In Living Colour
With contestants including Finnish rock monsters, Irish Turkeys and Polish milkmaids, it has frequently been observed that Eurovision is more than ‘just’ a music contest. The presentation on stage is frequently just as important as the content of the song or the quality of the singing. Many viewers bemoan this, but watching these early contests is evidence enough that a Eurovision entirely populated by talented singers, dignified ballads and a minimal sense of showmanship does not make for especially gripping television.
What happened to allow Eurovision to transcend its modest early ambitions? As with most cultural shifts, the revolution was gradual rather than instant. However, if you’re looking for a defining moment, you could make a strong case for the 1968 broadcast. Not only did the contest finally cast off the dreary shackles of black and white for the dazzling glare of full colour, it also saw the coronation of one of the most overtly gimmicky – and most widely derided – winners in the show’s history. Mass appeal, rather than virtuosity, was now the order of the day.
I’ll come to ‘La La La’ in due course, but for now it’s enough to observe that while the credibility of the contest took some serious knocks around this time – particularly in Britain it seems – on the whole these changes were a good thing. 1968 is easily the most enjoyable viewing experience I’ve had since embarking on this project. The energy levels are high, the pace is brisk, the stage looks great – the entire broadcast is a fantastic showcase for the BBC – and the music, for the most part, feels fresh and varied. By happy coincidence, it also features the first truly gripping voting sequence I’ve encountered so far. The contest I would fall in love with some 30 years later is entering its adolescence; an occasionally awkward period, but one that would shape everything that was to come in the future.
London: Saturday 6th April 1968
Despite only scoring their first win the previous year, this is the third time the United Kingdom have hosted the contest, and once again we’re in the capable hands of Katie Boyle, hosting from London. I don’t know if the Royal Albert Hall is the largest venue to host the contest so far, but it certainly feels like it, with a sizeable stage and a packed audience really adding an atmosphere to proceedings. This will be particularly significant during the voting.
We open with an orchestral rendition of last year’s winner ‘Puppet on a String’, followed by some brisk introductions from Ms Boyle, who points out that an audience of over 200 million viewers could be watching tonight. If she’s nervous, she doesn’t let it show.
With no debuts and no dropouts, participation is once again steady at 17 countries. Portugal are first out, and Yugoslavia the last. As is the custom, here’s my personal rundown of the songs from worst to best:
17. Luxembourg: Chris Baldo & Sophie Garel – Nous vivrons d’amour (We Will Live By Love)
Result: =11th (5pts)
A thought strikes you while you watch the Luxembourgish entry this year – by what bizarre sequence of events did Sophie Garel end up representing her country in front of 200 million people? Maybe that Katie Boyle audience estimate caused her to become gripped by terror, or perhaps she belatedly realised she was stuck with a complete dog of a song, but she truly looks as though she’s never been on a stage in her life prior to this moment. The effect shows in her vocals, she mumbles her way through this with darting eyes and an embarrassed half-smirk on her lips. Her partner Chris Baldo does everything he can to pull her through it – but the way he grips her shoulders and nods encouragingly throughout gives the performance the unintentional air of an ambitious stage father pushing his entirely unwilling daughter into the spotlight he craves for himself. Even if performed competently this would be a pretty rubbish song. As it stands, it’s one of the most grimly fascinating train-wrecks I’ve yet encountered.
On Wikipedia, only one of these two performers has an entry that suggests any kind of subsequent career in showbusiness. No prizes for guessing who it is…
16. Portugal: Carlos Mendes – Verão (Summer)
Result: =11th (5pts)
A fairly listless opener from Portugal. Carlos Mendes has the look of a man who isn’t quite sure what to do with himself, and the performance feels unfortunately restrained as a result. For a song with very little in the way of dynamic, it needs a really charismatic performance to communicate an appropriately breezy, laid-back feel, and this is where Mendes fails. The singing is fine, but as a performance it falls woefully flat. Still, it probably sounded quite nice on Lisbon Radio.
