Can I Kick It ? Music and the culture of football

(For Ian Swatman)

Every weekend, thousands of devoted worshippers congregate together and lift their voices in communal song. I’m not talking about Sunday services in church: instead, of the thousands of football fans who chant and sing in football stadia across the country.

It’s impossible not to participate in such singing: I’ve stood on the terraces at the Goldstone Ground, Brighton & Hove Albion’s former ground, or gathered with others in front of the television screen or before projector screens in pubs, gripped by World Cup fever. At such times, spontaneous song bursts out – often with lyrics that, alas, I fear I cannot reproduce here – and you find yourself swept along, either by the joyous song greeting passages of play going well for your side, or (more often) to heap scorn and derision on players or, more excitingly, the match referee whose judgement-making (and parentage) gets called into question.

The affinity between music and football appears often: the Laudamus Te of Poulenc’s Gloria from 1959 was apparently inspired by the composer watching Benedictine monks playing the game. More recently, football chanting finds its way into the music of dedicated Arsenal-fan and British composer Mark-Antony Turnage’s Momentum, where the brass section burst forth with a derisive, sneering melody that imitates ‘Olé, olé olé olé!’ Football has also inspired a whole opera from Turnage, The Silver Tassie from 2000, where ace footballer Harry Hegan goes off to the trenches of World War I, is tragically injured, and returns confined to a wheelchair.

Handels’ Zadok the Priest may not have been inspired by football originally, but its presence is obvious in the pastiche theme to ITV’s coverage of the UEFA Champions League.

The minor third interval is prevalent in football chant, perhaps because it’s the easiest interval to pitch instinctively: think of ‘There’s on-ly one, A-lan Shea-rer!’ It features to great effect in the opening of Skinner and Baddiel’s anthemic ‘Football’s Coming Home (Three Lions).’

Music is also used as a motivational tool at football matches: heroic, tub-thumping tunes blare out over the tannoy as the teams stream on to the pitch at the start of a fixture, exhorting players to greater heights and fans to show their support. (At Brighton’s ground, Tina Turner’s Simply The Best greeted the players: although, given the poor form of The Seagulls as they languished in the lower divisions, perhaps it was being used ironically.) It also gives voice to feelings of patriotic pride, as teams and fans unite in singing their national anthems before World Cup games. And say what you like about England’s national anthem, it has a significant advantage over many others: it’s short.

And who can forget football’s own contribution to music, in the World Cup songs that are occasionally thrust into the charts at World Cup time: John Barnes’ rapping in New Order’s  World In Motion from 1990’s World Cup ? Barnes, a footballer possessed of silken skills and touchline trickery of an almost balletic quality, but whose elegant grace on the field deserted him in the recording studio (the full horror starts at 2′ 30″).

With World Cup season nearly upon us, music will appear everywhere, from opening ceremonies to programme closing titles. It’s hard to imagine the world of football without it…

(This post was prompted by a colleague, who commented that he’d registered with this blog and could he please talk about Hull City ? Well, Ian, in the spirit of the title of this piece: yes, you can!)

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent.  Click here to view his Music Matters blog.

Author: Daniel Harding

Head of Music Performance, University of Kent: pianist, accompanist and conductor: jazz enthusiast.

2 thoughts on “Can I Kick It ? Music and the culture of football”

  1. I have many songs I could share with you here but feel, professionally, that they would be unsuitable for this forum…..however as a ‘flavour ‘questions frequently asked through song on a Saturday afternoon refer to
    1. the ref’s parentage – frequently
    2. physical attributes (or lack of) of the opposition centre forward
    3. relationship of the ref and opposing manager or any other member of his family
    4. welfare of any member of the opposing side in relation to any affairs, rumored or otherwise that reach the press!
    Get the idea??!! I’ll be watching my team at Millwall next season and very happy to keep the board up on any new repertoire!!

  2. I have no doubt that, as a professional musician, your interest in these songs is purely musical, Ian, and you of course are never to be heard joining in…ahem…?!

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