- Jürgen Meier-Beer, “Inside Story – The Making of a Pop Event”, article published in EuroSong News, issue no. 78 (2002)
- Bas Tukker quizzed 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
- Further interviews by Bas Tukker with Harry van Hoof, Curt-Eric Holmquist, Anders Berglund, and David Mackay
- Information provided by Eurovision experts Tin Španja and Shane Heneghan
- Pictures courtesy of Rui dos Reis, Jan-Willem Daam, and Ferry van der Zant
Friday, 31 December 1999
HISTORY OF THE EUROVISION ORCHESTRA
Once upon a time... the orchestra took centre-stage at the Eurovision Song Contest. Find out what the festival was like in its first years, and how live music was progressively cornered over the decades - until it was finally done away with after the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest, the last in an uninterrupted line of 43 editions of the contest with an orchestra in place. Moreover, we take a close look at various initiatives which have been taken since 1998 to allow live music to return to the contest; as well as the European Broadcasting Union's machinations in frustrating those initiatives. Lastly, we envision how much better and more credible the contest could be with a contemporary live music approach.
The contest as it once was (1956-1972)
When the Eurovision Song Contest was first organised in 1956, there were no intricate rules as to the song and the way it was performed. A lot of things went without saying; each entry 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 organising broadcaster. This was the heyday of live music on radio - as well as on the fledgling new medium of television - and pre-recorded music was a rather alien concept in those days.
Each participating broadcaster was invited to send along a conductor with the vocalist to rehearse with the local orchestra. Apart from the honour of representing one's country, the conductor fulfilled the role of intermediary between the home country's orchestral musicians and the performer; someone with a theoretical background in music, who could solve problems which might arise around details in the score as well as in the sound mix.
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.
Fernando Paggi's Orchestra Radiosa accompanying the Netherlands' candidate Corry Brokken in the very first edition of the Eurovision Song Contest in Lugano (1956)
In the course of the 1960s, the Eurovision Song Contest gradually adapted to the changing taste of an audience which gradually became used to pop music. Winning entries like 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.
At the first contest in Lugano, Fernando Paggi's festival orchestra consisted of just 22 elements, but, over the years, the Eurovision orchestras became ever larger, with more sizeable brass and rhythm sections to suit the modern, grandiose arrangements which were fashionable from the second half of the 1960s onwards. However, it took until 1971 – almost 10 years after The Beatles burst onto the world musical stage, paving the way for many other pop groups – before the European Broadcasting Union 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 real pop groups to enter the contest, with their song ‘Beg, Steal, Or Borrow’. Paul Layton, bass player in The New Seekers, was rather nervous about having to play completely live with an orchestra.
"I was faced with a problem of logistics," Layton once explained. "I was often on television, playing my bass guitar, with a drummer who was some distance away in the orchestra, and no matter how well they hooked up the monitors in those days, it was always going to be a nervous situation, to try to make sure I could hear him as he was playing, without there being any time lag.”
His conductor on the night, the group's producer David Mackay, was far less worried, "Everything was done live, including the bass and two acoustic guitars being played by the guys on stage. Some coordination was required, but the rehearsals were good and the concert was excellent as well."
The stage of the 1972 Eurovision Song Contest in Edinburgh, with Malcolm Lockyer conducting the BBC Radio Orchestra
Pre-recorded elements allowed under certain conditions (1973-1996)
In spite of The New Seekers finishing in a respectable runner-up position on the scoreboard in 1972, 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’.
Especially BBC Head of Light Entertainment, Bill Cotton, seems to have been instrumental in bringing about this rule change - or, at least, he was very eager to make use of the new circumstances for the 1973 Eurovision Song Contest in Luxembourg. Coincidentally, the UK's conductor was the same musician as the year before, David Mackay. He had a meeting with Cotton, singer Cliff Richard, and several others involved in the project.
"Cotton had discovered that, under the rules of Eurovision, it was allowed to use a backing track," Mackay recalls. "We all looked at him and thought, “Are you sure?” (...) Billy absolutely wanted to use a backing track to play along with the orchestra in Luxembourg. He knew that nobody had ever done this before. I have no idea why he thought it was so important. Perhaps he thought that, with a backing track, we would sound better than everybody else? Cliff and all the rest of us would have been more than happy to do the whole thing live. Billy Cotton took the decision – perhaps in collusion with one of his producers."