15. Netherlands: Ronnie Tober – Morgen (Tomorrow)
Result: =16th (1pt)
Resplendant in a white suit, Ronnie Tober seems like a genial sort and it’s little surprise to learn that a long career in light entertainment awaited him back home. He sings ‘Morgen’ well enough, but he’s onto a loser from the start – the song is inoffensive, sort of jaunty, but instantly forgettable. It wasn’t the worst of the night, but it lacks anything of substance for the viewer to latch onto, so the fact that it ended up joint-last isn’t much of a surprise.
14. Ireland: Pat McGuigan – Chance of a Lifetime
Result: 4th (18pts)
Ireland continue to mark time until their first win with this crooner-by-numbers ballad. I feel I’m being a little uncharitable towards the Irish entries, but I can’t get past the total lack of ambition. The Irish eyes were smiling when the scores came in, but if you can tell the difference between this and their entry from the previous year, or the year before that, you’re a more discerning man than I.
13. Switzerland: Gianni Mascolo – Guardando il sole (Looking Into The Sun)
Result: =13th (2pts)
Apparently, a couple of years after this performance Gianni Mascolo packed in his music career and went into the restaurant business. Not to be unduly harsh, but this doesn’t massively surprise me. He’s got a great voice, but with his cheesy grin, stocky frame and frankly alarming bright-orange suit, he gives every impression of being a lucky – albiet talented – amateur having the time of his life. A Stars in Their Eyes Domenico Modugno, if you will.
Still, he delivers Guardando il sole with the kind of welly I’ve come to expect from Italian-language songs. This is a song and performance stuck a few years in the past – he might have walked it in 1961. In 1968 it feels like a throwback, likeable enough but not representative of where the contest was heading.
12. Austria: Karel Gott – Tausend Fenster (A Thousand Windows)
Result: =13th (2pts)
Udo Jürgens back again for Austria, though just as a songwriter this time. Perhaps he didn’t want to risk a comedown from his 1966 victory, or perhaps he simply realised that this was one of his lesser compositions. Czech singer Karel Gott certainly does his best with it – this is a dramatic, full-blooded vocal performance very much of the Eurovision old school, but the song isn’t quite worthy of the effort he’s putting into it. It hits all the right beats, but something just isn’t clicking here.
11. Italy: Sergio Endrigo – Marianne
Result: 10th (7pts)
Apparently Cliff Richard thought enough of ‘Marianne’ that he commissioned an English-language version and released it as a UK single. I can’t say I share his enthusiasm, as this falls very much into the category of ‘pleasant but dull’ for me. Endrigo is a surprisingly un-engaging performer for a San Remo champion – there’s none of the flamboyant expressiveness of Domenico Modugno or Claudio Villa here. It’s a more mournful number anyway, but the half-hearted performance aims for tasteful and lands on boring.
10. Monaco: Line & Willy – À chacun sa chanson (To Every Man His Song)
Result: =7th (8pts)
First of all, there’s nothing funny about that name. At all.
From the accordian-heavy opening to the somewhat circular nature of the melody, this is as French as they come. As the name suggests, it’s very much in the classic chanson vein, but it has a bit of energy to it and the performance has all of the charm and confidence that the evening’s other male-female duet lacked. It’s a wee-bit middle aged, and it doesn’t go anywhere particularly unexpected, but nonetheless it’s a perfectly pleasant three minutes that lingers in the mind just clearly enough to land safely mid-table.
9. Norway: Odd Børre – Stress
Result: 13th (2pts)
Norway’s Odd Børre has the features and awkward physicality of a slightly harassed insurance salesman, which is exactly what he needs to deliver a totally convincing performance of this cult classic. I prefer the distinctive stammered verses to the bits where it slows down and goes a bit crooner – the contrast is obviously deliberate but I feel like it interrupts the unique flow of the song. The mind boggles that anyone considered this a potential winner, but it’s rare to hear something that sounds genuinely different, and I love that Norway – not for the last time – got behind something so uncompromisingly strange.
