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Dec 13

BADDIEL AND SKINNER AND THE LIGHTNING SEEDS – “Three Lions”

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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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Comments

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  1. 1
    Tom Ewing (@tomewing) on 4 Dec 2013 #

    England’s dreaming: a particularly rambling Popular entry, on “Three Lions” http://t.co/gSbROMY4Gl

  2. 2
    lonepilgrim on 4 Dec 2013 #

    the chorus is a total ear worm – utterly suitable for singing on the terraces – but I was surprised at how fussy and insipid the verses seem to me now. Whereas New Order’s ‘World in Motion’ seemed very much of the present, even looking forward to the future – this seems stuck in the past.
    Some of the conversation on the previous thread about why the UK has failed so frequently at Eurovision seemed to parallel the discourse around the decline of English footballing fortune.

  3. 3
    Lazarus on 4 Dec 2013 #

    Here’s the thing … I have no interest whatsoever in football, but I bought this single, enjoyed ‘Fantasy Football League’ (from whence this came, surely) and even watched a couple of games of Euro ’96 – in short, I bought into the Zeitgeist. A fond 7.

    A couple of years later, there would be another significant – and enduring – connection between football and pop, of course.

  4. 4
    MBI on 4 Dec 2013 #

    As a neophyte American soccer fan, I’ve heard “Three Lions” referenced many times before, but this is the first time I’ve ever actually listened to it.

    Holy crap, this song is far more depressing than I imagined it would be.

    Maybe I’m spoiled by “World In Motion.” But for a football anthem, this is pathetic. I visited Ireland last year and was greeted by the joyous sound of “You’ll NEEEEEEEVER BEAT THE IRISH!!!” every time I turned on the radio, and Ireland lost every game at that tournament, but at least they had a proper pump-you-up anthem. This song is all about failure. And the eighteen years of hindsight I bring to it makes it only more so in my eyes. (This is very much not true of “World in Motion,” even though in both tournaments England landed respectably in the final four.)

  5. 5
    Alan Connor on 4 Dec 2013 #

    As a stranger to the b. game, Three Lions is filed in my head just alongside “If you like a lot of chocolate on your biscuit, join our Club”.

  6. 6
    Alan Connor on 4 Dec 2013 #

    This song is all about failure.

    #4: For a different take (& again I am out of my element here), there’s this Scottish song.

  7. 7
    MBI on 4 Dec 2013 #

    Ha ha, yes, that’s EXACTLY the song it reminded me of.

  8. 8
    Another Pete on 4 Dec 2013 #

    The sample at the start is of fans of the Danish club Brondby. I know this as I worked with a Dane who unfailingly brought this up when it came on the radio in the office during the 2006 world cup. (The Danes also had an odd take on the next number 1, but more on that later).

    I think as a Liverpudlian Ian Broudie clearly wanted this to be England’s ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’

    #4 consider the likes of Rod Hull and Emu’s – ‘Singing Bristol Rovers all the way’ songs like this to this day are still played prior to home games in the lower leagues. Now that’s a pathetic football anthem.

  9. 9
    thefatgit on 4 Dec 2013 #

    Only 6 years from Gazza’s tears to Gazza’s excesses in the infamous Dentist’s Chair. I guess my fascination with The Mars Bar Kid in relation to 90’s footy, was emblematic of, and ran alongside the outlandish excesses of the newly-minted stars of the Premiership. Nobody out-did Gazza for excess. And yes, he was emblematic of all that was wrong with the xy chromosome, not just football. But that sublime move vs Colin Hendry in the Scotland game and that stunning volley reminded us that here was a genius on the ball who could still amaze even the most jaded England fan.

    “Three Lions” was a nation’s collective hope in a song (but it really wasn’t was it? I certainly recall a phalanx of naysayers before the tournament began). I’m not sure how many of us were sucked in by the hype and the hope, but it felt like fortune was on our side, with memorable games vs Scotland and Holland. We were the hosts of Euro 96 after all, playing at Wembley and making the most of home advantage. “30 years of hurt” and I was 30 years of age. I felt a bit bludgeoned by that line in particular, but I can’t really hold that against them. Even the pain of penners (Gareth Southgate, lest we forget) vs Germany didn’t take the shine off that summer. And I feel quite charitable towards Skinner, Baddiel and Broudie. Shearer won the Golden Boot so we came away with something at least.

