Beat the man, create the space
John Barnes is easily one of the best players England has ever produced. There’s no point in arguing it. Blessed with physical strength and an artist’s touch, over a twenty-year career he devastated defences up and down the country and alongside Cyril Regis, Chris Houghton and Viv Anderson blazed a path for Black British players on both the national and international stages. I mean, he deserves his place in the pantheon of true greats for his incredible goal against Brazil alone.
While his influence on the pitch is unimpeachable, in some ways Barnes’ influence on popular music is equally as profound. Some people will scoff at this, and with his awkward attempts to rhyme “hard as hell’ with “Arse-en-al” it’s easy to dismiss him as another footballer messing around where he shouldn’t belong. But although Barnes only appeared on two songs (‘The Anfield Rap’ and ‘World in Motion’), his brief yet spectacular musical career just so happened to straddle a remarkable, foundational period in British cultural history.
It’s all about context. The late ’80s was perhaps the bleakest period British football has ever endured. English teams had been banned from European competition in the aftermath of the Heysel disaster, the National Front recruited directly from the terraces and most Saturday afternoons saw street battles raging across the country. Football’s image was in the gutter, gates were shrivelling up and it was clear to everyone that something had to change.
Like so many other times in the past, innovation came via Liverpool. Released ahead of the 1987 FA Cup, ‘The Anfield Rap’ certainly sounds problematic to modern ears but it was revolutionary at the time. Yes, it’s ham-fisted, and yes, at best, it’s culturally appropriative, but it showed how English football could start to reinvent itself. Reaching number 3 in the charts, its celebration of togetherness and the diversity of the team stood in stark contrast to the visible sections of British football fans who openly celebrated racism and xenophobia. It wouldn’t have been possible without Barnes. The sheer fact that he can do a passable LL Cool J impression meant that the team’s eccentric midfielder Craig Johnson could write a song that embraced the charts rather than the team bus. Not that it did much good mind; Liverpool famously lost the final to a Lawrie Sanchez inspired Wimbledon.