Sing a song of cricket
The game has been inspiring tunes for hundreds of years now. Does cricket possess a quality that lends itself to expression in music?
The game has been inspiring tunes for hundreds of years now. Does cricket possess a quality that lends itself to expression in music?
"Why do people write songs about anything? We can talk about things, but there is a point where something becomes so special, like love and sport, that we have to sing about it."
For Richard Stilgoe, British songwriter and comedian, cricket became so special he had to sing about it. For Paul Kelly, arguably Australia's greatest troubadour, writing any song is more of a doodle than an intent. He sang three "oddball odes", as he refers to them, to cricket. The fourth one he doesn't count, but it actually proves his point. It is a doodle about Melbourne, a love song to the city. The MCG finds a seamless mention in "Leaps and Bounds": "I'm high on the hill / Looking over the bridge / To the MCG…"
For David Rayvern Allen, author of the excellent book on cricket songs, A Song For Cricket, telling people he was looking for cricket songs was to become self-conscious "at having revealed so immediately a bent for ephemeral escapism".
Like the game of cricket itself, or like a good song, music on the game means different things to different people. To me a cricket song is often a memory of a summer vacation from school, of having played cricket during the day and then watching the Tests being telecast from the West Indies at night.
The West Indies, they had the music. The telecast would start with "Sun is Shining", and the bands in the stands would play all night. Only rarely do I go through a Shivnarine Chanderpaul innings without listening to "Hooper and Chanderpaul". Written by Dave Martins, the song chalks out a winning strategy:
We must play Carl and Shiv
That's how we have to live
For us to win this game
Chorus: Banna [brother/friend]
Guyana must combine
Hooper and Shivnarine
This match is make or break
Last summer Alec Bedser died. It took me back to Lord Kitchener's calypso on the man. ("Aa-lec Bedsah, who taught you to bowl Australia?") This year, as I worked on India's series in the West Indies, the graveyard shifts became a full-fledged exploration into the world of cricket songs. One video led to another, one discussion to another, with delightful responses from fans on various groups and message boards.
This Guardian XI on cricket songs helped me relive old favourites. "Dreadlock Holiday" by 10cc. And the greatest cricket song ever written, the haunting "When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease" by Roy Harper.
The real discoveries, the unheard gems, lay below the last line of the piece. If I were the editor I would publish the lyrics of "The Parable of Glenn McGrath's Haircut" by TISM (short for This Is Serious Mum), which I found in the comments section. Since I am not the editor, I cannot tell you what the lyrics are, but it is the best profile I have read of McGrath and those left behind by him, if only because it is audacious and alternative. "Ooh aah, Glenn McGrath" is all that can be published here.
The playlist of the 10-12 cricket songs I had until then seemed small. Two years ago, when the Duckworth-Lewis Method released a unique concept album on cricket, every interviewer seemed to be asking them why there were no songs being sung about cricket. They told the BBC: "Virtually nothing. There's 'When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease…'"
Which would be factually incorrect. Yes, DLM was the first full album dedicated to cricket, and a pretty good one at that (with two bonafide champions, "The Nightwatchman" and "Jiggery Pokery"), but cricket songs are almost as old as the game itself.
Allen's encyclopaedic book traces cricket songs back to at least 1776. He disregards verse without musical accompaniment. He looks at songs that "are known, or can reasonably be assumed to have had some music attached". "Cotton's Cricket Song", written by Reynell Cotton, master at Hyde Abbey School and one-time president of the Hambledon Club, is often accepted as the oldest cricket song. Allen reproduces the lyrics - "Assist all ye muses / And join to rehearse / An old English sport / Never yet praised in verse" - before casting doubts over the last part by mentioning "The Noble Game Of Cricket", published in the Kentish Gazette in 1772, the lyrics to which are "virtually identical".
With such uncertain points of origin, it can safely be said that nobody has invented the cricket song; they have been written forever. For schools, for smoking concerts, for theatre, for musicals, for cricket telecasts, for films, for radio, for club dinners, for crowds at grounds.
