Mar 302012

It’s coming…

I have been watching the Eurovision Song Contest since about 1971, which means that, even allowing for the years when I have had other demands on my time, I have devoted something like a whole week of my life to the event.

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far away, there were a group of European countries, who just ten years previously had either been at war with one another, occupied by or occupying one another, or keeping out of it by pleading neutrality. An organisation based in Switzerland called the European Broadcasting Union put forward the suggestion that an international song contest should be held, primarily to test the limits of live television broadcasting technology, but also to promote international harmony.

And so in 1956, in Switzerland, seven countries tested the technology, and ever since then, on a Saturday evening in the Spring, Europe pauses to come together in a festival of music to unite the continent.

By the time I became aware of the competition, sometime around 1970 or thereabouts, it was well established, and the format had shown itself to be quite adaptable, with an increasing number of nations taking part. The national broadcasting organisation in each participating country is fairly autonomous, so I can only attempt to describe the Contest through a British pair of eyes.

I have a compilation of every winner since 1956 (including all four tied winners from 1969 – they ran out of medals and after the Contest had to go away and work out how to stop it happening again), which I have been known to play on long car journeys.

As a service to the Hall I have edited the highlights among the winners down to just under eighteen minutes. The sound quality is highly variable, but I am sure that this will be the least of the worries of some Townsfolk when faced with some of the music contained herein.

[audio:|titles=Fifty-Six Years of Eurovision in Eighteen Minutes]

Alternatively, here’s Lulu.

Early in the year, each broadcaster selects, in whichever way it sees fit, an artist and a song to represent the country. In the early 1970s the British entry was selected through the Cliff Richard Show, with somebody like Olivia Newton-John, The Shadows (without Cliff), or Cliff himself singing a song each week and viewers would vote for the song they preferred, which would then proceed to the Contest. If I remember correctly, this was done by viewers cutting out a coupon from the Radio Times (the BBC’s TV listings magazine, in existence since before telly – hence the title) and posting it to the BBC. This was in the days when British homes tended to have small black and white televisions, but tended not to have telephones, so it probably was the most democratic selection process available at the time. I remember my Grandma telling me in no uncertain terms that she wouldn’t waste her money on the Radio Times, so I don’t think we ever voted.

From very early on in its history, the Contest has been hosted by the winner of the previous year’s competition. Every country works to put on a show more impressive than those which have gone before, a bit like the Olympic Games, which inevitably costs quite a lot to stage, but works quite well unless a country has a winning streak for several years. In the 1990s, Ireland won it 3 years on the trot, and again a couple of years later, and their Government were seriously concerned that the Irish economy would collapse if it had to pay for another one – at which point they decided to ensure that they selected a song which couldn’t possibly win. This may at first glance appear quite straightforward, in a “Springtime for Hitler” sort of way – but doesn’t always pay off. I’ll get to the songs themselves in a bit.


  30 Responses to “Where Did ABBA Come From, Daddy?”

  1. cliff sovinsanity

    Interesting. It seems to me if each country had the same process for selecting a representative ( I almost typed “tribute”), then the quality of singers would be higher. Yet, there is no accounting for some people’s taste, which would explain the Jedwards’ of the world.
    Therefore why not have the representatives be selected by committee. Example, winners from The Mercury Prize (UK), versus The Polaris Prize (Canada), versus Australian Music Prize, versus Prix Constantin (France). Music nerds would love it but I fear the average TV viewer would be bored to tears watching…er… Sigur Ros VS Arcade Fire.
    Then again I, like Happiness Stan, would probably watch the current incarnation it if not for the cheese factor.

  2. BigSteve

    It’s hard to resist feeling that Eurovision is proof that Europe is the scourge of the planet. I can’t really grasp the international cooperation aspect of all of this. Most of these songs would make me want to invade or at least bomb the countries responsible. Boom Bang a Bang alone argues for a dissolution of the Special Relationship between the US and the UK. I can sort of understand the songs being lowest common denominator, but why are the production values of the TV clips so cut-rate?

  3. Happiness Stan

    I think that the Contest has been not taken seriously for so long that trying to elevate it into a serious music-nerd event from the glutinous cheese-fest it has been for at least forty years would be tricky at least.

    It’s perfectly obvious that such a contest would be fun for the likes of many gathered here, but unless it was called something else and there was any sort of money being thrown at it I doubt it would ever happen.

