World Cup Songs

Like many Americans, I used to think that the World Cup was some elaborate international practical joke–the rest of the world don’t really care this much about a bunch of soccer games, do they? Oh, yes they do. England just got knocked out of the Cup by Argentina; young David Beckham is taking the blame for petulant actions early in the second half that resulted in him being sent off with a red card and that probably cost England the game. Previously admired for his prowess on the field and his successful courtship of Posh Spice off it, he is now England’s most hated man. (Sample tabloid headline: “10 HEROIC LIONS, ONE STUPID BOY.”)

Football–or footie–is a very big deal over here. Whenever England was playing these past couple of weeks, I could walk down the street of Camden Town and see only a few straggling other souls, presumably hurrying off home, or to the pub, or to any other place with a TV set. Last Monday night, I was home typing with the window open. Suddenly I heard shouts from all over my block of flats–loud, sustained screaming from all directions. I knew there was only one possible explanation: England must have just scored a goal against Colombia.

Almost no new movies come out during the World Cup’s month-long run. The British film industry keeps pushing Sliding Doors to women, or “World Cup Widows.” Or, if you want an even better indicator of the stranglehold le Cup du Monde ’98 has on popular culture here: two weeks ago, the top-40 countdown had six different World Cup songs in it.

According to my cousin Tim, English football songs used to be rather pathetic affairs, where they would put the actual team in a recording studio and try to get them to croak out a melody. (The American equivalent would be the Chicago Bears doing “The Super Bowl Shuffle”–if NFL teams did it every year.) A few weeks ago, the Premier League champions Arsenal had a top-twenty hit in this style with a cover of Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff.” If you thought your life would not be complete without twenty tone-deaf blokes chanting “Arsenal is hot stuff baby tonight,” well, you’re wrong.

This all changed a few years back, when New Order did “World in Motion” as England’s official World Cup song. With a nudge-nudge drug-reference chorus of “E for England” and absolutely no athletes allowed near a microphone, it was a monster hit, and one that opened up the floodgates for pop artists to reveal their secret status as footie fans.

The official ’98 England World Cup song, “Top of the World” by England United (a one-off association of the Lightning Seeds and the Spice Girls), was a forgettable little pop ditty, notable only because the Spice Girls made their last appearance as a quintet on Top of the Pops to promote it. Admittedly, it was filmed before Geri left the group. The song broke the top ten and then rapidly sunk.

The selection committee allegedly chose it over Chumbawumba’s “Top of the World (Ole, Ole, Ole),” although sour-grapes Chumbawumba then claimed they had never wanted to record the official England World Cup song because they weren’t participating in something that nationalistic and jingoistic, and they wanted their song to celebrate the spirit of every nation in the World Cup. Yeah, whatever. Chumbawumba’s tune wasn’t a classic, and only scraped into the top 40, but was miles better than the England United pap. Sample declamatory lyrics, to roughly the same cadence as “you drink a whiskey drink”: “I’m a taxi driver, I’m a postal worker, I’m an office cleaner, I’m a striking docker, I’m a ballet dancer, I’m a Zapatista, I’m a pop singer, I’m a winner.” Or alternatively, I’m a patient in the schizophrenia ward.

Much better was the official Scotland song, by Del Amitri, “Don’t Come Home Too Soon.” Or in other words, “Please Don’t Suck Too Bad This Time.” Scotland has always been snake-bitten in the World Cup, and never made it out of the first round. (If you’re wondering why England and Scotland are allowed to have separate World Cup teams, I don’t know, and nobody was able to give me a satisfactory answer beyond the fact that it had always been done this way. Could California have its own World Cup team, I asked Tim. “No, no, no, of course not.” Why not? “Um….”) This was a rather sweet ballad, with lyrics like “even long shots make it,” although it violated the first law of football songs–have an instrumental section at some point so that radio stations can remix your song to include highlights of action from your most recent match, once you start doing things like scoring goals and winning games. Even Del Amitri secretly didn’t think much of Scotland’s chances, I guess, and they were right: the Scottish side were knocked out after the first round, and once again, the players were back in Scotland before their postcards.

Aside from the UK songs, there was scattered airplay for other countries’ football anthems, especially the Jamaica United song “Rise Up,” which was an all-star reggae affair. Even Ricky Martin’s official song of France ’98, “The Cup of Life,” could be heard every now and then. But the only Cup song with international flavor to crack the pop charts was “Carnival de Paris” by Dario G (no relation to Warren G). Lots of Latin American drumming, plus different instruments each having a turn with the melody: the accordian, the trumpets, the bagpipes. Unfortunately, that melody was a blatant rip of “My Darlin’ Clementine.”

The #1 song on the football-infested charts was a rerelease of “Three Lions,” a song that had also hit #1 in 1996, when England hosted the European Championships. A collaboration by the comedians Baddiel and Skinner and the musicians the Lightning Seeds (again?), it has the chorus “Football’s coming home.” At first, I thought this was an awfully defeatist anthem, given the Del Amitri version of coming home too soon, but Tim sternly informed me that it was celebrating the European Championships being held in the alleged land of football’s birth, and England’s certain triumph. In fact, they got knocked out in the semifinals in ’96, which means that this single poses certain problems: when you guaranteed victory two years ago and were wrong, how do you have the cheek to do it again? But it starts with tape of tens of thousands of fans chanting the song at a match, and then segues into an intro of “We still believe, we still believe,” and the Godzilla-size chorus soon eradicates all doubt. Other fun facts: the “Three Lions” title refers to the logo on England’s shirt, there’s a lyric in the ’98 version “Gazza as good as before” which became instantly out of date when Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne was dropped from the team, and the comedians Baddiel and Skinner can’t sing worth a lick.

The sixth football song in the top forty was a close #2 behind “Three Lions ’98,” but for my money, was far better: the craziest, catchiest, most anarchic four minutes of pop music I’ve heard so far this year. “Vindaloo” by Fat Les was an old-fashioned footie chant, with a title referring to the fact that curries are now the British national cuisine. A collaboration between actor Keith Allen, Blur member Alex James, and cow-in-formaldehyde artist Damien Hirst, it had martial drums, fuzzy guitar, and a chorus that stays in your head for weeks at a time. The video was a parody of the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”–the Richard Ashcroft figure tries to walk moodily down the street, but is soon surrounded and overwhelmed by gleeful England fans, including a Beefeater, crowds of children, and sumo wrestlers carrying buckets of spicy curry.

The lyrics in their entirety: “Where on earth are you from/We’re from England/Where do you come from/Do you put the kettle on/Kick it/Nah nah nah nah nah nah…/Bonjour [b/g: nah nah]/Monsieur [b/g: nah nah nah nah nah nah]/We’re England!/We’re gonna score one more than you!/England!/[whistle blown]/Can I introduce you please to a lump of cheddar cheese/Knit one/Pearl one/Drop one/Curl one/Kick it/Nah nah nah nah nah nah…/We’re England!/We’re gonna score one more than you/England!/Me and me mum and me dad and me gran/We’re off to Waterloo/Me and me mum and me dad and me gran/And a bucket of vindaloo/Bucket/Vindaloo vindaloo vindaloo vindaloo nah nah/Vindaloo vindaloo vindaloo vindaloo nah nah/Vindaloo vindaloo/And we all like vindaloo/We’re England/We’re gonna score one more than you/England! [repeat chorus until out of breath]”

Only during World Cup time is “England” pronounced with three syllables. That’s “Ing-uh-land.” As I write, all World Cup merchandise is half-off in the local stores, and people are already predicting England’s victory in the 2000 European Championship.