The Tyranny of Sloop John B

By Paul MacInnes  |  19 Jan 2015

This article is taken from Issue 8 of The Green Soccer Journal, Winter 2015. Now available for pre-order from our online store.


It was the evening of May 2nd, 2011 and the atmosphere was building. Norwich City were playing Portsmouth and the away fans had packed out the length of the Milton End at Fratton Park. There was expectation in the air, an excitement bordering on giddiness, coupled with palpable nervousness. No doubt this was largely down to the fact that victory over Pompey that evening would ensure Norwich’s return to the Premier League after six years away. I like to think, however, that just a little of that feeling stemmed from an unconscious acknowledgment of something else; the amazing chant I was about to unleash on the Canary hardcore.

The chant centred on Simeon Jackson, our Canadian striker who, in recent weeks, had hit a red-hot streak of goalscoring form. It was set to the tune of Outkast’s 2001 R&B sensation, ‘Ms. Jackson’, and it had everything: a cool tune that people would remember; lyrics that lent themselves to gusty bellowing (“Simeon Jackson… OOOOH… you are for reaaaaal”); and, to crown it all, a verse that had a pop at Ipswich. It wasn’t technically my chant – it had been created by my pal Patrick a month or two earlier – but I was going to be the one to popularise it. Of that I was very confident.

Jackson was having a good game. He was busy and linking well with Grant Holt up front. I aired the chant for the first time about 30 minutes in, belting out the full verse and chorus not once but twice. I got some laughs – favourable laughs, I thought. I tried again at half time and was greeted by more laughter, despite the fact that the news of Osama bin Laden’s death was spreading around the ground. Then, in the 49th minute, Jackson scored a beautiful diving header – the goal that would take us back to the Prem. After jumping around like a child on tartrazine for a while, I realised the moment had come. Once the hubbub had calmed I struck up another round of ‘Simeon Jackson’. This time, I got nothing. Not a sing-a-long, not a round of applause, not a laugh – not even an ironic one. My night was ruined. Well, nearly.

In retrospect I shouldn’t have been surprised by the outcome. Getting a crowd to embrace a new chant is a trick akin to persuading someone to eat sushi for the first time. Asserting something new seems presumptuous – pretentious, even; there is lots of other perfectly decent sustenance out there, after all, and even once you’ve tried it, it might leave a weird taste in the mouth. To complicate matters further, the person recommending the song needs to carry some authority in the crowd. It’s as if you have to write for Time Out before someone will take your word on a California roll. In summary, I didn’t have a chance.

‘Simeon Jackson’ is not the only perfectly decent chant I’ve seen bite the dust before it’s even had a chance to breathe. This is particularly the case in the internet age, in which the hive mind can devise songs that are both fun and novel, but that never take off on the terraces. For example, after a busy summer of transfer activity saw my club sign talented Dutch midfielder Leroy Fer, what happened? Online, in the fan forums, someone was touched by genius and suggested just repeating the guy’s surname to the tune of Otis Redding’s fantastic, familiar ‘Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa (Sad Song)’. On the terrace, however, in the Upper Barclay, we got “Lee-roy, Lee-roy”, repeated in exactly the way that you would imagine – to no tune at all.

It’s a thoroughly disappointing state of affairs, and one indicative of the godawful nature of contemporary chants. You might argue that Outkast and Otis aren’t all that well-known. I’d argue differently, but even if that were so, how on earth would you explain the ubiquity in football grounds, nay the hegemony, of a 47-year-old cover of a Bahamian sea shanty? And, yeah, I’m talking about ‘Sloop John B’.

Like ‘Ms. Jackson’, ‘Sloop John B’ reached number two in the UK charts. It had already been performed by a number of acts (including Johnny Cash) by the time The Beach Boys got their hands on it, but now it is owned by the world. Or, to be more specific, the part of the world that can’t be bothered to find a new tune or meter to which to set their chants. As with any successful terrace tune, there are many who would like to claim parentage of ‘Sloop John B’. The most likely, however, would seem to be those megaliths of the M62, Liverpool (whose chant ‘We Won It Five Times’ was inspired by their Champions League win in Istanbul) or Manchester United (whose ‘That Boy Ronaldo’ was inspired by, well, him). There’s also a claim laid by FC United of Manchester, whose fans even seem to recall the pub in which it was invented.

Whatever its origins, it’s easy to see why ‘Sloop John B’ took off. Not just because it’s a song from the sixties, and thus something all fans can sing without having listened to the radio in the last 20 years. It’s also the perfect vehicle for delivering an insult, the preferred form of terrace rhetoric: you set up a device in the first two lines (“He plays on the left, he plays on the riiiight…”), before offering up a kicker in the final line (“That boy Ronaldo will make you look shite!”). How it became the tune of choice for each and every new chant, and how every chant lost that little barb to become simply one repeated line (usually “We [insert verb here] what/who/where/when we want…”) is more mysterious and altogether enervating.

I like to blame the Age of Sloop John B on the malaise of contemporary football fandom. People pay through the nose for an experience that might not prove entirely satisfying. This in turn leads to a consumerist mentality that demands satisfaction. They want pretty football, they want glory, they want passion, they want to be able to mock and boo their own team and they want to sing what they want, when they want. That’s what I say. You, meanwhile, might say I’m still bitter about the whole ‘Ms. Jackson’ thing. You’d be entitled to your opinion.

Paul MacInnes is the editor of The Guide, The Guardian’s cultural supplement.
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