Eurovision 1956Eurovision 1956, or to give it its fuller title Grand Prix Eurovision de la Chanson Européenne 1956, marks the very first show of its kind, put together as a joint broadcasting opportunity for the European Broadcasting Union. Initially envisioned as a one off, it has endured for almost sixty years, a time in which it has been the springboard for numerous classic hits, hosted internationally renowned singers and been responsible for some of the most bizarre, surreal and hilarious television ever broadcast in the UK.

The first edition of any long-running competition is always a slightly strange affair. You’re not so much joining a hall of fame as opening one, and in 1956 there would have been no way of knowing that this relatively low-key affair would endure and become the  monster it is today. Indeed, winner Lys Assia recently said of her victory that nobody really knew what it was that she’d won.

It would take a good few years for the contest to really find its feet, and it won’t be until 1975 that the classic 1-12 point voting system would permanently come into play. For consistency’s sake, that’s the system I’ll be replicating to present my own favourite songs from each year.

Other points about 1956 – it’s one of two years (the other being 1964) in which the tapes from the TV broadcast have not survived. It is my intention in this series to watch every show in full, but in this case I mostly had to make do with audio performances of the live performances (which endure because she show was also broadcast on radio.

Also, for the only year two entries were permitted per country, and aside from the winner the full ranking of the songs was never released. Seven countries entered in the first year; The Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg and Italy – with the exception of Luxembourg, and taking into account Italy’s protracted absence from 1998 to 2010, they all still compete regularly.

The United Kingdom are notable by their absence – they’ll be joining us next year. To get a sense of how the songs might have sounded to a contemporary audience, I start by listening to the song that was sitting at #1 in the UK the week the contest was broadcast – No Other Love by Ronnie Hilton. Coming at pre-Rock ‘n’ Roll music from an outsider perspective, it’s difficult to pick up on the subtler progressions that might mark one song out as more dated than another (I’m thinking of how 90s dance music sounds compared to modern dance music, an obvious distinction when you’ve lived through both eras, but if you had no prior knowledge of the genre might it all sound quite interchangeable?). For what it’s worth, the sweeping strings and theatrical delivery (it’s actually a lesser-known Rogers and Hammerstein composition) wouldn’t sound remotely out of place among the songs here.

Jetty Pearl

Jetty Pearl opened the contest with an ode to the Dutch Songbird.

Netherlands open the show with ‘De vogels van Holland‘ (The Songbirds of Holland) sung by Jetty Paerl. They seem to have taken the logical position that an international song contest should feature an ode to the charms of their homeland, and so the song talks about how the unique nature of the Dutch climate and the faithfulness of Dutch girls makes the birds sing better than any other. It’s a pretty, relaxed opener to the show and her vocal is strong and confident. Not a bad start at all.

Switzerland follow, with the winning singer but not the winning song. One of two countries to send just one singer with two songs, Lys Assia also has the distinction of performing in two different languages due to the fact that Switzerland has four national tongues. ‘Das alte Karussell‘ (The Old Carousel) is performed in German. At this point the 3-minute time limit is not in place, and this song clocks in at well over four. There are some interesting little progressions, but on the whole it’s a little chintzy for my tastes and it wears out its welcome before the end. The choral backing vocals give it a particularly old-school Disney feel.

Fud LeClerc

The instantly iconic Fud LeClerc

My first slightly xenophobic chuckle of the contest comes from the rather unlovely name of the Belgian representative, one Fud LeClerc. In addition to the name, poor old Fud is stuck with ‘Messieurs les noyés de la Seine‘ (The Drowned Men of the Seine), a feelgood chanson about a man in a loveless marriage who wishes to drown himself in the titular French river. With that said, this song grew on me on repeat listenings. It’s another that goes over four minutes, at a generally languorous pace, but it has a certain French drama to it, and although I don’t understand the words his committed performance give a sense that this is very much a ‘storytelling’ song, compared to the previous two, which were comparatively light.