  10. 10
    Seb Patrick on 4 Dec 2013 #

    Can I be annoyingly pedantic? That cover up there isn’t the actual single cover. I think it’s something that’s been knocked up in order for the track to be sold, along with various subsequent versions, online in the years since (presumably because they’re not allowed to use the England badge any more).

    But if you want to use it at the top (you may not care in the slightest, of course, in which case ignore me) the actual original single cover is this: http://i.imgur.com/gDcdW3I.jpg

    (Also: bloody hell, for some reason I don’t think I even realised we were in 1996 until you got to this. That one crept up on me, alright. Fascinated to see what your approach to the sequel will be. I have OPINIONS on how it’s less of a cheap cash-in than people often dismiss it as, but I’ll save them until then.)

  11. 11
    Mark G on 4 Dec 2013 #

    More alternative than the previous? Hmmmm.

    More authentic as a football song? Yeah, OK.

    And yet, there was room for Vibrator …

    VinDaLoo. Blummin spell corrector!

  12. 12
    Mark G on 4 Dec 2013 #

    #8 . Man I own that very football anthem !

  13. 13
    Chelovek na lune on 4 Dec 2013 #

    Hmm. I am only very vaguely interested in football (watch a few games in the World Cup every 4 years, keep an eye on the team in the town in which I grew up, now they are just about big boys in League 2, after decades in the conference and suchlike, etc). But I did buy this, none the less.

    But still: part of me think it’s all cringeworthy – this is the “Achtung Surrender!” Daily Mirror headline tournament, isn’t it? (I was not resident in the UK at the time, so missed it all. Not sure I am unhappy about that.) And also the moment on which England flags started to really appear as a symbol of – England, taking the place of the Union flag which had stood in for it in many regards, however inaccurately, up until that point.

    And far worse than all that, the moment when a really rather fine, and generally understated, subtle, gentle, act (the Lightning Seeds, of course) kind of….jumped the shark is not quite the right phrase, but coarsened themselves – and well, it got them a number 1. More than once too (footballing bunny. ssssh).

    As for Baddiel. Hmm. Why did so many girls in my 6th form in the early 1990s fancy him? I think his laddishness (porn and footy) had got to an immensely irritating level by now, tying in with the rise of lad mags, Loaded, blah blah blah, middle-class misogyny being fashionable among a certain type (again: I’m inclined to think even these references, like those of this particular song, are specifically English, rather than British: they certainly made little impact on rural north-east Fife where I spent most of the mid-part of the decade…)

    I suppose we could talk about masculinity and gender role models, sensitivity and laddishness combining – which is really what this song is about. An introspective and sensitive pop band combining with a Cambridge-educated Jewish literary intellectual (who has sold his soul to popular culture and TV), more or less; and then Skinner – also in his way quite an unusual character, with a distinct, sensitive, thoughtful – and also religious, practicing Catholic, side, alongside the surface laddishness.

    A football anthem for outsiders then? Not just middle-class outsiders – but those whose cultural and intellectual backdrop and deep influences are rather outside the English mainstream, but who by this time were none the less comfortable and happy and willing now to wrap themselves in the St George’s flag. Perhaps in fact that is the best description….

    (Also, #11 re. Vindaloo – – – all this allowed a simulacrum of old-fashioned laddish thuggery to reappear, but with a comforting layer of irony and middle-class north london liberal endorsement around it)

    And the thought hits…..Did all this pave the way for Russell Brand? Oh God. That could be the very worse part of its legacy.

    In a lot of ways this is genius. Loveable genius? Not quite. I think I’d prefer to discuss almost any other Lightning Seeds single here.

