The history of live music in the Eurovision Song Contest

The contest as it once was (1956-1972)
When the Eurovision Song Contest was first organized in 1956, there were no intricate rules as to the song and the way it was performed. A lot of things went without saying: the song was to be performed by a soloist, the lyrics were to be sung in one of the country’s native languages and, last but not least, the music was to be played by an orchestra provided by the organizing broadcaster. Each country was invited to send a conductor along with the vocalist to rehearse with the local orchestra and wave the baton during the Eurovision performance. These were the days when conductors were stars in their own right. Famous orchestra leaders such as Franck Pourcel, Armando Trovajoli, Raymond Lefèvre, Dolf van der Linden, Horst Jankowski, and even Austria’s operetta legend Robert Stolz graced the contest with their presence during those early years.

Dolf van der Linden (to the left) and Franck Pourcel having a chat

In the course of the 1960s, the Eurovision Song Contest gradually adapted to the changing taste of an audience which, more and more, became used to pop music. Winning entries such as France Gall’s ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son’ (1965), Sandy Shaw’s ‘Puppet on a string’ (1967), and Lulu’s ‘Boom bang-a-bang’ (1969) reflected this development. The Eurovision orchestras were extended, because larger brass and rhythm sections were required to suit the modern, grandiose arrangements which were in vogue those days. However, it took until 1971 – almost ten years after The Beatles burst onto the world musical stage, paving the way for many other pop groups – before the organizers allowed ensembles of more than two vocalists to participate in the contest.

In 1972, the United Kingdom’s representatives were The New Seekers, one of the first pop groups in the real sense of the word to enter the contest, with their song ‘Beg, steal, or borrow’. The members made a request to the organization: because they wanted to focus on singing and avoid technical difficulties, they wondered if there were a possibility to use a pre-recorded tape with their guitar sounds on it, instead of having to play their instruments live along with the orchestra. They were not given permission to do so, because it was felt this would be unfair towards the candidates from the other countries. Thus, the guitarists had to co-ordinate beginning and ending of the song carefully with their conductor, David Mackay. Everything went well and the UK landed a respectable second position.

The 1972 Eurovision Song Contest stage

Pre-recorded elements allowed under certain conditions (1973-1996)
Nevertheless, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) felt that change was needed to make sure the competition would not be increasingly regarded as backward and old-fashioned. From 1973 onwards, pre-recorded tapes were allowed, provided that the instruments on it were ‘play-backed’ on stage by background ‘musicians’. The first artist to make use of this new rule was Cliff Richard, representing the UK with ‘Power to all our friends’ in the ’73 contest. His pre-recorded rhythm track was ‘played’ on stage by his back-up band, the Shadows. The TV audience, however, saw Richard singing his entry while the percussionist of the Luxembourg orchestra behind him was ostentatiously having a break – an odd sight indeed.

The rhythm group of the 1973 Eurovision orchestra enjoying a break during Cliff Richard’s performance

In 1974, ABBA were the first to effectively take advantage of the new rules. For the performance of ‘Waterloo’, the Swedish band used what amounted to a virtually complete backing track, to which only tiny live orchestra elements were added. Conductor Sven-Olof Walldoff, who famously dressed up as Napoleon, had a very easy job indeed that night in Brighton. ABBA stormed to victory, and set a trend. Although, in the two decennia after their victory, many entries were performed entirely or almost entirely live, more and more use was made of the phenomenon ‘backing track’. The Italian group Matia Bazar was the first to pre-record the whole arrangement and completely ignore the orchestra; this was in 1979. Some winning entries were performed with an extensive backing track, amongst which ‘Nocturne’ (1995) and ‘The voice’ (1996), but pre-recordings were certainly no safe path to a good result. Quite the opposite, most winning songs did not feature backing tracks at all.

Sven-Olof Walldoff (in the middle, wearing Napoleon’s hat) with ABBA and the group’s manager, Stikkan Anderson

In the 1990s, the head of the German delegation, Jürgen Meier-Beer, believed the contest needed to be modernized again. In his view, it had completely lost its appeal to a younger audience. He proposed several measures, one of those being that the orchestra would have to go. In a self-congratulatory article in EuroSong News (2002), Meier-Beer boastfully explained what he thought and did from 1996 onwards, the year he got involved in organizing the German Eurovision pre-selection:

“It had become clear that for a successful marketing of the contest in Germany, the international rules had to change: the language rule had to go; the juries had to go. And finally, the orchestra had to go, since most pop music today can barely be reproduced using an orchestra. Apart from that, the orchestra represented one of the largest single expenses in staging the contest (…). I later found out that the people blocking these changes consisted mainly of learned elderly men in small European countries who wanted to use the Eurovision Song Contest to improve European culture. In Germany, with the most brutal competition in broadcasting, this policy would have condemned the contest to death. The only option left was power wielding – I made the reform of the rules a condition for the further participation of Germany in the Eurovision Song Contest.”

