You're a vision of excellence

Eurovision-2013-logo-we-are-one


I still don't know that I 'get' Eurovision. On the one hand, it can launch careers - or at least lead to hit singles - despite the high-camp pantomime silliness of it all (ABBA's 'Waterloo', Sandie Shaw's 'Puppet on a String', Celine Dion). On the other hand, that career is often more high-camp pantomime silliness (Bucks Fizz 'Making Your Mind Up', Brotherhood of Man 'Save Your Kisses For Me' and, let's face it, ABBA).

I mean, seriously. Bucks Fizz. Look how silly the choreography is… particularly at 2:15 into the clip… Apparently three different bandmembers and a choreographer all claim credit for the 'skirt rip'. That's nothing compared to the cheesy actions accompanying the 'from behind' lyric soon after. In fact, the whole song is ordinary. Cretinously repetitive. The only way it can keep your interest is by modulating to yet another key at the end of each chorus. This was the winning performance. Of the winning song. In 1981. Courtesy of the United Kingdom. And then it was a massive hit  around the world. Hard to believe, I know.


One thing you can say is that in the two decades since the Bucks Fizz win, the filming and production values have improved massively - even if the songs haven't.

Although, I shouldn't generalise. Some have been quite impressive indeed: Serge Gainsbourg's 'Poupée de cire, poupée de son' - performed by French yé-yé singer France Gall as Luxembourg's winning entry in 1965 - was a postmodern piece of dramatic self-referential artistry. It sold some 14,000 copies as a 7-inch single in France the day after the broadcast, going on to sell half a million in a short period of time. (I was unable to embed the clip, but watch it here. And then watch her controversial and ambiguous follow-up single, also written by Gainsbourg though not a Eurovision entry, 'Lollipops'.)

What I love most about Eurovision is the paradox it embodies. It's a competition designed to unify the disperate nations of the European Union with the so-called 'universal language' of music. Impossible! Mostly impossible... that's why the winning song is frequently seemingly nonsensical.

Spain's 1968 winning entry, 'La La La', for example. Sung by Massiel, it was dismissed as 'a piece of rubbish' by thwarted songwriter Bill Martin. Martin co-wrote Sandie Shaw's 1967 winning entry for the United Kingdom, 'Puppet on a String', with Phil Coulter. The pair also wrote 'Congratulations', performed by Cliff Richard. 'Congratulations' was the favourite to win in 1968, and was indeed in the lead for most of the 1968 competition - until Germany gave Spain enough points to get ahead of the United Kingdom. So the universal language only unites if its speaking nonsense, and only unites some contries, in the strategic voting to block others. Or perhaps they just didn't dig Cliff Richard's frilly pirate shirt.

Anyway, the United Kingdom took notes. The following year, Lulu delivered a song with a stupid title: 'Boom Bang-a-Bang'. And it won. Although, 1969 was the first year that countries tied in the top spot, and because it hadn't happened before, there was no provision in place for the high-camp pantomime equivalent of a 'penalty shoot out', 'sudden death' or 'golden try'. So the United Kingdom won. And so did Spain, Netherlands, and France.

But take the time to appreciate how much of an over-the-top novelty song 'Boom Bang-a-Bang' is - the orchestra raises its eyebrows at 0:40 in:

 

 I wonder if they chose Lulu deliberately for the song with 'bang bang' in the title - since 'Lulu Bang Bang' is a folk song no doubt familiar to musical insiders, much as 'the aristocrats' is known to comedians. It's a crude folk song. No musical euphemisms with the horn section raising its eyebrows, though.

The ridiculously titled winning entry was suitably parodied - along with Eurovision itself - by Monty Python's Flying Circus, in the Europolice Song Contest, won by Inspector Zatapathique (Graham Chapman), Forensic Expert with the Monaco Murder Squad, with his rendition of 'Bing Tiddle Tiddle Bong'. Before you get there, however, marvel at how pretty Eric Idle is when he frocks up - and also at the racist humour that just wouldn't be tolerated today.


