Dec 13


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#740, 1st June 1996

3LIONS On Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet, there’s a track called “Incident At 66.6 FM” – a 90-second cut-up of derisive, racist radio commentary on the band that brings you-the-listener right up to speed on why they felt besieged, and puts you on their side for the fightback. The first thirty seconds of “Three Lions” pull off a very similar trick for a rather less radical cause: England fans. It’s a compact, adroit bit of pop scene-setting. In the background, the low swell of a stadium rousing itself for battle. In the foreground, critics officiate at a funeral. “I think it’s BAD NEWS for the English game…not CREATIVE enough, not POSITIVE enough… we’ll GO ON getting bad results…”

Wait, though – even as these suited vultures gather, we hear another voice – lone and thin, but firm and honest, singing a song that is halfway to a prayer. “It’s coming home, it’s coming home… “ Against the ranks of pessimism, cynicism, analysis and fact, against their own better judgement, the fan can’t help but believe. Football is coming home.

It’s a magnificent bit of manipulation: the marketer in me swoons in admiration. The rest of “Three Lions” develops the theme but all you need to know is in that intro. Who, on hearing it, wouldn’t be on the side of the fan’s simple faith against the doomsayers? In half a minute “Three Lions” defined the English game’s sense of itself for the rest of the 90s, and the 00s too – sentimental belief against obstinate fact, with the former winning the moral victory every time.

Like all football number ones, “Three Lions” is an artefact from a changing game. Plenty of middle-class Brits had always liked football, but Italia 90 had cemented that audience as the game’s great new revenue stream, World Cup-weaned fans who liked heartbreak and tears and big stories with regular helpings of ‘glory’ and ‘passion’. At the club level this breakthrough demographic were well-served by Man United’s ascendancy and the Premier League’s early boom – but at an international level the development had been held back by the woeful performances of England ever since 1990.

Here was where “Three Lions” was truly clever. It didn’t just strike a chord with the new football market, it provided them with an invaluable primer on how to feel about England and history. The song – and I write as a part of that market – is a bluffer’s guide to fandom, an off the shelf attitude to the England team, a way of buying into history and resolving the anxiety of newbiedom – all thanks to the four toxic little words at the song’s heart.

Like all great marketing insights, “thirty years of hurt” is immediately evocative and immensely flexible and extensible. Like many, it’s also meanly prescriptive, telescoping the many possible conflicting feelings about crap performances – like anger, amusement, resignation, or sheer apathy – into one selfish, petulant word. Baddiel, Skinner and Ian Broudie sing “hurt” like they mean it – their performances are so sincere it’s almost mawkish: football fans as sad, big-eyed pups. But however they meant “hurt”, it was also a summary of the entitlement the English media began to show about international football – the shimmering history of the game since 1966 reduced to a barren stretch in which “we” didn’t win anything.

The cavalier treatment of history is characteristic of Sky-era sport – but it resonated more widely. “Three Lions” fit its pop moment as well as its football one, landing at a time when a chunk of Britain’s music talent seemed fixed on play-acting the 60s. “Three Lions” is a superior Britpop song, whatever else it is – too earnest and not as sharp or funny as the genre’s best, but Skinner and Baddiel’s rough voices have a folksy conviction and charm which a lot of minor Britpop bands lacked, and the Lightning Seeds could always sell a sappy tune.

Back in 1966, pop and football had little enough to do with one another. But in nostalgia’s lens the heights of pop creativity and England’s footballing powers had become linked, part of the same golden dream. So in the magical working that was Britpop, the Euro 96 tournament could be a sympathetic ritual replay of 1966 – and the climax of “Three Lions” comes when the singers unite on a line that seems to move beyond even prayer and into spell. “I know that was then – but it could be again.” At that moment the song stops, and it’s as if Baddiel and Skinner (and us, if we want to join in) have their eyes squeezed tight shut, willing time to unravel and the world to rewrite itself around our glorious past.

