Barmy Army

The Barmy Army’s only album release introduced by Steve Barker of the longrunning  On The Wire programmed on BBC Radio.

The state of late 80’s English football seen through On-U’s eyes.

For music fans coming fresh to the Barmy Army’s The English Disease, the appeal would obviously be the set of tough rhythms with their origins in reggae and funk. Perhaps the substance of the “lyrics” and the many references to the contemporary football issues of the late eighties may bypass those who do not also hold an abiding interest in the beautiful game (was it that non-heroic goalkeeper, Albert Camus, who first dubbed football thus?). Either way, what we have here is yet another edition in what can now be recognised as an ongoing series of On-U Sound unofficial documentaries. Previous subjects have included mental health, conspiracy theories, the global hegemony of multinational corporations, B.S.E., the use and abuse of technology and the perverse nature of organised religion. But, of course, football is more important than all of these.

The release of the vinyl version of The English Disease in October 1989 was prefaced, as On-U’s premier football venture, by Tackhead’s “The Game” in early 1987. Featuring the voice of ITV football commentator Brian Moore, the original cut also included the sampled voices of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in a “Political Mix”, these had to be replaced by a sanitised version with a professional impressionist replacing the reluctant Ron and Maggie!

Etched on the 12″ copy of the Fourth & Broadway single was the legend – “Where’s the Barmy West Ham Army?” West Ham are supported by, amongst a few thousand others, Adrian Sherwood. The Barmy Army was the militant faction of the East End team’s supporters who, on the odd occasion, tended to be rather over-enthusiastic in their chosen form of encouragement in support of the boys.

The Barmy Army then surfaced in a more acceptable sonic form in January of the following year with a 12″ on On-U Sound. Perversely, but generously as befits the average West Ham fan, paying tribute to Liverpool’s Scottish striker Kenny Dalglish. Also contained on The English Disease set, “Sharp As A Needle” utilises a sample of the traditional Wembley anthem “Abide With Me” – as well as “You’ll Never Walk Alone” *.

The rhythm was first slated for use by Mark Stewart + The Maffia before its appropriation by the army that was barmy. However another of the album’s rhythms was actually used by Mark Stewart when “Devo” surfaced as “These Things Happen” on the artist’s Mute album Metatron. On “Sharp As A Needle” Adrian Sherwood employed Rolo, then of the Woodentops, to play bass guitar. And a bizarre factoid for this uniquely English product – the man on the keyboards was Ministry’s Al Jourgensen, fresh from his Sherwood-produced Twitch album!

It should be recorded that prior to the release of The English Disease there was little likelihood of coming across any examples of football tunes which would not be enjoyed by your grandmother, at least this was certainly true in England where popular music with a football theme had been strictly confined to the “Hip hip hoo-ray we’re on our way to Wember lee” [Ed.: …i.e. Wembley national football stadium in London, UK…] variety. In Europe, where there seemed to be a preponderance of Bavarian oompah bands and rubber castanets, it was even worse. I can recall that in attempting to produce a football-themed radio programme at the time the best examples came, unsurprisingly, from Brazil, Jamaica and the countries of the African continent. So The English Disease album, rather than breaking a mould, created one.

Recorded at a time of social paranoia when the Thatcher years of governance in the UK were drawing to a close, football was under unprecedented scrutiny. Identity cards, the destruction of the traditional terrace, hooliganism (“the English disease”), policing standards, a return to family values – the game was becoming, to coin a phrase, a political football! Sherwood resisted the obvious temptation of an easy shot by turning out a strictly Hammers polemic but focused instead on producing a passionately political sonic documentary where supporters from across the football spectrum joined together in a joyful celebration of the game whilst levelling a number of incisive jibes against the game’s establishment, both at club and organisational levels. As the cool academic Steve Redhead observed in his treatise on post-political popular music End Of The Century Party: Youth And Pop Towards 2000:

“Instead of trying to represent a locality, region or sub-culture, Sherwood’s mix … captured a blend of passion, pride, regionalism and nationalism by deconstructing, and then reconstructing, the various diverse elements. Not representation so much as presenting the unpresentable”.

On listening back to The English Disease, the radio and TV samples together with the terrace chants take on an anthropological slant. There is little, if any difference in the use of such source material as compared to the ethnic and tribal material to be found on the albums of African Head Charge. Or is the only difference, in the terminology of Marshall McLuhan, that football is “hot” whereas pure dance is “cool”?

On an On-U archive note, the fabulously mutant-subbuteo artwork of this On-U Sound release departed from the norm in that it was the responsibility of one Steve Hardstaff. Steve is perhaps better known by his pseudonym, Jah Cuzzi, which appears as a credit on many of the albums coming out from the smaller Merseyside labels, especially Probe Plus. He was also the man with pen and brush duties for the legendary Bugs On The Wire – a compilation set which contained the original of Dub Syndicate’s “Ravi Shankar Pt.1″ radio remix, in addition to Bim Sherman’s long-lost tune “Need To Live”.

Additional notes from the essential Skysaw On-U website:

The Barmy Army releases centred around members of Tackhead, namely Adrian Sherwood, Dough Wimbish and Skip McDonald,  but with major contributions from Style Scott (Dub Syndicate), David Harrow and Bonjo (African Head Charge / Noah House Of Dread) amongst others. While never intended to be a long running project, many of the original players were involved in a one-off collaboration with Primal Scream and Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh, to coincide with the 1996 European Cup held in the UK.

Since Steve wrote the main part of this article, an interesting piece of trivia regarding the samples used on The English Disease. Hillsborough is the home of Sheffield Wednesday FC and in April 1989 was the scene of a disaster in which 96 fans were crushed to death at a match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest:

“The ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ sample is actually from, believe it or not [Glasgow] Celtic’s Parkhead, when Liverpool played their first match after Hillsborough in April 1989. Celtic invited them up, and the Celtic fans were unbelievable. The give away is that the Scottish Celtic fans sing the last part of “alone” with a descending note while Liverpool fans sing it with a rising note. The ‘Abide With Me’ sample is probably from the subsequent FA Cup Final between Liverpool and Everton.”

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