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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. 31
    Cumbrian on 5 Dec 2013 #

    My main memories of the tournament were;

    – That England – Holland game, where for the first time in my life, I got the sense that, on that particular day at least, you could have put any team in the world up against us and England would have won. Truly astonishing.
    – The emergence of teams from behind the old Iron Curtain. I really wanted the Czech Republic to do well and being very pleased they got to the final, whilst playing good football. Croatia similarly were chock full of talent – my goal of the tournament being Davor Suker’s cushioning of a 60 yard ball with one foot and then delicately and deliciously lifting it over Peter Schmeichel.
    – England’s defence being so good during the tournament that, and I swear this is true, that as Southgate walked up, I said to my Dad, he’ll miss. The irony that one of the members of the best unit in our team would be the one to fail just seemed too obvious.

  2. 32
    @colonel_sponsz on 5 Dec 2013 #

    RF: BADDIEL AND SKINNER AND THE LIGHTNING SEEDS – “Three Lions” http://t.co/GmLGtEHVRn

  3. 33
    Mark G on 5 Dec 2013 #

    I guess it was ‘hurt’ because ‘disappointment’ didn’t fit.

  4. 34
    Conrad on 5 Dec 2013 #

    24, FF was witty and sparky but sadly had quite a significant impact on football, if not sports, broadcasting. The accepted norm now from BBC1 to Sky to 5Live is groups of blokes trying to be witty and engaging in ‘banter’. Not saying FF was the sole starting point for that, but it’s format – in front of, and with the participation of a live audience of mainly blokes replete in replica kits, has been widely copied.

    This was the tournament of El Tel’s Christmas Tree formation by the way. And apart from a brief spell under Hoddle shortly after, England’s football team has been nowhere near as fluid or easy on the eye since.

  5. 35
    ciaran on 5 Dec 2013 #

    Not the most obvious pairing for a football song but a perfect one for the time.

    Fantasy Football was one of the better tv comedies of the 90s. I didnt watch the BBC version all that much in its time but had a look at episodes on youtube and it still holds up well now. The BBC years do look a bit dated but it was very funny (saint and greavsie, jason lee, matt le tissier, Tom Webster,peter un-lurve!). It also introduced a lot of clips from the European leagues which was very rare at the time – only Italy’s serie a was known over here in Ireland back then. The only thing I didnt like about it was the actual fantasy element of the show with the guests which was later dropped.

    I’m probably in a minority here but I would have a slight preference for the first of their ITV series in (cant say). The 2004 series was pushing it a bit though. Looking back it was the last chance to do it before the advent of Youtube. But still a great show in the 90s and a convincing pair to make a football record to hit number 1.

    The Lightning seeds less so. Ian Broudie came across as more I.T Crowd than indie musician and/or die-hard football fan. The Lightning seeds were inescapable by 1996. Not like the big 2 and Pulp to a lesser degree but from late 94 to mid 97 they always seemed there.Sometimes annoyingly so.

    Their output more than any Britpop band was very hit and miss.For every agreeable tune like ‘Change’ or ‘Marvellous’ there was dull records like ‘Sugar Coated Iceberg’ or even worse ‘What if’ from late 1996. That one sticks out because of a bus trip on a sports day in school when one of the team started raising his hands over his head like you would at a disco sarcastically when ‘What if’ came on the bus radio.At the time it was as naff as you could get. I’m fond of the last hit record (as just the Lightning Seeds) ‘You Showed Me’ – as played on Austin Powers!.

    On Three Lions it’s a hit more than miss (sorry!). First time I watched the video I didnt think it would do much but the more the message got through it had No.1 written all over it.The failure to make USA could have made it easier to make a more realistic record about England’s chances. The phoenix from the flames bit towards the end of the video added to its appeal.

    It’s not as good as it sounded in 1996 but a more than respectable effort. Would Prefer it to England’s Irie. 7.