    5 or a 6 I think. It’s memorable and enduring enough to warrant the latter.

  14. 14
    Andrew Farrell on 5 Dec 2013 #

    First as tragedy…

  15. 15
    Kinitawowi on 5 Dec 2013 #

    As much as anything else, this is about the people performing it. Baddiel and Skinner, whose Fantasy Football show was doing great guns at this point, and The Lightning Seeds, who had been declaring “JUSTICE FOR THE 96” in their album inlays for ages and were indelibly associated with The Beautiful Game ™ ever since The Life Of Riley became utterly synonymous with the Goal Of The Month competition on Match Of The Day? Never mind New Order being roped into it by the FA, this was a song by football fans for football fans.

    Yep, I bought it all right.

    For once, it’s not a song about inevitable triumph; compare the utterly execrable effort from England United in a couple of years time (which surely we’ll do in two years time, natch). It’s hopeful, but realistic. And for all World In Motion’s apparent superiority, it can’t be described as having endured; Three Lions was a song that crossed borders (even the Germans loved it), with a iconic (if deliberately so) chant that still rocks around the grounds decades later.

    Fifteen year old me, glued to football, following Manchester United through their 1996 Double, with a Mirror-reading Dad (“PEARCE IN OUR TIME” and all that) said this was a 10. Thirty-three year old me hasn’t seen much to change his mind on that since. Well, the Mirror thing was a bit silly.

  16. 16
    mapman132 on 5 Dec 2013 #

    #4 Out of curiosity, which American sports teams (if any) are you a fan of? See below for why I ask…

    In the US, national sports teams fit in one of two categories: 1) Those that are supposed to dominate (basketball, baseball), in which case winning feels boring because that’s what’s supposed to happen, and losing, which certainly DOES happen, is just a complete disgrace for all concerned. Either way, not much fun for me as a potential fan.

    In contrast, type 2 are those that aren’t nearly as good (soccer, hockey), where winning, while a pleasant surprise, makes me feel almost guilty against a country that wants it so much more badly. Case in point: 2010 Hockey Gold Medal Game. The US losing was treated as a disappointment, but hey, life goes on. If Canada had lost, it would have been a national tragedy that would ruined the whole Olympics for them.

    So as an American, I feel that I’ll never quite have the emotional connection that other countries have for their national soccer/football teams. That being said however, I still get the sentiment behind “Three Lions”. This is because of being a Philadelphia sports fan. For those that are unfamiliar, Philly’s “Big 4” teams (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) are really bad at winning championships. So bad, that from 1983, when I coincidentally was 10 years old and just getting into sports fandom, there would be no Philly championships at all for 25 years. That’s 4 teams x 25 years = 100 seasons. If you had told me at 10 that I’d make it to my mid 30’s without experiencing the thrill of victory, I’m pretty sure I would have lost interest immediately. But this is why those extremely rare tastes of victory, such as the Phillies winning the 2008 World Series, are so sweet. It’s why I’m pointing out the 2008 victory to a mostly-UK readership who probably couldn’t care less – us Philly sports fans may be used to failure, but we did have that one shining moment. And that’s why we keep coming back. It’s a sentiment that only fans of historically underperforming teams truly get, and it’s a sentiment captured perfectly by “Three Lions”.

    And with that, I’ll give it 8/10.

  17. 17
    Billy Hicks on 5 Dec 2013 #

    Euro 96 was an incredible experience.

    I was seven years old and had recently moved to a house minutes down the road from Wembley Stadium. For the opening ceremony, me and my Dad went out into the garden to first see the Red Arrows fly past, and then the sky become filled with balloons, all the time watching the same things on the television in the front room. And then that certain England v Germany game is my first full memory of a football match, with its long penalty shootout and my Dad shouting “Yes!” and “No!” with every alternate England/Germany goal until Southgate finished things off.

    The next morning, in Year 2, my classmates were in tearful grief. For the last few weeks this very song had owned the school playground, that chorus repeating over and over again at every break. “Do you know any other lines of the song?” I sarcastically asked one of my friends after his millionth Football’s Coming Home repetition. He stopped, thought, and then sang “THREE LIONS ON THE SHIRT!” and stopped again.

