Why are sport songs so hard to get right?

By Mark Savage
BBC News entertainment reporter

image captionSports events: Not known for their musicality

What makes a great sports song? And why are there so many bad ones? We ask the experts, as well as the bands who have written tunes for London 2012.

"In streets all over the nation, are goals we painted on the walls.

"Where all our hopes and expectations, are the world inside a ball.

"Inside a ball."

Recognise those lyrics? No? Well, there's no shame in that.

They are from England's 1998 World Cup song (How Does It Feel To Be) On Top Of The World - a single that is every bit as clumsy and boring as its title.

Written by Echo and the Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch, the track was even booed by fans when it was played over the PA at Wembley.

It is just one example of how hard it is to capture the thrill of live sport in song. But it is by no means the worst offender.

image captionLeona Lewis performed Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love at the Beijing Games

That honour surely goes to Liverpool FC's Anfield Rap , an inexplicably awful track, which sees grown men struggle with the cadence of spoken English. It also rhymes "hard as hell" with "Ars-e-nell".

The problem with official sport songs, says music critic Fraser McAlpine, is that "your intended audience, the fans in the stadium, have no real need for your work".

"They have the entire history of recorded music to pick a favourite from, and probably would rather belt out something they already know, in the hope that other people will join in.

"If they did want something new," he adds, "it wouldn't be the kind of thing that would pass ratification by a panel of administrators from the sport's governing body."

This summer's Olympics have not escaped unscathed.

Muse have contributed Survival, a whizz-bang rock opera, as the official theme.

"Forced, stagey and affected" was the NME's verdict on the song, which stretches the definition of "bombastic" to breaking point.

Some of the other official tracks fare better, including Elton John vs Pnau's trancey Good Morning To The Night; and the Ping Pong anthem written by electro-dance outfit Hot Chip.

"I asked if we could be involved in the table tennis because I have a table in my garden and I've been really enjoying playing the game," says co-writer Joe Goddard.

He explains that the six-minute instrumental was inspired by the organ music played at US baseball games , which ratchets up the tempo and the key every time it repeats.

"Our song doesn't have words," he says. "There's no verse or chorus.

"It's based on a piano melody that repeats quite a lot. It's not designed as a pop track - it's really tailored for the auditorium."

Elbow have also been composing for the games and have created First Steps , a stately, orchestral theme, for the BBC's coverage.

Their frontman Guy Garvey agrees the best approach is to avoid the conventional structures of rock music altogether.

"It's not an Elbow song," he says. "We threw the kitchen sink in. We were like, 'How many gongs have you got?'

"And it couldn't be just my voice, because that was too narrow an affiliation. It's got to belong to the country, if not the world."

Driving rhythm

The bold truth is that songs written to order tend to fail.

The tunes we all associate with sport - like Booker T and the MG's cowbell-mangling Test Match Special theme - tend to be pre-existing tracks, chosen by a TV producer to jazz up their pictures.

"It's one of the fun parts of the job," says Jonathan Bramley, an executive in charge of the BBC's Olympics coverage.

If you have heard Metallica on Rugby Special or The Stone Roses on Ski Sunday, that was Bramley's work.

"It's a big responsibility and it's something I spend a lot of time thinking about," he says. "You've got to get it right."

As a rule, Bramley prefers to use songs from his CD collection, "because if you have to commission it from the start, it costs more". But almost any track is fair game.

"At the start of a programme, you're looking for something that's driving the people to get involved," he says.

"Something that's got a melody, not just a humdrum background noise.

"The closer is generally slower-paced, something that can work with slow motion shots. It needs to emphasise expressions and emotions and reactions."

A carefully chosen song can even give a helping hand to a struggling artist.

Fame Academy graduate Alistair Griffin, who was last seen in the charts eight years ago, recently played at Silverstone after his song was picked as Sky Sports' Formula 1 theme.

"It's tough in the music business these days," he says. "So to be heard and used in that context is a great thing."

Griffin's track Just Drive is a gentle, mid-tempo ballad in stark contrast to the thunderous twang of an earlier F1 theme, Fleetwood Mac's The Chain .

"Motorsport fans are very passionate, they get very emotional," he explains.

"Although Just Drive doesn't have the banging, driving rhythm of The Chain, the lyrics sum up the emotion of the sport.

"I'm a sucker for the old soaring chorus. Those things match up with the endeavour of sports."

Interestingly, the musicians interviewed for this article all cited Vangelis' rousing Chariots of Fire Theme as an inspiration.

The dramatic, heroic fanfare apparently holds the key to a successful sports song: genuine emotion.

"A song is the delivery mechanism of an emotional moment in time," agrees Fraser McApline.

"Hope, the primary emotion of all sports fans, is notoriously hard to relay in musical terms without ditching the secondary feelings of intense pride, bitter recrimination at past disappointments, and fear of another squandered opportunity.

"That's why Three Lions, or even Vindaloo, succeeded. They were songs for the fans to use, not the organisers.

"If the Olympics are to have an anthem which truly works for the nation as a whole, it will not be a musical representation of Sebastian Coe's inner monologue."

The themes by Muse, Alistair Griffin and Elton John vs Pnau are all available now. Elbow's First Steps will be released during London 2012, with all proceeds going to Sports Relief.

Hot Chip have no current plans to release their ping pong song.

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