The UK and Eurovision – the birth of a love-hate relationship
The sixties was a decade in which British music dominated global trends to an extent it never had before and never would again. The so-called British Invasion may have referred largely to the success of groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who in America, but the influence of these groups was truly a worldwide phenomenon.
That it took until the end of the decade for the UK to secure their first Eurovision victory is in some respects a matter of luck – they had after all placed five runners-up before Sandie Shaw’s win this year. But in truth, the UK’s enduringly ambivalent relationship with the contest was solidified during these early years, and an overdue upswing in fortunes would not prove to be enough to reverse the damage.
Sandie Shaw was not the first current chart star to represent the UK – Matt Monro and Kathy Kirby were both familiar faces at the time of their participation. Nor was she the first to score a big hit – 1961 runners-up The Allisons had a million-seller with their entry ‘Are You Sure?’ But her success established a formula that would endure for the next decade – light entertainment was the name of the game, and every UK entrant for the subsequent ten years would be a popular young star (or group) with a very broad, uptempo schlager-pop song.
It was a formula that worked – in terms of chart hits and scoreboard placings this was the UK’s golden era for the contest. But it was quite far removed from what the wider UK music scene sounded like – and as a result it placed the Eurovision Song Contest itself at a remove from the UK music scene and into the realm of light entertainment, even as entries like Puppet On A String and Congratulations were topping the UK charts.
The fact is, on a commercial level the UK music industry simply didn’t need the Eurovision Song Contest. It never has. For historical and linguistic reasons, British music has always travelled well. The biggest stars of the day had nothing to prove, so it was left to the light entertainers to fly the flag. Despite intermittent efforts from the BBC, this situation is little changed five decades on – the line from Sandie to Scooch isn’t hard to draw.
Of course, it wouldn’t do to overstate the uniqueness of the UK’s relationship to Eurovision – other countries may have sent bigger stars and better songs, but – with the occasional exception – there was still little place for counterculture or innovation. 1967 is the last year that the contest was broadcast only in black & white, and musically it’s still inching towards an approximation of 1960s modernity. But light pop and polite ballads still dominate – from Belgrade to Bergen, this is the music of evening television and daytime radio, not of dancehalls and nightclubs. The difference seems to be that the UK media holds this version of pop music in particularly low regard.
Vienna: Saturday 8th April 1967
So to Vienna then, where the contest is now comfortably established in its second decade. Udo Jürgens has brought the contest to Austria, their first victory and the first for the German language. The host is Erica Vaal, a popular radio host, and the venue is the Hofburg Imperial Palace. No new countries joined the party this year, and Denmark began a long leave of absence – they wouldn’t return until 1978.
Udo Jürgens kicks off the show by conducting an Orchestral performance of his 1966 winning song ‘Merci Cherie‘, before handing over to Ms Vaal, who delivers her introductions in German, English, French, Spanish and Italian. She apologises that she has not had time to learn all of the languages of the participating countries “but should there be another contest in the near future in Vienna, I shall do my best.” Little did she know.
The staging is quite distinctive this year, with the performers standing in front of two revolving mirrors, presumably designed to showcase the orchestra as well as the singer standing in front of them. The camera work is notably improved too, with plenty of cuts from wide stage shots to close-ups on the singer and away to the orchestra.
As usual, here follows my personal ranking of the songs from worst to best:
17. Switzerland: Géraldine – Quel cœur vas-tu briser? (Which Heart Are You Going To Break?)
Result: 17th (0 points)
Switzerland are still stuck in the realm of Eurovision past with this soporific ballad. In 1959 this could have been a contender, but in 1967 it feels dated and lifeless – not to mention painfully out of tune in places. Only a surprising and ill-advised last-second high note rouses me (and, presumably, the audience) from total stupor.
16. Finland: Fredi – Varjoon – suojaan (To the Shadow – To Safety)
Result: =12th (3 points)
A big man with a big voice, Fredi will go on to achieve Eurovision notoriety with his second effort in 1976 – but that’s not for here. This is a fairly typical Eurovision ballad of the time, and although he really gets his teeth into it vocally, there isn’t a great deal to it. His slightly awkward stage presence doesn’t help either – he looks profoundly nervous and utterly relieved when the performance is over.
