You only sing when there’s no music
No buzz, no hostility and no home advantage - why piped music at football grounds ruins the match.
What is the point of piped music? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself all week. It was the half-time entertainment during Family Day at Selhurst Park last Saturday that got me thinking about this vital issue.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for football clubs dishing out cheap tickets to local schoolchildren. What I object to, as regular readers of this column will know, is the cheesy half-time entertainment that we’re subjected to on family days. As one might expect from an event sponsored by Croydon Council, the ‘entertainment’ (in the loosest sense of the word) is invariably rubbish. So rubbish in fact that twice this season the fans have booed off the half-time performers. Earlier this season we booed off a Freddie Mercury tribute act. Two weeks later a comically dire group of Christian rappers got the same treatment (1).
This Saturday, however, the half-time entertainers didn’t get booed off. First up was a Madonna tribute act. She was blond, pretty, female (I think, but you can never be sure), and could sing a bit so she didn’t get any stick. She was followed by a troupe of scantily clad female dancers, the Kukri Allstarz, who waved and blew kisses to the fans and performed a couple of sexy dance routines. Not exactly family entertainment but it did the trick. I’m not sure what the kids made of it but the soccer dads were up on their feet wolf-whistling, clapping and cheering.
Whatever next? Half-time pole dancers? Sure, the dancing girls went down quite well but do we really need any half-time entertainment at football matches? Call me old-fashioned but I’d always thought that the football itself was supposed to be the entertainment. If you go to the theatre you don’t have some sad warm-up comedian trot onstage to keep the audience entertained during the interval. So why do we need entertaining during the interval at football? Half-time is supposed to be a break. Toilet, meat pie, cup of tea, or just the chance to chat to your mates – that’s all we really need. What I really object to is the assumption that football fans are incapable of occupying ourselves for 15 minutes; that without the Kaiser Chiefs pounding out over the PA system we might just get bored and go home.
Even when there aren’t any tribute acts there’s piped music. Lots of it. In the past, music only used to be played over the tannoy system when the teams ran out onto the pitch. At Palace it was – and still is – the Dave Clark Five hit ‘Glad All Over’. At Everton it’s the theme from 60s police drama Z-Cars. At Chelsea, Wolves and West Brom it was always the ska classic ‘The Liquidator’ – though ironically the tune has been banned at Molineux at the request of the police in order to ‘prevent crowd incitement and thereby create a more family oriented atmosphere’ (2).
However, the money-fuelled regeneration of football in the last 15 years has seen an exponential increase in piped music, along with other wholly unnecessary forms of US-style razzmatazz, such as cheerleaders and furry mascots. Now we get loud piped music before the match, during the half-time interval and at the final whistle. It’s not just that the music is often awful. What’s really objectionable is that piped music pretty much drowns out any attempt by fans themselves to generate their own atmosphere. How can you trade abusive chants with the opposition if you can’t hear what they’re singing? At many football grounds they even play music when the home team scores a goal. What on earth is the point of that? We don’t need a blast of ‘Papa’s got a brand new pigbag’ as a cue to celebrate. It’s a goal. We know what to do.
Will the youngsters who came on Saturday find themselves hooked on the Selhurst experience? Well, if they do it will be because of the football rather the half-time entertainment. The game was open and exciting with Palace running out 2-0 winners. More importantly, with the heady whiff of promotion in the air, the atmosphere inside the ground was electric. No amount of piped music can generate that kind of collective buzz. ‘The crowd got going in the second half. It was like old times here today, it was more like how I remember Palace being, hostile and noisy,’ said manager Neil Warnock. The word ‘hostile’ is significant here. The anodyne family-friendly atmosphere which clubs are trying to engineer through piped music and Pop Idol wannabes is quite at odds with the sort of hostile, intimidating atmosphere that football matches ought to be about. In short, piped music is the enemy of home advantage.
And the relentless march of piped music isn’t just confined to football. Later that evening I was watching the climax of the Six Nations decider in Cardiff only to find that rugby had succumbed too. When Martyn Williams’ late try made the game safe for Wales, the Millenium Stadium spontaneously erupted into song. Wales is famed for its choral tradition and, sure enough, the strains of ‘Bread of Heaven’ and ‘Land of my Fathers’ were soon echoing round the stadium. I’m no rugby fan but I found it oddly moving. Until the trophy ceremony that is. When Ryan Jones lifted the Six Nations trophy there were fireworks and, you’ve guessed it, the same abominable identikit medley of stadium rock anthems -‘We are the Champions’, ‘Rocking all over the World’ and so on – that fans have to endure at every showcase football final. ‘Sod your male voice choirs; let’s rock!’ seemed to be the message from the stadium DJ.
It would be tempting to see this as a case of American piped music monoculture swamping our indigenous sporting traditions. But, while orchestrated entertainment is a hallmark of most mainstream US sports, we shouldn’t assume that every American sporting prototype is bad. According to expat English journalist Steven Wells, Major League Soccer (MLS) ordered a clampdown on piped music last year. ‘MLS sent out a memo telling clubs to turn off the piped music, cut down on the PA chatter, stop the insulting “make some noise” bollocks and let the fans generate the atmosphere’, wrote Wells (3). English football could do well to follow the Yanks’ lead on this one. As a rule I’m usually against banning stuff at football but, when it comes to piped music, it’s high time we pulled the plug.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.
(1) Kick Jesus Christ out of Football by Duleep Allirajah, 1 November 2007
(2) Minutes, Molineux Stadium Advisory Panel, 20 March 2003
(3) The Final Frontier: Becks in LA, FourFourTwo (International), August 2007