“To stop being me for a little while and to become us.”
American sports fans are, by and large, pretty woeful in the crowd-response department. We have the clap-clap routine we do for DE-FENSE. There’s “Let’s go TEAM NAME, let’s go!” (And repeat.) In basketball, there’s the kind of rising vocalization we do, often accompanied by a frenzied waving of inflatables, when we’re taunting other teams’ players shooting free throws. And, in the world of baseball, the intellectuals who occupy the bleachers at Wrigley Field routinely taunt each other with a stimulating back-and-forth debate: “Right field sucks! Right field sucks! Right field sucks!” The devastating reply? “Left field sucks! Left field sucks! Left field sucks!”
And that’s when you catch us on a good day. All too often, American sports fans behave like the bearded, bespectacled, tattooed hipsters at a concert, responding to the full-throated roar of heavy metal with rhythmic but disinterested head-nodding or an appearing-to-be-indifferent toe-tapping. (You wouldn’t want to do both at the same time. People might think you were into it or something.) When it comes to coordinated efforts, fan displays that draw on the jaw-dropping number of people packed into the stadium to produce a spectacle for the ages, we have . . . well, there’s “the wave,” in which people stand up and sit down again. And there’s YMCA, which refuses to die.
Mostly we drink beer and sneak looks at our phones.
American soccer fans, inspired by the traditions of foreign leagues, can be somewhat more lively, with their giant flags, their tifos, but still, they lag behind in one essential area: singing. For years, I heard at Chicago Fire games was “Ole, ole, ole, ole!” and, later, “Fire Fire Fire.” More recently, I have seen crumpled photocopies of fan songs littering Section 8, which shows ambition, but still, it’s hard to imagine the ultras passing out sheet music in, say, the Holte End. (Am I the only one who always wants to add another e? Holte Ende looks so . . . quaint.)
“Listen to them singing!” the British announcers say, pausing their commentary so we can do just that, hear the fans in full throated glory as they sing . . . whatever is is they’re singing. To the uneducated American ear, too often it sounds like, “Whoa, whoa, wub wub wub . . . blargh . . . hooah!” I’m sure it’s majestic live, in the theater of soccer dreams, but it loses something when translated through the two-inch speakers of my TV.
Another impediment to understanding is the American fan’s lack of context—and context is everything, right? One of the appeals of European soccer is its rich tradition and history, but if you’re a new-ish fan who great up in, say, Montana, and you don’t know that the manager of the other team dove in the box when he played for the opposition during a decisive cup loss two decades earlier, it’s utterly baffling as to why he would be singled out for approbation the moment he reaches the touchline. Sometimes I find myself thinking like a cryptographer, imagining that, if only I could pick out a single word, the whole sequence would unlock itself.
Anyway, back to singing. I like singing. My sons don’t like my singing, but tough shit. They’re likely to be serenaded with anything that’s stuck in my ear, from Neil Diamond to “Black Diamond,” from Fountains of Wayne to Wayne Newton. (OK, I’m lying about Wayne Newton; I only used that for the neat symmetry. But I’m dead serious about Neil Diamond.) In my younger years, I spent a dozen years singing for probably two dozen bands, and, while I’ll probably never take the stage again, I find something euphoric about exercising my vocal chords.
When I began following the Premier League, I was fascinated and mystified by the chants and songs. What were the fans saying? Who started the songs—was there some kind of a conductor, or did each one start spontaneously, rising in volume as more and more voices joined in? Were the songs old or new? Did fans ever make up songs on the spot and, if so, how the hell did that work? I gained some insight from a great chapter in Chuck Culpepper’s entertaining book, Bloody Confused (which I really ought to reread), but very little insight into the Villa songs.
When I watched Aston Villa beat the Chicago Fire 1-0 at Toyota Field the summer before last, I could hear actual Villa fans singing actual Villa songs—but the fans were few, and they were on the other side of the park. Curses! Foiled again!
Brian Eno once read a wonderful essay as part of NPR’s “This I Believe” series, in which he talked about the physiological and psychological benefits of group a capella singing. For those of you who remember Eno as a platinum-dyed androgyne, it may be seem odd to invoke his name in the arena of sports, but I think it’s a perfect analogy. As Eno said:
“When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That’s one of the great feelings—to stop being me for a little while and to become us.”
That’s a perfect description of what it feels like to be a fan. And it feels good to sing with other people, whether you choose “Keep on the Sunny Side,” as Eno suggests, or “Who the fuck are Man United?”
There is something that feels kind of ancient about singing a capella, singing in a crowd, something that recalls sailors at the oars and workers in the fields. Sadly, in the U.S., singing is an activity reserved for crap TV talent shows, where, alone under the spotlight, warbling would-be idols shit all over songs we know and love. And how often do you hear American men singing if they’re not in a cabaret? I say it’s time to reclaim public singing from the idols and the divas, to restore it to its rightful place as a manly and womanly act.
