How Seven Na­tion Army be­came the po­lit­i­cal chant of a gen­er­a­tion

It started with football fans – now even the Tories try to use it. But from Glas­ton­bury to the pub, the ubiq­ui­tous cho­rus to Cor­byn’s rise is here to stay, says An­drew Har­ri­son n

The Observer - - IN FOCUS / CULTURE - An­drew Har­ri­son is pro­ducer of the Re­maini­acs pod­cast: re­maini­

‘It has to be a good thing to use this song to tell peo­ple who were neg­a­tive, no, you were wrong’ Beth Foster-Ogg, Mo­men­tum

‘Oh, Jeremy Cor­byn.” For some peo­ple this adap­ta­tion of the football chant based on the White Stripes’ Seven Na­tion Army is noth­ing less than an an­them for a po­lit­i­cal wa­ter­shed. Ubiq­ui­tous and in­escapable, it’s a shared cel­e­bra­tion of the mo­ment when a no-hoper led an un­prece­dented pop­u­lar move­ment and knocked es­tab­lished wis­dom back on its heels.

For oth­ers, it’s sym­bolic of the empty hero-wor­ship that con­sti­tutes the new left, of va­pid com­mu­nal feel­good mo­ments and a cult of per­son­al­ity mask­ing pol­i­tics that shade from the in­ept into the dis­turb­ing. It might have turned you on to Jack White’s nowde­funct garage blues duo or it might have ru­ined them for you for­ever. Ei­ther way, it is the ear­worm to beat all ear­worms.

Lis­ten to the orig­i­nal record­ing of Seven Na­tion Army – a far from ob­scure num­ber 7 in the UK charts in 2003 – and try think­ing of any­thing else. You can’t. The lyric is fixed now. It goes “Oh, Jeremy Cor­byn”. And ev­ery­one knows about it, from the Queen to the hounds of hell.

If you’re on board with the Cor­byn project then here is your bat­tle cry. “The spread of the chant is def­i­nitely con­fir­ma­tion of what we’ve been say­ing about Jeremy all along,” says Beth Foster- Ogg, train­ing or­gan­iser at the Cor­bynista brains trust Mo­men­tum. “He’s talk­ing about pol­i­tics that are more in­clu­sive, more grass­roots. It’s about peo­ple com­ing to­gether and the singing re­flects that.”

It helps that the syl­la­bles of Cor­byn’s name fall per­fectly on the chords of White’s none-more-sim­ple, de­monic de­scend­ing riff. (It didn’t work quite so well when Tom Wat­son at­tempted to get “Oh, Rebecca Long-Bai­ley ” off the ground at last month’s Labour con­fer­ence. And who knows why Tory con­fer­ence-go­ers tried to start a chant of “Oh, David Davis” when they could have tried Salt-N-Pepa’s Push It in­stead? From Fri­day night club queues to tuxe­doed un­der­grad­u­ates at Down­ing Col­lege’s May Ball, it doesn’t take much to get the chant go­ing now.

Such is the drama of the song that Cor­byn fans’ re­sponses can ap­pear Pavlo­vian. When Ed Miliband hosted a pub quiz at the Labour con­fer­ence, says Foster-Ogg, ev­ery time he men­tioned the leader the au­di­ence broke out into song. “He pre­tended to get up­set,” she re­calls, “so we tried to sing ‘Oh, Ed Miliband’ and it re­ally didn’t work.” The story of a po­lit­i­cal life in one scene.

But the hall­mark of a good chant is how quickly it takes off. Fa­mously the Seven Na­tion Army Cor­byn cho­rus en­tered pol­i­tics from football dur­ing the run-up to the June elec­tion. When Cor­byn ap­peared on stage just be­fore the Lib­ertines at the Wir­ral Live rock fes­ti­val in May, some­body – no­body quite knows who – started the chant and the crowd took it up im­me­di­ately. The ef­fect, by all ac­counts, was elec­tric.

“Sud­denly, I was get­ting all these texts and videos and record­ings pop­ping up on my phone, all say­ing: ‘You won’t be­lieve this’,” says ter­race cul­ture guru and Cor­byn en­thu­si­ast Peter Hooton, whose band the Farm had played Wir­ral Live at Tran­mere Rovers’ ground the day be­fore Cor­byn. “You never know how a politi­cian is go­ing to go down with mu­sic fans but this wasn’t the usual. The singing was to­tally spon­ta­neous.” Retweeted by John Prescott, the Tran­mere clip went vi­ral. Within days, Labour elec­tion ral­lies were singing along. “The chant swept round the coun­try over the sum­mer,” says Hooton. “You’d see girls out­side pubs of a Fri­day singing it. Kids who were sup­posed not to care about pol­i­tics were pay­ing at­ten­tion. I’ve never known any­thing like it.”