The song starts up again. The moment passes. Our brave lions (etc) go out on penalties against “the Germans”. The cycle continues.

POSTSCRIPT (A bit of Meta-Business).

In 2008 (42 years of hurt! And counting!) I wrote this: “I occasionally think of Popular as a three-act story: this [The Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen”] is the end of Act I, the false start of the second great age of singles, which was also the world that shaped me as a listener.” And this, for what it’s worth, is the end of Act II.

The relationship between the Pistols and this song probably seems rather obscure. It is rather obscure, if only because “Three Lions” is the product of a pop culture where the legends of punk had become part of the mainstream context of everything. “Three Lions” is in no sense a punk record. But the three men who made “Three Lions” were shaped by punk’s consequences, and so was the world it was released into. Broudie was a player on the Liverpool post-punk scene. Baddiel and Skinner were second-generation inheritors of “alternative comedy” and its sometimes conscious application of punky ideas and salesmanship to stand-up. The positioning of “Three Lions” – a more alternative, more authentic football single than previous official FA product – is classic indie ju-jitsu marketing, and as such also inherited from punk. Assume the underdog role and never let it go – even when you’re Number One.

“Three Lions” frames the problem of English football in a way that would become increasingly familiar. Football had lost its way, lost its hunger and passion and cheek, but with those it could go back to the golden age. It was an alluring story – and it was also the way Oasis had framed the problem of English pop. “I know that was then but it could be again”. This was one of the fatal promises of punk, or at least punk as the culture came to remember it – punk as a giant reset button on a stagnant scene. But once you had shown there might be a reset button, the lure of pressing it again became far stronger. Once you admit the possibility of going back to basics, moving forward, and working with what you have, becomes a lot harder. And the alternative – Jules Rimet still gleaming, England still dreaming – grows more and more seductive.



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  1. 101
    Mark G on 12 Dec 2013 #

    “You only sing when you’re winning” is to the tune of Guantanamera. What tune did they use for “you don’t even..” ?

  2. 102
    James BC on 12 Dec 2013 #

    It would fit the tune of “Save Your Love” by Renee and Renato.

  3. 103
    Ed on 12 Dec 2013 #

    That’s ‘Guantanamera’ too. “Sing when you’re winning / Don’t even sing when you’re winning,” etc.

    Random thought, prompted by Spellcheck: is a Guantanamera a woman from Guantanamo?

  4. 104
    Tom on 12 Dec 2013 #

    Yes! (according to google)

  5. 105
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 12 Dec 2013 #

    Yes, it entered the Anglo-pop bloodstream via the folk movement in the 60s (specifically Pete Seeger): as a Cuban song it could imply support for Castro against the Yanqui oppressor without being explicit etc.

    (Seeger’s version is more political than the original, but still pretty vague I believe.)

  6. 106
    Cumbrian on 12 Dec 2013 #

    Weird songs catch on in football. This was kind of what I was talking about in my original post. Stuff like: Guantanamera; Volare; Go West; The Red Flag; Sloop John B; John Brown’s Body/The Battle Hymn of the Republic; La Donna e mobile; He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands*; Winter Wonderland; and many more besides.

    *Link to Three Lions being Jason Lee – who had a pineapple on his head.

  7. 107
    Izzy on 12 Dec 2013 #

    My view has long been that these songs are best viewed as modern hymns. Certainly anyone hearing a crowd deliver You’ll Never Walk Alone should be in no doubt as to what they are hearing.

    If I could analyse them musically, I’d be guessing that the two genres have in common a clutch of relatively long notes to act as glue for the outsize choir (surely no actual football crowd has ever tried World In Motion, delicious as it is, let alone any of the other modern attempts except Three Lions), plus a fairly limited tonal range.

  8. 108
    Mark G on 12 Dec 2013 #

    And let us not forget the old carpet cleaner song “It beats as it sweeps as it cleans”…

  9. 109
    Cumbrian on 12 Dec 2013 #

    106: Yep, I think I’d agree with that. Look up on Youtube clips of Hibs fans singing Sunshine on Leith for further confirmation (although it helps that SoL could be an actual hymn there).

