BY MARK GODFREY
Imagine a man so handsome and dashing, a maverick who bent the rules and fractured a few minor laws all in the name of good, that his fame inspired an entire town to dedicate a part of itself to him. I’m not talking about the crime-infested streets of New York or Los Angeles, where he helped damsels in distress; nor am I referring to good old London town with all its grimy Cockney pickpockets and two-bit growling East End gangsters. The place in question is Birkenhead, and the hero is actor James Garner – or more specifically his alter ego, private investigator Jim Rockford.
So, what is the connection between the 1970s TV do-gooder and the town that lives perpetually in Liverpool’s substantial shadow? There are few comparisons between the sun drenched boulevards of California and the Wirral peninsula; I doubt whether anyone has ever seen a golden Pontiac Firebird parked outside Birkenhead market for one thing, and the less said about the merits of New Brighton beach and the equivalent stretch of sand in Malibu the better. But, somewhat perplexingly, Tranmere Rovers have been using the theme tune from the hit US show The Rockford Files as the team’s ‘coming out’ song for as long as anyone cares to remember.
If you’ve never seen it – and unless you’re over the age of 35 or an aficionado of BBC 2’s daytime nostalgia programming, why would you have? – you should. It’s charming entertainment from a simpler time; occasional suspense, chippy humour, the odd obligatory car chase and, ultimately, good old Rockford triumphs over the nasty man trying to embezzle the local community centre or comely, naïve widow out of their Benjamins. Rockford’s adventures were prime time viewing in the 1970s alongside other American-made televisual imports such as Starsky and Hutch, Dukes of Hazzard, Columbo and Dallas; the character probably came to define Garner in this country, even ahead of his many other movie and TV roles (Maverick and The Great Escape the most memorable).
Legend has it that Tranmere team began running out to the strains of the Rockford Files theme in the early 80s when they predominately played home games on a Friday night to try and attract extra spectators through the gate who might otherwise have crossed the Mersey to watch either Everton or Liverpool on a Saturday afternoon. These Friday night games would coincide with Rockford’s broadcast, so as if to mock the few thousand who did show up to watch them, Rovers decided it would be a bit of a laugh to treat those in attendance to this bouncy little number, to remind them that they could be tucked up at home in front of the fire watching Rockford stumble his way through another tangled mystery rather than be stood in the Cowsheds drinking piss-weak Bovril in a vain attempt to stave off the biting winds and driving rain. Ah, that famous Scouse ‘sensayuma’.
The tune stuck, and has been played at Prenton Park ever since. Recently, however, another number called Moving Mountains (perhaps in reference to the upcoming task of trying to regain their Football League status) was trialled during pre-season to widespread negativity from Tranmere fans who voted overwhelmingly to retain the song that has become not just a large part of the club’s identity, but also a regular subject on the pub quiz circuit. Maintaining that link may not quite be the same as the unlikely twinning of Birkenhead and Los Angeles, but it certainly does illustrate that supporters can often hold dearest the most quirky and tenuous pieces of tradition.
Across the River Mersey in Liverpool, the two big clubs also adopted unusual choices of music to accompany the players as they take the field. Both did so in the 1960s, which makes it slightly surprising that neither chose – or paid – to use one of the many hits of the city’s musical gods, The Beatles.
At Goodison Park, the theme tune from another cop drama – a British series called Z-Cars – was first used in Everton’s title winning season of 1962/63 and was probably done so because the show, which began in January 1962, was partly filmed in nearby Kirkby. Barring one or two ill-judged attempts to replace it in the 50+ years since, the stirring composition of fife and drums – which is closely based on the old folk song Johnny Todd – has become synonymous with the Toffees, even though Watford have also famously been playing the tune at Vicarage Road for almost as long. Such was the popularity of the show during the TV boom of the 1960s, the theme made the Top 10 of the UK music charts.
