Shay Healy believes the answer is simple: ‘Until RTE gets a ‘‘real’’ song – not a plastic confection — and the right singer, and return to the original national voting system, nothing will change.
The Eurovision Song Contest was not designed to find a song for Europe rather it was an experiment by Sergio Pilese and Marcel Benezon who were looking at the possibilities for live broadcasting. Sergio borrowed the concept from the San Remo Festival and Marcel approved it. But scarily enough they had no songs in mind, which shows you how close we came to not having a Eurovision. They were very pleased from an engineering point of view at what they saw in the first contest.
The payoff was a technical coup.
The first Eurovision in Lugano in Switzerland in 1956 was an instant success. There were seven contestants and the host country were very deserving winners on their own pitch.
The history of Irish participation in Eurovision didn’t begin until 1965 when Butch Moore went Walking the streets in the rain and his habit of slapping his thigh while walking immediately highlighted him and lifted him out of the pack. Butch went on to achieve a sixth place finish. He had great success with the Capitol Show band but he eventually emigrated to America where he sang and had his own popular Irish bar.
In 1966 Dickie Rock came fourth with Come Back to Stay. There was some sadness attached to both of these songs. Theresa O’Donnell, who wrote Walking The Streets in The Rain told me she never got royalties and it haunted her until her dying day. If it was today she would probably be set for life though we hadn’t yet reached the era of digital technology.
We had to wait a long time after that until 1970 when Dana, a young girl on a stool, used her innocent Derry charm to impress upon the judges that Ireland were worthy winners. Dana became a very famous international performing star, but there was tragedy behind this song also. It was co-written by Derry Lindsay and Jackie Smith and sadly, Jackie got lost in a bottle and passed away early. Derry Lindsay went back into his print business, 3 Candle Press. I recall talking to him some years later and the only disappointment he had from it was that he was never included in whatever celebrations or nostalgia shows were going at the time, another forgotten writer.
Come Back to Stay turned Dickie Rock into a national hero. He couldn’t walk abroad in public without exciting an instant pop-up crowd. My vivid memory is of a massive throng, totally blocking Moore Street, outside the studio that Dickie was recording in. Come Back to Stay was written by Roland Soper who would have liked to have sung it himself but instead the honours went to Dickie.
We had to wait another ten years after our first success to win again in 1980. This time again youth was to the fore and a very young Johnny Logan sang What’s Another Year to victory and he memorably finished singing his reprise with the words Ireland I love you.
Doesn’t that memory bring you back and did you notice, more specifically, that all three of those songs had orchestral arrangements and were played with a ‘live’ orchestra, showing off the songs in their best clothing.
In the old performance days everybody was accompanied by an orchestra as backing for their song and our conductor for years was a very fine jazz piano player, Noel Kelehan who confidently set the tempo and the mood of the song and his sure touch helped to inspire the singers.
As time moved on, the European Broadcasting Commission admitted more and more countries.
The increased number of competitors brought pressure from record labels who turned up the heat for the allowance of backing tracks. It was the beginning of the end for us old timers.
The use of backing tracks was a controversial decision and the implications for the contest were serious. No more than six people are allowed on stage but the backing track could chunter away eliminating the need for live drums and robbing the songs of the sensitivity that an orchestra could bring.
Some people get very angry, accusing RTE of not wanting to bear the cost of staging the show. This is one of the arguments that’s often raised but it’s so wide of the mark and so wrong. All we need is a ‘real’ song as opposed a plastic confection concocted in some studio, probably in Norway! The modern Eurovision of 2017 was a technical triumph of extraordinary proportions. When a country has to host the show it brings out the best in everybody from the runner in the studio to the makeup artist, to the costume makers, to set designers, a whole panoply of talented people contributes to the best of their ability.
But strangely enough the modern show attracts an audience of perhaps 200 million as against 500 million viewers for the old style show with the orchestra.
The original voting system had a ten-man jury in this country who chose the singer and the song. When we won the Eurovision three times in a row we knew we were doing something right and the production on each occasion was done with great aplomb from everyone in RTE. They rose to the occasion and who can forget the wonderful Niamh Kavanagh singing Jimmy Walsh’s In Your Eyes in the Green Glens Arena in Millstreet. We still regret losing the voting system which worked so well for us in Europe.
Today’s system of voting from hand held devises has changed the pattern so badly that they try and soften it every year by making the electronic vote part of the overall total for a song. This year they had so many clauses and sub-clauses that it was almost impossible to follow the path of the winner, which was Amar Pelos Dois.
I think us oldies got the best of the Eurovision days. I recall one Sunday morning sitting in Kitty O’Sheas pub in Dublin and being entertained by nineteen dockers who sang every Irish Eurovision song up as far as Cross Your Heart by Tina. At parties and gatherings All Kinds of Everything was a great fallback. From this redoubt all imposters could be rebuffed. You don’t get much of that anymore and when was the last time you got the whole family together with score sheets or ran a lottery in the office for the Contest? My kids told me that they ran out into the street shouting ‘Daddy’s won Daddy’s won’. When my song won the nomination in 1980. My Da and my Uncle Tom adjourned to O’Reilly’s in Sandymount and as they entered the pub they were greeted with a standing ovation.
