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It’s Time To Go To War…What Music Should We Play? -or- What’s Your Walk-Out Song?

June 29, 2016

LWB+WEBSITE+MASTHEAD.pngTwo of my friends have a delightful podcast called Last Week’s Balls (about sports and dating), and the most recent episode got me thinking (it’s a thinkin’ person’s podcast). They were talking about what would be their “walk up” song—the song played for a batter as he/she walks up to the plate. I’ve often asked people what would be their “walk out” song. Similar premise, different sport. A walk-out song is the music you’d play as you walked to the ring in a combat sport, say boxing or mixed martial arts.

Sport has its roots in war. Early athletic competitions evolved from military training. So in considering what makes a great walk out song, we should start with the role music has played in sport’s ancient, more violent cousin.

In the Old Testament (Joshua 6:3-5), as Joshua’s army has the city of Jericho under siege, God gives him these instructions:

You shall march around the city, all the men of war going around the city once. Thus shall you do for six days. Seven priests shall bear seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark. On the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, and the priests shall blow the trumpets. And when they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, when you hear the sound of the trumpet, then all the people shall shout with a great shout, and the wall of the city will fall down flat…

In my high school freshman religion class, the teacher, Father Ferone, handed out plastic nose flutes to each of us and we paraded through other classes, blowing our noses off to the approximate tune of “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.” This was, I think, a taunt to other teachers, a way of getting us to come out of our shells and, mostly, a way to drive home that particular story. It worked—I remember it 26 years later.

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Nose flutes aside, the point is that music has played a part in war for a very, very long time. And although it’s unlikely that music ever actually brought down walls, it has been used for centuries to psyche up the troops and intimidate the enemy. These two characteristics are critical in a good walk out song. You want to fire people up, and you want to scare the crap out of your opponent. You know the scene in Apocalypse Now where they mount a helicopter assault on the beach while blasting Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrie? That’s the right effect.

Let’s bridge from war to sport. Consider the haka, the traditional dance and chant that the New Zealand All Blacks perform before each rugby match. It’s rooted in a Māori war dance. It’s a chant in an ancient language—almost like a curse. The dance is violent, and when they perform it, the All Blacks seem utterly possessed. It’s incredibly intimidating, which makes it an excellent pre-game ritual.

If psyching out your opponent is a key to a good entrance, then perhaps the greatest ever was Mike Tyson’s 1988 championship fight against Michael Spinks. In a time of flamboyant, showy entrances, glittering robes and bouncy hip-hop tracks, Tyson emerged shirtless, all sweated up, to the sound of dragging chains. The announcer doesn’t quite know what to make of it, but check out Michael Spinks’ eyes and tell me he isn’t crapping his pants.

We should take a moment to note how devastating it is to get an entry song wrong too. Not that it would have changed the outcome, but Michael Spinks’ entry music was a schmaltzy song by master of the 80s soundtrack, Kenny Loggins. This was the fight of his life, and he brought a song from the man who wrote “Playing With the Boys”? Spinks was doomed.

Likewise, when heralded MMA fighter Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic made his much-awaited UFC debut, he played Duran Duran for his walk-out music. UFC fans tried to write it off as Mirko being European, kind of like you might excuse a speedo at the pool from someone who doesn’t speak the language, but deep down everyone knew this didn’t bode well for Mirko. How’d that fight go? Here’s the final 20 seconds.

That was the first time I thought I’d just watched a UFC fighter actually get killed in the ring. Maybe Mirko underestimated Gabriel Gonzaga. I place at least 30% of the blame on Simon Le Bon and the boys.

The UFC has never matched the pageantry of the old Japanese equivalent, Pride FC. Regardless of the quality of the fighter, he looks like a badass when slowly rising into view in front of a 60-foot wall of lights and pyrotechnics. And Pride had Lenne Hardt, affectionately dubbed “Crazy Pride Lady,” introducing the fighters. I love Bruce Buffer (UFC announcer), but the insanity of Hardt’s voice fit the over-the-top aesthetic of Pride perfectly.

