We will rock you

The classic Queen song reigns as America's No. 1 stadium anthem

Updated: April 10, 2013, 11:45 AM ET
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

fmYuko ShimizuIn America, stadium deejays are masters of crowd control.

This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 8, 2010, issue. Subscribe today!

"You came all the way over here to talk to little old me?" asks Brian May, the legendary guitarist for Queen, sitting inside a theater in downtown London.

Yes, I did. I'm kind of annoyed with little old May, frankly. Or, more specifically, I'm annoyed at what he's unwittingly created. You see, I've spent much of my life at sporting events -- from University of Alaska Anchorage hockey games to the Super Bowl -- and at every arena they won't stop playing piped-in pop music. It doesn't matter if the song is lyrical genius or absolute dreck, or even if it relates to sports. It doesn't matter if the artist is a rock god or a one-hit wonder. If it rocks, we play it, and somehow music has become as synonymous with our games as the $12 Bud Light.

I blame May. Why? Well, there's a list of the most-played songs at American sporting events, compiled by BMI, the music licensing company. In the top spot for 2009 was the ubiquitous "We Will Rock You," which May wrote three decades ago in a hotel room in England. After all these years, it's startling to see that song No. 1 with a bullet. It's so basic and bare, two minutes and one second of two stomps followed by a clap, overlapped by the late Freddie Mercury's thundering vocals. But "We Will Rock You" is more relevant than ever, bumping last year's No. 1, "Pump It," by the Black Eyed Peas, from the top of the chart. And like any song that gets played over and over (and over and over), it can start to get a little tiresome -- except, of course, when it's perfectly suited for the moment, like when the home team sacks the quarterback on third and long.

So on an early January night, I fly over the Atlantic, listening to "We Will Rock You" again and again, hoping to unearth a hidden meaning but in the end simply getting it stuck in my head. It's still there when I hop out of a cab to meet May at London's Dominion Theatre, where the musical "We Will Rock You" is in its eighth year. I'm ushered to a private suite and given a "We Will Rock You" program, which I flip through as "We Will Rock You" is being soundchecked. (Now I know why the U.S. military has used the song, played full blast for hours, as an interrogation technique at Guantanamo Bay.) The stomping and clapping is ringing in my ears. So when May walks in, tall and lanky, with long, frizzled hair surrounding his head like a trapper hat, my first thought isn't that I am in the presence of the 39th greatest guitarist in history, according to Rolling Stone, or that May belongs to a Hall of Fame band that's sold more than 300 million albums. I just want to know why the hell he's done this to us.

Do yourself a favor. Go to YouTube and enter "You'll Never Walk Alone," from the Liverpool FC soccer matches in England. Then sit back and enjoy one of the most beautiful moments ever at a sporting event: 45,000 people standing, waving flags and singing in unison. Some fans are woefully out of tune, but everyone in the stadium is howling with the same intensity that the players display on the field, cementing the bond that's supposed to exist between fan and team. Now this is stadium music. Oh sure, the prerecorded stuff is occasionally piped in at European soccer matches, but deejays don't press play that often. And they're certainly not about to replace a tradition that dates back to the 1960s.

It's different in the States. Deejays here press play all the time, not just to energize crowds (Chumbawamba's "Tubthumping") but also sometimes to quiet them (anything by Susan Boyle). We manufacture tradition, as the Red Sox did in 2002 by playing "Sweet Caroline" during the eighth inning, for no reason except it was popular at other ballparks. Or we scrap tradition altogether, as many NHL teams have done in dumping the organ, once as essential to hockey as skates themselves.

It hasn't always been like this. In the 1960s, the only time music might have overshadowed a game was when a superstar like Tony Bennett would sing the national anthem. But in the '70s, piped-in music became a fixture at our games, and it's been steadily building ever since. Our need for these songs is rooted in a mysterious pathos. Are we shallow? Easily bored? Maybe chanting in unison simply isn't our thing? Or maybe there's just something about music that helps reconnect us to ourselves and to each other, in much the same way that sports does.

