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Sport and music don’t always mix. Sure, everyone loves an ’80s training montage or a stirring rendition of the Champions League theme, but songs that are actually about sport aren’t particularly common. Maybe it’s because most musicians spent their formative years trying to learn the solo to Enter Sandman rather than engaging in outdoor activities. There are exceptions though, and some damn fine ones at that. Here are a few of our favourites.
There’s a common thread to most football songs, especially those written for World Cup campaigns. They’re usually inspirational battle cries, uniting the fans and the team under a blanket of hope and belief. Not too many take the form of desperate pleas, like Del Amitri’s contribution to the cannon did. Scotland headed off to France 98 with a shameful record of never making it past the group stages of a major tournament. Despite Justin Currie’s attempts to convince the team that “Even long shots make it”, the team were once again on the first flight back home. Maybe they should have hired The Proclaimers instead.
Horses loom large in Willy Vlautin’s writing, which is fitting for a band that formed at Portland Meadows race track. You can see the appeal of the sport, especially the bottom-rung drunks and gamblers that inhabit both down-at-heel race tracks and most Richmond Fontaine songs. This sweetly twangy instrumental number from Winnemucca is an ode to Twyla Beckner, Vlautin’s favourite jockey from his days hanging out at Portland Meadows. Beckner even helped out as a sort of technical advisor on Vlautin’s book Lean On Pete, the story of the love between an orphan and a washed-up racehorse.
Mariah Carey wanted you, Spike Jones wanted his two front teeth, but Half Man Half Biscuit were more ambitious with their letter to Santa. The rare kit in question (yellow with red sleeves) is worn by a Subbuteo team belonging to a spoilt friend, who also boasts a Scalextric track that never works (“It was a dodgy transformer again and again”). In true HMHB form, the joke hides something of a social message, as that spoilt kid’s privileges extend into adulthood.
Those off-putting opening grunts aside, Kraftwerk’s ode to cycling’s biggest race is an atmospheric masterpiece, expertly weaving together their trademark bleeps and boops and swooping synths with audio samples of two-wheeled exertions. Never ones to be too loquacious, the German electro giants don’t offer much in the way of insight or analogy, instead just repeating the same 12 lines in French over and over. But it’s not so much about what the song has to say about cycling as the sensation it creates.
Neil Hannon (of Divine Comedy fame) and Pugwash’s Thomas Walsh joined forces for this band that takes its name from a mathematical equation that’s not even worth trying to explain to anyone outside of cricket. The centrepiece of their self-titled debut, Jiggery Pokery hilariously recants the Ball of the Century incident at the 1993 Ashes from the perspective of a baffled, seething Mike Gatting, who had just been bowled out for a duck by Shane Warne. Gatting rants and raves before coming to the inevitable, brilliant conclusion: “I hate Shane Warne.”
John Darnielle has always tended to find inspiration outside of standard indie rock spheres (death metal bands, murdered reggae stars and pagan cults, to name but a few) so it wasn’t hugely surprising when his band released Beat The Champ, a concept album about professional wrestlers. Heel Turn 2 refers to the age-old narrative trick where a good guy suddenly turns villain or “heel” mid bout. The wrestler in this case finds a kind of liberation in no longer having to do the right thing, watching with glee as garbage rains down from the stands and the president of the fan club chokes on his tears.
On their debut album, WATERS (fronted by former Port O’Brien leader Van Pierszalowski) brought down the curtain on a terrific album of fuzzed out indie rock with this delicate and wistful ballad that uses the baseball great as an analogy for wasted youth and the inevitable ravages of time. “I was feeling Mickey Mantle wasted”, Pierrszalowski sings, referring to both the Yankees centre fielder’s infamous drinking and the injuries that hampered his career.
If ever a ball player was worthy of being immortalised in song by the great Warren Zevon, it’s Bill “Spaceman” Lee. The former Red Sox and Expos pitcher is one of a kind, famed during his career for his on-field unpredictability and unfiltered comments about everything from religion to politics to drugs. “You’re supposed to sit on your ass and nod at stupid things. Man, that’s hard to do,” sings Zevon, sounding just a little in awe of Lee’s refusal to shut his mouth, even when it cost him his place on the team. It’s a beautifully unsentimental tribute to a true individual.
Dylan’s Desire opens on an incendiary note with this rollicking tune that focuses less on Ruben “Hurricane” Carter’s boxing prowess and more on the miscarriage of justice that saw him wrongfully imprisoned for 19 years after a triple murder in a New Jersey bar. After reading a book about Carter, Dylan wrote the song and raised $100,000 for his legal fees with an all-star show at Maddison Square Garden. Carter was eventually exonerated in 1985.
Discover more from the world of sport in our Sports Guide.