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Eurovision: 'The presentation has changed, but sing a good song and you're always in with a chance'

By Ian Malcolm

Both the UK and Ireland have rediscovered their Eurovision hunger. Amid an eclectic mix of music and thinly-veiled nationalism, the winning formula is simple in this much loved contest.

It's got the lot. History, drama, rivalry, conspiracy, politics - and even a sprinkling of  entertainment.

That could almost be a plug for Stormont Today, but, no, I'm talking about the Eurovision Song Contest, a true highlight of my year and a contribution to world culture as significant as the Pyramids, the Rosetta Stone and the Book of Kells combined.

Let me be absolutely clear about this - I am a confirmed Eurovision junkie, addicted to the plinkety-plonkiness and boom-boom-banginess since I was a wean.

I'll even go further. I reckon that my passion for the Irish language stems from my love of Eurovision all those years ago, when I was entranced by songs in French and German and other tongues I could not understand.

I realised at a very young age that English was not the only language out there.

This is a big year for Eurovision, as the competition celebrates its 60th birthday in Vienna, home of cross-dressing Conchita Wurst, who won in 2014 with the power ballad Rise Like a Phoenix.

Some may have regarded that as a breakthrough moment for LGBT rights, but in reality Eurovision has been breaking down barriers since its inception. Conchita's success was pre-dated by Israeli drag-queen Dana International in 1998.

The contest was born in the post-war optimism of a Europe determined that none of its constituent nations should ever again be the cause of conflict.

It was this new European ideal, combined with the power of music, that brought together former enemies under the banner of song.

And what an idea. Six decades on, it's still going strong, bringing pleasure to millions every May with an eclectic mix of music and often thinly-veiled nationalism.

The presentation of the contest has changed, with the current emphasis on spectacular venues and ever-more outrageous stage furniture. But in the end, the principle is the same - sing a good song and you're in with a chance.

And that's something we've been very good at over the years in both the UK and Ireland. Who could forget Dana's All Kinds of Everything? Ireland's two-time victor Johnny Logan's What's Another Year, not to mention that most unexpected of all winners, The Rock and Roll Kids by Paul Harrington and Charlie McGettigan in 1994.

All in all, Ireland has won seven times, two more than the UK, which was a slow-starter, winning for the first time in 1967 with Sandie Shaw and Puppet on a String, co-written by our own Phil Coulter.

Lulu, now of Time Bomb age-defying creme fame, followed in 1969 with the memorable Boom Bang-a-Bang.

Lulu's entry summed up that forever-cheerful melange of rhythm and bounciness that led serious types to decry the contest as a meaningless confection of up-tempo silliness, punctuated by unnecessary key changes.

Well, slap it up ye's. I love it. And the more key changes the better.

And then there was that seminal Eurovision image - the famous Bucks Fizz (below) skirt-removal routine during Making Your Mind Up. A delicious moment of early-1980s kitsch that got the decade off to an upbeat and colourful start.

But the UK and Ireland became such frequent winners that it started to become embarrassing. As the contest became ever-more expensive to stage, there was a near-phobia about winning, particularly on the part of Irish host broadcaster RTE, for fear of having to go cap in hand to Leinster House to seek an indecent increase in the licence fee.

That's why the Harrington/McGettigan success took so many by surprise. It was a quiet little song in an age of brashness that had no "right" to win. Yet The Rock and Roll Kids captured perfectly the zeitgeist in 1994 - and probably cost RTE a fortune that had not been factored into the projected annual accounts.

Ireland last won in 1996, with Eimear Quinn's The Voice and the UK's last victor was Katrina and the Waves with Love Shine a Light in 1997. The UK, on several occasions, has enjoyed the indignity of "null points" and Ireland has been decidedly lacklustre.

There may be particular reasons for this. While it might be tempting to think that Ireland maintained the "lose at all costs" policy by entering the vile Dustin the Turkey in 2008, there is a competing theory that the pointy-haired Jedward (in 2011 and 2012) were going to be part of a long-term strategy to retake Eurovision - not by storming the beaches, but by grinding down a long-suffering Euro voting public into submission.

The UK, after years of tuneless and pointless entries (remember Scooch?), got serious again about Eurovision in 2012, with respected crooner and part-time national treasure Englebert Humperdinck. In spite of his ridiculous name, this was a serious re-entry into the Euro fray. Except it didn't work. He finished second from last.

Yet both countries seem to have rediscovered the Euro hunger and more recent entries have discarded the hangdog "don't vote for us" mentality that endured through the Noughties.

They're taking it seriously again. As indeed are those "sophisticates" who loved to pooh-pooh Eurovision as entertainment of the last resort. The thing is that Europe has never stopped taking it seriously. We - perhaps deliberately - took our eyes off the (glitter) ball.

