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A German documentary charts the rise of the anthem, from its roots in 1909 play by Jewish-Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar to Carousel and then the terraces

2 August ~ A couple of years back I was listening to The Beatles In Mono boxed set when I had a rather mundane musical epiphany: the 1963 band-breaking hit She Loves You, which I’d heard so often in my life that it no longer even registered, is the most perfectly crafted pop song you could ever wish to hear. After hearing it hundreds of times, I finally began to enjoy and appreciate every note and beat of its immaculate, buoyant brilliance.

I was reminded of this while watching a new, eponymously titled German-made documentary about the song You’ll Never Walk Alone. I have no connection or feelings for Liverpool FC, the club who first adopted the song over 50 years ago, much less for Borussia Dortmund, who latched on to the melody around three decades later. And the song, as rendered by football crowds, always struck me as mawkish.

When Liverpool met Dortmund in the Europa League quarter-final last year and TV coverage showed both sets of fans singing YNWA in unison, I actually cut the sound. An odd and curmudgeonly gesture on my part – I’ve spent a lifetime railing against violence and vitriol among rival fans. Surely this was a golden moment of solidarity to be treasured? Well, it was – in January of this year both sets of supporters were awarded the FIFA Fan Prize for their communal chorus. That’s worthy recognition, but it left me feeling even more uneasy. Who wants FIFA approval nowadays?

There’s a segment in André Schäfer’s film that shows Liverpool fans talking about that moment during a podcast. One pundit claims that the home fans put an extra effort into their singing that night to show the visiting Germans that “this is our patch, this is our song”. That not only jars with the bland, FIFA-tinted version of solidarity and transcontinental bonding, it also reflects the film’s nicely balanced approach. Almost everyone in the Dortmund spectrum humbly concedes that the English fans sing YNWA much better than their German counterparts. That includes the genial guide and narrator, Joachim Król, an actor and Dortmund fan who strikes up relaxed conversations with everyone he meets.

First, though, he takes us back to Budapest where the song’s roots lie in the 1909 play Liliom, by Jewish-Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar. Molnar fled Europe from the Nazis and ended up mingling in New York artistic circles. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wanted to adapt his play into a musical. Molnar was horrified at the idea of his work being adulterated, but needed the cash so he said yes, and that’s how Carousel and YNWA came to be.

There’s a wonderful chat with Gerry Marsden as he recounts the wet afternoon he sat in a Liverpool cinema watching his favourites, Laurel and Hardy. In between two of their films, the cinema showed the movie version of Carousel, and because it was raining Marsden decided to stay, even though it did not look like this was his kind of thing. After nodding off, he was woken up by the opening to YNWA, and he got his band, the Pacemakers, to start playing the song live. Despite the reluctance of his band mates (“We’re a rock ’n’ roll band”), record company and producer Brian Epstein, Marsden insisted on recording and releasing their version, which went to number one.

Anfield at the time had just become one of the first grounds to install a PA system that could play music, and so they cranked out the current top ten to keep the pre-match crowds entertained. When YNWA slipped out of the charts and they stopped playing it, the complaints flooded in from fans who wanted to keep singing along. Marsden laconically describes how, as a lapsed Everton fan, being in Anfield when he heard the crowd singing along to the Pacemakers’ version helped cement his profound love for the red half of Merseyside.

This warm and impressive film highlights the importance of the song at key moments in the club’s history, but without ever becoming sentimental or indulging in mythology. At half time in the 2005 Champions League final, say, or after the Hillsborough inquest, when relatives sang the song in the spring of 2016 on the doorsteps of a Warrington courthouse following the “unlawful killing” verdict. The variety of locations, interviews (Jürgen Klopp is far more considered and less Mr Comedy when speaking in German) and versions of the song sustain a momentum that provided me with several goosebump moments. And the final realisation that You’ll Never Walk Alone is a magnificent, uplifting composition. I will no longer sourly turn down the sound. Ian Plenderleith

You’ll Never Walk Alone is out now in Germany but does not yet have a UK distributor

This article first appeared in WSC 366, August 2017. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more details here

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