Hunters and Collectors are playing on Grand Final Day, which begs the question is ‘Holy Grail’ a tired bogan sporting anthem or something more?
The announcement of Hunters and Collectors as half-time entertainment was greeted with a fairly muted response, an agreeable meat and 3 veg kind of decision, with a knowing “I wonder if they’ll play Holy Grail”, which implicitly says that we’ve heard all this before.
Holy Grail has become so synonymous with sport, and to the point, the AFL Grand Final, that it fades as mere wallpaper for impact. The kind of song that is sung along to in pubs across Australia by people who know nothing about music, thus disarming itself completely. Contrast this with the snootier than thou (though brilliant) British music critic /historian Simon Reynolds who has name-checked it as a pop song wonder. Reynolds disarms most who have much more pretensions to cool than anyone that sings along to this song. So how did Holy Grail get to this vanilla point and should we take a closer look it?
Mark Seymour appeared on Fox Footy the other night looking a little uncomfortable next to the beer-barning ‘Robbo’, at a guess perhaps the type who sings along to the Holy Grail but would know nothing about the band’s formative work. He did manage, however, to give some insight into how it grew into the omnipresent ‘anthem’ it now is.
From its proto-industrial art rock beginnings, Hunters and Collectors had gathered critical acclaim for their 1986 album ‘Human Frailty’ before cracking the mainstream in its wake. ‘Holy Grail was the last single released from ‘Cut’ and is in some ways a footnote to their career, it was their last of a string of rock radio ready singles through the late 80s and early 90s. Even then, for all its ubiquity down the track it only reached #20 in the charts in 1993.
While it sometimes soundtracked Essendon’s 1993 premiership highlights, it took a couple of years for it to first really achieve a sporting connection. In early 1995 Queensland won its first ever Sheffield Shield title. It seems quaint, and is just plain sad for cricket fans today, but these were days when the Sheffield Shield mattered, and a pop song was linked. I dare say we’ll mention ‘Sheffield Shield’ and ’pop song forever linked’ in the same sentence ever again. In 2013 Sheffield Shield and popular culture have never met.
The breaking of a 68 year drought by Queensland equated to the Holy Grail, and the tale of Napoleon’s 1812 march to Russia was now set in a sporting context. Seymour mentioned in the interview that he was hired to pay for the Queensland team and the ball started rolling.
It was gradual however, as the ‘Hunnas’ broke up in 1998 , Seymour played it solo at that year’s Grand Final. With the break-up Seymour quite justifiably heeded his earlier lyrics of ‘Where Do You Go’ and while he may well have liked to have said no to the cold hard cash, starving just would not make sense.
It reached its nadir when Channel Ten gained the AFL TV rights in 2002 and soundtracked its Saturday broadcasts and every finals match between 2002-2006 with the ‘Holy Grail’. Throw in a another Grand Final appearance from Seymour and it had been appropriated as an overflogged dead horse of a footy anthem as opposed to the interesting pop song it started life as.
What unquestionably added to the sheer ordinariness that the song morphed into was the ho-hum Channel 10 football intro that it soundtracked.
Whereas Channel 9 took the post-Channel 7 dominance and raised it to another level as far as production values and drama building, Channel 10 looked as if it gave a camcorder to a 13 year old Footy Record Seller and asked to film fans as they walked into the game. It was the height of blandness.
Talking of the a quest for the holy grail while introducing a meaningless Saturday afternoon Round 16 snorer further damaged its value and by the end of the Channel 10 rights period the song was looked upon as symbol for overexposure and overkill that we never wanted to hear again.
In the prism of a Hunters and Collectors reformation perhaps we can re-evaluate the song. First of all for the first time the band rather than just Seymour will play it at a Grand Final.
Freed from saturation Channel Ten coverage we can look at it in its original form , a song likening the doomed and hopeless voyage of Napoleon to Hunters and Collectors own never-quite realised push for the American market. It’s also a damn catchy pop song that takes the anthemic quality of some of their best work and weaves in the piano loop hook to give it a lightness that they’d not previously shown. Its pop smarts was what immediately drew me to the song as a 12 year old with no knowledge of Napoleon, before it had been stolen away by footy.
And perhaps in dumb-luck style we took the refrain of ‘holy grail’ that we so often use in sporting terms and made it our own. Behind that though the story of an ultimately doomed charge that’s still a ‘hell of a story’ and keeps us as ‘a fool for…’ it accurately sums up the Australian sporting lexicon.
We live a sporting existence from the elite to the local that worships the ultimate win, ‘the holy grail’, perhaps more than any other sporting culture. Having played sport in the UK I always believed that while we are a sports-mad country, the Brits ‘enjoyed’ their sport more. Most cultures appreciate the beauty and not so much the win that Australia worships. Our sports typically have one winner a year, we don’t have multiple cups and trophies – we prefer one winner.
When pursuing the holy grail each year, in an AFL sense, there are 17 teams that take the doomed Napoleon charge. We know that our emotional investment will mean that 17/18ths of us will be doomed. But we keep coming back, because we are fools for the holy grail.
So forget the overkill and listen to the Holy Grail at half-time, it’s better than you’ll remember. And stick around to hear the monolithic Talking to A Stranger and driving Say Goodbye at the after-match concert. That will be something.