    This version is the original and best, the fragility of just a couple of people singing the Football’s Coming Home hook a nice contrast with the hundreds of football fans belting it out – similarly I’m a fan of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ when it’s just Gerry’s voice, as I’m otherwise used to the huge terrace singalongs. It’s something a later version of this gets wrong, but more on that when it comes.

    8 right now, 9 next summer no matter how badly England do. The first ever #1 I remember being a playground hit, but wow do we not have long to wait until the next one…

  18. 18
    Cumbrian on 5 Dec 2013 #

    Sorry, long comment coming.

    There’s more going on with football fans than is generally let on. A big heaving mass of humanity, 95% male, and redolent of accepted masculinity including the subjugation of weakness bearing traits might be the stereotypical view – and certainly before Italia 90 and the new dawn of the Premier League, football fans were tarred with particularly broad brushes (the hooligan element obviously didn’t help the majority in this).

    Scratch the surface though and you get, as with many things, so much more. When I used to be a regular at Brunton Park, cheery fatalism tended to be the stock in trade and many of the conversations around the ground, yes, would be centred on football but also touched on a variety of topics, blokes struggling with unemployment or problems at home, illnesses, bereavements, you’d overhear conversations touching on them all on your way to get your half time pie or what have you. The very things that British males have supposedly avoided talking about, discussed in the context of a real community, built up around the fact that you can always break the conversation off to shout at the opposition left back for nicking a few yards on his throw in, so as you don’t have to dig too deep if you don’t want and all buried deep in something that looks, from the outside, like a particularly boorish pursuit.

    It’s why the songs that have grown up around particular football clubs are so incredibly interesting for lifting the veil on this sometimes. So many of the ones that I consider to be the best associated with football are built on triumph over (or simply delay of) adversity. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (as mentioned by Another Pete at 8) and “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” in particular can be viewed as very sad, quite openly emotional songs that work on a number of levels*. That they have been attached to the game or specific clubs shows the layers of what catches on with large groups of men sometimes – indeed, and not to turn this back to Oasis all the time, but it is there in some of Noel Gallagher’s output too. The sentimental can really work. The daddy of them all for me is probably “Sunshine on Leith”. I have no real affinity with either Hibernian or The Proclaimers particularly – and I am certainly not a Christian – but hearing that crowd belting it out at a game is, I find, a moment that grabs my heart and squeezes.

    This, I think, is what Baddiel, Skinner and Ian Broudie are trying to tap into with Three Lions, so in this, I agree with Another Pete. It’s more jaunty than the stately examples above – and I guess this is where I sort of agree with Chelovek at 13 in that it sort of is a combining a more confident, laddish feel with the Britpop trappings and the amateur, real man, vocals – and certainly doesn’t try to do anything more deep than show how crap it can be following a football team that just isn’t “creative enough” or “positive enough”, that will “go on getting bad results” and nevertheless hoping that something better is round the corner. As thefatgit says at 9, hope more than belief. Hope that, just for once, these bunch of chancers that I spend my money and time watching can lift me up and away from the drudgery of my everyday life and make me feel like I belong to something bigger than my own problems. As someone once said “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things”.

    That’s why Three Lions, for me, is so good, so true to the experience of being a football fan and being a member of that crowd – the hope for something better, no matter how crap things are now**. Its weird kind of genius is that, if it’s a primer for how to feel about football for the neophyte, there’s also enough in there to resonate with people like me, who at that point was going to every home game of their local side. It’s also catchy as hell with the two hooks (the chorus and “Football’s Coming Home”) burying themselves so deeply that it basically became the English national anthem for 3 weeks. It won’t surprise me if people have a right good go at Three Lions (it’s sung by utter amateurs, it’s not classy, it’s probably exclusionary for people that don’t like football, or are not middle class white/Jewish guys, or hated Britpop or are not English***) but I don’t give a damn – it is about something more, it’s about a closely held personal experience. This is a 9 – and during the glorious summer of ‘96, when it felt like better times were actually arriving, when it felt (in retrospect incorrectly) like Britpop was still cresting, and when it felt that more could be achieved, it was a 10 times 10. Instead, as Tom points out in his postscript, this was actually the end of something.

