Three Lions: A musical analysis of Baddiel & Skinner and The Lightning Seeds’ football anthem

15 June 2021, 10:59

A detailed musical analysis of England’s popular football anthem, ‘Three Lions’
A detailed musical analysis of England’s popular football anthem, ‘Three Lions’. Picture: Getty / Noteflight / Emojipedia

By Rosie Pentreath

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…

Read more: Watch Andrea Bocelli sing ‘Nessun dorma’ at football’s Euro 2020 Opening Ceremony

Lyrics

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.

Melody

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.

Read more: How to watch Andrea Bocelli’s Euro 2020 performance live

Harmony

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.

Read more: Six of best ‘Three Lions’ performances from the song’s 2018 heyday

Instrumentation

‘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…

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?