8. Spain: Massiel – La, la, la
Result: Winner (29pts)
It seems to me that there’s a cloud that hangs over La,la,la even to this day. It’s not as though every winner that preceded it could be described as high art – we’ve already had Puppet on a String and Tom Pilibi, to name but two. But it’s probably fair to say that it was the first winner to really be widely derided, and one that seems to set the tone for the lowest-common-denominator approach to songwriting with which many people still associate the contest.
Why did it win? Probably for the exact reasons everybody thinks it won – it was stupidly catchy and anyone could sing along to it. Ask anyone with even a passing interest in Eurovision to sing the chorus to La, la, la and there’s a good chance they’ll manage. Ask them to sing the verses, and they’ll probably struggle. It was also performed close to the end of the evening, and it wouldn’t do to dismiss Massiel herself – it may be a flimsy song but she really sells the thing – that chorus works as well as it does because of how expertly she handles the gear-shift from those mournful, forgettable verses to the relentlessly uptempo chorus, and her voluptuous Iberian charm can’t have been lost on many of the male jurors that night.
For what it’s worth, on balance, I don’t think La,la,la the worst song of the night, or the worst song ever to have won – far from it. On its own modest terms it succeeds – it’s a far more rousing effort than similar entries we’ve seen before like Ring-Dinge-Ding or Playboy. Spain had been delivering high-energy to otherwise staid contests for a few years by this point, and they’d earned this win. It’s just unfortunate that it’s come to be seen as a definitive Eurovision winner, when it’s actually rather a minor one.
7. United Kingdom: Cliff Richard – Congratulations
Result: 2nd (28pts)
In many ways, Cliff Richard was the perfect UK Eurovision entrant for the 1960s. Unquestionably a huge star, he never came across as somebody who was particularly concerned with maintaining his credibility. While Sandie Shaw practically had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the Eurovision stage, Cliff threw himself into it with enthusiasm and a will to win.
He probably should have won, too. The statistics certainly support an argument that his was the real hit of the 1968 contest, and his defeat by Massiel has gone down in history as one of the great Eurovision injustices. I can’t fault this performance for pure Cliff-ness. It’s catchy, spirited, end-of-the-pier pop par excellence, and one of the most widely known of all the UK entries. The fact that I can’t totally warm to it could be due to the fact that it’s always existed somewhere among the background music of my life – to the extent that I could never hope to come at it with a fresh pair of ears – and due to the issues that have always kept me from really appreciating the music of Cliff Richard. It’s just that little bit too eager to please. Like so much of his music, it has plenty of heart, but no soul.
6. Germany: Wenche Myhre – Ein Hoch der Liebe (A Toast to Love)
Result: 6th (11pts)
A charming little schlager that seems totally inconsequential on the surface, but actually gives a strong indication of the direction the contest is heading as we move into the seventies and eighties. There are relatively few entries quite as basic as La,la,la, but there are numerous uptempo pop ditties like Ein Hoch der Liebe still to come. Check out that theatrical ending – pure Eurovision, and yet I’m pretty sure it’s the first time I’m seeing it.
If the whole thing feels more than a little bit Scandinavian, it’s because Wenche Myhre is Norwegian – the first of a run of Nordics who would represent West Germany over the next few years. She’s not the best singer of the night, and it isn’t the best song, but think back to as recently as two or three years ago and marvel at how energetic this is. A new era is dawning, and while I doubt they knew it at the time, the writers behind Ein Hoch der Liebe are riding the crest of a wave.
