A Song for Europe – Lost in Translation on a Grand Tour
Edinburgh – Eurovision ’72
On March 25th 1972, the Eurovision Song Contest was held at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. The then sixteen-year-old international competition was hosted by Dunfermline-born Moira Shearer, the dancing queen from Powell and Pressburger’s ballet based 1948 blockbuster, The Red Shoes.
The Eurovision Song Contest was founded in 1956 by the alliance of public service broadcasters that made up the European Broadcasting Union, and was based on the Sanremo Music festival, which had been running in Italy since 1951.
The first Eurovision saw fourteen countries showing off their wares in Lugano, Switzerland. There was no entry from the UK, who wouldn’t join in until the following year. The Edinburgh event was the fourth time the contest had been held in the UK since it was first hosted at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1960. The 1972 event was also the first in the UK to be programmed outside London, and, to date, the only Eurovision held in Scotland.
In Edinburgh, the UK’s entry was Beg, Steal or Borrow, performed by The New Seekers. This was a band put together by Keith Potger, after Australian folk-pop quintet, The Seekers, of whom Potger was a member, broke up. The similarly styled male/female vocal line up of The New Seekers featured ‘Perth’s own Eve Graham’, as partisan Eurovision commentators would have it.
At that time, the group was probably best known for their hit with I‘d Like to Teach the World to Sing (1970), a song based on a Coca Cola jingle, and preaching a suitably saccharine sounding form of global unity.
There were high hopes for The New Seekers and Beg, Steal or Borrow in Edinburgh. The song had been co-written by Australian singer/songwriter Tony Cole with Steve Wolfe and Graeme Hall. Another of Cole’s songs, The King is Dead (1972), would later be adapted into French by Long Chris and Patrick Larue. Under the title, Gabrielle (1976), Gallic pop sensation Johnny Hallyday would take it to number one in the French charts.
Back in the Usher, The New Seekers and Beg, Steal or Borrow came second, with 114 points, while Ireland’s entry, the Gaelic language Ceol An Ghra, sung by the Welsh sounding Sandie Jones, came fifteenth out of eighteen acts, with 72 points.
Overall winner of the 1972 Eurovision Song Contest with a world beating 128 points was Vicky Leandros, representing Luxembourg with Après toi. Leandros was a Greek singer who lived in Germany, and who sang in French. The song’s original lyrics were penned by German composer Klaus Munro and French lyricist Yves Dessca, with music by Munro and Leandros’ father, Leo Leandros, writing under his pseudonym, Mario Panas.
Under the management of her father since she was thirteen, Leandros had previous Eurovision form. Five years earlier, when she was seventeen, Leandros had represented Luxembourg a first time, singing L’amour est bleu, French composer Andre Popp’s collaboration with lyricist and fellow countryman Pierre Cour.
While that song’s jaunty melancholy acquired a form of period chic, by the time Leandros represented Luxembourg a second time, in Après toi, she was tackling some pretty grown up stuff. Opening with a flourish of package tour horns, Après toi, which translates as After You, is a first person melodrama in which the song’s narrator tells her departing lover the consequences of him leaving her. ‘After you,’ the chorus goes with overwrought abandon in its literal translation, ‘I will be nothing but the shadow of your shadow.’
As delivered by Leandros in a frock that on black and white TV bordered on arthouse funereal, Après toi’s already stirring paean to heartbreak and betrayal became a captivating masterclass in how to deliver a song. Leandros was still only twenty-two, but, like a Miss Havisham in waiting, she seemed to inhabit what was effectively an existential hymn to emotional defeat and the path of wilful and perhaps self-destructive aloneness that follows. Even if you didn’t understand a word of French, as many of the millions of British viewers watching it undoubtedly didn’t, you believed everything Leandros sang.
A Very British Coup
By the time the English language version of Après toi was released on the back of Leandros’ Eurovision success, however, something had clearly been lost in translation. The new English lyrics came care of Norman Newell, aka David West, the Essex born songwriter and producer, who was something of a specialist in Anglicising songs from abroad. In 1961, he gave Shirley Bassey a number one with Reach for the Stars, taken from the Italian. He did likewise for Petula Clark the same year with Sailor, adapted from a German schlager song.
Like Leandros, Newell had also done Eurovision before, having penned the words to the UK’s 1963 entry, Say Wonderful Things. The song was performed by Northern Irish crooner Ronnie Carroll, himself a Eurovision veteran, having also represented the UK the previous year singing an upbeat ditty called Ring-a-Ding Girl. Whether composer Syd Carroll and lyricist Stan Butcher’s number had been influenced by an episode of American sci-fi based anthology series The Twilight Zone from four years earlier that bore the same name is lost in the mists of time.
In Newell’s version of Après toi, now titled Come What May, what had once been a lovelorn existential psycho-drama appeared to have had its troubled heart ripped out. Leandros’ character seems to have been replaced by a hopelessly devoted Stepford Wife-like doppelganger singing the praises of what one can only presume to be a similarly domesticated spouse.
It may have had the same tune, but where Après toi spoke of how its about-to-be jilted confessor ‘will be nothing but the shadow of your shadow’, the one time party girl in Come What May tells how ‘I will love you forever/ And forever my heart belongs to you.’ She goes on to say how ‘Come what may, for as long as I’m livin’/I’ll be living only for you.’
None of this seemed to matter much to Leandros, who belted it out on record and TV with the same unabashed gusto she displayed at the Usher Hall. Maybe Leandros herself didn’t understand the words she was singing? But for English listeners at least, something had been lost, even if they didn’t know it.
Either way, Après toi seemed to have fallen prey to a very English form of imperialism, which preferred its songs to swear undying allegiance to the tongue-tied patriarchs at their centre. The UK might have been taking part in Eurovision on equal footing with its international neighbours, but showbiz microcosm of little Britain was a place where the songs remained the same, even if they were originally written in French.
Despite the watered down passivity of Newell’s English lyric, Come What May reached number two in the UK charts, and made the same position in Ireland. In South Africa it went to number one.
