Three Lions: A musical analysis of Baddiel & Skinner and The Lightning Seeds’ football anthem
15 June 2021, 10:59
We take a musical deep dive into one of football’s most iconic songs.
As the England Euro 2020 team laces up its boots and takes to the turf, we’re doing our own prep for the long-awaited championships.
We’ve been playing the cockle-warming de facto anthem of the English football team, ‘Three Lions’ on repeat, and it’s got us thinking – what’s the song doing musically, and is it any good?
‘Three Lions’, also known by its refrain ‘Football’s Coming Home’, was written and released by Baddiel, Skinner & Lightning Seeds in May 1996 to coincide with England hosting the European Championships. It has been an iconic fixture of the beautiful game on our shores ever since.
Notable for its rather modest nod to England’s patchy performance in football over the years, the song is nevertheless packed with pride for the team and its three-lioned emblem, and in 2018 it resurfaced as an oft-chanted No.1 hit when England did so well in the World Cup.
So why do we all love it so much? Here’s a music theory deep dive…
The boys have done something clever here. They spend approximately 30 seconds repeating the same lyrics in a deadpan but droll refrain to really get them infiltrating our scalps from the start.
And just as we have the words down pat, the song enters into its underdog narrative around predictably low goal counts, dreaming of underdog resurgence amidst “30 years of hurt”, all the while referencing those three lions. It also includes fan-pleasing references to English footy heroes and famous past moments from the pitch.
The lyrics are a little on the raw side if you’re looking for easy listening, and they’re not as wholly triumphant as other football anthems are, but with that refrain there ends up being something for everyone. We approve.
In terms of melody, the song isn’t doing anything too adventurous at the start. The “it’s coming home” part of the refrain oscillates between pitches a minor third apart, before jumping up to another major third, which makes it sound tuneful.
On the word “football” the melody alternates between neighbouring notes, and the simplicity of the whole thing makes it relatively easy to remember and join in with. Things get a bit more complex and florid for the verse section, the melody weaving around to give the sense of the emotive story of the England team’s history wavering between underdog and victor.
Like the melody, the harmony of ‘Three Lions’ is relatively simple in the refrain, and then takes itself to more adventurous tonal centres in the verse, the chords reflecting the effort of a striker bravely punting a ball goalwards with undefeated perseverance and bashed hope.
There’s also a nice descending bass line in there, which keeps you hooked.
‘Three Lions’ is written for mid-baritone-tenor range, suiting an understated, perhaps a little gravelly, voice. That’s what makes it so suitable for chanting too: it’s a real song for the every day human on the street. And those with a higher pitch are gifted the option of singing up an octave, if they fancy it.
Nice chunky electric piano chords underpin the vocals, along with a steadfast indie pop beat. The original recording features the Lightning Seeds’ signature instrumentation with guitar and bass.
With all that music theory under our belt, and a conclusion that this song is pretty 👌 let’s revisit some of the absolutely iconic classical music takes on football’s most deadpan anthem…
🎶📽 The Bands of the Guards Division played a very special rendition of the "Three Lions - It's Coming Home" song on the forecourt of Buckingham Palace yesterday ahead of England’s World Cup quarter-final game with Sweden.— The Royal Family (@RoyalFamily) July 7, 2018
© @ArmyInLondon #WorldCup #SWEENG pic.twitter.com/YKublhJHrG
For all those interested in the England v Croatia game on Wednesday, this is a fun take by the Facebook page “It’s Coming Home” pic.twitter.com/vfBwafztVp— Sheku Kanneh-Mason (@ShekuKM) July 9, 2018
Instead of performing ‘Nessun dorma’ at the Opening Ceremony, perhaps iconic tenor Andrea Bocelli will break into “It’s coming home” in his Euro 2020 performance… Who do we have to call to make this happen?