Holy Grail: A tired bogan sporting anthem, or something more?

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.


  1. And The Slab! Lovely blokes too, the Hunnas.

  2. Holy Grail is a diabolical bloody song.

    Horn-heavy, unsubtle, plodding, chugga-chugga, inspiration-free, po-faced, humourless, MMM-high-rotation, bogan-tickling tripe – just like most of the rest of their mid-to-late career work.

    Notable only for containing the single most risibly tin-eared line in the history of popular music – “We were full of beans but we were dying like flies”.

    Lovely blokes, though.

  3. Murray Wilson says

    river runs dry

  4. Andrew Starkie says

    Mark Seymour’s autobiography is a ripper.

    Call me old fashioned, but Up There Cazaly and One Day in September for me. Surprise, surprise, they’re even footy songs!

  5. Earl O'Neill says

    A leaden take on ‘Louie Louie’ with silly lyrics, nothing more.

  6. Malcolm Ashwood says

    As some 1 who is completely tond deaf and not 1 ounce of Music Knowledge
    I love Holy Grail We are the Champions Up there Cazaly just give me a Sports song with some ooph and I am happy anything but Meatloaf

  7. In defence of Seymour and the band, I don’t think they ever imagined the song being adopted on such a grand stage. In the autobiography Starkie refers to, Seymour talks about being interviewed before a game by MMM and being quite confused by the McGuire and Newman questioning about who he followed and what sport meant to him.

    It’s a great read and exposes a lot about what a toxic and weirdly socialist environment the band operated in for many years.

    I am happy that they are playing GF day, something local for a change. Don’t think you’d ever see Lionel Ritchie, Meatloaf and the Hunnas in the same sentence.

    Human Fraility is one of the truly great Aust albums. Imagine 90,000 fans singing ‘you don’t make me feel like I’m a woman anymore”

    Now, if only TISM could support…..

  8. I can live with the Hunnas. Reckon the song does plod along, though; and I’ve always thought ‘Holy Grails’ riff was a little too similar to Boston’s ‘More than a feeling.’ Anyway, better to gave a half decent aussie band up there. Especially when the likes of Nickleback might one day be an option.

  9. Grant Fraser says

    Agree with much of what is written above. “Holy Grail” is a nice little tune that has gained unexpected prominence. The true magnificence of the Hunnas comes from the driving bass and horns that propel “The Slab” (aka Betty’s Worry), “Say Goodbye” and “Talking to a Stranger” into the stratosphere of Australian music IMHO. Mark’s voice is patchy, and has been for some time (refer Sound Relief), but fortunately instruments are more resilient than vocal cords. When I heard that the Hunnas were to play a the Big Dance I took it as a sign the Mighty Fightings may just be there, and I must be there too. Hoping that the Cat’s #35 driving his shoulder into the breastbone (inter alia) of Robbie Gray may be another omen, given he initiated The Pledge. If all the boxes are ticked, expect to see a 6ft 4inch fellow in a Hawks jumper in a coma of delight in the twilight of 28 September as those magnificent horns start up with “Ba bup bup baaaa…”

  10. Great article. Illuminating take on Australian “only one winner” culture, as compared with European “enjoyment” culture.
    Competitiveness is a beautiful, ugly thing.

    As for footy “entertainment,” get rid of it.
    Attendees, in general, aren’t of a mind to appreciate challenging or new musical experiences. Attendees, in general, suffer through prolonged exposure to high decibel advertising and are craving to give their ears a break. Attendees, in general, are unable to decipher musical nuance through the LOUD sound systems, echoing from concrete stands.
    This is perhaps why bands are invited to perform only songs to which people can sing along.
    Even then, the singing along rarely happens.
    Attending the Dreamtime at the G, this year, I was saddened to see the state of indifference in which Archie Roach was held as he tried to sing at half time.
    The whole “Entertainment” ideal is skew-wiff.
    It’s used as a justification for higher ticket prices. Yet no one has asked for it. Just give us the footy.

  11. Peter Fuller says

    Couldn’t agree more! The concept is borrowed from sports (especially from the US) in which the actual playing time is brief and constantly interrupted. This makes them ideal for television unlike soccer and aussie rules. Entertainment at the footy is the bastard child of television’s influence.

  12. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Great Point eregnans like has any 1 ever left the GF and said geez whasnt the entertainment magnificent made the day I think NOT when is the only time the entertainment is mentioned is when it is appalling eg Meatloaf get rid of it just like get rid of the Umpire bouncing the ball but that is another topic

  13. e.regans

    You’re 100% on the money. And it’s not just about upping the ticket price. It’s all about turning a 3 hour product into a 4 and half hour product. 3 to 4 million watched meatloaf struggle through his back catalougue and bookending either side of it was a Carlton Draught ad and an ad for Holden. Just shits me that these marketing people ruin the day for everyone. As you said, just give us the game for pete’s sake.

  14. Grant Fraser says

    The game..and Geoff Ablett at half time

  15. It takes YEARS to establish a solid tradition of laughably shit “entertainment” at Grand Finals, and now you want to kill that tradition by having a decent Australian band?

    I want a Batmobile, a giant semi-inflated footballer wobbling around, Ricky May saying “how you goin’ darlin?” to a 13 year old, a field of dancing goal umpires, and finally a cameo from Meatloaf hitting zero correct notes, brandishing a t-shirt cannon that looks like a penis. I want TRADITIONAL SHITTY ENTERTAINMENT.

  16. You’ve talked me round 4boat. Ricky May: wow, the guy was born to do the grannie.

  17. e.regnans

    On the indifference meted to Archie Roach in the dreamtime game, I have to say I weep for humanity that it ever could come to as much . Archie Roach is hands down Australia’s greatest ever singer, and has his recordings been put together with a little more imagination, he would be a far bigger name than what he is. But as you said, nuance, Archie’s charm, is muffled by an arena’s sound system,. so maybe I’ll forgive the dreamtime crowd that night (and I do so hopefully, for if that’s not the case, they’re all lost souls.)

  18. Andrew Starkie says

    if there’s no ‘entertainment’, ground announcer telling us to cheer when our team comes on and sponsors’ ads blaring at every stoppage we may have to think for ourselves.

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