Leandros also recorded the song in Italian (as Dop Te), German (dann kamst du), Spanish (Y Despues), Greek (Mono Esi) and Japanese (Omoide Ni Ikiru). With a host of writers from each country changing the song to suit their linguistic needs, it is the original French version sung by Leandros in Edinburgh that remains the most powerful.
Despite the disappointment of Come What May’s English lyrics putting feminism back several years, having a Greek singer who lived in Germany winning Eurovision on a Scottish stage for Luxembourg with a song sung in French that would subsequently be translated into several languages nevertheless implied something exotic and cosmopolitan. There was a sense of liberation and easy movement at play – a freedom of movement, even. For many, be it Après Toi or Come What May, Leandros’ Edinburgh performance was possibly the most magnificently European thing they’d ever heard.
In real life, in terms of joining the international jet-set, the rise of cheap holidays abroad in a pre Easyjet and Ryanair era opened the door to Majorca, Benidorm and, eventually, Ibiza, where the international language of electronic based club culture would travel the world on the back of it. The sky truly was the limit.
Prior to Après toi, Luxembourg had won Eurovision twice before. The country’s first victory came in 1961, with Nous Les Amoureux, performed by French singer, Jean-Claude Pascal. This made up for the previous year, when Camillo Fegen’s rendition of So Laang We’s Du Do Bast for Luxembourg at the Royal Festival Hall event came bottom of thirteen entries with a humiliating one point.
Luxembourg hosted the event in 1962, prior to another presentation in London the following year. The big one for Luxembourg came in 1965, when French ingénue France Gall sang Poupée de cire, poupée de son, penned by her equally French god-father, Serge Gainsbourg.
Four years later, Gainsbourg would become notorious in the UK for his French language duet with English actress Jane Birkin on Je t’aime… mois non plus. With the title translating as I Love You… Me Neither, the song was originally recorded by Gainsbourg and French actress Brigitte Bardot in 1967. In the UK, the Birkin version went to number one. This was despite a ban on it being played on the radio being enforced. The record was also banned in Italy, Spain, Sweden, Portugal and Brazil. Even liberated France stopped it being broadcast before 11pm.
The Observer newspaper later described Je t’aime… mois non plus as ‘the pop equivalent of an Emmanuelle movie’, referring to the French soft porn film franchise that packed British cinemas throughout the 1970s. In 2004, Birkin told the Observer she didn’t know what all the fuss was about. “The English just didn’t understand it,” she said of the song. “I’m still not sure they know what it means.”
Brighton, Stockholm, Dennistoun
In 1963 in London, while Ronnie Carroll sang Say Wonderful Things, Luxembourg was represented by Greek singer Nana Mouskouri singing A Force De Prier. Luxembourg duly hosted the 1966 contest, won by Merci Cherie, sung by Udo Jurgens for Austria. That year’s event was also notable for Norway’s entry being performed by an acoustic guitar wielding Åse Maria Kleveland, who ended up becoming the country’s mister of culture. The UK, meanwhile, was represented by a kilt clad Kenneth McKellar singing A Man Without Love.
The UK’s first Eurovision victory came the following year, when a barefoot Sandie Shaw sang Puppet on a String, co-written by Govan born Bill Martin with Derry composer Phil Coulter. Leandros’ rendition of L’amour est bleu came fourth.
Simply billed as Vicky, despite not winning the contest, Leandros had a worldwide hit with French composer Popp and Cour’s song, which she recorded in French, English, German, Italian and Dutch. In the hands of French conductor Paul Mariat, an orchestral instrumental version of the song as Love is Blue became an American number one. Now regarded as an easy listening classic, Mariat’s version has popped up on the soundtracks of Mad Men and The Simpsons, and was used by X-Files creator Chris Carter in an episode of his series, Millennium, in which the song is used by a kidnapper to brainwash a group of youths.
Popp and Cour had previously scored a Eurovision winner at the 1960 London event, when their song, Tom Pillibi, sung by Jacqueline Boyer, won the competition for France.
Given the reach of L’amour bleu, Leandros’s presence in Vienna, where the 1967 contest took place, can be looked on as something of a reconnaissance expedition for greater things to come.
Also destined for a second Eurovision life were Martin and Coulter. They would go on to write the 1968 UK entry, Congratulations, for Cliff Richard. At the Royal Albert Hall in London, the song came second to Spain, who enlisted Maria de los Angeles Santamaria – aka Massiel – to belt out the cunningly titled La La La.
Future triumphs for Martin and Coulter, incidentally, included Saturday Night (1973), for the Bay City Rollers. A re-recorded version of the song gave the Bay City Rollers an American number one in 1975. As posited in a BBC TV documentary a couple of years ago, the song’s foot-stomping opening terrace chant was said to have been heard by bratty American proto-punks The Ramones, who promptly wrote the similarly styled Blitzkrieg Bop, and helped kick-start a cultural revolution.
Martin and Coulter also penned the England football squad’s 1970 World Cup song, Back Home. While that too went to number one, the 1966 international football tournament winners were beaten by West Germany in the quarter-finals, and didn’t qualify for the competition again until 1982.
1969’s Eurovision event was a four-way tie between Spain, the UK, Netherlands and France. Back in Blighty, however, as far as British pop pickers were concerned, it was Lennoxtown born former Dennistoun resident Lulu’s rendition of Boom Bang-A-Bang that was the winner. The song’s lyricist Peter Warne had penned the English version of La La La the previous year, though the chorus somewhat understandably remained intact. This was also the case for the German, Italian and French versions of the song.
While the school of international songwriting favoured such infectiously alliterative simplicity, Boom Bang-A-Bang ended up being blacklisted by the BBC in 1991 during the Gulf War, lest anyone be inspired to pull the pin on explosions of a different kind.
