Sunday, June 12, 2016

Forgotten 80s: an unforgettable radio show

Back in the early years of this blog I used to feature some obscure old songs on my late-night Saturday feature. Retro Saturday.  Many of these songs were from the 1980s, a decade which was actually pretty crap if you actually lived through it (from personal experience anyway!) but you have to acknowledge that there was much, much more to that decade than the usual overplayed hits.  

So if you're into the lesser-known hits of the 80s, then how much would you love a radio show which focused on the forgotten hits of that decade rather than the usual same-old 10 to 15 songs which always crop up as 80s oldies?  I think you would really love it....


"FORGOTTEN 80s" is broadcast every Sunday night from 7.00-9.00 pm on Absolute Radio 80s in the UK.  This particular radio show has just celebrated its 3rd anniversary, but I only discovered it a few months ago and since that time it has become my favourite radio show and essential listening on a Sunday night.  It's presented by Matthew Rudd, who is a refreshingly knowledgeable and enthusiastic radio presenter in an age of personality-free radio-bots who only exist to play the next Ed Sheeran/Adele/Jess Glynne/Justin Bieber song on the radio playlist.  You will probably get the best experience out of the show if you were actually around in the 80s and remember the songs first time round - sparking that crucial recognition-factor - but even if you don't remember that decade it's worth tuning in to check out the diversity of 80s music which doesn't otherwise get an airing.

I discovered the show by accident earlier this year as I noticed it trending on Twitter one Sunday night.  So what was this #forgotten80s? I decided to check it out and was immediately hooked. Matthew is a brilliant host who has such enthusiasm and genuine knowledge of the decade, and the stories behind the songs.  The criteria for the show is forgotten Top 40 hits, but a particular highlight of the show is a section called "Didn't We Almost Have It All" (#DWAHIA) where the listeners are invited to submit suggestions for two songs from 80s charts from different years, where the songs missed out on that week's particular top 40.

If you've only discovered the show, check out the blog at http://forgotten80s.blogspot.co.uk/ with full playlists from previous shows; and if you want to listen to the full shows ad-free then check out the Absolute 80s Mixcloud page at https://www.mixcloud.com/discover/absolute-80s/ and search for the Forgotten 80s shows.  I guarantee that you will not be disappointed :))

Allsång 2016: the stage is....


...Orup's! Yes, one of my all-time favourite Swedish artists has been selected for the "Allsångsscenen är din" show on 19.07.2016.

This will be the 5th year that there will be an hour-long concert following the end of that week's "Allsång på Skansen" show in Stockholm, and it will be broadcast on SVT as usual. Orup follows in the footsteps of Tomas Ledin, Håkan Hellström, Laleh and Alcazar who have all featured on the show in recent years, and who have presented very memorable shows.

Orup has had a lot of success with his stage show "Viva La Pop" which he presented in Stockholm and Gothenburg over the past year so we can expect all the hits and more from a career spanning almost 30 years. As usual with this type of show, expect some special guest artists. (Can we have a GES reunion? Or at least Lena PH?)

We are just over 2 weeks away from the beginning of Allsång season 2016, which will be presented this year by Sanna Nielsen.  (OK so does this meant that faithful travelling companion will finally be interested in watching Allsång with me then??  #shallowalert) No news on this year's guest list but I'll be watching the Swedish tabloids over the next week or so as I guess this information is imminent.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

The Madrid Diaries: Day 3 - Thursday 28th April 2016

A couple of scheduled activities today.  We technically only have three full days on this holiday so it's important that we pack as much in as we can, whilst ensuring that we also don't exhaust ourselves pounding the streets of the Spanish capital. But first, breakfast.

We're back in that nice little cafe where we had breakfast yesterday.  Today it's time for a toasted croissant.  Which is a wonderful thing indeed.


It's not long until we're back on the Plaza Mayor again.  There's been a little bit of rain today to go with the cooler-than-expected temperatures.  But the weather's been perfect for walking and exploring and I'd rather have temperatures in the mid-to-high teens for a spring city break anyway.

Inevitably we're back on the Plaza Mayor checking out a few more shops and restaurants.  One of these sells nothing but hats.  So here is my little tribute to this year's San Marino Eurovision representative, the one and only Serhat!


We have a (surprisingly affordable) lunch on the Plaza Mayor - where a number of restaurants tout for business.  And then on to our first big activity of the day.

Like every other big city on the continent, a sightseeing bus tour is a good way to get around and spot the city's main landmarks if your time is limited.  The Madrid City Tour buses (http://madrid.city-tour.com/en/hop-on-hop-off) operate two routes covering 'historical' and 'modern' Madrid.  Both routes are easily do-able on the same day, consecutively from Sol.  Some parts of the tours cover the same area, but then head out in different directions.

The tour passes city hall (below) which proudly displays a 'refugees welcome' banner....


...the impressive architectural columns of the national library...


