Eurovision; the song contest that we all love to hate. Or do we? Having pretty much literally grown up alongside this European singing extravaganza, I have to admit to being rather surprised at the impact that some of the songs have made, not only on my memories, but of defining eras of song, fashion and world events.
It has long been fashionable to think of Eurovision as some sort of annual dirge and that to actually like it one would need to be both very easily pleased and to have no real interest in genuine pop music, but is that view strictly fair? I would, especially during the 60’s and 70’s, openly decry Eurovision, if only for the reason that it was so uncool and watched only by old people like my parents. However, looking back there are an astonishing number of songs that can not only define a moment in my life, but that have also made a lasting impression in the musical world and indeed transformed the lives of the artists that performed them.
I well remember the winning entry from Luxembourg in 1965:Poupée de cire, poupée de son, sung by the charming French teenager France Gall. Although mildly controversial at the time, because it shifted away from the ballads that formed the traditional Eurovision entries prior to this time, it has a rhythm that we would now class as quintessentially Eurovision for the period of the mid-sixties through to the early seventies. It was written, incredibly enough, by Serge Gainsbourg, who would of course go on to greater, if somewhat more controversial, success in the years that followed.
1967 would see another marionette themed song winning Eurovision, when the United Kingdom gained its first success in the competition via Sandie Shaw and Puppet on a String. A song that even the most ardent hater of Eurovision would grudgingly admit to knowing, as it soared to the number one spot in the British charts for three weeks in the Spring of that year. It also became a worldwide phenomenon, which included the song reaching number one in a further six European countries.
Another worldwide hit from that year was L’amour est bleu (Love is blue), which only achieved fourth place on the night, but went on to become one of the most recognisable songs ever, with few people in subsequent years realising its Eurovision origins. The song was sung by 17 year old Vicky Leandros, a Greek, living in Germany, singing in French and representing Luxembourg; a union of diversity that surely epitomised the original ideals of Eurovision – uniting the nations of Europe through the medium of song. Vicky’s performance on the night was rather understated and it is hard to imagine that this rather awkward looking teenager is the same Vicky Leandros that triumphed in 1972, when she once again represented Luxembourg. There was certainly nothing understated about her performance that year of Après toi; a song that remains one of the great Eurovision winners and which went on to become a worldwide hit in many languages.
Vicky’s appearances in 1967 and 1972 also highlighted the changing fashions of the times and one can virtually assess the decade of performances during Eurovision purely by giving regard to the artists style of clothing and performance, which adhered quintessentially to the diktats of the age. There were, of course, some variations to this norm, with ABBA, in 1974, being the most notable exception in terms of style and content for their performance of Waterloo.
ABBA’s success, following their triumph in the Eurovision Song Contest, has been widely documented and surely needs no further comment here. One thing that is perhaps less well known isthat, on the night of the contest, not one of the ten jurors representing the voting panel of the UK thought that ABBA’s song was the best on the night and they consequently failed to score them a single point. Luckily, other countries had more sense, otherwise the course of musical history could have been changed for ever.
Luxembourg triumphed again in the following year with the lovely Anne-Marie David giving a tour-de-force performance of Tu te reconnaîtras. As Monaco had won in 1971, with Séverine singing Un banc, un arbre, une rue, this now meant that French language songs had won the competition for three consecutive years, with three of the best and most recognisable songs that epitomised the Eurovision Song Contest. Unfortunately, for France, none of these songs actually represented them in those years, with France’s only win during that decade coming in 1977, with Marie Myriam giving a wonderful performance of L’oiseau et l’enfant, justifiably beating the UK entry of Rock Bottom. This was the fifth time that France had won the competition, but was also to prove their last, as at the time of writing – a gap of thirty-eight years – which would have seemed an incredible occurrence to speculate at the time of Marie’s rendition of this classically Eurovision song.
I must confess to having a certain bias towards French language songs as I love pretty much everything about French culture. Their language is so lyrical and wonderful to listen to that I have a theory that one could sing a song in French about two dustbin men collecting rubbish and it would still sound wonderful.
Norway’s 1980 entry was a song about the construction of a power station which, not unnaturally, failed to impress the judges. Now if only they had sung it in French…
1973 proved something of a golden year in Eurovision, with only six points separating the first three songs (129, 125 and 123 respectively). All three songs are widely regarded as Eurovision classics and went on to achieve worldwide chart success. The second and third placed singers being: Mocedades for Spain, with Eres tú and Cliff Richard for the UK, with Power to All Our Friends.
Despite the ideals of Eurovision, it was inevitable that controversy and real world events would sooner or later have a part to play in the contest. Here are a number of the most well known examples of reality bursting the bubble of the Eurovision Song Contest.
The 1971 event was held in Dublin following Dana’s win for Ireland (with All Kinds of Everything) in the previous year. Clodagh Rodgers represented the UK, but due to the onset of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, received death threats from the IRA. Thankfully she performed without incident.
Palestinian terrorists threatened the 1973 contest in Luxembourg due to the first time participation of Israel. Mercifully, this event also concluded without incident.
Politics has also had a part to play in the competition, with “friendly” countries voting for each other regardless of the quality of their respective songs. Although perceived as a more modern problem, with many of the old Soviet Eastern Bloc countries allegedly voting in a political manner, rather than by meritorious performance, as far back as 1963 Norway caused controversy by changing its vote and thus allowing Denmark to pip Switzerland to the title that year.
