When "Song 2" by the British rock band Blur first deluged radio airwaves, music critics didn't know what to do with it. Those brash guitars and distorted bass, those nonsensical lyrics ("I got my head checked / by a jumbo jet"), the phoned-in punk chorus ("woo-hoo!")—this wasn't the heady alternative to Oasis that Blur had long been trotted out as. The song was, dare we say, pure, unabashed rock. It was actual fun!
"Song 2" was released 20 years ago, on April 7, 1997. It would soon become the band's biggest hit in the United States. But first, the anxious music writers had to figure out a way to justify it. "Song 2" was a meta-statement against corporate rock! It was a parody of radio hits on the radio! A true self-own by label lobbyists revealing the craven, algorithmic industry for what it was!
Who knows if any of those interpretations are true, but in the world of sports, where the song ultimately found its proper place as one of the most popular stadium anthems of all time, none of that matters. It's simply a rocking-as-fuck track that gets asses out of seats, whether unleashed on a moon-shot halfway into the bleachers, a bending soccer penalty kick, or, mostly, as the puck billows out the back of the net.
"I started using the song because we partnered with Ric Flair for a goal celebration, and his natural trademark 'woo' was amplified by [the song]," says Pete Soto, former director of CanesVision, the in-game entertainment for the Carolina Hurricanes. "The song promotes joy. No one who's sad has ever exclaimed, 'Woo-hoo!"
Along with the Hurricanes, other NHL teams that have used the explosive "woo-hoo!" include the St. Louis Blues, the Buffalo Sabres, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Boston Bruins, the Florida Panthers, and the Ottawa Senators. The track has occasionally shifted off the hype playlist over the decades, but it has always found its way back. "Fans are creatures of habit," Soto says. "They want to let the dogs out, and they want to sing and stomp along with 'We Will Rock You.'"
That's not to say that "Song 2" was destined to wind up in the stadiums from the beginning. As Stephen Street, the song's producer, who in addition to Blur is best known for working with The Smiths and The Cranberries, tells it, it was strange that this song became a hit. And for Blur, who had already been together for nearly a decade, it was really the only hit in the U.S.
"We were surprised," Street told me over Skype. "Maybe because we didn't put ourselves under any pressure. It was minimal effort, really. We never had the intention of writing a single, just having fun."
It started with a simple drumbeat. During one recording session, lead singer Damon Albarn was messing around with two kick drums and Street recorded it with his new hard drive recorder, the room microphones giving it that lo-fi, distant quality. Street looped the track, and played it while the band added the rapid guitar strums, the heavy bass line, the live drums. During the jam, Albarn picked up a hand-held mic from the desk and started singing out nonsense.
"He tried to write more meaningful lyrics [later], but it never had the same vibe and power," Street says. "The woo-hoo was something he came up with to fill in a gap, a guide vocal, but we knew as soon he did it, hey, this is quite universal, we should keep that."
Street and the band knew they had a strong track, but once the album (Blur's fifth) was in the can, they focused on promoting "Beetlebum," its first single. The thinking was that "Song 2," while no-doubt a rocker, clocked in at barely two minutes long, and so was likely too short to translate into a huge hit, at home or overseas. "It was kind of an afterthought really, tucked away," Street says.
Not so, said the American pop music market. When it was released in the U.S. market, "Song 2" immediately became a monster hit. It reached No. 6 on Billboard's Alternative Songs list, and No. 25 on the Mainstream Rock chart, but more than that, it seemed to be everywhere. Turn on any alternative station, and you'd likely find that two-minute thrasher crammed in once every few hours, its succinct running time perfect for filling in those last gaps on the playlist.
"Before that, kids at my school would make fun of my T-shirt, like, 'who the fuck is Blur?' Then it was like, 'woo-hoo!' in the halls," says April Richardson, a comedian and huge Blur fan. "When that song came out, all of sudden there were tons of college bros at their shows. I remember the band making jokes, like before playing it they'd be like, 'I know a lot of you will leave after this.'"
Normally, that's where the story of a hit like "Song 2" would end: airtime for a summer before being ousted by some song trying to ape its success, dug up decades later by nostalgic 30-year-olds. But one of those perfect synchronistic events happened when it was being blasted on the airwaves. See, at the exact same moment that this unknown-in-America band was having its moment in the sun, a soccer video game was looking for a song.
"My music producer was like, holy shit, have you heard this song by this British band?" says Nick Malaperiman, who at the time was the product manager for an upcoming Electronic Arts video game called FIFA: Road to the World Cup 98. "I'm like, they're my favorite band."
The programmers had been using songs by The Crystal Method, an electronic duo from Las Vegas, to accompany the game's action, but when "Song 2" was raised as a potential choice, the EA team went for it. They got in touch with the band through Bob Rock, the super-producer behind Metallica's Black album, of all people, and asked if there was a chance they could use the song. Blur was amenable; they just had to work out the price. Malaperiman worried the cost of licensing the song would break the budget, so they offered Blur something more valuable than money.
"We were like, we got tickets for the World Cup final next year, how about that?" Malaperiman says. "They said let's do it."
The song's inclusion in the game, as well as throughout its massive advertising campaign, paved the way for the FIFA series to not only lock up songs from artists such as Chumbawamba and Robbie Williams but also to become an unlikely entryway for bands to gain exposure. As a promotional tactic, it is truly brilliant: game producers can guarantee a captive audience—kids sitting mere feet away from a TV screen—who are subjected to the same song, over and over and over. And it's all because of "Song 2."
"That repetitive piece of music got under your skin," says Steve Schnur, president of music for Electronic Arts. "It became integral to the kid playing the game, and to the gameplay, and then to actual sport."
Twenty years later, while the song's popularity ebbs and flows in other cultural spheres, it's still a mainstay in sports, an audio track to go along with the crowd roaring at the cresting of a big moment. There's not a sound system in an American stadium that doesn't have "Song 2" waiting and ready at that perfect moment, 15 seconds in, when Albarn and the rest of the band explodes.
"I've never tired of it," says Street, a huge soccer fan in his own right. "It has this particular tension and release that I think sports fans pick up on. You're holding attention when you're watching your favorite team play, you're willing them on, and suddenly—bam!—it happens."
One might even say, woo-hoo.
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