Sunderland Are Back In The First Division

Back when Stewart Lee and Richard Herring had their own show on BBC Radio 1 (and if you didn't know they'd ever had one, then you can read all about it in my history of comedy on Radio 1, Fun At One), they were very fond of playing an amusingly cheap and unenthusiastic cover of Mah Nah Mah Nah - discovered on a cassette of 'Top TV Themes' given to them by Harry Hill and Al Murray, who in turn had found it in a motorway service station - as performed by what they described as 'a bored bloke holding his nose'. Their main stated reason for playing the track was to try and discover who the uncredited performers actually were - partly so they could be paid the PRS royalties they were due, and partly so they could ask them why they did it. Sadly, no further evidence was ever forthcoming.

And this is true of so many of those cheap and unenthusiastic albums you'll find in motorway service stations, or indeed clogging up the dustier corners of the dustier charity shops, especially if they're vinyl collections of 'Love Themes' that you've never heard of with a girl with too much eye make up on the cover. Just like those trapped-in-pop-culture-amber seventies lovelies, the musicians involved in the quick and opportunistic projects were nameless, faceless hacks who quite audibly did it for the money, and for the most part they really are worth leaving to gather yet more dust. Tepid collections of cover versions, dismal re-recordings by one member of the original band, promotional singles for local industrial smoothing firms where you can't work out what in Earth they were hoping to promote and who they were hoping to promote it to, they're all pretty much deserving of their anonymity. But just occasionally you'll stumble across something that almost performs a full circle of banality and hopelessness and ends up strangely fascinating; like that cover of Mah Nah Mah Nah, like Last Action Heroes - Themes From 18 Of The Greatest Action Movies by The Starlight Orchestra & Singers, and like Sunderland Are Back In The First Division by Fine Art.

This is, as you're no doubt already aware, a football record. But it's not any old football record. It's a disproportionately triumphant celebration of an event that's by definition underscored by underachievement, set to none-more-eighties keyboard-derived orchestral swirls and 'flattened' synth sounds a la Love And Pride by King - especially amusing when they pick out those eleven 'football' notes - and bearing all the hallmarks of having been conceived and created by somebody's friend who's 'good with music'. It also has lyrics that raise statement of fact to an art form, as well as a verse that bafflingly advises the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool that on returning to the first division, Sunderland will be, erm, 'there to welcome you'. It's also insanely catchy in a shamelessly futile manner. But you'll find absolutely no information about it out there, other than the fact it apparently dates from the 1979/80 season (though even that's debatable, given it doesn't sound like it does), that the b-side was Gannin To Roker Park by Ronnie Roker & The Black Cats which appears to have been an even earlier recycled effort, and... nope, nothing else. Not even what label it was on, nor even any indication of whether 'Ronnie Roker' might have actually been seventies top ten hit writer and The Adventures Of Rupert Bear/Pipkins-theme-penner extraordinaire Ron Roker (and the a-side does bear some similarities to certain of his compositions). There was an American punk band called Fine Art, but chances are it might not have been them.

Of course, every region has their own long and bewildering history of locally-relevant ludicrous football records - anyone else recall that 'woah-ah-oh/woah-ah-oh/Liverpool/are never gonna stop' thing? - but Sunderland Are Back In The First Division seems to have developed a Mackem-transcending level of cult popularity. Look on Google and you'll see endless amused mentions of it on football forums along with several by avowed fan of the song David Baddiel, who has often referenced his delight in 'the sheer straightforwardness' of the title, and indeed once played it back when he and Rob Newman had their own Radio 1 show (and if you didn't know that they did, you'll be wanting Fun At One again). But nobody upon nobody seems to know anything about its background, its writers or its performers, or indeed why they did it. If it's in any first division of anything at all, it's the first division of records that nobody has a clue about the background of.

Fun At One - The Story Of Comedy At BBC Radio 1 is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.