    *The most staggering rendition of YNWA being, for me, one given in Italy shortly after Hillsborough, in which there was to be a planned minute’s silence at the relevant point during the first half at which the FA Cup semi-final had been called to a halt: the fans of both teams broke it by singing YNWA in perfect English. Unbelievably tear-jerking, at least for me.

    **With respect to the England team at least, the “Golden Generation” and the rise and rise of the Premier League kind of knocked this “hope for the best” mentality out of the national game. It’s coming back though – I doubt anyone really thinks England will travel to Brazil for the 2014 WC in expectation rather than hope.

    *** Unless you’re German, in which case you knock us out, strutting around the turf at Wembley after scoring the winning penalty, win the tournament and appropriate it; as Football is indeed coming home – to Berlin.

  19. 19
    James BC on 5 Dec 2013 #

    This was a nice reward for the Lightning Seeds, who had some great songs but were never really accepted as a proper Britpop band. I’m not sure why that was, but it was probably a combination of looking uncool, not being a proper band, predating Britpop, and/or having vaguely uplifting lyrics instead of wryly observed ones. Though I can think of solid Britpop acts that all of those qualities apply to.

    (This one song is clearly Britpop, even if other Lightning Seeds songs don’t fit that well.)

    Anyway I was a Lightning Seeds fan before Three Lions came out – in fact they were the first band I ever saw live. Jollification is still a brilliant album and not just for the great Lucky You – Change – Perfect – Marvellous singles run. Punch and Judy, track 9, is a surprisingly moving hidden gem.

  20. 20
    MBI on 5 Dec 2013 #

    #16 – I only watch international soccer nowadays. But part of why I enjoy watching the USMNT is exactly because we’re not supposed to be good at it; it’s one of the few times where you can root for America and be the underdog. I got hooked on the sport when I idly tuned into the World Cup in 2010 and saw lowly Slovakia bounce out the defending champs Italy in the first round.

  21. 21
    MikeMCSG on 5 Dec 2013 #

    This brings to a conclusion another pop thread – the incredible hit rate of former members of the Liverpudlian post-punk band Big In Japan who released very little in their short lifetime. Ian Broudie here joined Holly Johnson, Bill Drummond and Clive Langer (producer of House of Fun and Come On Eileen) in scoring a number one hit while Budgie and Dave Balfe also notched up Top 10 hits.

    Given Tom’s linkage it’s also worth pointing out that this came out just as the Pistols reunited for their Filthy Lucre tour.

    This knocked Simply Red’s dreary official anthem for six. I remember Broudie recounting that Mick Hucknall came up to him afterwards and said “You really kicked our arse at the footy didn’t you ? ” which shows him in a better light.

    I remember at the time there was some anxiety in progressive circles that if England won Euro 96 Major might be able to capitalise on it and pull off another unlikely victory. We know what happened there.

  22. 22
    punctum on 5 Dec 2013 #

    Of course it is equally possible that “Three Lions” is the last true 1967 record, or in strict terms the last true late 1966 record; behind the opening montage of cynical, negative soundbites (“We’re not creative enough, and we’re not positive enough,” “We’ll go on getting bad results,” the “getting bad results” echoing into the gulf between thought and expression, though note the slight salivating in Scotsman Alan Hansen’s mouth as he opines “I think it’s bad news for the English game”) are the staccato harpischord and floating French horn from “God Only Knows,” still a plangent memory from the last year when English football, or for that matter England, was assumed to matter; that 4-2 ball and chain of a result against a wartime enemy, Churchill’s last rites. Out of the abyss comes Ian Broudie’s voice: “It’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming/Football’s coming home” and a militant drum roll opens up the song into a post-Britpop swagger of a singalong, persuading 1966 to come into 1996, fervently rekindling the hope that football, and the sixties, can live again and anew.

