Jimmy Pursey: Cup winner

His song has touched a chord with middle-aged football fans who lived through the depressing 1970s
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"Three Lions" may stage a revival, although the fact that the German team also used it as a World Cup theme may militate against it. There's a chance that "Vindaloo", the beery chant created for the 1998 World Cup by Fat Les (Damien Hirst, Alex James and Keith Allen), may also resurface. The would-be comical "Who Do You Think You're Kidding Jürgen Klinsmann?" is probably a non-runner. But the real World Cup coup would be achieved if the new version of Sham 69's "Hurry Up Harry" was to roll down from the stands.

Put together by the band's lead singer Jimmy Pursey and musician friends, including Graham Coxon, "Hurry Up England" recently won a vote on Virgin Radio to be the unofficial England anthem, and is being released as a CD, with downloads available. The original song made the pop charts in 1978, reaching No 10, so its revival, 28 years later, is one of the more arcane pieces of marketing associated with the World Cup, and raises the simple question "why?".

A brisk and breezy tune, a mix of punk, Chas and Dave, with a dash of Ian Dury, "Hurry Up Harry" had the chorus "we're going down the pub..." which has been replaced by "we're going to win the cup", so no problems there for the lyrically challenged. Pursey has hailed it as "the greatest punk football record ever made and that's the end of it. The unofficial songs are always better than the official ones, and this year is no exception".

Meanwhile, over on the Sham 69 website there's an announcement of regret for "the tempory (sic) cancellation of the three Sham 69 gigs set to take place between 16th-22nd June in Brazil and Argentina". And the reason? "In the UK 'Hurry Up Harry' has been remixed and used for the People's Anthem ... and has become a phenomenon, and the press and recording commitments have become a priority at present."

Apart from the obvious implication that there's a lot of cashing-in going on, the tactful withdrawal of the band with an England song from two rival football countries seems to be a diplomatic nicety. But is the success of the song anything other than an act of cheerful opportunism? Will England fans in their forties be jumping up and down like they did in their teens, bouncing off each other, having a bit of a rumble and then getting back on their feet for some more? Or is there something slightly more sinister going on?

Back in March 1979, as an occasional writer for Time Out, I followed a day's filming for a BBC Arena programme being made about Sham 69. The band had been formed in 1975, taking its name from a slash of graffiti about the local Hersham football team. Pursey, born on a nearby farm, left school at 15 to work in a curtain shop in Walton High Street.

The young Pursey dabbled in a bit of the prevailing glam rock, but once Sham 69 was formed they were there on the starting blocks when punk emerged as the ultimate antidote to curtain shops and spangly suits in late 1976.

"Basically I was attracted by the raw energy which the group managed to put across on the album (That's Life)," the Arena director Jeff Perks told me. "The whole punk thing has been interesting because essentially anyone can do it, and Sham 69 are perfect examples of that."

Not much happened the day I visited the location. Pursey wasn't acting in the film - "he's too 'big' and would have hammed it up so much he'd have ruined it" - about a lad who loses his job, goes to the races and the pub and gets into trouble with someone else's girl. Pursey's "personal assistant", Grant Fleming, was chosen to play the feckless youth instead.

A lot of Sham 69's music was about this sort of teenage torpor in working-class youth. Jobs didn't seem important and the old industries were struggling anyway. The Labour government had been scuppered by the public service strikes in the winter of 1978-79, and Margaret Thatcher was on the cusp of electoral success. Sham 69 and a few other bands captured this sense of dislocation, a premonition of the new world of market forces and service industry jobs with songs such as "Otis Redding", "Angels with Dirty Faces" and "If the Kids Are United". So it was perhaps not too surprising that they attracted a crowd that was often nihilistic, violent and regularly infiltrated by the National Front, looking for recruits.

"We filmed the band the other night up at Hendon Polytechnic," Perks recalled at the time, "and it was amazing with all these skinheads rampaging around the place." Several fights had broken out on the night, and the crowd had eventually stormed the stage and broken up the concert. "Why they should take it out on a Sham concert when the group is obviously in sympathy with some of their frustrations, I don't know. I don't think Jimmy Pursey himself knows the reason."

Pursey, as a vegetarian and left-leaning political lyricist, was so baffled by the regular presence of the National Front that he later broke up the band to prevent any further association. The fact that they liked his music, saw it as a sort hymn book for their agenda, clearly shocked him. But one of the electricians on the Arena film dismissed the idea that the band's music was being hijacked for political means. "I think they all just love a good bundle and this lot's music gives them the excuse to have one."

