For an American musical expatriate with ample means and the right connections that money bring, a musical tour of Europe might include Wagner in Bayreuth and Verdi at La Scala. Tickets for these two houses are impossible to get unless you inherit them or know the right people, and/or can buy your way in. A trip to Anfield soccer ground on a hill above the Mersey and a couple of miles from the center of Liverpool might seem an unlikely addition to a European musical itinerary. Yet the choruses of Anfield in all their brazen, hair-raising power have to be heard to be believed.
In terms of expense a ticket to see the Liverpool Football Club at home at Anfield last Saturday against hated rival Manchester United, just thirty miles to the East, is as dear as those for the exalted venues of the classical music world. There is a big difference in scale: Bayreuth has nearly two thousand seats, La Scala has almost three thousand seats, and Anfield more than forty thousand, still only about half the size of the biggest English football stadium, Wembley.
LFC boasts perhaps the largest worldwide fan base of any professional sports franchise, estimates varying from between fifty and eighty million supporters. That international appeal and its massive marketing potential help explain why the franchise was bought a year ago by a group of American investors known as the Fenway group. Lesser stakeholders in this bunch basketball star Lebron James, who flew in and out of Liverpool for the game, his expensive Italian suit topped to the north by a flaming red LFC scarf. The New York Times is number two in the mix, and it’s no surprise that the paper has accordingly ramped up its coverage of European soccer in general and of Liverpool FC in particular. Where once princes and potentates conquered duchies and erected opera houses, they now buy up sports franchises and build stadiums. Or better yet, have them built on their behalf.
That a ticket to Saturday’s match played on a fabulously clear Merseyside day would come into the hands of an American with only the faintest knowledge of European football—its history, its present personalities, and its tribal affiliations—had to do merely with knowing the right people. My college roommate had just completed a film entitled Will, an expertly crafted and compelling story that centers on a English schoolboy who is a fanatical LFC supporter and (spoiler alert!), and escapes from his boarding school to make his way across Europe to the 2005 Champions League final played in Istanbul. There his team celebrates the most unlikely victory, coming from three goals to nil behind in the second half to beat powerhouse ACMilano. LFC won the match on penalty kicks in one of the greatest comeback s in football history (more on this film next week). The movie included a cast of supporting Liverpudlians, among them Paul McGrattan, a boyhood friend of the Liverpool captain, Steve Gerard (who makes an oracular cameo in the movie) and is himself a Scouse—a native of the city.
My position only two or three degrees removed from the mighty Gerrard yielded me a ticket at the face-value of £48, which I could have turned around sold for five times that amount—as could Gerrard’s friend, McGrattan. But this excellent fellow, who brilliantly plays a scalper in front of Atatürk stadium in Istanbul in the movie—was kind of enough to throw this pearl before the Yankee swine, and welcome me as one of the lads. To be sure, indulging in the profit motive was continually discouraged by loudspeaker announcements outside the stadium trying to dissuade anyone from buying a scalped ticket. On the walk to the ground down the narrow street through the 19th-century terraced estates of worker housing—many of them boarded up and apparently ready for demolition, perhaps for a parking lot, or some such nefarious American-style scheme—we encountered a ticket tout being lead away in handcuffs. I was later informed he was probably selling counterfeit tickets.
Needless to say I felt a tad guilty getting a ticket that should rightly have gone to someone far more deserving. Or perhaps it wasn’t guilt, but rather fear of being discovered by those around me in the packed benches as an interloper with little real appreciation for the world’s game. But I know enough about football to know that a chance to see Liverpool versus Manchester United at Anfield should not be turned down.
I also convinced myself that ethnomusicological interest was enough to outweigh the selfish snatching of a ticket from the hungry mouths of local babes. Among the counterveiling arguments against this bit of self-rationalization was the fact that I am about as equipped to relate and analyze the waves of resounding affection, musical epithet and improvised crudity that careen around the stadium as a Vienna choirboy washed up in the South Pacific is to make sense of the musical rituals of the Trobriand Islands.
Undaunted, this fearless expatriate made his way through portals so small that one has to turn sideways to get through them and into the glorious din of the stadium.
I was one of the later ticketholders to enter. A football match is short by the standards of American sport, beholden as it is to advertising breaks. European football gives you two forty-minute halves with a twenty-minute pause in between. The whole affair clocks in at under two hours. The supporters get to the ground early and begin their rites long in advance of kick-off: stretching banners as a big as a basketball court over large sections of the stands and passing these vast sheets hand to hand so they travel above the heads of the fans in a seemingly magical motion generated by the delivery of a held edge from one person’s grasp to the next.
As colorful as all this might be, the first that strikes you is the singing.
