the square ball week: the beat goes onBack
It might be in Norwegian, and it’s a long way from Ronnie Hilton, but football’s a a universal language. “Hmm mmm mmm Philomen Masinga and Lucas Radebe” – Lars Vaular’s new song is catchy as hell, even if the only bits you catch are names of old players. “Mmm mmm mmm Gordon Strachan, something something something, Lee Chapman!”
It hadn’t occured to me until Lars got in touch, but this is the next logical step in the Rebuilding of Leeds United: more songs. Not ‘a song’ – the occasional cup final single trotted out for Football Focus to act daft over – but songs, loads of songs, by loads of different bands, all about Leeds United, all the time. We’ll start with a Norwegian rap and take it from there.
One of the responses to yesterday’s news that Billy Bremner had been voted Greatest Ever Football League Captain was to burst into song: with just a line or two from Les Reed’s ‘Leeds United’, handled with aplomb by Liam Thornton and Guysley on Twitter: “There’s a red headed tiger known as Billy / And he goes like a human dynamo…”; or the whole of Ronnie Hilton’s classic ‘The Ballad of Billy Bremner.’ “There’s a tale I’m going to tell you, all about a brave young man…”
Ronnie Hilton is the original and the source book for Leeds United songs, and sets the bar high for anyone writing a song about football. ‘Glory Glory Leeds United,’ ‘Leeds United Calypso,’ ‘Elland Road Baht’at,’ ‘The Lads of Leeds,’ ‘The Tale of Johnny Giles’: no other club had their own songwriter-in-residence – and a star in his own right, as I’ve banged on about before – and no other club has as many songs that have stood the test of time. It’s nearly 50 years old, but it was ‘Leeds United Calypso’ we turned to make a party tune out of ‘Bates Out!’
Only Leeds United would take it to the next level for the biggest hit – ‘Marching on Together’ and b-side ‘Leeds United’ came from Les Reed, who had written ‘Delilah’ and ‘It’s Not Unusual’ for Tom Jones – the deal to get the top songwriter of the day involved with Leeds inevitably brokered by one Paul Trevillion, who told The Beaten Generation how he adopted the old tactic of going round Les’s house and leaning on the bell:
‘What do you want? I’ll give you just a minute, that’s all. 60 seconds.’ ‘I want you to do the Leeds United song,’ I said. He burst out laughing, saying ‘You’re kidding.’
Keeping up with those standards has been the problem. For every ‘Leeds United Calypso’ there’s a ‘Leeds United Sing Song’; even in the early nineties, ‘We Are Leeds’ by The Crew was countered by ‘Leeds Salute’ by Snarley Gribley. This video from the SteakandSidney channel captures the awkwardness that results when you let footballers and music get too close: Dave Bassett holding a ‘HIT or MISS’ sign, Fairclough, Batty, McAllister and Speed looking like they’ve never seen guitars in their lives before as they mime on the Elland Road pitch. And Howard Wilkinson slagging it all off, wishing he was at a Barbra Streisand concert.
But when Leeds United hit the heights again in the Champions League, the hit parade was left largely unbothered. Maybe we were too cool for it then; maybe Ridsdale was planning some ultra-big budget music video that never came off; but as Leeds conquered Europe, Kaiser Chiefs and The Pigeon Detectives carried the musical flag as Leeds fans, following The Bridewell Taxis – featured in the new TSB magazine, and on The Square Ball blog here – as bands Leeds fans loved to follow but who didn’t take it as far as writing songs specifically about the club.
The only stand out moment in the nineties came from The Hitchers with their brilliant ‘Strachan,’ a hymn to all those who have tried to convince their significant others that Leeds United on the TV constitutes “A programme about art.”
The task fell instead to indie miserabilist Luke Haines and theatrical Yank Amanda Palmer, who both released songs called ‘Leeds United’ that were more like David Peace set to music than anything to do with what was going on at Elland Road. It wasn’t until The Beaten Generation stumbled across a Congolese subculture of songs dedicated to Tresor Kandol that Leeds were troubled by anything approaching a beat.
Until this season. All the ingredients are in place. Lars Vaular was one of the Brann fans in Norway who got Rudy Austin to do the John Barnes rap on this song by Bergen band Fjorden Baby!; Brian McDermott loves to get his acoustic guitar out for a song, and when I spoke to him at Thorp Arch this week (Clang! Name Drop) Brian was asking about good venues in Leeds and went away clutching a copy of the new City Talking paper, with Nathan from The Brudenell Social Club on the front and the new Belgrave Music Hall inside.
And now there’s Lars Vaular. It’s a rap, it’s from Norway, but it’s not as far away from Ronnie Hilton as you might think. Ronnie’s thing with ‘Leeds United Calypso’ and ‘The Lads of Leeds’ was to namecheck as many Leeds players as possible (“And the ground staff, and the office staff, and the laundry staff…”), and shout-outs have always had a home in hip-hop: Philomen Masinga, Lucas Radebe, Alan Smith, Nelson Mandela and Simon and Whitey from Kaiser Chiefs all cut through the language barrier, while Duberry, Woodgate, Bowyer and Ridsdale get dissed. The tribute chorus to Gary Speed takes the terrace chant and doesn’t get clever with it, and the rapped commentary at the end is up there with The Hitchers for sounding like something that happened in a real game. Add the Top Man shirt and a dancing kid in the video and you’ve got the best Leeds United tune in years.
The question now is how we follow it up. Kaiser Chiefs play Leeds Arena tonight; do they have time to learn Norwegian and do a cover? Is Lars going to do an English version? Can McDermott and Rudy team up for an Aerosmith/Run DMC style duet?
How about on the terraces? I interviewed David Wetherall for the new issue of The Square Ball, and made the point in that article that while Matteo and Beckford’s name still get sung – Jermaine’s probably loudest of all this Saturday – we never mention the man who put the ball in the Man U net – twice. In fact, the Elland Road repertoire has become decidedly thin through the hard Bates years.
Brian McDermott is taking part in our traditions, getting the players to wave to the crowd again in an “intimidating” – his words – reference to our greatest team. Lars Vaular has shown the way for recording artists to up their game and recapture the glory days. Now we need to bring the music – and the glory – back to our game at Elland Road.
More from The City Talking:
about a year ago
The City Talking newspaper is out now in Leeds – with Nathan from the Brudenell Social Club on the cover, it’s the perfect introduction to student life in the city.