In case you've missed it, there's a football tournament happening at the moment. It's called the World Cup, and get this: England have just won a penalty shootout for the first time in World Cup history and are about to play in the quarter finals! What's more, after a few years in the wilderness, there are even a couple of pretty tasty
Scott Murray suggested recently in The Guardian that “England's World Cup musical efforts have often been rewarded on the pitch”. Citing Lonnie Donegan’s World Cup Willie (1965) as the epitome of this relationship, he goes on to say “if 1990 represented England’s artistic peak, then 1982 was the year the squad was most prolific”. That is, New Order’s World in Motion (1990) compared with England’s unbeaten 1982 campaign, soundtracked by The England World Cup Squad’s top-40 LP, This Time: The Album.
There are four key tropes in the tournament anthem: players’ cameos, celebrity cameos, pop supergroups, and references to specific tournaments. Murray’s analysis of chart and tournament success is an intriguing one, but in order to get a full picture we need to take a closer look at each tournament and the songs offered, including European Championships.
World Cup 1990 (Semi-finals)
Official Anthem: New Order & Keith Allen - World in Motion.
There’s no better place to start than here, with England’s best World Cup performance of the last three decades and probably the best World Cup anthem too. Gazza’s tears; Barnes’ rap. Surely the bar for subsequent English footballers and anthem-writers alike?
Euro 1992 (Group stage)
A huge disappointment for England in footballing terms, I am unaware of any accompanying song for their efforts at the tournament. This can likely be put down to a combination of factors: four years earlier, the team’s attempt to recapture some of the momentum of 1982 and ‘86 had backfired spectacularly. The England team’s 1982 single, This time (we’ll get it right), reached #2 in the charts and the team went unbeaten. In 1986, their performance of We've Got the Whole World at Our Feet failed to break the top-40 and England suffered a quarter-final defeat to Argentina and Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal.
1988 was time for Going all the way, including an awkward live performance on Wogan, and what this BBC3 clip describes as “combining music and football to reach an all-time low”. The song flopped and England finished the group stage with zero points. Of course this didn’t stop the team uniting with New Order and Keith Allen in 1990, but frankly this may have just been too difficult to follow. The only song which deserves recognition in the memory of Euro ’92 is Union (ft. Paul Young) - You are the No.1, from ITV’s coverage of the tournament.
Euro 1996 (Semi-finals)
Official Anthem: Baddiel, Skinner, & The Lightning Seeds – Three Lions.
For Ryan Bassil in Vice’s Noisey, “no other song has so unintentionally captured the nuanced inner-workings of the collective British psyche”. It’s fair to say that Three Lions is probably the only official England song to hold a candle to World in Motion, and possibly to even surpass it in a number of ways.
According to Frank Skinner’s autobiography, The Lightning Seeds’ Ian Broudie approached him and David Baddiel, who at the time co-presented their popular Fantasy Football League chat-show, to pen the lyrics, as his own writing-style was more directed towards bitter-sweet love songs. Ironic then, as Baddiel & Skinner have both stated variously, that the resulting Three Lions was to be a bitter-sweet love song about football.
More than just being a brilliant song, Three Lions also represents a narrative departure from previous football anthems. Rather than having the players appear on the record, singing about playing for England, player cameos were limited to the music video while the song described supporting England. A subtle redirection, but one that would subsequently re-define the genre.
Finally, with England the host nation for the tournament, Euro ’96 gives us the unique chance to discuss the official song for the tournament itself. Simply Red’s very dull We're In This Together was given the nod for this, and whilst not specifically an England song (though the video featured Alan Shearer and the Neville Brothers) should be taken into consideration to some extent. Especially because Ricky Martin’s absolute banger for France '98 two years later, La Copa de la Vida, soundtracked a tournament victory for the hosts.
World Cup 1998 (Second round)
Official Anthem: England United - (How does it feel to be) on top of the world?
Unofficial Anthems: Fat Les – Vindaloo; Baddiel, Skinner, & The Lightning Seeds – Three Lions ‘98
Those inclined might expect a lot from a supergroup made up of Echo and the Bunnymen, Space, the Spice Girls and Ocean Colour Scene, but no matter how zeitgeisty McCulloch’s effort was, Three Lions had put the fan-led anthem in charge.
The ’98 re-write hit number 1, while the country was introduced to Fat Les: a Keith Allen-led supergroup with their special brand of essentially football-themed nonsense. “Me and me Mum and me Dad and me Gran, we're off to Waterloo” – well, quite. Some good stuff this year, but (like England without Gazza) nothing that lived up to ’96.