In 1970, future Irish politician Dana won Eurovision with All Kinds of Everything. 1971 saw a victory for Monaco, with Severine singing Un banc, un arbre, une rue. Neither of these came close, however, to Leandros’ Edinburgh performance of Après toi.A year after Leandros’ win, Luxembourg made it a double whammy with Tu te reconnaitras, a song by Claude Morgan and Vline Buggy performed by French singer Anne-Marie David. The UK came third, with Cliff Richard singing Power to All Our Friends.
If Luxembourg’s open-minded pluralist internationalism seemed to have conquered Europe, it didn’t last long. In 1974, a bunch of Swedish insurgents turned up in Brighton, where the contest was held, and blew pop music out the water with a song that used the Battle of Waterloo as a metaphor for laying down your arms and surrendering on the eternal battlefield of romance. Luxembourg had set the tone. Now Europe – and the world – was opening up even more.
The UK may have taken part in Eurovision since 1957, but it wouldn’t become officially part of what was then being lauded as the Common Market until January 1st 1973. By the time Vicky Leandros and Après toi went global in Edinburgh, however, the wheels were already in motion for the UK to become part of the European Economic Community.
Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath had signed the Treaty of Accession on January 22nd 1972, with Denmark, Ireland and Norway applying alongside the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Treaty was also signed by the then ‘inner six’ founding states, including the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
The UK had first applied to become part of the EC back in 1960, the same year as the UK first hosted Eurovision. The UK’s application followed the fallout of the 1956 Suez crisis, but was vetoed by France, whose president Charles de Gaulle saw Britain as a Trojan horse for American interests.
The UK resubmitted its application in 1967, the same year Sandie Shaw won Eurovision in Vienna with Puppet on a String, with Vicky coming fourth for Luxembourg with L’amour est bleu.
By March 1972, Leandros and Après toi were fanfaring in a new era, in which those involved promised themselves to each other seemingly forever. One probably shouldn’t read too much in the way of symbolism regarding the UK’s entry being called Beg, Steal or Borrow. In Après toi’s laying bare the disastrous consequences of walking out on someone, however, the personal and the political joined hands in what had inadvertently become an anthem of European unity.
The 1975 referendum that asked the Great British Public if they should continue to be part of Europe was purely academic. By now, ABBA ruled the airwaves, and pretty much everything else besides.
Paris The First Time – It’s All Greek to Me
The first time I went to Europe, I accidentally ended up on an anti immigration demo. That was in Paris almost a quarter of a century ago. I‘d been packed off to interview Romanian theatre director Silviu Purcarete about his production of Ancient Greek epic, Les Danaïdes, which was visiting Scotland for dates at Tramway in Glasgow
It was my first press trip abroad, and, high on Situationist slogans, Jean Luc Godard films and May ’68 romance, I was a free man in Paris, and the revolution would be mine. Without a mobile phone, a map or a word of French to my name, I intended to follow Guy Debord’s maxim of the derive, and explore the city at random.
I watched the matinee of Les Danaïdes not understanding a word. Coming from a climate where putting as few as half a dozen performers on a stage was likely to bankrupt a theatre company, I was nevertheless impressed by the spectacle of some 120 people moving in formation in a vast modern arena.
Les Danaïdes was drawn mainly from The Suppliants, the only surviving play of a tetralogy by Aeschylus. The play tells the tale of the fifty daughters of Danaus, who flee Egypt after rejecting the advances of fifty male cousins determined to have their way with them. The play ends with the men thwarted and the women saved from their fate.
Reconstructions of the remaining plays see the women double bluff their assailants with a plan to slaughter their new husbands on their wedding night. Forty-nine of them oblige. Spoiler alert, only one is let off the hook, and the surviving couple go off to found a new dynasty.
All of which makes the high drama of Après toi appear tame by comparison. Nevertheless, as a Greek songwriter, with his country’s rich, world-changing mythology to hand, you can perhaps understand where Leo Leandros drew his inspiration. His daughter, meanwhile, was cast as an amalgam of every tragic heroine going, relating her father’s yarn in a musical monologue that could have been taken from the opening play of Aeschylus’ state of the nation trilogy, The Oresteia,
In Agamemnon, the first play of The Oresteia, stay at home queen Clytemnestra exacts bloody revenge on her returning war hero husband who gives the play its title. Like Leandros’ character in Après toi, Clytemnestra too is betrayed. This prompts her to kill the king, though not before she’s told him in no uncertain terms the damage he’s done, both to her and their country.
Purcarete had inserted lines from Agamemnon into his take on Les Danaïdes, as well as others from Seven Against Thebes, from Aeschylus’ Oedipodea trilogy, and from another of his plays, Prometheus Bound. Not that I was any the wiser. Like Après toi, Les Danaïdes was performed in French. Given that we were in Paris, there were understandably no surtitles, which wouldn’t be necessary until the show arrived in the largely mono-lingual UK. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Purcarete would go on to direct The Oresteia in full a couple of years later. I expect it was as huge as Les Danaides.
If Clytemnestra’s act of vengeance on Agamemnon was something Leandros’ character in Après toi might be considering, the happy ever after of the lost Danaid tetralogy more resembles Norman Newell’s take on things in Come What May.
If such comparisons seem fanciful, twenty years after Purcarete did Les Danaides and The Oresteia, Edinburgh based writer Zinnie Harris wrote her version of the latter. Presented at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, renowned for decades for its European attributes, the three plays of Harris’ woman-centred Oresteia were initially presented under the banner of This Restless House.
The first play opened with a microphone wielding Clytemnestra doing a turn in what looked like an unreconstructed cabaret club, where would be chanteuses might break into cover versions of Après toi – or Come What May if we must – any second.
Not that I had a clue about any of this that Saturday afternoon in Paris. As with Newell’s reconfiguration of Après toi that made Come What May more resemble the reconciliation scene in a suburban rom-com than the Greek tragedy in miniature of the original, I misinterpreted the plot of Les Danaides wildly. I certainly hadn’t spotted what the play had to say about migrants fleeing oppressive regimes and seeking amnesty elsewhere.
