Come Saturday afternoon, the most played song in Australia could be a patriotic Broadway tune from 1904. Or it might be a song originally based on Igor Stravinsky’s arrangement of a traditional Russian folk melody. One of these two songs will be recalled from the depths of musical history to be played around the country on radio, on TV news bulletins, to be repeated endlessly in pubs, sung by legions of deliriously happy and alcoholically merry Australians everywhere.
These pieces of music are AFL club songs—Hawthorn’s and Fremantle’s respectively—and despite being one of the most popular genres of music in Australia, they are rarely talked about at all. AFL club songs are deeply loved by vast swathes of the Australian population in a way that any artist currently in the pop charts could only dream about—this music runs deep within Australian culture in a vernacular way, surpassing boundaries of ethnicity and gender and even drawing dividing lines within families and communities. There’s a lot to be said for this type of music, even if it is mostly made up of American, English, and French songs with new (and often hilariously unimaginative) lyrics. Perhaps it is a music that piggybacks on the popularity of a sport, but it is also a music that in no insignificant way drives the culture of that sport. It is a genre unto itself, with rules and clichés, and style and trends.
So where do good AFL club songs come from?
If the AFL club song has a sound, it’s that of the popular music at the turn of the century. Even though only a few of the club songs were actually adopted at this time (with the earliest being Collingwood’s use of the popular Boer War-era music hall song, ‘Goodbye, Dolly Grey’ in 1906), in subsequent years AFL clubs have continued to return to this particular era of pre-popular music, from Carlton adopting the uncomfortably racist ‘Lily of Laguna’ (a “coon song” as it was tactlessly known) in the 1930s to the Adelaide Crows adopting the ‘US Marine’s Hymn’ as late as 1992. By and large, this means that the sound of the AFL is the sound of the music hall, the marching band, Tin Pan Alley, and late 19th century nationalism. League sport (also popularised in the 19th century) the world over cannot seem to escape the musical roots of this prototypical mass music, which emerged at the time of the player piano and the gramophone—the Sydney Swans, for example, share the Notre Dame Victory March with dozens of sports clubs the world over.
In a way, then, it’s the handful of bespoke, modern AFL club songs that are the bellwethers here. At their best, they too are clearly in debt to these older musical forms. ‘Suns Of The Gold Coast Sky’ is almost like a written-by-committee checklist of AFL song elements: a catchy, driving melody (Melbourne, Essendon); a repetitious, shout-out-loud section (Richmond, Hawthorn); and a modulation to maintain harmonic variety (Geelong, Adelaide). Greater Western Sydney’s ‘There’s A Big Big Sound’ is clearly the best of the contemporary songs—like Gold Coast’s, it reworks the best elements of the genre, and, having been written by The Cat Empire’s Harry Angus, it includes some welcome quirks of its own (it is, for example, the only club song out of all eighteen to begin in a minor key).
At their worst, the modern themes stray too far from the formula. Probably the two most embarrassing AFL club songs—the West Coast Eagles’ ‘We’re Flying High’ and Port Adelaide’s ‘Power To Win’—are both self-consciously anthemic pop rock songs, complete with flaccid, condescending sing-along sections. These are the kinds of songs that assume—unlike Greater Western Sydney’s—that football fans and players can only keep up with simple music that’s slow, steady, and in a major key.
Maybe the alignment of AFL club songs with the music of the turn of the century indicates a kind of naivety—a similarity in spirit between cheering for a sports team and cheering for a nation, as in ‘La Marseillaise’ (Brisbane), or ‘You’re A Grand Old Flag’ (Melbourne). But maybe more importantly, and more interestingly, I think it suggests a kind of prototypical form of popular music in the most literal sense—a form of music that appeals, excites and inspires passion across the widest scale of taste possible.