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Eurovision 1993, live from "a cowshed in Ireland" [May 2, 1993]
Plus: Inner Circle, Blur, and PJ Harvey
Hey, Time Traveller! 👋 Welcome back to May 2, 1993!
This is the week that… 📰 Man United win the first Premier League📽️ Groundhog Day hits the cinema📺 Sean Bean’s Sharpe appears on telly for the first time.
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is still George Michael and Queen’s Five Live EP, but let’s turn our attention to this week’s Number 18…
Sonia, ’Better The Devil You Know’
May 9th, 1992, and there is gentle applause in Malmo as the final scoreboard confirms Ireland have won this year’s Eurovision, with the United Kingdom in second place.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
The BBC were hell-bent on victory in 1992. They’d convinced West End legend Michael Ball to represent the UK, and given him eight potential winning songs. An audience vote had overwhelmingly plumped for the up-tempo ‘One Step Out Of Time’, and Ball went to Sweden as the hot favourite.
Terry Wogan began his Eurovision commentary by assuring British viewers that, “this year it’s our turn [to win] or there ain’t no justice.” He even offered to buy everyone a pickled herring if the UK lost.
Three hours later, Ireland’s Linda Martin was holding the trophy and BBC’s plans to host Eurovision 1993 were in tatters. Next year’s competition would be hosted by RTE, the state broadcaster of Ireland.
While Linda Martin was still singing her victory reprise, an Irish businessman called Noel C Duggan began writing a letter to RTE, in which he detailed his slightly crazy vision for Eurovision 1993.
You know my love is always true
The Eurovision Song Contest is many things: a songwriting festival; a proxy war; the gay Super Bowl. But, more than anything else, the Eurovision is a broadcasting showcase.
Back in the 1950s, a coalition of national TV stations formed a group called the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). The EBU’s main goal was to build a relay system that allowed cross-border broadcasting—a system known as the Eurovision Network.
The EBU also wanted to create cheap, schedule-filling content that could entertain an international audience. In 1956, they decided to adapt the Sanremo Music Festival into a competition they called European Grand Prix. Seven countries entered, with Switzerland emerging as winners.
The format took off, and the Eurovision Song Contest (as it was renamed the following year) became a big deal for EBU members. Hosting a Eurovision is enormously expensive and a massive technical challenge, but it’s also a chance to show off your cutting-edge approach to broadcasting.
And so, the Eurovision is actually two separate competitions (three, if you count the Barbara Dex Award for bad fashion). There’s a song contest, sure, but there’s also an ongoing rivalry between EBU members, each of whom want to be the best TV station in Europe.
RTE now had an opportunity to show what they could do. But first, they needed a venue.
The devil, the devil, yeah, yeah
The 1967 Eurovision was held in in Vienna’s Hofburg Imperial Palace, an enormous building that had once been home to the Hapsburgs.
Noel C Duggan’s letter to RTE suggested that they host Eurovision 1993 in an equestrian centre in a small, rural town in north Cork. He didn’t get a reply for two months. It’s been suggested that RTE needed that much time to stop laughing.
Millstreet really is in the middle of nowhere. Killarney, the nearest big town, is 20 miles away. The nearest airport is in Cork city, almost 40 miles away. And Dublin—home to many things, including RTE itself—was over 180 miles away.
There was no motorway to Millstreet, just miles of twisty country roads, many of which were too narrow for trucks and coaches. The local train platform was too tiny for large deliveries. And the electrics and telecoms were wholly inadequate for an operation on the scale of Eurovision.
So, why did RTE decide Millstreet was the perfect venue?
In 1993 (and, honestly, still today) the consensus was “corruption”, although it must that’s an assumption based on Ireland’s extraordinary levels of corruption at the time, rather than any tangible evidence of wrongdoing on Duggan’s part.
It’s also ignores the fact that Millstreet had a very strong bid. The Green Glen Arena was roughly the same size as the RDS, which hosted Eurovision ‘88 (and was also an equestrian centre). The local community were fully committed to supporting the event, and Duggan convinced whipped up some investment from local businesses, which took pressure off cash-strapped RTE.
Also, RTE’s then-Director General was from Dunmanway, another small town in Cork.
In October 1992, RTE announced that the Eurovision was coming to Millstreet, County Cork.
Baby, don't do things that make me blue
People were not thrilled about this decision.
The EBU trusted RTE on a technical level, especially as the previous Irish Eurovision in 1988 had been a success (and launched Celine Dion’s career after she performed and won for Switzerland). But the EBU and Eurovision community wanted to spend a weekend in Paris or London—not stuck in a B&B in a remote Irish town.
BBC’s Nicholas Witchell came to Millstreet and asked Noel C Duggan why Eurovision was happening in “a cowshed in Ireland”, to which Duggan responded that it was an equestrian arena, and therefore technically a horse shed.
