Time for a sheepish confession, or a proud boast, depending on your view. Of the thousands of 7” singles I have bought, blagged, swapped, sung along with and danced to, down too many decades, one of the first was Football Crazy by the Scottish folk duo Robin Hall and Jimmy MacGregor.
Written in Scotland in the 1880s and even recorded by folk purist Ewan MacColl, their version was released in 1960. It featured occasionally on the BBC Light Programme show Children’s Favourites, to which my brothers and I listened every Saturday in the hope of hearing The Shadows. I got it for Christmas.
The jaunty rendition by Hall and MacGregor, stalwarts of BBC TV’s Tonight programme, coincided with my interest in football after we persuaded our reluctant father to take us to a First Division match in 1959. It wasn’t Apache or FBI, but it beat Sparky’s Magic Piano and The Runaway Train hands down.
It seems strange – after all the 45s, EPs, LPs, 12-inchers, cassettes, CDs and downloads across myriad genres that I’ve amassed – to report that the song I can’t stop playing, Two Halves, also fits the folk and football categories. However, folkies of my acquaintance don’t ‘get’ Richard Dawson. His strong, expressive voice slips seamlessly between baritone and falsetto, while there are unusual key changes and chord progressions, all evidently deemed untraditional and unsettling. The song also favours dark humour over Football Crazy’s chirpy innocence.
The track was the second single taken from Dawson’s 2019 masterpiece 2020, the sixth and most electrified album by the Newcastle upon Tyne-based avant-troubadour (as one critic memorably characterised his difficult-to-pigeonhole schtick). Its 12 songs are vivid, often bleak vignettes of life in Brexit-blighted Britain, starting with Civil Servant, ending on Dead Dog In An Alleyway and taking in Jogging and Freshers’ Ball along the way.
The stories – for Dawson is a storyteller – detail small, intimate experiences which nonetheless contain a universality. ‘How little we are’ runs the sing-along chorus of The Queen’s Head, a veritable docudrama about a flooded pub in Sheffield in which ‘the fat-headed butcher’ bemoans the lack of flood defences, ‘somehow putting it down to an upsurge of benefit-scrounging immigrants’.
Two Halves, by contrast, is a ‘happy’ song according to Dawson, its lyric inspired, he says, by watching his nephew turn out for a Tyneside boys’ club and seeing Newcastle United play at St James’ Park. I don’t know about happy, though there are laugh-out-loud moments. This is uneasy listening.
Most fathers and their offspring will recognise the scenario – a child performing inadequately in a match while her/his dad looks on in exasperation, frequently calling the youngster ‘Mate’ and demanding they ‘Get stuck in’.
Bellowing instruction from the touchline That’s my dad Purple in the face Getting really mad
After a catchy, almost shanty-like chorus begun by the exhortation of ‘Man on! Man on!’ – a warning that will be familiar to anyone who ever took possession of the ball in a match, at whatever level, with an opponent in close proximity – Dawson takes the narrative forward by voicing the character of the increasingly irritated grown-up.
Stop fannying around! Keep it nice and simple! You’re not Lionel Messi! Just pass the bloody ball!
His annoyance does not help the girl/boy play well. How could it? I won’t spoil it by revealing how the ‘plot’ unfolds during an astonishing, largely falsetto section (which highlights Dawson’s peculiar penchant for writing lines that are spoken-word sentences rather than poetry, rhyme or meter and yet remain imbued with melody). Suffice to say the child’s character sings ‘At the final whistle I am inconsolable’, adding, in the last chorus: ‘I reckon Dad is really disappointed with me.’
But by the concluding verse, set in the car on the way home, the father is softening and urging the child to ‘move on to next week’s game’. The song ends tenderly with the man’s conciliatory question: ‘Shall we pick up a Chinese or would you rather fish and chips?’
Those looking for artists with whom to compare Dawson frequently cite Half Man Half Biscuit, the Wirral-based outsiders who gave us All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit, a paean to Subbuteo, and countless satires on popular culture. There are discernible echoes, too, of a disparate bunch including Pulp, Sleaford Mods and Ivor Cutler.
Dawson is less whimsical than HMHB. The electric-guitar intro to Two Halves begins spikily, morphing into grunge, a style which raucously launches the other ‘sporting’ track on 2020, Jogging. Some critics and fans, in trying to explain where Dawson fits in, have even invoked Beefheart. I would contend that, like the Captain, he is a true original.
He maintains that he isn’t political – in the polemical or didactic sense – but that’s like Ken Loach claiming his films are just stories. The songs certainly provoke a visceral reaction. For example, the voice of Civil Servant says forlornly: ‘And I don't have the heart to explain to another poor soul/ Why it is their Disability Living Allowance will be stopping shortly’.
Or there’s Jogging, which opens with a confession of suffering anxiety attacks which keeps the narrator housebound. ‘The days drain away, scouring eBay,’ he sings, going on to mention ‘a Kurdish family on the ground floor/ Had a brick put through their kitchen window’.
These are state-of-the-nation songs, like Ghost Town or London Calling. They variously namecheck Wetherspoon’s, Aldi, Nando’s, Zoopla, Premier Inn, Carling and Maltesers, the brands which bond us all in our increasingly homogenised towns and cities. The lyrics manage the trick of being simultaneously funny and depressing. Even if you’re not football-crazy, if you value the power of words, give Richard Dawson a try.