This Was... Cult Fiction Part 5: 'This Is... Eurovision'
What's actually quite good about when all things popular and cultural get a bit serious and stoneyfaced and stop-smiling-you're-spoiling-my-thesis - as Taylor Parkes is hopefully about to find out with a mighty reckoning - is that an infectiously grinning backlash can never be far away. Spend too long insisting that everyone show due reverence, and all you achieve is them showing due irreverence, pointing and smirking at the silly sub-Perkin Flump cloud-over-head 'sensitive' troubadours and their songs about home computers causing emotional disenfranchisement and a bird that fell in a bin.
How they opt to show this is usually by latching on to a style of music, old or new, that flies in the face of purported 'depth' and 'meaning' by actually being quite, well, tuneful. Not, it has to be emphasised, in a Peter Hatface-esque babble of drivel about Abba, Take That and 'pure pop', but through something that consciously rejects the prevailing leaning towards worthiness and virtuosity by being fun, uncomplicated and unarguably ever so slightly good. From Punk to Northern Soul, from Rare Groove to Alt-Hip Hop, to, well, Britpop and Loungecore, it's happened time and time again, and while many would elect to react to the Richard Ashcroft-fuelled long-facedness by embracing the Embrace-opposing dancefloor sounds of Big Beat and its more laid-back counterpart Trip-Hop, others would defiantly and two-fingeredly retreat further into the forgotten corners of popular music than even the Easy Listening boom had dared venture. And this, as you've probably already worked out, was where the next volume of Cult Fiction came in.
Even by these well-established esoteric standards, The Eurovision Song Contest may well seem like an unlikely area to have diverted into, but it's worth emphasising from the outset that, popularity-wise, The Eurovision Song Contest was adrift by entire continents when this album came out. Mainstream popularity and pop chart acceptance had long since trailed off, and ironic loltastic drinking-game-friendly reacceptance was still some way away, and as a result the Contest was lumbering on like some weird anachronism that was quite possibly too out of step with time, space and volcanic strata for anyone to even think about cancelling; it was just there because it was there, and as a consequence it would soon find some unlikely friends. Although the first stirrings of a resurgence in popularity were just about detectable, not least with the episodes of The High Life and Father Ted devoted to the Contest and indeed the following year's bizarre one-off special A Song For Eurotrash which saw the likes of Kenickie and Dubstar take on Eurovision-trouncing songs of yesterear, if anything its long history of weird and wonderful pop waxings and even weirder performers was at that point finding favour with the same sort of proto-Freakzone adherents of alternative universe musical oddities as, well, the previous instalments of the Cult Fiction series. How quickly and decisively all that would change.
Meanwhile, in addition to all those fearless sonic voyagers discovering that Video Video by Brixx was really quite good after all, there was a corresponding attempt by the UK at least to take this lull in stature as an opportunity to take it more seriously as an actual contest, fielding proper songs and proper performers for the first time in many years in an attempt to finally come somewhere other than third from last. The year before This Is... Eurovision came out, Gina G had restored some much-needed credibility with the filthtastic Ooh Aah... Just A Little Bit, and shortly after its release Katrina & The Waves would score a near-unprecedented landslide victory with Love Shine A Light, making it all the more bewildering that since then the UK has adhered unswervingly to the vote-oblivious format of blander than bland charisma-free nobodies casually mumbling in-one-ear-out-of-the-other witterings that sound as though someone has aspired to turn the middle eight from Taste Of Your Tears by King into an entire song. Anyway, the upshot of all of this is that while This Is... Eurovision might well seem like a bafflingly off-message choice for a fifth volume from this distance, at the time it really couldn't have made more sense.
What is surprising is that, the odd scattered compilation of recent winners and anniversary-prompted 'souvenir' album aside, this genuinely appears to have been the first ever attempt at putting together a proper Eurovision Song Contest retrospective. This does mean that there's slightly more of an imperative to chart a history than to reflect a scene, and as such, there are a disproportionate amount of 'big hitters' for a Cult Fiction compilation. The only problem with this is that far too many of these are erstwhile UK entries, and that not many of them are really all that good. Congratulations, Power To All Our Friends, Puppet On A String, Long Live Love, Let Me Be The One and Boom Bang A Bang - all of which not-so-coincidentally share the same sort of faux-'Swinging London' oompah arrangement - do not deserve to be placed up there with the best of their respective artists' non-Eurovision material (and yes that does include Cliff; and if you're going to pipe up with some nonsense about Power To All Our Friends being his 'Flower Power' phase, then I not-so-respectfully refer you to Throw Down A Line), though in fairness this sort of fare was par for the course in an era when most pop performers - including The Beatles - could envisage no greater aspiration than to be accepted as 'all-round entertainers'.
Instead - and surprisingly - you'll find more substance in the offerings from homegrown Eurovision heavyweights that aspired towards nothing greater than to be accepted as 'all-round entertainers' full stop. Despite what automatic knee-jerk memory might lead you to believe, Making Your Mind Up and Save Your Kisses For Me are actually perfectly listenable songs with surprisingly robust arrangements (and eagle-eared listeners who 'know these things' might well detect the handiwork of certain prominent session musicians), although The New Seekers' Beg, Steal Or Borrow still sounds simultaneously both twee and dreary, and its polished phased harmonies are pretty much Exhibit 'A' in The Crown Vs. The Horrible Cabareted-Up Mangling That Psychedelia Had Undergone By 1972; something that is all the more ironic when you consider that lead belt-out-ers Eve Graham and Lyn Paul had previously trod the boards with the now highly collectable The Nocturnes. Meanwhile, nobody has ever yet been able to reach a conclusion one way or the other about Lynsey De Paul and Mike Moran's wry-looks-across-opposing-pianos opus Rock Bottom.