As just one example of a grand Pride entrance, here’s my favorite fighter, Fedor Emelianenko. Not only was Fedor physically dominant, there was Dostoyevskyan lore surrounding him. A stoic, pious man from the sticks who could take your head off with a sledgehammer-like fist, you also got the sense that Fedor had all of Russia behind him (Putin was a fan and sometimes attended Fedor’s fights in Russia). Fedor’s music captures this fervent nationalism and pomp (though I don’t agree with Bas Rutten’s gushing pronouncement that it’s the “greatest entrance music I’ve ever heard”).

If you want to talk pageantry of an entrance, nobody beats the modern WWE. Fake wrestling or no, I know people who have gone to WWE shows and returned as if they have just witnessed a religious miracle. Perhaps because of the booming popularity of mixed martial arts over the past 15 years, the WWE has doubled down on what it knows it has cornered—the over-the-top show. If “real fighting” is two dudes laying on top of each other in the corner of the cage, give me the fake fighting and make it as big as possible, including the entrance (for the record, I prefer the real fighting, but to each his own).

Being an old school fake wrestling fan (back when it was still called the WWF), I used to love the Ultimate Warrior’s entrance. With minimal pyrotechnics back then, he generated enough human energy to blow the roof off the Superdome. His music was a pretty standard metal track, but he sprinted from the locker room, ran around the ring like a maniac and shook the ropes like he was trying to rip his meaty shoulders from their sockets. He was also ridiculed by the other wrestlers because, with his high-octane entrance, he was often out of gas by the time the match actually started. But on my television, man did he look like a badass!

Still, the best entrance music, since that’s what we’re talking about, has to go to the man who captured the spirit of the 80s in his 24-inch biceps: Hulk Hogan. His entrance music was “I am a Real American” by Rick Derringer (a little google trivia for you: well before penning the theme song to Hulkamania, Derringer was in the McCoys, famous for “Hang On Sloopy”). A whole book should be written about the deeper meaning of “I am a Real American” and its jingoistic overtones, but maybe I’m looking at it with the Trump-tinted glasses of 2016. Still, the song is a lyric tweak and two power chords away from the patriotic lampoon, “America, Fuck Yeah!” And let’s pause to appreciate the poetry of the lyrics for a moment:

When it comes crashing down and it hurts inside
Ya’ gotta take a stand, it don’t help to hide

If you hurt my friends, can you hurt my pride [sic – Americans don’t ask questions]
I gotta be a man, I can’t let it slide
I am a real American
Fight for the rights of every man
I am a real American
Fight for what’s right – Fight for your life

Well I’m feeling strong about right and wrong (Ooo yeah)
And I don’t take trouble for very long.
I got somethin’ deep inside of me
Courage is the thing that keeps us free

That’s some mad red, white and Budweiser right there. I hear the David Cross line, “What? I can’t hear you with all these flags flapping in my ear!” But that’s me being cynical and sarcastic and everything 40 years and Fox News has made me. The ten-year-old in me, ready to drop a flying elbow on my brother from the back of the love seat, hears that song and sees that strangely orange Hercules gesturing to the fans that he can’t hear them—that ten-year-old Jimmie looks at the TV and thinks, “Yes, that is a real American.”

Not only is this song an interminable earworm, but I can’t think of anyone who so precisely embodies their walk-out song. It’s perfect. Hulk Hogan in the 80s stood for America. He was a hero of my youth, right there next to MacGuyver and Michael Knight and B.A. Baracus. And even if wrestling was fake (still hotly debatable in the 80s), Hulk Hogan was real. American.

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What’s ironic is that as I’ve become more aware of irony, that song is even more spot on. A comeback, a reality show, a leaked sex tape, a lawsuit and a massive legal settlement. 62-year-old former fake wrestler tapes himself having intercourse with a friend’s wife, sues for emotional distress when tape leaks and wins $140 million. Real. American.

