DAVE SIMPSON is a Guardian music critic. He is the author of ‘The Last Champions – Leeds United and the Year That Football Changed Forever’ & ‘The Fallen – Life in And Out of Britain's Most Insane Group’, about Mark E. Smith’s legendary Salford combo.
You have a degree in economics and politics but most of your life has been devoted to music and sport. What made you change direction?
In the words of an old John Miles song, ‘music was my first love’. It was all I wanted to do really, or at least it was once I started seeing live bands at the Futurama festival in Leeds (Public Image Ltd., OMD, Joy Division etc. The latter are still my favourite band of all time). I became interested in politics through the Clash and Gang of Four, and still follow political and economic news, and was always very good at English, but music was the drive. I spent my student grant on a drum kit, played in bands and my real education came through gigs and records. I was taken to see Leeds United aged 11 and the songs became pivotal to the match experience: the chants, but also the songs played over the PA, such as ‘Let’s Get Together Again’ by the Glitter Band, which seemed to sum it up.
You’re a keen drummer Dave; Is it still an ambition of yours to replace Steve Morris in ‘New Order’ and how’s your band ‘Refuel’ doing these days?
This remains my goal in life, but the job has never become available J Recently I was honoured to spend an afternoon with the great man at New Order’s studio, and when he lugged an old synth drum in, plonked it on the sofa and said “And this was on ‘She’s Lost Control’” my inner 15-year old self at Futurama was exploding. Refuel, sadly, are no more: we supported the Monochrome Set and Fischer-Z, but the singer bailed. I’ve spent the last year drumming in Fond and there might be something else in the pipeline too.
I heard a rumour that you actually hate the ‘Beatles’ Dave. Is this correct?
I’ve probably said that jokingly. I don’t hate the Beatles, but it is true that I’ve never really got them. You’ve got to remember that by the time I got really into pop they had split up, and there was new stuff to explore. When I dug around in the 60s much, much later, stuff like Jimi Hendrix, the Velvet Underground, the Doors and Motown had the biggest impact.
You have interviewed music royalty such as Bryan Ferry, Roger Daltrey, Natalie Cole and Robbie Williams amongst others. Have you any favourites or anyone else you’d still love to interview (Noddy Holder or Roy Wood are on your list I believe)?
Noddy has come off the bucket list. I did him for a “30 minutes with…” piece two years ago. We talked for five hours. It was like meeting Father Christmas. Roy still eludes me, sadly. My fantasy/afterlife interview would be Ian Curtis (RIP).
The synergy between football and music has always been apparent. Why do you think both these activities combined stir human emotions like nothing else?
Partly because the two are entwined, on matchdays, as detailed above. They’re also integral to working classes culture. Music and sport are still the great escapes, physically and existentially.
How did the book ‘The Last Champions’ come about and do you still think football has been ‘transformed beyond recognition’ since that time?
I tracked down 40-odd ex-Fall musicians for ‘The Fallen’, and had the idea of doing the same with the title-winning side of ’92, who I felt were underrated and would have fascinating stories: and they did. That title was won by ordinary people, mostly, before the big money/celebrity/remoteness from fans of the Premiership era came in. John McClelland has a title medal but became a postman. It fascinated me that they were ordinary guys from ordinary backgrounds who did something extraordinary, like Joy Division or the Fall.
It’s a brilliant book Dave and loved by many Leeds fans’. Do you think the book has crossed over to the more general reader over the years?
Thank you! I am proud of it and meeting the players/staff was a year I won’t forget. If there is disappointment it’s that it sold to LUFC fans but didn’t cross over to the general reader in the way I’d hoped. I don’t know how many are aware of it. You get the odd one: I even had a letter from a M*n.U fan saying it was a great book.
In researching your book on Leeds, you spoke to Howard Wilkinson and the late Leslie Silver. How was that experience meeting the two people who helped transform the club at that special time?
Again, absolutely precious, unforgettable experiences. Howard very kindly gave me a lot of time and sitting in his front room listening to him tell the story of his time at Leeds was magical. Howard, Leslie and Bill Fotherby (who was also fantastic to meet/interview) were a key triangle of people. Leslie deserves so much credit for having the vision and financing it. He was a huge character, ex-bomber command, self-made man with a paint business who wanted to fund his local club. They really don’t make them like that anymore and I was very, very sad when both Leslie and more recently Bill passed away. Bill even came to my book launch, and participated in the Q&A. Amazing stuff.
You also spoke to various players including Vinnie Jones. Surely a surreal event from the stories I’ve heard about him?
And some! He was very kind and invited me for dinner back at his house after the interview. His neighbours are Quentin Tarantino, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and so on. Naturally, when I told Vinnie that I was a vegetarian, he devoured me for breakfast, dinner and tea.