Euro 2000 (Group stage)
Official Anthem: Fat Les 2000 – Jerusalem
Phil Neville’s late challenge on Moldovan gave Romania the winning penalty, and England’s first group-stage exit since ’92. This release, which also featured the London Gay Men's Chorus and London Community Gospel Choir, as well as the late Michael Barrymore, had honourable intentions. Just as Vindaloo had led scores of English nationalists to celebrate Indian cuisine, there was a similar air of reclamation in Jerusalem.
However, although Fat Les’ success in gaining the official selection was something of a victory over a conservative FA, it is also a somewhat self-defeating one. The FA endorsing Fat Les is a bit like David Cameron (a pal of Fat Les/Blur’s Alex James) saying he likes Radiohead, or for that matter the once-outspoken Kevin Keegan being appointed as England manager. It just doesn’t feel right.
World Cup 2002 (Quarter finals)
Official Anthem: Ant & Dec – We’re on the ball.
Unofficial Anthems: Bell & Spurling – Goldenballs / Sven Sven Sven; Fat Les - Who Invented Fish and Chips?; The England Boys – Go England; Rider & Terry Venables – England Crazy; DJ Ötzi - Hey Baby (The Unofficial World Cup Remix).
The benefit of hindsight means that we can look back more fondly on 2002 than any of us might have anticipated at the time. Beckham’s redemption against Argentina, a nail-biting exit to eventual winners Brazil, and a pretty outstanding set of songs too by recent standards.
Bell & Spurling’s Sven Sven Sven did its best to usurp Fat Les’ throne as comedic outsiders, following their establishment dalliance. But Allen and co were back to their roots, a young Lily in tow, with the delightfully silly Who Invented Fish and Chips? Former England manager Terry Venables teamed up with Rider, performing some surprisingly (or perhaps rather unsurprisingly) adept crooning on England Crazy, and Ant & Dec’s official We’re on the ball single hitting Number 3 in the charts. The latter incorporates most clichés of the genre to good effect and the namedroppy middle-8 is a highlight for me: “Gerrard to Beckham, Beckham to Heskey, Heskey to Owen to goal (FIVE – ONE!)” Lovely stuff.
Euro 2004 (Quarter finals)
Official Anthem: The Farm (ft. SFX Boys' Choir) – All together now 2004
England losing on penalties had become a familiar story since 1990, and the same can be said for The Farm’s All together now. Entering the football world as an FA cup single for Everton in 1995, it’s unsurprising that it got the nod eventually. A good song with an important message, but this version far better suited to a highlights package than a tournament anthem.
World Cup 2006 (Quarter finals)
Official Anthem: Embrace – World at Your Feet.
Unofficial Anthems: Tony Christie – (Is this the way to) The World Cup; Young Stanley – Sing it for England; Joe Fagin – That's England Alright; John Leyton & The Orients – Hi Ho Come On England; The England Supporters Band – ENG-er-LAND (Sing Along With Me); Sham 69 – Hurry up England.
With music downloads having been incorporated into the Official UK Charts in 2004, and the likes of Youtube gaining fast momentum, 2006 heralded the glut of unofficial anthems which would become commonplace over the next few years, and ultimately the FA’s last attempt at commissioning an official anthem until 2014. Embrace’s effort was bland and very un-world-cuppy, but was closely rivalled in the charts by Sham 69, who teamed up with The Special Assembly to re-hash their 1978 classic Hurry up Harry to the annoyance of purists. It was an enjoyable effort though, and any video with Brian Blessed playing a referee has to be worth watching. Others, like Tony Christie’s (Is this the way to) The World Cup really need to be avoided at al costs.
According to The Observer, their exit in 2006 was "goodbye to what was England's best hope of World Cup glory for a generation". But, in some sort of lazy allegory for Sven's England, let's also remember probably the most underrated World Cup anthem of all time: Young Stanley's Sing it for England. A missed opportunity indeed...
World Cup 2010 (Second round)
Unofficial Anthems: Dizzee Rascal (ft. James Corden) – Shout for England (endorsed by FA); Rik Mayall – Noble England; Neil Morrissey & England's Pride – The Lion Sleeps Tonight (England's on The Way); Final Straw – Bring it Home; Terry Venables – If I can Dream; The Squad – Three Lions; The Skatoons – Come On England (The World Cup's Waiting For You); The Clear Champions – Bring it Back to Blighty; The England Band with Joe Public Utd – Cabanga (Come On England); GDSP – Come On England Score a Goal...
No official anthem as such, but the FA-endorsed Shout for England is exactly what you’d expect from James Corden and far short of what you’d expect from Dizzee Rascal. Neil Morrissey & England's Pride – The Lion Sleeps Tonight… might have been the worst ever if Three Lions 2010 hadn’t joined the party, and El Tel dons the tux again for an Elvis cover (cool), this time trying to flog the S*n (not cool). The late Rik Mayall chips in too with Noble England, which is a far better reminder of his acting chops than it is an actual football song.