It is astonishing that Meier-Beer himself shamelessly admits that he abused his position of power as German Head of Delegation to force changes upon the contest that many others were opposed to; Meier-Beer, however, was convinced commercial considerations were so important that there should not be any room left for what he disdainfully refers to as ‘improving European culture’ – which had been one of the ideals of the contest’s founding fathers in 1956.

Jürgen Meier-Beer

Pre-recorded elements allowed without any conditions (1997-1998)
In 1997 and 1998, gradually, the juries were replaced by tele-vote. On top of that, in ’97, permission was granted to use a pre-recorded tape with all the music to a song; in practice, this led to several countries not using the orchestra at all. Of course, no doubt on the explicit orders of Meier-Beer, neither of the German entries in those two Eurovision editions contained a note which was played live, in spite of the fact that both ‘Zeit’ (1997) and ‘Guildo hat euch lieb’ (1998), musically speaking, were quite old-fashioned efforts that involved no modern sounds at all; neither of these songs would have sounded worse should they have been played live by an orchestra – quite the opposite. Israel’s Dana International won the 1998 edition with the first ever winning entry performed without an orchestra and a conductor: ‘Diva’. In spite of all this, the vast majority of countries still took the trouble of submitting a song with a live arrangement, conducted by a maestro who was sent along to the contest with the vocalists.

No live music allowed (1999-present)
Terrified by the prospect of a German withdrawal and its financial consequences, other countries’ representatives decided to oblige to Meier-Beer’s wishes completely. The national language rule was abolished once and for all. Moreover, in the months after the 1998 contest, it transpired that the EBU dropped the rule that the host country was obliged to provide an orchestra. The Israeli organisation of the 1999 contest announced, quite unconvincingly, that the hall where the contest was to take place lacked the space needed for a live band. This obviously was nonsense, as the Eurovision Song Contest of 1979 had been held at exactly the same venue – then, of course, with an orchestra very much present. Thus, an ideological choice to change the face of the contest was veiled with lame excuses.

The 1979 Eurovision Song Contest in Jerusalem, with Lefteris Chalkiadakis conducting the Greek entry

A couple of years later, an initiative to get the orchestra back into the contest’s concept, was launched in the Netherlands by two Eurovision aficionados, journalist and long-time TV commentator of the event, Willem van Beusekom (1947-2006), and Dick Bakker, who, at that time, was chief conductor of the Metropole Orchestra, a professional jazz and pop orchestra which belongs to the Netherlands national broadcaster. But with Meier-Beer still very much in command at EBU meetings, the Dutch proposal obviously did not stand a chance. Bakker comments:

Dick Bakker

“In 1998, I was the conductor of the Netherlands’ delegation in the last Eurovision Song Contest with live musical accompaniment. It hurt me that the EBU had decided to simply abandon the idea of a live orchestra altogether. Look, I am a realist – I understand artists and producers who, worried about the quality of an orchestra in a foreign country with which they have never previously worked, prefer pre-recorded tracks. Especially nowadays, many songs rely on sound effects and a heavy beat which cannot always be reproduced by an orchestra. In 1975, when I participated in the contest as the composer of Eurovision winner ‘Ding-a-dong’, it was me who decided to pre-record the rhythm elements and have the string and brass elements of the Swedish orchestra play along with that. Doing so, I was sure that my song would sound well.”

“Somewhere in 2001, I talked to Willem van Beusekom. We agreed that the Eurovision Song Contest was rapidly becoming a farcical event due to the lack of real music in it. At the same time, we understood worries of artists who did not want to work with a second-rate orchestra. That is why we proposed to simply ‘offer’ the Metropole Orchestra to the organizing country every year. The Metropole Orchestra is a professional orchestra which is used to working on popular music; its musicians would be able to accompany both modern and more traditional Eurovision entries to perfection. What was more, other countries could never have complained about the financial consequences of an orchestra with over fifty expensive musicians who should be paid for their job; this is because the members of the Metropole Orchestra are officially employees of the Netherlands national broadcaster, who have a fixed salary which does not increase with a new commission. The only thing that would have to be done, was blocking the orchestra’s other professional activities for the duration of two weeks to allow the musicians and artists to rehearse and perform all arrangements.”

