It is well known that California is the birthplace of many bands and genres of music. However, the two cities most responsible for this success have similar yet different tastes. While Los Angeles was the start for Frank Sinatra, it is now consumed with hip hop and rap. Meanwhile, San Francisco's hippy culture influenced much of the its local industry. While these cities have waged a musical Cold War, their two professional football teams have struggled against one another. For the past 71 years, the San Francisco 49ers and the Los Angeles Rams have waged a war while befriending, inspiring and being inspired by their local musical talent.
The rivalry began in 1950, when the 49ers joined the NFL after leaving the recently folded AAFC. San Francisco's Kezar Stadium hosted the first contest between the two teams on the first day of October that year and attendance was miniscule by modern standards, with a little more than 27,500 people in the stands. Though the 49ers had dominated the competition in their former league, they proved to be no match for the Ram's high flying offense piloted by two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield. The 49ers fell 35-14 to the Rams and would end the season with just three wins.
It took the 49ers a couple of years to gain a measure of respect with the Rams. By 1953, they were ready to show the NFL what they were made of. With half of what would become known as the "Million Dollar Backfield" on their roster, the 49ers upset the Rams twice that year by scores of 31-30 and 31-27. As a result of those losses, the Rams finished third in their division and missed the NFL Championship Game. At last, the 49ers belonged.
While their rivalry was still in its infancy, Frank Sinatra signed a seven year deal with Capitol Records in Los Angeles to revive a once promising career. The singer's voice was smooth and invoked a sense of calm within the listener. Much like Sinatra's voice, the 49ers rivalry with the Rams was not overly aggressive and in general, Los Angeles usually came away victorious even though both rosters were loaded with talent. This trend went on for the first two decades of the rivalry.
In the late 1960's, there was a major culture shift in San Francisco with the Summer of Love (1968) hitting the city hard. Suddenly, there were many musicians in the city who were a part of the counter culture movement. Artists such as Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead who digressed from societal norms and lived a free wheeling life of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. Garcia brought with him a unique style which combined the best parts of rock and roll of the previous two decades.
When the calendar turned to 1970, the 49ers were ready for a new chapter in their rivalry. Similar to the Grateful Dead, the 49ers featured an excellent blend of offense and defense which nearly sent them to the Super Bowl in the first two years of the new decade. The teams split their two games against each other that year but the 49ers ended the year with the better record and their first division championship while the Rams finished second in the standings. The following year, the 49ers began their time in Candlestick Park with a 20-13 defeat to the Rams. Though the 49ers would lose to the Rams 17-6 a few weeks later, they still managed to capture their second straight divisional crown while the Rams were stuck as second fiddle.
From here, the rivalry took a turn. While the 49ers finished first in the division in 1972, the Rams finished dead. Their fortunes were reversed the for the rest of the decade as the Rams owned the division while the 49ers dove into mediocrity. From 1973 to 1981, the Rams won 14 of 16 games with the 49ers. The rivalry was on life support.
Things were looking bleak in San Francisco as the 49ers finished the 1978 and 1979 seasons 2-14, easily the worst two seasons in franchise history. However, a flicker of a light began to shine in 1979 when Bill Walsh began implementing his West Coast Offense. It took a couple of years but by 1981, the 49ers were Super Bowl champions and ready to compete for the division title for decades to come.
It would prove to be the greatest era of the rivalry with great players from both sides competing for supremacy throughout the 1980's. Players such as Eric Dickerson, Jackie Slater, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott led their teams into the thick of battle for supremacy of not just the division but the state of California.
The rivalry took shape in 1983 when John Robinson took over as the Ram's head coach and Eric Dickerson was drafted. As a coach at USC, Robinson found joy in dominating on the ground behind an effective offensive line and a running back who would get the ball anywhere from 20 to 35 times a game. Though he was tall, Dickerson was the perfect running back for Robinson's system and he subsequently set the NFL rushing mark for rookies (1,808 yards) and the NFL single season rushing record (2,105 yards) in his first two seasons. Both records still stand.
Meanwhile, the 49ers offense was the polar opposite of the Rams with most of the offense going through the air with well timed routes. At the time, the Rams very much displayed what most NFL offenses were at the time while the 49ers showed the league the possibilities through the air. It was truly a battle of the ages.
Local musical artists were tuning in to this rivalry. Huey Lewis and the News was well known in the 49ers locker room and was close friends of several of its starts including Joe Montana and Dwight Clark. They even let Clark, Montana, Lott and Ricki Ellison sing backup for one of their songs "Hip to be Square". Huey Lewis continues to be a strong supporter of the 49ers and was especially close to Dwight Clark for the rest of his life.
As Huey Lewis and the News represented the harmony that the 49ers needed to dominate the decade, the Red Hot Chili Peppers represented a style which the Rams supported. When Michael Balzary (later known as Flea) moved to Los Angeles from Australia, he was a child stuck in a new world with very few friends. He needed an outlet for his bitterness towards his parents for their divorce and soon discovered a love for the Rams. Eventually, he became a founding member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. While the band and the team are not nearly as synonymous as Huey Lewis and the 49ers, they still shared a city and represented much of what the city stands for.
The 49ers and Rams rivalry reached a climax in the 1989 NFC Championship Game. While Eric Dickerson had left a couple of years earlier, the Rams still nearly swept the 49ers in the regular season. However, these 49ers were a team of destiny, having won three previous Super Bowls and steamrolling towards a fourth. This tight knit group defeated the Rams 30-3.
It was the last time that the Rams would be in the playoffs during their first stint in Los Angeles. The franchise began a free fall and by 1995 they had relocated to Saint Louis, Missouri. While the teams still disliked each other, the rivalry in its purest form was dead. By the time the team returned to Los Angeles in 2016, entire genres of music had been invented and an entire generation of football fans had yet to experience the magnitude of the 49er-Rams rivalry.
Fittingly, the Red Hot Chili Peppers welcomed the Rams in their first home game. It took a couple of years for the rivalry to truly ferment into its familiar volatility but by 2019, both squads had coaches who knew what they were doing and rosters filled to the rim with talent. By that time, the Rams had recently been to a Super Bowl and the 49ers were a surprising 4-0 to start the year. Going into their first match up that year in the LA Coliseum, not a lot of people believed that the 49ers would prevail against the mighty Rams. The 49ers stunned Los Angeles that day, defeating them 20-7. Inspired, the 49ers tore through the rest of their schedule.
Late in the year, mere weeks before their second game against the Rams, Bay Area rapper E-40 came out with a song which would prove to be the 49ers rallying cry, "Bang Bang Niner Gang". Fans were immediately attached to the song and played the song on their devices constantly. Seeing the renewed passion of their fans, the 49ers defeated the Rams in a Saturday night thriller 34-31 to end their playoff hopes.
Since 2019, the 49ers have defeated the Rams six straight times. While they were underdogs in many of those contests, they have stunned the NFL time and time again. But despite this recent trend, the games have mostly been close, always entertaining and rife with competition. Currently, the rivalry is reaching another level as the two teams are set to face each other for the NFC Championship. Though it is beign played in Los Angeles, more 49er fans are expected to attend than Rams Fans. While this passion is certainly entertaining, one must wonder if E-40's "Bang Bang Niner Gang" had anything to do with this phenomenon.