Why is Neil Diamond’s mega-hit ‘Sweet Caroline’ so intoxicating for sports fans?

Why is Neil Diamond’s mega-hit ‘Sweet Caroline’ so intoxicating for sports fans?
During this summer’s edition of the Euros, one certainty is the ubiquity of Diamond’s 1969 hit. But how and why did it gain such a storied place in England fans’ hearts? Jimmy McIntosh investigates.

There’ll be a few certainties at the Euro 2024 tournament this summer – from the pints of warm lager tossed in the air with each goal scored, to the agony and the ecstasy of a penalty shootout – but nothing is more categorically, definitely going to happen than the complete and utter rinsing of Neil Diamond’s 1969 hit ‘Sweet Caroline’ in the pubs, clubs, and fanparks across England.

The story of the track’s rise to maddening ubiquity for English sports fans is a well-documented one: at Euro 2020, following England’s comprehensive 2-0 win on home turf against their imagined eternal rivals Germany, Wembley DJ Tony Perry was tasked with amping up the party following the customary post-match spin of Baddiel and Skinner’s England anthem ‘Three Lions’. Despite initially reaching for ‘Vindaloo’ by Fat Les, he decided that “it had to be ‘Sweet Caroline’ … it just felt right”, Tony recounted to the Daily Mirror in 2023. His instinct proved correct. The stadium, predictably, erupted in a chorus of “BA BAAA BUM”, and the song became a sort of unofficial anthem for the remaining games of the tournament. By the time the Lionesses won the Women’s European Championship the following year, the song had cemented itself fully into the English psyche – today you can’t go an evening in a provincial town without hearing someone fumbling their way through it on the karaoke.

It’s not just English speakers who are enraptured by ‘Sweet Caroline’’s simple melodies and uplifting message. In 2009, Austrian singer DJ Ötzi – of ‘Hey Baby’ fame – released his version of the track, the video of which features a fervent crowd of ruddy-faced Europeans singing along to every single word. Belgian football fans were filmed warbling the chorus at Euro 2016. The Bayern Munich squad made Georgia Stanway perform the song as part of her initiation into the Frauen-Bundesliga side. It is, clearly, a song that transcends borders.

Of course, its popularity amongst England fans is just the latest chapter in the song’s long sporting history. In America, both the Carolina Panthers of the NFL and the MLB’s Boston Red Sox – whose DJ started it all by playing the song at Fenway Park back in 1997 – blast it out at every home game. Northern Ireland’s football fans have been singing it since 2005, and Reading FC began using it following their record 106-point Championship season back in 2006. Arsenal, Aston Villa, Wales and Scotland have all belted it out at one time or another. Away from the pitch, boxing promoters Matchroom play it before their fights, while Tyson Fury loves to serenade the crowd with it.

I first became properly aware of the song in the 1990s at family parties in Liverpool when, as a bleary-eyed youngster up well past my bedtime, I’d be subjected to my uncles, aunts, and second cousins crowded around my dad and his guitar, drunkenly working their way through the sixties hit, filling in all of the ad-libs with aplomb and repeating the last chorus four times over just for good measure. In the years that followed, ‘Sweet Caroline’ became for me like other joyfully banal singalongs ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ and ‘(Is This the Way to) Amarillo’ – tracks that, despite never actively choosing to listen to them in full, had burrowed themselves deep into my subconscious.

But what is it about ‘Sweet Caroline’ that has caused the song to embed itself in my brain, and to so endear itself to English sports crowds? To try and find the answer to my question, I reached out to Neil Diamond himself, with a polite email to his publicist. I wondered if “Mr. Diamond would be up for answering a few questions about his hit?” How he wrote it, what he does musically in it, what it means to him – but, for starters, was he aware of how the song has permeated almost every aspect of British sporting culture? Ten minutes later I received a reply. “Yes”, the email read. “He is aware”. And that was it. Clearly, I was going to need to apply my A-level Music knowledge and do some analysis for myself.

“Is Mr Diamond aware of how the song has permeated almost every aspect of British sporting culture?”

“Yes, he is aware.”

.