  6. 36
    thefatgit on 5 Dec 2013 #

    I suppose the formats of FFL and Soccer AM can be traced back to SNL’s original Wayne’s World slot. Mike Myers’ cheerful amateurism transfers well to a footy-related chat/comedy/multi-feature show. Stripped-down informal and fresh for the 90’s. It was almost nothing like Tiswas meets Saint & Greavsie (Sally James’s son works on Soccer AM these days).

  7. 37
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 5 Dec 2013 #

    36: Good call!

    (haha Wayne’s World began life as something called Wayne’s Power Minute)

  8. 38
    Tom on 5 Dec 2013 #

    It feels like the WW format has also inspired 50%+ of podcasts too.

  9. 39
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 5 Dec 2013 #

    Excellent! Party Time! I’ll Stop Now!

  10. 40
    @SmWltn on 5 Dec 2013 #

    If you often think about the failures of Britpop and the England football team, and the relationship between them: http://t.co/Nkhal07VK5

  11. 41
    anto on 5 Dec 2013 #

    Certainly one of the most instantly memorable number ones. Also a kind of vindication for Ian Broudie who had been involved with one thing or another for 20 tears at this stage. Are Big in Japan the only band who never actually made it that featured three members who’ve had number ones?
    I don’t think football and music in this country ever seemed as inextricable as they did at this point in 1996. Only 5 years earlier musical football fans meant Rod, Elton and a few music weekly faves like The Farm but by Euro ’96 it was almost obligatory for UK pop stars to claim some allegiance to the game to the point where some of them appeared to pasting it on somewhat. I dimly recall an interview with Gaz Coombes in one of the footy magazines around this time where he claimed to be a Man. Utd fan, which ground to a halt when it became obvious that he didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.
    I dunno what to say about the England team which hasn’t been said umpteen times before. Personally I wish they would admit that the ‘rivalry’ with Germany doesn’t really exist and is only really fretted over on one side complete with queasy references to wartime. Also the obsession with penalty shoot-outs – the least satisfactory and most random way of deciding a match – ought to be questioned as well because it’s a rather childish thing to get hung up on.

  12. 42
    Kinitawowi on 5 Dec 2013 #

    #35: couldn’t let this bit go past without comment: “PHOENIX FROM THE flames phoenix, FROM THE FLAMES PHOE nix from the, FLAMES PHOENIX FROM the flames phoe, NIX FROM THE FLAMES” etcetera.

    Best variant: “Gary Neville’s The Nonsense And Silliness That Has Affected Some England Managers”.

  13. 43
    Steve Mannion on 5 Dec 2013 #

    No love for this song here, just slight nostalgic pangs for the time when England had lost only two out of three shootouts (now six out of seven and seemingly an inescapable doom spiral).

  14. 44
    Cumbrian on 5 Dec 2013 #

    40/42: Penalty shootouts are awesome, especially in massive competitions. They’re a brilliant made for TV moment, full of drama. It can surely be no coincidence that eliminations in reality TV shows of all stripes borrow elements of the penalty shootout – the long drawn out process, despite the act (elimination/safety versus goal/miss) itself happening fairly quickly being the most obvious one.

    The fact England rarely win in them is neither here nor there as far as I am concerned. Besides which, without them, we’d never have had some of the greatest penalties ever like:

    Kevin Pressman casually goal-kicking it at top speed into the top corner (in this ridiculously blocky video).

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SSMi02ghN3s

    Or Panenka becoming a verb by his having the brass balls to lift it slowly down the middle of the goal.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tp2HZNheCZ8

    Or the Psycho scream. Or Michael Owen blasting one in off post and bar against Argentina. Or Grobbelaar doing the rubbery legged dance to put off his opponent.

    I could go on for a while. Penalty shootouts are awesome. Sometimes it’s a shame that they have a game of football before them.

  15. 45
    weej on 5 Dec 2013 #

    I could never get into The Lightning Seeds as they just seemed like the most uncool* of the Britpop-era bands, and everything they did seemed to follow a pre-ordaned indie-pop formula. Sometimes (like with Lucky You) they’d strike gold, but it was somehow never enough to make me remotely interested in the group themselves – there didn’t seem to be anything else beneath the surface to immerse myself in.