Witchell apologised, but his basic question was legitimate—why hold such a big event in a place that obviously couldn’t handle it? Millstreet was at the heart of an intense rebuilding effort, with the local council pouring resources into new roads and rebuilding the train station.
Meanwhile, the cowshed/horseshed presented a huge unforeseen problem: the roof was too low, which meant lowering the entire floor.
Despite all the headaches, RTE’s Millstreet team had a great time in the months leading up to the event. A combination of cheap beer, laidback Cork hospitality, an exciting “let’s put on the show right here!” atmosphere, and an unspoken agreement that what happens in Millstreet stays in Millstreet all helped to create a carnival atmosphere in the town.
When the delegates arrived, they found Millstreet had turned into a never-ending party. Most importantly, they found that the venue was—somehow, against all the odds—ready for Saturday night.
I'll give you my heart and my soul if you give me your love
The Eurovision is sometimes accused of being too political, which is like complaining that water is too wet. Fact is, Eurovision has always been and will always be a proxy war—a tooth-and-claw battle for soft power.
This was especially important in the early 90s, when old empires was collapsing and new nations were sprouting across Europe. For these new countries, Eurovision was an important opportunity to announce their new identity.
Bosnia-Herzegovina fought their way to Millstreet—literally. Sarajevo airport came under fire as they boarded their plane, and their conductor was left behind on the tarmac.
(Bosnia-Herzegovina finished 17th on the night. Eurovision might be political, but it’s not sentimental.)
United Kingdom sent loveable scouser Sonia, and they were favourites once again. Maybe not as nailed-on as Michael Ball has seemed, but strong enough for Sonia to bet £500 on herself.
In fairness, it was a good entry. The song’s quite catchy and Sonia has a Fun Auntie vibe that plays well at Eurovision. Sonia also had a Europe-wide hit in ’You’ll Never Stop Me From Loving You’, so she wasn’t a total unknown.
Ireland’s entry, Niamh Kavanagh, wasn’t a household name, even in Ireland, but she was more high-profile than people realised. Kavanagh sang vocals on some of The Commitments—that’s her singing lead on ‘Destination Anywhere’.
All entrants performed without a hitch. If anything, Eurovision was a little too smooth, to the point of being boring. This was back in the days when Eurovision was something of a prestige event, rather than the Mardi-Gras-in-Arkham-Asylum vibe it has these days.
In many ways, the songs were only the warm-up. The exciting part—and the part that would make or break this broadcast—was the jury vote.
I'm out of my head, I don't know what to say
The voting section involved an incredible amount of co-ordination. Each national jury would phone in and award points to their ten favourite songs. Their favourite song got douze points, 12 points. The song with the highest final score was the winner.
(There’s a much more complicated system these days. I hate it.)
The voting section was prone to chaos: dropped connections, poor-quality audio, miscommunication, language difficulties, and so on. Millstreet’s patchy communications network made things even more difficult.
Also, sometimes the voting could be boring. A runaway winner might emerge, but the show would still have to keep taking jury votes, which would make the finale a dull anti-climax.
On the night, voting went smoothly, with United Kingdom taking an early lead, although it was pleasingly open at the halfway point.
When it was time to get the votes from the Bosnia-Herzegovinia jury, the arena filled with the sound of static and feedback. Then, after a long pause, a distant voice said, “Hello Ireland, this is Sarajevo calling…”
The audience burst into spontaneous applause, with a genuine sense of compassion for these people trying to survive a bloody war. It was a great moment of television.
The same audience had by now given up any pretense of objectivity. Ireland were hot on the UK’s heels, so they loudly cheered everything that moved Niamh Kavanagh closer to first place.
The twelve points that put Ireland in the lead came from United Kingdom themselves. It was now a two-horse race with the favourite behind by a nose, and the crowd were screaming their champion to victory.
Even Fionnula Sweeney caught caught up in the home crowd atmosphere, accidentally awarding the Dutch 12 points to Ireland before a very annoyed juror said “No! That’s wrong!”
Finally, it all came down to the Maltese jury.
Ireland were 11 points clear of the United Kingdom. One point could give them victory. But if UK got 12 and Ireland got nothing, then Sonia would be victorious.
This was a genuine, edge-of-your-seat cliffghanger.
The Maltese juror calmly read his votes.
Slovenia, one point. Finland, two points. The Netherlands, three points.
The crowd barely dared to breath. We just needed one measly point.
Bosnia-Herzegovina, four points. Switzerland, five points. Greece, six points.
But the points weren’t coming.
Italy, seven points. Spain, eight points.