As I said earlier, it all comes down to a good song. And that's how it's always been. Fashions may have changed, but a decent tune and a voice to carry it are what's needed.

Lena, for example, won the contest in 2010 for Germany with Satellite - proving that a pleasant-looking girl in a little black dress could win over voters with a delightfully simple song.

Conspiring against the "good song" trope, however, is the underlying political landscape, in which countries vote for nations that share their values. This has been especially visible since the admission of former Eastern Bloc nations, some of whom retain their Warsaw Pact ties on the scoreboard.

It's worth noting that, before they became Eurovision nations, the Warsaw Pact countries had their own version, the Sopot International Song Competition, held in that lovely seaside town between Gdansk and Gydinia in Poland.

Since their Euro ascension, the Eastern European voting bloc has been a major factor in determining winners. Russia gives its biggest points to its biggest "friends" and vice versa. At one time, Russia could have expected "douze points" from Ukraine - today, given the enmity between the two, that's highly unlikely.

The same goes for Georgia and other small nations which have felt the breath of the Russian bear. So politics, alas, is a factor in Euro-voting.

It's nice to note that the once-fractious relationship between Ireland and the UK (often reflected in voting patterns) has long since gone and both countries are happy to vote on each other's entries on musical merit.

We all have our happy Eurovision memories and our best-ever songs, to the extent that there's a temptation to think that the competition is not like it used to be. (A bit like our summers, which, we all believe, used to be so much hotter and sunnier - given our fears over global warming, I can never really work that one out!)

I don't agree. I think that Eurovision now is as good as it ever was. There's no forgetting Bucks Fizz and there's no forgetting Abba's Waterloo, but Alexander Rybak's Fairytale (for Norway in 2009) was just as memorable, as was Lordi's Hard Rock Hallelujah for Finland in 2006. And Conchita's Rise Like a Phoenix last year was a recent classic.

My one regret about Eurovision now is that most countries have chosen English as the language of song.

I've nothing against English, but there were occasions in Euro history when entries had to be sung in the national language.

This may have created difficulties in countries where more than one language is spoken (such as Switzerland and Belgium), but these could be easily resolved by a rota system.

And wasn't it all those wonderful songs which put me on the road to appreciating that language - every language - is precious and something to be cherished.

As we might say in Irish: "Eurovision abu!" ("Eurovision forever!")

Now, bring on those wonderful key changes.

Ten of the best Euro offerings 

10. La, La, La (Massiel, Spain, 1968) - I said I love foreign languages, but this one was a bit controversial because of the tension between Spanish and Catalan in the Franco era. Nevertheless, great tune, well-delivered.

9. Ein Bißchen Frieden (Nicole, Germany, 1982) - A lovely, gentle song which means "A Little Peace". A girl, a guitar - and a great song. A message of hope during still-dangerous times in Europe.

8. Hard Rock Hallelujah (Lordi, Finland, 2006) - Ground-breaking stuff, as the rubber-masked Finnish metallers shocked Europe with a piece of anthemic rock. Lead singer's platform shoes were as brutal as the chord-changes.

7. Satellite (Lena, Germany, 2010) - Nice girl, little black dress and a remarkably simple song. A pleasant return to old-fashioned Euro values where the song carried the day (or night).

6. Viva Cantando (Salome, Spain, 1969) - Winner in a four-way tie (Lulu was there too with Boom Bang-a-Bang): Eurovision was spoiled for choice. A strange song in many ways, as it vivaciously combined the music of Spain with a taste of the Caribbean.

5. Diva (Dana International, Israel, 1998) - New horizons for Eurovision as the Israeli cross-dresser took the title, years before Conchita Wurst. Novelty factor aside, an exquisite song with a brilliant refrain.

4. Non ho L'eta (Gigliola Cinquetti, Italy, 1964) - Nervous teenager, big stage and a voice to melt the coldest heart. Her vulnerability as such a young contestant belied Gigliola's brilliance as a singer with this sumptuous yet fragile ballad.

3. Only Teardrops (Emelle de Forest, Denmark, 2013) - All a wee bit Norn Iron, with a tin-whistle intro and some great side-drumming. And not a bad song either. She could get a trad gig - or a wee turn on the Twelfth.

2. Ik Ben Verliefd (Sieneke, Holland, 2010) - Old-style Eurovison. Bouncy, cheesier than a Gouda factory. More key-changes than you could shake a locksmith at.

1. Pump Pump (Fredi and the Friends, Finland, 1976) - Not sure why, but Finnish music is my Eurovision favourite. This didn't come anywhere near winning, but the incongruity of the massive, mustachioed Fredi and his slender co-singers captures perfectly the spirit of Eurovision.

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