This month, millions of us will be enthralled by the high drama – and high camp – of the 55th Eurovision song contest. To mark the occasion, Ivor Lyttle of Eurosong news joins us as guest editor and takes us back to the halcyon days of the pan-European pop fest.
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In the 1960s, the Eurovision song contest provided a kind of nature reserve for solo singers – and the girls were the queens of the jungle. The soloists’ natural enemies in the charts, the groups, were banned from the contest until 1972. The girls thrived in this protected environment. Only two men and one male/female duo managed to win the contest between 1960 and 1970. All the others were girls. At the end of the decade, in 1969, the girls consolidated their dominance with a four-way tie for victory between France, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK – all of them female singers.
Despite this run of success, some of the stars tried to distance themselves from their participation in the contest in later years. The CD and DVD set issued to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the contest in 2005 was almost shelved when France Gall was the only artist who refused to give her permission to use her winning song. After a lot of coaxing, she came round in the end. Sandie Shaw accused Puppet on a string of ruining her (Carnaby) street credibility and putting an end to her career. In actual fact, it probably extended an already flagging career by a good few years. She also seems to have made her peace with Eurovision in the meantime, and recorded a mellowed-down version of her winner to mark her 60th birthday three years ago.
This year’s contest, which is being held in Oslo, features a 1970s throwback from the pen of Father Abraham (of Smurfs fame) for the Netherlands and a 1980s memorial song for the UK from former hit-makers Stock and Waterman. It’s high time someone brought back the 1960s – we live in hope!
Je me demande
Michèle Torr began her career in the 1960s with French covers of American hits, including this version of Ginny Arnell’s ultimate teenage angst hymn I wish I knew what dress to wear. It was taken from the 1964 EP that made her name, Dans mes bras oublie ta peine (itself another Arnell cover). The marvellously husky-voiced English version of her 1966 Eurovision entry for Luxembourg, Only tears are left for me, is also well worth checking out.
Nine times out of ten
In 1969 Muriel Day became the first woman to represent Ireland in the Eurovision song contest. She came to the attention of the composers of Lulu’s UK entry, and they asked her to record with them. Shortly after this, Muriel emigrated to Canada. When she returned to Ireland 25 years later, she was amazed to hear that, in her absence, a song from those sessions she had thought to be the forgotten B-side of Optimistic fool had become a Northern soul hit. Nine times out of ten consolidates Muriel’s reputation as the Irish queen of soul – the woman whose Eurovision entry, Wages of love, kept Marvin Gaye’s I heard it through the grapevine off the Irish number one spot.
Long before the advent of the white slave trade in nubile young eastern European women, a similarly suspect trade was in operation between Germany and its Nordic neighbours. Pretty young Scandinavian girls who showed the least bit of musical aptitude found themselves packed into a mini skirt and sent off to Germany to work in the Schlager industry. Some made it big, and Germany was represented in the Eurovision song contest in 1968 by Norway’s Wenche Myhre, in 1969 by Sweden’s Siw Malmkvist and in 1973 by Denmark’s Gitte. Gitte had been a star in Germany throughout the 1960s, and this is the Italian version of Jede hat einmal im Leben einen Johnny from her 1967 album Jeder Boy ist anders.
Cero en amor
Italy’s Gigliola Cinquetti was just 16 when she won the Eurovision song contest in 1964 with Non ho l’età (per amarti). The song – a simple ballad – gave Italy its first-ever win at the contest and went on to sell over three million copies across Europe. From then, the singer became a regular in the Italian charts. Our choice is a funky Spanish B-side from 1969. By coincidence, both she and fellow Eurovision winner France Gall had performed the original of the A-side, La pioggia, at the 1969 San Remo festival.
A lonely singing doll
While previous Eurovision winners Jacqueline Boyer and Gigliola Cinquetti had notched up UK hits with their winning songs in French and Italian respectively, France Gall – surprisingly – failed to chart in the UK with her Phil Spector-influenced Poupée de cire, poupée de son in 1965. Perhaps it was the public’s revenge for her having pushed homegrown heroine Kathy Kirby into second place. Seeing an opening, Twinkle cut an English version for a now highly sought-after EP release. However, she never seemed to escape from the shadow of her death disc Terry and soon turned to songwriting.
Eins, zwei, drei
Norwegians had to discover the hard way that theirs was perhaps not a language with international pop appeal. A great deal of humiliation preceded their first Eurovision victory in 1985. With the contest retuning to Norway in 2010, we pay tribute here to a real trouper. After poor placings in the contest in 1965 and 1967, Kirsti Sparboe hoped for third time lucky with Oj, oj, oj, så glad jeg skal bli (here in German) in 1969. It was not to be – Europe rewarded her efforts with just one point.
Join us again next month when RSG! visitor Johan Westin turns guest editor. He has six treats in store – particularly for those of you who are partial to French femme pop.
If you’d like to be a guest editor on this site one month, get in touch. You don’t have to be a music industry expert, just someone with a passion for 1960s European female singers. (And if English isn’t your first language, don’t worry, we can help.)