Sunday Times: Who Hits Pop For Six?

A 2009 article about The Duckworth Lewis Method from The Sunday Times.

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Who Hits Pop For Six?

Sport’s highs and lows are rarely captured well in song. Have somgwriters taken their eye off the ball, asks Mark Edwards.

Why are there so few songs about sport? The question arises because among last week’s new releases are two whole albums full of songs about sport. I doubt if that’s ever happened before. To be honest, Michael J Sheehy’s With These Hands is as much about a seedy 1960s demi-monde as it is about boxing, but the self-titled debut by the Duckworth Lewis Method is very obviously and very proudly all about cricket.

Duckworth and Lewis are, in fact, Thomas Walsh, of the band Pugwash, and Neil Hannon, from the Divine Comedy. Their fictional personas and the name of their band are taken from the mathematical formula employed to determine the target score for the team batting second in cricket matches that have been interrupted by bad weather. The original Duckworth-Lewis method causes some controversy; the musical project has caused some surprise, not least to its members, who originally imagined that their labour of love might just about scrape into the public arena as a novelty download. The fact that it has emerged as a gorgeously artworked album, and been widely greeted as not only a wonderful idea, but a rather wonderful set of songs, has left the fictional Duckworth and Lewis “flabbergasted”, according to Hannon.

Hannon is the better known of the pair, and fans of the Divine Comedy will find the expected mix of humour and pathos on the new album. Jiggery Pokery is out-and-out fun, sung — notionally — by Mike Gatting as he faces Shane Warne in the 1993 Ashes, receiving a delivery that came to be known as the “ball of the century”. In a chorus worthy of Flanders and Swann, Gatting tells us: “It was jiggery pokery, trickery, chokery/How did he open me up?/Robbery, muggery, Aussie skulduggery/Out for a buggering duck.” This artfully constructed wordplay is juxtaposed with The Sweet Spot, a slice of sleazy glam rock that spares no time in getting to the obvious sexual metaphor.

Walsh, meanwhile, brings a summery 1960s pop feel — and a subtle helping of very British psychedelia — to tracks such as Flatten the Hay and Mason on the Boundary, wistfully recalling childhood games and evoking a game played, and a life lived, on the edges. Then, before we get awash with dreamy nostalgia, The Age of Revolution brings us right up to date, tackling the changes occurring in the game now: “Always denied entry/By the English gentry/Now we’re driving Bentleys/Playing Twenty20.”

Describing the genesis of the album, Hannon has said that he sat down in a pub with his notebook to brainstorm ideas; four pints of Guinness later, it was filled with evocative names and phrases. That’s easy to believe. Sport is so full of resonant moments. Just thinking of football, you have Bobby Moore’s hand clutching the World Cup, Diego Maradona’s hand knocking the ball into the net; John Terry losing his footing in the 2008 Champions League final; Didier Drogba losing his cool in the 2009 semi; Matthews drops his shoulder and accelerates; Zidane lowers his head and lunges; Gazza cries for his missed final; Charlton cries for his dead team-mates. There’s a whole album’s worth of songs right there.

If sport offers such rich and fertile source material for songwriters, why are there so few songs about sport, and why are the songs that do reference sport so often at the shabby end of the artists’ catalogues? Dreadlock Holiday isn’t 10CC’s finest moment. Glory Days sees Bruce Springsteen skating clumsily over territory that he’s dealt with in greater depth and with real empathy elsewhere. Centerfield, by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty, is a cloying ode to baseball that borders on the ridiculous. And the songs expressly written for sportsmen to sing — and sports fans to buy — started out bad (Back Home by the 1970 World Cup Squad, anyone?) and just got worse.

Part of the reason for the dearth of good sports songs must surely lie in the fact that your average songwriter was the kid who got picked last for sports at school: the pale, weedy specimen who didn’t want to get his knees dirty and usually had a note from his mum. It’s not easy, therefore, for most songwriters to achieve any real empathy with an athlete, because they simply don’t understand what would make someone go through all that training, all those early mornings, all the aches and pains.

You can’t always tell, though. Oddly, a songwriter whose band almost defines “pale and weedy”, Stuart Murdoch, of Belle and Sebastian, is rather good at bringing sport into his songs. But Murdoch didn’t start writing songs till his early twenties; as a teen, he was the outdoorsy type and dreamt of being a runner. Hence, perhaps, the con­clusion, in his song The Stars of Track and Field, that they are “beautiful people”, and why, in Piazza, New York Catcher, he can get inside the highly paid sportsman’s head: “Life outside the diamond is a wrench.”

Also somewhat counterintuitive is the fact that those most studio-bound of musicians, Kraftwerk, are avid fans of cycling. Their band leader, Ralf Hütter, was hospitalised for months after a cycling accident, but this hasn’t prevented him from continuing to pursue the sport. The band’s Tour de France is another rare case of a song getting sport absolutely right: the simple matter-of-factness of the list-like lyrics clearly written by a man who has put in the miles.

Another obstacle to writing great songs about sport is that sport is about winning, and triumph is a tricky subject. Songwriters find it far easier to deal with shades of meaning, conflicting emotions and ambiguities. This may be why the one truly great pop song about football, Three Lions, works so well. It isn’t about winning, it’s about dreams of winning, and therefore it’s also about losing. The song encompasses arrogance, pain, sadness, a defiant belief in the possi­bility of success, stacked up against the grim reality of “30 years of hurt”, and through it all, a simultaneously warm and comforting yet cruel and bitter nostalgic certainty that it was all so much better — so much simpler, so much more honest — in the old days.

This phenomenon — our belief that sport used to be “better”, and that perhaps a nobler breed of sports stars symbolised the fact that life was in some way better back then too — is a powerful weapon for songwriters to employ. It’s there in Roy Harper’s When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease (the song played on Radio 1 to mark John Peel’s death), and it’s quite brilliantly used by Paul Simon in a song that isn’t about sport at all. You don’t have to be American, you don’t have to like or know anything about baseball, to feel the hairs stand up on your neck when, in Mrs Robinson, he asks: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” We may never have seen DiMaggio play, but we understand that wherever he’s gone, he’s taken the dreams of our youth with him.

The Duckworth Lewis Method catch a little of this mood, too, on their song Gentlemen and Players, which, while it cites former cricketers many of us will never have heard of, still manages to conjure up that kinder, gentler world. Clearly, they have a way with emotions, despite being named after a dull mathematical formula. Come to think of it, there aren’t many songs about maths, either… but that’s probably just as well.

Sunday Times - Mark Edwards