Willem van Beusekom

“Willem brought forward our proposal in a meeting of delegation leaders. Unfortunately, most other countries wanted nothing of it. They maintained that they would have encountered difficulties in finding artists who agreed to participate in a show with a live orchestra. It is a pity my orchestra was not taken more seriously. I still believe it would be perfectly possible to bring back live music to the contest. To my mind, in the Eurovision Song Contest, it should be made compulsory to play all string and brass elements in an arrangement live with the orchestra, with an option to use – in special cases when sounds are involved which cannot be reproduced live – a pre-recorded click track with rhythm elements… although I am convinced that the Metropole Orchestra could play most of those even better and without any problem.”

It is virtually incredible that the 2001 proposal by Van Beusekom and Bakker was not embraced by a majority of the delegation leaders. The two reasons brought up by Meier-Beer to drop the orchestra – its expenses and its inability to adequately accompany more modern songs – were addressed by the Dutch initiative, with a free and fully professional pop orchestra offered by the Netherlands broadcaster. The new excuse put forward this time was that artists allegedly did not want to work with an orchestra; any proof of this bold proposition has never been given.

Quite the opposite is true. In 2010, ESCLIVEMUSIC.com initiator Tin Španja, helped by Sylvia Strand, who was a member of the Cypriot delegation that year, managed to talk to almost all of the participating artists in that year’s contest in Oslo. All of them – without a single exception – agreed that the Eurovision Song Contest would be better off with live music! Unfortunately, since 1999, not a single note has been played which was performed live. In 2004, an explicit ban on live music was imposed by Svante Stockselius, EBU scrutineer (2003-2010). Thus, from 2004 onwards, artists who explicitly voiced their desire to be allowed to play live, such as the Austrian band Global.Kryner (2005) as well as the Slovenian string group Quartissimo (2009), and UK composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (still in 2009), were forbidden to do so by him – it sounds incredible when talking about a music competition, but it is true.

Svante Stockselius

Could it be?
However, there are several reasons to be cautiously optimistic. One of the other changes which Meier-Beer forced upon the EBU in the 1990s, the replacement of the Eurovision juries by a public tele-vote, was reversed in 2009, when it was decided upon to return to the concept of a jury – this time even a jury consisting of music professionals only – voting along with the audience. This proves that the EBU is susceptible to press and audience criticism. Moreover, since 2009, the type of entries submitted to the competition has changed; songs relying on show elements and freaky performers, which gave the Eurovision Song Contest such a bad name in the 2000s, seem to have become the exception rather than the rule. Instead, the majority of entries can be classified as ballads or pure pop songs, of which the winners of 2009 (‘Fairytale’ by Alexander Rybak) and 2010 (‘Satellite’ by Lena Meyer-Landrut) are perfect examples. More and more songs rely on string arrangements, which would sound far more impressive when played live on stage by an orchestra. The Sanremo Festival in Italy and the Festivali i Këngës in Albania annually prove that even the most modern of songs can be reproduced live with a full orchestra. Some other countries chose to have a live band in their Eurovision pre-selection, such as the United Kingdom in 2009 and – incredibly, but true – Germany in 2010.

Stage of the 2010 Sanremo Festival

There are no reasons left to oppose the return of the orchestra and live music to the Eurovision Song Contest. Let us hope the EBU will understand this soon and decide to give the contest back what it is desperately in need of: musical credibility.

Links & sources
  • Jürgen Meier-Beer, “Inside Story – The Making of a Pop Event”, article published in EuroSong News, issue no. 78 (2002).
  • Bas Tukker interviewed Dick Bakker twice (in 2008 and 2010) about the initiative by himself and Willem van Beusekom’s to bring back the orchestra to the Eurovision Song Contest.
  • Information provided by Eurovision experts Tin Španja and Shane Heneghan.
  • Pictures courtesy of: private collections Anneke van der Linden, Dick Bakker, Jan-Willem van Beusekom.
  • Sign the online petition at www.esclivemusic.com.