But enough of this analysis, and let’s put our irony glasses away again. The best way to understand the perfection of Hulk Hogan’s walk-out music is to just experience it.

Confession. I was at the gym earlier today thinking about this question, what my walk-out song would be, and I was trying them out as I exercised. I wanted to see what felt right if, let’s imagine, I were going to be raised up by a hydraulic platform in front of a wall of fire, or zipline down from the rafters into the ol’ squared circle for a little mano a mano combat with Jake “The Snake” Roberts. With that scene in mind, I tried out “I am a Real American.” And I liked it. It felt good. Gave me a kick of energy. Even made me think, “Damn straight. I am a real American!”

So would that be my walk-out song?

No way. I couldn’t pull it off. I’m not all-American-looking enough. And the lyrics are way too stupid.

So what’s my criteria for a great walk-out song?

  • Intimidates the opponent. Mostly this means loud and maybe a little angry. Fierce. It doesn’t have to be scary and dark, like Ozzy or Marilyn Manson or anything, but I want something that hits hard right out of the gate.
  • Pump up the troops. Since there aren’t really troops here, I’m just looking for a song that pumps me up. Feels like a 100mg of caffeine on top of the natural adrenaline dump.
  • The people love it. This was brought up in the Last Week’s Balls episode, and I think they’re right. It can’t be some obscure track that nobody knows. Your walk-out track is not the time to share that killer B.U.G. Mafia track you brought back from Bucharest (though check these guys out, for real. By far my favorite Romanian hip-hop group). You want people to scream and stand up the moment they hear the first chord because it’s one of their favorites too.

Like “I am a Real American,” I tried these songs out at the gym. Just to be clear, I was shooting hoops. I haven’t tested, or really even considered until now, that certain songs might deliver more during other activities like lifting. Possible, but unlikely. And that’s too many variables for the time we have here. Let’s just keep it simple.

After much brain-racking, I narrowed it down to five of my favorite walk-out songs and then tested those five against the criteria above. Here’s the verdict on each:

Public Enemy “Harder Thank You Think”  Love this track. It’s on permanent rotation in my gym mix, and when the horns kick in, I feel like I’m instantly two years younger. But it fails #3 above. Not that many people are going to know it. Plus, it has a weird bit at the beginning where Flavor Flav is just chattering some nonsense about being in a car or something. Flav never makes much sense. This one will have to stay on my gym mix.

Rage Against the Machine “Testify”  This one crushes right out of the gate. Tom Morello’s guitar is always angry, and the song drops about 15 seconds in, which is perfect. It’s an angsty song—it makes me feel like I do want to fight someone. But again, it’s a little too obscure for what we need.

Beastie Boys “Sabotage”  Well-known crowd pleaser. Heavy guitar. Feels pretty angry. Drops at about :15. I particularly like this if I’m an underdog because of the line “your crystal ball ain’t so crystal clear.” You’re wrong, bud. You’re about to get messed up. And “Sabotage” feels subversive. I like this one.

AC/DC “Back in Black”  Love that it’s just a few taps of the high hat, then we’re right into Angus’s famous riff. This will get fans to their feet for sure. Brian Johnson’s vocals aren’t necessarily angry, but they’ve got some punch. This song would be good for a comeback, though that starts to feel too literal. And I love this song, but there’s something about it that feels like it would be played between innings at a baseball game, or while the relief pitcher is warming up. Doesn’t quite feel ownable enough.

Guns n’ Roses “Welcome To the Jungle” After a full day of music searching and soul-searching, this is it. I’m going with the first song off the greatest metal album of all time. The reverberating opening riff is legendary, and Axl’s “Oh my God” right as the rest of the band kicks in sounds like someone who just saw their opponent and knows they’re in for a world of hurt. This album was formative for me. My heart just says this is the right track. And “Welcome to the Jungle”—what a message for someone who’s about to get lit up. Welcome to the jungle, baby. Let’s go to war.

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