Thus admonished, you'd think Eurovision contestants would have wised up and avoided the rubbish titles. But no, there were more foolishly titled songs to come. Teach-In won for the Netherlands in 1975 with 'Ding-a-Dong':



And Eric Idle had another go at Eurovision on behalf of the Pythons. In the 'Story So Far' section of The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where the convoluted re-telling of the plot references Sally Lesbitt who "is now the half-brother of a distant cousin of Ray Vorn Ding-ding-a-dong, the Eurovision song, and owner of the million-pound bidet given by Hitler to Eva Brown as a bar mitzvah present during a state visit to Crufts..."


I'm not quite sure whether 'A-Ba-Ni-Bi', Israel's winning entry in 1978, qualifies for a nonsensical title. In fact, I'm not sure Israel qualifies as a European nation… Although they won again in 1979 and in 1998.


No mistaking 1984's winners as coming from a legitimately European country, singing a song with a legitimately nonsensical title. Swedish trio of brothers Herrey's - not quite a precursor to Hanson - delivered 'Diggi-Loo, Diggi-Ley'.


I almost wish there was another song with a foolish title this year. Never mind. Instead, we'll finish with the best Eurovision parody thus far. Neil Innes (you know, the seventh Python, writer of the Rutles' songs, former member of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band) has a song that could almost serve as virtually any nation's Eurovision entry: 'Mr Eurovision'.


This is the comedy event of the year
that is

TW32010
 

This is a brief history of things that have been…

Here’s the deal: back in the dark ages of modernity, about half a century ago in what must have been the late 1950s, a guy called David Paradine Frost went to Cambridge University and was a member of The Footlights. The Footlights was a student club dedicated to humour, which nobody could join – you had to be invited. Other people went to Cambridge University and were members of The Footlights. People like John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle, who went on to be members of Monty Python. People like Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie, who went on to be Goodies. People like Clive James, Douglas Adams, Griff Rhys Jones, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Germaine Greer, Miriam Margoyles, Eleanor Bron, Alexander Armstrong, Ben Miller, Michael Frayn, Jonathan Miller…

One of the most revered people to have been a member of the Footlights was a guy called Peter Cook. He had graduated in the years before people like John Cleese and Clive James even got to Cambridge, but he was still highly revered and spoken off respectfully by people who had known him, seen him or heard of him, who were still present. While Cook was still an undergraduate he had written professionally for established comedians. He’d written two whole shows for Kenneth Williams of Carry On infamy.

One of Cook’s creations was a character called E. L. Wisty, who essentially delivered stream-of-consciousness monologues in a lugubrious monotone – kind of a forerunner of The Sandman. After Cook graduated, he and another Cambridge/Footlights veteran, Jonathan Miller, had been recruited along with two Oxford University graduates, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett, to appear in an Edinburgh Fringe Festival show entitled Beyond the Fringe. It was important because it was a new kind of revue that more-or-less launched what became known as the British satire boom – a new wave of contemporary absurdist humour, dealing with contemporary absurd life, came to the fore and, like contemporary music, fashion and art, took a firm hold. People describe the transition from the 1950s to the 1960s in England – the pre- and post-Beatles age – as being a shift from black and white to colour.

As events unfolded, the person who made the most of the so-called satire boom was not Peter Cook – even though he helped fund and launch a live venue, the Establishment, featuring live, cutting edge comedy; and came to be associated with an important satirical publication, Private Eye – but someone who bloomed later than Cook, and sustained that later bloom: David Paradine Frost. Employing the best comedy writers to follow, he established a weekly satirical show entitled That Was The Week That Was – or TW3 for short – which would provide a satirical wrap-up of the week’s events. Frost also did serious journalism. He is the same Frost upon whose interview with President Nixon the film Frost/Nixon is based. But fronting TW3 (and later, The Frost Report), is how Frost first made a name for himself.

Frost gave so many comedians their professional start – employing many as researchers on his serious show, employing many as writers in his satirical shows. He was instrumental in ensuring the Pythons – and Tim Brooke-Taylor – got their pre-Python/Goodies breaks with the shows Do Not Adjust Your Set and At Last The 1948 Show. And when he got wind of Monty Python’s Flying Circus taking off, he apparently asked if he could be a part of it, providing the links between sketches. “Piss off, David, you can’t be in this one,” is how Eric Idle summed it up in the doco Life of Python. By Monty Python: The Complete And Utter Truth – The Lawyers’ Cut, the only reference to Frost comes from John Cleese, and it is utterly reverential.