As such, Mackay became the conductor of the very first Eurovision entry which was played 'semi-live', with the orchestra playing along to a pre-recorded track. The entry was 'Power To All Our Friends'; and Cliff Richard's backing musicians pretended to play the guitar and a bongo. Cliff Richard himself performed his song, while Fausti Cima, the Luxembourgian drummer of the orchestra behind him, was ostentatiously having a break – an odd sight indeed.
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.
Conductor Sven-Olof Walldoff (far right) celebrating ABBA's Eurovision victory in Brighton with the group and their manager Stikkan Anderson
With the introduction of synthesisers and samples, the sound of the contest changed dramatically over the following 15 years. Although 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.
Moreover, backing track rules do not seem to always have been applied very strictly. In 1985, the entries from Denmark and Luxembourg made use of pre-recorded tracks, although there were no musicians on stage mimicking the rhythm parts. Officially, these songs should have been disqualified, but nothing of the sort happened - probably because neither came even close to winning the contest.
In 1989, when the festival was held in Lausanne, three of the 22 entries were performed to a full backing track, in which not only rhythm instruments were included, but synthesised, pre-recorded strings as well. The conductors taking part in that year's contest were so dismayed by this development, that they presented the EBU with a formal request to ban what they perceived as taking advantage of the backing track rule irregularly. The Netherlands' conductor Harry van Hoof recalled the event in an interview many years later.
“At that festival in Lausanne, I signed a petition filed to the European Broadcasting Union by the majority of the participating conductors, in which the EBU was urged to draw up stricter backing track rules. I've always felt there was nothing wrong with pre-recording the rhythm section, especially when a very specific sound was required. The rule that all instruments that were including on the track had to be mimicked on stage still existed, but, as the years passed, developments in recording technique meant that the old rules became a bit obsolete. It became increasingly common to pre-record entire orchestrations with synthesisers… and then there would be one or two synths on stage, which supposedly created those sounds. Meanwhile, viewers saw the full string section of the orchestra in the back watching the performance while sitting on their hands.”
“There were excellent strings and wind players in such an orchestra," Van Hoof continued. "There was no need to replace them with a tape recorder when you are performing a nice ballad, was there? Those backing tracks were completely non-functional. Initially it seemed that we would get our way the following year, but in the end those stricter rules never came about. Too bad, because the Eurovision Song Contest was one of the last shows in which artists could perform live with a large orchestra. In that sense, it gave young singers the opportunity to have an important learning experience.”
Rehearsals of the 1989 Eurovision Song Contest, with Ireland's conductor Noel Kelehan (on the conductor's platform) having a chat with the festival's musical director Benoît Kaufman
Nonetheless, in the first half of the 1990s, EBU officials seem to have applied the backing track rule with more rigidity than had been the case in most of the 1980s. Still, some winning entries were performed with to an extensive backing track, most notably Ireland's ‘The voice’ by Eiméar Quinn in 1996, but pre-recorded elements were certainly no safe path to a good result. Quite the opposite, most winning songs did not feature any tracks at all.
Still, not everyone was happy with the situation. Was the contest still in line with developments in pop music? Or had the orchestra become a liability, an element preventing the contest from moving with its times? There were some who certainly thought so. In the mid-1990s, the head of the German delegation, Jürgen Meier-Beer, believed the contest was badly in need of a new modernisation push. In his view, the event had lost its appeal to a younger audience. Viewing figures in Germany had been low for several years.
In a most forceful way, Meier-Beer proposed several measures, one of those being that the orchestra would have to go. In a self-congratulatory article in fan magazine EuroSong News (2002), Meier-Beer boastfully explained his actions from 1996 onwards, the year he got involved in organising 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.
Pre-recorded elements allowed unconditionally (1997-98)
As it happened, Germany failed to qualify from the audio pre-selection held to determine which 23 songs would be allowed to take part in the 1996 Eurovision Song Contest in Oslo. Without the financial contribution by German television, even the relatively wealthy Norwegian broadcaster NRK had a hard time balancing its budget.
