Essays: Facing our Waterloo |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Facing our Waterloo

The mood for the Eurovision Song Contest (BBC1) had already been set by Radio Times, who gave over its front cover to a sparkling tableau showing the Responsibility of Representing Britain being handed on by veteran Cliff Richard to his awed successor, Olivia Newton-John.

Displaying sixty-four unblemished teeth between them, the two young people looked so blazingly hygienic you wondered if any bacteria could survive in the same room. Could this be Britain’s year? I laid in a stock of Cox’s pippins from the kitchen and switched on the set.

David Vine was immediately in evidence, giving us an historical run-down on a show which by now involves 32 countries and 500 million viewers in a search for Europe’s songatheyear. No mean honour, then, that the show this year was being put on in our very own Brighton, where our hostess was the multilingual Katie Boyle. It subsequently emerged that the multilingual Katie was the hit act of the night, translating herself into sexy French with no effort and a smile rivalling Olivia’s in its pristine dentition. David did his best, though, now and subsequently, to make sure we wouldn’t be burdened with actually hearing any of that. Every time Katie broke into the contest’s second language, David broke in as well, drowning her with a voice-over which filled us in on the background info relevant to each country. Spain, for example, was ‘the land of the package holidays.’ It is also the land of institutionalized Fascism, but some concepts are too difficult to handle when you’ve only got half a minute.

Carita from Finland sang ‘Aelae mene pois.’ She delivered the song very professionally, in English. We might have been in a concert hall in Brighton. Wait a second — we were in a concert hall in Brighton. Anyway, singing the song in English would almost certainly be a break for all those Koreans David kept assuring us were tuned in. Out there on the edge of Europe, Korea probably doesn’t boast too many Finnish speakers.

Olivia Newton-John came on. A bit unfair, being on that early: surely the later ones have a better chance. Still, grin and bear it. And what a grin! Those teeth! A skin like Caramel Delight, a gown like a blue nightie — she was the picture of healthy innocence. ‘Long LIVE love...’ How could she lose? The Koreans would be going crazy. ‘My goodness she sold that well!’ cried David, moved. Perhaps he had been afraid that she would forget the words, the song being so much more complicated than the British entries of previous years, and the words being among the most forgettable ever written. But she had not. She had done it. In the phrase once used so memorably by David à propos of a famous athlete, she had pulled out the big one.

From Spain came Pedro Calaf, manfully delivering ‘Canta y se feliz,’ a clever number with lots of false endings and no chance whatever. From Norway, billed by David as ‘the place where they drink aquavit,’ came Anne-Karine Strom, trilling a song of which I can recall not a skerrick. From Greece (land of Pythagoras? Praxiteles? Military Government? David didn’t specify) came Marinella, her song blatantly built around three chords, her hopes on sand. The apple cores piled up. What time would it be in Korea?

But then — sensation. Israel, land of compulsory military service, had unexpectedly come up with, not a singer, not two singers, but a group! They were called Poogy. Whereas Olivia Newton-John looks as antiseptic as an intensive care unit in a maternity hospital, Poogy merely looked as sterile as an assembly shop in an optics factory — i.e., comparatively raffish. Nonconformist in their tank-tops of differing weaves, they riffed their way happily through the kind of number their fathers used to sing on kibbutzes in the lulls between Arab attacks. It would have been nice to know what the words meant. Subtitles could have told us easily, but doubtless the hierarchs are tremulous lest the mass British audience suddenly get the impression it has switched on a Godard movie.

From Yugoslavia, the Korni Group. Suddenly it was raining groups! David said that this lot were terrifically interesting, a bunch of characters, protean, unpredictable, rebellious. Their song, ‘The Generation of 42,’ would be fascinating, especially if they sang it in English instead of Yugoslavian**. They might do either, since there was no way of predicting what they might do. They sang it in Yugoslavian.

Representing Sweden were Abba, a two-girl and two-man outfit with a song called ‘Waterloo.’ This one, built on a T-Rex riff and delivered in a Pickettywitch style that pointed up the cretinous lyric with ruthless precision. ‘Waterloo, Could’ve escaped if I’d wanted to...’ The girl with the blue knickerbockers, the silver boots and the clinically interesting lordosis looked like being the darling of the contest. ‘Waterloo...’ There could be no doubt that in real life she was squarer than your mother, but compared to Olivia she was as hip as Grace Slick, and this year, what with Poogy and Korni, hip was in. ‘Finally facing my Waterloo.’ As the girls clattered off in their ill-matching but providentially chosen clobber, their prospects looked unnervingly good. The hook of their song lasted a long time in the mind, like a kick in the knee. You could practically hear the Koreans singing it. ‘Watelroo...’

Iveen Sheer, singing for Luxembourg, had the best song of the night, ‘Bye-Bye I Love You.’ Very pretty melody, but too subtle in its impact. No chance. From Belgium, Jacques Hustin, singing the kind of number where you stick your hand out and look at it, like Johnny Mathis or Paul Anka. Time for another apple.

The Netherlands relieved, or anyway modified, the monotony by fielding a team called Mouth and MacNeal. Mouth was billed by the ecstatic David as protean, unpredictable, rebellious. He looked like a fat left-over from a California rock group circa 1969. Cindy and Bert did a big ballad for Germany — cabaret stuff. Piera Martell from Switzerland did another, very fine ballad, ‘Mein Ruf nach dir.’ ‘Would you believe, looking at that face,’ David asked romantically, ‘that she used to work in a construction company?’

Finally, from Italy, and the only previous winner, the sweet Gigliola Cinquetti sang ‘Si.’ She was very nervous, and would probably have been hysterical if she had known that she was about to be defeated by the dreary Sweden.

And so it ended, with country after country throwing the bulk of its votes to a pair of silver boots. In Korea, land of peace-talks, they would be going back to work in the rice paddies. A lonely apple core dropped from my drowsy fingers, forgotten, like a song. Olivia, I’m told, came equal fourth.

[** Serbo-Croat ]

The Observer, 14th April 1974

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]