Whatever the reason, we cater to our audience. NBA deejays indulge the fortysomething urban crowd with hip-hop. NFL fans, also in their 40s but less diverse, are fed hard rock. NHL puckheads, who skew slightly older, hear mostly classic rock. Baseball draws the most diverse crowd -- cheaper tickets plus more games mean a wider base -- so major league deejays play something for everyone. The artists, and sometimes even their rap sheets, are irrelevant. For nearly 20 years, Broncos fans celebrated touchdowns with Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part II." (You know, the tune with only one lyric: "Hey!") But in 2006, Glitter was sentenced to three years in a Vietnam prison for child molestation. The Broncos stopped playing the song, but callers hounded the team until "Part II" was returned to the rotation.

Nobody is certain who played the first pop song at a sporting event. The "Rock and Roll Part II" tradition dates back to 1974, when Michigan deejay Kevin O'Brien pulled the record from his own collection and started spinning it at Kalamazoo Wings games in the International Hockey League. A few years later, when O'Brien was hired by the NHL's Colorado Rockies (now the New Jersey Devils), he brought the song with him, and it eventually caught on at Broncos games. Now, stadium entertainment is an industry in itself. There's even a trade website called Pro Sports DJs, founded by Sean Bovelsky, the 38-year-old spinner for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Lightning. Only employed sports deejays can log on; 578 are registered, including one from almost every major U.S. pro team. They can learn about popular new songs, or chat on message boards dedicated to their art, like "Clips for Opposing Free Throws" or "Rain-out Songs."

Whether stadium deejays are full-time employees or hired on a game-by-game basis (most are part-timers), their jobs are unique to the table-turning profession. Rather than surprising the crowd with rarities, like a party deejay would, sports spinners aim to reassure fans with recognizable songs. "You have to play stuff that the crowd wants to listen to," says Mavericks deejay Anthony Johnson. For the most part, that means sticking with the safe stuff: Steam's "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye" or Europe's "The Final Countdown." The general rule is: Be clever at your own risk. In 2002, Indians pitcher Chuck Finley was in the midst of a messy divorce from Tawny Kitaen, the actress best known for rolling around the hood of a car in the Whitesnake video for "Here I Go Again." Joe Stephen, music director for the White Sox at the time, decided to play the song as Finley entered the game. The Sox fired Stephen shortly thereafter.

Most deejays have a wide selection of situational tunes. Teresa Shear, the Broncos director of game-day entertainment, flashes a music chart that, in terms of its specificity and detail, rivals the playcalling sheet used by head coach Josh McDaniels. The chart features 18 different in-game moments and their appropriate musical accompaniment, from sacks/turnovers (Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It") to opponents' TDs (Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It"). Gregg Greene, director of marketing for the Mariners, plays Fats Domino's "I Want to Walk You Home" after a bases-loaded walk. When fists fly during a Sunday afternoon Red Wings game, Ayron Sequeira, Detroit's director of event entertainment, plays U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday." If a Mavs player fouls out at a home game, Johnson sends him off with the Foo Fighters' "There Goes My Hero."

The goal, deejays say, is to gently summon -- or blatantly manufacture -- a sense of excitement. There are rules, of course, depending on the league. The NFL and NHL allow music only when the game or play clocks aren't running. In baseball, a deejay can spin between innings, during pitching changes and before a batter steps into the box. The NBA actually allows music during game action, at best creating energy and at worst the feeling of an exhibition contest. Says Johnson, "Sometimes fans need to be motivated."

Is that so bad? Heck, armies used to enter battle to drums and bagpipes and bugles. So is it surprising that Atlanta Hawks fans need a spark from Outkast's "Hey Ya!"? Or that Patriots fans cheer louder if Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" accompanies Tom Brady onto the field? If Minnesota Wild crowds have been lulled to sleep, Paul Loomis, manager of game presentation, uses an old standby to wake them up, sometimes as often as six times a game. Only a few bars are required before the Xcel Energy Center is stomping and clapping, with six words thundering from the stands: "WE WILL, WE WILL ROCK YOU."

