In The Way Back, Ben Affleck plays Jack, a drunk hoping to turn his life around by coaching his old high school basketball team. But because Jack is still under the sway of his demons, his redemption doesn’t go smoothly — one of the low points involves him getting ejected from a road game for throwing a fit. As Jack walks off the court, humiliated, the hometown crowd lets him have it, serenading him with a mocking chant:
Na na na na
Na na na na
Hey hey hey
It’s the taunt no opposing team wants to hear because it means you’ve lost or fouled out or otherwise been removed from the game. That chant adds insult to injury, and/or rubs salt in the wound. And even after all these years, it’s lost none of its bratty, obnoxious trolling power. When you’re the chanter, it’s heaven. When you’re on the receiving end, it’s hell.
Sports have created unexpected new context for plenty of hit songs. Ray Charles’ version of “Hit the Road Jack” has been a staple for fans bidding adieu to a player who’s fouled out. Jack White was just an indie-rock dude before “Seven Nation Army” was suddenly embraced by the masses, becoming the biggest jock jam of our age. And so, it’s very possible that many people don’t even know that the “Na na na na” chant is from an actual song — a song that went all the way to No. 1. That it became a stadium anthem is, in some ways, as unlikely an occurrence as the fact that it became a radio smash in the first place.
The song is “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” a sugary, slightly psychedelic track that was released by a group called Steam in 1969. Except, there really wasn’t a Steam: It was just three guys (Paul Leka, Gary DeCarlo and Dale Frashuer) who played together in bands earlier in the decade but had gone their separate ways. One of the songs they had worked on was something called “Kiss Him Goodbye.”
“It was just a blues shuffle,” DeCarlo later said, an abandoned track that he and his co-writers revisited when DeCarlo needed throwaway B-sides to accompany potential singles for his burgeoning solo career at Mercury Records. Maybe there was something worth salvaging? “We went into the studio that night, took a drum track from [a] Neil Sedaka song that I had recorded. … Everything was laid on top of it,” DeCarlo explained. “It was just piano overdubs, organ overdubs, vibes. I played percussion on a board and then we did the background parts.”
Problem was, they still needed a chorus. “I started writing while I was sitting at the piano, going ‘na na na na, na na na na…’” Leka once recalled. “Everything was ‘na-na’ when you didn’t have a lyric. … We agreed the song was just a B-side and said … let’s leave those lyrics in.” According to DeCarlo, he came up with the “hey hey” part. As for the lyrics, they concerned the singer trying to convince a girl that he loved her more than another guy did. “It was and still is about the love factor,” DeCarlo would say. “Anyone who’s been in a love triangle can identify with this. Trying to make the girl realize that he’s not the guy for her.”
For a song that was always meant to be filler, “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” ended up being far more successful than DeCarlo’s hyped-up singles, landing at No. 1 for two weeks in December 1969 and knocking the Beatles’ “Come Together”/“Something” from the top spot. The track was released under the aforementioned band name Steam, which was dreamed up as a way to distinguish the song from solo material DeCarlo was working on at the time. The group never got close to having as big a smash for the rest of their careers.
For most forgotten hits, that would be the end of the story. Lots of 1960s chart-toppers fade into the ether — but this one was rejuvenated almost a decade later, with the credit often going to Nancy Faust, an organist for the Chicago White Sox who, according to legend, was asked to play the song during a game.
In the book Old Comiskey Park: Essays and Memories of the Historic Home of the Chicago White Sox, 1910-1991, former owner Bill Veeck recalled the magical summer of 1977:
“A group from Oak Lawn tavern had requested the song and suddenly a major league anthem was born. … When the Sox rocked an opposing pitcher Nancy would strike up the band — not Steam, although they had a resurgence of popularity and a Top 10 record again in the Chicagoland market. No, Nancy’s band was the fans, all 1,657,135, breaking the record up to that point for either Chicago team. What made the ‘Kiss Him Goodbye’ song so wonderful was that it was not created by a guy in the scoreboard. Rather, it was created by the fans, for the fans, and it was of the fans — the blue-collar fans’ declaration of emancipation from staged antics.”
When the other team’s pitcher was removed, Faust played the song. When the White Sox won, she’d play the song. Played on an organ, the sustained notes somehow making the song’s taunting quality even more pronounced, “Na Na Hey Hey” didn’t just become synonymous with the Pale Hose — it became a sort of trademark for the organist. “Because so many people were singing it, Mercury re-released it and presented me with a gold record,” Faust revealed in 2019. No wonder that when the White Sox played their final game at Comiskey in 1990, they had to hear “Na Na Hey Hey” one last time.
By then, though, the chant was finding its way to other venues. When Leka died in 2011, at the age of 68, the L.A. Times noted that the song “[had] caught on at soccer games overseas, where the ‘goodbye’ in the chorus is substituted with ‘Adios!’ in Spain, ‘Au Revoir!’ in France, ‘Ciao! Ciao!’ in Italy and ‘Sayonara!’ in Japan.” You hear it in college football, professional basketball, hockey, you name it. You don’t even need the music — fans can just belt it out a cappella.
But perhaps the wildest recent use of “Na Na Hey Hey” was in 2017, when congressional Democrats sarcastically sang the chorus after their Republican cohorts voted to overturn parts of Obamacare. Weirdly, though, this isn’t unusual in politics: As The New York Times pointed out, both Barack Obama and George W. Bush got similar treatment from rowdy partisans when they left the White House for the last time as president.
DeCarlo was once asked for his reaction to the Obamacare story. “The Democrats have been the problem with our economy and with a lot of things for years now,” he said, adding, “It’s like they say — no exposure is bad exposure. The thing is that the song is getting the exposure. As far as what Obamacare stands for, that is a whole different situation.”
Not a bad afterlife for a novelty pop song. And before I say goodbye, I’d like to point out that Bananarama’s 1983 version of “Na Na Hey Hey” might still be the best.