I think we first got wind of a possible Olympics commission late last summer. It was, "The BBC want a meeting with you." I said, "Oh really? What about?" They said, "We can't tell you – it's a secret." That was when I thought, "Oh great! They're going to ask us to do the Olympics music!" I also guessed who else they'd approached to pitch ideas, but I can't talk about that.
The song we've written is called "First Steps", and the BBC are going to use bits of it across their Olympics coverage. The lyrics are desperately simple. While I was scrambling around for a theme, our bass player's baby daughter started walking and Pete [Turner] captured the moment on video. He's holding the camera, but he's also got his arms outstretched and little Martha staggers from her mum Ruth over to him. Just as she reaches Pete, she goes "Dada!" loud and clear. You can see Ruth's face behind her, and she says "I don't believe it!"
That was very touching for me to watch. I love all three of them so much, and I realised that all of the elements I was looking for were there in that piece of film. The song's about putting your hopes in someone, the physical aspect of human endeavour and pushing yourself to do something you couldn't do before.
The challenge the BBC laid down was to write something to film footage that was pretty recognisable. Everybody's seen athletics meetings, and everybody's seen the fantastic capabilities of modern cameras. We were aiming for something rousing and anthemic, and I remember the word "inclusive" came up a lot. I said, "I'm assuming you're asking us because of 'One Day Like This'?" [crowd-pleasing Elbow song which featured in the BBC's coverage of the Beijing Olympics in 2008]. They said, "Yes."
We wanted to do something quite traditional-sounding with a big gospel choir and a philharmonic orchestra. We knew it would have to have some gladiatorial elements; that it would need to be fierce. It also had to be the biggest piece of music we could create, yet be written in such a way that you could strip it down into different elements for use over different kinds of footage. We needed something that could work as a "winning" theme or a "losing" theme.
I knew I wanted to get my ego out of the way, so I told them that I wasn't going to sing on it. It's not an Elbow song; it's an Olympics theme song and it has to sound like it belongs to everybody. I think having the gospel choir on there helps give it that "everyman" feel. The choir was specially assembled for us, and we recorded them at Abbey Road in Studio 2. That's The Beatles' old studio, which was great.
We recorded the BBC Philharmonic at the brilliant new space in Media City in Manchester. We even managed to finish half an hour early, which I think is fairly unheard of at orchestral sessions. Nick Ingman, who we'd worked with before, helped us with the arrangement. I'd sing him a violin line down the phone, or mark out a part on the piano with tape and play it to him about seven times slower than it needed to be. What we've ended up with is hopefully quite an emotional piece of music. It lasts for about six and a half minutes, but you'll probably only hear a minute or two of it at any one time.
People jokingly ask me if I've got an all-access pass to the Games, but I don't follow sports like I do politics or music. I do watch the athletics since my friend Bryan Glancy died [in 2006], though.
Bryan's the guy that The Seldom Seen Kid [Elbow's 2008 Mercury Music Prize-winning album] is named after. His dad, who was an amateur football referee, died a few years before him, and I remember him being a very dry character. Bryan once told me, "You know what? The only time I can remember seeing me dad cry is when the athletics is on." I said, "Really?" He said, "Yeah, he's embarrassed about it, but he dabs away with his hankie whether people win or lose."
Some years after his dad died, I got a text from Bryan one day. He used to send you these leading messages to draw you in. You had to rack your brains to figure out what they meant – that was the game. This one just said: "Chip off the old block." I remembered that the Commonwealth Games were on, so I phoned him up and said, "You're crying at the athletics, aren't you?" He said, "Yeah", and we both started laughing our heads off. Of course, since Bryan died, I cry at the athletics as well.
I suppose it's because I'm thinking what he was thinking. I mean, those athletes: they've put so much time and energy into their training and it's almost as if they've learned to fly. Plus the 100 metres at the Olympics – that's your life, and it's over in 10 seconds. It's their families I think about most, especially their children, because you know that those moments are going to be passed down through the generations for years. When we talked in the band about doing the Olympics theme, we all thought that was the most exciting thing: knowing it was going to soundtrack somebody's dad winning a gold medal.
We're very honoured to be doing this. You have to appreciate the endeavour of the Olympics, because endeavour is the best we have, isn't it? My granddad on me mum's side used to lean over his fire on his stick and tell me that the gas to heat it came from under the North Sea. Then he'd say, "And do you know what pushes it through the pipe, son? Endeavour!"
The London Olympics opening ceremony is on 27 July. Expanded versions of Elbow's 'Cast of Thousands' and 'Leaders of the Free World' albums are out now
Guy Garvey was talking to James McNairReuse content