5. Belgium: Claude Lombard – Quand tu reviendras (When Will You Come Back?)
Result: =7th (8pts)
A beguiling little number from Belgium here. Folk music is relatively untested at Eurovision at this point, and this gently plaintive French ballad has a haunting quality that really stands out. Lombard’s voice has just enough of the quavering ingenue in it to ensure the song is pitched just right. In fact, everything about this entry feels very natural and well-judged. With her long blonde hair and understated but faintly alternative styling, she comes on like a lowlands Joni Mitchell, and the lack of backing vocalists keeps the focus where it belongs. It may have been too unassuming to be a real competitor, but it’s certainly one of my standouts of the evening, and one I can see myself coming back to.
4. Finland: Kristina Hautala – Kun kello käy (When Time Goes By)
Result: =16th (1pt)
Finland propping up the rear end of the scoreboard was hardly an unfamiliar scenario even in 1968; by which time they’d already finished last twice and never climbed higher than 7th place. However, the disappointment had a particularly bitter sting this year as Kun kello käy was widely fancied at home. You can see why – not only is it highly catchy and very well performed, it was the first Finnish entry to be publicly selected.
What went wrong? In terms of the performance – not much. She’s a bit stuck behind the microphone stand which saps a little of the song’s considerable energy, but she looks and sounds great, and it really is a very rousing number that could stand toe to toe with the best uptempos from this year. Sometimes songs just get lost in the shuffle, and placed in the middle of the running order with Spain and the United Kingdom still to come, I think this was just a victim of bad luck as much as anything (that and the enduring problem of almost nobody outside Finland understanding the Finnish language). Really charming song though.
3. France: Isabelle Aubret – La source (The Source)
Result: 3rd (20pts)
Isabelle Aubret is a singer who understands the concept of less is more. Her 1962 winner ‘Un premier amour‘ was a fairly typical chanson rendered bewitching by the quiet sensuality of her performance. She has a more challenging piece to deal with here, an uncommonly dark lyric about an innocent young girl who is raped and possibly murdered by three men in a forest. Obviously metaphor plays a large enough role that the song isn’t too grim, but it’s strikingly frank for the time, and would be a highly controversial entry today, perhaps even moreso than it was then.
For Aubret to make the song work, she needs to project the tragedy at the heart of the song without laying it on so thick as to come across as crass or heavy handed. The melancholy folk-tinged arrangement helps here, it’s a song that encourages a gentler touch, and she glides through it with elegant sadness. An overused adjective perhaps, but this is genuinely haunting, and a thing of rare loveliness.
2. Yugoslavia: Dubrovački trubaduri – Jedan dan (One Day)
Result: =7th (8pts)
Novelty songs have a key role in modern Eurovision. They’re usually written to satirise or exaggerate recognised elements of the contest, or simply to make people laugh and – hopefully – inspire them to pick up their phones. They tend to be written expressly to be performed at Eurovision, and have little or no context outside of it.
Jedan dan is not a novelty song, although it falls into a category of song that is often labelled as such – the uncompromisingly ethnic entry*. In fact, it may be the first real example of this type of entry that we’ve come across so far in this project. Eurovision is supposed to celebrate cultural diversity, but songs that are built around aspects of a national or regional culture that a wider audience may not recognise are all too often vulnerable to mockery – especially when they involve national costume or don’t adhere to familiar western pop song structure.
If you’ve ever watched one of those (usually BBC-created) compilations of ‘silly Eurovision songs’, collated to demonstrate that ‘they do things differently on the continent’, chances are that you’ve seen at least a snatch of the Jedan dan performance before. The national costumes, the simple melody, the faintly medieval-sounding instrumentation – how quaint, how eminently mockable!
Well, sod that because I think it’s marvellous. Yes it looks and sounds a little strange compared to what comes before it, but it’s also as charming and spirited as anything I’ve come across so far in this project. It’s also excellently sung and absolutely chock full of hooks. I’m not Croatian, so I can’t speak to how authentic it really is, but while it was almost certainly a throwback performance, it comes across as very much the real deal, and a world away from the more cynical end of novelty entries. For me it succeeds on just about every level, and ends the competitive portion of the show on a real high note.