15. Austria: Peter Horton – Warum es hunderttausend Sterne gibt (Why Are There One Hundred Thousand Stars?)
Result: =14th (2 points)
Udo Jürgens may not be participating for Austria this year, but his spirit very much lives on in Peter Horton’s ballad. All of the elements that made Jürgens a success are here, it’s a wistful, sweeping German-language ballad, well-sung by an attractive young performer. The problem is that Jürgens was a great songwriter, whose entries have endured as standards. Warum es hunderttausend Sterne gibt is merely competent, and it’s easily lost in the shuffle tonight.
14. Netherlands: Thérèse Steinmetz – Ring-dinge-ding
Result: =14th (2 points)
The use of a repetitive nonsense-hook to broaden a song’s appeal has already become a well-worn trick by 1967, and Thérèse Steinmetz opens the show with a defining example of the genre. Indeed Ring-dinge-ding is often cited alongside Diggy-Loo Diggy Ley and La La La La as examples of the essential banality of the ‘typical Eurovision song’. It’s exactly as you’d expect – catchy, likeable and jauntily performed, but completely empty.
13. Italy: Claudio Villa – Non andare più lontano (Don’t Go Far Away Anymore)
Result: 11th (4 points)
If you had to imagine the definition of a typical Italian Eurovision song, this would probably be pretty close to what you’d come up with. Claudio Villa – previously seen in 1962 – is a stocky Roman with a big, belting voice that he uses to full effect on this faintly operatic ballad that could have been performed in 1956 and sounded more or less exactly the same as how it sounds here. It’s nicely done, but I think it might have benefited from a little more light-and-shade. Three minutes of full-pelt Italian belting is a little exhausting, and I feel like I’ve heard variations of this song too many times before.
12. Ireland: Sean Dunphy – If I Could Choose
Result: 2nd (22 points)
By their third Eurovision entry, Ireland have clearly established a formula that works for them and are merely waiting for everything to fall into place for a win. This is the closest they’ll come before Dana seals the deal in 1970, and this year’s entirely English-speaking top two is the first major signal that the Francophone nations are about to lose their grip on the contest. As for the song, chances are you’ll know what it’s like even if you haven’t heard it – gentle, nostalgic, prettily sung and as drearily comfortable as a well-worn jumper. I genuinely fear that I’m going to be struggling for fresh descriptions of variations on this song for the next forty years.
11. Portugal: Eduardo Nascimento – O vento mudou (The Wind Changed)
Result =12th (3 points)
The first black male artist to take the Eurovision stage as a lead performer (Milly Scott was the first black woman the previous year), Angolan-born Eduardo Nascimento has a rich, powerful voice and a rousing song with a good amount of energy. It isn’t the most memorable composition of the evening, but everything works well for the three minutes it’s onstage, and a mere three points for this feels rather miserly.
10. Sweden: Östen Warnerbring – Som en dröm
Result: =8th (7 points)
It’s Elvis Costello! This is an uncharacteristically moody number for Sweden that puts me in mind of Domenico Modugno’s ill-fated final effort – although it’s not quite as scarily intense as that was. A strong and self-contained effort with a subtle but memorable hook, this isn’t quite an entry for the ages, but it’s another solid effort from the Swedes.
[Melodifestivalen watch: The song that finished fourth to this in the Swedish national selection – Alla har glömt by Towa Carson – is an absolute belter that I’m surprised was never given a high-profile English language cover. Cilla Black could have had a huge hit with it.]
9. Germany: Inge Brück – Anouschka
Result: =8th (7 points)
This is late sixties Eurovision to a tee. High energy, lyrical, with prominent backing vocals and a few ‘la la la la’s thrown in for good measure. Inge Brück is a spirited, good natured performer and helps to make this an appealing, if fairly forgettable package. She did fluff the final note though, which might explain the middling finish.
8. Belgium: Louis Neefs – Ik heb zorgen (I Have Worries)
Result: 7th (8 points)
This is another fairly slight song that’s elevated by a very good natured performance from Louis Neefs. The hook is memorable, but perhaps a little too overused – it’s essentially all chorus. Neefs rollicks through it with gusto though, and I love the injection of humour with the fake-out ending, which appears to fool even the commentator on my DVD who almost starts to talk over him.
7. Spain: Raphael – Hablemos del amor (Let’s Talk About Love)
Result: 6th (9 points)
Raphael made a striking, if slightly overcooked impression for Spain in 1966. He delivers a more controlled performance this year, and it’s entirely to the benefit of the song – which is a high-end piece of Spanish balladry that deserved to do well. He’s a big star to this day, and I imagine this has had an afterlife for him. A shame this is the last we see of him at Eurovision, another couple of tries and he may well have done an Udo Jürgens.
