Carnaval de Paris
This article first appeared in Issue 7 of The Green Soccer Journal, Summer 2014
Growing up, I dreamt of being one of two things: a pop star or a footballer. Reflecting back on a half-dozen appearances on Top of the Pops, I suppose I can say that at least one of those dreams came true. Never did I imagine, however, that it would be my love of The Beautiful Game that would actually get me there.
When ‘Carnaval de Paris’, the track that would ignite World Cup ‘98 and turn Dario G into a household name, was conceived, I had no idea just how successful it would be. It arrived on the back of a major summer anthem, ‘Sunchyme’, released the previous year, and while on one hand it seemed that the Dario G stock was flourishing, the desperation to avoid being a one-hit wonder was palpable. Several concepts for a follow-up single had been floated; the favourite was undoubtedly ‘Voices’, while another featured a David Bowie vocal and, as such, fell neatly into the ever-popular ‘sample-based dance record’ category. ‘Carnaval…’ was, in many ways, the black sheep. Granted, it was written at dance music tempo, but it was definitely out there. And it was an instrumental.
The song was envisioned as one grandiose musical theme, supplemented by several smaller themes, with instrumental melodies and rhythms providing a nod to the nations participating in France; after all, every footballing nation has its anthems, but there still wasn’t one capable of uniting them all. In bringing so many elements together, analysis and crafted songwriting went out of the window – it became a case of ‘chuck it at the wall and see’. Fortunately, it ended up curling around the wall and flying into the top corner, to rapturous applause.
Yet, a week before the track’s UK release, it was still touch-and-go as to whether it would be a hit at all. ‘Carnaval…’ was doing the rounds on BBC Radio 1’s ‘B’ playlist, and only when certain DJs made the journey to France as football fever took hold did it start to connect; “I get it now!” proclaimed an excited Simon Mayo, at that time the voice of Radio 1’s mid-morning show.
In mainland Europe, a major German television channel had adopted the song as the title music for its live coverage of World Cup 1998. The Germans had pre-empted Simon Mayo in ‘getting it’, as had the Austrians, the Italians, the Irish, the Swiss and the Dutch, to name but a few. They got it to such an extent that now, more than 15 years on, they still show no sign of letting go.
Interestingly, while ‘Carnaval…’ peaked at number five on the overall UK singles chart, it actually hit the top spot in Scotland, trumping the official Scottish anthem for 1998 in the process. The idea of featuring a bagpipe solo as the centrepiece of a pop record was pretty bold, and could have been foolish, but took comfort in the knowledge that it had worked for an ex-Beatle in 1977. Not since Wings’ ‘Mull of Kintyre’ had bagpipes featured on a top five record; I still believe that they were long overdue a renaissance.
I was just about old enough to remember 1978’s ‘Ally’s Tartan Army’, but few football songs had ever been truly credible. Prior to ‘98, the world had warmed to ‘Three Lions’, and rightly so; the Lightning Seeds et al had elevated the football song to new heights during the 1996 European Championships. Of course, New Order were brilliant back in 1990 and ‘Nessun Dorma’ proved a real tear-jerker in the same year, but in 1998 we were about to witness the explosion of the football anthem. ‘World In Motion’ – most likely conceived after Bernard Sumner heard John Barnes on the ‘Anfield Rap’ in the late eighties – had set the ball rolling; combining humour with a catchy, singalong chorus, New Order had hit on an idea (though why they didn’t choose Steve McMahon to perform is still beyond me). Baddiel and Skinner composed a wonderful melody with the Lightning Seeds, but they didn’t need to write a funny song because… well, they just were.
I even had the opportunity to perform ‘Carnaval…’ in Paris itself, albeit for German television. Having established a great relationship with the German record company, who were accompanying us to oversee the show, and being fully aware that an early exit from the tournament could prevent ‘Carnaval…’ from climbing the charts in Germany, I soon found myself getting behind Die Mannschaft. In a strictly professional capacity, of course.
But perhaps that’s why, at the time, I vowed never to make another Dario G football record – that year’s tournament had me doing all sorts of odd things.
I stuck to my promise for a while; a remix of ‘Carnaval…’ in 2002 revived the old track, but it wasn’t until 2005 that my creative juices were reawakened and my thoughts again turned to composing a new football anthem.
Shortly after ‘that’ final in Istanbul, I boarded a packed train on my way to see Steven Gerrard and co parade the Champions League trophy around Liverpool. The train was already full at Crewe and, as we headed north, Scouse accents filling the carriages, I kept hearing this melody. Why do they keep singing this, I thought to myself, and what is it?
The day after the parade, I headed straight for the studio. The magic of this mysterious hook was that it lent itself to a dance tempo; it was an infectious melody that held its own without vocals, a formula that had worked well before and could work again. At this time my management were also based in Liverpool, and one of the company employees identified the demo hook as Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’. After some painstaking transatlantic negotiations, this was the title we also adopted for the demo. Though the choral section and bombastic rhythmic riff were all my own, I didn’t fancy messing with the Cash estate – I wanted this record out there. I suggested that its release be timed to coincide with the 2006 World Cup, but the final call to release ‘Ring of Fire’ after the tournament was made by the record company. In hindsight, it was a decision that impacted heavily on the success of the record, but I take comfort in the airtime it still receives around the world, in particular its regular slot before ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ on match day at Anfield.
By the late noughties, the music industry had been turned on its head. Since my first chart success as Dario G, CD singles had all but disappeared, and illegal downloads had become bizarrely acceptable to a new generation of record ‘buyers’. The US-led idea of bands and musicians doubling as ‘brands’ had become normalised. My own Dario G brand was now famous for, among other things, football anthems, and was invited to help compose an official song for the World Cup in 2010. After digging deep, doing lots of research and even more listening, I came up with some ideas. This time I knew an instrumental wouldn’t sit right, so I created a track based around a few chords with a brass hook, South African timbres and a modern twist on an African dance beat. After sending the results out to several top-line songwriters, the best that came back – by far – was ‘Game On’. It was a great track, and an honour to have it touted as an official anthem, but the process that followed was littered with frustrations. FIFA and Sony were, and still are, tied together and both were naturally inclined to promote an existing Sony headline act; Shakira, Wyclef Jean, Ke$ha and Pitbull all emerged as frontrunners at one point or another, pushing Dario G further and further down the artists’ bill.
‘Game On’ was one of three official FIFA anthems in 2010 but it soon became clear that there was going to be only one winner. ‘Waka Waka’ went on to take the tournament by storm. And to think that I’d asked myself what on earth Shakira had to do with football! My contract had stipulated that I make myself available to perform at either the opening or closing ceremony of the World Cup itself – something that might actually have eclipsed my appearance atop the Arc de Triomphe 12 years earlier – but ultimately I had to settle for watching from the other side of the TV, at home. From the comfort of my living room, I started to understand why a guy from Crewe, England didn’t really fit into the South African World Cup picture.
So, 2014 is here. ‘Carnaval de Paris’ has had a fresh lick of paint, as is now customary. I’ve been lucky; the track is an evergreen, a standard. In some circles, it might be considered the definitive modern football anthem. There will undoubtedly be a new wave of official World Cup single releases this summer, though not from me – this time I really have called it quits. Instead, television theme tunes, major brand advert music and millions of amateur anthems – of varying quality – will all be vying to be 2014’s ‘Waka Waka’. One thing is certain, however: each new release will ensure that the airwaves are just as competitive as the tournament itself. All I’m hoping is that 2014 can produce a piece of musical magic in the Dario G vision: great football music from a real football fan.