“Sometimes, it out-earns the entire Blur catalogue”: Blur bassist Alex James on making Fat Les’ enduring football classic Vindaloo

Fat Les, Harry Kane, and a stressed England fan
(Image credit: Getty Images/Chris J Ratcliffe/Stuart C. Wilson/Stefan Matzke - sampics/Corbis)

Alex James says that having a long-lasting football record is half as good as having a good Christmas record, because whereas Jesus’ birthday rolls round once a year, a football tournament comes round every two. Not that the Blur bassist, coming off the back of a triumphant 2023 with the returning Britpop heroes, is moaning. As the co-writer of Fat Les’s Vindaloo, the spin-off rabble he formed with comedian and actor Keith Allen and artist Damien Hirst, James was the creator of one of football’s most enduring anthems, one that will be undoubtedly unavoidable over the coming weeks as England’s Euros campaign cranks into gear. Vindaloo stands alongside Lightning Seeds and Baddiel and Skinner’s Three Lions as one of the all-time great football songs, and James loves how it gets reignited as soon as tournament-season is underway.

“I know how Noddy Holder feels at Christmas!” James told The New Cue in 2022, just before the World Cup. “It’s really amazing. There was a new version of Vindaloo that I didn’t have anything to do with, with Keith Lemon and a bunch of people for the last Euros. England had a good win and I looked at my phone, I was looking at iTunes, and I was like ‘wow, it’s number three’, and it went up to number two whilst I was looking! Then one of my kids sent me a screenshot of iTunes and it was number one and it was number nine as well, both versions.”

James said the song’s persisting appeal was a testament to what he called the “just keep turning-up ethos of work”. “Looking back, it’s a miracle that it happened,” he recalled, explaining that the track had its origins in a trip him, Allen and Hirst took to watch Fulham at home to celebrate Allen’s birthday. “I remember Keith got a kind of hen party stretch limo and we went down to Craven Cottage to cheer Fulham on,” James recounted. “He liked wearing women’s underwear and standing on the terraces singing, taking cross-dressing to the masses. Ahead of his time really, quite provocative. So, me and him and Damien dressed up in some nice lingerie and piled down to Craven Cottage. We’re all absolutely bladdered wearing women’s underwear, freezing in the cold and there was a drummer just doing that beat that really invites chanting over it. The verse stuff that was the sort of thing you might start singing along to if you’re on the terrace, “Where on earth are you from?!”, a question and answer thing. Keith was like, ‘let’s do a football record!’.”

Enlisting Pink Floyd, Roxy Music and Echo & The Bunnymen session man Guy Pratt to help them flesh the song out in his studio, Vindaloo began to take shape. “Guy was another roustabout person in our circle and he had a studio,” James said, “so we had a drumbeat and two bass players in the band and a lunatic. Keith was just really determined so I was like, ‘alright, alright, we’ll go round to Guy’s!’. We had a couple of beers and Keith knew he wanted to make it really simple, ‘we’re going to score one more than you!’, that was the idea. It was a bunch of tunes and chants knitted together. Songwriting does tend to be quite spontaneous, it’s really simple.”

James remembered playing it to his publisher and being greeted with a less-than-enthusiastic response. “He said, ‘You’ll never get that on the radio’.” Despite the song’s success, James thinks he might have been right. “Do you know what? I’ve still never heard it on the radio. It’s incredible. I mean, it’s not really suitable for the parlour, is it? You hear Three Lions all the time and that twat [Wembley DJ Tony Parry] who put Sweet Caroline on after England won, which I really object to, great song but what’s it got to fucking do with England and football?! He said he had Vindaloo down to play but he thought, ‘nah’. There’s something about the boisterousness of it, it’s got an edge. I remember going to Top Of The Pops to do Vindaloo and we marched round Albert Square.”

As well as that riotous TOTP performance, Vindaloo is also notable for its iconic video, a note-perfect parody of The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony clip. “At the time, Keith was married to Nira Park, who’s probably Britain’s most successful film producer now. She actually produced the Blur Country House video that Damien directed, so when it came to making the video Keith was like, “get me 100 Max Walls, get me three enormous fat men, get me David Walliams and Matt Lucas, get me Eddie Tudor-Pole.” I’d been knocking about with Paul Kaye, I love Paul Kaye, so we all piled down to Hoxton,” said James of its making. “It was just a really good day. It was an extended group of friends that got bigger and bigger and bigger. It was ridiculously simple, music at its best. There’s not even any harmony in the music, the harmony is all in the singing, I think that’s what makes music powerful, voices in harmony.”

Vindaloo has certainly found a lot of fans over the years, passed from one generation of football fans to the next, but that appreciation wasn’t shared by James’ bandmates in Blur when it came out. “Oh, they hated it,” he laughed. “I was told by management to disassociate myself from it. Sometimes, it out-earns the entire Blur catalogue. The fact that it’s just one country, it’s not even Britain, it’s England. I can’t imagine there’s many people in Scotland or Wales singing it. Apparently, they do sing it in Germany.” Watch the video for Vindaloo below, altogether now: "na na naaaa....!"

Niall Doherty

Niall Doherty is a writer and editor whose work can be found in Classic Rock, The Guardian, Music Week, FourFourTwo, on Apple Music and more. Formerly the Deputy Editor of Q magazine, he co-runs the music Substack letter The New Cue with fellow former Q colleagues Ted Kessler and Chris Catchpole. He is also Reviews Editor at Record Collector. Over the years, he's interviewed some of the world's biggest stars, including Elton John, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Robert Plant and more. Radiohead was only for eight minutes but he still counts it.