BY JONNY BRICK
I have often thought that, upon their death, Sir Paul McCartney will be mourned more than Her Majesty the Queen. This isn’t to slight Britain’s best cultural export, but I think McCartney has impressed himself on more lives than the Crown.
The sudden death of David Bowie recently put that theory into practice. He was not troubled; there were no reporters outside his house reporting on a tragedy in the same way that had befallen Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse. Bowie had given up his vices when they almost killed him forty years ago, when he was younger than Elvis Presley.
Nobody shot Bowie, as they had shot Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, John Lennon, two Kennedys or Andres Escobar. It was cancer that took Ziggy Stardust, and now he’s fallen back to the planet he came from.
Mourning an entertainer is something the world has always done: in New York in 1926, the actor Rudi Valentino had 100,000 people at his funeral, with rioting and suicide also reported. In a more totalitarian manner, deaths were reported when North Korea’s Great Leader Kim Il-Sung passed away in 1994.
Bowie had people singing along in Brixton, South London, where a painting stands proudly on the wall in the town centre. BBC radio broadcasts played Bowie back-to-back; social media was full of people, bizarrely, criticising the public nature of people’s grief, even though those people had expressed public sorrow over the loss of someone else.
This, I thought, was what it will be like when Paul Gascoigne dies. Jimmy Hill’s slow decline with Alzheimer’s Disease was as sad as George Best’s organs giving up on him; Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney lived a long, healthy life; Bobby Robson’s death elevated him to sainthood, as there seemed nary a bad word to speak of the great Geordie.
Each club has their own heroes to mourn, their own parade of late managers who have gone to the dugout up above. But which footballer has touched lives in the way David Bowie did, appealing to all ages and fans of all types of sound and vision?
For “Generation Sky Sports”, it has to be Gazza, a multi-faceted, three-dimensional being whose influence continues in the person of Wayne Rooney, a better-paid, less controversial Gazza. At the start of the Premier League, Gazza, then playing in Italy, was the ‘star man’ of English football.
Or maybe it’s David Beckham, who had as many haircuts as Bowie, has a wife who is enormous in the fashion world and who has lived abroad as well as at Beckingham Palace (Bowie lived in New York with his second wife, Iman, from 1993).
Watching For the Love of the Game, the ‘Around the World with Golden Balls’ show over Christmas, the phrase ‘national treasure’ was an invisible subtitle. Musicians like Paul McCartney and Adele, writers like Alan Bennett and J.K. Rowling, actors like Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and almost every old actor who does TV nowadays; they are all ‘national treasures’.
Bowie really was one, as shown in the hours after his death. He was the British Sinatra, in the way that while Sinatra was a very American crooner, Bowie (born on the day Elvis turned 12) was a working-class baby-boomer made good through grit, self-expression and a very strong self-belief. He was in London when London was the world capital of fashion and art, and when the Beatles were based there in the late 1960s.
David Beckham, guided by management and supported by a loving family that included his second father Sir Alex Ferguson, was in Manchester when ‘the city was theirs’ and Liverpool were perchless. Beckham was able to permeate the consciousness of Britain, and then the world, using his talent for bending a football. Not many 26-year-olds have a film named after them; very few of those men move from England to Spain to America, with stops in Italy and France.
Both David Bs influenced the world of fashion – be it silver suits or sarongs – and were at the very top of their profession. Both have also sent up themselves on TV comedies (Beckham with James Corden for Sport Relief, Bowie in Extras) and both live relatively private lives after ‘retiring’ from their sport. Bowie introduced mime and performance art into his stage shows; Beckham introduced the curled set-piece that led to a goal, and proved that footballers could sell underwear and model shirts too.
John Harris, a music writer, made the point that when John Lennon was shot there was no social media to unite disparate people in their grief. In the UK there were only three television channels, after all. To add to that, there wasn’t much football on television, which seems crude, but in 1980 the heroes were George Best, the entertainers of England’s 1982 World Cup Squad (Keegan, Francis, Hoddle, Bryan Robson, Peter Shilton) and, internationally, Pele, Johan Cruyff and a smattering of Europeans only seen by fans in the flesh when Liverpool or Nottingham Forest played them in European competition. In the charts, The Stranglers were wondering ‘whatever happened to those heroes?’ Bowie had a song about heroes too.
By 1997, the death of Princess Diana began a long few weeks of grief and retrospection. In the twenty years since then, as I and the rest of ‘Generation Sky Sports’ has grown from short trousers to chinos, grief has grown as a bankable industry. Michael Jackson, Tupac, Whitney Houston, yet more Elvis, Sinatra: all tragic passings to be sure, but it cannot be denied that all have had fillips in their posthumous earnings that enrich those who hold and manage their estate.
