Right, then. Just in time for England to get knocked out of the World Cup by Germany, let’s do the next (or, possibly, last?) of my posts on football songs, in a vague attempt at whipping up a bit of spirit.
So. “Three Lions”, then. Not actually a World Cup song originally, of course – but still just about the greatest football song ever written. No, seriously. Ignore the appropriation by the massed ranks of the boorish, and instead look at the song in its own right – what it sets out to do, what it’s about, and how it does it – and it’s pretty much without peer.
Three Lions (1996)
The thing that makes the original “Three Lions” the most endearing is theway it captures perfectly what it means to be an English football fan. Not the loud, beer-swilling, “IN-GUR-LUND!”-shouting kind, but those of us who approach each tournament with very little expectation yet plenty of hope. England are in a curious position – they’re not a terrible team, even when they play as badly as they did against Algeria; but nor are they one of the best, despite the presence of players from pretty much the highest-paid and highest-profile league in Europe (if not the world). They’re a team who could, on their day, beat just about anyone; but who are also likely, on most days, to stumble against… well, against the likes of Algeria and the USA.
“Three Lions” kicks off on a note of unbridled pessimism – well-chosen sound clips from Alan Hansen, Trevor Brooking and Jimmy Hill dismissing England’s chances could have come from 2010 rather than 1996 (so long as you substitute the latter pair for Lawrenson and Shearer). Baddiel and Skinner, however, know that on their day England “can play”, before launching into the sort of nostalgia-wallowing that frequently draws criticism for fans of both England and my club, Liverpool – “We did some good stuff in the past so we should be able to again” – but which is hard to deny that we’re all guilty of at some point or another. It’s hopeful, but it’s realistic. They know England probably aren’t going to win Euro ’96, but they also know it’s always a distinct possibility.
The best section of the lyrics is the part that makes clear that it’s a song written by people who actually know their football. “I still see that tackle by Moore / And when Lineker scored” – first of all, the way that these two lines are phrased are effortlessly succinct. They’re vague at first glance, but anyone who knows anything about football knows exactly the moments they refer to. And, what’s more, those moments aren’t even anything to do with English success – the first was one of the great defensive tackles of all time, by Bobby Moore on Pele, but it came in a 1-0 group stage defeat to Brazil; and the second was a scrappy equalising goal in a game (versus West Germany in 1990) that England went on to lose. Nevertheless, the fact that they’re two of the most iconic moments in English football history – brilliant and ultimately meaningless individual moments amid overall failure – says everything about that history, and the overall tone of the song.
It’s also, tune-wise, easily the best official England song (or, at the very least depending on your own personal taste, on a par with “World In Motion”) – and you have to give it credit for not one, but two, instantly-memorable refrains (both “It’s coming home” and the “Three Lions on a shirt…” chorus). Yes, it’s easy to get sick of morons shouting “FOOTBALL’S COMING HOME”, and of the phrase being used on advertisement posters during tournaments that aren’t taking place in England, thus missing the entire point of the lyrics – but it was perfect at the time for describing the first major tournament to be held in England for thirty years.
Three Lions ’98 (1998)
And so to the 1998 reprise of the song – this time, actually for a World Cup. This gets a lot of flak for simply being a cheap, cynical cash-in on the success of the original – so I’m going to take the controversial view that it’s not, and that it actually serves a purpose.
You see, it’s the sequel. It’s the morning after (even though it actually came out two years later). The original song ended on a cliffhanger – could England actually do it? The answer was: no, they couldn’t. And “Three Lions ’98” therefore picks up directly afterward, reflecting once again on failure rather than success – but still with that glimmer of hope among the despair. It’s a necessary companion to the original song, because it shows that the hope of that song wasn’t fulfilled – but that it’ll carry on happening anyway, every time England get to a major tournament, even if they look absolutely useless when doing so.
Downsides? Well, the choice of commentary clips are poor this time out – not being able to use “official” BBC commentary, they instead turned to radio clips from Jonathan Pearce, and it’s Pearce when he was shouty and annoying. It simply doesn’t bear comparison with the ’96 song’s excellent use of Motson’s “England have done it… in the last minute… of extra time!” (although come to think of it, that version should also have found room for “Augenthaler couldn’t do it, Lineker probably could… aaaand England have equalised! It’s GARY LINEKER!”) The “I still see” section, meanwhile, is horribly dated – while the moments in the original are frozen in time forever, singing about “Ince ready for war, Gazza good as before, Shearer certain to score” was pretty much out of date by the time the ’98 World Cup had even kicked off. And, of course, it still uses “football’s coming home” when… well, it wasn’t. It was going to France.
