Friday 9 July 2021

Sweet Caroline: How a minor hit from fifty years ago became a ubiquitous football anthem


Truly, we are, living in strange times. Strange days indeed - most peculiar, mama (kudos to any reader who can identify that song lyric without googling it)

With numbers testing positive for Covid-19 here in the UK surging, the government is nevertheless relaxing the restrictions with which we have been living for fifteen months. Cue joy and relief, but also much social media driven anger and condemnation, barrack-room expertise and prophecies of doom and gloom....Let’s wait and see.

Yet as the UK and its government once again risks being cast in the role of international pariah, the country is at the same time riding a wave of excitement and national pride whipped up by the performance of England's football team, guided and led by the admirably restrained, palpably decent, thoughtful and eloquent Gareth Southgate.

In 2018, the unexpected success of his young squad in reaching the Semi-Finals of the World Cup in Russia briefly diverted attention, lifted the mood and unified the nation at the height of the agonisingly long process of leaving the EU. Oh to be back in such simple, carefree days….

Three years later, an even younger squad has gone one step further in the delayed Euro 2020 Tournament and at the time of writing, the nation (well certainly its media) is in a state of heady excitement and euphoria at the tantalising prospect of the squad bringing to an end to the fifty-five year wait for a major tournament win in our national sport.

Southgate's squad are more than just a group of footballers more gifted than their predecessors of several generations past. They are a thoroughly admirable group of young men, schooled by their clubs and in no small part by their national coach in the appropriate behaviours, attitudes and responsibilities that come with their status as richly-remunerated national heroes. Gone, it seems, are the days of laddish “boys will be boys” behaviour, of responding to media questions with contemptuous clichés or even open hostility, and of hiding from the bigger issues in society.

The 2021 squad is a rainbow coalition in some ways reminiscent of France's golden generation which won the World Cup in 1998 and the Euros in 2000. It is a team of thoroughly modern English footballers, many with recent family origins from outside the country, yet every one of them proudly flaunts their patriotism and pride in wearing that shirt with its iconic three lions. The likes of Marcus Rashford, Tyrone Mings and Raheem Sterling have been unafraid to speak out against racial and social injustice, whilst Harry Kane, in some ways every inch the cockney diamond geezer of yesteryear, wears his LGBT+ armband with manifest comfort; men like him in the not-too-distant past would probably have exhibited the tribal homophobia and intolerance which was once endemic among the white working classes.

Rashford in particular has become a national treasure thanks to his off-the-field advocacy for children like he once was, and that he did so last year with steadfast politeness and respect for those in power was a remarkable achievement. He may be an angry young man from the wrong side of the tracks in Wythenshawe, but his anger at social injustice is nuanced and constructively channelled.

Other players, like Mason Mount, Declan Rice and Calvin Philips not only look like schoolboys living out their dream, but behave with the gratitude and humility that in the past was often lacking in those paid a fortune to do what most of us just have to do for fun. Win or lose against those stylish and talented Italians on Sunday night, these young men have done themselves and their manager proud, and I for one will be eternally grateful for the joy that they have brought us in this toughest of years.

And then there's the music...

Heady days need a soundtrack, as we have been so effectively reminded by all the nostalgia for the summer of ’96, but unlike in 1996, the 2021 soundtrack is strangely retrospective. In 1996, Britpop was at its height, producing some of the best new material that had been written in a generation, launching stellar careers for the likes of the Spice Girls and solo Robbie Williams, whilst David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and the under-rated Lightning Seeds created their singalong masterpiece, Three Lions. That song is everywhere right now, almost always murdered by a tuneless drunken chorus, but it is in my view truly a work of genius. It's wonderfully English, not triumphalist as many think, but rather a self-deprecating tale of repeated failures and near-misses, laced with the pride which we as a nation seem to take in plucky losers and the timid but very real longing for redemption.