All kinds of songs have been written. Blues, jazz, calypsos, reggae, soca, Bollywood, rock and roll, pop. About famous matches ( "Victory Calypso" by Lord Beginner), about cricketers (Shane Warne has at least three songs and is the subject of a musical, Chanderpaul has at least five, Michael Holding has received two lovely tributes), about clubs, about fans, about just one delivery ("Jiggery Pokery"). Quirky ones (about running into Fred Titmus in a supermarket), songs about the joys of playing and watching cricket, about Bodyline, songs fixated with death ("The Good Old Has-beens" by Monsieur Lucien Boullemier), lyrics fit to tunes of other famous songs (most Barmy Army songs), even fantasy ( "Cricket in Jungle").
All sorts of people have written and sung cricket songs. Bards such as Kelly, bands such as the Kinks, comics such as the Duckworth-Lewis Method, poets, essayists, funny people, men who would go on to take their own lives (Peter Warlock, comedian Mark Sheridan), radio commentators (John Arlott, with the Yetties), Bollywood guys (the heavily bejewelled Bappi Lahiri), general piss-takers such as Kevin Bloody Wilson.
At the risk of sounding simplistic it can be said that cricket songs, like all good art, have represented their time - the social norms and the humour of the era.
Kamahl, a Sri Lankan Tamil born in Malayasia, moved to Australia in 1953. He had to face some prejudice, which led to his trademark line: "Why are people so unkind?" In the '80s he included Don Bradman in his song "What is Australia to Me", and was sent a kind letter from Bradman. After Bradman died, Kamahl sang, "I Was a Mate of Don Bradman.
Stilgoe's "Lillian Thomson" tells of how important radio used to be. During the Ashes of 1974-75, Stilgoe heard on the radio "Lillee and Thomson run through England" repeatedly. "I had a picture of a woman fast bowler, Lillian Thomson," he says. "I wrote a song about her. I sang it on radio. The only song of any note I have written." The commentators soon started to call them Thomson and Lillee, not Lillee and Thomson.
Today we have DLM singing "The Age of Revolution": "Here's to the future / Punjab and Tamil Nadu / Always remember the passion of '32, oh yeah / Always denied entry by the English gentry / Now we're driving Bentleys, playing Twenty20…"
David Rudder, the man behind the West Indies anthem "Rally Round the West Indies" calls calypso editorial music. In fact, the lack of editorialising is his beef with modern calypso. "Calypso is still part of the cricket landscape but it's more celebratory as opposed to the topical and heavy social commentary of the past," he told the BBC in 2007. "Caribbean cricket to many now is a huge party, with a game taking place on the side."
There is nothing to suggest that cricket lends itself to song better than other sports. Football songs have made the charts more often, rugby and baseball have a rich history of music, the poignant "A Rook House for Bobby" by I Like Trains proves even chess can be sung about, what with all its fascinating personalities, but it is not difficult to see why cricket has attracted a fair bit of music.
"I just find myself just doing it," says Kelly. "Test cricket is a slow game, which is why I like it - a game you can drop in and out of," he wrote in his book How to Make Gravy. "You might be at work all day, but you switch the radio on at lunch to check the score and glean from the commentary what's transpired over the last two hours [...] Or if your kind of work allows it, you have it on the whole seven hours, burbling away like a nearby stream, easing the passage of time with its lulling drone. Every now and then something exciting happens and you cock your head and tune your ear in to the suddenly urgent tone of the announcers."
Stilgoe, though he says he has written just one song of note, has a prolific bend towards cricket song. He was in Barbados when Andrew Flintoff and Matthew Hoggard won England a Test, and wrote a song about it. He has written about the Barmy Army, who themselves write simple but effective songs for their team or poking fun at opposition players. "There is a good song to be done about the review system, particularly if you are the middle batsman of the Broad hat-trick [at Trent Bridge]," Stilgoe says. During a half-hour chat on the phone, he comes up with at least two other ideas.
Still, the world of cricket songs is not perceived to be populous or popular - as the interviews with DLM suggest. This could have something to do with the nature of the cricket fan. Stilgoe believes cricket fans, at least those obsessed enough to write songs about the game - the Barmy Army and Beige Brigade being exceptions - are a kind of a secret society. Kelly is slightly sheepish for having written three cricket songs - "excessive, even a touch obsessive". In the book he narrates an imaginary conversation, the basis of which is the usual questions people ask him:
"Okay, you're obviously a huge sports fan. Would you describe yourself as a cricket tragic?"