Not as culturally resonant as The Clash or The Jam, and lacking the slick marketing skills that kept The Sex Pistols going, Sham 69 ran out of steam after four albums, with Pursey moving on to a patchy solo career, which included a re-formed band with different musicians but no great success.

Pursey recorded four albums in his own name during the 1980s, all with rather introspective, over-earnest titles in which he presented himself more as a wandering balladeer than rabble-rouser. None of them was particularly successful, and no singles registered in the charts. Pursey dabbled with fringe theatre on occasions and continued writing his songs.

In 1987 Pursey reassembled a new Sham 69, on the back of their slow-burning success in America, with one former member, guitarist, Dave Parsons. The group's name remained famous but their early commercial success couldn't be repeated. But the band kept on touring, and before the success of "Hurry Up England" intervened, was due to tour England, as well Brazil and Argentina, later this month. The gig at the Hammersmith Palais on 25 June is going ahead, with an anticipated celebration of a number one single - and England may well be playing that afternoon.

Pursey still performed himself and wrote poetry, some of which is available on his website. "I don't think I'm here/For you to Like Me/Love or Hate me/Or even try to understand me/I'm just here," he writes in a poem entitled "Here".

Before the release of "Hurry Up England", Pursey's music was twice hijacked in curious circumstances. In the first instance, "If the Kids Are United" was used in adverts for McDonald's, the rights to the song having been sold. Pursey protested that his vegetarian status had been horribly compromised by an unthinking multinational.

The same song was then played prior to Tony Blair's speech at last year's Labour Party conference. Pursey retaliated by performing the song on Newsnight with lyrics altered to embrace an anti-Iraq war theme.

The revival of "Hurry Up Harry" is probably not an attempt, inadvertent or otherwise, to relight the fires of former National Front activists just in time for a World Cup trip to Germany, although we will know soon enough if it has that effect on some of England's fans in Germany.

What's more likely is that the song has touched a chord with those middle-aged football fans who lived through depression and embarrassment in the 1970s, when England failed to qualify for anything and music was crap until the punks came along.

Nobody in their right mind could be nostalgic for those years or what happened on and off the football pitch. But the song could well be a point of reference between that artless, shifting decade and the one they are living in now - nice car, routine job but well paid, low-rate mortgage, couple of kids, supermarket around the corner, cheap travel, and the chance to follow a potentially successful England team. All of which is better than they probably imagined back in the late 1970s.

Pop sociology apart, the reissuing of Pursey's song is also just another facet of the wave of marketing associated with this World Cup. There's already an official song, "World at Your Feet" by Embrace, but there are dozens more cheap knock-ups vying for supporters' affections, deployed by radio stations and tabloid newspapers to enhance the World Cup fever that in turn helps to sell everything from beer, to football shirts, to car flags to widescreen televisions.

One music industry buyer says: "I must have had two dozen digital tapes and downloads sent to me with homemade World Cup songs on, all hoping to be turned into a CD, a ringtone or a backing track for an advert. Jimmy Pursey's is clearly more professional and catchy, so good luck to him."

Pursey, now in his early fifties, may well see a career revival at hand and is certainly endorsing the song in bullish terms. "We've called it 'The People's Anthem' and, if the people want it to, it'll go to No 1." So it's official then - punk is dead.

A Life in Brief

BORN: 9 February 1955, Hersham, Surrey.

EDUCATION: Hersham Juniors, Rydens School, Surrey/

CAREER: After leaving school in 1970, formed Sham 69 in 1975. First record 'Borstal Breakout' (1978).

Other singles include: 'Angels with Dirty Faces', 'If the Kids Are United', 'Hersham Boys', 'Hurry Up Harry'.

Sham 69 albums: Tell us the Truth, That's Life, The Adventures of the Hersham Boys, Information Libre.

Solo albums: Imagination Camouflage, Alien Orphan, Revenge is not the Password, Code Black.

HE SAYS "It's not every day you get a guy with a sub-machine gun round your head telling you he's a Sham 69 fan"- On being separated by an armed police after a fight with Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten outside the American Embassy in London.

THEY SAY "He's not fit to be in the same sentence as me. What do you expect from a low-rent fake mockney two-bob runt?" - John (Johnny Rotten) Lydon