This probably didn’t help much with my interview with Purcarete afterwards. Done through an awkward alliance of broken English and the presence of a translator, on my part, at least, the international language of European theatre was lost on me.
But a Romanian director reinventing a Greek epic in French in an international co-production between festivals in Holland, France and Romania that was about to take the UK by storm? Purcarete and Leandros had more in common than they might think.
Paris (Mis) Match – Mind Your Language
If I jumped on the Metro, the bohemian revolution I was seeking would surely be easy to find. Once there, I’d be embraced by intellectuals and drink too much wine while the wildly gesticulatory conversation flipped between dialectical discourse and existential despair.
But which stop? Republique. That sounded about right. The name alone felt alive with possibilities. ‘Be Realistic! – Demand the Impossible!’ as the Situationist slogans in ’68 declared.
I could hear impassioned voices shouting through megaphones in French before I made it onto Place de la Republique, named to commemorate the first, second and third French republics that existed at various points in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It wasn’t a big demo, a couple of hundred, maybe, gathered round the speaker in the square, occasionally erupting into equally impassioned chants of support. Support for what, I didn’t know, but I couldn’t believe my luck, landing in Paris in the midst of some kind of mini insurrection.
This was how it was done, waving flags and shouting slogans about something or other that continued in earnest once the demo set off to march in a rag-tag rabble through the Parisian streets. I decided to tag along, not knowing where I was, where I was going or what anyone was getting so het up about. Just another Brit abroad with nothing to declare, basking in my own blissful ignorance like I’d brought it as a gift.
I’m not sure when alarm bells started to ring about what I was taking part in, nor when the penny finally dropped that, far from jumping some mythical revolutionary barricades of my imagination, I’d actually joined in an anti-immigration march.
It might have been at the end of the march, when everyone dispersed, and I suddenly found myself alone, not knowing where I was. Or it might have been on the 24 hour TV news back at my cheap chain hotel, which I eventually found after four hours wandering around in the dark, trying to find my way home.
To clutch at straws to try and justify my mistake, in my mind, at least, it hadn’t been obvious what the march was about. There was no one there who looked even vaguely like the crazed yobs off the leash of a latter day EDL march, say. Everybody appeared to be quite ordinary, and who were simply exercising their freedom of speech in a language I couldn’t understand. But I guess that’s where it starts.
What those gathered in Republique actually were, I see now, was the sort of everyday bigots who wouldn’t have let the fifty women in Les Danaïdes into their back yard if they’d been paid for it. This, despite knowing that if they forced the women to go back to their own land, they risked rape, murder or both on their return. Of course, it could never happen here.
Wherever I’d ended up, like Bonnie Tyler’s 1976 hit, I was lost in France. As I marched blindly along ever darkening boulevards, my solution was to accost passing strangers and regale them with my secondary school standard knowledge of their presumably native tongue.
“Excusez-moi?” I proffered umpteen times with hopeful desperation. “Anglais?”
This lame attempt at bi-lingual solidarity was greeted in various ways. There were those who simply ignored this mad foreigner and walked on. Others were initially polite, until they heard the word “Anglais”, and their politesse turned to contempt. One man simply shrugged and shook his head, firing back with a terse “Francais!” Which was fair enough. It was his country, after all, where his language reigned supreme. Me, I was defeated, he’d won the war.
I eventually stumbled on what I thought was the cheap chain hotel I was staying at, only to discover from the concierge at reception who spoke perfect English that they had four branches across various parts of Paris. As he pointed out on a map, mine was several miles away. Words somewhere between Merde! and Sacre bleu! raced through my mind with cartoon consternation as I channelled my inner Inspector Clouseau. Why I didn’t just get a taxi, I don’t know, but I probably hadn’t brought any money with me either.
It was after midnight when I finally did get back to my hotel, starving and exhausted. Taking stock of the act of international stupidity I’d just inflicted on myself, for not recognising the small-minded ideological bullies on the anti-immigration march I’d accidentally gatecrashed by itself, I should have been deported. Yet, as shocked as I was at mistaking such small-mindedness for the spirit of Liberté, égalité and fraternité, I was as bad as any of them. Especially given what had followed.
My presumption that every Parisian passer-by would be able to speak English and guide me home was the equivalent of every lobster-boiled British ex-pat in Benidorm, who started the day with a full English breakfast and ended it in a pseudo Irish pub, with a daring visit to a tapas bar where they inexplicably call the waiters ‘garkon’ inbetween.
Like watching Vicky Leandros sing Après toi on TV live from Edinburgh a quarter of a century earlier, I hadn’t understood a word, just as I hadn’t understood a word of Les Danaïdes earlier that afternoon. This time, however, ignorance had consequences, and I’d ended up lost in every way.
But, like David Byrne in the Talking Heads song, Once in a Lifetime, my God, how did I get here? I was hip to all things European, or so I thought. I’d come of age in an era when Europe was all the rage, and was considerably more than old enough to know better.
My education had come through subtitled films on BBC 2 and then Channel 4 in a three and four channel TV age. It was through seasons of films by Godard – Breathless/A bout de souffle and Sympathy for the Devil/One on One – Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and all the rest. It was Luis Bunuel and the Surrealists, provocateurs all. Later, it was all the cult classics, like Diva, Subway and Betty Blue, and all the actresses, like Anna Karina, Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Beart and Beatrice Dalle. Isabelle Huppert, especially, had shown me what French film could be, from The Lacemaker to Violette Noziere and beyond.
It was the Penguin Modern Classics section in the tiny Liverpool John Smith’s bookshop, packed with grey-spined editions of Camus, Genet, Sartre and all the gang, each announcing themselves with a reproduction of a painting on the cover, and not knowing where to start. For years, I pronounced the ‘t’ of Albert and the ‘s’ of Camus to myself, not knowing any better, because I’d never had a conversation about him to hear his name said out loud.