    For the 1996 European Championship tournament the FA selected as its official theme song “We’re In This Together,” the portentous, would-be anthemic closing track of Simply Red’s Life with its tasteful, slow-motion World Muzak percussion and chants and Hucknall’s soulful, passionate and honest wailing about nothing much beyond non-specific calls for unity. But “Three Lions” overtook it with such natural rapidity to become the people’s anthem for that tournament; sung on terraces, and on one occasion by the artists themselves. To the FA it might have lacked the mythical appeal to a non-existent international audience of Simply Red’s one-soul-fits-all approach, but it was unmistakeably English, even though it held out a cherished hand towards the Anglo-American pop-turning-into-psych of ’66-7.

    Although neither Baddiel nor Skinner were averse to deploying extended sarcasm in their stand-up acts or in their role as presenters of the TV programme Fantasy Football League, their lyrics to “Three Lions” plead against sarcasm (“So many jokes, so many sneers,” Baddiel bemoans in what sounds suspiciously like a sneer) and cynicism (“Everyone seems to know the score/They’ve seen it all before”) in favour of that most unfashionable of mid-nineties characteristics, non-ironic hope (“Jules Rimet still gleaming/Thirty years of hurt/Never stopped me dreaming”).

    By virtue of the Lightning Seeds’ involvement the music extends the football-coming-home metaphor into wishing and willing for that entire 1966 spirit to return into existence; Baddiel and Skinner’s vocals are, shall we say, serviceable, but “Three Lions” was never intended to be an aria. And there is a true moment of shiver, following a balancing montage of positives (“Good old England! England who couldn’t play football!”), when Broudie sings with a tremble: “I know that was then/But it could be again” – and then the music momentarily stops before the opening Brian Wilson figures start up again, flowing naturally into the final goodhearted choruses.

    It worked up to a point; England progressed to the semi-finals when, largely on account of their endemic inability to score penalties, they went out against the eventual champions…Germany. But they did not disgrace themselves, and, as a hymn against cynicism and the death of hope, “Three Lions” has endured as well as “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” There was none of the cocksure bring-the-boys-home pseudo-confidence of previous attempted anthems; simply a realistic view from which its composers refused to banish the existence of goodness and achievement.

  23. 23
    swanstep on 5 Dec 2013 #

    This one’s new to me, and I’d say ‘Three Lions’ offers nothing for non-partisans. Basic problems: it never gets out of first gear musically (it’s no ‘Fearless’ that’s for sure), and the simultaneously self-pitying and entitled lyrics make Bernard Sumner’s seem attractively positive and forward-looking, perhaps even the work of a great poet by comparison. Evidently I’m not the intended audience for ‘Three Lions’, but for me it’s a pretty horrible (almost a 2):
    3.

  24. 24
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 5 Dec 2013 #

    As a matter of interest, asking as someone with no sustained interest in any sport (though no animus either), did Fantasy Football have any effect whatever on the norms of sports broadcasting? Or did all the ideas vanish when it vanished? I watched it for a while and enjoyed it; pretty sure I stopped watching before it stopped though. I was interested in the way it combined obsessive detail and the minutiae of difference with shared emotional simplicity… ans = via sense of humour, of course

    (It occurs to me, but this is a notion for a different, longer essay — possibly by someone who knows what they’re talking about — that irony is the natural mode of the sports fan, having almost always to offset the world of possibility and the world of likelihood, and therefore having to speak in a language that can combine both…)

  25. 25
    James BC on 5 Dec 2013 #

    About the Simply Red song, it wasn’t a case of their official anthem vs Three Lions’s unofficial one. Both songs were official, but Three Lions was the official song of the England team whereas Simply Red did the non-partisan theme song for the tournament as a whole.

