One of the easiest games for Eurovision fans to play is the “What If?” game. What if the televote had been around for Gina G? What if Abba had sung in Swedish? What if Valentina Monetta entered Sanremo? There’s no such thing as a wrong answer, but you can have some great discussions and some wonderful dreams.
Ahead of the UK public choosing the winning song and performance from ‘Eurovision: You Decide’, let’s take a look back at what could have been for the United Kingdom and play a Great Big What If Game for the United Kingdom at the Eurovision Song Contest.
Dusty Springfield’s Sanremo Substitution
Now this is a tough one. Kathy Kirby was at the height of her star power in the United Kingdom, she had her own TV show, and had scored four consecutive Top 20 hits before ‘I Belong’ finished in second place in 1965’s Eurovision Song Contest (while singing from second in the running order). Even the EP of her six National Final songs reached the Top Ten!
The easiest ‘what if’ in 1965 is to change the running order (switch ‘I Belong’ with the eventual winner ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son’, which sung in 15th out of the 18 strong running order) but there’s someone far more interesting in the wings. Having just left the folk-pop trio The Springfields, Dusty Springfield’s solo career was building in intensity. 1965 saw her enter Sanremo with ‘Tu che ne sai?’ and ‘Di fronte all’amore’. Also in Sanremo and catching her ear was ‘Io Che Non Vivo (Senza Te)’, performed by Pino Donaggio.
She promptly snagged an acetate 45 rpm of the track, but waited a year before calling on some session musicians to sort out a reworked instrumental version ready for new lyrics. In 1996 ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’ was released, and became an instant classic.
I’d still love to know what a Dusty Springfield version of ‘I Believe’ would have sounded like, but if you want a huge what if for the sixties, it’s this. Dusty does Sanremo, picks up the acetate, and doesn’t wait a year. She gets back to London, sorts out the English version, and BBC Executive Tom Sloan takes the difficult decision to switch out Kirby for Springfield to chase for the UK’s first Eurovision victory.
(Seriously though, you know the song, but this live rendition is spine chilling…)
Slade Slays Cliff
This one takes a few hops, but the hardest hop to make is accepting the first premise. Listen to Cliff Richard’s second Eurovision song, ‘Power To All Our Friends’. You’ll recognise the pop sensibilities and light entertainment value of the song, but if you listen closer you’ll hear the driving beat and power that lies at the heart of the early seventies Glam ethos.
This song, which finished third at the Song Contest, can sit comfortably alongside 1973’s big chart hits, such as ‘See My Baby Jive’, ‘Can The Can’, and (ahem) ‘I Love You Love Me Love’. A year before Stig Anderson polished the glam formula for Melodifestivalen and Brighton, Cliff tried to smuggle his interpretation of glam rock into the Eurovision Song Contest.
What if instead of a subtle bit of glam, the BBC went all out. In the month where ‘Power’ was confirmed, a huge marketing campaign was taking place on radio and on TV ahead of the release of Slade’s ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’ was a new entry at number one in the charts – an instant classic. That’s it, there you go, skip Cliff send Jim Lea, Don Powell, Noddy Holder, and Dave Hill to the Grand Theatre in Luxembourg City.
As Abba went on to prove with their not-so-subtle homage to The Sweet, glam works really well at Eurovision in the seventies.
The Strictly Song Contest
Sure, we sent Prima Donna (‘Love Enough For Two’) and that gave Sally-Ann Triplett a taste of the Contest before the bopping Bardo in 1982, but come on, you had Bruno Tonioli choreographing and appearing on stage as part of Duke and The Aces… and it was a Paul Curtis penned number as well. Everything there is for the perfect early eighties what If.
Part of working on ‘what if’ alternatives is that they can reflect current trends and thoughts with a different context. With that in mind, you have to ask why Bros never got around to representing the United Kingdom, or if there was even an opportunity. With a tip of the head to Mr Hacksaw, there was.
