Jimmy Pursey: Hurry up Jimmy

Sham 69 were arguably the most popular UK punk band of all time, with five top 20 singles to their name. Now, thanks to the World Cup, their lead singer is back. By Oliver Bennett

Football songs should be spirited, simple, repetitive, and stick in the brain like spilled lager to a pub carpet. Frankly, Embrace's "World At Your Feet" - the official England World Cup song - fails in all these tasks.

Which is why it was a stroke of pop savvy to re-record Sham 69's classic 1978 track "Hurry Up Harry", with its irresistible chorus of "We're Going Down the Pub", as "Hurry Up England" and "We're Gonna Win the Cup". What could be simpler? The song is being pushed as "The People's Anthem" and could revive the fortunes of the legendary punk band - an ongoing project that the charismatic if tortured frontman Jimmy Pursey calls "my religion, my life". So why is Pursey so furious?

When I meet him at a pub on his home turf of Hersham, Surrey, the gangly singer points, incensed, at stickers promoting the new single: "Look. Nowhere does it mention Sham 69!" he yells. He's livid that Top of the Pops has just played the original "Hurry Up Harry", not the new song, and informed viewers that Pursey had once been a "male model" and a "ballet dancer" - he has modelled once and briefly dabbled in contemporary dance with a former member of Hot Gossip. "This record has been one almighty joke from beginning to end," rails the 51-year-old punk.

We repair to his parents' cosy house near the pub, and Pursey's delightful mum brings in tea and sandwiches (cheese for vegetarian Pursey). He explains about the "Hurry Up ..." curse. Indeed, it has been an odd time for the singer, who now paints and writes poetry, but who still makes most of his living by working the punk nostalgia circuit with Sham 69, who reach their 30th anniversary this year.

To the reworked song, then. It started when Brett Capaldi, aka DJ Brettski, approached Pursey. Capaldi's granny had died and he suggested that Pursey - a nomadic figure, currently living in a caravan - could use her house to paint in. "So I go to this house to paint. And while I was there, he said, 'I've got this idea of your song being used as a football song: "Hurry Up Harry" as "Hurry Up England".' I went 'right...'."

Although Pursey had "a bad feeling", they went to a cheap studio and laid down a few versions of the song, arguing awhile over the lyrics. "I'm getting more and more angry," he recalls. Then Pursey heard that Virgin Radio was playing the demo track. "I thought, this is getting absolutely insane."

In a competition to find a footie anthem, Virgin Radio listeners voted for Pursey to release "Hurry Up England". "The phone lines were jammed," says Pursey. "I said to [Virgin programme director] Paul Jackson that I wasn't sure, but he said, 'The people have asked you to do it, Jimmy.' Then they're telling me it's for the Teenage Cancer Trust." It was an offer Pursey couldn't refuse, particularly as he had a cancer scare recently.

But Pursey's ordeal was not over. "Then this kid from the East End calls up and says, 'You promised my mate we could do a football cover of "Hurry Up Harry" ages ago for the Macmillan nurses.' I didn't know anything about it, and suddenly I'm stuck with this as well. They're saying, 'You've nicked the idea'." Another version of "Hurry Up England" from a group called Motty's Sheepskin has now been released. The group is claiming it as the "original".

As far as his version was concerned, Pursey assumed that Sham 69 would record the final cut. "But when I got to the studios, there was Graham Coxon's band. I know him a bit from Reading [rock festival] where he was singing my songs pissed out of his brains. Lovely guy."

But again, Pursey felt trapped. "Everyone was ready to play. They totally sprung it on me. So I've got the band [Sham 69] ringing me up and saying, 'You bastard, what's going on?', and I'm saying, 'You tell me'."