6. Yugoslavia: Lado Leskovar – Vse rože sveta (All The Flowers In This World)
Result =8th (7 points)
The Yugoslavian penchant for darker and more dramatic themes than many other countries continues with this mournful Slovene ballad about a fallen soldier. This is a beguiling arrangement with a funereal trumpet solo towards the end. I wouldn’t wish the tortured history of the Balkans on anybody, but it certainly made for some of the most interesting Eurovision music of the era.
5. Norway: Kirsti Sparboe – Dukkemann (Puppet Man)
Result =14th (2 points)
The second puppet-themed entry of the night, although in this case the subject is a male – a ‘free, bold and happy’ puppet who finds that when his strings are cut he’s lifeless and immobile. The rather questionable moral of the story, according to the lyrics (if my Norwegian translation is correct) is that “If you want to count, you must jump like everyone on a string”.
Apparently pro-conformist lyrics aside, I really enjoy this song. It has a laid-back, lounge-jazz air that’s manages to feel like a throwback to the contest of the past without feeling dated or overly familiar. Sparboe is a likeable presence – as she was in 1965 – who delivers the song with an appropriate lightness of touch. This deserved far better than the measly two points it achieved.
4. France: Noëlle Cordier – Il doit faire beau là-bas (The Weather Must Be Good There)
Result: 3rd (20 points)
A great voice can elevate even the weakest material. France’s Noëlle Cordier has a great voice – gorgeously husky, warm and full-blooded. In Il doit faire beau là-bas, she has a beautiful song too – typical of the melancholic Francophone ballads, but one of the prettiest examples of the genre I’ve encountered so far. It’s a perfect marriage of song and performer, and deservedly placed in the top three.
3. Monaco: Minouche Barelli – Boum-Badaboum
Result: 5th (10 points)
And now for something completely different. Based on the title, you might assume that Boum-Badaboum is set to be no better than the Dutch Ring-dinge-ding, but something else is going on here. It’s the second of three Eurovision songs to be penned by Serge Gainsbourg, and the lyrics are typically subversive. Rather than simply acting as an easily translatable metaphor, Boum Badaboum finds Barelli singing about her hopes for enjoying a rich and full life before she’s killed by what seems to be a literal explosion. As such, the song functions as both an anti-war message and also a tongue-in-cheek critique of the nonsense lyrics pervading the contest.
The cacophonous arrangement underlines the song’s rebellious undertones, while Barelli gives herself over to the concept with total commitment – unlike France Gall you suspect she knows exactly what’s going on here. This was far too confrontational to win, but it’s one of the most interesting curios of the era.
2. United Kingdom: Sandie Shaw – Puppet On A String
Result: Winner (47 points)
What to make of Puppet on a String? It’s unquestionably one of the biggest winners of the era, a massive global hit and probably in the top 5 most well-remembered historical Eurovision songs in the UK today. The fact that it was our first winner and Sandie a major star at the time has helped its reputation of course, but it’s also hindered by her own avowed hatred of the song, and the much-criticised lyrics.
Placing the song into context does it few favours – Shaw was allegedly coerced into entering the contest to repair her public image after an affair with a married man, and Puppet On A String was far removed from the cool understatement of her earlier hits. Subsequent UK representatives suffered a similar fate – Lulu, Mary Hopkin and Olivia Newton-John would all express distaste for the songs they were given to sing, though none quite so vocally as Shaw. The public ultimately chose the songs of course, and in Shaw’s (and Lulu’s) case the tastes of British voters proved to be in-step with European juries. But this sense of embarrassment and obligation has persisted – Eurovision is still seen by many in the UK as a last-ditch effort for a career on the skids.
How different might things have been if Shaw had been allowed to sing a song she actually enjoyed? We’ll never know – this was the chosen song, it did exactly what it needed to do and a formula was established. To her credit, Shaw may be dying inside, but she’s a consummate professional onstage, and she delivers an energetic performance. It’s far from the only entry of the time to have less than progressive lyrics – indeed the ‘women as inanimate objects’ theme would be disturbingly prevalent for a while yet – so it feels a little unfair to single it out on those grounds.
But if you put all of this aside, Puppet… is still very good for what it is. The lyrics may be easily read as sexist, but it doesn’t feel malicious or ill-natured, indeed the bouncy melody allows room for humour that Shaw exploits to good effect. From the very first “Iiiiii” note it’s a big belting singalong that seems to have been constructed entirely out of strong hooks. Cabaret crowd-pleasing may not have been Sandie’s style, but that’s what this song is through and through, and it’s little surprise that the audience erupts when her performance ends. I don’t subscribe to the concept of guilty pleasures, but this is probably as close as I’d be willing to get to defining one. I acknowledge that the song is problematic, but on its own terms I thoroughly enjoy it. Sorry Sandie.