The most notable thing this year, on or off the pitch, is The Skatoons’ effort. With Come On England (The World Cup's Waiting For You), their ska take on the football anthem is possibly the last truly original contribution to the genre.
Euro 2012 (Quarter finals)
Unofficial Anthem: Chris Kamara (ft. Joe Public Utd) – Sing 4 England (endorsed by FA); The Skatoons – Skank with the Fans.
With the country in an Olympic fever (including Fat Les) this tournament was a bit thin on the ground for both official and unofficial anthems, though not the worst in terms of quality. It makes me happy that Chris Kamara got the FA endorsement, and The Skatoons’ Skank with the fans is possibly even better than their 2010 effort.
Oh, and England (and team GB men’s team) were knocked out on penalties.
World Cup 2014 (Group stage)
Official Anthem: Gary Barlow – Sport Relief's Greatest Day (dropped)
Unofficial Anthems: Sound Champion - Bring Back The Roar (Come on England); Discomister – Bring it Home; The Diamond Formation - All The Way (We're England); England FC Supporters Trust – Made in England; 1EYE – England; D&OD / Street League – Macarooney.
A mixed bag of unofficial anthems, the best being 1EYE’s England which brought the ska in the absence of a third Skatoons single. Others ranged from the stripped back approach of The Diamond Formation, earnest but forgettable tracks like Made in England, and the plain awful Macarooney.
Not all was lost though. Before England came bottom of the group with a single point, the FA had teamed up with Gary Barlow to release an official anthem for the first time in a decade. The video was shiny, there were cameos from football and pop legends, and the song utterly bland. It was then quietly dropped when Barlow became embroiled in a tax scandal.
Euro 2016 (Second round)
Unofficial Anthems: Four Lions – We are England; Will Grigg – On Fire; Black Lace (ft. DJ Neil Philips) – We are the England Fans; The Public House Chorus – A Nation of Tribes; The LOCKERZ – Bring it Home.
A difficult tournament to watch for England fans, and an uninspiring set of songs to accompany it (I beg that you resist the urge to check out the Black Lace track in particular).
But it’s fair to say this tournament belongs to Wales anyway. The Manics’ Together Stronger (C'mon Wales) was a belter worthy of Hal Robson-Kanu’s quarter-final goal.
World Cup 2018
Unofficial Anthems: Tallywags – Charge of the Light Brigade; MTRC – England all the way! (ish); Bell and Spurling - Gareth, Gareth, Gareth; The Diamond Formation – Russia Calling (Get on the plane); World Cup Buster – Don't Take Me Home.
No sniff of an official anthem again, but a couple of decent tracks have emerged. First up is this MTRC track (which I’m unfeasibly happy to say I was actually in the video for), a good song from a band whose own name (Maggie Thatcher’s Rotting Corpse) will probably be their greatest prohibition from mainstream attention. Bell and Spurling are back with a Southgate era re-jig of Sven, Sven, Sven, but this year’s plaudits have to go to supergroup The Tallywags.
Comprising members of Sex Pistols, The Yo-Yos, The Toy Dolls, The Wildhearts, and The Professionals, I first heard Charge of the light brigade when Tom (Spencer – vocals) played me the demo after a Professionals gig in February. At the time all I did was go on about how great the MTRC track was (sorry Tom, I blame the caffeine), but with the tournament approaching it’s been an earworm ever since. In decades past, this single would have been stacked by the thousands in Woolworths, made the official anthem, and featured a chorus of contractually-obligated footballers. That’s what it deserves. But alas, these days seem to be long gone. What a palaver.
So what does it all mean?
There does appear to be some sort of correlation between these songs and England’s performances, but not necessarily causation. Instead, those instances such as 1990, 1996, and 1998, where songs emerged that captured the hearts of a nation, were provided with a footballing context in which anything seemed possible for the England team. But this has not been the case since an early 00s swansong: Beckham’s free kick against Greece, a 5-1 victory against Germany, and Ant & Dec’s We’re on the ball.
Football songs have needed time to evolve, and just as with Three Lions, it doesn’t need to be blind optimism to make an impact – far from it. Although the FA hardly have their finger on the pulse, be it with managerial appointments or official anthem commissions, but they still have an important role to play in presenting an England for the public to get behind. After the hubris of ’88 and the rise of the ‘90s fanthem, it’s little surprise that player cameos have fallen by the wayside. But this may be the greatest tragedy of all. By putting their egos to one side in the recording studio, footballers are humanised in a way that England, and the modern game, sorely misses.
With the new generation making strides this year, I suspect Euro 2020 might just have an official anthem. There are plenty of options too. Imagine the current squad teaming up with Young Stanley for a version of Sing it for England:
Will it be a 4-4-2
that brings the trophy home to you?
Only thing I'll ever do for sure
is sing it for England
Come on FA, make it happen! Just no more Barlow please...