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Football Music, Jim Phelan

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.


'Friends in the record industry told us, "Football and music? Forget it! The two just don't go together." But we decided this stuff had to be heard.'


'The devil,' it is often said, 'has all the best tunes.' But according to Jim Phelan of Exotica Records in South London, when it comes to tunes about football, the Red Devils of Manchester United have by far the most. Only Ajax and Liverpool come near. Phelan reckons that around 200 tracks devoted to United have been recorded since the 1950s. They emerge from the unlikeliest sources too.


For example, Exotica's fourth United compilation album promises to include possibly the first ever Welsh language rap song (a tribute to Ryan Giggs), a soulful Dutch ballad about Jaap Stam (whom United controversially sold to Lazio), and United tributes by an Australian fan called Eddy Baroo, complete with traditional Ozzie accompaniments on the didgeridoo and wobble-board.


'Every football club at some point or another has enjoyed some degree of success, and with that comes this terrible obligation to make a record,' says the 53 year old Phelan, who hails from Stockport, a few miles from Old Trafford.


'The bigger clubs and the England team often get their records into the charts. 'Come On You Reds,' sung by the United squad, topped the British charts in 1994. But the majority of others, like non-League club Fisher Athletic's classic 'Come on You Fish' are made by fans and probably had only 500 copies pressed, sold 50, and the rest were put behind the bar.'


Where they would have remained, forgotten, had it not been for the detective work of Mike Alway, formerly of Cherry Red Records, back in the late 1980s. 'Friends in the record industry told us, "Football and music? Forget it! The two just don't go together." But we decided this stuff had to be heard.' 'Flair 89' was issued on Confection Records and two years later Exotica Records was born to issue the legendary 'Bend It' series of four compilation CD's in the early 1990s.


Since then, Exotica and Cherry Red have managed to issue albums devoted to over 40 British clubs. One of the earliest football songs discovered was by the Lancashire film star Gracie Fields. Her music-hall ditty, 'Pass, Shoot Goal,' came out in 1931.


The first United recording dates from 1956. Called 'The Manchester United Calypso' it was sung by Edric Connor. Phelan later discovered that, intriguingly, Conor was the Royal Shakespeare Company's first black actor. Another surprising discovery was that the 1970s song 'I wish I could play like Charlie George' was written originally about George Best. Best, alas, was arrested for theft shortly before the recording, and so Charlie George's name was inserted instead. Such is fame.


Phelan nevertheless had no difficulty in putting together a full hour of Best tribute songs in 1997, under the title 'Georgie The Best Album,' interspersed with commentaries, interviews and goal celebrations.


In 1995 another of Exotica's tribute albums, to Eric Cantona, received rare praise from Britain's leading music journal, the New Musical Express. 'Nothing can compete with this lovingly compiled silliness,' waxed the review.


Phelan was not at all offended. Football music is supposed to be 'bad pop,' he insists. 'Anything that tries to be up to date just falls spectacularly flat. The typical football song is usually at least ten years behind musical trends.'


Phelan is now offering an opportunity for United supporters to appear on the next Red Album. He often takes a microphone into pubs in the Old Trafford area before games, to record fans' chants, many of them penned by Peter Boyle, the unofficial poet laureate of United's K Stand (the Stretford End).


But he also wants to hear from creative United fans abroad. 'What I'm seeking are chants or songs from different parts of the world, in Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Norwegian or any non-English language. If there's a group of fans in Kuala Lumpur or Calcutta who want to get together around a tape recorder to sing United chants in their own language or to their own types of music or accompaniment - bangra, bagpipe, or whatever - or perhaps a tribute to David Beckham, then I want to hear from them.'


Phelan promises that you won't become a star. But you might just achieve musical immortality.


Simon Inglis, December 2001

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