1. Luxembourg: Vicky Leandros – L’amour est bleu
Result: 4th (17 points)
Sandie Shaw may have walked away with the contest this year, but it was the fourth placed entry by Vicky Leandros that arguably became the most enduring classic of the year. Indeed, L’amour est bleu can stand in the exalted company of Volare, Eres Tú and Waterloo as an entry that has transcended its Eurovision roots to become an enduring standard. The Leandros recording was only a modest hit, but an instrumental by the Paul Mauriat Orchestra topped the charts in the USA, and the vocal version has been recorded in English by legends such as Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams and Jeff Beck.
I sometimes feel I lack the musical vocabulary to describe why certain songs work, but I know what I like and I really like L’amour est bleu. It has a sort of circular, almost mystical quality, like an orchestral nursery rhyme. The sweeping, stabbing strings also give it a grandiosity that reminds me of the great Bond themes of the age. It carries an instant familiarity which makes it easy to understand why the song has endured over the years.
On the stage, 17-year old Leandros delivers an imperfect vocal which makes the songs failure to take the trophy understandable, but the song stands for itself and she’d have a second bite of the cherry some years later, by which time she had matured into a much more compelling performer. I have to say though, I find this to be the better of her two songs, and a real Eurovision favourite.
A medley of choral and Austrian classics by the Vienna Boys Choir (Wiener Sängerknaben). I’m having Catholic upbringing flashbacks and yearning for some Estonian folk dancing.
Each country has ten points to give, representing ten jurors, each of whom picks a favourite. The United Kingdom take a commanding lead early on and never look in danger of losing it. There’s a close battle for second between Ireland and France, eventually separated by just two points in Ireland’s favour. The voting is a little chaotic despite Erica Vaal’s best efforts, with the independent adjudicator stopping her numerous times to correct scoreboard mistakes.
For the first year, we get frequent reaction shots of the artists waiting in the audience, and it’s here that my sympathy for Sandie Shaw is stretched to the limit. Perhaps it was just nerves, but frankly she looks completely miserable from start to finish. On the other hand, there are some very sweet shots of the young Austrian choirboys collecting autographs from the waiting artists.
After a slip-up in which Ireland – the last country to vote – are almost forgotten, Shaw is declared the winner and emerges onstage to reprise her song. She finally manages to crack a smile and performs the song with gusto, to loud appreciation from the audience.
After the contest
Puppet On A String became Shaw’s third and final UK number one in the aftermath of the contest – reversing a decline in fortunes that had seen her previous three single releases miss the top 30. It was the biggest-selling single of 1967 in Germany, and also topped the charts in Austria, Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway – cracking the top ten in many other territories.
However, Shaw failed to sustain the revival she achieved on the back of this song – her next single ‘Tonight In Tokyo‘ stalled at #21 in the UK, and she made her last visit to the top ten in 1969 with ‘Monsieur DuPont‘. Shaw struggled for years with the conflict between what she wanted to record and what her audience expected of her. A self-produced album of rock covers in 1969 – Reviewing The Situation – sank without trace, although it is now considered something of a minor classic.
In 1984 she made her first chart appearance in 15 years when longtime fan Morrissey convinced her to record a cover of his song ‘Hand In Glove’ – which reached #27 and resulted in a memorable Top of the Pops performance. She has recorded and performed sporadically since then, pursuing a second career as a qualified Psychotherapist. Her attitude towards Puppet On A String and the Eurovision experience has remained consistently negative, although she re-recorded the song in 2007 with a radically different arrangement.
Vicky Leandros, Kirsti Sparboe, Louis Neefs and Fredi all returned to the contest – with Leandros winning for Luxembourg in 1972 with ‘Apres Toi‘. L’amour est bleu was a chart success in mainland Europe, Canada and Japan before becoming a much-covered international standard. It was one of just three non-winning songs performed during a medley of Eurovision classics at the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest in Athens. In 2011 Leandros re-recorded the song with German happy hardcore outfit Scooter. It charted at #77 in Germany.
Despite her express wishes, hostess Erica Vaal would not live to see Austria win the contest again. She passed away in in October 2013 at the age of 86, just seven months before Conchita Wurst won the contest in Copenhagen with ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’ – 48 years after their first victory.