LIVES OF THE GREAT SONGS / From tears to cheers, and back again: What do Rodgers & Hammerstein and Liverpool FC have in common? Robert Butler follows the trail of a stirring tune - You'll Never Walk Alone

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
OTHER day I was talking to a man who supports Liverpool Football Club. He has relatives who are members of a local amateur dramatic society, so he went along to see a production they were doing of Carousel. In the second act some New Englanders return from a clam-bake party, only to discover that the hero, a ne'er-do-well called Billy, has stabbed himself. His wife, Julie, runs to him, and Billy dies in her arms. Julie sobs, 'What am I going to do?'

Her cousin Nettie has the answer. 'Why, you're going to stay here with me.'

she says, 'Main thing is to keep on living. Keep on caring what's going to happen. Remember the sampler you gave me. Remember what it says.'

And Julie, who's in tears, with her dead husband in her arms, and the village standing round, remembers what the sampler says: 'When you walk through a storm/Keep your head up high/And don't be afraid of the dark'.

They're tender words, but to the Liverpool fan, they came as a shock.

They're the words of the team song. 'I couldn't figure it out,' he said, 'I didn't know what it was doing there.'

CAROUSEL, a musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, opened at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway in 1945, just across the street from Oklahoma], their hit of 1943. Carousel was a smash too, running on Broadway for 890 performances. There are a dozen good songs in the show, but only one became so famous that it left its roots way behind.

On the original-cast recording (MCA), Christine Johnson, playing Nettie, sings 'You'll Never Walk Alone' with the slow, urgent vibrato of kids in a playground swirling rubber tubes. It's a simple song, with big open vowels, and Johnson brings plenty of sombre colour to the 'dark' in the first verse, which then turns, in the second, to the delicate promise of the 'lark'.

To get from the dark to the lark, what you have to do is walk: first through the wind, then through the rain. The repetitions drive the song on towards the catchphrase title which, like any good catchphrase, you get twice. The second time it's cranked up so the message leaps out in the boldest type. Or seems to, except halfway through, Johnson sounds unsure and fades away. She needs the assurance of the others. The New England villagers rally round.

The chorus is a quieter, broader wave of sentiment that builds again, but this time, finding strength in numbers, they give it a big finish. It's an anthem of hope that works best as a faltering journey out of despair.

The song was recorded that same year by the young showbiz veteran, Judy Garland (reissued on The One and Only, Capitol, 1991). There's a heavenly choir to keep her company, but Garland defies the soft-pastel backdrop. Yes, you think, she's been through the storm and the rain, and she got drenched.

Compare her version to the more overtly inspirational or even perspirational ones. In Cilla Black with Barry Manilow (Columbia, 1993) the message turns triumphalist: you'll never walk alone because Cilla and Barry will always be there too. When Max Bygraves suggests you 'walk on' through this rotten weather (Fifty Golden Years, Braveworld 1993) it comes over like friendly advice: remember to take a mac, son, it's raining out there. But Garland chews up the words with an anxiety that reverberates right through a word like storrrrmmmm. When she lingers over the final 'alone', she goes very small. Loneliness, you feel, is a good deal worse than a bad cold.

It's one reason that, well before Liverpool, people liked to sing this song in a crowd. In the late Fifties, Louis Armstrong was on the road, taking his trumpet version of 'You'll Never Walk Alone' to Savannah, Georgia, and giving it a strict New Orleans beat that never failed to get everyone up and dancing. The recorded version (Chicago Concert 1956, CBS) doesn't have any words, but in Savannah the audience, who are all black, supply them.

Armstrong goes through two choruses and the audience won't stop singing.

They want the song again. 'Most touching damn thing I ever saw,' Armstrong told the reporter David Halberstam, 'I almost started crying right there on stage. We really hit something inside each person there.'