Pursey believes he has been "used and wrung out like a tea towel". What's more, the left-ish Pursey "hates nationalism, pride and borders". But Pursey has found himself at the centre of a vortex before. Sham 69 released their first single, "Ulster", in 1977, and were signed by Polydor. They then released a stream of guttersnipe anthems: "Borstal Breakout", "Angels With Dirty Faces", "If the Kids Are United" and "Hurry Up Harry". Indeed, Sham has claims to be the most popular UK punk band of all time, with five top 20 singles.

The gigs, however, were compromised by a violent skinhead following, and Sham 69 decided to end their live career - at least, for a while. Pursey went on to work with Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols before going solo. But Sham 69 were then reincarnated in the 1990s, and he still plays with long-serving guitarist Dave Parsons.

It's not an easy life. "We're skint," says Pursey. So clearly, making "Hurry Up England" appealed to Pursey. The band duly cancelled Sham 69 gigs in Brazil and Argentina so Pursey could be around to promote the song.

The volatile Pursey courts controversy wherever he goes. He had an exhibition of paintings in Brighton in which one of his works, portraying an Abu Ghraib prisoner, remained un-hung. In protest, he took all his paintings down and installed them in a nearby pub.

Then, last summer, Sham 69 were asked to play a gig at the legendary punk club CBGB in New York. While he was queuing for his visa, he met an old adversary. "Johnny Rotten walks up, doesn't he? To cut a long story short, I have a fight with him." Armed police intervened.

"When I get back, Tony Blair uses 'If the Kids Are United' to walk on to [the stage at] the Labour Party conference," says Pursey in disbelief. "Then Newsnight had me sing it with new lyrics: 'Mr Brown don't despair', and so on." He added a stanza about bringing the troops home from Iraq.

And Pursey's 10-year old son told him that a Tony Hawk video game had also used the Sham 69 classic "Borstal Breakout".

"Surely, I thought, I can now come in from the doldrums of poverty." But no. The publishers had sold the all the song rights. "For $5,000... So you can see why I'm pissed off." This is how "Kids ..." came to be used in a McDonald's commercial, infuriating Pursey as he couldn't do anything about it.

But "Hurry Up England" shows that Pursey's original song has become part of the national musical memory. "It came from an album, That's Life, about a day in the life of a kind of Asbo kid," says Pursey. "They go to the pub, they meet some girls, they nick a car." Pursey explains that they exist in the same spirit as "Charles Dickens characters. All I ever wanted was to capture the essence of the people I met in the playground." More specifically, Harry was "an old English sheepdog I knew that kept shitting in the garden".

Pursey is keen to show me his home territory in the back lanes of Hersham. It's rather lovely, with oak-studded meadows leading down to the River Mole. He pauses outside a disused lot. "This is where I used to live," he says. "This was my life as a boy: pigeons, rabbits, horses, greyhounds, fishing, swimming ..." Pursey points to where the Diggers dug: he is a great admirer of the 17th-century social reformer Gerrard Winstanley.

Then we go to an exquisite Tudor farmhouse where his 18-year-old manager Chris Smith lives. They discuss the loss of the South America dates and how they haven't received any money yet. But at least Pursey has the rights to "Hurry Up England". And a new album is due. So with luck, a new generation will discover the "Dickens-meets-dole" joys of Sham 69.

PURSEY'S PROGRESS

BORN: 9 February 1955 on a farm in Hersham, Surrey, and named James Timothy Pursey. Father was in the Army, mother a cinema usherette.

EDUCATION: Started at Hersham House & Burhill Infants, went on to Hersham Juniors and then Rydens School.

CAREER: Left school at 15 to work in a curtain shop in Walton. In 1973 he worked at the local disco, the "Walton Hop", now infamous as the disco frequented by Jonathan King. Formed Sham 69 in 1975. The name was taken from a graffito reading "Hersham 69". After seven albums with the band he recorded two solo discs in 1980 and 1981. Currently recording new Sham 69 album No Apologies.

Sham 69 are playing the Hammersmith Palais, 230 Shepherd's Bush Road, London W6, tonight. Tickets cost £16. 'Hurry Up England - the People's Anthem' is now on sale

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