Once May and I start chatting, my annoyance with him quickly fades. He's a nice guy, a polite guy, a smart guy. (The 62-year-old guitarist recently earned a PhD in astrophysics.) He's been obsessed with math and music his entire life; at age 16, he built his own guitar, which he named the Red Special. It became his trademark.

May casually followed cricket as a kid in London, but he is not a sports fan. He has no idea that "We Will Rock You" is America's most-played sports anthem, until I tell him. Still, the erudite guitarist-songwriter-astrophysicist, who used to live in Los Angeles and still enjoys visiting the States, has theories why music has become so pervasive at our games. "I'm probably going to get in trouble for saying this, but America seems to have become so full of fear," he says. "America has become a nation looking over its shoulder. People don't seem to trust people anymore. Getting on an airplane in America will make you feel like a criminal. Maybe music is needed to restore that feeling of pride. Sports gives people an escape. It makes them feel strong and powerful and optimistic. Music is a great reinforcer."

Funny thing is, May didn't write "We Will Rock You" to make people feel strong and powerful and optimistic. During Queen's infancy, in the early 1970s, May and his bandmates (Mercury, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor) wanted their fans to listen intensely to theatrical, operatic songs like "Bohemian Rhapsody" without singing along. Today, of course, that notion seems so stuffy -- so, you know, British. But rock shows were different then, May explains. You paid to hear the singer, not yourself.

After hits like "Killer Queen," the band was too popular to keep its fans quiet. Backstage, after a 1976 show in Stafford, England, in which the crowd broke into an impromptu "You'll Never Walk Alone," Queen decided it needed a simple, anthemic tune that could connect with the audience. The morning after the show, May woke up with a stomp-stomp-clap beat rolling around his head. To accompany that big rhythm, he sat down and wrote depressing lyrics that described, as he says now, "the futility of man."

"We Will Rock You" begins with, "Buddy you're a boy make a big noise," a kid with mud on his face, "a big disgrace," dreaming of a better life but too timid to take action, "kicking your can all over the place." In the second stanza, the boy is now a young man, bloodied and battling to reach those lofty goals. The song ends with an old man, a poor man, dreams unfulfilled. "Somebody better put you back into your place."

The chorus, in context, is not a rally call, as millions of sports fans later would interpret it, but instead a gentle reassurance. May was inspired by a popular Czech lullaby in which parents promise a child, "We will rock you, rock you" to sleep. May flipped the phrase to "We will, we will rock you," and he was finished. One of the most famous songs ever, the sports anthem of our generation, took all of 10 minutes to compose.

Queen recorded the song in an abandoned church in north London where the band liked the acoustics. For weeks, Mercury and May took turns stomping on old pews and clapping, until they got the right sound. Queen released "We Will Rock You" on the album News of the World and began playing it as an opener at concerts. As a single, "We Will Rock You" -- paired with "We Are the Champions" -- reached No. 4 in America. But that was just the beginning. Years later, at the only U.S. sporting event May has ever attended, he experienced firsthand what he had created. In 1990, he was in Chicago and went to a Lakers-Bulls game, wanting to see Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. During the game, May heard a familiar stomp and clap, and an echo rumbling from the stands. He looked up and saw his face on the video board. "I was quite stunned by the audience participation," he says. "The song had become something bigger."

It had become ours.

There are many perks to having written a sports anthem, although being in the crowd when your song is played isn't necessarily one of them. James Hetfield, lead singer of Metallica, was at a Raiders game when the band's classic guitar riff from "Enter Sandman" blared from the speakers. People turned and stared at him. "It was embarrassing," he says. "I was like, 'Hey, I didn't press play!' " But attending games can also be a good thing. That's how Frankie Sullivan, the former Survivor guitarist who co-wrote "Eye of the Tiger," met Muhammad Ali, Cal Ripken and Brett Favre, not to mention dozens of groupies whose names he can't remember. In the 1980s, when "Eye of the Tiger" was at the peak of its popularity (it was written as the theme for Rocky III), women would seek out Sullivan at stadiums. "I'd like to think, Hey, maybe they're attracted to me," he says now. "But it was because of the song."