When he said, “Luxemburg, ten points,” the crowd screamed as if they’d just witnessed a murder. All that remained was the 12 points. Whoever received those points would be the winner.
The audience shushed each other until a perfect stillness filled the arena.
And finally… Ireland, twelve points.
Eruptions. Absolutely bananas scenes in the crowd. No Eurovision winner had ever had such a strong home crowd, and no home crowd had ever seen such a nail-biting finish.
Albert Reynolds (Ireland's then-Taoiseach) and Noel C Duggan led the audience in a rousing rendition of ‘Olé Olé Olé”. It was several minutes before Sweeney could formally announce the winner.
If you’re an RTE producer watching all this from the gantry, you’re hugging and high-fiving your team, because you’ve nailed it. In a tiny market town in the middle of nowhere, in a building the BBC called a cowshed, you’ve just created a near-perfect bit of television.
And then the realisation would dawn on you…oh no.
We have to do it all over again next year.
Thanks to Dermot Manning, some anonymous redditors, and David Blake Knox’s book Ireland And The Eurovision.
Elsewhere in the charts
[Number 4, new] 2 Unlimited, ‘Tribal Dance’
2 Unlimited have now abandoned any attempt to experiment or surprise people. ‘Tribal Dance’ takes the riff from ‘Twilight Zone’, the clunky rapping from ‘No Limits’, and repackages it all as something mildly problematic.
Still a huge hit though. I guess there really is no point in fixing something if it ain’t broke.
[Number 6 ↑] Inner Circle, ‘Sweat (A La La La La Long)’
1993 was The Year Of Reggae, and Inner City were probably the most legitimate Jamaican act to ride the wave.
As mentioned in a recent issue, ‘Sweat’ was only intended as filler for an LP to cash in on the success of ‘Bad Boys’. It ended up becoming the song of the summer and global smash hit.
I vaguely recall hearing one of the Inner Circle guys claim that the ‘Sweat’ lyrics are actually about dancing, which is as believable as when Super Furry Animals claimed that ‘Something For The Weekend’ is about wine-tasting.
[Number 12, new] Utah Saints, ‘Believe In me’
We really didn’t appreciate Utah Saints enough. They’re so much fun.
[Number 22, new] Depeche Mode, ‘Walking In My Shoes’
A very fine second single from Songs of Faith and Devotion.
By the way, Dave Gahan auctioned a pair of his old Balenciaga boots a few years back, fetching $5,600. At that price, they better be more comfortable than the shoes described in this song.
[Number 28, new] Blur, ‘For Tomorrow’
Nobody, but nobody, predicted a Blur comeback in 1993.
Blur had emerged as a Madchester-adjacent band, and not a fondly remembered one either. There was something fake and boyband-ey about their whole schtick, an impression that was confirmed by the very weak debut album, Leisure. When ‘Popscene’ flopped in 1992, people cheered. They looked forward to the inevitable day when Blur would get dropped.
‘For Tomorrow’ got some cautiously positive reviews, although one review simply said: “Blur - you are the Soup Dragons. Now fuck off."
The irony being that some of this vitriol was coming from people who were championing Suede and pushing the Britpop movement. A few years later, they would have to bite their tongues and admit that ‘For Tomorrow’ is probably the quintessential Britpop anthem…
Album of the Week
PJ Harvey, Rid Of Me
Second albums are supposed to be difficult, especially when you’re young.
Polly Jean Harvey did not seem to get this memo. Rid Of Me appeared a year after her excellent debut Dry, and not only is it good, but it’s an enormous leap forward in both style and confidence.
These records are sometimes presented as diptych, with Dry documenting Harvey’s first love and Rid Of Me her first heartbreak. That’s a pretty reductionist (and maybe misogynistic) thing to say about someone we now know to be a genuinely great artist.
I think though that Rid Of Me is definitely exploring the “woman scorned” archetype. The title track explodes in this howl of frustrated rage, and the result feels like Fatal Attraction retold from Glenn Close’s perspective.
So much of the A-Side is given to songs like this, exploring the agony of rejection. The claustrophobic lo-fi production makes it more brutally intimate when she sings lines like “you were going to be my life” on ‘Legs’.
But Side B—which starts off with a cover of Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’—turns things on their head, with songs about women escaping the clutches of mediocre men (including Eve and Jane, who spill the tea on Adam and Tarzan in ‘Snake’ and ‘Me-Jane’ repsectively).
The sides are linked by ‘Man-Size’, which appears on Side A as a discordant string sextet number. It reappears on Side B as a bruising, confident rock number, where Polly dares you to “silence my lady head”.
Dry was a terrific debut and set a very high bar for the next one. Rid Of Me not only clears that bar with ease—it shows the incredible depth of Harvey’s talent. A great record and strong contender for best sophomore LP of all time.
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