5th March 1966, and the 11th annual Eurovision Song Contest brings us back to Luxembourg, now on their second win and once again hosting from Villa Louvigny, which was also the venue for the 1962 contest. With no debuts and no withdrawals, the contest holds steady at 18 participants.
The lineup of artists features two particularly familiar names; Udo Jürgens makes his third consecutive appearance for Austria, and ‘Volare‘ hitmaker Domenico Modugno is back for Italy – also for the third time. Their wildly contrasting performances on the scoreboards prove that while returning to Eurovision as a veteran can yield rich rewards, it’s no guarantee of success – a wake up call that experienced competitors are still receiving to this day.
Last year’s winner France Gall is in the audience, and the effect of her victory is keenly felt among many of the contenders, with a notable increase in more youthful songs and singers. The sense of performance is also heightened – at last the contestants are really playing to the cameras, and this year features first appearances for non-singing dancers, portable microphones and national costumes.
The evening is hosted by Josiane Shen, who largely sticks to French. She’s quite a serious – perhaps even slightly nervous – presence through the first half of the show, but she loosens up considerably for the voting, her playful banter with some of the national spokespeople helping to make this portion of the show a lot more entertaining than in previous years.
In addition to the obligatory orchestra pit, the stage includes a small staircase to the right, which the contestants walk down -usually accompanied by the conductor – to reach the microphone stands. The Dutch and Danish contestants make particular use of this to liven up their performances. On the whole, although we’re still trapped in monochrome, the show feels a lot looser and more vibrant than before, and a good mix of song styles helps make this one of the most entertaining years so far.
My personal rankings (from worst to best)…
18. France: Dominique Walter – Chez nous (Where we live)
Result: 16th (1 point)
There’s a level of professionalism to the early Eurovisions that generally doesn’t leave much room for genuinely bad songs. Chez nous is a genuinely bad song. The chorus is immensely irritating, the backing singers sound tuneless and distracting, Dominique Walter’s vocal is thin and he looks incredibly uncomfortable onstage – flailing his arms around to cover his obvious nerves. Charmless and amateurish, that this ranked (just) higher than the far more accomplished Italian and Monégasque entries is a crime. (Although as the only country to throw him a point, the Monaco jurors could only blame themselves)
17. Ireland: Dickie Rock – Come Back To Stay
Result: =4th (14 points)
I warmed to Ireland’s first entry in 1965, but one year on I’m already frustrated by the formulaic nature of their songwriting. This is appallingly lazy drivel, with a melody shamelessly cribbed from Unchained Melody and lyrics that could have been written by a random cliche generator (“Please come back to stay / and promise me / you’ll never stray / I promise / I’ll be true / and that I’ll never / make you blue”). Dickie Rock sings it nicely enough, but that’s the only positive thing I can find to say about this.
16. Switzerland: Madeleine Pascal – Ne vois-tu pas? (Don’t You See?)
Result: 6th (12 points)
Easily one of the most forgettable ballad-by-numbers entries this year, I frequently forget how this plodding effort goes until I revisit it. Once again we’re in the realm of school assembly performances rather than international standard. How this came 6th in such a strong year is beyond me, save for the fact that it was in French and some juries obviously still yearned for the contest’s early days.
15. Netherlands: Milly Scott – Fernando en Filippo (Fernando & Filippo)
Result: 15th (2 points)
Another small but significant Eurovision breakthrough here, as Milly Scott is the first black singer to compete. She’s a great performer, starting offstage before dancing down the stairs with the help of Eurovision’s first portable microphone. Unfortunately, she’s forced to make the best of a really weak song. The nonsense lyrics (“Tong-ki tong ti-ki kong-kong-kong”) just sound uncomfortable, a good wordless hook should be smooth and sing-along-able, but instead it sticks in her throat. For all her valiant efforts at elevating the material by connecting with the camera and interacting with the on-stage musicians (dressed in full mariachi gear), this piffle would be a lost cause for any singer.