The same will now happen with Bowie. Expect a jukebox musical by 2020. But Bowie’s legacy planning was different. Bowie had been screwed by his former manager, and wanted to take control of his catalogue, of all those great tunes we played in the hours after he died. Aged 50, he issued a series of ‘Bowie bonds’ in the late-1990s, raising millions of dollars by enabling people to have a share in his future earnings.
Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, fortunately, have control of their back catalogue after Michael Jackson briefly bought it, while heritage brands like The Who, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones are reissuing a lot of their old recordings or, in The Who’s case, still going on and performing it on a regular basis. It’s what they do.
Footballers, though, can’t sprint as effectively at 40 as they did at 20.
Today’s top-level footballers grew up in ‘Generation Sky Sports’, mimicking international stars like Ronaldinho, Zidane, Buffon and Figo who, if their family had Sky Sports, were on the box sometimes twice a week. Defenders and goalkeepers had to develop football skills because of the changes in the pass-back laws and tacking from behind, and today’s best defenders (insert your favourite here) is the way he is because of how they have adapted. Manuel Neuer and Hugo Lloris are much better at football than, say, Fabien Barthez because they knew from a young age that they needed to be good with their feet and their hands.
Young Neuers and Llorises learned skills in their garden, rather than on the streets, and then in these lovely new academies under the instruction of clubs. These clubs may or may not sign them on youth training contracts at 16, then on professional terms at 18. Mario Balotelli and Odion Ighalo are just two top strikers who have moved to different countries (to England in Mario’s case, to Spain in Odi’s case) to seek fame and game time. There are worrying reports every year of false promises given by con artists posing as ‘agents’ or ‘fixers’, and the problem of money leaking out of clubs to agents seems a problem with no solution. Musicians have always had trouble paying their dues and then getting paid, which is usually where the unscrupulous manager comes in. (See the current BBC Four series on moguls and managers for evidence).
In English football, young players who idolise Messi, Ronaldo and (for everything bar his teeth) Luis Suarez have a host of top clubs to pick from. One of my great worries is that a talent like Patrick Bamford cannot get the same passage to international stardom as, say Wilfried Zaha. The music industry didn’t let David Bowie break through until 1969, really, though he had been in and around it since 1966. Some talent (Raheem Sterling, Wayne Rooney) is ready for the top level at 16 or 17, but some will come through later: Stuart Pearce was earning more as a semi-professional footballer-cum-electrician than as a full-time pro at Coventry, and went on to have a twenty-year playing career. Kevin Davies famously became the oldest player to make his England debut since 1950 (which, trivia fans know, was Leslie Compton, who was 38).
Many of pre-Sky generation of players, as we know, had to sell their medals and remortgage their properties. Today’s footballers are hopefully more savvy in planning for their post-playing days: football criticism should be an industry to watch as more ex-players become more than mere pundits.
Old legs can protect new legs. Players can be groomed to manage those who can sprint at 20. Thus will Ryan Giggs seek to emulate Ferguson when, finally, Louis van Gaal rides off into the sunset of a brilliant career? Gary Neville is currently trying, supported by his friend Peter Lim, who helps to fund Valencia’s efforts to dislodge the top two.
In one of the best tribute pieces, the Guardian’s pop critic Alexis Petridis noted that punk’s ranks were full of kids who had seen Bowie’s performance of ‘Starman’ on Top of the Pops in 1972. Punk then begat the New Romantic movement of Adam Ant, Spandau Ballet and Duran, which was interrupted by acid house and beat-driven dance music. Today there is a happy mix of guitars, beats, rhymes and rhythms, and music is all the better for it.
Musicians, of course, only earn big bucks at the top end of the tail. The difference is that in professional football, especially today, the top end is bigger, even if relatively there are thousands and thousands of semi-professional and amateur footballers and musicians. ‘Elite performance’ needs practice, either through singing lessons or five-a-side with a size-3 ball, and then luck needs to be a lady and do its best to help bring these players into a situation where they can thrive.
Witness Michael Owen using his pace against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. Witness the entire Barcelona team ‘giving it to Messi’ or the Real Madrid team laying it off to their number seven. Witness David Beckham trying to copy Jordi Cruyff in that game at Selhurst Park all those years ago (TWENTY?!) and succeeding.
And watch the world sing David Bowie songs. There’s only one David Bowie, one David Bowie…