Of course, Three Lions has been at the forefront of our giddy ride to the Final of Euro 2020, but it is being run close by Neil Diamond's Sweet Caroline, which we have heard belted out by players and fans after every win, gleefully joining in with the “dah-dah-dah”.

This has set me thinking, as often happens with my musically addled brain: how is it that certain songs achieve iconic ubiquity years after what was initially a thoroughly underwhelming chart performance?

Sweet Caroline is a perfect example.

Neil Diamond was for some years a respected but unheralded songwriter, until he broke through in the UK with Cracklin’ Rosie in late 1970. He had written I'm a Believer for the Monkees and other successful songs, but his name was little known on this side of the Atlantic, and when he finally achieved modest success as a singer, he was to me and my teenage contemporaries the sort of singer that your granny liked, a crooner no less. Sweet Caroline had been written and released in 1969 in tribute to JFK's daughter Caroline Kennedy, and made no mark whatsoever on the UK charts. Two years later, it was released as a follow-up to Cracklin’ Rosie, and reached No 8 in our charts. For the next thirty years or so, it was largely forgotten, but then early in the 2000s it started popping up at the sort of disco that goes with every modern wedding reception - the sort where dad dances, granny kicks off her heels to reveal her true undignified self and ten-year-old boys do a knee slide across the floor. A similar thing happened to Can’t Take my Eyes Off You, another minor hit from the late 60s by an American crooner dressed in a pullover - Andy Williams.

Next, DJs responsible for after-match playlists caught on to it, and in no time everyone knew it, such that when your team pulled off an unlikely escape from relegation and the fans partied like they had won the League, Sweet Caroline, dah-dah-dah became a song of triumph and joy. Then as Wembley filled up this summer with fans for the first time in over a year, England started winning, and the rest is history. Neil Diamond’s accountants must be laughing all the way to the bank.

Many songs have had a similar trajectory; here’s a few more that were either unnoticed at the time of release, or in some cases derided:

Tony Christie’s Is this the Way to Amarillo, written by the wonderful Neil Sedaka and containing some of the cheesiest rhymes ever attempted (Dawning-Morning, Amarillo-Willow-Pillow, Marie-Me, Ringing-Singing, Maria-See her etc ) made it all the way to No 18 in 1971 (there’s something about that year!), then remained forgotten until Bolton’s comic genius Peter Kay imbued it with post-modern irony for 2005’s Comic Relief, such that it became a mass singalong song. I maintain that one of the happiest moments of my entire life was when I was one of 27 000 fans at the Reebok Stadium in  May 2005, celebrating as Sam Allardyce’s Bolton Wanderers team of misfits and has-beens secured European football to the tune of Christie’s Shala-la-la-la-la-la-la-la – Diouf-Diouf.

The Proclaimers’ 500 Miles made it to No 11 in 1988, then remained forgotten until revived years later, again by a combination of mobile DJs and football fans; likewise, Jeff Beck’s Hi Ho Silver Lining (No 14 in 1967, No17 in 1972) and even Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire, which has never even made the charts, yet achieved anthemic status after Liverpool’s 2005 Champions’ League win and the England Cricket Team’s Ashes win the same year.

Even Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now was a relatively modest UK No 9 on its first release in 1979 at a time when the now legendary band had passed their first wave of success and were seen by many music fans to be an example of outmoded, overblown and over-produced pomp-rock. Forty years on, it is everyone’s favourite singalong song.

The list could go on, and many will have their own favourites to add to this list. They all date from the days when singles chart position and longevity was very much the test of a song's success; since around the turn of the millennium, chart success has mattered little, indeed few of any age could name the current Number One at any given time. Yet despite failing that test at the time of their release, these songs have become enduring and ubiquitous. What do they have in common? Well not a lot really, other than that intangible thing called a damn good tune, often a brilliant hook and above all something we should just call singability.

Let’s just hope we’re still singing Sweet Caroline at 10pm on Sunday night, and that “good time never seemed so good” proves to be true. I think we all deserve that pleasure.


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