The Forgotten Third Lion

Go On Getting Bad Results

Typical isn’t it? Just as making football-themed songs goes out of fashion, England go and perform unexpectedly well at a major football tournament. The most fascinating side effect to date of the England team’s progress to the semi-finals of the World Cup has been the spontaneous “rediscovery” of 3 Lions as performed by David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and The Lightning Seeds.

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First recorded as the official England team anthem for the 1996 European Championships, the song was uniquely re-worked and enhanced for the 1998 Fifa World Cup. Like clockwork, it has reappeared on the charts for each successive World Cup tournament. Not for 20 years though have we seen an explosion of interest in the song like we have this weekend, the track outselling the rest of the iTunes Top 5 put together briefly and lodging a quarter of a million Spotify streams on Saturday 7th July alone.

Chart rules will almost certainly prevent the single from topping the actual singles charts this week, but that’s an entirely different story.

What continues to fascinate me is the existence of the two versions of the song, the ’96 and ’98 recordings. Both of which topped the charts upon first release but both of which have been duking it out for supremacy ever since. Or so it appears.

Then One Night In Rome

It was all so simple, to begin with. The original 1996 release flew to the top of the charts, was briefly deposed by The Fugees after a week but then fought its way back as England progressed to – yes – the semi-finals of the European championships. They failed to reach the final after losing to Germany in a penalty shootout, the decisive kick missed by a young defender by the name of Gareth Southgate. Such are the whims of fate.

Two years later the same performers re-recorded the track with brand new lyrics, updating the song to reflect the memories of that summer and with a more optimistic look forward to the forthcoming World Cup to be held in France. Unaffiliated with the England team this time around, the production this time gave prominence to the fan chants that the song had so neatly inspired, it already had become something of a terrace anthem.

Writing in his 2001 autobiography, Frank Skinner noted that a new take on the idea meant an excuse to remake the video with all concerned looking slimmer, and that they got to do the Top Of The Pops performance they missed out on in 1996. But he also rather felt that the ’98 remake of 3 Lions sullied the memory of the track, writing:

“…I wish we hadn’t bothered. Respect to everyone who bought the ’98 version, but 3 Lions was all about a specific moment in time: one hot summer in ’96 when England suddenly started playing like winners again, and the crowd had their own, specially written party piece so they could provide the perfect soundtrack.”

Not Creative Enough

Alas for Frank, it was the ’98 version which the record label elected to push as the de-facto standard for the next decade.

The single reappeared in 2002 in a re-issue timed to coincide with the World Cup in Japan and South Korea. Although the CD single contained both versions, it was the ’98 recording which led the disc. Confusingly the single was listed on the charts as “3 Lions” without the year modifier, logical really given that a single suffixed “98” on the charts in 2002 would have been confusing and dated the hit – despite its lyrics referencing events of six years earlier and expressing hope for a competition already played.

It is, for this reason, the Official Charts Company’s own database on their website gets confused here and treats the 2002 re-release as a continuation of the chart run of the 1996 original with which it shares its name. The single peaked at Number 16.

Four years later in 2006, the song was back again. Although we are now into the digital era, chart rules in place at the time meant a physical re-release of the track was still necessary for its downloaded copies to be chart eligible. So a CD was duly flung out, once more featuring 3 Lions ’98 as the “lead” track. It isn’t documented which version of the song people were buying digitally but in any event sales of either counted towards its eventual chart peak of Number 9 and the single’s chart run is once more bolted on to that of the original.

3 Lions returned to the singles chart twice more before this year, conveniently enough in the World Cup years of 2010 and 2014. No re-release was necessary at this point, the hit returned as a result of spontaneous downloads alone. But fascinatingly records from the time show that the, no pun intended, lion’s share of the sales were in fact for the original 1996 recording. Which up to that point had been treated as the poor relation of the revised version by the record label. The moment they no longer had control, however, public taste and popular opinion took over. In any event, as before, sales of either version counted towards its eventual chart position. Number 10 in 2010, a lowly 27 in 2014.

We Still Believe

Which all neatly leads us to 2018 and where once again it is 3 Lions (96 version) which has commanded comparatively huge sales and streams ever since England started showing signs of being able to win the damn competition. The ’98 remake is still hanging in there, but very much a secondary consideration as far as the public is concerned. Although as I noted on the Chart Watch site this week, radio has once more tended towards the revised edition of the song, primarily for the Gareth Southgate references it contains.

Yet did you know there was a third version of 3 Lions? And no, I’m not referring to the ill-advised all-star remake from The Squad which limped to Number 21 in 2010. This is one which received copious airplay at the time it was made but which has never been made available for release.

Pearce Of The Action

It is all because of commentator Jonathan Pearce. It is his voice which can be heard both over the introduction and during the instrumental break of 3 Lions ’98, replacing the soundbites from the likes of Jimmy Hill and Alan Hansen who featured on the original.

Back in 1998, Radio One had a big problem with that. Pearce at the time was well known as the voice of Capital Radio’s sports coverage. His commentary of Southgate’s infamous penalty miss against Germany was that which he did for the commercial radio network during Euro ’96. The BBC at the time had this quaint attitude that the competition did not exist, and so there was no way they were going to play a record featuring the voice of someone who worked for the opposition.

Faced with the prospect of no airplay for the new track, the label had no choice but to allow the BBC to re-cut 3 Lions ’98. Producers at Radio One made their own edit of the track, splicing in commentary and associated soundbites from Five Live commentators Alan Green and Mike Ingham. Replacing Pearce’s bellows with, shall we say, a more Auntie-flavoured take on the moments described. It was this new edit which was played by Radio One during the Top 40 show. Regardless of the fact that it bore no resemblance to the version being bought by everyone else.

By the time the single was re-issued in 2002, the problem had neatly resolved itself. Learning to his dismay that Capital Radio had no plans to cover the World Cup that summer, Jonathan Pearce made the call he arguably should have done years earlier. He joined the BBC just in time to feature as part of the Five Live commentary team for the 2002 World Cup. He’s remained with the corporation ever since. It meant that when 3 Lions reappeared on the charts that summer his voice could be heard on the version of the track played on the Top 40 show for the first time. Because he was now “one of us”.

This does mean that the BBC edit of 1998 is now more or less lost to history. Unless you click below to hear the relevant clips of the song. Enjoy.

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