There is a possibly apocryphal story about a Scottish pop star who apparently had a complete collection of Penguin Modern Classics, and who read just the first and last page of each. Knowing the beginning and the end was enough, they reckoned, to get them by in bookish circles. As for the middle, Jean Luc Godard might have a few ideas.
As with many earnest young men of my generation, I had an earnest obsession with the Berlin Wall, that icon of East-West division that set capitalism and communism as polar opposites. My idea of all this Cold War world of conspiracy and intrigue was gleaned, not from history books, but from ice-cool ‘60s films peopled with stern but glamorous spies defecting and double crossing their way to perceived freedom to a John Barry soundtrack.
It was gleaned too, from David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy of albums; Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979), and the image of him recording Heroes, co-written with Brian Eno, in Hansa Studios beside the Wall. Heroes draws its title from Hero, by German kosmiche duo, Neu! Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger of Neu! had both been early members of Kraftwerk, whose own synthesised contributions to forward-moving machine music came through the prism of Trans Europe Express and the melancholy of Europe Endless.
Bowie’s Heroes is a poignant romance that charts a love affair across the barricades, and captures all the strung-out pain and passion that entails with an anthemic grandeur.
When Bowie performed the song during a concert in front of the Reichstag In 1987, close to the Wall enough for those on the other side to hear it, its inspirational intent sounded like a call to arms. Following Bowie’s death in 2016, as detailed on the fotostrasse.com website, the German Foreign Office tweeted how Bowie’s concert had helped bring down the Berlin Wall. They were probably too diplomatic to mention it, but they could have also advised not to let David Hasselhoff tell you any different.
Whichever David pointed the way towards the future, little did they know that theirs was a clarion call that would end up, not with international revolutionary socialism as some might have imagined, but with global capitalism on the grandest of scales. Once the Berlin Wall fell, it felt like we’d been shot by both sides.
Over the Wall
At one stage in my early teens, despite never having been to either side of Berlin, I hit upon the idea of building a cardboard model of the Berlin Wall. This despite a cack-handed boyhood making gluey messes of Airfix Messerschmitts and Fokkers which, on sticky completion, looked like the result of an act of pro-Brit sabotage that seemed unlikely to win any war.
Of course, the idea never got beyond looking at as few photographs of a bleak terrain looming either side of Checkpoint Charlie, and realising this was a wall of my own making I was never going to get over, no matter how insignificant.
By the time I eventually made it to Berlin for real a decade and more after the Wall had fallen, I considered myself a seasoned traveller and a proper European, even if I maintained a complete lack of direction. Despite this, and armed with at least two maps and a carefully plotted itinerary, I determined to make the most of my downtime and explore a city, which, like Paris, I only knew from films.
I’d seen Fassbinder’s mini series, Berlin Alexanderplatz, , which eventually trickled down to Channel 4 five years after the German enfant terrible had first directed it, and two years after his death. Alexanderplatz itself wasn’t far from where I was staying, and I headed there, just to see a street sign saying ‘Alexanderplatz’ as much as anything.
Walking along its expanse, I spotted a glass case on one side of the pavement. Inside, to my surprise and delight, was a hand made scale model of the Berlin Wall. Here, toy cars were held up at barriers as plastic grey painted border guards peered on from miniature watchtowers. Elsewhere, tiny pieces of barbed wire shrouded dolls house sized cardboard and plastic walls, with further obstacles beyond designed to prevent anyone from getting any further.
A sign on the plinth the glass case containing the model was set on announced the model was from the Checkpoint Charlie museum, close to where the real crossing point from East to West Berlin during the Cold War had stood.
It took a good hour to walk there along Alexanderplatz. Inside what looked like a private DIY venue on Friedrichstrasse was a living archive of the Wall and those who struggled to get to the other side, where the freedom they imagined lay beyond their own divided, closed off world. The museum had opened in 1963, two years after the Wall had gone up. It followed a first exhibition held the year before in a tiny apartment by human rights activists opposing the Wall’s construction.
I still have a postcard of a photograph I bought at the Museum taken beside Checkpoint Charlie, of a woman hitching up her stockings besides a sign reading ‘YOU ARE LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR’. I wasn’t the only one to see the fascination of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. Since the Wall fell in 1989, it has become one of the most visited museums in Berlin, with some 850,000 annual visitors. It remains an essential reminder of what happens when countries attempt to cut themselves off from the rest of the world.
Someone once told me another, possibly even more apocryphal yarn than the one about the Scottish pop star and the Penguin Modern Classics. This one was about how Vienna, the 1981 hit single by Midge Ure era Ultravox!, had originally been called Dunfermline.
Whether there is any truth in such a claim, I’ve no idea, and have never heard anyone else ever suggest it. In the unlikely event it is true, one wonders if it might have been in honour of Moira Shearer’s success in making it from the most heavily populated town in Fife to The Red Shoes and presenting the Eurovision Song Contest at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh.
And yet, however nonsensical both this and the Penguin Modern Classics story might be, their presence nevertheless points to a certain sense of healthy ambition, whereby lads and lasses with ideas above their station aspire to conquer the world.
Vienna in particular was epic in intent. Released as a single in 1981 taken from Ultravox!’s fourth album, also called Vienna, and released the previous summer, the song marked the band’s crossover into the mainstream. It also cemented the presence of Cambuslang born former Slik and Rich Kids frontman Ure as the band’s singer following the departure of original vocalist John Foxx after a 1979 tour in support of the release of the band’s third album, Systems of Romance, released in late 1978.
Featuring acoustic piano married to a slow pulsing electronic backdrop, Vienna tells vaguely of a lost love affair of ambiguous significance, presumably having taken place in the Austrian city of the song’s title. Despite some press spin about it being inspired by The Third Man, Carol Reed’s 1949 film of Graham Greene’s post World War Two Vienna set Cold War novella, Ure’s lyric is more a sketchy sense memory scaled up into something anthem.