All kinds of doors suddenly open. Randy Jones, the cowboy in the Village People, got to sit in a luxury box at Yankee Stadium between former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and current boss Michael Bloomberg, and lead them through "Y.M.C.A." when it was played, as it always is, before the seventh inning as the grounds crew drags the field and dances along. Ronald Bell, the tenor saxophonist for Kool & the Gang, became fast friends with Reggie Jackson when baseball embraced the song "Celebration" in the '80s. Cecil "DC" Glenn, lead rapper of Tag Team, received boxes of Nike shoes and NBA apparel after he performed "Whoomp! (There It Is)" at the Knicks-Rockets Finals in 1994. Hetfield befriended Randy Johnson because of "Enter Sandman." Says the singer, "It's ironic when a sports figure tells me that our music pumps them up, because what they do pumps me up."

Who cares that "Enter Sandman" has nothing to do with sports? The song actually details a child's nightmares. Bruce Springsteen wrote "Born to Run," which is played during games at New Jersey's Giants Stadium, about riding Highway 9 straight out of the Garden State. EMF's "Unbelievable" is a lament about a lying girlfriend. "Whoomp! (There It Is)" recounts a visit to a strip club. "Y.M.C.A." is about -- well, it's rumored to be about a lot of things, including gay sex. Jones is coy when describing its meaning. "It's about young men," he says with a chuckle.

"Bang the Drum All Day," the arena classic by Todd Rundgren, wasn't even intended to be a single. He didn't like the song, which appears on the 1983 album "The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect," and neither did his record company. But a Green Bay Packers deejay started using it in the mid-'90s, and not long afterward the St. Louis Rams appropriated it. "That song," Rundgren says, "is like a child that doesn't do very well in school, but suddenly gets a great job, and you feel like a dumbfounded parent."

The kid is making big coin too. Music licensing agencies such as BMI and ASCAP tally and distribute compensation for sports anthems. The process of calculating payouts is complicated, based on the number of times the song is played, or total number of attendees at the game, or the amount of a flat usage fee a team might pay. But artists whose songs are in heavy rotation easily clear six figures annually. As Ian Dench, the EMF guitarist who wrote "Unbelievable" back in 1990 puts it, "That song has fed the band for a long time."

May has a file in his iTunes library devoted to "We Will Rock You" covers, at least a hundred deep. He opens his laptop, scrolls through them, and for a moment I'm a little worried he'll play them all. But he double-clicks only one, a symphonic version by the group E.S. Posthumus, which might be a part of this year's Super Bowl entertainment. While it's overproduced and overwrought, it's still powerful, still catchy, and most of all, because May and I tap our feet ever so slightly, still a uniting force in its own weird way.

The best songs are elastic. They maintain relevance because their meaning changes over time, speaking to a greater truth without being about a larger truth. May wrote "We Will Rock You" to appease Queen fans, but what he really did was create an instant community. That's why the U.S. military has used "We Will Rock You" before sending troops out to battle. Or why politicians play it at rallies. May doesn't always like how it's used -- especially by our military -- but he knows he's powerless. "Once you put a song out there," he says, "you say goodbye to it."

And then it hits me: May isn't to blame for his song overtaking our sporting events. We are. We did it to ourselves. We're the ones who need the power of music to form a community because, let's face it, our games aren't enough anymore. We're constantly tweeting or texting or checking our fantasy teams or staring at the shiny new stadiums that distract from the action. Sports deejays aren't ruining the game; they're trying to save it, by reminding us to focus on what's important. And no song grabs our attention faster than a few bars of "We Will Rock You." In fact, when Loomis plays it at Wild games, he never has to finish the song. He just turns up the volume for a couple of seconds, until he sees the crowd rising, stomping and clapping, like "Pavlov's dogs," he says. Then he dials it down, savoring the few precious seconds when nothing needs to be manufactured.

Follow The Mag on Twitter @ESPNmag and like us on Facebook.

Seth Wickersham | email

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs.