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September 9, 2013
Recently in an informal discussion at Manchester’s National Football Museum a very important question was asked: what is the greatest song on football ever? Of course, our answers are limited by the number of languages we speak and the national pop cultures we have access to. There are few French songs on football worthy of note. My favourite one might be: Miossec’s « Évoluer en 3e division », a vivid account of what goes through our minds when we are confronted with our mediocrity in football. In Portuguese, Chico Buarque wrote excellent songs on football too in particular « O Futebol », but I am not a connoisseur enough of Brazilian music to pick one of them.
This would limit my research to the English-speaking domain. As we know, and without being biased at all of course (!), the best of British music has always come from second generation Irish migrants in Manchester – some would also Manchester’s distant suburb, Liverpool and Irishmen like the Beatles too, I guess. So the song has to be Mancunian.
After careful consideration, it appears to me that Morrissey’s « We’ll Let You Know » may be the strongest candidate for the « greatest song on football » title. There is no shortage of football references in Morrissey’s work, who was photographed wearing a Cantona tee-shirt, West Ham, Millwall or CD Chivas jerseys & wrote songs on the « Munich Air Disaster 1958 »_ that killed the Busby Babes, or the hilarious « Roy’s Keen ». Why single out « We’ll Let You Know », then?
Since his heydays in the greatest British band ever, The Smiths (which included alongside Morrissey, guitar player extraordinaire Johnny Marr & « the lawnmower parts »: Mike Joyce, Andy Rourke and Craig Gannon), Morrissey has been widely misunderstood. Many have seen him wrongly as a bastion of Englishness – sometimes to the extreme. In truth, Morrissey belongs to that great British tradition of sarcasm & criticism of Englishness, which is very apparent in the works of PG Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh. However, like Agatha Christie, Morrissey is sometimes so subtle he can misconstrued as being literal. Agatha Christie has often been accused of (or hailed for?) ridiculing Hercule Poirot, the foreigner and exalting the Englishness of Miss Marple. Things are, however, slightly more complex. Christie certainly describes Marple with some fondness, but in the way one is fond of their slightly out-of-touch grandmother. Hercule Poirot on the other hand reveals himself more than once as someone who outplays the English (the respectable & institutionalised Inspector Japp or Captain Hastings), precisely for their Englishness. It is nowhere more apparent than in this extract from Three Act Tragedy (which I shamefully pasted from Wikipedia – having been unable to find my copy of the book):
« It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say – a foreigner – he can’t even speak English properly. […] Also I boast! An Englishman he says often, « A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much. » […] And so, you see, I put people off their guard. »
It is in this respect that « We’ll Let You Know » is the greatest song on football ever: it is the cleverest, more insightful, critical & sarcastic, foray into the mind of football hooligans. The song starts enigmatically with:
How sad are we?
And how sad have we been?
We’ll let you know
We’ll let you know
Oh, but only if – you’re really interested
You wonder how
We’ve stayed alive ’till now
We’ll let you know
We’ll let you know
But only if – you’re really interested
Until the third verse where it becomes clear through reference to the stadium’s entrance, the cowardice of groups attacking the weak, that a football hooligan is speaking & defending himself (in the same hypocritical manner that the narrator in the Smiths’ very sarcastic song Sweet & Tender Hooligan defends the criminal « She was old and she would have died anyway. »)
We’re all smiles
Then, honest, I swear, it’s the turnstiles
That make us hostile
We will descend
On anyone unable to defend
Morrissey similarly questions how much the hooligan believes in the songs s.he sings.
And the songs we sing
They’re not supposed to mean a thing
Does the hooligan really believe in what he sings and just pretend he doesn’t? Or not? This is sarcasm at its best; and at its most complex to interpret. However Morrissey positions himself very clearly in the last part of the song, following the instrumental which includes stadium chants and reference to the opponent, a club from North London: « Your Arsenal » (which gives its name to the 1992 album where this song can be found).
We may seem cold, or we may even be
The most depressing people you’ve ever known
At heart, what’s left, we sadly know
That we are the last truly British people you’ll ever know
We are the last truly British people you will ever know
You’ll never never want to know
The last line points out very clearly that Morrissey condemns the character who has been saying « I » all throughout the song – & which may not be misconstrued as being himself, obviously. It’s very telling that on Your Arsenal « We’ll Let You Know » is followed by the « National Front Disco » where the narrator/singer laments the fact one of his friends/lovers (David) has joined the National Front. « National Front Disco » is itself followed by « Certain People I Know » where an upper class character (betrayed by the choice of words in the lyrics: « Weren’t you there? You’d have died » or « Their clothes are imitation. It’s absurd, George XIII, don’t you find? ») is first fascinated by working class men he plays pool with then detaches himself from them as violence increases. Together these three songs are undoubtedly a criticism of the fascination for nationalism & violence that is arguably ubiquitous in English culture.
It is not clear whether Morrissey actually enjoys football as a game, but he is certainly one of the most subtle commentators on the social aspects of the so-called « Beautiful Game ». Together with the music of Alan Whyte, & the production of Mick Ronson, this is what makes « We’ll Let You Know » most probably the greatest song on football ever.