While England are still in the World Cup, let's take a look back at our nation's official football song from 20 years ago. This one features some very talented people. And the Spice Girls. It's one of the strangest collaborations in chart history, and it's also very symbolic of the era.
On one side you had indie legends Echo And The Bunnymen, whose comeback album 'Evergreen' should've been their well-deserved and long overdue commercial success, but somehow wasn't. There were Simon Fowler and Tommy Scott, who were respectively the frontmen of Ocean Colour Scene and Space, two groups who were both enjoying huge success a couple of years earlier in the climate of Britpop. By the time 1998 came around, both groups were about to see their chart success begin to wane, so perhaps they were roped into taking part in this all-star football anthem by their PR people as an attempt to help keep them in the mainstream public eye. Or maybe they just wanted to work with EATB genius Ian McCulloch. Either way, it turned out to be a blessing. This sounds a lot better all these years later.
In the other corner there was the vocally-challenged pop combo, whose own commercial fortunes seemed to be declining too, after disappointing sales of their second album and the release of a dreadful cash-in movie. It's an even more unlikely collaboration when you consider how hostile the indie guitar scene was towards pop acts in the 90s. And some would say rightly so: It's no secret that I thought the Spice Girls were an absolute abomination. By 1998, the dizzying highs of the Britpop years were soon to fade into memory. There was lots of incredible music being released, yet the mainstream seemed to be more distracted by this manufactured pop act who seemed more interested in having their faces on kids lunchboxes than making music. I always see them as being partly responsible for the decline of a golden age for music. By 1998, I had already realised that. By now I expect many others do as well.
I'm almost offended by the fact that this song is listed on YouTube as "The Spice Girls featuring England United" when it is first and foremost a Bunnymen track featuring some guest singers, with the female five piece acting as mere backing vocalists. Back then, a surefire way to put me off buying any song would be to feature The Spice Girls on it. It was probably for that reason that I never bought myself a copy of this single, despite my fondness for the other musicians involved and being a big football fan at the time.
The pop act's involvement looked like it was a simple ploy to shift more copies. Although apparently it was McCulloch himself who "wanted to mess about with the idea of who to involve. I didn't want All Saints, I wanted the Spice Girls, because people didn't want them to be there. Usually, I run a mile from other people in the music business and I don't enjoy videos at the best of times, but the Spice Girls turned up dressed to the nines, looking larger than life and made it work. It was a good laugh."
Almost like the late 90s equivalent of the 1914 Christmas Truce, the video shows the indie team and the pop team putting their differences aside and having a kickabout in the back yard. Everyone involved looks slightly uncomfortable except for the girl group, who by this point were pros at using any occasion as another opportunity for publicity. But despite the look on Simon Fowler's face that seems to suggest "why the hell did I agree to this?", by all accounts everybody had great fun.
Interestingly at the time, the NME reported that the song had "beaten rival entries from Blur, Pulp and The Lightning Seeds". While it's a safe bet that the Lightning Seeds track was the 1998 re-recording of Three Lions, its unclear whether Blur and Pulp both recorded new tracks intended for an England football single or whether they had put forward existing songs. 'Glory Days' was pretty much the only Pulp song from the era that would've fitted in with the mood of the World Cup, and could've been their biggest hit since Common People.
It was also reported that 'Top Of The World' was planned to be recorded as a "‘Perfect Day’-style collaboration" with vocals from the likes of "All Saints, Cast, Jarvis Cocker, Finley Quaye, Louise, Robbie Williams plus members of the England squad." Imagine that... this track could've actually featured an even more mismatched combination of people.
The song was overshadowed that year by Fat Les's much more terrace chant-friendly Vindaloo, and was criticised for supposedly being too melodic for a football anthem. But like the classic Three Lions two years before it, the song captures that same naive sense of hope, as well as an undertone of sadness, underachievement and the feeling that the ultimate prize will always be just out of reach. Imagine how great and nostalgic this song would've sounded now if England had actually won the World Cup that year...
It's no World In Motion, but it is what it is. Consider this a reappraisal.