But even then, you can forgive re-using the refrain – rather than composing a new song entirely – because, well, they deserved to put out a record that featured fans actually singing it. It’s the only time a football record has actually been properly picked up and sung on the terraces (well, alright, “in the stands”) immediately after its release; and yes, a part of that is that it’s simple and easy for even the most cretinous fan to remember, but it was nevertheless a brilliantly, instantly effective addition to the vernacular – and that deserved to be marked. And if nothing else, the re-recorded version is actually a bit better, musically, than the original – the production is beefier, and although the vocal performances from Skinner and – especially – Baddiel are worse, it’s arguably still a better record overall. The original is still the one you’d want to listen to the most – it’s a better reflection of its time (and the England of that glorious summer of 1996 were far easier to like than the England of that disappointing and slightly bleak summer of 1998 anyway) – but the sequel isn’t just a nasty, pointless cash-in at all – it actually has merit on its own.
But the 2010 version, of course, can just fuck off and die.
I should have known that a bad performance in England’s opening game – itself something of an inevitability – would have slightly dampened my enthusiasm for spending this week talking about various England-related World Cup songs, and so it’s proved. Nevertheless, although I’m scaling back the “post a day” idea, I still want to get a few posts up trawling through a couple of instances of football song history, so as we gear up for the second game against Algeria, here’s the first.
The football squad song was a curious phenomenon – unique, in British football at least, to the ’70s, ’80s and beginning of the ’90s. England only qualified for four World Cups in that time – missing out in 1974 and ’78 – and the four “official” tracks that featured the squads’ voices were wildly different in musical style, lyrical tone and downright performance.
Back Home (1970) – mp3
More than anything, the odd thing about “Back Home” is just how old-fashioned it sounds. I mean, while it was 40 years ago now, it was still 1970. The swinging Sixties had been and gone. And George Best’s career was well underway, so it’s not as if we hadn’t yet reached the point where football and pop culture would begin to merge. Yet “Back Home” presumably must have felt dated even in the year it was released. It’s jaunty enough, but it’s essentially a safe, incredibly simple two-minute football chant delivered in a boisterous yet stiff-upper-lip fashion, sounding for all the world like the 1958 squad rather than the 1970 one. Lyrically, the team are coming from a position they never would be again – they’re the reigning champions at this point. Arguably, they had nothing to prove going into the 1970 tournament save for the question of whether or not they could repeat the accomplishment on foreign soil – which is perhaps why the song’s preoccupation with “the folks back home” is so noteworthy.
The song arguably more notable nowadays, of course (at least to my generation) as having its tune nicked for the theme to Fantasy Football League, also being used for a number of musical refrains throughout the show’s run where a single lyric would be repeated over and over again and fit (deliberately awkwardly) around the tune. I think my favourite examples were Saint aaaaand, Greavsie talk about the Endsleigh League as if it’s im, portaaaaant… and Peleeee, was shite Pele was shite, he was worse than Jason Leeee…
This Time (We’ll Get It Right) (1982) – mp3
Whisper it, but I quite like this. The tune, at least – it’s catchy, and pleasant, and after a somewhat bizarre little intro, builds to a fairly memorable chorus. Okay, so it’s an absolutely massive ripoff of “Stop the Cavalry”, but it’s quite a good one.
Lyrically, though, I’m not sure it hits the mark. There’s a (not entirely unjustified) lack of conviction to it, and it’s almost apologetic in tone – while I rather doubt the assertion that “We’re on our way / We are Ron [Greenwood]’s twenty-two” had the rest of the world shaking in their boots. Furthermore, the point that it’s trying to make – “We’ve been buggering World Cups up recently, but we’re going to get it right this time” doesn’t even work, because they hadn’t even qualified for twelve years. So really, they’d already “got it right”, relative to recent performances, simply by qualifying. Anything else was a bonus.
Still, for all of that, it’s hard to dislike, particularly once it reaches a climax that could almost be described as rousing – provided you ignore the further oddness of a brief calypso-style insert on the bridge. They did realise the tournament was taking place in Spain and not Barbados, right?
We’ve Got The Whole World At Our Feet (1986)
Oh god. Oh god. This is just… awful. From the title, you might expect this to be sung to the tune of “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands”, but it doesn’t even have the decency to be a clever parody (if only they’d let Nigel Blackwell have a go…) Quite aside from that disappointment, though, this fails on every conceivable level. The tune is bland and forgettable. The backing track is flat and insipid, sounding more like “The Chicken Song” than anything else (only, you know, not as good as “The Chicken Song”). The lyrics are meaningless rhetoric, lacking in a theme for the first time (following 1970’s “We’ll bring it back with us this time” and 1982’s “Come on, we can do better this time”), resorting to lines like “There ain’t a single team that we can’t beat”. And of the three songs that feature the entire squad singing en masse, this is the one where they sound the most like a bunch of tuneless footballers trying to sing when they can’t.
I don’t have an MP3 of this to link to, but if you want to subject yourself to it, here’s a Youtube link. But I suggest you spend the three minutes listening to “Paintball’s Coming Home” instead.