As I made my way up to my seat crammed in among the bellowing fans, I could hear that beyond the nearby sources of song, the deeper origins of an anthem apparently hymning the heroics of some former LFC player curled around towards my section from the stand to my right running behind the nearest goal. This area is known as the Kop, apparently in reference to a similarly slanted hillside in the South Africa Veld known as Spion Kop where British soldiers fought, and, one assumes sang in full-voice—if not into the teeth of Boer bullets, than on the march there and back.
Indeed, real musicological research might reveal that the poor of the British infantry were working class men who had unwavering allegiances to Victorian football clubs in the then-new English league. Singing would have been not only a form of cementing esprit du corps, but also of finding humor and resolve before and after the battle was joined, as one LFC song puts it in inevitable reference to the German menace and the nationalistic succor of soccer:
In a battle that started next morning
Under a Libyan sun
I remember that poor Scouser Tommy
Who was shot by an old Nazi gun
As he lay on the battle field dying
With the blood gushing out of his head
As he lay on the battle field dying
These were the last words he said …
Oh … I am a Liverpudlian
I come from the Spion Kop
I like to sing, I like to shout
I get thrown out quite a lot.
The Kop in particular, and the other three stands that enclose the pitch, are overwhelmingly white and male. But some diversity comes with the international reach of the LFC brand. Many Scandinavians sat in my section, and singing along with them at full voice just behind me was a Sikh in his orange dastar and bright red LFC jersey letting fly in a rousing baritone. Also to be heard at close range were some Japanese men who were likewise giving it their all. Circumstances didn’t allow me to find out if these international brigades learned this repertoire by attending matches, by means of instructional CDs, through the pedagogical offerings of YouTube, from the numerous LFC song websites, or from some combination of all of these.
Querying the man next to me, a youth soccer coach in the city, I learned that alongside classics of Liverpool song such as the above-cited “Poor Tommy Scouse,” the repertoire continuously incorporates new additions, mostly contrafacta—new words fitted to preexistent tunes, from the theme to the Addams Family to “Those were the Days.” This unwritten hymnal also includes local masterworks of the greatest Scouse songsters, the Beetles, as in an ode to Steve Gerrard based on “Let It Be.”
The singing emanates from the Kop where the crowd remains standing for the duration of the match, in spite of an early announcement that the spectators should remained seated on account of children who might not otherwise be able to see the action. Standing up in the Kop expresses intense interest in the game, but also promotes earsplitting vocalization, still robust by the time the songs reach around the corner of the stand and down the stadium.
The building has low angled roofs that run to the very edge of the field, shielding the spectators from northern English rains. Such protection was unnecessary on such a fair Saturday. From high up in the stands some ten rows from the close roof above, one looked longingly at the square patch of brilliant sunlight as it slowly tracked across the northern end of the field over the course of the match.
This low roof not only blocks out both the sun and the rain, but also creates a giant sounding chamber for the communal voices of the fans. It’s like putting a several thousand-voice male chorus inside the body of a giant guitar.
These Liverpool hymns, pitched low and manly and raising up in swells of gravelly rapture, are interspersed with pithier chants of a sometimes less imaginative contour: “Shit! Shit! Shit!” expressed several times the Kop’s ardent displeasure with the officiating.
When Steve Gerrard scored the first goal of the match in front of the Kop —not only against hated archrival Manchester United, but also in his first game since coming back from an injury that has sidelined him since last Spring—they erupted and soon broke into “Steve Gerard, Gerard” sung to the tune of “Que sera, sera” It was not a version Doris Day would have recognized—and certainly not one she would have much appreciated.
The club’s central hymn and motto is “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Rodger and Hammerstein’s 1945 musical Carousel. It’s the kind of song that Barbara Streisand can—and has—squeezed every breathy bit of quavering sentiment out of. With its yearning harmonies, it’s a tearjerker of a ballad that at Anfield froths and foams in the caldron of the Kop, and then, as the melody reaches for ill-advised heights, shoots geyser-like out through the opening in the band box towards the Merseyside heavens. The circling seagulls, and the ghosts of the mythical Liver birds, flee through the air. Even the Goodyear blimp above seems to register the shock waves of song with a perceptible shudder.
Anfield boasts of its status as the last 19th-century football venue—classic, pre-corporate, and uncompromising. The place remains for the time being a militantly unimproved stadium, though the capacity was wisely reduced in the 1990s when the benches were converted to seats. There are no modern luxury boxes, no big screen replays (or indeed replays of any kind) or the hammering interference of pre-recorded advertisements and cheers, tiresome rock anthems, and all the other acoustic torture that makes going to many a sports event in the US virtually unbearable. In terms of total decibels per hour, Anfield might possibly exceed the output of even the most overpowered American sports palaces. But the difference in the ethical effect of Anfield is obvious, even to the uninitiated: the authenticity, imagination, and restorative powers of spontaneous singing shame the corporate manipulations of American audio oppression. Long may Anfield remain a citadel of elemental song!
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author ofBach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org