    I didn’t mind Three Lions at the time, and find it’s aged much better than expected. The excitement of Euro ’96 being in the UK (and the feeling that we were in with a decent shot at it after the depressing ’94 World Cup campaign) added a narrative to it, something I could join in with, and it just seemed like the right song at the right time. It felt like a unifying thing too, although of course it wasn’t – people who didn’t like football weren’t really in, and of course the Welsh and Scottish were out too. (for another vantage point on the tournament Arab Strap’s first single ‘The First Big Weekend’ includes the line “We had intended to watch the football in the afternoon but we’d passed out by then and slept right through it, awaking to find that England had won two-nil.”)

    New Lad was on the rise now, and the mis-shapes were being ejected from Britpop’s big tent. I wish Three Lions and Baddiel and Skinner had no part in this (I watched FFL and enjoyed it too) but I fear they probably did, albeit unintentionally.

    *Looking for a better word than uncool, but I can’t think of one. I hope you know what I mean.

    Edit: Can anyone find the original ’96 video on the internet? Can’t believe I can’t find it.

  16. 46
    James BC on 5 Dec 2013 #

    I like penalty shootouts too. I think the Olympic football should be replaced with a penalty shootout tournament.

  17. 47
    Cumbrian on 5 Dec 2013 #

    45: Weird. The original 96 video is the first one that comes up when I search for Three Lions on Youtube. It’s off the Lightning Seeds Vevo feed.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJqimlFcJsM

    Also, I don’t think anyone else has mentioned that The Lightning Seeds name is from a misheard Prince lyric. So I have. Raspberry Beret is tremendous – and I guess something of a template for Ian Broudie’s work – shame The Lightning Seeds did nothing to hold a candle to it, at least in my view anyway.

  18. 48
    weej on 5 Dec 2013 #

    #47 – Ah that’s why – “The uploader has not made this video available in your country.”

  19. 49
    Nixon on 5 Dec 2013 #

    #35 I always rather liked the Lightning Seeds, they wrote pretty, catchy pop tunes and always sounded slightly fey, despite the football connection which bought them all manner of credibility with the New Lad crowd (brrr, I’d forgotten that term). Like Tom said, they could sell a sappy tune – but Broudie had the tunes in him in the first place, which immediately distanced them from a lot of their just-below-stardom Britpop peers. I remember a Melody Maker live review saluting them for getting beery, shirtless, tattooed blokes to bounce about singing “Oh, you make me feel alright / It’s like the tippermost toppermost high!”, which amuses me.

    edit: #45 too (and another New lad reference!) – that wasn’t there when I started typing :)

  20. 50
    Mark G on 5 Dec 2013 #

    #35, I’d point out that “Sugar Coated Iceberg” is a song (lyrics by Stephen “baby bird” Jones) that incriminates itself, the sound of the music that’s “so sweet, until you tumble the sugar coated lies”..

    and, of course, “You Showed Me”, as revived, sort of, by DeLaSoul, was one of those songs from back then that hadn’t been a hit over here but had all the ingredients. There’s not many of them left…

  21. 51
    fivelongdays on 5 Dec 2013 #

    Some random thoughts on Three Lions and the surrounding Euro 96.

    1) Every few years, England play in a way that makes you go ‘Bloody Hell! That’s England?!’. The Holland game was one of those. (See also – the 5-1 match)

    2) The week this got to number one, Metallica got to number five with ‘Until It Sleeps’, despite it getting absolutely no radio play whatsoever. That’s got to be worth something.

    3) It was around the time this got to number one that my heart was pierced by truth, thanks to a Bunnied Welsh Band, and 14-year-old me no longer really wanted to Shine On Down The Line Like You’re Feeling Fine with Oasis.

    4) Good call on the ‘Soccer AM (SHIT) is FFL’s crap bits, only made worse’. Tim Lovejoy and people who wanted to be Tim Lovejoy are part of the reason why, so often, football best exists nostalgically for me right now. Plus, I never really got why ‘Statto’ – who had an intellectual understanding of the game, rather than a ‘we’re lads! We drink lager! We have no idea what we’re talking about!’ idiocy – was so condemned. Of course, in real life Angus Loughran is a rather well-off man thanks to his success at betting – an art which requires a grasp of statistics.