Result: =17th (0 points)
Internationally renowned Croatian singer Tereza Kesovija was personally selected by Grace Kelly to represent Monaco this year. Both women must have been left a little red-faced when the song came away with the dreaded null points, the worst ever result for the principality. On record this song passes me by, but Kesovija justifies her reputation when she takes the stage, with a very strong, passionate performance. It’s still a forgettable song though, and while it’s far from the worst of the night I can see why it got lost in the shuffle.
13. United Kingdom: Kenneth McKellar – A Man Without Love
Result: 9th (8 points)
Everything about this song on record begs me to hate it. The smug married lyrics (“A man without love / is only half a man” – oh fuck off), the deathly pace, the leaden, dated arrangement. However, when Kenneth McKellar steps onstage in full Scottish regalia – kilt included, I can’t help but warm to him a little. He sings the song with the expression of someone who knows they’ve been lumbered with a dog of a song, so has decided to go hell-for-leather with it. Whatever the musical equivalent of chewing the scenery is, that’s what McKellar does with his vocal here. The overall effect is so good natured that he ends up winning me over.
Result: 14th (4 points)
Stop! Stop! Stop! …and so they did, for after this entry Denmark left the competition for over a decade. A shame, because not only did they score arguably the most interesting winner of the sixties, on this evidence they also had the right idea about the direction Eurovision was moving into. Stop… is a real show number, with slow verses giving way to a big brassy uptempo chorus. There’s also an instrumental break in which a pair of dancers emerge from the staircase and do a little turn. The song itself is actually pretty forgettable, which may explain the low placing, but all the right ideas are here and it’s a shame Denmark didn’t stick around to refine them.
11. Finland: Ann-Christine Nyström – Playboy
Result: =10th (7 points)
A jolly, if featherweight, slice of bubblegum pop from Finland, who are using the old (then new) trick of building a foreign-language song around a widely recognisable English word or phrase. You don’t need to speak a word of Finnish to have a pretty good idea what ‘Playboy’ is about, and a quick look at the translated lyrics confirms my assumptions almost word-for-word. That songs like this were starting to emerge as filler is an excellent sign for the future of the contest, but it’s filler all the same.
10. Luxembourg: Michèle Torr – Ce soir je t’attendais (Tonight I waited for you)
Result: =10th (7 points)
There’s a really nice forward-momentum to the first half of this song. The verse progresses at a rolicking speed and the chorus is genuinely rousing. Unfortunately, it has nowhere to go after that first chorus, and the only solution Ms Torr comes up with is to raise the volume. She’s borderline honking by the end – a great shame as it relegates what could have been a really good little entry to the level of merely passable
9. Portugal: Madalena Iglésias – Ele e ela (He and She)
Result: 13th (6 points)
This breezy chanson is apparently an enduringly popular standard in Portugal. It lacks the sort of instantly memorable hook that could’ve pushed it into the upper reaches of the scoreboard, but it’s very charming. Iglésias delivers the meet cute lyrics with a knowing glint in her eye, and she sails over the gentle melody with a self-assured lightness of touch. Not for the last time, a very good radio song gets lost in a crowd of showier pieces.
Result: =4th (14 points)
Perhaps the most obvious example of the France Gall effect in action, this light-hearted ode to the mystical power of condiments doesn’t bear much scrutiny, but is zestfully performed by the teenage Tonia. There’s a strong chorus here, and an early instance of a craftily placed ‘da da da da da da’ break to throw in an extra hook and give the song a bit more momentum. A very likeable performance that justly gives Belgium their best result to date.