By the time of the Glas­ton­bury fes­ti­val – af­ter Cor­byn’s bet­ter than ex­pected show­ing in the gen­eral elec­tion – the chant was es­tab­lished as the long-lost bridge be­tween pop cul­ture and pol­i­tics. When Stor­mzy’s Glas­ton­bury crowd be­gan to sing it, the grime MC joined in (“this is what it’s about right now, Glas­ton­bury”). Ra­dio­head were spot­ted grin­ning and clap­ping along to it in a break in their set – find it on YouTube and note Thom Yorke’s pos­si­bly mock­ing falsetto. When Cor­byn him­self took the stage to the in­evitable cho­rus be­fore in­tro­duc­ing hip-hop duo Run the Jew­els, it seemed the headi­ness of the event had seeped into his brain. As he wound up his speech, Cor­byn half-stalked across the stage and leaned for­ward into his hand­held mike as if he were an MC too.

Mu­si­cians usu­ally com­plain when politi­cians co-opt their songs. Florence Welch and Calvin Har­ris spoke out af­ter the Tory con­fer­ence used You Got the Love and This is What You Came For as en­trance mu­sic. In this case, it was not the politi­cian but the fol­low­ers who chose the song, and that’s harder to ob­ject to. The de­fi­ance and ul­tra­ba­sic melody of Seven Na­tion Army re­flect the un­der­dog self-im­age of the Cor­byno­sphere. “I’m gonna fight ’em all,” goes the orig­i­nal. “A seven na­tion army couldn’t hold me back.” Irony alert: the song con­cerns the pres­sures of fame, al­though it’s not much of a stretch to see the me­dia as one of those pres­sures. Labour vot­ers of a more Methodist strain might pre­fer the fact that the ti­tle comes from his child­hood mis­pro­nun­ci­a­tion of “Sal­va­tion Army”.

Football made the song fa­mous, though. It’s widely agreed that fans of Bel­gium’s Club Brugge were the first to adopt a (word­less) ver­sion of Seven Na­tion Army at their sur­prise Cham­pi­ons League vic­tory over AC Mi­lan in Oc­to­ber 2003. It was snapped up by Roma and then the Ital­ian na­tional side, and be­came their un­of­fi­cial an­them at the 2006 World Cup. White let it be known that he ap­proved. “I am hon­oured that the Ital­ians have adopted this song as their own,” he said. “Noth­ing is more beau­ti­ful than when peo­ple em­brace a melody and al­low it to en­ter the pan­theon of folk mu­sic.”

Where did it reach Bri­tain? At Liver­pool, of course, says Hooton. (As a fel­low LFC fan, I’m not go­ing to dis­agree with him.) In early 2007, fans needed a song for new sign­ing Javier Mascher­ano. “There were end­less de­bates on Liver­pool web­sites,” re­calls the Groovy Train hit­maker. “Peo­ple had heard the White Stripes in Italy. The syl­la­bles fit but it’s a great song too. A good chant has to be sim­ple and direct. If a football crowd finds some­thing easy to chant, a crowd at a po­lit­i­cal rally will find it easy too.”

What about the crit­i­cism that chants like this dumb down pol­i­tics, re­plac­ing sub­stance with mind­less to­geth­er­ness? “Pol­i­tics has been elit­ist and ex­clu­sive for gen­er­a­tions,” says Mo­men­tum’s Foster-Ogg. “Any way to get young peo­ple in­volved has to be a good thing. It may look like hero wor­ship but it’s em­pow­er­ing to be able to use this song to tell ev­ery­one who was neg­a­tive about Labour, no, you were wrong. We do have power and things are not go­ing to be the way you say they are.”

If you love Jeremy Cor­byn then there will never a bad time to sing about it. Revel in your time. If you don’t, then look on the bright side. It is only a song. And if not for Seven Na­tion Army, you’d prob­a­bly be hear­ing end­less cho­ruses of “Jeremy Cor­byn packed his trunk/And said fuck off to the Tories” in­stead. No­body wants that.


Glas­ton­bury love-in love-in, left, as Jeremy Cor­byn stea steals the show. The White Stripes, b below, wrote the orig­i­nal tune.

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