While the Blues of the great maritime city took a revised sea shanty to their hearts, the Reds fell in love with a 1940s show tune. You’ll Never Walk Alone comes from the Hollywood musical Carousel and was covered by Liverpool beat combo Gerry and the Pacemakers in 1963. Their version went to number 1 in the Hit Parade, striking an emotional chord with Liverpool’s normally gruff, hardened manager Bill Shankly who took to the song’s sentimentality sufficiently to instate it as the club’s anthem. If it was good enough for the hallowed Shankly, then it was good enough for the fans who stood on the Spion Kop and worshipped him. The fans’ rousing sing-alongs to the track were particularly evocative during Liverpool’s glory days of the 70s and 80s and have helped the song transcend both sport and music to become a symbol of hope and comfort to thousands. While other clubs have copied, and sometimes surpassed the passion in their own renditions, You’ll Never Walk Alone is a virtual trademark for anything associated with the Anfield club.
Elsewhere around Britain, there are plenty of other headscratchers belted out from PA systems at roughly five to three on a Saturday afternoon (or lunchtime, or Sunday, or Monday night…).
Milton Keynes Dons enter the fray to the cataclysmic screeching of Axl Rose and choppy guitar intro of Slash from Guns N’ Roses; Welcome to the Jungle? Welcome to the concrete jungle, is perhaps more appropriate.
Gillingham, Southend and Oxford have all turned to everybody’s favourite foot-stomp creators Kasabian for their walk out music. The Leicester four-piece’s Club Foot could be construed as a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the technique of lower league footballers whilst simultaneously serving its intended purpose of rousing both home spectators and players alike.
West Ham United’s “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” stands out as a particularly odd choice, given the East End’s traditionally tough, gritty image; this a place renowned for its Danny Dyer oikish clones and monosyllabic wannabe hardmen and therefore is completely at odds with their fetishizing of this gaily loping music hall waltz. Quite the paradox.
If you’re a fan of music from any of the Rocky movies or the one time Housemartin turned superstar DJ Norman Cook then the Football League more than adequately caters for your tastes.
For Latin jazz enthusiasts, Leyton Orient’s Brisbane Road is the hippest place to hang out; Tijuana Taxi by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass greets the players as they emerge from the tunnel. It’s an infectious little ditty, perhaps more fitting for the part in a Carry On film where Barbara Windsor’s knockers make their obligatory cameo appearance for Sid James and Kenneth Williams to gawp at, rather than at a mid-winter slog against Dagenham and Redbridge.
At least in Newcastle, it’s a case of local songs by local people. The theme from Local Hero was, in fact, written for a movie set in Scotland, the plot of which has a strong resonance today; an American oil company representative is sent to the fictional village of Ferness to purchase the town and surrounding property for his company, in shades of Donald Trump’s modern day indulgence of buying up swathes of his mother’s homeland for his own financial gain. The tune was penned by Geordie singer/songwriter Mark Knopfler – he of the odd guitar-picking stylings and mumbling vocal delivery that inspired Dire Straits’ huge commercial success. Knopfler was actually born in Glasgow before moving to the coal mining town of Blyth on the Northumberland coast as a boy. In Tunnel of Love, he famously sings about Whitley Bay and the town’s Spanish City amusement arcade and has regularly penned other songs that refer to the area where he spent most of his formative years. Even if Local Hero has no relation to the region other than through its creator, Magpies supporters ‘gan aal funny’ when they hear it before a game at St. James’ Park, so proud they are of their cultural exports – even if they’ve all buggered off to live in California with their millions and their ‘Scenty Bottle’ accents.
However curious this non-exhaustive list of musical oddities may be, God bless ‘em all for being so. They provide the antidote to the generic sterility and corporate brainwash of the Premier League and Champions League anthems. They give fans something of their own club’s history, identity and idiosyncrasies to cling onto in a world where those individual characteristics are gradually being prised away from them. And if nothing else, they’re a damn sight more original and palatable than We Will Rock You or Fanfare for the Common Man. Now, if we can only eradicate the scourge that is ‘goal music’ then I think we can all sleep soundly in our beds…