It was early evening on 12 February, 1986, and the Dunfermline Athletic squad bus was somewhere in England just south of the Border when Jim Leishman realised he had a problem on his hands.
Leishman, the team’s manager, had been travelling south from Edinburgh to Birmingham accompanied by 31 other passengers – a mix of Pars players, staff and friends, all squeezed onto the coach –when he was struck by a thought. His team was due to appear live on BBC One in less than 24 hours’ time to sing a version of the EastEnders theme song to which the club had added their own lyrics, but no one knew the words.
None of this had really been planned. The preceding couple of days had been a confusing blur, with the squad driven from Fife to a music studio in Edinburgh to record a new club song written by director Blair Morgan and his son Steven, before being rushed down to Birmingham to join the BBC on its then prime daytime slot, Pebble Mill at One, to perform it in front of Magnus Magnusson, Ju Hee Suh, a classically trained South Korean pianist, and EastEnders actress Mary Wing.
However, the studio recording had been a more controlled environment than live television, and the players, said to be in extremely high spirits, had relied on reading the lyrics straight off the sheet in front of them. No one had expected the call from the BBC, meaning no one had actually bothered to learn the lyrics, and Leishman was forced to improvise. So he put on a movie for the passengers. Then, when they were properly engaged, he stopped the film and demanded they learned the first verse of the song (“We’re the boys from East End Park, we’ve been on the go, for one hundred years and…”). Once they had mastered the lyrics to his satisfaction, he continued with the movie. Then he stopped it again, and told them to learn the second. On and on it went, and it appeared to work.
Why did Dunfermline appear on Pebble Mill?
But why was any of this happening in the first place? Why had Dunfermline written a song to the tune of a TV soap, with new lyrics cataloguing the club’s h story, along with their imagined future successes? And why would the BBC have booked a confused rabble-choir, to perform the song live in their kit?
On the face of it the explanation was simple. Dunfermline Athletic, a semi-successful football team from Fife, was celebrating its 100th year of existence, just as EastEnders, a soap opera following the complicated lives of a working-class community living in a fictional square in London’s east end, had finished its first year on air. The show had become an instant sensation, breaking records with its ratings, and so it was perhaps inevitable that its theme was taken up as a tune to hum for Pars fans, based at East End Park. The music had become iconic almost overnight too, though award-winning composer Simon May, who wrote the EastEnders theme a year previously, was unaware that it had either been taken up by Dunfermline fans, or reworked for a studio recording. He was also unaware the team had arrived on TV to sing it.
“I have no recollection of any of this,” he says. “None whatsoever.” While May seems somewhat bemused at being approached for comment – he says he is “quite surprised this all happened” – he is happy to have contributed to Scottish football culture. “I’m not really a football fan, to be honest, but I am absolutely delighted to hear this,” he says. “There are occasionally times when I hear people singing the tune, and I’ve always felt blessed that it captured people’s hearts and memories.”
But if it seems an odd series of events to May, it is probably worth keeping in mind that these were also strange times in Fife. Dunfermline had endured a difficult period, with success in the 1960s followed by a decade of stagnation through the 1970s which saw the players switch to part-time status and the team fall through the leagues. But by the mid-1980s with Leishman installed as manager things began to improve. The club eventually won promotion to the Premier League in 1989, and by the time of the Pebble Mill appearance improved performances on the pitch had helped the club start to climb back up the ladder. Crowds began to increase too, from less than 200 at the start of the decade to an average 12,000 by its end, bringing East End Park the 4th highest attendance in Scotland.
As one fan, Ross, put it: “From about 1985 on things changed completely. Saturday became the highlight of your week again, and it hadn’t been for about 15 years. I had started going to games with a group of friends around that time, and we kept going all the way through. We went to virtually every football ground over the course of three seasons, because the Pars went from the bottom division to the middle one to the top in that time. It was a great experience.”
Jim Leishman and a PR opportunity
Leishman, meanwhile, combined success on the pitch with community outreach – he took the team to visit local schools – while launching into a series of bizarre, homespun PR activities aimed at increasing local and national support for the club. The thinking behind some of his decisions is likely to remain a mystery. To this day, Leishman remains an icon in Fife (he was elected Provost of the Kingdom in 2012), with his reputation for eccentricity bolstered by his recent admission to being evicted from T in the Park for interfering with Kasabian’s audio equipment.
But back then, his focus was on driving wider coverage for the club. He appeared in public dressed as a cowboy on more than one occasion, for example, while it would have been around this time that he began speaking to the media in rhyme, earning him the nickname ‘the Bard of Lochgelly’ in the process. As he put it in 1987, when the club won promotion: “Promotion, relegation, the football ups and downs, bring smiles and laughter or tears and frowns. I’ve sampled them both during my management career, but nothing can beat a promotion year.”