It was an extra factor which helped Jürgen Meier-Beer getting his way in subsequent EBU meetings. He knew full well the long-term survival of the contest depended on the participation of the German broadcasting service. As a result, he succeeded in bringing about several rule changes for the 1997 Eurovision Song Contest.
One of those was the gradual introduction of televote instead of juries which included music professionals. On top of that, for the 1997 contest, permission was granted to use a pre-recorded tape with all the music to a song; in practice, this led to a growing number of countries not using the orchestra at all. Of course, at the behest of Meier-Beer, the German entries in the contest editions of 1997 and 1998 were played to a full backing track - this in spite of the fact that both ‘Zeit’ (1997) and ‘Guildo hat euch lieb’ (1998) were, musically speaking, rather conservative productions which would have benefited from the inclusion of live orchestral elements.
In 1998, Israel's Dana International was the first artist to win the Eurovision Song Contest with an entry performed to a full backing track. In spite of there not being any obligation at all, the vast majority of countries (18 out of 25) in that year's contest still took the trouble of submitting a song played entirely live by the orchestra, or in a combination of a backing track with additional orchestral elements.
The BBC Concert Orchestra in action under the baton of Norwegian conductor Geir Langslet in the last Eurovision Song Contest with live orchestral accompaniment (Birmingham, 1998)
No live music allowed (1999-present)
In the end, 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. 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.
Quite unconvincingly, the Israeli organisation of the 1999 Eurovision Song Contest announced that the hall where the contest was to take place lacked the space needed for an orchestra. 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.
Other reasons given by Ralph Inbar, the producer of the contest in Jerusalem in 1999, to not include an orchestra were the pressure on the budget as well as the fact that, in recent editions of the event, the orchestra could not be seen for much of the show anyway - explicitly citing the 1997 edition in Dublin as an example. Of course, this last claim was a rather baffling form of self-deception, given that the orchestra for that edition of the contest had been put away in a dark, faraway corner of the auditorium. Apparently, the Irish director felt camera shots of the orchestra were not an interesting addition to the show. In the 1998 edition in Birmingham, the situation was much different; the BBC Concert Orchestra had been given a far more prominent role on stage - and, as such, viewers could enjoy camera shots of the orchestra musicians accompanying many of the participating entries. Inbar chose not to take this into account when making his statement.
Officially, between 1999 and 2003 the orchestra was still an optional feature, meaning that the host broadcaster could have chosen to offer an orchestra if they actually wanted. When Sweden won the contest in 1999, Anders Berglund the regular Swedish conductor, tried to persuade host broadcaster SVT to do so. But the show's head producer, Svante Stockselius, was another television executive who wanted to get rid of the orchestra at all cost. As such, after Stockholm 2000, the trend was very clear; the contest in Jerusalem the year before had not been an one-year exception.
In those years, many followers of the contest felt the level of the entries taking part in the contest went sharply downhill. Moreover, the quality of the vocal performances did not really improve either, as another former Swedish Eurovision conductor, Curt-Eric Holmquist, noticed.
Stage design of the 2004 Eurovision Song Contest in Istanbul, Turkey
"From 1999 onwards, artists taking part in the contest have tended to sing out of tune, more so than in preceding years. This shouldn't come as a surprise. When you have a live orchestra, you can pick an instrument you want to pitch your voice to; a piano, a guitar - or any other instrument you want. Nowadays, with this mix of sounds which is played from a track, artists find it difficult to pitch their voices properly. People always think singing out of tune comes down to nerves, but I disagree. Let me assure you that many of the artists taking part in previous editions of the contest with an orchestra were nervous too."
In an attempt to stop the rot, an initiative to get the orchestra back into the contest was launched in 2001 in the Netherlands by two Eurovision aficionados; journalist and long-time TV commentator of the event, Willem van Beusekom, and Dick Bakker, who was chief conductor of the Metropole Orchestra, a professional jazz and pop orchestra which, at that time, was financed completely by the Netherlands' public broadcasting service. Bakker had been the musical director of his country's entries in the last three contests with an orchestra present. In an interview in 2008, Dick Bakker recalled the episode to detail.