"Well… um… er… I've written around three hundred songs... um… nearly all of them are love songs... you know fiction… er… yeah I've played a lot of sport in my time… I like Test cricket, but not all cricket… three songs out of three hundred… um… that's like one per cent isn't it… is that such a big deal…?"
Is it really a surprise then that TISM, a band with pseudonymous and anonymous members who are only ever seen in balaclavas, should sing about cricket?
Self-deprecation provides the humour in most cricket songs. "Most of us can see that playing a game for five days has an element of the ridiculous in it," Stilgoe says. "It's one of the things about sport, isn't it, that it's terribly important, and it [really] doesn't matter at all."
"There is something deeply funny about cricket," Kelly says. "A man wearing armour tries to defend a tiny castle on his own against 11 others. If he makes just one little mistake he can end up taking no part in the game for perhaps two days. You have to have a sense of humour to deal with that."
The writing of songs, and what happens to them after that, makes for endearing stories too. Kelly's "Bradman" is one of his more prosaic efforts, a straightforward narrative. "I was fooling around with a circular series of three chords - the usual suspects, D, G, A - over which I was singing a melancholy, falling tune," he wrote. "Each chord was the same length, so the cycle was three bars long - not your usual song structure." He went to Irving Rosenwater's biography of Bradman.
"Rosenwater's heroes and villains and in-between men began rolling out of my mouth. The random structure and odd length of the bar progression seemed to make the song float out of time, suiting the subject matter and suggesting a narrator's point of view - that of an old man nearing the end of his days, looking back."
Kelly brought an abrupt end to the song mostly because it was already too long, ending its action in 1933, around the Bodyline series. He wondered if he had abandoned the song or if the song had abandoned him. Only later did he realise he had got out at the right time, for Bradman went on to play in the hugely successful Invincibles' tour of England after that. "The music of the song would not have suited such a grand finale," Kelly wrote. "Much better to leave him in the middle of uncertainty, crowded by the old enemy, at the point of his greatest vulnerability."
Kelly sent the video to Bradman in the eighties. Bradman replied, "Not having access to the income of pop stars, I don't own a video player. But I intend to watch it soon at my daughter-in-law's place. Thank you. I am flattered by your attempt." The reaction from Shane Warne was slightly different. Kelly loved Warne - "bottle-blond, pie-eating, fag-in-hand, the Mozart man-child of cricket, the larrikin of loop" - but in his "Shane Warne Calypso", written instinctively while watching Warne's last Test, and sung to the tune of Lord Kitchener's "London is the Place For Me", he couldn't resist talking of the diuretic pill and love handles. Kelly and Warne had become acquaintances by then. Kelly had performed at a couple of Warne's charity breakfasts. They used to exchange texts at Christmas and New Year, but Kelly received no more texts from Warne after he sent Warne's PA the song. The PA said Warne was "not too sure about it".
Stilgoe personally presented Lillee and Thomson a copy of "Lillian Thomson" in 1977. "They looked extremely confused, and I doubt they ever listened to it."
If today's cricket song fits in with the theme of representing its time, it does so loosely. There is music piracy, there is the whole electronic music scene. Perhaps it is easier to make music today, but it definitely is difficult to sell it.
The secret societies continue. Some of the better cricket blogs do good alternative cricket writing, and some people sing songs that are immediate and relevant to that day, that hour. That DLM's album came out two years ago, that they were followed by the London Quartet's "Song of Cricket" this year, a collection of covers of cricket songs from the past, cannot be a bad sign. The latter doesn't include any calypso, though.
Fazeer Mohammed, the commentator and cricket writer, thinks calypso is on the decline, in keeping with the general decline of first-class cricket in the West Indies. "It is a measure of how times have changed," he wrote in 2009, "that an established musical genre now dismissed by the 'in' crowd as old school and pedantic can now be comfortably associated with Caribbean first-class cricket because of similarities in substance, content and context, as practised in the glory days of the late Kelvin Pope."
The BBC in 2007 reported how Keann, a young calypsonian, 26 then, would do cricket songs only if she was hired to. "Calypso singers of our generation aren't singing much about cricket. They think the game is too long," she said then. For cricket fans that is hard to believe, but who knows, this could well be an accurate reflection of the times we live in. Those who don't want to come to terms with it can find a pair of headphones, close their eyes, and get on a journey of "ephemeral escape". Cricket songs can do wonderful things to you.