An upbeat, slightly shuffled groove at a steady 127 beats per minute, the song clocks in at a palatable 3 minutes and 21 seconds, and features all the hallmarks of the best crowd pleasers: a wordless call and response in the descending brass section on the chorus, a pre-chorus that demands shaky hands to slowly lift upwards as it crescendos, and saccharine, optimistic lyrics that cry out to be mindlessly screamed arm in arm with a stranger.

Melodically, ‘Sweet Caroline’ is all about simple motifs, and a tension and release within the confines of very few notes. After an intro that features a repeating three-note phrase, which stacks up harmonically with each iteration, the verse plods along in a standard I-IV-I-V pattern in the key of B major (B, E, B, F#). When the pre-chorus hits, the song really comes alive. Suddenly the bass, guitar, and light touches of brass are joined by a chorus of rising tremolo strings, broadly following the same pattern as Neil’s vocals. The introduction of G#m (played with the bass remaining on a B) in the second bar of this pre-chorus creates a tension, which is eventually resolved by the euphoric, incredibly major, I-IV-V (B, E, F#) chorus – a chorus which emphatically begins on the first beat of the bar, and is admittedly incredibly satisfying to sing (there’s a reason Diamond switched the lyrics from “Sweet Marcia”, after his wife, to the eminently more scannable “Caroline”). The verse vocal melody features a mere six different notes. The pre-chorus five. The chorus, a comparatively complex seven different musical notes.

It’s this melodic simplicity that has helped propel it into the pantheon of football chants, alongside ‘Seven Nation Army’ (5 distinct pitches), ‘Sloop John B’ (7 distinct pitches), and ‘Freed From Desire’ (5 distinct pitches). Every successful football chant needs to be able to be sung – often by hordes of gruff, tuneless blokes – and so to possess melodic complexity is to have a song that will never catch on. That’s why simple, rhythmic motifs which repeat and extend harmonically are the name of the game – ‘Guantanamera’, ‘Allez, Allez Allez’, or, in a rare example of high culture meeting terrace, Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘La donna è mobile’ from his 1851 opera Rigoletto. It’s why objectively the best England song – New Order’s ‘World In Motion’ – never caught on in the terraces. And, I suppose, it’s also why objectively the worst England song – Ant & Dec’s ‘We’re on the Ball’ – never did either. Thank God for that.

Something shifted for England with the appointment of Gareth Southgate as manager in 2016. After the national team’s reasonably respectable showing at Italia ‘90, a string of high profile managers came and went, presiding over some of the most talented groups of players the country had ever produced. The profligacy of the so-called Golden Generation of the early 2000s, combined with a sabotaging tabloid media more interested in WAGs, excess, and tearing players down, had left supporters in a curious halfway house. The tournaments England did qualify for were met by the public with a strange mix of exceptionalism, bravado, and self-doubt. Everyone seemed to know the score, they’d seen it all before. But on the other hand, it was definitely, finally coming home. Maybe. The national team’s tournament record since 2000 left little to believe in: out in the group stages at Euro 2000; out in the quarters in 2002, 2004, and 2006; a failure to qualify in 2008; the round of 16 in 2010; the quarter-finals (2012), group stage (2014), and round of 16 (2016).

But then Southgate was appointed, at around the same time as the last of England’s so-called Golden Generation were retiring. In their place came a new crop of hungry, humble players, unfazed by the strict club allegiances that supposedly dogged the reigns of previous managers England managers. Southgate introduced respectability and decorum to the squad. Suddenly, this was a team to be proud of. The football was – and some might say still is – largely pragmatic; reliant on a tight defence, hard work, and set-pieces. But as dull as it was, it worked: England finished fourth in 2018; second in 2020; and only just went out in the quarter-finals to the eventual finalists France in 2022.

In many ways, the results were secondary to the sense of a nation coming together, sticking red flares up each other’s arses and lobbing plastic pint glasses in the air at every opportunity. That England’s new anthem is a song about togetherness; about “hands touching hands” and all the pure, unbridled joy that goes along with it, is no coincidence. The self-deprecation of Baddiel and Skinner is out, and in its place is a quiet belief. After years of heartache, posturing, and bitterness, it’s once again quite fun to support the national team. Heading into Germany 2024, with England the bookies’ favourites at 3/1 and the strains of Neil Diamond’s weirdly craggy voice spilling out of the country’s public houses, the good times never seemed so good.

A version of this story will appear in Huck 81, which is coming soon. 

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