As the FA has decided not to appoint an official song for England this year, this responsibility now falls to us: the peopleby / June 7, 2018 / Leave a comment
When football songs are done well, the effect can be transformative. Composing a tune that is capable of uniting fans who in any ordinary week would be one another’s sworn enemies is no mean feat. But writing something that can unite an entire nation—turning the stadium electric and bolstering the spirits of our squad to victory—is something close to magic.
As the FA has decided not to appoint an official song for England this year, this responsibility now falls to us: the people.
Winning when we’re singing
To help us select something that will best aid England’s chances, I set the sheet music of our previous World Cup songs alongside our respective finishing positions in each tournament to see if there were any musical elements common across our successes (such as they are) and failures.
England’s best performance since winning the cup in ’66 came in 1990: the year of New Order’s World In Motion—a classic of the genre that can teach us plenty about what makes a truly great footie anthem.
First, the melody. To ensure fans can sing along in full voice, we need it pitched in an accessible key with a simple melody. That way, the largest crowd possible is able to join in with it, regardless of their skill or technical ability.
Part of the reason that songs like Three Lions and Vindaloo have been such enduring classics (despite never getting the official FA nod) is because their choruses are extremely simple. Both songs’ melodies fit within a single octave, and both have main hooks that span five notes, moving in gentle steps up and down.
This helps to make them memorable, but—more practically—they’re easy to transpose up or down the octave to best suit a wide range of voices.
From its lowest note (Db4) to its highest (B5), the entirety of World In Motion spans a mere seven notes. Most voice types can find an octave, high or low, that will allow them to belt that out quite comfortably.
Something as obvious as “a simple melody” may seem like common sense, but try telling that to Gary Barlow, who turned in a song in 2014 with a chorus that featured some huge melodic leaps, sometimes jumping a full octave between two adjoining words. Not only that, he whacked a key change in there too, which is deeply unhelpful thing to do when your choir has no conductor.
Embrace’s 2006 effort World At Your Feet, was arguably worse than Barlow’s. A song that spanned an octave and a half in total, singer Danny McNamara rather selfishly took the opportunity to show off his range, punting the odd high note up into his head voice, as if he expected a stadium of thousands to effortlessly follow along.
Embrace also made the mistake of using suspended notes in their chorus. Nice when you’re singing solo; wildly clumsy when a whole country is trying to sing along with you.
A stadium-friendly rhythm
Another essential element is an uncomplicated rhythm.
If you’ve ever heard a stadium audience trying to clap in time together, you’ll understand why attempting anything complicated will end in disaster.
A lot of this is down to the natural acoustics of a large arena and the speed at which sounds travel around it (though we shouldn’t discount the fact that some of it will also boil down to bad hand-ear coordination from the less musically-inclined).
To mitigate any potential muddiness, then, keeping to clean, sharp beats is key.
Even though a song like Ant & Dec’s We’re On The Ball from 2002 is not without its problems (cheap production; hyper-topical lyrics; annoying as lice) the “We’re on the ball!” refrain is something that even a five-year-old could keep time with.
This isn’t to say that you can’t break away and have a little bit of fun with the rhythm in certain parts though.
Compare John Barnes’ rap from 1990’s World In Motion with Dizzee Rascal’s 2010’s offering in Shout (Shout For England).
Barnes spits a pretty languorous 86 words over his 16 bars, whereas Dizzee manages to cram 150 into the same space. Not only is it a huge ask to have a crowd learn 75 per cent more words, but the verbal dexterity required to keep tens of thousands of people rapping at that same rate—in unison? Practically impossible.
It’s no surprise then that 2010’s Shout For England didn’t capture the public imagination in quite the same way that John Barnes did. (Though it might also have something to do with Shout being an unholy mash-up of three disparate songs that really don’t sit well together.)
The (not so) greatest day
Tempo is also critical to consider.
Most years when England has escaped the group stages, we’ve had a song paced around 120-126 beats per minute.
It’s a very common tempo marking in pop music, and we used it to middling success with 1970’s Back Home (125bpm), 1986’s We’ve Got The Whole World At Our Feet (126bpm), 1998’s How Does It Feel? (121bpm) 2002’s We’re On The Ball (120bpm) and—of course—1990’s World In Motion (124bpm).
When England did so dismally in 2014, our song was Barlow’s Greatest Day (110bpm).
110bpm sits in a strange deadspace for this sort of thing: it’s too slow to have the energy and momentum of a Three Lions (126bpm); yet it’s also a touch too fast to build the emotional clout of a song like Liverpool’s anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone (75bpm).
The perfect mix
So, what’s our hypothetical ideal here? Totting up all the elements that have helped us on our way to the not-quite-top, what we want from our perfect footie song is a simple melodic hook of five or six notes, with a repeated lyrical refrain, arranged for crowd and trumpet, paced around 124bpm, and with a few slick bars from Barnes on the mic.
Then we just need Keith Allen (who co-wrote both World In Motion and Vindaloo) to toss us a couple of lines to get himself a credit and we should be coming home from Russia with something nice and shiny.