This sensibility was amplified even more in the accompanying video. Partly shot in moody black and white, the clip features a raincoat clad band led by a pencil moustached Ure walking meaningfully besides sacred looking monuments and statues. The video then switches to colour for what looks like a nineteenth century ball in an ornate mansion house.
The record was co-produced by Conny Plank, the German producer who had worked on records by the likes of Can, Neu! and Kraftwerk, as well as with Brian Eno. Despite appearances, the video was only partly filmed on location in Vienna, with record company budgets not stretching much further than Covent Garden. No Dunfermline landmarks are known to have been filmed.
Ultravox had previously dallied with European sensibilities with Hiroshima Mon Amour. Penned by Foxx with fellow band members Warren Cann and Billy Currie, Hiroshima Mon Amour took its title from Alan Resnais’ 1959 film, written by French novelist, playwright and film director Marguerite Duras.
The film follows the fleeting relationship between a French actress and a Japanese architect. This is done through an extended series of conversations between the two punctuated by mini flashbacks that mark out their inevitable parting in the aftermath of destruction. Duras was Oscar nominated for her script, which set the tone for much of France’s nouvelle vague to come.
Hiroshima Mon Amour appeared on Ha!-Ha!-Ha, Ultravox’s second album, released at the end of 1977. Heavily influenced by Berlin era David Bowie’s work, Ha!-Ha!-Ha, also saw Ultravox fleetingly become Ultravox!, with the exclamation mark in honour of Neu!, It also pointed to the band’s own new, synthesiser-led future. They weren’t alone in their ambitions. Nor would Foxx and co be the last of post punk’s own avant-garde new wave to pay homage to Duras.
From Brussels with Love
In an anything goes post-punk climate, Europe was trickling outwards all over. There were exotic sounding record labels like Les Disques du Crepuscule, which was based in Belgium, and put out elaborate compilations that included contributions by artists from the Factory and Postcard labels in Manchester and Glasgow respectively. These nestled next to piano based instrumentals and spoken word abstractions by artists from all over the world.
The first of these was called From Brussels with Love, and came out in 1980 on an elaborately packaged cassette. The Durutti Column, Kevin Hewick and A Certain Ratio from Factory were there, as was a now solo John Foxx, who book-ended the cassette with a pair of instrumental jingles.
There were compositions by Harold Budd, Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars, who had all recorded for Brian Eno’s Obscure record label. There was poetry by Skids vocalist Richard Jobson, and an atmospheric instrumental by Bill Nelson, formerly of Be Bop Deluxe, but who by now was releasing solo work on his own tellingly named Cocteau label. There were contributions too from German band Der Plan and Belgian ensembles, Repetition and The Names.
Breaking up the music on either side of the cassette was a pair of interviews. One of these was with Eno, who, over the previous decade, had moved from providing avant-garde squiggles as a founder member of Roxy Music, to ambient explorations at home and abroad, to producing fourth world funk with American CBGBs graduates, Talking Heads.
On the other side, there was a substantial interview – in French – with actress Jeanne Moreau, star of Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold and The 400 Blows, and Jules et Jim, directed by Francois Truffaut. From Brussels With Love wasn’t just a record. It was an aural salon that acted as a gateway to European culture of all kinds.
The presence of Jobson, Foxx, Kevin Hewick, A Certain Ration and The Durutti Column suggested that culture existed on our own doorstep too, and that it was part of something. A movement, maybe. Was this what Glasgow Beat émigré Alexander Trocchi had in mind when he wrote of his proposed ‘invisible insurrection of a million minds’ and Project Sigma? Either way, From Brussels With Love was Art. An expanded 2CD fortieth anniversary edition featuring even more elaborate packaging made this even clearer when it was issued by Les Disques du Crepuscule in November 2020.
Another Crepuscule compilation, The Fruit of the Original Sin, followed a year later. This double LP basked in its own myth-making, describing itself on the cover as ‘a collection of after hours preoccupations…’ The inside cover trailed the record’s contents as being ‘news from home, deserted islands, Scotland, Manchester, America the brave, belgium’ and ‘comprising forgotten dreams, wasted blood, tyranny and more tyranny’.
What this meant in actuality was more from the likes of The Durutti Column and The Names, plus contributions from Arthur Russell and DNA. There was a cover of Francis Lai’s theme to Claude Lelouch’s 1966 film, Un homme et une femme, by Belgian band, Marine, and fellow Belgian pianist Cecile Bruynoghe playing Debussy’s Clair de Lune. There was a live recording of William Burroughs reading in San Francisco, and an interview – in French – with Marguerite Duras.
In terms of Scotland’s entente cordiale, there was a live cut from Orange Juice, and an instrumental by Paul Haig, vocalist with Franz Kafka inspired Edinburgh band Josef K. The Fruit of the Original Sin also featured the recorded debut of Malcolm Fisher’s evocatively named French Impressionists, featuring future Bourgie Bourgie singer Paul Quinn and members of Aztec Camera. Richard Jobson was here again too, declaiming poems in praise of Duras, and her 1975 film adapted from her then unperformed play, India Song.
In terms of his poetic homage to India Song, Jobson was ahead of the game. Only the English sensibilities of the National Theatre in London, it seems, were unable to embrace Duras’ European aesthetic.
Duras had originally been commissioned to write India Song in 1972 for the National by the company’s then artistic director, Peter Hall. The play and the film are focused on the character of Anne-Marie Stretter, the bored and promiscuous wife of the French ambassador in India.
Duras had only visited India once in her teens when she wrote the play, and, rather than refer to source material, preferred to imagine what it was like. Just as Ultravox’s video for Vienna saw a London town-house double up for the Austrian city, Duras’ film was made, not in India, but in a mansion on the outskirts of Paris.
In the film, Anne-Marie is played by Lebanese born French actress, Delphine Seyrig. Like the rest of the cast, Seyrig doesn’t say a word onscreen. As the characters mill about the house with studied languor, all dialogue is spoken in voiceover by a series of narrators. Perhaps this was why Hall and the National never took the commission on to full production. Maybe such a device was simply not British enough for the South Bank.
