It is only right that I start this post with a confession – I LOVE the Eurovison Song Contest! There I’ve said it – so if you don’t enjoy crazy fools jigging about on stage singing songs in many languages, bi-lingual presenters, not to mention the UK coming near to last for many years, then you may wish to look away now. 😉 For overseas visitors, particularly from the USA, Canada or elsewhere in the world, where you may not have seen this event on TV, you may find this post totally baffling. Read on about this European eccentricity and you will either be intrigued or be appalled, possibly both!
Over the years, since I can first recall watching this annual event in 1972, there have also been some memorable nights of entertainment, some winners who went on to have incredible success and quite a few who were never heard of again! The UK coverage on TV for many, many years has been complimented by the live commentary of two Irish born presenters, Terry Wogan for several decades and more recently Graham Norton. Both have managed to tread that fine line between between seeing it all as a lot of fun whilst mentioning some of the things that have undermined the contest, blatant voting within ethnic and politic blocks and a fair sprinkling of incredibly terrible songs every year. In fact, part of the reason I watch it is to see which country has the most ridiculous song this year!
Marcel Bezençon of the European Broadcasting Union is credited with proposing an international song contest in 1955. The idea was based on the popular Sanremo Music Festival in Italy, but with a few important differences. In the early Sanremo contest, from 1951, songs were sung twice by different individuals or groups, first by Italian artists and then by foreign guest singers, the song was then judged, rather than the song and performance being judged together. The Sanremo Music Festival is still held every year, and has often been used to pick out the Italian entry for Eurovison and has also launched the international careers of several popular singers, like Andrea Bocelli.
In 1956 it was almost too ambitious a project to link up the fledgling TV stations of Europe in a live TV show. It stretched the limits of the technology of the day and remains a massive technological achievement. Now it is also streamed live on the internet and broadcast in many countries beyond the European boundaries. Whilst the TV technology was an integral part of the whole idea from the first contest in 1956, most people who were interested in the contest tuned in to the radio broadcast – TV ownership was not widespread enough for everyone to watch it live as they do now. In fact I can recall listening to the show on the radio in the 1970s too, so perhaps it was in a year when our TV had broken down in that week.
The Eurovison Song Contest has always just had the one performance of the song by an individual or group and that song and performance are judged by panels of jurors from the competing countries, In much more recent times some countries have introduced phone voting in a similar way to many live TV talent shows, but telephone votes cannot be cast for the country from which the call is made, only for any of the other countries entries. There were only 7 competing countries in the first contest, held in Switzerland in 1956 and there were no questions about the motives behind the way the votes were cast as it was a secret jury decision and the winner, Switzerland, was just announced. From 1957-1987 a physical scoreboard was used to display the points awarded by the various national juries. Since then various electronic display boards and onscreen graphics have been used.
The number of competing countries grew to 18, by 1965 and 17 or 18 countries competed in most contests throughout the 1960s and 70s. During the 1980s and 90s the entrants increased to 25 for many years before a rapid expansion of numbers in 2004. Now there are two stages to the contest, with two semi-final rounds where new entrant nations or ones that scored badly in previous years have to compete to even be in the final, which is now between 26 competitor nations. As the numbers have grown and different scoring methods have been tried there have been various controversies about the results with nations threatening to boycott future contests when unhappy with the outcome. It can all get a bit heated with various rivalries surfacing from below the apparently smooth calm surface of international togetherness! Again for me this is also part of the fun of the event.
Another fun feature is the television link ups to receive the scores from each country, as every year there are always a few attempts to use the very brief moment in the spotlight to be noticed on the international stage. Unfortunately some of the attempts to look great are seriously misjudged and end up looking like a really bad YouTube video by a nerdy teenager, and their moment of fame turns to disaster, bringing embarrassment on individual and their home nation! The scoring section of the contest is the most tedious, but as it reaches the conclusion the tension mounts as to which of the top 2 or 3 songs has won. A lot is at stake, not just for the song writer and performers, but for their country too, as the country of the winning entry get to host the contest the following year. This is often seized as a major opportunity to promote the host country and city with lavish travel videos in little clips throughout the contest, shown before each competing song. It has also been rumoured though that some small nations have tried to ensure that they don’t win, for fear of the costs of hosting the contest bankrupting the host TV company.
Watching the contest for the first time I am sure many people are completely baffled by all of the nuances of national rivalries, but they may also be baffled how some nations think they are going to win with bizarre costumes, strange performers and crazy novelty songs. This is made all the more strange by some extremely good entries each year, that are serious, meaningful songs, sung by individuals or groups with great talent and charisma. An early favourite for me, although I only heard it a few years later was 1964 winner from Italy, Gigliola Cinquetti – Non ho’ l’etá, a song that still sounds great now. The video below is the radio audio, with some video and stills mixed, as the original video was lost.
The first UK winner was Sandy Shaw with Puppet on a String, in 1967. As you can see in the video below, there was a slight technical hitch with her mic not working for the first few seconds of the song and she famously performed barefoot! Sandy continues to sing and entertain and has a great website.
Lulu’s Boom Bang-a-bang was a joint winner in 1969, when unclear voting rules left 4 nations tied for first place and no way to decide who had won. Despite that controversy, that led to threats to boycott future contest by several nations, it is an iconic TV clip, in colour! Again she remains a popular figure in UK music and entertainment, her official website is here.
A group that went on to have the most successful career after winning Eurovision were ABBA’s the winning song Waterloo (1974). They were a slightly strange blend of glam rock styling, folk lyrics and pop harmonies, but it all worked and they remain very popular as an historic group. As individuals each has enjoyed successful careers in many aspects of music. Their songs of the 70s and 80s were turned into a stage musical in 1999 that has had sell out tours around the world and a successful conversion to film too. Now they even have a museum dedicated to them, for more info on that visit here. Many individuals or groups competing in Eurovision each year dream of emulating the success of ABBA, but to do so they need to have some incredible talent and the luck of catching the public mood and imagination of the era.
For me one of the most outstanding and unusual winners was in 1995, a classical style duo known as Secret Garden, along with a beautiful singer, Gunnhild Tvinnereim and Swedish nyckelharpist Åsa Jinder, performed the haunting piece Nocturne. Secret Garden are Fionnuala Sherry originally from Ireland and Rolf Løvland, from Norway. Secret Garden have continued to make haunting beautiful music enjoyed by many people, despite not being a major commercial success story. They have an official website that is very good and their own YouTube channel too.
Finally, after all the modern sounds, bright colours and flashing lights, here is a reminder of how simply it all started out with the 1956 winner Lys Assia – Refrain. She also continues to record and perform and her official website is here.
Update: The winner – Only Teardrops (my first correct prediction of the winner for many years!)
This year’s most ridiculous entry (in my opinion) Cezar Ouatu – It’s My Life (Romania)