1. Sweden: Claes-Göran Hederström – Det börjar verka kärlek, banne mej (It’s Beginning to look like love, damn it!)
Result: 5th (15pts)
Sweden go full Tom Jones here on one of the most charming Eurovision entries of the era. There are shades of ‘It’s Not Unusual’ in the swinging, brass-heavy arrangement, but Hederström has the perfect mix of confidence and diffidence to put his own stamp on it.
As the title suggests, the tongue is firmly placed in cheek throughout this entry, and it’s very much a show piece, but also a lot closer to what was happening in the Western charts during the late sixties than a lot of the songs we’ll hear tonight. An enduring Swedish classic of the ‘schlager’ genre that’s been revived many times over the years, if ever they deserved a pre-ABBA victory, this was it.
A pre-filmed compilation of scenes from London accompanied by some patriotic tunes from the orchestra – the first broadcast to go outside the venue if memory serves (it might not), and an anticipation of the pre-song ‘postcards’ that would make their first appearance two years later.
Once again, each national jury was made up of ten members, all of whom had one vote for their favourite song of the evening. The crowd are noticeably enthusiastic and partisan – although Katie Boyle resists the urge to tell them to shut up this time.
The voting is unusually exciting this year – a third of the way through scoring it looks as though France are running away with it, but their momentum almost totally dries up around the halfway mark and the United Kingdom take over. Spain are running close but consistently behind, and it looks like a done deal for Cliff – especially when the UK prudently give their closest rivals nothing – but then penultimate jury Germany award a whopping six points to Massiel and push her ahead, much to the outrage of the assembled audience, and the barely concealed mirth of Ms Boyle.
With Spain on 29 points, United Kingdom on 28 and France now lagging behind on 20, it all depends on where the Yugoslavian votes go:
Switzerland – 3 points – taking them off nul.
Italy – two points.
Ireland – six points!
That’s it! Except – high drama, Yugoslavia have accidentally given out 11 points instead of ten! Not that it matters, as it turns out Switzerland only scored two points rather than three. Spain are confirmed as the winners, by a single point. Sandie Shaw emerges from backstage in a bizarre lime green feathered ensemble, describes her memories of last year as “terrible” and hands over the trophies to Massiel and her songwriters. A hearty reprise performance follows and the show ends. We’re off to sunny Spain!
After the contest
La, La La was a controversial winner in many quarters. Congratulations songwriter Bill Martin described it as ‘a piece of rubbish’ and it seems UK viewers agreed – achieved a lowly chart peak of #35 in the singles chart. It did better elsewhere, achieving top twenty chart placings in Norway (#5), Austria (#8), Switzerland (#8), Germany (#12) and The Netherlands (#18) among others.
Time has not improved the song’s reputation, and rumours have circulated that Spain’s then-dictator General Franco employed bribery to ensure his country won the contest. These claims have never been proven, however.
Massiel herself remained popular in Spanish speaking territories with a number of hit records and an illustrious stage career. She reached a peak of popularity in 1983 with the release of her album Corazon De Hierro and the massive Latin smash Brindaremos Por El, which was a chart-topping smash not only in Spain but throughout Latin America.
Cliff Richard was famously too nervous to sit through the announcement of the scores and spent the last third of the show hiding in the toilets. He later joked that when he realised Massiel had won, he approached her and “shook her warmly by the throat”. His enthusiasm for the contest was undimmed however, and he came back for another try in 1973.
Congratulations was also considerably more successful in chart terms than the song that beat it – Cliff spent two weeks at #1 in the UK and also topped the listings in Belgium, Ireland, Norway the Netherlands and – with what must have been delicious irony – Spain.
Spain’s first Eurovision victory brought the contest to Madrid for 1969, an outcome that saw Austria boycotting the contest due to the repressive far-right regime in place, at the time, headed by General Franco. This would not be the only controversy to mar the 1969 contest – which very nearly brought the contest to its knees just as its influence and popularity was reaching an all-time high.