On the eve of the 2018 FIFA World Cup an article in ShortList magazine named Three Lions as the perfect football song.
The author of the piece, Chris Lochery, argues that since the song’s melody only spans one octave, it is incredibly singable. It also has an amazing structure where the intro hook (‘Football’s coming home’) can overlap with the chorus, as they do at the end of the track. The fact that they overlap makes it an everlasting loop. The C major seventh chord in the verse, on ‘seen it all before’ in the original version and ‘plans for final day’ in the 1998 version, should in the chorus go back to the F minor as it has done three times already, but instead it hits a different one on ‘Three Lions on a shirt’ to give the song ‘a euphoric boost, casting off the lyrical pessimism of the verses [and] slamming straight into the celebratory chorus’. From agony to expected ecstasy. I always rewrite the song for every tournament and in both 2016 and 2018 the line before the final choruses is: ‘We know we won’t win but we’ve got Raheem Sterling…’
It is very rare indeed for the same song to top the charts in two different versions. The same song can bounce back to number one either in a reissue or in the same chart run – indeed, Three Lions broke the straight run of Killing Me Softly – but it is testament to the power of the melody and to the cultural moment that Three Lions ’98 repeated the feat of the 1996 version. For that reason, and because it is a magical song which the Germans claimed at Euro ’96 much to Baddiel & Skinner’s surprise and delight, it is inducted into the playlist.
1998 was my first World Cup: Michael Owen scoring, David Beckham being sent off, David Batty and Paul Ince missing their penalties, and all three of those happened in the same game! I write this sentence the day before England try once again to end what was once ’30 years of hurt’ since winning the 1966 World Cup. Surely we cannot beat Brazil or Germany, then Argentina or Spain or France, then Brazil or Germany or Argentina or Spain or France? If we do, that sentence will age very badly.
Chris Imlach’s playlist choice for NOW 40 was convincing, especially because the original Three Lions was absent from the NOW series. Since 1996, Ant & Dec (On the Ball) and James Corden (Shout, with Dizzee Rascal) have tried to repeat the success, while a song claiming that Wigan Athletic and Northern Ireland striker Will Grigg was on fire to the tune of Freed From Desire entered the UK top 20 in 2016. As football songs go, nothing will match World In Motion by Englandneworder from 1990, featuring a rap from John Barnes. Perhaps a song featuring Stormzy and Jesse Lingard will emerge in the next few years but in the UK football songs live in the shadow of Three Lions.
NOW 40 has songs which are musically and lyrically a match for Ian Broudie’s ditty, not least the pub singalong Vindaloo, the brainchild of two bassists (the aforementioned Guy Pratt and Alex James from Blur) and Keith Allen from the surrealist world of alternative comedy. The lyrics were nonsense in the verses and a chanted chorus of ‘We’re gonna score one more than you..ENGLAND!’ The title of the song was a variety of curry that was one of many sweeping across British cuisine in the late-1990s. The song’s video starred Keith Allen in the role of Pied Piper alongside comedian Paul Kaye (aka Dennis Pennis from BBC TV) in a Richard Ashcroft wig, with a supporting cast of Lily Allen (Keith’s teenage daughter), comedian Rowland Rivron dressed as a Beefeater, Matt Lucas and David Walliams in jumpers saying PIE and MASH, Ed Tudor-Pole (former host of The Crystal Maze) in his normal attire of a cravat and Damien Hirst, who was in the Young British Artists set that sold conceptual art for millions of pounds and had directed Country House for Blur back in the distant past of 1995.
Away from chants about curry, Karen Ramirez hit commercial radio with Looking for Love (‘didn’t know I was looking for love until I found you’ but there’s also a good line about ‘solitary confinement’). The huge song Horny ’98 put Mousse T and Hot ‘N’ Juicy on the musical map and the song still sounds amazing after 20 years. Dance the Night Away by The Mavericks uses two chords (E and B7) and gave the Tex-Mex Tejano country band a massive worldwide hit. Eagle Eye Cherry (sister of Neneh) cycled four chords (Am, F, C and G) in Save Tonight, a story of drinking wine and having fun before ‘tomorrow comes to take me away’. Is it a one-night stand or is Eagle Eye going off on tour? Will he be back for more ‘tonights’?
In the world of Noelrock, Catatonia (Road Rage, with Cerys rolling her ‘R’s), Embrace (Come Back to What You Know, which I always loved), The Verve (Sonnet) and Mansun (Legacy) all had big hits.
On Disc 1, my eyes do not deceive me. All Saints are there twice, joining that exclusive club of having two songs on a NOW, which includes Oasis, Little Mix and Calvin Harris. Both catalogue songs, their double-A-sided single Under the Bridge/Lady Marmalade positioned them as fans of both Labelle and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Nicole Appleton would marry Liam Gallagher in 2008 (divorcing in 2014) but I had no idea that Nicole had been engaged to Robbie Williams and even fell pregnant with his child, which she terminated. Gene Gallagher, who turns 17 in July 2018, is the product of Liam and Nicole. I wonder if he prefers Lady Marmalade or Under the Bridge.