Spoken word verses distinguish the first German entry of the contest, another thoughtful ballad entitled ‘Im Wartesaal zum großen Glück‘ (In The Waiting Room For Great Happiness). Singer Walter Andreas Schwarz wrote and composed the song, and his melodramatic reading at times borders on campy, so it’s little surprise to learn that he was a Cabaret veteren and playwright. It’s quite interesting, but the tune is fairly forgettable. It strikes me how, with a few exceptions, ‘storytelling’ ballads of this nature fell sharply out of favour with the introduction of the emotional immediacy of pop and rock music. I can’t imagine a circumstance where I’d hear a song remotely like this today, unless for some reason I found myself attending a German Cabaret show.

At this point, the run of stately ballads is starting to wear quite thin with me, a problem compounded by the first French performer Mathé Altéry. Her song ‘Les temps perdu‘ (Lost time) is pleasant enough, but she has one of those curiously high-pitched soprano voices that also fell out of style in subsequent years, and it veers onto the wrong side of shrill at points in this performance. The song is mercifully short, but I’m starting to crave a bit of variety.

Luxembourg, then, come as a complete breath of fresh air by delivering the first resolutely uptempo performance of the year. ‘Ne crois pas‘ (Don’t Believe) is a fast paced song performed by Michèle Arnaud, with witty lyrics encouraging a young man to take advantage of his good looks before they fade. Again, I don’t speak French so much of this is lost on me, but Arnaud has a lightness of touch that suits the song perfectly. Fluffy, but a welcome relief.

The uptempo run continues with a likeable debut for Italy. Of all the songs, this one perhaps sounds the most like what you’d expect a song from that country to sound like. ‘Aprite le finestre‘ (Open the Windows) has a jaunty tune that makes full use of the orchestra, with a number of lovely little flourishes as the song zips along. It wouldn’t be at all out of place on the soundtrack to a nostalgic Italian-American romantic comedy like Moonstruck. (Christ, a Cher reference in a Eurovision article, I have officially out-gayed myself). Singer Franca Raimondi gives a good, polished performance that could perhaps have been a little more loose.

Back to the ballads for the second Netherlands entry, ‘Voorgoed voorbij‘ (Over Forever) performed by Corry Brokken – who we’ll be seeing more of in future contests. Based on this I find her voice a little too overbearing for my tastes, but this is a nice, stately arrangement and she certainly sings it passionately. A reasonable entry.

I’ve never subscribed to the notion that you can win a Eurovision on the strength of a gimmick alone – but I do think you can win within the first 30 seconds of your performance if you make a really attention-grabbing impression. On the whole Lys Assia’s

Lys Assia

Lys Assia was a strong, seasoned performer.

Refrain‘, which wins tonight for Switzerland, isn’t all that different from the songs that preceded it, with the exception of the particularly grand orchestral flourishes that open and close the song, which certainly grant it a sense of occasion. In fact, the brassy ending sounds like a coronation in itself. It may also have helped that for this year the Swiss juries also voted on behalf of Luxembourg for some reason, meaning the home team had a distinct advantage. Whatever the reason, Refrain is a worthy enough winner, although considering the title of the song, it surprisingly isn’t actually all that catchy. Assia’s voice has a lovely clear, refined quality which is much better served here than in her previous entry.

The second Belgian entry, on the other hand, is a nightmare of vibrato, with a rather unfortunate ‘Ding Dong’ refrain. Stylistically, ‘Le plus beau jour de ma vie‘ (The Most Beautiful Day of my Life) is yet another French language chanson, but singer Mony Marc’s quavering delivery makes a rather sweet song about her wedding day sound unintentionally ludicrous. There’s no reason why anyone would want to hear a song like this in 2012. Memorable, but not necessarily for the right reasons.

Freddy Quinn

German pin-up Freddy Quinn provided the year’s most modern entry.