Result: 2nd (16 points)
Early Swedish entries have tended towards the quirky, and this tongue-in-cheek duet is no exception. It’s not a traditional romantic collaboration at all, rather than trading romantic platitudes the singers take the part of joint-narrators in a bizarre tale about a princess becoming infatuated with a pig-farmer’s ability to play the saucepan like a drum. The melody is a little difficult to grab hold of – the presence of jazz musician Sahib Shibab on flute suggests that they’re doing something quite clever, but I lack the technical knowledge to identify it if they are. Lindfors and Thuresson certainly appear to be having fun with it though, and the inherent good humour of the song is infectious. I would never have pegged it as a runner up, but it apparently features a number of clever plays-on-words, and the fact that all but one of their points came through top marks from the other Scandinavian countries suggests there are subtleties to this song that non Nordics were never likely to pick up on.
6. Yugoslavia: Berta Ambrož – Brez besed (Without Words)
Result: 7th (9 points)
For the first time, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is represented by an artist from Slovenia. I still have a major soft spot for the Balkan ballads, and this is another passionate, well-sung effort. Do I detect a hint of Slovenia’s neighbours Italy in this song structure? It still has that Balkan feel, but there’s something about it that I can also imagine coming out of San Remo. In any event it’s another highly respectable effort, and one of Yugoslavia’s more successful entries of the period.
5. Spain: Raphael – Yo soy aquél (I’m the One)
Result: 7th (9 points)
Now this is a showman! Up to this point, Spain’s high-energy efforts have been given short shrift by the juries, so the respectable position this achieves marks something of a turning point. We’re in what we now recognise as classic dramatic Spanish powerballad territory here, with Raphael really giving it some welly. In places it borders on oversinging, but in a contest that’s still marked by quite reserved performance, you’ve got to respect the passion on display here. Strange camera decision to pull right away from him just as he’s hitting the climactic note, mind.
Result: =10th (7 points)
This is a pretty song, but I imagine in the hands of a lesser singer I’d have totally overlooked it. A big star at home since the mid-50s, Margot Eskens has a clear, soothing voice and she makes excellent use of the little structural choices that help this ballad stand out from the pack. I particularly like the way the song stops and takes a little breath after every verse, just at the point when you expect a big chorus to kick in. It’s not a high-energy song, and at times it borders on soporific, but there are just enough little melodic touches to hold the attention. A high-class opener, and one of Germany’s best efforts to date. 10th feels a little low, but after two consecutive null-pointers in 1964 and 1965 I imagine they were just happy to score any points at all.
Result: =17th (0 points)
A big international star with two successful entries already under his belt (including the global smash ‘Volare‘, still the biggest hit to come out of the contest at this point), Domenico Modugno should have been just as confident of success as Udo Jürgens. So why did they wind up at opposite ends of the scoreboard?
It’s not that Modugno simply sent in a bad song – far from it. Dio, come ti amo, is haunting, passionate and highly distinctive – with a surprisingly minimal orchestral arrangement and a vocal performance so intense that at times he genuinely looks like he’s about to break down and cry. It might just have been a little too intense. While Jürgens carefully calibrated his performance to the expectations of the juries, Modugno presented something altogether more challenging. It’s possible that the juries just found it too uncomfortable, or that the lack of an obvious hook caused them to overlook it.
The song had an afterlife anyway. 1964 winner Gigliola Cinquetti had a big hit with her version in the same year, and no less a figure than Shirley Bassey covered it in 1991 in typically restrained style. Modugno’s career also continued to flourish, though he never returned to the Eurovision stage. An undeserving but understandable nul pointer, I’d put this down as one of early Eurovision’s most noble failures.
2. Austria: Udo Jürgens – Merci Cheri
Result: Winner (31 points)
Udo Jürgens three-year progression up the Eurovision scoreboard – culminating in Austria’s first victory here -is a fascinating example of a smart, talented songwriter refining his craft in order to bring it into line with the requirements of the contest. His previous two entries were excellent songs that deservedly enjoyed widespread success after the contest. But as well constructed as they were, they took a couple of listens to get under the skin – they didn’t insist upon themselves.
