By Ryan Ferguson
There aren’t many similarities between California and Birkenhead, nor Americana and Tranmere Rovers, but there is one link that has surfaced at every home game for over three decades.
At 2.55pm on any given Saturday, and 7.40pm on the occasional Tuesday, the whaling noise of a Minimoog synthesizer welcomes Tranmere onto the Prenton Park pitch. To the confusion of visiting fans, no Rovers home game can begin without this ceremonial blast of The Rockford Files theme tune. And while the seventies detective show has long escaped British fascination, it will always have a home on the Wirral and a place in the folklore of Tranmere Rovers.
To us, The Rockford Files is a quaint reminder of happier times, back before football was consumed by capitalism. It wasn’t selected as our theme song due to marketing or corporate sponsorship, or even to inspire the players. It was quirky and unique. It was humorous and individual. It was inherently Tranmere, making people chuckle just for the sake of it.
Right now, we’re the only people on earth who derive such extreme joy from listening to this bygone song. As the melody floats in and out, mixing blues harmonica and electric guitar with flutes and trombones, pictures from Tranmere history appear in the mind, as goosebumps form. There’s Nick Henry crashing home his volley. There’s Dave Kelly equalising at Wembley. There’s Ryan Taylor scoring his free-kick against Hartlepool. The song conjures memories of huge crowds and evocative nights, when the Kop was full and the lights were bright. It’s the soundtrack to so many giant-killings, from Rideout’s hat-trick to Parkinson’s mazy run and anything else you care to remember. It’s part of the club’s fabric.
When you hear that song echo around Prentonia, it’s almost a call to prayer. For some, it’s the cue to drink up and sprint like a maniac down Borough Road in time for kick-off. For others, it’s the signal to rise and greet the boys onto the field once more. But The Rockford Files theme means something to most Tranmere fans, who view it as the musical accompaniment to so many happy memories.
Yet although it’s a cherished part of the club’s identity, very little original research has ever been conducted into how it came to be the entrance song at Prenton Park. The newer generation of fans may have no idea what the song even represents, let alone why it’s played before every game, so I decided to explore the issue in greater detail. Let’s start from the very beginning.
The Rockford Files was an American drama series staring James Garner, who won an Emmy for his role as Jim Rockford, an unconventional detective in California. Having served time in prison for a wrongful conviction, Rockford lived in a mobile home and worked sporadically on cases the Police couldn’t touch, usually missing person investigations and insurance fraud violations. He was an eccentric, down on his luck kind of guy, and perhaps that’s what struck a chord with Tranmere, a club famed for its individuality in the face of struggle.
Anyhow, The Rockford Files developed a cult following in the US, with many people enjoying the recurring jokes and humorous mannerisms of Rockford. He drove a Pontiac Firebird Esprit, which was routinely involved in high-octane chases and reluctant gunfights, and he always let the phone ring through to a recorded message: “This is Jim Rockford. At the tone, leave your name and number. I’ll get back to you.”
Created by Roy Huggins and Stephen J Cannell, the show aired on NBC in the US between September 1974 and January 1980. It occupied the prime-time slot on Friday nights, which only added to the allure. At this time, the British public was still mildly fascinated by the curious world of American TV, and The Rockford Files was eventually syndicated on BBC One with many repeats on BBC Two throughout the eighties. It’s worth noting that Britain only had three television channels in those days, and shows developed passionate audiences far easier than today. Indeed, The Rockford Files is still occasionally repeated around the world, as nostalgia for that era persists.
The theme song was composed by Pete Carpenter and Mike Post, a prolific artist who worked on similar projects for Law & Order and The-A Team, among others. It won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Segment in 1975, and was released as a single around the same time. The Rockford Files reached number ten in the American charts, where it lingered for four months. There was something extremely catchy about the song, and it obviously resonated with many people.
Still, I hear you plead, what’s the link with Tranmere? Well, there are many theories, all of different quality. The common explanation is that Rovers played their home games on a Friday evening during that era, at the same time The Rockford Files was shown on TV. Many people interpreted it as a tongue-in-cheek reminder to fans that they could have been cosy at home, watching the box with a cup of cocoa rather than freezing their asses off in the Cowshed, sipping Bovril and watching the lowly Rochdale play some virtuoso stuff.