It took several years for India Song to reach the stage. This was thanks to Belgian director Ivo van Hove, who brought his 1998 Holland Festival production to Edinburgh International Festival the following year after originally directing it in 1984. With the audience sat onstage close to the action, as with the film, the play used recorded voices. To complete the sensurround style experience, live musicians played on stage alongside the actors, while the piped-in smells of colonial India wafted around the theatre.
Since then, Van Hove has become a major international director. In 2015, he brought his production of Antigone to Edinburgh, with French actress Juliette Binoche in the title role. Two years later, he returned, with his production of nineteenth century Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen’s tragedy, Hedda Gabler. Produced by what by now was the Royal National Theatre in London, Van Hove used a new version of the play by English writer Patrick Marber. Amongst his many international credits, Van Hove directed Lazarus, the play co-written by Irish writer Enda Walsh and the late David Bowie.
A Song for Europe
Duras was possibly writing India Song as Vicky Leandros heralded in Britain’s forthcoming entry into Europe at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh with Après toi. Meanwhile, a new British band called Roxy Music, who already sounded like the future, were about to record a song that arguably remains as current as it did when it was first released. Then again, as with Après toi, maybe a Song for Europe is just one more everyday tragedy about being dumped.
Roxy Music were formed in 1970 by singer Bryan Ferry, who recruited core members Andy Mackay on sax and oboe, guitarist Phil Manzanera, electronicist Brian Eno and drummer Paul Thompson. Together, they created an audacious fusion of pop-art glam Eurotrash that sounded like it had been beamed down from outer space.
In just over a year between June 1972 and November 1973, Roxy Music released an astonishing three albums of salacious retro-futuristic sci-fi glamorama. In the strung-out ‘60s hangover that prevailed over much of British music at the time, Roxy were alive to life beyond. On the pop chart calling card of their debut single, Virginia Plain, which notably and willfully wasn’t originally on their self-titled debut album, released two months earlier, they were sophisticated, experimental and knowingly cocksure. On the album, Re-Make/Re-model and Ladytron had already set down their template.
A mere nine months later, the urgency continued on For Your Pleasure, with Do the Strand strutting its stylish way onto the coolest catwalk in town. The slow-burning Ballardian salaciousness of In Every Dream Home a Heartache, meanwhile, was an alluringly kinky riff on the loneliness of the long distance pop star.
By the time of Roxy’s third album, Stranded, towards the end of 1973, the world and the band had changed. Eno was gone, and even though it was made without him, Eno reckoned Stranded was one of Roxy Music’s best albums. He may have been right
Despite such magnanimity, the absence of the off-kilter experimentation Eno provided on the two previous albums was a major loss. Stranded makes up for it, however, in high drama and a seriousness in both form and content that goes beyond the opening thrust of Street Life’s deceptively brash scene-setter.
Everything, then, that could be applied to an outsider’s idea of what a European pop sensibility might be. Coming at the end of the year after the UK joined the European union, this was probably to be expected of such an art-conscious combo.
A Song for Europe is central to this perception. Knowingly drawing its title from the name of the televised competition to find a UK representative for Eurovision, one might expect a song so named to serve up some kind of sing-a-long joie de vivre. As it turned out, the funereal pomp and circumstance of Roxy Music’s A Song for Europe ached with an abandon that suggested Ferry and co were already in mourning for an endlessly collapsing continent.
A Song for Europe is an internal monologue dredged from the poetic embers of a love affair’s end. As Ferry’s character sits alone reflecting on his loss, each verse cuts between Paris and Venice like scenes from a mini arthouse film Marguerite Duras might have made, relishing the intimacy of the song’s sombre emotional offloading.
As Ferry relays his character’s sense of abandonment over a solitary cigarette, after singing in English, he relates his loss twice more, first in Latin, then in French, imbuing the song with a universal weight that crosses all imaginary borders. Being chucked never sounded so profound.
When Ferry breaks into a final impassioned refrain of ‘Jamais, jamais, jamais, jamais, jamais, jamais’, the urgent desperation of his Lear-like repetition is a shocking declamation. But of what? As the lyric stands, Ferry is saying ‘Jamais’ as in Never’ or ‘Never again’ in defiant protest. Is he putting up the barriers to the possibility of love, like Leandros’ character – part Miss Havisham, part Clytemnestra – on Après toi? Or is he co-opting an anti fascist slogan of resistance for something even greater?
But in the spluttering bloodrush of inarticulate despair, the clarity of Ferry’s pronunciation might easily get lost, so his anguished howl might be heard as ‘J’aimais’, as in ‘I loved’. This grand poetic gesture isn’t putting a full stop on the apparent end of the affair, but leaves things hanging, so in terms of what might happen next, the door remains open to reconciliation. In the end, it could be both.
Either way, the yearning in the sentiment of the delivery – and it is sentiment – isn’t that far from those in Après toi. Unlike Come What May, in ‘Never again’, there is nothing lost in translation. Once again, however, the French is more evocative, allowing Ferry to indulge himself as a martyred torch singer prepared to die for the cause while the world collapses around him. And yes, I have brushed up my French.
A fan-made video for A Song for Europe on YouTube opens with the old logo that introduced the show it was named after, before opening out to a series of black and white still images of European cities captured in their faded splendour. It looks a lovely place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.
Jeux sans frontieres – Playing the Joker
All of this, of course, is purely academic. Had not one word of any of all I’d been listening to and reading and watching for decades sunk in enough for me to avoid playing the bad tourist that time in Paris? Or was it all superficial and about some mythical image of an idea of Europe rather than what it actually was?
Maybe that was how I’d absorbed it, second-hand, through a screen, or in the artfully black and white pages of some vintage magazine. Or perhaps it was some half-digested, misunderstood paperback by some writer whose name I couldn’t pronounce because I’d never had a conversation about them?
