed gripes is one that is the direct result of the fanzine’s good work all those years ago. One of the few recommendations made in the Taylor report that has been ignored is the stipulation that grounds be accessible to all at reasonable prices. Unfortunately, many teams, particularly those in the top flight, used the opportunity of change to turn themselves into highly efficient businesses designed to please shareholders first, supporters second. Just as any local character has been rubbed out of so many city centres by chain stores, many stadiums are interchangeable today – or decked out from top to bottom in the colours of the corporate sponsors. Even without identity cards, many grounds have become inaccessible to most fans, either because it is virtually impossible to get in without a season ticket, or because the tickets are simply too expensive. Fanzine readers, however, need not despair. It’s like the 1980s all over again, when everyone had their favourite brilliant indie band that was never, ever going to make it big. Except this time it’s the clubs in football’s lower divisions. Colchester, Exeter, Droylsden, Barnet, for instance. Shrewsbury, Darlington, Yeovil, Crewe…




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