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Three Lions: just maybe

July 7th, 2018

The perfect football song to capture the national mood

I should start by apologising to Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish. This is a thread about England. It is also a thread about the continual disappointment and thwarted dreams that England’s national football team has visited on its fans so on that basis, perhaps fans from elsewhere will forgive me.

On one level, England’s record in major football finals tournaments is quite impressive. Today’s match is the seventeenth time that England have reached the last eight of either the World Cup or European Championships. Add in that famous win in 1966 and you have the basis for a lot of hope. Unfortunately, in only four of the previous sixteen appearances did England advance to the semi-finals – hence the belief that it could have been so much better, particularly when so many of those defeats were by fractions.

Nothing has captured those contrasting emotions like the Three Lions song by the Lightning Seeds, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, first recorded some 22 years ago. In many ways, the Ian Broudie was the ideal person to write it. Much of the Lightning Seeds catalogue offsets super-happy tunes against somewhat darker lyrics (see Pure, or Sugar Coated Iceberg).

Three Lions not only has a similar happy, naïve bounce to it but also a rather more complex undercurrent. For example, the lines “Jules Rimet still gleaming” and “never stopped me dreaming” in the chorus are offset against a closing minor chord, suggestive of at the least subconscious doubt. By contrast, the first riff of the ‘coming home’ motif is introduced, after several clips of downbeat commentators and analysts, by an ascending fanfare-like call on soft but clear solo brass (a horn, I think), indicative of new beginnings. Between them, they musically capture the experienced England fan’s natural reaction to Kipling’s twin imposters of Triumph and Disaster.

The song is more than that though. It became an instant terrace chant and remains an enduring one, mainly because as well as being well-known and football related, it’s both simple while containing enough variety to be interesting and offer comic potential. The three phrases of ‘it’s coming home’ are of four, three and five notes respectively, meaning that words put to them also have to be varied slightly. Likewise, both the ‘three lions’ and ‘it’s coming home’ tunes cover ranges of just five notes each with no big jumps – they’re easy to sing.

And then there’s the video. If the music has slightly complex psychological underpinnings, mirroring the more obvious contrasts of the lyrics, the darker clouds are banished from the video. There was always something wonderfully child-like about the Pheonix From the Flames sections of Fantasy Football, which allowed (famous) grown men to regress to the playground, where they could act out scenes as if they were stars. As well as being absurd, it’s also slightly touching to see David Baddiel pretend to be Pele (at about one-tenth of the speed of the original: that tackle by Moore sent the Brazilian tumbling across half the penalty area – though no play-acting of course, just an upwards glance of respect).

It says much about England’s national self-image that the song has become such a part of the national culture that it deserves a place in the National Football Museum. But after all, why not dream? Sometimes they come true.

David Herdson