“In 1998, I was the conductor of the Netherlands’ delegation in the last edition of the Eurovision Song Contest with live musical accompaniment. I felt hurt that the EBU had taken the decision to simply abandon the idea of a live orchestra altogether. Look, I am a realist – I understand artists and producers who are worried about the quality of an orchestra in a foreign country with which they have never previously worked. It is safer to work with 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’, I took the decision to pre-record the rhythm elements and have the string and brass elements of the Swedish orchestra play along to that. By doing so, I was sure that my song would sound well.”
“Some time 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 organising 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, there could be no complaints from other countries about the financial consequences of an orchestra with over 50 expensive music professionals who have to be paid for their job. After all, the members of the Metropole Orchestra are employees of the Netherlands' broadcasting service. They all 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 orchestrations.”
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 would agree to participate in a show with a live orchestra. It is a pity my orchestra wasn't 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 an orchestra, with an option to use a pre-recorded click track with rhythm elements, but only in cases when sounds are involved which cannot be reproduced live. But, even in those cases, I am convinced that the Metropole Orchestra could play most of those even better and without any problem.”
And so, incredibly, the 2001 proposal by Van Beusekom and Bakker was brushed aside by a majority of the delegation leaders. Obviously, with Germany's Jürgen Meier-Beer still very much in command at EBU meetings, the Dutch proposal did not stand a chance. 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 fully professional pop orchestra offered for free. The new excuse put forward this time was that artists allegedly did not want to work with an orchestra; proof for this proposition has never been given.
Quite the opposite is true. In 2010, Norwegian amateur musician Tin Španja, initiator of the Facebook page 'We Want Live Music In The Eurovision Song Contest' managed to talk to the majority 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.
In 2003, the decision was taken to expand the contest with a semi-final for the following year's edition of the contest. Simultaneously, the EBU tightened the rule book. Working with a reference group of television executives from across Europe, Svante Stockselius, who had meanwhile become the Eurovision Song Contest's scrutineer, imposed much more specific rules for the contest - one being that all music instruments should be included on the backing track. It amounted to an explicit ban on live music.
This led to peculiar situations in the following years. Acts who requested to be allowed to play the musical accompaniment to their song live on stage were bluntly told off by him. Examples are Austrian band Global.Kryner (2005), Slovenian string group Quartissimo (2009), and UK composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (also in 2009). As such, in a bizarre paradox, the Eurovision Song Contest has become a music event in which playing music is not allowed. From 1999 onwards, not a single note on the Eurovision stage has been played live.
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 televote, 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 songs 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, have become slightly less prominent features. Instead, entries have come to the fore which can be classified as pure pop or rock songs, of which the winners of 2019 (‘Arcade’ by Duncan Laurence) and 2021 (‘Zitti e buoni’ by Måneskin) are perfect examples.
Additionally, more and more songs seem to rely on string arrangements, which would sound far more impressive when played live on stage by an orchestra, most notably Portugal's winning entry in 2017, 'Amar pelos dois' by Salvador Sobral. In his speech on stage following his win, Sobral expressed the hope that his victory would lead to a return to the values of real music in a world of fast food and disposable music. "Music is not fireworks, music is feelings," he declared.
The San Remo Festival in Italy and the Festivali i Këngës in Albania are living proof that even the most modern of songs can be reproduced live with an orchestra. Some other countries chose to have a live band in their Eurovision pre-selection, such as the United Kingdom in 2009 and – ironically – Germany in 2010. By then, Jürgen Meier-Beer had given up his position as Germany's Head of Delegation in the Eurovision Song Contest. More recent examples are the selection shows in Norway in 2015 and in Denmark in 2021 and 2022.
Unfortunately, in 2011, the Metropole Orchestra stopped being financed by the Netherlands' broadcasting service, meaning that the option to offer this ensemble for free to any organising broadcaster is no longer there. Still, with the right attitude to music, there are few reasons to oppose the return of the orchestra and live music to the Eurovision Song Contest. Away from the contest, there seems to be a revival of live music in the world of television. In countless televised talent shows across Europe, aspiring artists are accompanied by a smaller or larger ensembles of professional musicians playing entirely live.
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. There are various options in bringing this about, ranging from allowing artists to play their instruments live on stage if they choose to do so, to the return of a fully-fledged orchestra or a smaller combo of musicians to accompany artists who prefer to work live. Where is the network executive brave enough to make it happen?
SOURCES & LINKS