Wednesday 16 August 2017

Singing off-pitch: hits and misses

Ex-Shelbourne midfielder John Burns has just launched a music career with his band The Establishment – and they're not bad

Sporting establishment: John Burns (second from right) and his band The Establishment. Inset: Burns playing for Shelbourne
Sporting establishment: John Burns (second from right) and his band The Establishment. Inset: Burns playing for Shelbourne
Ed Power

Ed Power

You have to tip your hat to professional soccer player John Burns, who has just launched a music career. This is a gutsy move by the former Shelbourne midfielder, as it risks stirring memories of several of the worst atrocities ever committed against the recorded arts.

From John McEnroe trying his luck as a hard rock guitarist to the players of Liverpool FC attempting to get their Beastie Boys on, when sports stars step into the recording studio, the results are rarely edifying.

What a racket:John McEnroe and Pat Cash made a laughable foray into rock music when they formed the Full Metal Rackets
What a racket:John McEnroe and Pat Cash made a laughable foray into rock music when they formed the Full Metal Rackets

Often they make you want to stick forks in your ears and scream until your tonsils explode.

Evidently this has not dissuaded 35-year-old Burns, now resident in the UK, where he has lined out for Bristol City and Nottingham Forest.

In fact, rather than play down his sports background he has sought to make a virtue of it. Recorded with his band, The Establishment, debut single, 'Jennifer Jones', features cameos from several well known British pros, including Stuart Pearce, Teddy Sheringham and Les Ferdinand in its video.

With ex-striker Dion Dublin on board as band manager, Burns may as well have slapped a sticker saying 'Look at me –I'm a professional footballer!' on the record sleeve. Who knows? Maybe he has.

Burns playing for Shelbourne
Burns playing for Shelbourne

The kindest thing you can say about 'Jennifer Jones' is that it will not induce recurring nightmares, even among sensitive listeners.

Burns is a decent singer and a useful guitar player. The indie rock gods will in all likelihood be unmoved by his offering but it's hard to imagine them being actively offended.

Still, even if it was an iconic rock moment on a par with Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', 'Jennifer Jones' comes nowhere close to exorcising the ghost of novelty soccer-records past. It is a task beyond any one piece of music.

Through the seventies and eighties, English soccer, especially, was cranking out horror-show seven-inches faster than it took Millwall fans to rush a baton charge.

Many have a strong claim to the title of worst single of all time (bear in mind this was the pre-Jedward era).

Confirming professional sports people should on no account be allowed within miles of a live microphone, surely the most heinous artifact of the era was Paul Gascoigne's 'Fog On The Tyne'.

A 1990 hook-up with Newcastle group Lindesfarne, to the enduring shame of UK record buyers, it reached number two in the UK singles chart.

Also deserving a place in the dock for crimes against music are England players Glen Hoddle and Chris Waddle's 'Diamond Lights', a number 12 bullet from 1987 and Liverpool FC's 'The Anfield Rap', three-and-a-half minutes of faux-hip hop so unspeakable it is tempting to think that the dreadfulness was deliberate.

Co-written by midfielder Craig Johnston 'The Anfield Rap' was released in May 1988, several weeks before Liverpool's shock loss to Wimbledon in the FA Cup Final.

A generation later, 'The Anfield Rap' has not been forgotten. In 2005, the BBC, in a piece on terrible soccer songs, condemned it as "the worst offender... an inexplicably awful track".

We in this country are in no position to scoff. Twenty three years on, Ireland is still struggling to escape the terrifying legacy of 'Put Em Under Pressure', the Italia '90 single. Produced by U2's Larry Mullen, the track has elevated the chilling words 'Olé, Olé, Olé' into an alternative national anthem.

Strangely and disturbingly, the chant is especially popular among those far too young to have first-hand memories of the song itself. Kids – just say no! (Or, failing that, stop saying 'olé, olé olé').

Let's not be too harsh on soccer. It is far from the only offender. As already mentioned, in 1991 John McEnroe teamed up with frizzy haired rival Pat Cash and, christening themselves, the Full Metal Rackets, put out the single 'Rock and Roll' (with The Who's Roger Daltrey roped in on lead vocals).

Emphasising the ties between basketball and hip-hop, meanwhile, hulking Los Angeles Lakers centre Shaquille O'Neal has released a total of four rap albums, with cumulative sales surpassing one million (despite the near total derision of critics).

Strangely, if any sport has relative credibility – and we do emphasise 'relative' – in music it is rugby. This is not a reference to Munster wing Simon Zebo's and the viral hit he is enjoying with his unlikely lip syncing of Kanye West's 'Otis' (a heartfelt duet with fellow Ireland international Paddy Jackson). Rather, we mean the several former rugby players who have gone on pay the rent as professional musicians.

Famously, Voice of Ireland heartthrob Bressie had a contract with Leinster before committing full time to music and his band The Blizzards. Operating in the same genre of glossy pop-rock are Limerick rising stars Hermitage Green, fronted by ex Munster centre Barry Murphy, a member of the squad who won the 2006 Heineken Cup.

It says something about the dubious connection between sport and music that even when successful artists have a track record in athletic pursuits, they are not keen to advertise it. For instance, unless you are an obsessive fan, you probably weren't aware Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr was a soccer player who went for trials with Manchester City and Nottingham Forest.

However, he already had designs on music and often took to the pitch wearing mascara – a flourish, he now concedes, that may have put no-nonsense manager Brian Clough off signing him.

In America, sports stars have better luck reinventing themselves as musicians. Perhaps that's because US sports are, in effect, already part of the entertainment industry. Consequently the transition doesn't feel as jolting (Shaquille O'Neal was able to churn out records without his on-court credibility suffering even slightly).

Whatever, the reason, there is a tradition of high achieving American athletes going on to fruitful music careers. Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Mike Reid became a respected country singer and producer, winning a Grammy Award in 1984 and a Nashville Hall of Fame induction in 2005, while former NBA star Wayman Tisdale quit basketball to follow his passion for jazz guitar.

The upshot is that John Burns shouldn't assume music fans will clasp him to their collective bosom. As his debut release hits shelves he will be doing well, you suspect, simply to be accepted at face value.

With so many awful football records having assaulted our ears, it is an open question whether audiences are prepared to listen without prejudice. He's just started but you fear Burns is already in a relegation battle against obscurity.

Irish Independent

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