Interestingly, the second German entry sees an early arrival of Rock & Roll into the contest. ‘So geht das jede Nacht‘ (That’s How It  Is Every Night) sounds pretty much identical to Bill Haley’s game-changing 1954 recording of Rock Around The Clock – today it would almost certainly be disqualified for plagiarism. But then in 1956 the entire sound must have still felt very new and quite alien, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that this cleaves so closely to the formula of that song. Singer Freddy Quinn was a big star in Germany, the kind that practically every European music market had around that time, re-recording the big American hits in a more palatable native tongue. His German-language version of Dean Martin’s Memories are Made of This sold over 1 million copies. This would have been an interesting and forward thinking winner despite the lack of originality, but Ms Assia’s victory set the tone for a more old fashioned style of Eurovision winner that would become the standard for the next few years.

In stark comparison to their first effort, the second French entry is my favourite of the whole show. Dany Dauberson tears into the energetic Il est là (He’s Here) with gusto, and her deep, smoky voice is an instant standout among all the warblers. I suspect the ballad heavy theme is going to continue until we get to the mid 60s, so jazzier efforts like this are going to be welcomed.

Like the Swiss, Luxembourg just sent the one singer with two different songs. I’m not as fond of Michèle Arnaud’s second entry as I was of her first. By now the French ballads really are starting to blur into one, and as Les amants de minuit (The Midnight Lovers) passes at the same sleepy pace as about five previous entries from this year I find it increasingly difficult to maintain focus. Inoffensive, but nothing to see here.

Finally we go back to Italy, and again  an energetic first entry is followed by a more sedate ballad. I find the Italian language quite lovely, so Amami se vuoi by Tonina Torrielli at least stands out among all the French ballads. It’s strange to think of a time when these songs would have sounded anything but nostalgic, but I suppose this was the style of the time. Another lovely voice here (one thing I’m already finding early Eurovision has on the modern incarnation is that all of these singers are clearly of a high professional standard) and there’s a beautiful lullaby quality to the song, but it still struggles to distinguish itself too much from the pack beyond that.

Lys Assia Single

Assia International – no relation to Dana as far as we know.

After the contest: It’s difficult to keep track of European charts in the 50s as the concept was still quite new, but by all accounts Refrain was not a great success in the immediate aftermath of the contest. Time has given it a degree of historical significance though, and it can usually be found in retrospectives of the contest. Ms Assia herself has enthusiastically taken up the mantle of Grande dame of Eurovision, and a tribute to her from the hosts has become something of an annual tradition (exemplified by her slightly awkward 2004 appearance in which she appeared to forget what country she was in, and chastised the audience for not giving her a standing ovation). In recent years she’s expressed a strong interest in returning to the show competitively, entering the Swiss National Selection in 2012, and rumours abound that she’ll sing for San Marino in 2013. At 88, she’d make Engelbert Humperdinck look positively sprightly.

Final analysis: Well, that wasn’t too painful on the whole. It’s fascinating diving into a period of music so very different from our own, and hearing both defiantly classical and tentatively forward thinking songs sharing a stage. I’m definitely looking forward to having visual stimuli for 1957 onwards, because it really is nigh-on impossible to find something interesting to say about all of those French chansons, but I can anticipate the arrival of a pair of young upstarts in the mid 60s to give the show its first of many violent wake-up calls.

Votes from the Lucas Jury:

12 France: Dany Dauberson – Il est là

10 Luxembourg: Michèle Arnaud – Ne crois pas

08 Switzerland: Lys Assia – Refrain

07 Italy: Franca Raimondi – Aprite le finestre

06 Netherlands: Jetty Paerl – De vogels van Holland

05 Germany: Freddy Quinn – So geht das jede Nacht

04 Belgium: Fud LeClerc – Messieurs les noyés de la Seine

03 Italy: Tonina Torrielli Amami se vuoi

02 Germany: Walter Andreas Schwarz – Im Wartesaal zum großen Glück

01 Netherlands: Corry Brokken – Voorgoed voorbij

Thank you and goodnight.