On May 5 it’s The Eurovision Song Contest. And — admit it — you’ll be there in front of the telly cringeing as this year’s entry, Belle And The Devotions, do their bit for Britain. Has it always been this awful? Tom Hibbert investigates.
IT WAS BACK in 1956 that certain bright sparks at the Eurovision TV network hit upon the gruesome wheeze of beaming a ‘glamorous’ song contest ‘live’ to the television sets across the continent.
Every spring since then, millions of innocent Europeans have stared aghast at their screens as persons — many in tasteless frocks — have pranced about with a hectic lack of grace, often grinning, sometimes winking and usually singing in some peculiar form of gibberish. The tunes are hardly ever any good and the words often border on the totally dotty, but viewers remain transfixed by this mad spectacle.
Back in 1956, however, the BBC were rather toffee-nosed about the whole affair. They declined to enter the first contest and, after the poor showing of Patricia Bredin’s feeble ballad ‘All’ in ’57, withdrew again. But, in ’59, the trusty warbling twosome of Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson entered with ‘Sing Little Birdie’ and won. Hurrah!
Already a Eurovision sound seemed to be evolving as most of the entries could be sorted into two simple song categories — A) bouncy, wholesome thigh-slappers; and B) drippy, moist-eyed ballads. In 1960 the UK’s swaggering boomer Bryan Johnson plumped for Type A with ‘Looking High High High’, which sounded almost identical to every other entry.
Next year, Britain ill-advisedly entered somebody young — the harmless teen duo The Allisons with ‘Are You Sure?’. The lads’ snazzy haircuts and wobbly harmonies, modelled on the Everley Brothers, were just a bit too ‘racey’ for the old buffers on the voting panels so the BBC had to change tactics again.
Over the succeeding years, they were to wheel out a startling array of dependable squares — none of whom managed to lay hands on the coveted first prize. Ronnie Carroll, of the ample jaw and sturdy teeth, had consecutive cracks at it with ‘Ring A Ding Girl’ (in ’62) and ‘Say Wonderful Things’ (in ’63). Diminutive croaker Matt Monro tried with the simpering ‘I Love The Little Things’ in ’64. Kathy Kirby, of the glistening lips and fiery lungs, had a stab with ‘I Belong’ (’65) and, in ’66, the Tartan Tenor, Kenneth McKellar had a bash with the appalling ‘A Man Without Love’.
But it seemed high time the crooning duffers were put out to graze. Switching to the “swinging, singing dolly bird” method pioneered in previous years by France and Luxembourg, the BBC recruited Sandie Shaw and kitted her out with a ‘gentle’ mini-skirt and a lethal song ‘Puppet On A String’. Extremely perky, relentlessly bouncy and overwhelmingly irritating, the number swept to an easy victory in the 1967 competition.
Britain was beginning to get the hang of this Eurovision lark. ‘Congratulations’, sung by pop trooper Cliff Richard the following year, was even more defiantly hearty and jolly than ‘Puppet’. Cliff did his best, diddling around in his trim double-breasted job with frilly white necking, but he just couldn’t quite swing it. No sour grapes though, he just vowed to return another time.(And he did, in ’73, with ‘Power To All My Friends’, but came third. “I think we’ve been cheated every time,” he said. “Something’s wrong somewhere. I had two zonking great hits out of the contest but I’d like to win it once.”
Meanwhile, all across Europe, composers of popular music were perfecting the art of trite, booming, jaunty rubbish while lyric writers were searching for the key to absolute banality, linking words that made no sense but would lodge in the listener’s mind and drive him or her absolutely potty. Lulu’s ‘Boom Bang-A-Bang’ (’69), Mary Hopkin’s ‘Knock Knock Who’s There?’ (’70) and Clodagh Rogers’ ‘Jack In The Box’ (71) were amongst the gems of brainlessness to emerge from the UK.
In 1974, Abba won the contest, proving that classy pop did sometimes get a look in on Eurovision. Not that this made the slightest difference to future contests. Ghastly as it is to relate, the terrible dress sense of the four Swedes had infinitely more impact on subsequent entrants than did their music. Agnetha’s tea-cosy hat and dumpy culottes, Bjorn’s monstrous boots and mis-aligned hair-do, Benny’s frilly cuffs and nasty shiny jacket… dear oh dear, they did look a sight. Throughout the ’70s, the contests would be cursed by willing but weak Abba impersonators jiggling about in unwieldy boot-like contraptions, decked out in sparkling costumes with bits sticking out at wild angles, and singing with gusto but seldom with accuracy.
And then there were the awful stage ‘antics’ — Brotherhood Of Man’s soppy ‘Save Your Kisses For Me’ (76) was accompanied by equally soppy little dance steps. And worse! — as a breathtaking finale to the victorious ‘Making Your Mind Up’ (in ’81) the Bucks Fizz boys grasped the girls’ skirts and whipped them off.
Few have emerged with any dignity from the Europvision Song Contest, but there are a few entrants that, for one reason or other, will go down in history forever. I speak of people like Finland’s Kojo, whose nonsensical nuclear ‘work-out’ received a complete zero rating from the judges in ’82. And Holland’s astonishing duo Mouth And McNeal who, in 74, succeeded in turning the dreary ‘I See A Star’ into something quite repellent by pulling idiotic faces and ‘acting the goat’ for no apparent reason. And the unidentified Spanish judge who, during the 1973 contest, suddenly leapt to his feet and stormed out of the jury room crying: “No! No! No! No more of these dismal tunes!”
Will our very own Belle And The Devotions rise above all this when they warble for Britain on May 5? We can but wait and see!
© Tom Hibbert, Smash Hits, 26 April 1984