Let’s be fair to Scott Fitzgerald, there’s no way Bros would have considered the Song Contest in 1988, so ‘Go’ remains in the Eurovision discography (thankfully). The year after that? Maybe if the management team had been feeling reckless but ’89 saw the Matt, Luke, and Ken show continue to ride high in the charts and in popular culture – who wouldn’t be proud of Smash Hits’ ‘Best British Newcomer’ and ‘Best Song’ awards?
So let’s turn to the 1990 season. Specifically, let’s turn to Bros’ ‘Chocolate Box’, the single that charted at #9 and allowed the tabloids to get stuck in with negative headlines in October 1989. What if management decided the focus needed to be more outside the UK and to tap into the huge European market of fans? And the best stage to do that would be the televised stage of the Eurovision Song Contest.
Hold back the next single – the emotionally powerful ‘Sister’ – and enter that into A Song For Europe. At that point the BBC had introduced a 100 percent televote into the selection process, and you just know the Brosettes would have been organised enough to pile on the phone lines and push Emma back into second place as the Goss brothers gave a little bit of Bros back to the world.
Wogan’s Final Correct Call
So much about the UK’s current attitude to the Eurovision Song Contest comes back to the attitude of Terry Wogan to the Song Contest, and that attitude changed throughout decades of his involvement. Sometimes it was superb, sometimes it was scurrilous, but in his final regeneration, Wogan managed to get a few things right, even if was decided that it was an accident brought about by the pressure of live TV.
This is probably the easiest of these what if moments to picture. Following a superfinal between Scooch and Cyndi at the UK’s National Selection (then going under the SEO-friendly ‘Making Your Mind Up’ moniker) the two co-hosts (Wogan and Fearne Cotton) proclaimed the winning act was “Scooch!” (Cotton) and “Cyndi!” (Wogan).
The results confirmed Cotton was right and Wogan mis-heard, but what if it had played the other way around? Let’s replace the innuendo-laden pale imitation of ‘The High Life’ with ‘I’ll Leave My Heart’ (and try not to sing ‘Loch Lomond’)
Cool Me Down It’s Hotter Than Hell
One of the big fan ‘What If’ moments in the Contest is Poland not sending Margaret with ‘Cool Me Down’ (although I’m perfectly happy with the cheesy slice of soft rock from Mike Starling) but there’s a bigger ‘What If’ in 2016 for the United Kingdom… Dua Lipa’s ‘Hotter Than Hell’
It was the summer of post-dancehall pop, and as ESC Insight’s Ellie Chalkely noted, ‘Cool Me Down’ had all the required elements. The same could be said of ‘Hotter Than Hell’:
Electropop with a dancehall influence has become a major presence in the pop charts all over the world, thanks to huge singles like Rihanna’s Calvin Harris collaborations, the prevalence of Sean Paul as a featured artist on records like The Saturday’s ‘What About Us‘ and a handful of huge one-off singles like ‘Lean On‘ by Major Lazer, MØ and DJ Snake. Another factor that can’t be ignored in the rise of post-dancehall pop is that the international songwriting market is likely to be flooded with songs that were written with a lucrative collaboration with Rihanna in mind, but which get picked up by other artists. In short, the post-dancehall sound is basically inescapable and it was only a matter of time before it appeared at the Eurovision Song Contest.
…speaking of Calvin Harris, what song was at the top of the UK charts during the Eurovision Song Contest 2018? The Calvin Harris/Dua Lipa duet of ‘One Kiss’.
Arguably ‘Hotter Than Hell’ was the song that helped Lipa break out into super-stardom during 2016 and 2017, but it never had the same impact in the charts that it had with music critics around the world. Again, it would have needed a bit of insider knowledge and confidence to bring this to the UK’s first National Final in many years, but this was the sound of the approaching summer, and it was just within reach of the BBC.
Always The Bridesmaid…
To date the UK has finished in second place at the Eurovision Song Contest fifteen times, many of them by the finest of margins. Could a few tiny changes have improved the country’s chances? Would bigger decision such as those above have had an impact on the podium places gained by the BBC? And what would you change in the UK’s Song Contest history?