Fact is, some people seem to resent Frost his success. Or at least, they once did. And it’s possibly because he never seemed as talented as genius Peter Cook on campus (but then again, who did?) whereas, after university and initial success, Cook seemed to be permanently stalled while Frost was amazingly successful. Adding insult to injury by seeming to deliver every line in a kind of lugubrious, E. L. Whisty monotone. You can hear it in action in the theme song – Frost provides the ‘brilliant wordplay’. (Note use of inverted commas; also note that the youtube clip of the themesong sometimes fails to load – in which case, it lives here.)

The main vocalist was Milicent Martin, and it was produced by George Martin (any relation, I wonder?), head of the Parlophone label and producer of a lot of comedy records – Goon Show albums, as well as albums and singles by Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, albums by Flanders & Swann (who are sent up by Armstrong & Miller as ‘Brabbins and Fyffe’) not to mention the cast recording of Beyond The Fringe – prior to signing and producing The Beatles.

51921YGG0CL._SL500_AA300_

Britain’s That Was The Week That Was had an American equivalent. It went by the same title. One of the regular contributors to that show was a Harvard Mathematics lecturer who had already written to volumes of satirical songs of his own. His name was Tom Lehrer. He would provide a topical song each week. At the end of the year, the best songs were compiled for an album that proved very popular indeed. It was called That Was The Year That Was. Every sophisticated Aussie household with a sense of humour had a copy. A generation or so later, Tom Lehrer proved one of the inspirations that helped launch Sammy J.

There is a new tradition of satirical shows going by the name That Was The Year That Was. It started a few years ago and is now an annual event at the Sydney Opera House, featuring a host of brilliant comics giving their take on the year that was (who better, eh?!) The third one is upon us. December 29, December 30. Go buy tickets. Then come back and read some of the interviews with comics…

Tripod; (and again; and again; and again;)
Fiona O’Loughlin
Jeff Green

 


Who Would You Eat Last?

For the last week and a half, I can say that I’ve been ‘hangin’ with Mr Rhodes’ — the full meaning of that phrase isn’t quite worth chasing down, suffice to say that Tom Rhodes is a brilliant comedian and Southern gentleman whose live performance I saw three times and enjoyed each time.

The second time, he introduced a nice new subroutine while talking about Hinduism. He has a great piece about the origins of Ganesh, the elephant-headed boy deity, which he follows with the comment that he’d love to convert to Hinduism. But of course, he can’t convert — you need to be born into Hinduism. Or ‘reborn’ into it.

So the subroutine was the comment about how George Harrison’s ‘conversion’ to Hinduism made him akin to Sammy Davis, Jr. My paraphrasing makes it clunky — Rhodes delivered it perfectly, in a concise and clever way which made a whole two of us in the audience, hip to the fact that Sammy Davis, Jnr converted to Judaism, roar with laughter. The following night, Rhodes delivered the line again, at the same point in the Ganesh piece, and again, about two people laughed. “That’s all right, nobody liked it last night, either,” he said. That got a massive laugh. Even though it was a lie: I had loved it.

As it happened, we’d gone out drinking after the second performance. That is to say, we’d stayed in drinking — since it was a Tuesday night and everything in Sydney closes early on a Tuesday night — imbibing what turned out to be an incredibly yummy Argentinian red wine that might have been called 33 Degrees (sorry, don’t know how to make the little circle on my Mac), named for the latitude at which Mendoza, the wine-making region of Argentina, is situated. In passing I mentioned the George Harrison bit, which I liked. I confessed that Harrison was quite possibly my favourite Beatle.

“Yeah, I’d eat him last,” Rhodes said.

There was what felt to me like an awkward silence that followed, but to Tom, was merely a dramatic pause before he launched into his explanation of the strange comment.

“Imagine you were on a plane with the Beatles, and you crashed in the Andes and ran out of food, and you had to start eating them…”

Of course. Given that set of circumstances, I guess George is the one I’d eat last.

“Because you’d eat Ringo first,” Tom continued, “since he’s the least necessary”.