  4. Happiness Stan

    It’s testament to the diet of cheese served up by British TV and radio for so long that I can actually with hand on heart admit that I’ve always actually liked Boom Bang-A-Bang. This is what our generation in the UK were raised on, and to an extent all worthy musical movements throughout the twentieth century have ended up being tarred by the hand of cheese. You had Elvis, we had Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele; you had Miles Davis and John Coltrane, we (or at least the Germans) had James Last; The Sex Pistols and the Clash’s entourages spawned Billy Idol and Adam Ant.

    I can answer the last point about the production values – they are cut-rate because so many corners are cut in the staging of the thing. It looks cheap because it is done with practically no money. The voting is so erratic and unpredictable, with the votes of the populations of Armenia or Cyprus having the same weight as those of France or Russia, countries hundreds of times bigger, that most winners do not expect to win, and the TV companies who are suddenly faced with the prospect of footing the bill for staging it are not prepared to give over their entire light entertainment budget for the whole year to stage something which has been a laughing stock in most of the participating countries for decades.

  5. Never forget that a member of the Soft Boys went on to write and perform a Eurovision winner.

    My own favorite Eurovision entries are the ones that are deliberately cheesy as all hell. The most recent one I can think of is the UK’s 2007 entry, “Flying the Flag” by Scooch, which had both a classic Eurovision nonsense-syllable refrain and a surprising number of double-entrendre sex jokes.

  6. hrrundivbakshi

    I kinda like that “Ding Dange Dong” song.

  7. hrrundivbakshi

    And I like the point in that otherwise execrable Bucks Fizz number when the chick on the right sings “…let them take you from behind” as she hikes up her skirt. It almost makes up for the fact that I was sorely tempted to shoot myself in the eyes as I watched the rest of their “performance.”

    This seems at so many levels to be a tradition that’s spun completely out of control. Countries submit shitty songs in the hopes they’ll lose; viewers tune in to be horrified, not pleased; corn-studded “groups” like Bucks Fizz emerge from deep in the bowels of the music industry, only to disappear down the pop culture U-bend after a few short days of infamy… yet it all goes on and on and on. Fascinating.

  8. Those chicks in the Bucks Fizz video early 80s sexy. Liked the move when they went to the short skirts!

  9. ladymisskirroyale

    Not to be completely biased here, but Abba’s song is the best of the bunch. Not only is there the cheerful tune, but you have lyrics with a double entendre. There’s more depth to that group (depth? Abba?) than the others. I like France Gall but that song was pretty dumb (no wonder it won the Eurovision contest).

    As an aside, did anyone catch Sir Paul with Terry Gross? She commented that his new song, “Valentine,” sounds sad (minor key) but the lyrics are cheerful. Abba’s “Waterloo” is the opposite: cheerful sound but sad lyrics. Hmmm.

    As for Bucks Fizz, Stan, we need your help to better understand the English connotation of this drink. Does it have the pseudo-classy brunch aspiration that the French/American Mimosa has? If so, Bucks Fizz is very incorrectly named. The band’s music was more like Donny Osmond meets the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Not classy at all.

  10. Happiness Stan

    I stopped drinking quite a long time ago, and even in my imbibing days I was a very long way from the sort of set who understood the social aspects of such things.

    I think it’s probably fair to say that the drink lost some of its reputation for class once the band had taken off.

    The Donny Osmond/Rocky Horror analogy is a valid one, but applies equally to many of the horrors being perpetrated at the time, and at least it was obvious that they had a sense of humour about it and were prepared to send themselves up, the polar opposite of the risible Adam Ant and utterly despicable Billy Idol. Which I know is like asking someone if they’d prefer a poke in the eye or a slap around the privates, but of the two I’d always go for the ones who are open about what they are doing.

    They were created for Eurovision, but went on to have a fairly spectacular career over here for several years, and held their own quite well reputationally against many of the post-punk bands which I know you enjoy. They were actually held in quite high affection by post-punks with a sense of humour, mainly because the two ladies in the band turned out to be bright and intelligent and were highly entertaining when interviewed on chat shows and the like. Indeed, the punk band I played in would occasionally play “Making Your Mind Up”, our (male) bassist and I would put on skirts at the start of the song which our (female) singer would remove at the appropriate moment in the song. We probably only did it a couple of times live, but it helped to cement our reputation on the local circuit.

    Sorry I can’t elaborate on the drink. Does Mr LadyM have any opinions on either the band or the drink?

  11. Happiness Stan

    Hrr, you have put your finger precisely on what makes Eurovision so wonderful. Even though Bucks Fizz were the exception and had a long and incredibly successful career over here, the observation stands for practically every other act dredged up or invented for the contest.

