One of my recent purchases, on a short trip out to Crystal Palace, was a £1 copy of Short Stories (1980) by Jon and Vangelis, from Bambinos in Church Road. I’d been told that this album, the debut full-length release from the duo, was quite good, but never having heard anything from it other than the single I Hear You Now, I was only really interested in it as a curio, being a fan of both Jon Anderson and Vangelis. There are moments which are reminiscent of Anderson’s solo album Olias of Sunhillow (1976), which some say has the stamp of Vangelis over it, plus plenty of vintage Vangelis soundtrack electronica. What took me by surprise was the first track Curious Electric, not because of its portentous Blade Runner-like opening bars, but the unexpected strangeness of the vocal section, with Anderson getting round to introducing the concept of ‘short stories’ after telling us he was “...sitting it out Watching "Match of the Day..."
That struck me as being quite pertinent, as we’ve just entered the knockout rounds of the World Cup and I thought I’d explore the connections between progressive rock and (association) football...
I’ve lived within shouting distance and more recently within easy walking distance of Selhurst Park for the past 32 years. I didn’t follow any particular football team when I was at school though I do remember changing the words of hymns in a junior school hymn book to reflect the glory of Chelsea FC who had just won the FA Cup; I later professed an admiration for Derby County, who happened to be winning the league and playing in Europe at the time. I once went to see Barrow AFC thrash Cambridge United at Holker Street when Barrow were still in the old Third Division and graffiti at the top of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris proclaimed ‘BBB rule the World’, Barrow Boot Boys being the thuggish element of the Holker Street crowd. I’ve been back to Holker Street a few times since with my son and brother, adopting them as my ‘lower division’ team after I’d seriously begun to support Crystal Palace but in the 70s we were really a rugby family and I spent quite a lot of time on the terraces (and later in the stand when I was offered a free ticket) at Craven Park, home of Barrow RLFC.
So why did I start paying my hard earned money to a football club, and not a particularly fashionable club out of all the teams available in London? Palace was my local team and the noise of the crowd was easily audible from our flat in Edith Road. One drawback was the road was convenient for travelling fans, so taking the car out on a Saturday afternoon or Tuesday evening often meant parking round the corner when we returned home. Selhurst Park was so local that it genuinely felt like part of the community; the local paper had pages devoted to the team and my wife’s family were long-standing supporters. As a new home-owner I was cementing my relationship with my adoptive community.
The first match I attended was against a second-tier fixture against Reading on the 4th November 1995 and the first match I took my son to was against Norwich, the last home game of that season (95-96). My brother had come down to London to see a gig and the opportunity to take in a football match presented itself; he takes his sport somewhat more seriously than me but this was also the chance to introduce a youngster to his local team, a father-son thing. That was such a long time ago...
Out of all the football teams, Crystal Palace has the most progressive rock sounding name. In the early-mid 80s I used to live in Crystal Palace (Upper Norwood) and it is rumoured the players used to hang out in the Holly Bush, a five minute walk up Gipsy Hill from the flat I used to live in at the time. But progressive rock doesn’t really go with football because prog isn’t about a mob mentality. When I started to go to Selhurst Park regularly I’d get tickets as close to Block A of the Lower Holmesdale stand as I could, just for the atmosphere. This was the section frequented by the hardcore supporters and at the time, close to the seating reserved for the away support in the adjacent Arthur Waite stand. Detached, I’d watch the fans get carried away, frequently abusing their own team for underperforming and creating an atmosphere that had a tendency to normalise sexist, racist, homophobic and other unpalatable behaviours, despite the signs warning that the use of offensive language would result in ejection from the ground. Though it’s improved over the years, with racism and homophobia pretty much eliminated from the crowd at Palace, there remains work to be done to further reduce unacceptable behaviour and unforgivable vulgarity.
The club may have survived in the Premier League for a run of five seasons (and counting) but the inevitable pessimism that accompanies Palace fans on the rollercoaster ride as the team yo-yos between the top two divisions, flirts with relegation into the third tier and twice goes into receivership and hires and fires managers, runs counter to the ethos of early 70s progressive rock. Test match cricket is probably more in tune with prog, requiring patience, considerable thought, lasting five days and being incomprehensible to many. Sadly, cricket has become commercialised in the fight to survive and new forms of the game have the same relationship to former test matches as 90125-era Yes had to the classic line-up of 1972. Furthermore, pessimism associated with supporting a team, whatever the sport, seems to be an English disease.