When it comes to the non-UK Keynote Eurovisioneers, once again it's a largely positive state of affairs. Nicole's idealistic plea for world harmony A Little Peace still sounds exceptionally drippy, and indeed is impossible to hear without thinking of Syd Little in a wig singing "just like a taxi/with nowhere to park", but proves to be a good deal easier on the ear than it did back when it sat at the top of the charts for approximately three thousand years. Similarly, Celine Dion's Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi is actually quite enjoyable compared to her later overwrought helicopter-bound outpourings, and Johnny Logan's What's Another Year is bland but charmingly so; compare it to the hitting-self-with-tin-tray histrionics of his subsequent Eurovision winner Hold Me Now (also included here, worse luck), and indeed the contributions of his contemporaries Linda Martin and Paul Harrington & Charlie McGettigan, and it's easy to see exactly what went wrong in the post-Live Aid latter half of the eighties. In fact there's a lot of this sort of torch-song-goes-stadium-rock emoting on offer here, mainly because of how doggedly the UK in particular once adhered to this winning formula that never actually did much winning, and if truth be told it ultimately does little bar drag proceedings down.
It's when we finally get deeper into the rest of Europe and indeed deeper into the more obscure and cult-friendly areas of the Contest's considerable back catalogue that This Is... Eurovision really starts to get interesting. There's the vaguely melancholy and existentialist singalongs exemplified by the likes of Vicky Leandros, Anne-Marie David, Massiel, Severine and Milk & Honey (whose Hallelujah scores extra points for its potential to infuriate inattentive uptight Jeff Buckley fans), the blasts of high camp from Sandra Kim, Marie Myriam, Izhar Cohen, Belle & The Devotions and Baccara, and ancient Beatle-eradicated UK-proferred contributions from Matt Monro, Kathy Kirby and Mao Zedong's favourites Pearl Carr & Teddy Johnson, all of which still prove to be surprisingly enjoyable, doubtless due to the fact that they were clearly concieved as good songs first and foremost and then punted Eurovisionwards at a later date. Further unintentional Python evocation - who, lest we forget, were sufficiently comically infatuated with The Eurovision Song Contest to do an entire sketch based on it - comes courtesy of Clodagh Rogers' gloriously nonsensical ode to Zebedee Jack In The Box, and additional esoteric delights are to be found in Eimaer Quinn's full-on hardcore Robin-The-Hooded-Man-evoking 1996 winner The Voice, in Niamh Kavanagh's PWL-goes-schmaltz antics, and in an impressive smattering of underachieving UK entrants that takes in the pre-acting Samantha Janus, Medusa-haired Frances Ruffelle, and Cheryl Baker-essaying late seventies ad-hoc ensemble Co-Co, whose The Bad Old Days may have bombed on the actual evening but has since come to be regarded as one of the definitive Eurovision waxings. Sadly, this doesn't extend as far as including famously chart-averse 1990 teen wonder 'Emma' and her plea to Give A Little Love Back To The World (which, lest we forget, had pride of place on legendary-for-all-the-wrong-reasons compilation Summer Chart Party), but on the other hand it does mean we get to swerve 1995's Love City Groove by Love City Groove, an outfit who presumably set out intending to copy Freakpower but somehow ended up accidentally copying Beats International instead, so it's not all bad news.
For all that it might have been mocked in Father Ted, even in the episodes that weren't about The Eurovision Song Contest, Dana's unique collision of psych, folk and bit in the middle of The Two Ronnies that makes up All Kinds Of Everything is one of the best songs on this entire collection, but in all honesty it's a bit too obvious to count as one of those trademark listener-wrongfooting surprises that the compilers of Cult Fiction were wont to pull out of the bag. Instead, that honour must go to three absolute belters that you're decidedly unlikely to hear at your average cheese-and-pineapple-swamped 'ironic' Eurovision house party where everyone has to dress as a voting card or something. There's One Step Further by Bardo, a post-Dollar haziest-fringes-of-New-Romanticism boy-girl synth-pop duo that represented the UK in 1982, which surprisingly failed to win but was genuinely inescapable at the time, and led Smash Hits to tip the hapless twosome for great things that never quite happened. Then there's France Gall with Poupee De Cire, Poupee De Son, the galloping sound of Serge Gainsbourg waving the less savoury aspects of the pop industry back in its own face, which had then recently become something of a cult favourite on Loungecore-favouring dancefloors. And, best of all, the truly orbiting-in-its-own-universe Ding-A-Dong by Teach-In, the haunting other side of the coin to Beg, Steal Or Borrow's sludgy post-psych glossy meanderings, whose textbook tee-hee-hee-the-foreign-contestants-don't-stand-a-chance-on-Going-For-Gold-except-when-they-always-win Eurogibberish title cunningly conceals what is quite possibly the weirdest song ever written and recorded in the name of vote-driven technically-overambitious EEC-linking displays of televisual tunesmithery. 'Nul Points' to Trackspotting, frankly.
In some respects, This Is... Eurovision is the most difficult of the Cult Fiction albums to listen to straight through in a single sitting, as there is so little musical variance and so much upbeat banality that it can become incredibly wearing incredibly quickly, like being involuntarily serenaded by a relay team of John Barrowmans. As a wide-ranging overview of Eurovision as a 'genre', driven by enthusiast interest rather than statistics, however, it takes some beating, and is highly entertaining for dipping in and out of and indeed a great way of discovering some songs that you otherwise might not even have come across. Whether the UK will buck a longstanding trend and rocket to Eurovision victory on the 10th May remains to be seen at the time of writing, but on the basis of the actual song it doesn't seem likely. The Cult Fiction series, on the other hand, had one last bit of expectation-confounding to do...