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It’s coming home: why Three Lions is such an important song in English football culture

Why did Three Lions catch on to the point that - 22 years after its release - it's once again become the soundtrack to an English summer? Gary Parkinson explains the popularity and perfection of an anthem

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Like so many pop songs, Three Lions is about love and loss, but it’s also about cultural identity, about longing and belonging, about people and place, about nationhood and about the irretrievability of the past and the possibilities of the future.

It keys into a very English trait of gently expecting disappointment: “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way,” as Pink Floyd put it on Dark Side of the Moon. It’s not so much outright negativity as slight bewilderment that things have gone so far downhill from a previous position atop the global pile.

Indeed, you could replace much of the football content with similarly structured sentiments about a post-industrial malaise, the late-20th-century loss of historical national pride and achievement stretching back through world wars and Victorian era to Waterloo, the industrial revolution and on back into history’s mists. But of course, it’s about football.

Ecstasy to agony

English football ended the 1990s in much better shape than it started them, but it didn’t follow a smooth upward parabola. The Ecstasy-fuelled optimism that surrounded Italia 90 had dissipated with the violent comedown of a hopeless Euro 92 – three games, no wins, one goal, legendary striker (a certain Gary Lineker) substituted when chasing a goal, out in the groups – which somehow managed to seem like a triumph when followed by the failure to qualify for USA 94.

Graham Taylor was turfed out and at least England got a free ticket to Euro 96 by hosting it, but they hardly roared in as hotly-backed favourites. Although post-facto soundbite simplification may render England’s 1996 an annus mirabilis, the build-up was mainly negative: failure was anticipated.

Restricted to friendlies, Terry Venables’ team were held by Romania, Sweden, Colombia, Norway, Portugal and Croatia. At least they finished those fixtures, unlike the one in Dublin abandoned when ferry-hopping hoolies rioted at Lansdowne Road.

The tabloids turned on the team: the front pages pruriently revelled in a drunken dabble with the dentist’s chair, while the back pages wondered why Venables – whom they’d managed to hound out in advance of the tournament by spooking the FA over his business activities – insisted on picking Alan Shearer when he hadn’t scored in 13 caps over 21 months. The mood music around England was neither hope nor glory: many thought the team might stink the place out while the fans rioted.

So it was against a negative backdrop that the FA commissioned the England song from a pair of comedians and a Britpop backgrounder. It wasn’t as mad an idea as it sounds: Chelsea fan David Baddiel and West Brom loyalist Frank Skinner had been hosting Fantasy Football League for two years. Meanwhile, Lightning Seeds main-man Ian Broudie was a wonderful songwriter already embedded in football: an instrumental version of his 1992 single The Life of Riley (written for and about his son) had long been used under goal compilations on Match of the Day.

While never exactly a household name, Broudie had already clocked up seven top-40 hits and certainly knows his way around a pop song. Spying his chance to write an anthem, he gave Three Lions the full treatment.

The music is simple yet clever. Like many of pop’s greatest hits from Dancing Queen to I Should Be So Lucky, it starts with a disguised foreshadowing of the chorus; in this case, it’s a simplification to a rotation between its two main chords of A-flat major and E-flat major.

Here’s where it starts to get subtly smart. The song is in E-flat major but the intro and the chorus both start in A-flat major; this leads the ear on an eternal journey around the cyclical chord pattern, searching for the comfort of the home key. In both cases, it finds it but doesn’t settle and moves on again, giving a glimpse of closure and completion before moving ever onwards. Try singing the chorus and ending it without a fade, in the manner of a live gig, anywhere in the chorus: it can’t be done satisfactorily, because it’s always pulling you on.

E-flat major is, at heart, a happy chord and a happy key. The home key of several important brass instruments, it has long been used for bold, optimistic music. Beethoven loved it, Mozart used it for three horn concertos, Richard Strauss chose it for A Hero’s Life, Holst selected it for the heroic theme for Jupiter in The Planets. You get the picture.

Lightning in a bottle

While Broudie may not have intended to invoke classical composers, he’s a savvy enough fan of Sixties music to include a couple of subtle references to those halcyon days which somewhat coincided with England’s World Cup triumph (see Jon Savage’s 1966 for a brilliant analysis of that year’s music and culture).

After the traditional crowd-noise sample, here cleverly cut to a 4/4 rhythm which foreshadows the beat, the instrumentation starts with the four-to-the-bar staccato keyboard chords forever redolent of Paul McCartney in 1967: Penny Lane, Fixing a Hole, Getting Better, With a Little Help From My Friends.

As the intro continues, subtly in the background a horn plays a five-note fanfare which, by rising then falling off slightly, manages to sound simultaneously hopeful and mournful. If it sounds familiar as well as forlorn, it’s because it’s a kissing cousin of the French horn which kicks off the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows, a similarly deathless combination of hope and fear.

On a more parochial note, the intro is overladen with samples of despairing post-match criticism from Alan Hansen, Trevor Brooking and Jimmy Hill, who as the voices of the BBC represented a state-sanctioned panel of head-shaking experts.

Their pessimism is undercut by the entrance of the refrain “it’s coming home”. Placed front and centre, it was obviously designed to become the hook, singable in any state of inebriation; 22 years later, it's become a meme so ubiquitous that in some cases it untethered from the original tune.

In fact, and with typical facility of melody, Broudie somewhat accidentally wrote two choruses: “it’s coming home” and “Three Lions on a shirt…”. By luck and judgement he was able to use both, one as the intro refrain and one as the chorus.

If that initial refrain sounds like a brand message, it was: ‘Football Comes Home’ was the official Euro 96 tagline, with UEFA chief Lennart Johansson welcoming the trip “back to the motherland of football”. The Prime Minister Tony Blair, always happy to hitch a ride on football’s popularity at the behest of his Burnley-supporting spin wizard Alistair Campbell, lifted the Three Lions refrain at his party’s late-summer conference: “17 years of hurt never stopped us dreaming: Labour’s coming home”. By the following summer they were indeed back in power.

Here it’s not being suggested by suits proffering PowerPoint presentations, but subtly changed to the present continuous tense, repeated in a state of almost childlike wonderment: “It’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming… football’s coming home.”

Fittingly, it’s on the first syllable of ‘football’ that the music lands on the home-key chord of E-flat major. The simple refrain introduces the idea of home, of longing and belonging, of excitement and anticipation, of all being right in the world.

Major lift-off

After establishing the musical mood and lyrical concept by cycling through A-flat major and E-flat major and repeating the refrain, the song brings in the rhythm section as it goes into the chorus chords proper – albeit not yet with the “Three Lions” lyrics, which are saved for a climactic reveal after the first verse.

The chorus chords descend from A-flat major through a passing G note to F minor (as heard in the chorus proper under the lyrics “Three Lions on a shirt…”), then quickly resolving via B-flat major to the home chord of E-flat major – from which it immediately starts to descend back to A-flat major (“...Jules Rimet still gleaming”). After going through what Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah called “the minor fall and major lift”, the sanctuary of the home key is only fleeting: the song marches ever onwards via its cyclical chord progression.

Having excitedly crashed in to announce the intro’s transition from winsome to forceful, the drums settle into a fairly straightforward rock/pop pattern for the chorus – snare on every beat of the 4/4, ride cymbal all the way through, crash cymbal at the start of the first and third bar in every four-bar section – with a small exception: between the second and third beat there’s an extra snare hit, giving the rhythm something between a stumble and a skip, befitting the fan’s bipolarity of alternating hope and despair in a constant cycle of expectation and disappointment. Tuneful but thoughtful and evocative, Three Lions constantly drags you down and up – just like your favourite football team.