World In Motion (1990) – mp3
You’ve got to hold and give, but do it at the right time. You can be slow or fast, but you must get to the line. They’ll always hit you and hurt you – defend and attack. There’s only one way to beat them: get round the back. Catch me if you can, ‘cos I’m an England man, and what you’re looking at is the master plan. We ain’t no hooligans, this ain’t a football song. Three lions on my chest, I know we can’t go wrong.
Aside from everything else that’s ever been said about possibly the only “credible” football song also to include performance by actual players (and the first single I ever bought on cassette, fact fans), what interests me is how indicative of its time it is – not for the style employed by New Order, or John Barnes’ rap, or the “edgier” lyrics, or the presence of the soon-to-be-ubiquitous Keith Allen, but for the use of samples. It’s not the first football record to make use of samples of actual commentary and other soundbites (if nothing else, “Anfield Rap” had done so two years previously), but it’s the first England one to do so, kicking off a tradition that would run through the nineties. They’re good choices, too, with Kenneth Wolstenhome’s defining hour along with a great snippet of the narration from the film Goal! (“‘We Want Goals’. Against Mexico, they got one – a beauty scored by Bobby Charlton.”)
But if nothing else, it’s hard to believe that there were only four years between this and “We’ve Got The Whole World…” It’s like they’re from different planets.
Next time: The best football song of them all, and how its sequel is entirely justifiable rather than self-indulgent horse-flogging.
Hurrah! This is nice. Finally, my writing-for-magazines career and my writing-about-comics-online hobby collide, as I get to write about comics in an Actual Magazine for the first time. Issue #2 of Comic Heroes, the quarterly comics-related magazine from the SFX stable at Future Publishing is now on the shelves of most WH Smiths (and, presumably, an assortment of other newsagents), and includes a feature by yours truly on licensed comics (i.e. comics based on films, TV shows, games etc.) in which I’ve interviewed writers Tony Lee and Simon Furman, and shoehorned in obligatory discussion of Doctor Who, Sonic the Hedgehog, Death’s Head, and much more, yes?
The mag also features a couple of articles by my good friend and frequent collaborator James Hunt, and lots of other interesting stuff about comics, comics-based movies, and so on. It’s a bit of a hefty eight quid, but it is only a quarterly mag, and if you’re in any way into comics it’s well worth a look. And as someone who first got hooked on PC Gamer back in the early days around 1994, it’s an honour and a privilege to finally write something for Future.
More info here, anyway, if you’re interested.
With the World Cup underway (I’m watching South Africa v. Mexico in another browser window as I type this, having waited until 3pm for my lunch hour so I can catch the whole first half), I’ve decided to do a bit of blogging about football over the next couple of weeks. Not so much about the on-field happenings of the game itself – there are plenty of other places where people do that better than I could – but instead in the cultural and contextual aspects of the sport that particularly interest me. Next week, I’ll be doing a series of posts about various football songs, while after that I may pop up with some brief musings on topics such as football stickers, Subbuteo, kits, and that sort of thing.
For now, though, I wanted to link to a video. In 1994, BBC2 ran a theme night called “Goal TV”. This was back in the infancy of the TV “theme night” concept, and unlike some of the lazy efforts that would later characterise the genre, “Goal TV” had proper thought and care put into it. It ran for bloody hours, and had some lovely, specially-crafted continuity inbetween segments. It had longer and shorter programmes, including a brilliant Nick Hornby-narrated documentary on the game’s appeal called “The Ball is Round”, a musing on goalkeepers called “L’Etranger”, that Likely Lads episode, the 1966 film Goal!, and that sort of thing – as well as being interspersed with little two- or three-minute highlight packages of some classic World Cup games and a “Greatest Goal Ever Scored” phone vote (Maradona ’86 won). It had a very When Saturday Comes sort of feel to it – in that it was a bit intelligent, and was about a general appreciation of the game and its rich and varied culture and history, rather than descending into the laddishness, flag-waving or tribalism that often sadly blight it. Basically, it was fantastic, and I watched it – or its constituent parts – many many times on a taped copy that for a good decade or more has now sadly been lost to the ages.
I’ve tried for years to track down a copy online – either to download or even to buy on tape – but sadly very little reference to it exists. Which is why finding this rather daft but fun 20-minute programme called The Beautiful Frame, in which Clare Grogan looks at the checkered history of football’s relationship with film and TV, was such a joy. It’s a bit cheap and cheesy, but it’s still pretty enjoyable, and was the first time I’d heard of things like Jossy’s Giants. Pleasingly, the clip also includes the accompanying section of the aforementioned lovely continuity. Despite dating from two years after the Premier League’s formation, there’s a pleasant sense of pre-Sky innocence about the whole thing, and if the World Cup has got you in an all-things-football kind of mood, it’s well worth a look. Er, once this game’s finished, anyway.