Six years later the song crossed the Atlantic and took the ferry across the Mersey. In October 1963, Gerry and the Pacemakers took it to the top of the British charts: it was their third release, and their third No 1 (Columbia, reissued on several compilations). 'Waaaaalk arrnn]' goes the 21-year-old Gerry Marsden. His mouth is so close to the microphone the saliva sounds as if it's part of George Martin's orchestral arrangement. It's - slow - stuff -this - with - big - breaths: an unembarrassed slice of schmaltz. Six weeks later someone sang it on the terraces of Anfield. 'Well, if there was one person,' says Marsden in the book The Kop (Stephen F Kelly, Mandarin, 1993), 'I'd like to shake his hand.'

'WALK ON]' they go. Then there's a gap. 'Walk on]'. Another gap. They sound asthmatic, as if 14,000 Liverpool fans are climbing the 100 steps of the kop. They're standing there, arms outstretched, scarves aloft, swaying. It's something they've done for 30 years, but this afternoon's game against Newcastle is the second-last time they'll be able to do it standing up.

Following the Taylor Report - commissioned after 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at Hillsborough in 1989 - football grounds are to become all-seater.

'Walk on]' they go, with renewed urgency. They are one-nil down. The crowd bellow out Rodgers and Hammerstein in short phrases that rise and fall like the revving of an engine. Maybe that's why Gerry and the Pacemakers' version caught on. It offers so many places to draw breath.

Their team is a shadow of its former self, and one of the players who made it so good then, Peter Beardsley, is on the other side today, running rings round Liverpool. The crowd on the kop is way down from the 25,000 who packed in there in the late Sixties. But they still say the kop is always worth a goal. Today it's worth two, both by Newcastle, whose supporters, standing at the other end cheekily pick up the song and give it Cilla and Barry's upbeat treatment.

The Liverpool team did their own version ('We Can Do It', State Records) for the Cup Final in 1977. Kevin Keegan's bouffant helmet haircut on the sleeve fixes the year firmly in the mind. You wouldn't know from the single that here were 11 people who had distinguished themselves as a team. When that high note arrives ('neeeeaaaarrr-vaaaarrrr'), they lunge after it like a late tackle. They lost the Cup Final, too.

You can hear the crowd itself, more movingly, more eerily, at the end of 'Fearless' on Pink Floyd's 1971 album Meddle (Harvest). There's a soft, diffuse quality, as it spreads out across the stadium, joining the triple-claps, the whistles and Liverpool-Liverpool]s in this almost mournful surge of loyalty.

Mourning brought the song back into the charts. After the Bradford City fire in 1985, Gerry Marsden got together an all-star group of singers, called them 'The Crowd', and took a charity version back to No 1. Four years later came Hillsborough. At the Cup Final that year, between Liverpool and Everton, 80,000 people stood and sang the song, led again by Marsden (whose autobiography is entitled I'll Never Walk Alone). The song can mean as much as the occasion demands. You know it means very little when Slade put it back-to-back with 'Auld Lang Syne' on The Christmas Party Album.

IN 1992, the National Theatre put on a major revival of Carousel which later transferred to the West End and Broadway, and the song returned to its source. Patricia Routledge, who played Nettie, told me, 'When everything is at its darkest, she is the voice of hope. Keep going, she says, just keep going.' Messages don't get any simpler. Hammerstein said he was more at home with characters who didn't have a big vocabulary. 'You find people who are primitive in their education - they're more likely, I think, to say what they mean.'

Rodgers's music sounds deceptively simple too. It's a song that everyone thinks they can sing. But be warned. 'It's so simple,' says Routledge, 'it's like a Bach chorale or a piece of Schubert. And they, of course, are very difficult.'

] Adapted from 'Lives of the Great Songs' (Pavilion, hardback, pounds 14.99), which includes all 25 articles that have now appeared in our series, plus 11 more. It is in the shops now, but readers can order it by post at no extra cost. To pay by credit card ring 0235 831700 (Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm); by cheque, write to Bookpoint Ltd (Mail Order Dept), 39 Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4TD, cheque payable to Bookpoint. Please allow 14 days for delivery.

(Photograph omitted)