In 1968 Cliff Richard was widely tipped to win the title with Congratulations but was beaten by a single point by the Spanish entry of Massiel singing La, la, la. There was much speculation that Franco was keen to host Eurovision and that several jurors had been nobbled. Nothing was ever proved and it remained as pure speculation, although Cliff Richard was allegedly said to have kept an open mind regarding such allegations. Thus, Franco duly got his wish, although he had to suspend a state of emergency in Spain in 1969 in order to allow the Eurovision competitors to enter the country. Massiel’s song undoubtedly has a classic Eurovision sound, although it remains doubtful if a song that contains the word “la” 138 times can be thought of as a worthy winner. It does, however, make it rather easy to sing along to.
When Portugal’s 1974 entry was played on the radio it was the signal to commence preparations for a military coup and it could therefore be argued that Eurovision songs were now literally revolutionary.
When it was apparent that Israel’s entry in the 1978 contest was going to win, the contest was blacked out by Jordan’s television network and replaced by a vase of flowers, with an announcer later giving the false result that the competition had been won by Belgium.
The United Kingdom’s third and fourth wins in the competition probably owed a lot to ABBA, who had established the template of a four piece group consisting of two women and two men.
In 1976 the Brotherhood of Man won with a typically slight, but jaunty offering that was pure Eurovision for its time: Save Your Kisses for Me.
This success was replicated in 1981 by the manufactured band of Bucks Fizz, which contained the lovely Cheryl Baker, who had previously represented the UK with Co-Co in 1978, but only managed to come 11th in that competition. Although many considered Germany’s entry to be superior on the night, Bucks Fizz eventually triumphed by the narrow margin of four points, with Making Your Mind Up.
Winning Eurovision has provided many winning artists with an opportunity to either establish or further their international careers. One notable performer in this regard is Céline Dion, who won the title in 1988 when representing Switzerland with Ne partez pas sans moi.
On the night Switzerland were well behind the UK with only three countries left to vote and the result looked in the bag for Scott Fitzgerald and his rendition of Go. France however failed to provide the UK with any points, whilst Portugal gave them only three, giving their top mark of twelve points to Switzerland. The UK still held a five point lead with only one country now left to vote – Yugoslavia. They awarded Switzerland six points and failed to give the UK any points at all, thus ensuring that Switzerland had won the contest by the smallest possible margin.
Céline Dion went on to international stardom, whilst Scott Fitzgerald vanished into relative obscurity. Who would have thought that a single point would change the lives of two people so drastically.
Established names, both domestically and internationally, have rarely gained success in Eurovision and one wonders if this trend is due to the perception that trying that hard to win is seen as just a tad unfair. Notable failures (if one can attribute that word purely in the context of not winning) for the UK include: Matt Monro (2nd in 1964), Kathy Kirby (2nd in 1965), Mary Hopkin (2nd in 1970), Cliff Richard (2nd in 1968 and 3rd in 1973), The New Seekers (2nd in 1972), Olivia Newton-John (4th in 1974), The Shadows (2nd in 1975) and Michael Ball (2nd in 1992). More recent flops included: Blue in 2011, Engelbert Humperdinck in 2012 and Bonnie Tyler in 2013; the finishing positions of whom I have omitted, in order to preserve a little dignity, both for the individuals concerned and the UK.
Two international stars who failed to achieve success were Nana Mouskouri, representing Luxembourg in 1963 (8th) and Julio Iglesias, representing Spain in 1970 (4th).
A good song is also no guarantee of success, with Italy’s entry of 1958 only coming in 3rd. The song later became better known throughout the world as Volare – how on earth could that not possibly win?
Due to an ever increasing number of “new” countries expressing a desire to compete in Eurovision (due, in the most part, from the break-up of the Soviet Union), semi-finals were introduced in 2004, as there were now too many countries to compete automatically. I have to confess that, from the turn of the century, I stopped watching Eurovision as it seemed to have drifted so far away from its heyday, with acts that seemed ridiculous and voting patterns that had turned into a farce rather than a singing competition. I did, however, tune into the 60th showing of the Eurovision Song Contest this year and I realised that I was probably guilty of missing the point. The period that I loved Eurovision in had changed from its original format and would, consequently, have been as decried by a generation brought up on gentle ballads as I was now decrying the current Eurovision for being something resembling a night out clubbing.
Things change and in the current Eurovision format the visual performance is now just as important as the song or the singer, perhaps even more so. This is down to the fact that, from 2009, the viewing public has had a 50% share of the vote and the result is therefore as much in their hands as any so called experts sitting on a judging panel.
With the semi-finals taking place in the week preceding the actual competition that is held on the Saturday, it is pretty much a week long party for both the competitors and their supporters.
The Eurovision Song Contest has therefore, in a way, gone back to its roots. Winning is nice, but it is no longer the be all and end all it once was, it’s now more about the party. Forget the slightly dodgy political votes, forget that some acts are pretty awful and just enjoy yourself.
This year saw Australia take part in Eurovision for the first time and they achieved a very credible 5th place with Guy Sebastian singing Tonight Again.
The Eurovision Song Contest may still be an event that is very fashionable to hate, but it has viewing figures of hundreds of millions and is one of the most watched events on the planet, so evidently has substantial appeal. In any event, if the competitors and supporters of some 40 countries can come together for a week and forget about war, political division, social unrest and everything else that divides nations and just indulge in a week long party – where the only universal concern is having a good time – then that cannot be a bad thing. Can it?
Neil Kemp is a keen and passionate amateur historian and prize winning photographer who lives in Margate, on the North Kent coast in the United Kingdom. Before retiring he worked both with and at Margate Museum, overseeing budgets on a number of historical projects.