Do you think there are any comparisons with that great side and the current team under Marcelo Bielsa? ‘Ordinary but extraordinary men coming together under a very special manager’?
It has crossed my mind. At the time of writing, the final chapters are yet to be written. It’s very exciting. If we’d have lost to Preston last night (9th April), things could have got messy, but we didn’t, so we dare to dream…
Your book on The Fall is also amazing. Did you really track down over 40 musicians in researching this and was it a real labour of love?
This was probably the most surreal episode of my career, but again was unforgettable, really, I’ve just done an article for Uncut talking to various Fall musicians, including the last line-up, who weren’t in my book because they weren’t then “Fallen”. It really brought it back and as with LUFC, what an extraordinary cast of characters.
Any plans on any other books on sport or music or even on politics; considering your degree?
I’ve not had time to do a third book since ‘The Last Champions’, but am trying to make time and come up with the right idea, but you can’t force these things. It will have to be something I’m personally connected to: I’d do a Joy Division book but there are so many, but am enjoying writing about them again at the moment.
You were once quoted as saying ‘I don’t feel Leeds United is my club anymore and I think a lot of fans feel that way at the moment’? (Interview with Rob Endeacott in Jan 2015) What are your feelings these days?
God, did I say that? Funnily enough one of those “memories” things came up on Facebook today and it was this viral thing someone had penned having a real go at the players and demanding passion etc. There were some grim times under Ken Bates, GFH and a succession of failing managers and it didn’t feel the same as it had. But this season has been the most exciting for 20 years, and the club/fans seem to be pulling “together again”. I wish they’d play the Glitter Band tune again, mind.
There have been some big characters at Leeds United over the years. Who has stood out for you most?
My favourite player was and probably still is Tony Currie, who seemed to have all the talent in the world at his disposal and could place a pass at 60 yards whilst looking so casual; he could be reading the paper. He had sideburns, blonde hair and wouldn’t have looked out of place in a rock band. But there are and have been so many big characters, from Big Jack through to Pontus. All the usual suspects!
Eric Cantona? Were mistakes made in not keeping him at Leeds or was it right for him to go?
The big question is whether anything could have been different, but from talking to Howard, he had to go. He didn’t fit into the style of play so you either replace Eric, or replace the team. The goal against Chelsea rivals the Tony Yeboah rocket against Liverpool as the greatest I’ve seen at Elland Road.
We’ve been involved as a club and the Leeds United Supporters’ Trust, with the Foodbanks this season. What are your feelings on this; ordinary families resorting to Foodbanks due to financial difficulties?
It’s an absolute disgrace in one of the richest countries in the world, as is homelessness or the fact that parents are having to crowd fund our schools. The damage inflicted by successive Tory governments over the last 40 years is incalculable.
What are your opinions on ‘Safe Standing’ and do you think it should be brought back to all grounds so people can make a choice to sit or stand?
I’ve got mixed feelings about this because I vividly remember the fear of being “levitated” by a crowd as a child, and heard the Hillsborough disaster unfolding on radio, so you worry. The atmosphere isn’t what it was, but then again, nor is the hooliganism etc. It’s a bit “win some lose some” and I must admit I like having a seat, but this is probably because I’m older and a lazy bastard!
What do you think about all the football on TV these days. You can just press a red button it seems now to see a live game?
I have no idea. I’ve not been able to watch ‘Match of the Day’ etc since we were relegated – it’s a like a party to which you’re not invited. I watch the World Cup etc or Leeds United on Sky in the local pub, which is very high tech: they have handles on the bar which pour pints of beer!
Which current player and musician excites you now. Someone who makes you take notice and watch or listen?
Player – Pablo Hernandez, who really is the Gordon Strachan of Bielsa’s Leeds. He is the genius who makes things happen, whether by speed of thought or feet. I have high hopes for Jack Clarke. Musician-wise, Yannis Philippakis from Foals has that unpredictable, livewire, almost Jim Morrison element that makes their gigs so exciting. I’ve seen him leap from balconies and such. Apparently, his mum is always telling him off for doing it!
What are you up to these days Dave?
Writing a lot, practising drums and trying to improve my young lad’s footy skills. He has red hair, so is obviously born to the role of a Strachan/Bremner-type flame haired Leeds United hero, if only I can convince him to support the club! Its early days. When I was his age I liked Wolves, purely for the kit (gold and black looks very fetching with a ginger barnet).
Lastly Dave, will Leeds be a Premier League club in 2019/20?
Famous last words… Yes. Marching up together!
The Last Champions and The Fallen are both available here; https://www.amazon.co.uk/s?i=stripbooks&rh=p_27%3ADave+Simpson&s=relevancerank&text=Dave+Simpson&ref=dp_byline_sr_book_1