Chants Would Be a Fine Thing

Why do football fans sing such a strange array of songs?

Given that my family are far from theatrical types, it was something of a shock to my grandmother and the rest of us when, at my uncle’s wedding in Salisbury in 2003, he elected to dance with his new wife for the first time to the strains of You’ll Never Walk Alone – Gerry and the Pacemakers’ take on the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic from the musical Carousel. I should explain that said uncle is not in fact a show-tune devotee, but a lifelong supporter of Liverpool Football Club, and so Gerry Marsden’s camp, sonorous warble held a deep emotional attachment for him.

Since that time, I have been struck by the singing of songs in sport, and the seeming incongruity of many of the most popular ones. Apart from the obvious chromatological aspect, what has Blue Moon – another Rodgers number, incidentally – got to do with Manchester City? Or why do some fans take Italian opera arias and holler them as derisive chants at the opposing supporters? Songs from the London music hall, Welsh church, obscure pop ditties and even Handel are not free from being commandeered.

It was those clever Ancient Greeks who first codified the pervasive power of linking music and sport – or at least sound with physical activity. In reality, as ever, those even-cleverer Egyptians had got there before, but that’s another story. Aristotle, Plato and other bearded ponderers expounded theories on the importance of music and its place as part of communal events, sports, theatre, funerals, and so on. However, it was Pythagoras – he of schoolboy triangle fame – who had a quaver-in-his-toga about music.

One of the things Pythagoras gave us, other than GCSE angst, was the monochord. This is a device much like an elastic band forced longways over a Kleenex box that, when plucked, produces a note.

That note is our fundamental – the sonic origin story if you will – from which we will construct our entire Western system of sound. If you divide that elastic band (or string) exactly in half using a little bridge of, say, cardboard and twang it again you’ll get a new note. This one is actually the same as our first but with double the frequency of vibrations, which makes it sound an octave higher. If you continue to divide into smaller halves i.e. into quarters, eights, sixteenths, then pluck, you will continue to get ever higher iterations of the original.

What is the point of this, one might ask? The point is now you’ll be craving something different – like when you drive up the unending straight line of the M1 and you yearn for a bend in the road. The difference can be achieved by dividing your elastic band into something other than a multiple of two: logic dictates, and the ancients were mostly logical sorts, that we should try dividing into three at first. Pluck this note and you suddenly perceive a wondrous thing – a new and different sound! The juxtaposition between the string’s fundamental note, and by extension its myriad higher versions, and this new sound provides us with the two poles to which our Western musical system is forever tethered, and between which we journey like an acoustic Shackleton. We musicians bizarrely name them the ‘tonic’ – the fundamental one – and the ‘dominant’: the new sound that craves, like Sauron’s ring, to return to whence it came.

This isn’t meant to be a physics lesson, or even that much about music theory, but it’s worth saying that our emotional responses to music are almost hardwired into us. That first ‘new’ note on Pythagoras’s magic box generates the tension inherent in all Western music, from Henry Purcell to Post Malone. Our ears crave that move from the fundamental note to its firstborn sire, and then the inevitable journey back to the primordial comfort of home. It excites us almost as much as when we first learn to swim and see how long we can hold our breath underwater – it’s not that you’re going to drown, it’s more about the anticipation of drawing air again. Tension and release.

Now back to the wedding in Salisbury. What has Pythagoras’s obsessive ideas on plucked cheese wires got to do with the terraces of Anfield and my uncle’s first dance? Well, if you look at some of the musical numbers that are almost surprisingly ubiquitous in the sporting arena, it turns out that many exploit the most basic tension and release elements of the physics of sound.

Obviously we know that the words to You’ll Never Walk Alone are powerful: the lines imploring you to have ‘hope in your heart’ and something about the soothing ‘song of a lark’. All these things are very comforting if your team has been thrashed, or experienced the dark times of the Hillsborough disaster. Sweet Caroline is much in the same vein lyrically: ‘Good times never seemed so good’.

However, the same can’t be said of other songs like La donna é mobile (‘woman is sweet, like a feather in the wind’) or Cwm Rhondda (‘open thou the crystal fountain, whence the healing stream shall flow’) where the original lyrics are either bastardised or dispensed with in their entirety by football fans. Nowadays, you’re more likely to hear Verdi’s tune sung with lyrics consisting of the name of a particular player or manager (‘Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho’ etc.). As for the Welsh hymn, fans are more likely to know it as the chant often directed towards referees: ‘Who’s the wanker in the black?’ Still, though the lyrics change, the tunes remain the same. The question remains – why have these songs struck such a particular chord with fans on the terraces?

This is where Pythagoras rears his head again. Sport is a primal force – especially in its team manifestation. The attritional delight of serried ranks of opposing forces, decked in multicoloured shirts chasing across the turf brings out the primal force in us all. Primal should not be the pejorative it so often is when we assume a byword for the darker side of our bestial nature. What we’re meaning here is what people like Stravinsky, Gauguin or Tolkien were aiming to tap into: primitivism, the raw essence of our life force when, stripped of all the accoutrements and trappings of our own lives, it somehow becomes more noble. Think ‘the beautiful game’. The primal energy of sport speaks to us and its speech is only amplified when accompanied by sound that embraces and distils the primitivism of the physics of sound.

How then does a song from a 1940s American musical about fairgrounds and wife-beating, an aria from an Italian opera about a clown and a number by Neil Diamond about JFK’s daughter which only peaked at No. 8 in the charts achieve collective anthemic stadium status? Pythagoras, Pythagoras, Pythagoras.

These songs all take the primitivism of the tension-release axiom of sound and exploit it for its own ends. Unlike the ‘smarter’ music of Bach, Wagner, Miles Davis, Brian Wilson or Lady Gaga, which use increasingly elaborate additions and extensions to ‘sex up’ the basic elements of the Pythagorean monochord, these anthemic sporting numbers pare it back to its first principles and thus find a perfect synergy with the primitivism of sport.

You’ll Never Walk Alone begins melodically down in the mire of elemental harmony before ascending like some great leviathan towards the inevitable repetition of ‘and you’ll never walk alone’ hitting that dominant note at the furthest and most total point of tension before crashing down back home on the last as the lyric drums its message home – thrilling stuff. Even Sweet Caroline has the same elemental rise like the cranking up of a rusty old rollercoaster: ‘reaching out, touching me, touching you’ – the holding of breath, the splitting of the string in thirds, the tension – whoooosh ‘sweet Caroline’ – dun, dun, dun. Even La donna é mobile plays with a similar idea – a dance-like flirtation between two basic notes and the operatic voice wavering on the apex before giving us the inevitable release to home. This is the dance that speaks to the elemental in us all – for love, sport and music, like life itself, are merely tension and ultimate release.

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