Catalogue on NOW 40 is plentiful, as A&R reps pore through pop of the past to provide product for the popstars of the present. The most bizarre is The Tamperer’s hit Feel It, which sampled Can You Feel It by The Jacksons and had singer Maya mumbling something about chimneys. Groove Generation bring Leo Sayer back into the charts after a long while with his song You Make Me Feel Like Dancing, while Bus Stop do the same with Carl Douglas and his hit Kung Fu Fighting.
Don Henley’s The Boys of Summer (written with Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers) was re-released and returned to the top 20 in summer 1998. Don’s vocals are sensational and the guitar sounds like an American freeway. I had visited California for the first time in 1997 and it really did sound like The Boys of Summer. ‘You can never look back,’ as the song goes.
Adam Garcia began a role on the West End stage in a musical version of Saturday Night Fever and took the Bee Gees song Night Fever into the top 20. He has since starred in movies like Coyote Ugly, TV shows like Britannia High and stage shows like Wicked, where he originated the role of Fiyero in London. Peter Andre had a hit with Kiss The Girl, the song from The Little Mermaid, technically the best song he ever recorded. Then he disappeared for a few years and my brother and I thought up ‘Peter Andre Land’ as the place where forgotten popstars reside. Dru Hill are there too, on Dru Hill.
UK entry Imaani just lost out in Eurovision 1998 to Dana International’s song Diva, a win for Israel which was also a hit song in the UK. Televoting was introduced in 1999. The UK has not won Eurovision since. Those two facts may or may not be mutually exclusive.
The tacky No Tengo Dinero by Los Umbrellos was a number one in Austria, number two in their native Denmark, a top five hit in Italy, and a big hit in America but it stiffed at 33 in the UK and it remains a footnote in music in 1998, closing NOW 40’s second disc. Fellow Danes Aqua, who did what Los Umbrellos did far better, were enormous in 1998, following up Barbie Girl with the catchy Doctor Jones (with a video which lampooned Indiana Jones!) while Steps had another hit with Last Thing on my Mind, which was a return to the top 10 for Mike Stock, the Max Martin of UK pop music, as well as yet another hit for Pete Waterman, who would be a more visible presence in British pop a few short years later when he was called by Simon Fuller and his mate, Simon Cowell. Fuller had been sacked by the band whose void Steps would fill: the final Spice Girls single with Geri Halliwell in the band was Viva Forever, whose animated video depicted the five as Tinkerbells. The CGI is very 1998 and the song is soppy in the extreme, but not as bad as No Tengo Dinero.
Other female voices on NOW 40 include Natalie Imbruglia with Big Mistake, Barbara Tucker with Everybody Dance (The Horn Song), Kerri-Ann with Do You Love Me Boy and Lutricia McNeal with Stranded, co-written by Rami Yacoub, another one of the Swedes who was imprinting the Denniz Pop sound onto pop radio. Janet Jackson had another hit with I Get Lonely, another Jam & Lewis special, while Lucid and Re-Con produce a song with an off-beat synth that ruins an otherwise lovely chillout house song called I Can’t Help Myself.
A 15-year-old Billie Piper (as Billie) emerged with her debut hit Because We Want To. A stage-schooled pop princess who would go on to have an extraordinary acting career on stage and screen and, as Louis Walsh would say: ‘Billie, you’re ONLY FIFTEEN! You remind me of a young Sonia.’ She entered a landscape where Lighthouse Family were singing the lovely Lost in Space and Boyzone sang ‘I wanna thank you lady’ in All That I Need. The writers of that song, Carl Sturken and Evan Rogers, would go on to write the likes of The Trouble With Love Is (Kelly Clarkson), Love Will Find a Way (Christina Aguilera) and Shut Up and Drive (Rihanna).
The most astonishing track on NOW 40 is the second single from the third Massive Attack album Mezzanine. The video is one of the best of the era, featuring an embryo developing into a foetus. You will know Teardrop as the theme for the TV show House. It is sung by Liz Fraser, of cult British band the Cocteau Twins, but was originally intended for Madonna. The song was covered in 2007 by both Newton Faulkner and Jose Gonzalez, and also reworked as a Children In Need song in 2011 in a version which featured Ed Sheeran, Wretch 32, Ms Dynamite and Chip.
I love The Rockafeller Skank, a song released by Norman Cook using the moniker Fatboy Slim. It was the first single from You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby, a set of songs that reigned supreme over dance music in 1998 and 1999. I still absolutely love the Ibiza anthem Needin U by David Morales presents The Face, as I have a weakness for piano house. The 1998 version was a success on import, while Juliet Roberts would return in a big way on the vocal version of the song in 2001.
In r’n’b, Sparkle’s hit Be Careful was written and produced by R Kelly (whose career has been marred by several unsavoury incidents). K-Ci & JoJo provided that year’s wedding song with All My Life, which has an amazing middle eight and meant they didn’t have to work again. Off to Peter Andre Land they go…