    5) Nice to the The Lightning Seeds get to number one, although I can’t be the only one who thinks, in a perfect world (which has to be the name of a TLS song, surely) Pure should have hit the top.

    6) Three Lions was a well-crafted fan-friendly track which made sense on the radio and on the terraces. Sure, World In Motion is better record, but it doesn’t have that singalong factor. It’s a record which has become part of the cultural landscape. You know it, I know it, everyone knows it. And, crucially, it works. Eight.

  22. 52
    Nixon on 5 Dec 2013 #

    #51 (5) So close! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_oXku7W2HRU

  23. 53
    glue_factory on 5 Dec 2013 #

    Re: 51 point 4, although not as well off as Frank Skinner, who I once read in an interview saying how the success of this era meant he didn’t really have to work again. I’m assuming that’s because of his TV and stand-up stadium gigs, rather than the royalties from this record, even if does seem to come out again, every time another football tournament looms.

  24. 54
    Cumbrian on 5 Dec 2013 #

    I thought Frank Skinner was actually not all that well off anymore (at least by celebrity standards) due to his investment portfolio being wiped during the credit crunch. Or was this just another tabloid confection?

  25. 55
    glue_factory on 5 Dec 2013 #

    I certainly read that too (I think he was supposed to have invested a lot in/with bailed-out-by-the-US-goverment insurers and Man United sponsors, AIG)

  26. 56
    iconoclast on 5 Dec 2013 #

    There’s not much else I can say that hasn’t already been said above, but this is thankfully free of the hubris which characterises too many other football records (something concisely distilled elsewhere by the beered-up bombast of “We’re going to score one more than you!”) and treats England’s chances with a realism that the press, for example, seemed completely incapable of. It’s an oddly wistful and likeable dirge-like ditty which a Scot like me, by now well accustomed to the national team’s lamentable failures at international football tournaments, can relate to at enough levels to award it a SEVEN.

    (As with 1990, Scottish memories of the tournament differ markedly from English ones: oh no, McAllister’s missed; here we go, out on goal difference yet again; and surely Spain’s goal against England was onside?)

    (I’d disagree slightly with Tom here and argue that the second act doesn’t so much as finish here as the third one starts in a few weeks, but that’s splitting hairs.)

  27. 57
    Kinitawowi on 5 Dec 2013 #

    #51: (6) It’s almost tempting to suggest that anybody who scores this less than about a six or seven simply doesn’t Get football.

  28. 58
    23 Daves on 5 Dec 2013 #

    Right then, I’m happy to set myself up as an example. I don’t get football at all. I’ve tried – well, I’ve been made to try. My brothers and Dad are all obsessed with it, and a small child I was encouraged to take an interest.

    So it may not surprise you to learn that the very first time I heard this record, I laughed at David Baddiel’s vocals and thought to myself: “They’ve no hope of having a hit with this. What are they playing at?” The sentiments in the song didn’t really touch me, either – I thought the “thirty years of hurt” line was a bit pathetic and indicative of the entitled nature of a lot of England fans.

    Anyway, apart from talking about how wrong I was (and am) I did eventually notice that the main riff in the chorus feels vaguely similar to the descending intro to Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody”, and in fact the bounce of the rhythm throughout isn’t dissimilar either. If Broudie was channelling that source and hoped to write himself an evergreen football song in the same manner Slade had written a Christmas constant, he was completely on-the-money. This might be reading a bit too much into things, but it’s something I’ve often wondered about.

  29. 59
    Weej on 6 Dec 2013 #

    #56 I always thought “we’re gonna score one more than you” was a joke about how narrow England victories tend to be, even against supposedly inferior competition. Anyhow, a better opportunity to discuss F** L** next time this comes around (if it has a seperate entry, that is.)

  30. 60
    James BC on 6 Dec 2013 #

    Other Euro 96 songs:

    – Black Grape and Keith Allen did England’s Irie
    – Rod Stewart apparently did Purple Heather with the Scottish team.

    Any more?

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