By Nick Friend
Somewhere in amongst the power of the internet, the positive side of social media, the British football fan’s love of a good chant and, Wigan fan, Sean Kennedy’s lyricising, the role of one person has been lost.
Gala Rizzatto is not just the missing link here; she is the key cog – her melodies the same revving engine, the wheels changed for a newer and fresher set. That, she tells me, is what pleases her.
“What I love is that what’s been taken from Freed from Desire is the melody – its anthemic sound.”
For, she explains with the passion that one would expect from a Milan-born singer whose career has been fraught with battles against exploitative record-labels, that she had always envisaged the song being belted out by a crowd as a popular anthem.
“In reality,” she says, “It is inspired by a Buddhist prayer. It says ‘Freed from desire, mind and sense are purified.’ It’s a pop song so is very limited in its number of lyrics and what it can say. It’s not like a folk or a rock song where you have more time to tell a story – it’s a very short simple lyric. But, what it says is ‘my lover’s got no money but he’s got his strong beliefs.’”
Somewhat fittingly, given that Wigan Athletic were languishing in League One looking upwards at Premier League riches when the Northern Ireland forward emerged as an internet sensation, Gala penned the original in response to the superficial greed of her own peers.
“When I wrote it, it was a particular day in New York, and I had gone for dinner with some of my friends uptown in a very cool restaurant – like a fancy Cipriani restaurant, and I heard them complain all through the dinner about what they didn’t have – a bigger house and a bigger car.
“And then on the same day, I went to see my boyfriend at the time, who was from Senegal and I went to Harlem with all his community and eight of them were living in one room and they had rats running in their house but they all had a big smile on their faces, they were playing music, they were dancing, they were eating on the floor together. And I was like, ‘wow.’ I saw happiness in these people who had nothing and I saw complete unhappiness and frustration in these people who had so much. And I wrote the song ‘my lover’s got no money but he’s got his strong beliefs.’ And then people want more and they want freedom – that became ‘Freed from desire, mind and senses purified.’”
There is, Gala confesses, an eerie similarity between the lesson portrayed in the original song and the way in which she has been forced to fight in the most cutthroat of industries.
“People think that this song brought me millions but, in reality, it didn’t. It brought me a basic secretary income.
“It’s an old story – young artists sign bad contracts – maybe not so much now, but they got exploited and things were not regulated in the ‘90s. I wrote all the songs in the album Come Into My Life – I wrote the melody and lyrics to Freed From Desire but I was very young. The record label took advantage of me and there are two other writers listed on the song.
“The truth is that I had a horrible relationship with the label and the co-writers. The label had total control over it and they still do now. So, it’s a very difficult subject and even when it became so big, just imagine that everything that I do: every promotion, every interview that I do and every minute that I give to this music – and I give a lot and have done for twenty years, every little bit goes straight into their pockets. It’s a difficult thing because it’s my song, I wrote it fully but it is owned by someone else.”
These longstanding issues have not stopped Gala from enjoying the popular resurrection of the song. Will Grigg’s on Fire peaked as high as six in the iTunes chart. Indeed, Grigg, despite not seeing a second of action at Euro 2016, came joint 25th in the UEFA Best Player in Europe Award – an official UEFA gong voted for purely by sports journalists, alongside the French pair of Paul Pogba and Hugo Lloris and Atletico Madrid captain Diego Godin – ahead of fellow striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Much of her delight at the tune’s gargantuan revival is down to the enjoyment and fun that this unique situation has created, while, simultaneously, not losing the unmistakable roots of the original version – which, itself, reached number one in France, Belgium, Russia, Spain and Brazil, as well as going Platinum in the United Kingdom and Diamond in France.
“To me, my song is my song and everyone knows that this is my song. If you take Yesterday and you change the lyrics, of course it’s an adaptation and it’s a fun version. But, it was done with good intent. Obviously, if it had been done to lead the Nazi group in Germany, I wouldn’t be happy at all but it’s to lead the enthusiasm of these good people, of these fans.
As an Italian girl growing up in a Milan household with a football-mad father, Gala has had little choice but to embrace the sport and those who live for their Saturday afternoons. Her description of fandom is beautiful in its pure innocence and highlights where the game is erring as money reigns supreme over those who really matter.
“People think: ‘football, money, millions of dollars’ – no. Football fans are the essence of the game. They love sport and the players so much. They don’t make a
dime to go and watch and enjoy the game. They just go because they love it. What do they make out of it? They make nothing out of it. They are just people who enjoy sport. These people just go because they just love soccer and they love sport.
There’s a lovely symmetry between Gala’s career and the Northern Ireland story that would capture the hearts of the football family, their fans being awarded a special prize by the Mayor of Paris for what they gave the tournament.
“I don’t have a team but I’ve always liked the underdog. So when Northern Ireland came up with the song, I was really happy because I’d heard that they’d never qualified for the Euros before. The fact that they were also the underdog and that they’d made it through, it was so nice and fitting that they found my song.”
“And the fact that they use my song to give life and breathe life into their players to push them onto victory is beautiful. And I think what they pi
ck up on is not so much the lyric but it’s the whole nature of the song. The song is anthemic. These fans have caught up on that desire in the song and they used the anthemic element to breathe life into their players and to encourage them. I think it’s such a beautiful thing that a song has an energy by itself.”
This, she explains, is why she loves music – a characteristic that sport shares.
“Music and sport both gather people of different backgrounds together – a rich guy and a poor guy, they both love the same song, they both cheer for the same football team. It really brings people together from different backgrounds and countries.”
And perhaps, this is the most telling point. In the most testing event that Europe has hosted for many a decade, with security fears blighting every moment, football and music came together to paper over cracks and come through as a continent with a shared song, shared laughs and with flying colours.
Photographs: Matriarch Records, geograph