I can’t remember if Rhodes made the observation at the time, or if it’s the standard observation that gets made at this point — “I mean, if you quite the band, and nobody notices for a few days…” — referring, of course, to Ringo’s walk-out during the recording of the so-called ‘White Album’, which led to Paul McCartney thumping the tubs for a couple of songs — “…then the band can get by without you.”

There is, of course an irony: piss pot Ringo, who at one point had to issue injunctions to prevent the release of substandard recording he’d made while muddling through life in an alcoholic haze, would be the one that would last the longest, inadvertantly pickled in his juices. Sure, you’d kill him first so as not to tax the rations of whomever you’d eat second, but you could get away with eating him next-to-last, depending upon who you chose next.

Who you’d eat second was rather contentious. Surprisingly, Tom and I agreed on this point, although for different reasons.

Popular opinion would be Paul McCartney; his post-Beatles output, though prolific, would not be described by most as prodigious. I don’t agree, of course; Rupert the Bear ditties, the 1972 ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ single and some of those painful mid-90s albums (Off The Ground in particular) notwithstanding, the time will come when everyone gives Paul McCartney the respect he deserves. John Lennon’s oeuvre, on the other hand, gets by unscathed because, ‘Imagine’, ‘Jealous Guy’, ‘Stand By Me’, ‘Happy Christmas (War Is Over)’ and ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ aside, nobody’s really heard it. He did so little and made so little. If people did try to listen to John Lennon to any extent, they’d hate most of his work. They’d be wrong, of course, it ought to be loved. But it oughtn’t be loved without being heard and understood, and it oughtn’t be loved at the price of hating Macca.

“I’d eat John Lennon second because he was a dick!” Tom announced, and I didn’t argue. There was no need to go into the finer points.

Macca was the third course on the Beatles menu and George, fourth. Although, when you think about it, there wouldn’t be much difference between them from a gustatory point of view, since they’d both spent the last few decades of their lives as millionaire vegetarians. So we’re talking organic, grain-fed, free-range Beatles. And both of them would have a fine, smokey flavour.

Having determined, logically, in which order to consume the Beatles, it became clear that this game could be applied to any collective, and the most obvious application at this point was to Monty Python.

“If you’re going to devour the dickheads first,” I offered — the change from ‘dick’ to more Aussie ‘dickhead’ made necessary by the fact that the phrase ‘if you’re going to devour the dicks first’ sounds like we’re going for specific apendages, which, even given this context, sounds downright sick… — “it would appear that John Cleese would be the first to go.”

“Which is a pity,” Tom pointed out, “since he’s the funniest…”.

“Yeah, but Michael Palin’s the nicest; you’d want to keep him around the longest…” I argued.

“So you’d eat Palin last?” Tom demanded in disbelief.

Six is a lot more difficult to deal with, but if you think it through, you can make a good case for the following:

Graham Chapman, lamented, demented genius that he was, lead actor in all the films, produced the least amount ultimately, even if you only measure up to his time of death in 1989. So he’d be the first to go, even if, like Ringo, his love of the sauce meant that he’d preserve the longest.

I stand by Cleese going next, although it’s hard to mount a strong case as to why it shouldn’t be Terry Jones. Then Cleese. Then Eric Idle, who is actually probably the funniest, albeit less successful if you only judge him by what gets to the screen. Apparently he makes a lot of money as a script doctor in Hollywood, making utter crap somewhat more palatable. Remember, he used to write alone. I reckon if he had his version of a Connie Booth, he would have cranked out a cracking good Fawlty Towers. Instead, he had Neil Innes, which isn’t a bad thing, since it led to making things like Rutland Weekend Television and The Rutles. Maybe after Eric, it should be Michael Palin and then Terry Gilliam.

At this point, having had plenty of Argentinian wine, there was a lull in conversation; while I was thinking it through I realised a few more ironies:

  1. if you were in a plane crash in the Andes with either the Beatles or Monty Python, and you ran out of food, despite their internal squabbling, their jealousies and their grudges, chances are they’d pull together and eat you first;
  2. this ridiculous conversation really should end by us playing the ‘Lifeboat Sketch’ (or whatever it]s called) from the album Another Monty Python Record. It didn’t end that way because neither of us had the recording — released on CD as Another Monty Python CD — with us. But I can at least link to it.