'We've been waiting to get the old emotions out': The enduring power of England's Three Lions hit

'We've been waiting to get the old emotions out': The enduring power of England's Three Lions hit

Many in the music industry may be rubbing their eyes this week, as Three Lions sets its sights on the No.1 spot once again.

With almost two million sales to its name, David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and The Lightning Seeds’ 1996 hit is officially one of the biggest selling songs ever released in the UK. 

England kick off against Croatia in the semi-final of the World Cup this evening (July 11), and the team’s unexpected journey to the final stages of the tournament has been soundtracked by Three Lions.

Thanks to streaming – and a notably high number of downloads – Three Lions is climbing charts everywhere, from the OCC to Spotify, YouTube and beyond.

Rick Blaskey is the executive producer whose bright idea brought Skinner, Baddiel and Ian Broudie together in the first place. Blaskey set up The Music & Media Partnership in the early ‘90s, with the aim of bringing music and sport together. Success with rugby, and Swing Low Sweet Chariot in particular, brought about an affiliation with the Football Association.

Blaskey had the idea of creating an anthem for English football, but how did he bring The Lightning Seeds together with David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, the faces of BBC2’s Fantasy Football League?

This week, as England plot a route to the World Cup final on Sunday (July 25), Music Week caught up with the former Arista exec to find out how a mega hit came to be.

Fill us in on the background of Three Lions…

Football in this country was in the most terrible situation, there was a lot of hooliganism, I remember England against Ireland being called off at Lansdowne Road. We had a shit team, the players were getting pissed, there were ticket irregularities, Terry Venables, the manager, was in court and I remember saying to the FA, ‘You need a feel-good factor!’ I said, ‘We need a national anthem of football’. Big words but I give Frank, David and Ian the credit. We did it. 

How did the song come together?

My only brief to them was the tournament strapline for the FA: football comes home. I said, ‘If you can find a way of integrating that, I’m going to have one happy client.’ A week before, Ian said to me, ‘I’ve got two choruses’. I said, ‘You’re joking!’ He sent a tape to Frank and David and they came up with the three lions and the football comes home [lines], it was genius. Ian was very happy to write the tune and passed it over to them to do the lyrics.

How did you ensure the song connected?

We premiered it at Wembley on May 19, at the England vs Hungary friendly, which was dire. I got the DJ, who was a mate of mine, to play the track at every possible moment at Wembley but the crowd couldn’t have been less interested. Two weeks later, we had the opening match against Switzerland, the most boring 1-1 draw, and he played it again to no crowd reaction. We couldn’t get radio to play it, no one was into it, no one was into the England team, the performances [were] terrible and it was like, ‘This ain’t gonna happen’.

Ian Broudie said to me, ‘I’ve got two choruses’. I said, ‘You’re joking!’

Rick Blaskey

So, how did it finally make an impact?

In the next match, we played Scotland, Gary McAllister missed the penalty, Gazza scores the wonder goal, the DJ put the lyrics on the scoreboard and the whole place walked out singing it at the end of the game. We started the next match against Holland with the words on the scoreboard before the teams came out and, as every goal went in, Three Lions boomed out.

Then what happened?

We’d had no radio play at all, no one was embracing it, and then, on the Monday, Chris Evans played it on the BBC Radio 1 Breakfast Show and Chris Tarrant played it on the Capital FM Breakfast Show. A hit was born! How do you have a hit? Everything has to be lined up. It’s great to look back and say, ‘Oh, this football anthem just happened.’ But it didn’t just happen.

What do you make of the reaction in 2018? Is it bigger than in ’96?

It’s so unexpected. The mood in the country has changed. There were no expectations, and when you go from zero, the adrenaline we’ve gone through with every match has just picked up and picked up. There’s a ready-made anthem. Football fans are a tribe, and a football chant is a battle cry. It’s a tribal outpouring of pent up emotions, and how great that music can do that. It’s nice that we can celebrate it. Nothing works better than music and sport together; it’s the soundtrack of the experience. And this is the soundtrack to a fantastic summer 2018.

Is it a surprise that the song has re-emerged this year?

Maybe we’ve been waiting for this moment to get all the old emotions out. Credit to Frank, David and Ian who wrote an enduring piece of music and an enduring lyric that’s as relevant today as it was then. You can’t force feed this, if the crowd pick up on something, that’s an anthem. You can’t force feed an anthem.

You can’t force feed an anthem

Rick Blaskey

Is it harder to sell a track to football fans?

It’s harder and easier. Our little music business used to be an orphan, if we didn’t get on a playlist; no one was going to hear [a song]. My whole reason for linking music and sport was to try and get the audience whether we got on the playlist of not, to try and find other ways of hitting the same demographic that record companies are trying to reach, but that a brand or sports event is also trying to get. Rather than a record company re-releasing and trying to force Three Lions onto a playlist, this has happened because we’ve got the biggest event in the world, we’re riding on the crest of euphoria and there’s a song to punctuate that.

Can the song come back again?

It’s down to the public. Frank, David and Ian have written something that everyone feels proud about, it’s got relevance, it resonates… The chord movements, chord progressions, there’s something triumphant, something bittersweet. It has melancholy, triumph, reality… It’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant.

So, is football coming home?

As a Sheffield Wednesday fan, I’m the eternal optimist, so I fully expect England to do their duty.

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