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. 91
    Jimmy the Swede on 10 Dec 2013 #

    Oh btw, Sukrat, they showed that film again the other night. I swear to God I’ll go to the grave obsessed with Christine Noonan. I think Malcolm Mc D will too. It’s a great pity that The Girl has already made the leap.

  2. 92
    thefatgit on 10 Dec 2013 #

    Of course, the East Stand was at one time the newest fixture at Stamford Bridge and I considered myself privileged to be in the East Upper for a 3rd round cup game in 1980 (we lost 1-0 to Wigan Athletic). I wonder if The Swede was there for that one? Now it’s the oldest. I spent a lot of the late 70’s and early 80’s in the Shed and only ever went to away matches in London. So long-distance away support was something I just didn’t do, for various reasons. Like The Swede, I’ve watched matches from each stand. My last season as a season-ticket holder was Matthew Harding Lower near the corner flag, west side, when Clownio was in charge. We celebrated the arrival of our Russian benefactor and then I cursed the 15% price-hike the following season that banished me to the armchair and Sky Sports. Mourinho came in and Chelsea won almost everything without me there. I fear if I ever manage to afford a season-ticket again, it will coincide with spectacular dip in form (I know this is bollocks but footy superstition runs deep!).

  3. 94
    JP on 10 Dec 2013 #

    I think there’s an interesting intersection between middle-classness and football and Jewishness which isn’t being discussed here, although perhaps that’s because it’s self-evident or just not very interesting. But I don’t think it’s controversial to claim that the traditional Jewish London teams (Spurs, Arsenal and Millwall) had heavily middle-class fanbases long before Italia 1990 – given that most East End Jews born in the 30s/40s had risen into the middle (or lower middle) class by the early 60s [fill dull Iain Sinclair-ish musing here]. And it was a running joke at my synagogue that the Rabbi’s sermon was always shorter on the days that Spurs played home.

  4. 95
    Jimmy the Swede on 10 Dec 2013 #

    # 91 – Yes, Fats, I was indeed at that Wigan game. And you won’t need telling that the visiting chairman was one Ken Bates. I think Wigan had only just entered the Football League so that result was a total humiliation. Then again, we really were shite back then. Isn’t it amazing that Wigan are the Cup holders now?

    My absence from the Bridge these days is down to a mixture of things. Logistics has a lot to do with it but cost is right up there too. My main objection, though, is that Premiership Footy World is just a vile place, “an island peopled by Calibans”, a noddy land where everyone is either greedy or mad. I’m more than happy to take myself off to see Eastbourne Borough when I have a free weekend. I’m one of the old lags now, who sit and grumble to themselves and scare the children. If it wasn’t for the smoking ban, I’d be puffing away at a pipe crammed with St Bruno.

  5. 96
    Jimmy the Swede on 10 Dec 2013 #

    # 92 – THAT’S HIM!! THAT’S HIM!! I bet he carried a flask of rum around with him whilst afloat too. What an absolute superstar. And they’re saying Mandela was a great man!..

  6. 97
    thefatgit on 10 Dec 2013 #

    #94 Heh, I’m puffing away on an e-cigarette now. It’s not a pipe full of St. Bruno, but close enough. Almost 2 months off the fags now. Next step: get off the nicotine! Most of my grumbling is directed towards the Bullingdon cabal we call a Government these days.

  7. 98
    Ed on 11 Dec 2013 #

    #60 ‘England’s Irie’ is the best football song evah! In part it’s because of that edge of aggression that makes it much truer to the experience of football than ‘Three Lions’ wistful optimism. (Skinner says the FA made them take out a line in the original version about “Butcher ready for war”. Given Piers Morgan’s moronic headlines in the Mirror about “Achtung! Surrender!” and “football war”, and the idiots in Marseilles two years later, that was probably the right call, but it did de-fang the song rather. And then, two years later…. But here’s the bunny.)

    The main reason ‘England’s Irie’ is my favourite football song, though, edging out ‘E for England’ / ‘World in Motion’ and ‘Shouting for the Gunners’, is that it reflects the fact that the game in England is a truly multicultural and multiracial phenomenon; a fact that WIM glances at through Barnes’ charmingly inept rap, and TL ignores altogether. ‘England’s Irie’ says England has changed enormously since 1966, as a team and as a country, and some of the change has been for the better.

    That’s how I interpret Keith Allen’s crack about “England? Well it’s the best-kept village in Europe, isn’t it?” (A quote?) I am not sure if he’d heard TL when he recorded that, but he might as well have done.

    (There was a lot of talk in the 90s about the flag of St George, about how it had – perhaps oddly – come to represent a more inclusive version of English identity than the imperialist Union Jack. When Dizzee Rascal wore a customised “Dizzee 10” version of an England shirt at Glastonbury in 2010 – just before the Germany game, I think – he made that point very clearly. I guess that since the rise of the EDL it may have all got a lot more complicated again. But I would like to think that approach is still the spirit shared by all but a tiny minority of England fans.)

    Having griped about TL, though, I was at the Spain game, when everything seemed to be going England’s way, and when the whole Wembley crowd sang it before kick-off, it was a spine-tingling moment. Adding to the canon of anthems for great national events is never easy, but Baddiel et al managed it here.

  8. 99
    Ed on 11 Dec 2013 #

    #6 ‘Don’t Come Home Too Soon’ is the best football song title* ever.

    Talk about the soft tyranny of low expectations!… Not so much “We’re going to win the cup”, more “Please at least try to make it to the first knockout round”.

    I once met a very successful Scottish businessman who was complaining about his fellow countrymen’s lack of ambition, saying they too rarely aspired to greatness, were too readily prepared to settle for mediocrity. I was delighted to be able to introduce him to DCHTS, which both infuriated and delighted him because it had confirmed all of his prejudices.

    *(The title is great. The song itself is the usual mature-period Del Amitri wet blanket, I am afraid, although I suppose that does fit pretty well with the mood of the lyrics.)

  9. 100
    Kinitawowi on 12 Dec 2013 #

    #76: I (definitely not middle class) was at a predecessor to the prawn sandwich matches, a 1-0 win for Manchester United vs Middlesbrough in January 2000. (It was also the first United match I’d managed to get to – the curse of being raised in north-west Norfolk. I was in Manchester for uni.) Keano was a loud idiot who got booked in that match for hurling massive amounts of abuse at the ref for awarding ‘Boro a penalty (which Juninho duly missed), but… god damn that place was quiet. No it wasn’t a great match – decided by a 80th minute bundle from Beckham – but if Boro are able to follow up the classic “you only sing when you’re winning” with “you don’t even sing when you’re winning”, something is clearly wrong with the whole affair.

    I’d have loved to have been noisier, but I was sat with the Boro fans (my Boro supporting uni mate had got the four of us tickets).

    (Keane’s slew of invective was the moment that briefly sparked a nationwide discussion about the heckling of referees. My memory had conflated it with the specific prawn-sandwich game, although I now gather that may have been a European match that November. But the seeds were there – this was during the development of the East Stand, making it the first Premier League game with a 60,000 gate, and the Liverpool supporter among us noted that the place was like a library.)

  10. 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..” ?

  11. 102
    James BC on 12 Dec 2013 #

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

  12. 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?

  13. 104
    Tom on 12 Dec 2013 #

    Yes! (according to google)

  14. 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.)

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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”…

  18. 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).

  19. 110
    iconoclast on 12 Dec 2013 #

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

  20. 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.)

  21. 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)”

  22. 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?

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 117
    Kinitawowi on 14 Dec 2013 #


  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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”.

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