London still calling but north-south divide is as wide as it ever was

Sat, Jan 19, 2013, 00:00

SOCCER ANGLES:With another super Sunday in store the geographic divide is again highlighted, writes MICHAEL WALKER

What would Guy Stevens make of Arsenal now? Admittedly this is a question not being asked up and down the streets of north London, where there may be more pressing issues, but it felt pertinent on the last visit to the trophyless stadium on Ashburton Grove, and did so again this week when newspapers looked forward to another ‘Super Sunday’ in the Premier League.

On each occasion it was the words ‘London Calling’ that provoked thoughts of Guy Stevens. With tomorrow bringing Manchester United to Tottenham after Chelsea have faced Arsenal at Stamford Bridge, and with United and Manchester City six points clear of Chelsea in third, the north-south geographic divide in English football is again being highlighted. For London Calling, it could be London pining.

Previously at the “Emirates Stadium”, it was the rapturous sound of the famous Clash song London Calling that boomed out before kick-off that brought back mentions of Stevens in Pat Gilbert’s book about the band, Passion Is A Fashion. Stevens would appear to have been a maverick genius record producer of the Phil Spector headbanger variety. It seems Stevens saw himself as a British Spector and even by the standards of late 1960s and early ’70s rock music, Stevens was legendary for his unreliability as much as his talent. When The Clash were about to make the album London Calling, they had to fight their record company because the man they wanted to produce it was Stevens.

The band won and Stevens began shaping what became a seminal, as they say, record. One of the tales told is of Stevens pouring beer into a piano in order to find a particular sound, while another example of his unusual approach was explained in an interview with Mick Jones many years ago. That’s Mick Jones of The Clash, not Mick Jones of Leeds United. That would have been strange.

What Stevens did every day on his way to the record studio was visit Highbury because, as Mick Jones put it in 1979: “He’s obsessed with Liam Brady and Arsenal.”

Stands in the middle

Jones did not stop there, adding of Stevens: “He always wears his scarf and on the way to every session he goes and stands in the middle of Arsenal football ground and pays the cab to wait for him.”

As if it mattered, Jones then says: “And nobody in the group supports Arsenal.” Gilbert confirms Jones’s tales. The album was recorded in studios on Highbury New Park and Gilbert writes: “Every day on the way to the studio, he [Stevens] insisted his cabbie drop him off at Arsenal’s ground.

“He was as passionate about Arsenal as he was about music and he’d struck a deal with the club where he was allowed to walk around the pitch. He would gaze up at the stands from the centre circle with tears in his eyes.”

These are details that should make every Arsenal fan happy for ever more, regardless of whether their team enters the weekend 21 points adrift of Manchester United, which they do.

It is enough that the album ranked eighth in Rolling Stone’s 500 best of all time owes something of its power and creativity to the left foot of Liam Brady – “produced with no-surrender energy by legendary ’70s studio madman Guy Stevens” as Rolling Stone reports – but the title song also gives Arsenal a degree of cultural credibility that is often, very often, claimed by football followers in Manchester and Liverpool.

There are very obvious and base reasons for Northerners with a capital ‘N’ to do this. A large part of it is Northern swagger, but beneath that is resentment – genuine – at the economic and cultural dominance London exerts over the rest of England.

This is encapsulated in the question: Why does the BBC have a ‘North of England’ correspondent? London now represents almost one fifth of the entire UK economy.

Back in 1979, when London Calling was in the making, coal pits and heavy industry were hardly insignificant to Northern England and as they went, London City grew, thrived and is now so important it has to be bailed out to save the country from implosion.

Greater influence

Looking back, English music then had a greater influence on England, while English football was so ingrained in the everyday fabric that it went under-regarded, particularly by the people who ran it, the Football Association.

It is their 150th anniversary this week. The FA remain worth doubting, but they have a book-reader as manager at least and Roy Hodgson’s take on the anniversary was interesting: “I have always been aware that football is the culture – the mass culture.

“Films, plays, books, operas are not for everyone but football really is. That is the ultimate for me. Football is cultural and it is our culture and we should be aware of that.”

In terms of success, it is a primarily Northern culture. Only one of the first 40 league championships was won (Number 38) by a London club (Arsenal). The last 50 years have seen Arsenal win five more titles and Chelsea three, but aside from a detour to Ipswich, the title has been no further south than Aston Villa in that time.

The Premier League era has been very good for London – which now has its first ever European Cup – and the Northern fan has grown weary of the foreign player “wanting to go to London”.

This week Loic Remy has become the latest, switching from Marseilles’ 60,000 capacity to join QPR (18,000) ahead of Newcastle United (52,000).

Keane’s comment

Remy had the option of St James’ Park but chose Loftus Road. It brought back Roy Keane’s comment: “A couple of years ago I nearly went to Juve. People spoke to me about Turin and said it is this and it is that, but Milan would be nicer. I said: ‘I’m not going for the bloody shops; I’m going because it’s Juventus.’”

Keane, of course, became fundamental to the sustained success of Manchester United under Alex Ferguson, an engine of the relentlessness that left London clubs calling, breathless. How Keane would love to be leading Mancunia out at White Hart Lane tomorrow. A United victory would again emphasise the North-South gap at the top of the Premier League, especially if Robin van Persie scores again.

To return to the original question: what would Guy Stevens make of Arsenal now? He would have tears in his eyes again surely at Van Persie’s sale to United, as he pounded the streets of north London looking for Liam, and the old Highbury that inspired songs, and silver.

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