In January we brought you the strange story of Morrissey’s fascination with footballer Eric Cantona – the mercurial Frenchman whose 1995 kung-fu kick on a xenophobic fan during a game at Crystal Palace inspired ‘Southpaw Grammar’, arguably Moz’s most daring solo album. It got us thinking – what other athletes have inspired great music? Here’s 13 songs and their surprisingly sporty origins…
Lorde, ‘Royals’ – baseball player George Brett: The New Zealander’s breakout single got its name from a 1976 snap of Kansas City Royals star Brett. “I had this image from the National Geographic of this dude just signing baseballs,” she later explained. “His shirt said, ‘Royals.’ It was just that word. It’s really cool.” The pair finally met last year.
Bob Dylan, ‘Hurricane’ – boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: A more well-known one, this. The spark for Zimmerman’s iconic 1975 protest anthem was middleweight boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Cater, wrongly imprisoned a decade earlier for murder by a New Jersey police force with alleged racial motivations. ‘Hurricane’ rallied against his conviction. In 1985, Carter’s sentence was overturned.
Morrissey, ‘Boxers’ – boxer Billy Conn: As well as having a soft spot for Eric Cantona, the former Smith also was intrigued by Pittsburgh light heavyweight Conn – enough, in fact, to put him on the front cover of his 1995 single ‘Boxers’. The track, a slow, sad, jangly ballad, detailed the highs and lows of life in the ring – something Conn knew all about.
Ben Gibbard, ‘Ichiro’s Theme’ – baseball player Ichiro Suzuki: As frontman to sentimental Washington rockers Death Cab For Cutie, Gibbard is best known for soft, affecting moments of melancholy. This 2012 track however, an upbeat indie-pop ode to his favourite sportsman on the verge of a transfer to the New York Yankees, was pure cheer, arguably one of best solo efforts.
Super Furry Animals, ‘The Man Who Don’t Give A Fuck’ – footballer Robin Friday: Cardiff City striker Friday led quite the life before his death in 1990, cultivating a cult reputation as a gifted, eccentric footballing talent. When he wasn’t dazzling opponents, he was turning up to training carrying a swan. SFA’s tribute was to stick him on the cover of this sweary, incensed ’96 single.
Yeasayer, ‘Ambling Alp’ – boxer Primo Carnera: This 2010 electro-pop curio is about Italian fighter Carnera (nicknamed the Ambling Alp) and US champ Joe Lewis, whose battles in the ring with Germany’s Max Schmeling were watched with intense scrutiny in the run-up to World War II. “In June you must give fascists hell,” sings Chris Keating. “They’ll run, but they can’t hide.”
Belle and Sebastian, ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’ – baseball player Mike Piazza: The Scottish indie masters peppered this memorable cut from 2003 album ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ with baseball references, seemingly spinning a winsome love story around the life and career of since-retired Mets star Piazza.
Morrissey, ‘Munich Air Disaster 1958’ – Manchester United’s ‘Busby Babes’: More Morrissey! This time his most pronounced, obvious tribute to the world of football – a 2004 ‘You Are The Quarry’ B-side that confronted the horror and tragedy of the 1958 plane crash that left eight players dead. “We love them, we mourn for them, unlucky boys of Red,” sings a sombre Moz.
Sun Kil Moon, ‘Kim Duk Koo’ – boxer Kim Duk Koo: “Their backgrounds are extremely harsh and they work very hard to move up in their careers,” Mark Kozelek once told an interviewer, explaining the fascination with boxers that’s shaped much of his solo work as Sun Kil Moon, named after a Korean lightweight boxer, Moon Sung-Kil.Duk Koo died following a championship match against Ray Mancini.
Billy Bragg, ‘God’s Footballer’ – footballer Peter Knowles: Cult hero Knowles scored 101 goals in all competitions for Wolves before giving up football to become a Jehovah’s Witness in 1970. 21 years later, political folkster Bragg wrote this song about his mesmerising talent, featuring lines like: “God’s footballer hears the voices of angels/Above the choir at Molineux.”
Cat Power, ‘The Greatest’ – boxer Muhammed Ali: “Once I wanted to be the greatest,” sang Chan Marshall on this 2006 piano charmer, “Two fists of solid rock.” An ode to the heavyweight champion, named Sports Person of the Century by Sports Illustrated, Marshall regularly mimicked the boxer’s famed stance while playing the song live.
Simon and Garfunkel, ‘Mrs Robinson’ – baseball player Joe DiMaggio: Okay, so Paul and Art’s most famous slice of jaunty folk wonder is primarily about the temptress of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, but it uses Yankees hero DiMaggio as a metaphor for the past slipping away from them. “It’s one of the most famous lines I ever wrote,” Simon later told an interviewer.
Elton John, ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ – tennis player Billie-Jean King: This 1975 single was written for John’s friend and fellow campaigner for sexual equality, Billie-Kean King. “Philadelphia freedom took me knee-high to a man,” the ‘Rocket Man’ pianist sang on the track, ” gave me peace of mind my daddy never had.” Philadelphia Freedom was also the name of King’s tennis team.