At the fabled Gathering of the North American Villa Fan Clans last August, I finally had a lesson in singing. And I learned these things:
First of all, the melodies are not original. Which makes sense. If you want to suddenly strike up a tune with thousands of people from many different backgrounds joining in, the last thing you want is to have to hum the tune, or say, “No, it goes to an A-flat there.” So most, if not all, soccer songs are sung to recognizable tunes—or tunes that were recognizable when the lyrics were first coined. I’m sure there are 18-year-old fans who have never heard of the song “Guantanamera,” although they do know the notes. An interesting fact, and something I’d like to learn more about, is that many English fan songs are sung to melodies that originated in the Americas.
Secondly, the tunes are highly adaptable. The aforementioned “Guantanamera,” for example, makes frequent appearances in the canon of soccer songs. And, once Christian Benteke makes his inevitable transfer to a Champions League team, we’ll be using it for another player whose name breaks down into five syllables.
Lastly, some songs are invented on the spur of the moment, but this is rare: clearly, most of these tunes have been hanging around, in one form or another, for some time. Why so little in-the-moment invention? I can only surmise that it’s hard to make up clever things after your fifth pint of lager.
A Villan’s Songbook (As Understood by a Yank)
“Oh Birmingham“: Yet another variation on the ever-popular “When the Saints Go Marching In,” this one is ruder than it seems if you don’t know the British meaning of “fanny.” (Although the clearly audible “tits” keeps it from seeming polite.)
“Top of the League”: I confess I didn’t recognize this tune. And, clearly, it’s a song Villans aren’t used to singing. After we beat Arsenal in the season opener, and were, briefly, top of the league in more than just alphabetization, a fan near me asked another, “How does that top of the league song go?”
“Yippie Yi Yay, Yippie Yi Yo“: ” . . . Holte Enders in the sky.” While we Americans clearly yearn for an older country’s sense of tradition, there’s a little bit of a trade going on here, with the co-option of an American song about the imagined Wild West making a transatlantic hop to give soccer fans a bit of rugged flair. It’s a fair swap.
“Gabby Agbonlahor“: “Gabby Gabby Gabby Gabby Gabby Agbonlahor . . . he shoots, he scores, he shoots, he sco-o-o-ores.” Given his great speed and poor finishing, more often heard with the alternate ending of “he’s fast as fuck, he’s fast as fu-u-u-uck,” when he’s taken down by a panicked defender and awarded a free kick. What’s surprising about this one, once you get past the sheer surprise of hearing “Karma Chameleon” at a soccer game, is that a bunch of guys drunk on lager feel no compunction about bringing back a tune made popular by a mincing, androgynous pop star. Some might call that progress.
“Christian Benteke”: As discussed above, this is to the venerable tune of “Guantanamera.” So an unofficial anthem of communist Cuba celebrates the skill of a highly paid athlete competing in one of the world’s most commercialized, commodified sports leagues. It’s a funny game, innit?
“Went to Rome to See the Pope“: I believe this is a song sung by Man City and Liverpool fans about Man United; however, as with all songs, it is adaptable and comes in handy when you see a morose table of supporters in Rooney shirts drowning their sorrows in beer. Borrows the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which itself borrowed the tune of “John Brown’s Body.”
“You Only Sing When You’re Winning“: Hands down, my favorite song, because of what it suggests: win or lose, we will sing for our team and inspire them to lift their heads up and carry on. It was especially fun to sing this at dejected Arsenal fans on the first day. Sadly, from the comfort of my comfy chair at home, I have seen many occasions where the fans at Villa Park fall silent when the lads fall behind. Let’s not be that guy . . .
“Paul McGrath, My Lord“: OK, so this is one where the newbie American feels a bit like he needs to go to school. A tough center back who played 252 games over seven seasons for Villa, and who played brilliantly for some of the clubs best sides despite knee problems, this song, to the tune of “Kumbaya,” appears to celebrate his ability to play despite his ongoing weakness for alcohol.
“Birmingham, Are You Listening?“: When I first heard this song (“We’re walking along / singing our song / shitting on the city as we go,” to the tune of “Winter Wonderland”), I imagined that it was some kind of hooligan anthem, a song sung by droogs as they streamed out of an away ground, laying waste to parked cars, bus stops, and shop windows as they merrily rioted their way to the train station. As it turns out, “the city” actually refers to “the City”—Birmingham City, one of three teams that can lay claim to Villan hatred (the others being West Brom and Wolves). So long as we’re metaphorically shitting on a team, not literally desecrating a municipality, I’ll withhold judgment.