That may be the case, and it certainly fits with the Tranmere sense of humour. However, there are many other theories as to how The Rockford Files became a club theme song. One strain of thought is that Rovers associated with Rockford’s image as a plucky underdog who lived by his own rules in the shadow of slicker rivals. Given our enemies across the Mersey, that’s also possible, but other arguments still exist. For instance, some people say that using the theme tune was a satirical jab, with Tranmere luring people to Prenton Park because they were only missing Jim Rockford on the telly.
A more plausible hypothesis is proffered by Peter Bishop, co-author of Tranmere Rovers, The Complete Record.“I believe it all resulted from a throwaway line from then-Chairman Bill Bothwell in 1979,” he told Planet Prentonia. “In one of his match reports or interviews with the Birkenhead News, he was bemoaning the poor attendances at Prenton Park for Friday night games and came out with a line that was widely reported in the local media. ‘I can only conclude that the people of Wirral prefer to watch The Rockford Files on TV on a cold Friday night than support their local football team.’
“Bothwell’s acerbic aside was picked up by the clubs’ PA announcer, who played the music before the teams came out for a later game, to much amusement from the crowd. Apparently, Bothwell appreciated the irony and suggested that, if Wirral people liked the theme tune so much, they could come to Tranmere and hear it! And to date, it’s been there ever since, although I do recall someone once stole Richie Tierney’s only vinyl copy, so there was a brief pause until he got another 45rpm record and it was back on a few weeks later.”
This valuable insight sent my research down a new path, and contact was made with the family of the original PA announcer, Keith Shillinglaw, who offered his own insight.
“In 1968, I read in the local paper that Mr Jones, the existing announcer, was retiring and the club wished to recruit a new one,” says Shillinglaw. “So I wrote to Bill Bothwell and applied for the job.
“There were two of us at the interview, myself and a lad named Ron Davies. Bill explained the job would be unpaid but there would be a car park space available and a tot of whiskey in the Directors’ Lounge after the game. He gave both of us the job to share on alternate games. After a year or so, Ron went off to college and I continued as sole announcer.
“Around 1978, I was already playing Caroline by the Fortunes when the players came back out for the second half, and Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty at the end of games. A record was needed for when the players came out for the start of the game. The Rockford Files was on TV at this time and I was an avid fan of the show, so I bought the record. I thought it would be a great tune to play at the start of the match as the players came out as I could lower the sound easily to announce the team and as it’s an instrumental, it still sounded good when I turned the volume back up.
“I continued as DJ until the early eighties, when Richie took over. I lent him my vinyl copy of The Rockford Files, by Mike Post, so that he could tape it to use at the games. I still have my original vinyl copy.
“Whenever attempts to change the Tranmere anthem came about I was really anxious but always felt confident that they wouldn’t last.”
Indeed, several attempts have been made to cleanse Prenton Park of The Rockford Files, but none have been successful. John Aldridge thought it was terrible and sought to replace it with Fanfare for the Common Man by Emerson, Lake and Palmer when he became player-manager. It’s also rumoured that Dave Watson wanted a more dramatic entrance song during his reign at Tranmere, while some people lobbied for Forever in Blue Jeans to be played before matches thanks to a viral video of the players singing it on the team bus in 2012.
The biggest threat to tradition came in 2015, however, when Rovers used Moving Mountains before a pre-season match with Blackburn. Widespread consternation followed, and the club was forced to climb down. “It is clear that The Rockford Files is close to the hearts of our fanbase,” read an official club statement. “So we have decided to terminate the trial with immediate effect. Jim Rockford is back!”
To this day, a few Rovers fans hate the song, and that’s fine. But my own personal opinion is that we’re fortunate to have a unique anthem with true meaning rather than the generic, blurring noise played at most grounds these days. Some say The Rockford Files doesn’t motivate the players, but why should it? That’s the job of our manager, not our DJ. Yes, it’s dated and a little cheesy, but it’s unwise to tamper with tradition.
Liverpool have You’ll Never Walk Alone. Everton have Z-Cars. Tranmere have The Rockford Files. Without doubt, it’s rather peculiar, but I love the song and the way it makes opposing fans scratch their heads. More importantly, I adore the backstory of how this became our anthem, and find great humour in the juxtaposition between Rockford’s California and our Birkenhead. Ultimately, it’s a fairly random link, but one that I’m proud to have. It’s just another wrinkle in the grand tapestry of Tranmere Rovers, and the club is better for it.