  12. Happiness Stan

    And one which no muso could be ashamed to own as well!

    Even though I only heard it the once I can still remember the tune and chorus, and occasionally hum it. They came second to last, the video is here

    Here, on the other hand, is something I wouldn’t even be prepared to offer the Hall in the “If You Can’t Say Something Nice About” section, the UK’s 2006 entry

    If anyone can think of something nice to say about this one, other than “three minutes of my life during which I might otherwise have been eating wasps or picking out my eyes with a teaspoon” I would be keen to hear it.

  13. Happiness Stan

    I meant the Katrina and the Waves one by the first sentence, the Scooch one in the second sentence.

  14. I’ve just read through this a third time and watched the videos once more…Fascinating, as Spock would say.

    I think “Waterloo” is an excellent song. ABBA had maybe 3 other good-to-great songs, for my tastes, but seeing this live clip made me wonder why the two women always sang in unison yet, even in unison, are nowhere near on-key. What a weird European rock phenomenon they were.

    Happiness Stan, I always read about how England is reluctant to get tied up with continental European ideas, like the Euro. Isn’t it time your nation, just a few years fresh off winning the first-ever World Cup of Rock ‘n Roll, drops out of this contest and lets the non-native English speakers duke it out without you?

  15. ladymisskirroyale

    Mr. Royale’s comment: “Blech” on both counts. Bucks Fizz was big when he lived in England in ’83 and although they were all over BBC1, he didn’t really like them. He also recalls Neil Diamond’s “Turn On Your Heartlight” at this same time period, so that may have overshadowed things and made it difficult to fully appreciate that era of pop.

    As for Buck’s Fizz, the drink, Wikipedia says that it’s a favorite at weddings due to it’s lower alcohol content. I’ve been to a myriad of cousin’s weddings in The Motherland but never had a Buck’s Fizz (that I can recall, which does say a lot about English weddings). Elderflower Cordial was the non-alcoholic, lighter drink that was offered.

  16. ladymisskirroyale

    Oh, good, the Battling Scots would have a chance this time!

  17. Happiness Stan

    Mr M, that’s a very interesting question..

    Firstly, the question of England in Europe and England’s attitude to Europe is not quite that simple – other than to say that in general I tend to be more pro-Europe than most of my compatriots I don’t really want to be dragged very far into the politics of it. It tends to be the right-wing pro-Free Market types who make the most noise about getting out of Europe, and they also tend to be the ones who own the printed media and their online offshoots over here. Most people either couldn’t care less or believe what they read in the Murdoch press.

    There are a couple of reasons why the UK won’t pull out of Eurovision: firstly, as one of the early joiners we have an automatic right of entry, so can put up whatever terrible song by whichever dreadful act we choose and it will automatically be through to the final and we automatically have free advertising for the country across the whole of Europe, half of the Middle-East and the entire Eastern Bloc for one night of the year.

    Another is that it does allow the UK (which includes the far more Euro-friendly Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish) to both feel a part of Europe for a few hours in a non-threatening way while also feeling superior about having better music than the massed bouzoukis of Macedonia and the castanet-playing disco of Spain.

    Secondly, unless we accidentally win it, we don’t have to stage it – so for the cost of sending Graham Norton and a low-budget/low-cost pop group somewhere for a few days the BBC have a whole evening of low-cost TV with an enormous audience, most of whom will either be drunk or in bed before the last of the interminable results have come in.

    The papers and the rest of the media are going Engelbert crazy, so it gives them something a bit lighter to fill the space and dead air with, and as long as he doesn’t win (which he won’t, they’ve been careful to make sure the song goes on for too long without building into anything of interest) everybody will go home happy, and looking forward to a jolly week somewhere next year.

    There simply isn’t any incentive to pull out, unlike tennis or formula one it doesn’t have any international appeal so nobody will be fighting a bidding war with the BBC for the rights to show it, so everybody wins.

    What makes it even odder concerning ABBA is that, despite being Scandinavian, and thus from an entirely different continent, they have always been considered very much European simply because once upon a time the Swedish broadcasting network decided to see if they could get the simultaneous broadcasting technology to work.

  18. Happiness Stan

    That’s the second time in this thread the reply’s ended up in the wrong place…

  19. Happiness Stan

    I have no memory of that Neil Diamond song.