  26. 26
    Cumbrian on 5 Dec 2013 #

    Re:24. I watched Fantasy Football League religiously and I reckon it has been mined for influence in a lot of sports programming, though most obviously in football. It should be said at the outset though, that though I thought FFL was at times really funny, it was incredibly uneven, particularly towards the end, when I could go whole episodes without laughing.

    On the appropriations, unfortunately, they’ve not taken the things that were (imo) good about FFL – principally a willingness to laugh at themselves and the nature of obsessive football fandom – like the shared knowledge of football incidents and recreating them, weird off the wall stuff like Geoff Astle turning up every week to sing something – and strip mined it for the stuff that didn’t work or was just plain ugly (laddish chumminess, “othering” people not in the Lad sphere – getting Statto to dress up in thick specs and a dressing gown and having people shout Statto at him, the many unfunny sketches that were only occasionally balanced out by some wry observation).

    If you ever watch Soccer AM on Sky, you’ll see where some of the FFL influences ended up. Likewise, if you’re ever had Tim Lovejoy inflicted on you. And you definitely get the impression that at Sky, the football pundits and the Soccer Saturday crew are all lads together, with their in-jokes and, as evidenced by the Keys/Gray affair, misogyny. And outside, Soccer AM (and their jokes are generally not good) and Geoff Stelling, you always get the impression that football is very serious business, rather than something that can be laughed at some times.

  27. 27
    Steve Mannion on 5 Dec 2013 #

    #24 I think you can make a link between the ‘2 Good 2 Bad’ segment on Match Of The Day 2 (which came in with Adrian Chiles iirc) and Fantasy Football’s ‘A few things we noticed from watching football this week’ (but also via Sky’s Soccer AM which had the more eagley of eyes + time and resources for this sort of thing). More recently the kids-orientated MOTD Kickabout does a few similar observational jokey things (and far more entertaining than MOTD2 with it).

  28. 28
    Will on 5 Dec 2013 #

    As an old school fan I quickly became irritated by Three Lions, even though it was impossible not to be swept up in it all at the time, especially after England’s 4-1 demolition of Holland in their final group match. That still stands as probably the best England performance I’ve ever seen. I still remember turning round to people in the Bristol pub I was watching it in, all of us open-mouthed, not-quite believing that all this was happening on the TV screen.

    The source of that irritation at TL wasn’t Baddiel or Skinner – both genuine fans by all accounts – or the countless newbies who bought into it, but the concept of the years of ‘hurt’. Only one team can win a major tournament every two years. I’m not hurt when England eventually lose to a better team at these events, more mildly disappointed. What right do we have to win these things, just because we were once the best in the world a long time ago?

    I wonder if they have this same sense of wounded grandeur in somewhere like Uruguay, who are now into their sixty fourth year of ‘hurt’? Or have they got over it by now?

  29. 29
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 5 Dec 2013 #

    One of the things I did like about FF’s (yes) generally pretty rubbishy sketches (and I’m not not sure I’ve ever seen this discussed) is that they reminded me of reading comics like Beano and Dandy in the late 60s and early 70s, when characters in those strips engaged with pop cultural moments: which wasn’t very often, but when it happened it was a kind of acting out scenes on the strip’s own quite specific terms, which simultaneously mirrored the moment in question, and how small boys and girls* might act them out on the playground or in a street or park or garden. Which is to say, simultaneously quite a primitive means, and quite a sophisticated mediation.

    *Comics like Beano and Dandy were of course fairly daringly groundbreaking in terms of sex-pol here: Pansy Potter the Strong Man’s Daughter, Minnie the Minx, Beryl the Peril, be still my heart :)

  30. 30
    Tom on 5 Dec 2013 #

    Not that anyone is asking – but I didn’t mention my reaction to the tournament itself in the piece because it was all bundled up in a load of memories, good and bad, of that summer. I remember gawping at our tiny TV with my flatmates at the Holland game, listening to the Spain one on a car radio in the Kew Gardens car park, and London being full of fans (but particularly England fans). Nothing terribly unusual! (I have no firm memories of the semi-final, tho.) But “Three Lions” itself wasn’t a huge part of any of those.

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