Merci Cherie is no less intricately built – it has a lovely progression from the quiet verses to a big, showy ascending chorus – but the part you remember from the first listen is the forcefully repeated words that open those verses. Merci, merci, cherie, cherie, adieu, adieu… It’s probably no coincidence that despite the song being in German, all of the repeated phrases – and the song’s title – are in French, the language of six of the contest’s first ten winners. It’s an effective tactic. The repetitive nature of the song may have been memorably spoofed by Swedish host Petra Mede in 2013, but Jürgens manages to slip them in without compromising on the quality of the whole song – a deceptively difficult task that makes this a well deserved win.
Result: 3rd (15 points)
And so to my favourite entry of the night, and one of my very favourite Eurovision discoveries of the decade. In its own way, the performance of Intet er nytt under solen is every bit as revolutionary as Poupée de cire, poupée de son, and far less problematic. Åse Cleveland is the first female singer to play an instrument onstage and also the first not to appear in a dress. With the feminist movement sweeping the continent and finding particular popularity in Scandinavia, she’s a welcome counterpoint to the ‘singing doll’ trend that would prove disturbingly popular for the next few years.
It’s a great song too. The sparse, brooding folk chords could carry the entire song, but the switch to full orchestra works surprisingly well, giving the whole thing a slightly Bond Theme-esque feel, as well as keeping the energy levels up. If you don’t speak Norwegian, it’s worth looking up the lyrics too as they’re considerably more philosophical than most Eurovision fare then and now. As much as Udo Jürgens deserved his victory, I do slightly mourn that this couldn’t edge past him, it’s a fascinating song that would have been in contention for my all-time favourite winners. For the famously luckless Norway this was as good as it got until they finally won the thing in 1985, with a very different style of song…
Interval & Voting
The interval act is French dixieland jazz ensemble Les Haricots Rouges (The Red Beans) who perform a jaunty instrumental. This kind of jazz isn’t really my genre so I can’t say much about it, other than it’s obviously very accomplished and passes an entertaining 5 minutes while the juries deliberate.
Josiane Shen returns to the stage to run the voting. This year all of the countries once again award 1, 3 and 5 points each. Austria scores a commanding lead early on, with top marks from Belgium, Luxembourg, Yugoslavia and Monaco. Their final tally of 31 points pushes them well ahead of Sweden’s 16. Regional voting is notably evident elsewhere, with all of the Scandinavian nations rewarding Sweden, Portugal and Spain trading top marks and Monaco giving France their only mark. The Scandinavian voting elicits particular mirth in the hall.
There’s a funny moment towards the end of the voting when Ms Shen makes a mild slip and wishes the UK jury a ‘good night’ instead of ‘good evening’, to which spokesperson Michael Aspel (he of ‘This Is Your Life’ fame) deadpans ‘Good morning!’, causing Shen to burst out laughing. It’s a nice moment that breaks through the formality that has characterised the voting up to this point. Eurovision is finally finding its sense of humour.
Jürgens and co-writer Thomas Hörbiger appear understandably thrilled with their win – the first for Austria and also the first for a primarily German-language song. After being presented with his trophy by France Gall, Jürgens begins his reprise of the winning song with an ad-libbed ‘Merci juries!’. The contest was heading to Vienna.
After the contest
Merci Cherie was a success for Jürgens, and he went on to be one of the most successful contest winners of all time, with reported record sales in excess of 100 million copies. Many of his songs have been recorded by other artists. The song didn’t chart for Jürgens in the UK, but an English-language cover by Vince Hill reached #36 that year. Among many other notable cover versions, Belinda Carlisle recorded the song in French for her album Voila! in 2007.
Despite delivering the worst UK result to that point, Kenneth McKellar reached #30 with A Man Without Love. He remained a popular vocalist and is considered by many to be the definitive interpreter of Scottish traditional songs.
Austria had to wait 48 years for their next win, when Conchita Wurst reversed years of terrible performances for the country with a much-celebrated victory with Rise Like a Phoenix, bringing the contest back to Vienna in 2015…