So is there any sort of link between soccer and prog? I can’t imagine any footballer being conversant with progressive rock, although Palace goalkeeper and cult hero Julián Speroni has been known to attend the after-show parties of London heavy-rock outfit Thunder. It may be that somewhere out in Italy that one of the players knows something about the genre because of its embedded presence in the nation’s psyche. I’m quite tempted to get a ticket for a Genoa CFC home game (the oldest club in Italy, founded 7th September 1893) next time I’m in Liguria during the football season: their strip is in the same colours as Crystal Palace and despite nine championship titles, they seem to spend their time oscillating between Serie A and Serie B.
Those high up in the politics of the game have attempted to make soccer more inclusive, if only to attract corporate sponsors, but I still think songs about football tend to be more rock ‘n’ roll, where the language is more universal than prog, despite Focus’ Hocus Pocus being used by sportswear manufacturer Nike for an advert during the 2010 World Cup. Genesis released an out-take EP of songs that didn’t make it on to Wind and Wuthering in 1977 that included the song Match of the Day, a surprising homage to the beautiful game and an encouragement to spend your Saturday on the terraces. Back in 1973, Peter Gabriel used extensive football metaphors in The Battle of Epping Forest but Match of the Day from the Spot the Pigeon EP (its cover sleeve displaying a photo from a spot the ball competition) was a song about football as lifestyle; Genesis even managed to get in a football reference in Mad Man Moon from Trick of the Tail “...For a gaol can give you a goal and a goal can find you a role / On a muddy pitch in Newcastle...”
There is a photo of a Pink Floyd FC on the cover of A Nice Pair and a related photo with cheerleaders in Nick Mason’s personal history of Pink Floyd, Inside Out. This is dated January 1972 and depicts the team about to take on opponents made up of members from Family.
Rick Wakeman is a confessed football addict. It may have been his influence, but a photo from the Yes biography, Close to the Edge the story of Yes by Chris Welch shows Yes United, from 1976. This is likely to have been at the time when soccer was starting to take off in the USA, and Wakeman, along with 10 others, bought the franchise for Philadelphia Fury. He was instrumental in getting a number of former UK stars to go over to the States, including Alan Ball, Peter Osgood and Johnny Giles. His admiration for Brentford FC, first made public in the booklet that accompanied Fragile, led him to become a director of the club in 1979 for a year though when an Isle of Man resident he seemed to shift his affections to Manchester City.
Yes United, 1976 (from Close to the Edge: The Story of Yes by Chris Welch) photo: Scott Weiner
I’m an advocate of using sport as a democratic lever, much as I once naively thought progressive rock could contribute towards creating greater peace and understanding throughout the world. Systemic corruption of world football’s governing body was exposed in 2015 but it seems to me that there’s been insufficient change in the stewardship of the organisation since Sepp Blatter’s election run for a fifth term as president was wrecked by the arrests of FIFA executives for the ‘World Cup of fraud’. FIFA pays a low rate of tax in Switzerland due to its Charity status and has also been accused of enabling tax evasion, but it’s in the stands of grounds up and down the country where fans can directly witness the effects of ineffectual governance: the appointment of owners unfit to run a club; pricing many true supporters away from watching their team; the empty corporate seats after half time; and over-rewarding players in an age of austerity. I‘m in favour of the English FA attempting to set up a rival governing body and once Russia was confirmed as host nation for the competition this year, I thought that a general boycott of the World Cup (and the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014) might have had some genuine influence over the direction of Russia’s foreign policy.
However, I’m pleasantly surprised how well the competition has been managed, apparently without intimidation or violence, though I still believe football is being used as a sportswashing tool by unsavoury regimes. I’m also worried about the globalisation of the game and the concomitant awarding of ‘official partners’ and branding rights which subverts the democratic running of world football and increases the divide between the players and the fans.
It’s all about the money – much of it debt-financed.
Football is stadium rock, corporate rock, not prog.
This blog was originally published as ‘Match of the Day’ on 8th April 2014, then edited and posted as ‘MOTD2’ on 30th June during the 2018 World Cup.