  10. 110
    iconoclast on 12 Dec 2013 #

    @106, @108: I’d agree, although I might tentatively suggest “secular hymns”, if that’s not an oxymoron.

  11. 111
    Ed on 13 Dec 2013 #

    #105 Yes, I am always fascinated by what songs catch on as fan chants. The magnificent – and superbly drilled, if you’ll forgive the ethnic stereotyping – Borussia Dortmund fans have a great variety of unusual choices, including ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.

    I love watching the Darwinian process by which fan songs are born and either flourish or die off. When Emmanuel Eboue was a cult hero, a few guys near me tried to establish “I like Eboue-boue”, to the tune of ‘I Like to Move It’, but it didn’t catch on. Eventually, like “stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen”, they gave up. The winner of that contest was the riff to ‘Tequila’, with “Eboue!” shouted at the end of the verse. Greatly inferior, in my view.

    (Another digression: those cult heroes are like indie bands, aren’t they? Players a bit out of the mainstream, who are loved for their attitude and style as much as their ability. And knowing about them is the mark of the connoisseur, the true fan. That made Emmanuel Eboue a bit like the Wedding Present, I guess. Whereas your Le Tissiers and Berbatovs are like Eno or Nick Cave: they are capable of brilliance, but won’t go to any trouble to make themselves more popular.)

  12. 112
    Erithian on 13 Dec 2013 #

    Surely the real Eboue song was “Don’t blame it on Henry, Don’t blame it on the injuries, Don’t blame it on the referees, Blame it on Eboue! (He just can’t, he just can’t, he just can’t control his feet)”

  13. 113
    Cumbrian on 13 Dec 2013 #

    “Blame it on Eboue” is a classic. Like Ed, I am fascinated as to how this stuff comes about, principally who is deciding which tunes to dust off (I know, in previous threads, we’ve talked about the bloke at Manchester United who seems to spend his time coming up with and seeding new chants). For instance, there is video of a group of teenage Manchester City fans from a couple of years ago doing the chant to No Limit (alternating between Yaya and Kolo Toure). I look at this and two things sprang to mind: a) awesome, full marks for simple but effective work and b) you’d all have been 2 or under when 2 Unlimited got to #1 with this song – so who dusted it off?

  14. 114
    Tim on 13 Dec 2013 #

    Think that one’s been rumbling around for a bit and put to various uses – certainly we (Exeter) used the “No Limit” tune for Richard Logan (“lo lo, lo lo lo lo, lo lo lo lo, lo lo RICHARD LOGAN!”) fairly soon after he joined us seven or so years ago. I don’t think there was any sense that we had been the first to use it.

    But yeah, how “Son Of My Father”, of all things, gets picked up and – even more – continues to be used regularly four decades later, is a mystery.

  15. 115
    Izzy on 13 Dec 2013 #

    Seven Nation Army has almost none of what I’d imagine a good chant to be, and yet there it is in every other repertoire.

  16. 116
    Kinitawowi on 13 Dec 2013 #

    Always loved “When you’re sat in Row Z / And the ball hits your head / That’s Zamora”.

    #44: The greatest penalty shootout ever was unquestionably that at Soccer Aid 2000. Three saves by Jamie Theakston before Woody Harrelson finally settled it.

  17. 117
    Kinitawowi on 14 Dec 2013 #


  18. 118
    ciaran on 14 Dec 2013 #

    Was it true that Blackburn Rovers fans adopted the ‘christmassy’ hit ‘Keeping the Dream Alive’ by Freiheit as a song in their ground for the 94/95 Premier League winning season.

  19. 119
    Rory on 26 Dec 2013 #

    Feliz Navidad, Populistas. Hope you had a good one.