In truth, my early exposure to Europe came, not just through Eurovision, but the international editions of self-consciously madcap TV game show, It’s a Knockout!
Running between 1966 and 1982, It’s a Knockout! was adapted from French comedy game show, Intervilles, and was part of the Jeux sans frontieres franchise. Done on the cheaper than cheap, the show promoted a kind of cartoon civic pride, as teams from assorted towns dressed in outlandish oversize costumes were pitted against each other. The games they took part in usually involved buckets of water, custard pies and foam filled plastic swimming pools. To add insult to injury, this was often filmed under floodlights in pouring rain at the local park or recreation ground.
The international edition of Jeux sans frontieres upped the ante, with teams from assorted European countries embracing their national stereotype by way of an excess of flag-waving, as each country attempted to navigate even more ridiculous games. These invariably meant team members getting soaked in the process as they attempted to navigate assorted obstacles that included their opponents’ invariably brutal efforts to shove them out the way.
To double their points, each team could play a Joker. This didn’t always go well, and, as with the best and worst of comedy japes, the joke sometimes backfired, and nul points were had by all.
The collective humiliation of each team was brought home even more by the guffawing laughter of the commentators. Sports day for grown-ups was the original premise of what resembled a cross between an absurdist play and a fun pub day out. In truth, this was war.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that the brains behind Jeux sans frontieres was Charles de Gaulle, the President of France for a decade from 1959, who in terms of historical greatness as a French leader, is regarded by historians on a par with Napoleon – Waterloo notwithstanding. The same Charles de Gaulle who vetoed the UK becoming a member of Europe back in 1960, then, thought Jeux sans frontieres would be a great way for French and German young people to bond.
De Gaulle’s idea caught on, and Belgium and Italy signed up for what was initially called the Inter Nations Games, run, as with Eurovision, by the European Broadcasting Union. Perhaps President de Gaulle saw Jeux sans frontieres as a dry run for the events of May ’68. ‘Be Realistic! Demand the Impossible!’ would have made a great slogan for the show.
Arriving typically late to the party, the UK joined in the fun in 1967, the same year the country’s second application to join Europe was finally accepted.
Since then, the UK hosted Jeux sans frontieres twice, in 1969 and 1976,. Both occasions were held in sunny Blackpool, whose team won the competition in 1971. Other UK winners were Shrewsbury in 1969, Ely (1973) and Dartmouth, who were joint winners with Lisbon in 1981. As with Eurovision’s four-way in 1969 that included Lulu singing Boom Bang-a-Bang, Lisbon probably doesn’t get a mention over here.
Other than the involvement of President De Gaulle, possibly the best thing to come out of It’s a Knockout and Jeux sans frontieres was Peter Gabriel’s 1980 hit single, Games Without Frontiers. This was an anti war song of sorts that used children’s’ games as a metaphor for those played by grown up types on international battlefields. The record was worth the ticket price alone just to hear guest backing vocalist Kate Bush punctuate each verse with a typical fusion of the strident and the ethereal as she cooed a suitably game ‘Jeux sans frontieres’
Paris The Last Time
The last time I went to Europe, I went back to Republique, but I went further. I was in Paris with a group of Edinburgh based circus and street artists from the Circus Alba and PyroCeltica companies, who were collaborating with French street spectacle auteurs, Compagnie Remue Ménage on a show for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay.
It was a Bank holiday, and we were staying in a hotel that was part of the same budget chain as I’d stayed in a quarter of a century earlier. I’ve no idea if it was the same one, though I’d hopefully learnt a bit since then, and was armed with a map and some Euros. More significantly, my knowledge of the French language now recognised that the word ‘anglais’ was not a passport to anywhere. Given the ongoing Brexit fiasco still had more than an exasperating year to go before reaching anything resembling endgame, I suspect anything even remotely ‘anglais’ was likely to provoke the sort of violence only previously seen on Jeux sans frontieres.
We were heading out to a circus school on the outskirts of the city, set in a network of big tops in grounds next to University Paris Nanterre. This was where the companies could train together, working out their own international language of circus skills.
En route, we fleetingly alighted at Republique. As with much of Paris that day, the square was largely deserted, and free of protests of any kind. I breathed a sigh of relief.
The circus school was tucked away on a large piece of land behind the university’s ordered complex of 1960s buildings. If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you wouldn’t know they were there. Nor is there a hint of University Paris Nanterre’s past as the starting point of the May 1968 uprising that ignited the series of seismic events that followed.
This was the place that sparked all the revolutionary spirit I’d romanticised all those years ago. I’d love to claim you could still feel that spirit beneath the pavement of University Paris Nanterre’s clean-lined boulevard. On a wet Bank Holiday Monday morning in November, however, it was as deserted and as eerily desolate as an urban landscape in a Michelangelo Antonioni film set in another part of Europe entirely.
Whether I’ll ever get to go back to find out if the sprit of ’68 still exists or not remains to be seen. I left renewing my 10-year passport until the last minute, so I could have one bearing the words ‘European Union’ right up to 2029. Whether I ever get to use it or not is a different matter.
Europe After the Reign
In the meantime, a once musically thriving Luxembourg hasn’t taken part in Eurovision since 1993. Future generations who have never experienced free movement will likely get their idea of Europe, not from Godard or Duras. They probably won’t even get it from It’s a Knockout! or the Eurovision Song Contest, but from Emily in Paris, the glossy Netflix hit from the makers of Sex and the City.
Come what may, then, we’ll always have the myth of Paris, at least. And if Vicky Leandros understood the value of defiance when she sang Après toi in the Usher Hall all those years ago, Europe is still endless, and will remain so. As for where we are now; jamais. Jamais. J’aimais.
The 40th anniversary edition of From Brussels with Love is available on Les Disques du Crepuscule. www.lesdisquesducrepuscule.com.
Invaluable information was purloined from The Complete Eurovision Song Contest Companion – Paul Gambaccini, Tim Rice, Jonathan Rice, Tony Brown (Pavilion) (1998).