by Chris Randle
In 1863, teams with names like Forest of Leytonstone, Crystal Palace and Civil Service agreed on universal rules for the game they decided to call association football. Their representatives also created England’s still-extant Football Association, but that act of codification was far more momentous: the 1863 rules presaged FIFA’s modern Laws of the Game, their accessible simplicity spreading the sport with pandemic speed. Over a century later, on a date no one bothers to recite or remember, another group of Englishmen recorded another milestone, the first World Cup song. Any national primacy in either endeavour proved to be fleeting.
The World Cup song is one of those characteristic eccentricities the British music charts enjoy, like the annual race for a #1 Christmas single (which occasionally kicks up some golden dust). Like “Back Home” above, the first few FA-approved tracks were performed by the various England squads alone, as shouting singalongs that flattened out any individuality. None of them are a triumph for outsider music, though I like the resemblance to those mass chants urging each team on. The FA apparently agreed, because as years and defeats went on they began substituting pop stars for the players.
The official 1998 single, care of a supergroup including Echo and the Bunnymen, Space, and the Spice Girls, was outpaced at the charts by two unofficial efforts: Fat Les’ beery anthem “Vindaloo” (featuring the scarcely less unlikely lineup of Blur’s Alex James, Charles Saatchi’s Damien Hirst and Lily Allen’s dad) and the re-released “Three Lions,” a meta-World-Cup-song about the sentimental self-pity and masochistic optimism that come with being an England fan. That new approach didn’t really work; it just made the quadrennial kitsch sound more generic. But there’s a single exception from the transitional tournament of 1990, England’s only good World Cup song.
A lot of New Order fans hate “World in Motion,” partly because it’s their sole #1. I kind of love it. Bernard Sumner’s lyrics are silly, but no sillier than the ones he wrote for all their previous hits. The central melody has the relentless forward motion that one would hope for in a World Cup single. And while John Barnes’ featured cameo – that tentative, arthritic rapping, so unlike his run – is harder to defend, it should be contextualized. Born in Jamaica, Barnes was the first black England regular at a time when such players might be pelted with bananas from the stands, when the National Front hawked its literature outside stadiums. He helped banish the fascists by making it blindingly obvious that his place was deserved: integration of the deed.
I can only see his spotlighted guest spot – not much worse than other ’80s Anglo-rapping, and certainly better than Barnes’ previous outing as an MC – as a small extension of that. The man’s flow was, if nothing else, game. His prominence also complements the song’s lyrical tactics, which adapt football jargon into the terms of utopian rave culture: “beat the man,” “don’t get caught,” “create the space.” The band almost got away with calling this track “E for England.” If the contradiction at the heart of the World Cup is between its cosmopolitanism and its nationalism, New Order et al managed to unify them.
Whether due to quiet self-confidence, administrative monomania or the slow-motion collapse of the music industry, there was no FA-sanctioned anthem in 2010, for the first time since England actually won the thing. The number of unofficial themed singles had exploded to 15 in 2002 and 30 in 2006, but that just meant most no longer had even novelty going for them. Fat Les chose well with their Euro 2000 comeback “Jerusalem” (an anthem in search of a nation), and Simon Cowell got Dizzee Rascal to front the chart-topping “Shout For England” this summer; otherwise, the artistic and commercial failure of England’s would-be trivia contest answers has paralleled their national squad’s. Luckily, the rest of the world seems to hunger for timely gimmicks too. You can shimmy to Shakira’s “Waka Waka (This Time For Africa)” (endorsed by FIFA), K’naan’s “Wavin’ Flag” (rejigged for Coca-Cola), or countless other tracks with only a vague immediacy in common. Most of the compelling ones, such as JJC’s “We Are Africans,” are either from the continent or inspired by it.
Appropriately, the greatest controversy of this World Cup was a musical one. Some people would balk at calling what vuvuzelas make music rather than noise, but some people would also reply that the noise is music. When the games began and that drone descended on every stadium, my friends of a certain persuasion exchanged jokes about Tony Conrad and Steve Reich. The vuvuzela’s buzz could be heard as another overlooked affinity between black pop sounds and an avant-garde, like Darius Milhaud’s infatuation with Louis Armstrong (or indeed Satchmo’s own use of the cut-up technique in his private collages). The racial dimension to some of these arguments, for or against, is blatant: FIFA president Sepp Blatter condescendingly shrugged that African football is all about “noise, excitement, dancing, shouting and enjoyment,” and elderly Canadian right-winger Peter Worthington sneered that “maybe the vuvuzelas are the apex of [African] cultural achievement.”
It would probably shock the joyless reactionary to learn how many producers are gleefully incorporating his hated horn. On “Cumbia de la Vuvuzela” it provides an unmistakable texture; Mr. Benn’s “Vuvuzela Riddim” uses it as sharp punctuation; 985’s “Mabeze” is a defiant tribute. Perhaps these are the vuvuzela’s most natural positions, superseding even the ceremonial purpose of its ancient forerunner. It can’t deafen you in a crowded pop song, or exhaust its lone note. And it’s a blaring reminder that, while the “World Cup finalist” club remains relatively elite, a different game is playing out across the fields of Sendspace and Mediafire.