    I’m going to add a belated comment on this entry, even though I wasn’t in the UK when it hit number one, and its cultural references are all a long way from (my) home. I knew who David Baddiel was at the time, thanks to watching The Mary Whitehouse Experience during my early-nineties year in England (and even picking up their Encyclopedia, with its immortal entry on “felching”), but I didn’t know Frank Skinner or The Lightning Seeds. Watching the video now, I can hardly believe that Skinner was ever so young, knowing him as I do only from his current BBC appearances.

    But I did learn about The Lightning Seeds eventually. A friend exposed me to Jollification in 2004, and in my yearning for anything vaguely Britpop in those early post-Britpop years I snapped it up, along with everything else I could find. And their albums weren’t hard to find, for a pound or two apiece in any charity shop.

    I even picked up the 1997 Best Of for a quid to hear its one or two extra songs, including “Three Lions”, but that was a couple of years after my interest had peaked, so this was probably one of their tracks I’d listened to least until I gave it a few spins earlier this month.

    It has enough of the features of the Lightning Seeds tracks I loved to appeal to me now, but its football-song elements are wasted on me. It does sound like a good example of one, compared to some of the guff we’ve encountered here, but I’ll have to leave it to others to give it nines or tens on that basis… for me, on an occasional-Lightning-Seeds-fan basis, it’s a six.

  20. 120
    Erithian on 3 Jan 2014 #

    Mention of the Macarena in the “Wannabe” thread reminds me of a song created by Middlesbrough fans in honour of Fabrizio Ravanelli and his trademark shirt-over-the-head goal celebration: “I know a man and his name is Ravanelli / Scores lots of goals and I’ve seen him on the telly / Every time he scores he shows off his belly / Heeeey Ravanelli”.

  21. 121
    Cumbrian on 3 Jan 2014 #

    That is brilliant. Far better than the most recent Macarena based chant I have head – Man City just go for “One Zabba, two Zabba, three Zabaleta, Four Zabba five Zabba six Zabaleta, Seven Zaba eight Zaba nine Zabaleta, Hey Zabaleta”.

    Middlesborough also came up with the simple but effective ode to Joseph Desire-Job “There’s only one Job in Teeside”. Good sense of humour that lot.

  22. 122
    Kinitawowi on 3 Jan 2014 #

    I believe Boro were also responsible for “We’ve got Fabrizio / You’ve got fuck all-io”.

    When I saw them play though, there wasn’t anything more imaginative than “Boro, Boro, Boro / Boro, Boro, Boro” and the main sax riff from Pigbag. Bah.

  23. 123
    Mark G on 4 Jan 2014 #

    it’s more “bah bah bah BAH!.. BAH BAH baah baah..”

  24. 124
    Your Brother, The Astronaut on 30 Jun 2014 #

    A great write-up but one thing got me thinking:

    “Like all football number ones, “Three Lions” is an artefact from a changing game.”

    Along these lines, does anyone know of any good books/articles about the changing nature of football fandom in the 1990s (or just a more general social history of British/English football)? Mostly because I’ve always thought of football as an unchanging monolith (partly because of records like Three Lions!) when, of course, it isn’t.

  25. 125
    Cumbrian on 30 Jun 2014 #

    Re: football chants. I am pleased Argentina are lighting up this current World Cup with their chants. I don’t know any Spanish but anything that manages to get Bad Moon Rising by CCR onto the terraces has to be applauded (if only for dusting off something quite unlikely).

  26. 126
    Cumbrian on 30 Jun 2014 #

    Re:124. Fever Pitch is the most obvious one. I am sure someone more widely read on this subject will pass by and give you less obvious and probably better ideas.

  27. 127
    Your Brother, The Astronaut on 4 Jul 2014 #

    Not obvious to me! Cheers

  28. 128
    hardtogethits on 5 Jul 2014 #

    One Night In Turin by Pete Davies. Titled “All Played Out” on its original release.

  29. 129

    idd even heel iets anders dan we van je gewend zijn, maar ik vind hem erg leuk geworden, zo gezellig met zo'n mooie vlieger!xxDebbie

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