'Oh, Jeremy Corbyn' - how Seven Nation Army inspired the political chant of a generation

No one knows who started it, but the chant that accompanied Corbyn’s rise is here to stay

“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 now-defunct 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 of England 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 ultra-basic 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.”

As anyone who has ever stood in a crowd knows, chanting is exhilarating. There’s a binding joy to be had from singing together, be it a song as moving as You’ll Never Walk Alone or Abide With Me or something as daft as aiming “your teeth are offside” at Luis Suárez. Chants can create unity – but they can also create the illusion of unity. Mass chanting can become coercive. Who wants to be the only person in the hall who’s not singing along? Or worse the loser, the one who’s not singing any more? Humans are social. We want to belong. But if we’ve learned anything over the past three years it’s that when you make political decisions based on the need to be part of something rather than the issues, it can lead you into dark places.

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.

TUC conference delegates break into Jeremy Corbyn chant – video

So you don’t like “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn”, politicians? Get your own chant, then. Here are some suggestions…

“Starmer, Starmer, Starmer, Starmer, Starmer chameleon / He’s got my vote, he’s got my vo-ote.”

Shadow Brexit minister and centrist dad hero displays the benefits of compromise.

“Chuka Umunna’s waiting, he’s talking ’bout Europe.”
Labour Remainers, Bananarama are there for the taking.

“Richard Burgon – hey! / Touched for the very first time.”
Can’t see the shadow justice secretary in a Madonna outfit but you never know.

“Priti Patel/Priti Patel / Diddly dee dee-dee.”
Sing it to the Roobarb & Custard theme. She’ll hate it.

“Rebecca Long-Bailey / I said Rebecca Long-Bailey / Jitterbug Bailey / On a Saturday night.”
Marc Bolan’s We Love To Boogie, if you really do want to take us back to the 70s.

“Who let the Mogg out? Who? Who, who, who?”
Be careful what you wish for.

Andrew Harrison is producer of the Remainiacs podcast: remainiacs.com


Andrew Harrison

The GuardianTramp

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