Our greatest Eurovision star, Johnny Logan pulled off the astonishing fete of winning the Eurovision as a singer, as a writer and as a writer performer. This was a memorable achievement and turned Logan into a European super star. His charm and his innocence won him great admiration and he was at his most powerful singing his own song Hold Me Now. He’s one of the greatest performers in the Eurovision history.
Since then RTE have been unsuccessfully looking for another Johnny Logan but that doesn’t stop them trying and irritatingly for the past five years we’ve ended up in the dumper, not even getting through to the final. The hunt to find a Logan doppelganger is horribly misplaced.
RTE keep looking for a ‘Eurovision Song’ which is a critical mistake. And they are going the wrong way about it. This year’s winner, Salvador Sobral, who’s song as written by his sister Luisa, triumphed because his song was melodic and it wasn’t some sampled nasty modern confection that are an anathema to what we like to call real music. What they need is a good song and that shines through like Amar Pelos Dois.
The singer said ‘I want to say we live in a world of disposable music, fast food music, music without any conscience, music is feeling, so let’s try to change this and bring music back which is really what matters’.
He’s right of course and interestingly his sister Luisa managed to insinuate herself into a duet on stage with her brother for the reprise of the song. This was a small victory for songwriters everywhere because in all the comings and goings at Eurovision the writer is often left behind. It’s probably not deliberate but everyone is so anxious to be a star these days they’re quite happy to take the limelight and push the writer into the background.
When the Berlin Wall came down and the cold war was over, Eastern European countries began to enter the Eurovision. A lot of them are quite screechy but they also produce fine big ballads in countries like Moldova and Estonia who gained the respect of the Western European audience and performers. With their arrival came the heavy accusations of partisan voting but I don’t think there’s any mystery to it. Your next door neighbor’s music is going to sound like your music and it’s only natural to recognise the shape of the neighbour’s entry. For the past years they have dominated the voting and their addition, despite having musical value, has caused the competition to become bloated with the number of countries taking part.
In 2015 Australia entered for the first time. They were close runners on their first and second attempts. But can you imagine the long faces in RTE had they won because they would have to find a budget big enough to fly twenty-three people to Oz. No way Jose!
Another Irish writer who goes about his business quietly was also a multiple winner at Eurovision, Brendan Graham. The first win was Rock ‘n Roll Kids with Paul Harrington piano and Charlie McGettigan on guitar without the aid of any gimmicks. And he followed it the next year with The Voice sung by Emer Quinn. Brendan hit the jackpot when he wrote You Raise Me Up which is the most recorded song in the history of music. Brendan, like Salvador, thinks its time to bring back real music and I couldn’t agree with him more.
The other possible unorthodox method of winning the Eurovision is to have a gimmick. Lordy from Norway hid behind masks and assaulted the audience like four Genghis Khans. It spurred the young kids to vote. Every year some crazy European will perform with a set of angels wings on his back. We tried a flutter of feathers when Dustin sang Ireland into oblivion. He became reviled by the people who saw the show. We haven’t recovered from that since.
The gay community has embraced the Eurovision with open arms. They plan Eurovision parties months in advance and enjoy the spectacle and bring their artistic gifts adding great colour to the show which in itself is very camp. The stage outfits worn by the artists from various countries ride the range of fashion from outright bizarre to simply unbelievable. They also like the colour and flash of the enormous set with stunning lighting sequences accompanying every song.
Oddly enough there is no monetary prize for the Eurovision Song Contest, you get to pull on your country’s jersey and you’re doing it for the nation. A friend of mine told me he was in Churchtown when What’s Another Year crossed the line as winners and he could hear the cheering in the houses the whole length of the road. The exasperating aspect for the writer is that you’re away from home and you can’t enjoy the victory with your family and friends. But the Irish people love Eurovision and they love a good song and if perchance RTE get the combination right, the right singer, the right song, who knows we might all be running into the street shouting ‘We won, we won’!
Ireland’s list of losers since 1996
1997: Marc Roberts
1998: Dawn Martin
1999: The Mullans
2000: Eamonn Toal
2001: Gary O’Shaughnessy
2002: ‘Relegated’ from the contest because of Gary O’Shaugnessy’s low finish – 21st – in the previous year.
2003: Mickie Harte
2004: Chris Doran
2005: Donna and Joe
2006: Brian Kennedy
2008: Dustin The Turkey
2009: Sinead Mulvey and Black Daisy
2010: Niamh Kavanagh
2013: Ryan Dolan
2014: Cann Linn/Daisy Smith
2015: Molly Sterling
2016: Nicky Byrne
2017: Brendan Farrell