With all this in mind, it is perhaps easy to see why the idea of heading to a recording studio to make a centenary record based on a TV soap theme tune would have appealed to the man. Still, he faced a clear obstacle. Morgan – the architect of the whole plan – had booked a recording session, but very few of the players, if any, could sing. So Leishman was forced to improvise and reached out to the musical contacts in his life. The first was Kelty Musical Association, a local amateur performance group, of which his wife was a member. The second were the rock bands Nazareth, 7 West, the Syndicate and White China.
Billy Rankin had two separate stints as guitarist for Nazareth, while also pursuing a successful solo career. Along with Nazareth lead singer, Dan McCafferty, and Kelty Musical, he was one of those drafted in that day to help provide some musical support.
‘They were all pissed’
“Jim might have told you they were good singers,” says Rankin, “but keep in mind he was pissed at the recording. They were all pissed. We had arrived at the studio first to set up the backing track and got everything ready, while the team were sent off to the pub. Now that only took about an hour and a half, but you need to understand how much those guys would have been able to drink in that time, especially because Jim would have been paying. It was quite a bit.
“So they arrived in high spirits, and I walked around listening to them all do a practice, just trying to find someone that could sing even half in tune. We found maybe half a dozen of them, so I just stuck them in the front row with the mic in front of them. Then we just made them sing it about four times in a row, and played it together, so it sounded like the whole of them were singing.
“I remember Norrie McCathie [a club legend, who made a record number of appearances] was pretty good. He was always the life and soul of the place and he was well up for it. Then I was surprised by John Watson, who was the striker at the time, because he had a deeper voice than anyone I’d ever heard. He was singing an octave lower than anyone else. He was like a Scottish Orson Welles – I mean he could rattle the walls.”
At that point, Rankin’s part in the story came to a close. Morgan arranged for him to get a lift home, then Leishman accidentally crushed his hand in the car door, taking him away from the guitar for a few days, and that should have been the end of the matter. But it seems that Reporting Scotland had filmed parts of the recording for a news report, and with Pebble Mill at One already having booked Anna Wing, who played Lou Beale on EastEnders, the prospect of surprising her was too much for the producers to ignore. The invitation wasn’t an opportunity Leishman was ever going to miss. So just as the Reporting Scotland clip aired, the team were thrown onto a bus and sent to Birmingham to record.
Leishman says: “They eventually learned the song, at least, but when we got to Pebble Mill studio we assumed they would be playing the CD, and that when the music comes on we would sing, but get dubbed out so everyone just hears the recording. But there were live musicians there, who complained, because it was doing them out of a job, so they insisted that they would play the song live. Then the floor manager came out and said ‘right this is what’s going to happen, you’ll stand in your positions and I will count you down’. So it was ‘one minute, thirty seconds, twenty seconds, ten seconds, five, four, three, two, and that was when Stevie Morrison farted. That’s the truth.
“Everyone was killing themselves laughing, though it was only the rehearsal, thank God. All you heard was [Jim Leishman imitating a farting noise]. I was going to kill him. I mean looking back it was funny but at the time I was going to kill him. There was a live audience, and Anna Wing was there. There were loads of people in the crowd and we’d got them all black and white
scarves, so they’re all swaying side to side, holding the scarves above their heads, then suddenly it’s [keeps making farting noise]. But the boys loved it.”
In fact the performance didn’t go too badly, at least as evidenced by the surviving YouTube footage of Anna Wing cheering them on. Paul Coia was presenting the show that day, and three decades on he still remembers the squad arriving in the studio.
He says: “It was like herding feral cats. I have no idea how the logistics worked – of getting them there and off the coach, making sure they were all in kit, getting their noses powdered, it must have taken the make-up team ages. I remember there was one guy whose hair was standing on end, it looked like he had had an electric shock, I don’t know if he had raided the hairspray cupboard or something. But they all had to be fed and watered, and where do you put them when we’re rehearsing the rest of the programme? It was a big deal to organise.
“I remember thinking that half of them were really into it, and really going for it, and the other half looked like they wished they were anywhere else. The other thing was that it was peak mullet time. I’d never seen mullets like that, or facial hair. I don’t know if that was because Jim was the manager or not, because he had a huge mullet, as well as the moustache.
“It was just all so absurd. It was all tongue-in-cheek, then for some reason someone, who might have been the chairman [it was director and songwriter Blair Morgan], arrived in the middle of it and did a brief narration on the history of Dunfermline Athletic. It really was bizarre, but it was done with such affection that I think that’s why it stuck in people’s minds.
“I remember there was one guy up the back who patently hadn’t bothered to learn the lyrics. The bits that repeat themselves, he did ok, but for everything else he was opening and closing his mouth like a goldfish. But I was surprised he was the only one, to be honest. Everyone else seemed to have at least learned the lyrics.”