    I can’t imagine many non-Brits enjoying Elderflower Cordial, it’s like lemonade with an less of an aftertaste than an aftershock akin to what I would imagine drinking a small tub of quick drying wallpaper paste would be like. Homemade Elderflower wine has a similar aftertaste, but if made effectively can be very potent. A friend once drank a couple of glasses, missed the door on trying to exit the room and walked straight into the wall. Most humourous!

  20. BigSteve

    Does anyone else find the idea that Scandinavia isn’t part of Europe strange?

  21. ladymisskirroyale

    That Neil Diamond number was one of the horrific songs that ET gave us.

  22. I do, but it’s kind of cool having them maintain their separate identity.

  23. Happiness Stan

    As a European, I find that as baffling as I suspect you would be if I were to suggest that Australia should become a state of America, but it is being led to thinking about things such as that which makes me find the Hall such a fun and fascinating place.

    Culturally and politically they are very much removed from Europe, as well as physically being on another continent. They are geographically right next door to Russia, and have had to be very careful throughout history to retain neutrality, plus they have even worse weather than the UK, but not as bad as Siberia.

  24. Happiness Stan

    Our kids have been known to watch ET, but I’ve just realised that even though I thought I had watched it I don’t think I’ve done more than catch a few seconds as I wander past the TV.

  25. alexmagic

    I really enjoyed this write-up. I had some familiarity with Eurovision, but things like the winning countries attempting to sandbag and throw the competition the next year so they wouldn’t have to pay for everything – in fact, that the winning country hosted the following year itself – were new details to me. Very entertaining.

    I was vaguely aware of the concept before then, but 2006 was the first year I got to follow along with Eurovision via some people from the UK posting about it as it was happening, so the arrival of and subsequent win by Lodi was quite the first-year payoff. I think the cheesiness of the whole undertaking is probably an acceptable parallel to the “let’s hit every stereotype” closing ceremonies at the various Olympic games.

    I’m kind of surprised, with the successful importing of Pop Idol over here into a massive American Idol franchise and various knock-offs, that no one has yet tried to mount a week-or-month-long version of Eurovision to the US. 50 states competing against each other. The same “no voting for the band from your own state”/”every state’s aggregate voting counts the same” rules could probably still work. I doubt I’d want to watch it myself because there would still likely be the same homogeneous “written by Diane Warren, performed by someone to appeal to the 13-18 year old girl demo” musical product that dominates, but if there was some kind of push to figure out what the sound of each particular state was, that would be interesting.

  26. Happiness Stan

    Thanks Alex – and thanks also to everyone else who has ploughed through what became an unintentionally lengthy write-up even after all the bits I cut out!

    The Pop/American Idol angle is an interesting one, as from the little I’ve seen of it I think that prior to these shows taking off the only place where such lowest-common-denominator wannabe popstars had the chance to give it their best shot was Eurovision.

    It can actually be rather sad as they cut backstage during the voting to see someone whose ego had been pumped up with the prospect of winning it and selling a ton of records being reduced to pumping the air in uncontrollable excitement as the 36th country to vote gives them three points and elevates them from the prospect of the dreaded “nul points”.

    One of the great things about the Contest, which has probably come from its longevity, is the lack of being written for teenage girls market, as the songs are selected in the main by elderly male executives at the TV stations, and teenage girls wouldn’t watch it.

  27. BigSteve

    I’ve checked some reference sources, and all of them agree that Scandinavia is part of Europe. For example, the first sentence in the Wikipedia article reads: “Scandinavia[1] is a historical cultural-linguistic region in northern Europe that includes the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, characterized by their common ethno-cultural heritage and related languages.”

  28. BigSteve

    And I don’t get the idea that they’re “on another continent.”

  29. I would have to agree fully with Stan’s assessment that the BBC would never pull out of low cost original programming with some guaranteed audience. That explains much of American TV as well, like the Donald Trump thing.

    I was thinking about how that would work here. I’m not sure there is enough diversity between the states (really CT = RI same as OR = WA) but you could do OK with North and South America plus some outliers like Japan, Korea and the Philippines. Wouldn’t it be fun to see Uruguay’s finish pop musicians on NBC once a year? To hear our cheez-ball host (Howie Mandel?) do a few jokes at the expense of Guadeloupe? Why not?

  30. Happiness Stan

    It’s probably a throwback to having been invaded by Vikings over and over again a thousand years ago, but it is certainly not a common perception that Scandinavia is very European. I think that I must consider myself pince-nez’d, although I think that most central Europeans would consider this culturally, if not geographically odd. I was certainly taught at school that Scandinavia was another continent, it would appear that either my teacher was wrong or the world has changed.

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