For 60 years, Melodifestivalen has gone from stiff suits to a glitzy TV ratings hit. Before Saturday’s launch show, here is ‘The Early Years’, the first chapter of ‘Melodifestivalen’, written by Dagens Nyheter’s Hanna Fahl.
Considering how the most recent Eurovision Song Contests have been tainted by political rows between Russia and Ukraine, audience booing, accusations of countries bribing their way to success, corrupt juries, and banned song titles such as We Don’t Wanna Put In (which allegedly sounds like ‘we don’t want a Putin’), it can be hard to imagine that Eurovision actually began as a project of peace, with the aim of unifying the fragmented continent following the Second World War, and to create a shared European identity.
Also, considering how the Eurovision Song Contest has evolved over the years into the colourful, kitsch parade of craziness we see now, it’s hard to imagine just how slow and, for so long, how black and white it once was.
The network of European television corporations called ‘Eurovision’ first began broadcasting in 1954. At that time, there were just eight countries exchanging newsreels and film clips. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), representing the continent’s radio and TV stations, had overall responsibility for the Eurovision network. In 1955, it set up a committee to develop ideas that could bring the member nations together through light entertainment. Sergio Pugliese, from the Italian broadcaster RAI, suggested a format similar to the San Remo music festival, which had proved a big success in Italy. Marcel Bezençon, the committee’s chair, was intrigued.
It was a hugely ambitious technical undertaking to broadcast a production live to so many countries – satellites weren’t an option then, so everything was done via radio link. Regardless, it was decided to host the first song contest the following year in the Swiss city of Lugano. Seven countries would take part: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland. The first host nation was also the first winner. Lys Assia, a 32-year-old singer from Rupperswil, won with the wistful and lush Refrain.
In 1956, Sveriges Television (SVT), then known as Radiotjänst (the Radio Service), commenced regular transmissions. It soon realised that the Eurovision network was something it needed to be involved with if it wanted to keep up-to-date with the latest developments in broadcasting. In November 1956, the local television service in Gothenburg succeeded in connecting to the Eurovision network for the first time when it broadcast an international football match from Frankfurt. The following year, it was able to broadcast the Eurovision Song Contest – known then as the Eurovision Grand Prix. In 1958, Sweden made its debut in the Grand Prix, broadcast live in Gothenburg. The rest of Sweden had to wait to see a recording of the show later on, and it wasn’t until 1959 that live broadcasts from the Eurovision network were possible throughout the country.
The EBU wanted national broadcasters to hold song contests in their own countries to find singers to send to Eurovision, believing that such local shows would increase interest in the main contest. However, Sweden’s first entry in 1958 was chosen by a jury made up of members of SKAP, the Swedish Society of Songwriters of Popular Music, and people from Swedish television’s entertainment section.
The jury chose the song Samma stjärnor lysa för oss två (The Same Stars Are Shining For Us) – which immediately led to the first schlager plagiarism scandal. One jury member thought the song was suspiciously similar to an American song, so the composer, Åke Gerhard, quickly made some subtle changes to the tune. Alice Babs was persuaded to perform the song, but trouble soon reared its head once again. The singer demanded that the lyrics were rewritten, so radio producer Gunnar Wersén came up with new words, as well as a new title – Lilla stjärna (Little Star). Gerhard was furious with the changes, and refused to allow the new version to be recorded. In the end, Alice Babs went to the Eurovision Grand Prix in the Netherlands and came fourth.
In 1959, Sweden held its first proper Eurovision selection, planting the seed of what we now call Melodifestivalen. There are some critics today who complain about the length and complexity of Melodifestivalen – but in 1959, there was just one final, on one single evening. However, that final was the culmination of eight semi-finals that had been broadcast on the radio, with listeners voting by sending in postcards. The final was on television, and the winner was decided by a jury.
That year’s winner was Augustin, sung by Siw Malmkvist. However, Siw didn’t get to sing in that year’s Eurovision Grand Prix in Cannes. TV executives had already decided that Brita Borg would be Sweden’s representative, and she performed instead.
In subsequent years, the selections were equally as confused. In 1960, Siw Malmkvist didn’t take part in Sweden’s pre-selection, but still performed at Eurovision as compensation for what had happened previously, denying winner Östen Warnerbring his place at the contest in London. In 1961, Siw did compete in the Swedish contest, and won – but was accused of ‘monkeying around’ during her final performance (in reality, she forgot her words, so started laughing and whistling to keep going). Her crime was so serious that she was replaced by Barbro ‘Lill-Babs’ Svensson at Eurovision. How the songs were chosen to compete also varied during this time. Some years, the general public was allowed to submit entries, while at other times, selected composers were asked to contribute. And sometimes, there was a combination of both.
Throughout the history of Melodifestivalen, at least one headline is almost guaranteed to appear: THE WRONG SONG WON! It was much the same even in the early days. In 1963, Expressen newspaper declared that the “schlager winner causes national fury”. Apparently, some members of the audience rose from their seats to boo and whistle when Monica Zetterlund’s En gång i Stockholm (Once Upon A Time In Stockholm) was declared the winner. However, few Melodifestivalen winners have caused as much controversy as Lill Lindfors and Svante Thuresson. Their ‘Nygammal vals’ (A New Old-fashioned Waltz) had lyrics such as ‘tjong i medaljongen’ and ‘klang i kantarellen’. Expressen’s telephone lines were abuzz with fury when it won, with the Swedish public seemingly “incensed”, and believing the song didn’t have “the slightest chance” of success at Eurovision.
“Perhaps the 55 wise schlager judges have gone gaga?” wrote one T Forsberg to the newspaper Aftonbladet. Another correspondent, Arg Dalmas, thought that, “in addition, the 1,000-kronor prize should be paid in compensation for the very serious damage done to Sweden’s international reputation”. Jan Sjöholm, a journalist from Expressen who was part of the Karlstad jury whose points pushed the song over the finish line, was forced to publish a defence in the paper. “I have no regrets”, he wrote.
The selection shows were becoming increasingly sophisticated. In 1966, a ‘semi-automatic’ scoreboard was introduced, with a large board featuring gaps for the points to be displayed. Neither viewers nor critics were impressed. As a stray hand was seen here and there emerging from the gaps, Dagens Nyheter thought that “it brought The Addams Family to mind”. Its advice? “A few girls to hang the numbers in a calm and sensible manner would have been better.”
The following year, there was something different. The points were displayed through the medium of ping-pong balls, which led to a seemingly unending flow of balls rolling down through plastic tubes. However, the 1967 contest was a historic year for another reason. It was the very first time that it was called the Melodifestival – a name that would last for decades to come.
Melodifestivalen – från frack till folkfest, by Hanna Fahl, ISBN 9789171264404
Translated from Hanna Fahl: Glamour, slagdängor och tittarstormar – så föddes Melodifestivalen www.dn.se/kultur-noje/glamour-slagdangor-och-tittarstormar-sa-foddes-melodifestivalen
 Neither lyric is easy to translate into English, but they’re kind of along the lines of ‘Wow!’, ‘Oooh!’ and so on – the rhyming of the sounds is the point. It was the sixties.