..the Art Deco style of the Gran Via...


I can't remember the name of this building - it's either a church or a museum - but I liked it.


And when you've had your fill of art, culture and beautiful buildings, nothing will gladden your heart more than a cow dressed as a matador outside one of the city's many flashy hotels!


We covered both of the bus routes this afternoon, and as I said earlier it's a very good way to cover a wide area of the city within a limited time.

But there was one other activity on our agenda and it turned out to be the absolute highlight of our holiday: a visit to a flamenco tablao.  Now we'd previously been to flamenco shows in Barcelona, and seen a very watered-down tourist version in Puerto Pollensa, but during our research we discovered that Madrid boasts some of the best and most authentic flamenco venues in Spain.  After reading many reviews we chose Casa Patas for our flamenco show and pre-booked tickets in advance.  It's a small, intimate venue but we got very lucky indeed, being seated three rows from the front rather than the usual seats at the 'bar'/back of the venue in the past (hello Moulin Rouge and Lido!)

Unfortunately I don't have any photos thanks to respecting the venue's no-photos rule, but there are lots of photos over at Google Images and Trip Advisor which will give you an idea of how it looks. Like many of this type of venue, Casa Patas offers both show-only and dinner & show options. However, there are many restaurants in the surrounding area and we ended up having a tasty and reasonably-priced Indian meal, just a few minutes' walk from the venue.

The show starts at 10.30pm and runs until midnight.  And from beginning to end, it's an enthralling, intense and compelling experience.  The talented musicians on stage accompany the three featured dancers, all of whom display a stunning level of fancy footwork and authentic intensity.  (Oh, and shallow alert! - the male ponytail-haired dancer is absolutely gorgeous.  I wish I'd taken a note of his name :))

Whilst attracting the tourists in their droves, Casa Patas presents the highest possible standard of the art of flamenco and is an absolute must-see if you are visiting Madrid.

In the next instalment: our last full day in Madrid :(

The Madrid Diaries: Day 2 - Wednesday 27th April 2016

Going "room only" on holiday has its advantages as you're not tied down to specific breakfast times, and if you find a local cafe/restaurant nearby selling reasonably-priced breakfasts then you've cracked it.  Time to discover churros then....


Churros are a local treat: it's hard to describe them, suffice to say think a piped-version of doughnuts without all the extra sugar dusting.  They make a fine breakfast, although apparently improved immensely by chocolate to dip them into!  Although prepare for sacrilege: I don't really think I'd fancy that.  I'm more savoury than sweet :)

After breakfast it's time to see the Plaza Mayor, the city's main square, in all its daytime glory.



Our first full day in the city centre meant a) further exploration and b) going in search of a record shop!

Puerta del Sol is a busy, manic square and transport hub in the middle of the city.  Our favourite holiday tradition, the French electronics giant FNAC, has a store north of Puerta del Sol, just next to that Spanish all-conquering department store El Corte Ingles.   Just like their French counterparts it's refreshing to actually find somewhere on the continent where you can still buy CDs and DVDs in these days of streaming and on-demand viewing.  This time round I purchased some live concert DVDs, the most recent ones by Alejandro Sanz, Pablo Alboran and David Bisbal.  Which inevitably will be reviewed on here at some point, hopefully before 2016 turns into 2017 :))

Anyway, my knowledge of Spanish music isn't really what it should be.  There is one familiar face on the CD racks however: the new CD by Spain's ESC representative Barei, which is all in the English language.  Which, to this native-language purist, just won't do, so I have to "say nay"!

We move on to lunch at an Italian restaurant.  Delicious stuffed mushrooms followed by delicious pizza time!!  OK so it's not Spanish, but the time and the place was just right.



We do some further exploring in the area around the Gran Via and then make our way up to the Plaza de España.  At the top of the square is this big building which reminds me either of a) Stalinist architecture, or b) a 'landscape' rather than 'portrait' version of the Empire State Building.  It actually belongs to the Franco era, and the name of the building is the Edificio España.  And I had to lean back to take this photo, to get it all in shot!


Also on the Plaza de España there are a few market stalls and a statue of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, which faithful travelling companion was very excited about.


After hanging around the square for a while, we were on our travels again in search of the Royal Palace.  Now we're not really into checking out palaces on holiday but this one is in the heart of the city, just a few minutes' walk from Calle Mayor and the Old Town, and it also has a lovely garden called the Jardines de Sabatini.


 

Time is getting on though, and we need to get back to the hotel to get ready for another night out. Which will inevitably involve tapas...


After dinner, it was time for a stroll and we end up at a very unusual bar, the Cerveceria La Mayor, which stocks an endless amount of beers - they're even on the ceiling!  This bar feels like it belongs more in Brussels than Madrid.  Faithful travelling companion agrees and gets into the spirit by ordering a Kwak.



I forgot to mention earlier that a big event's been taking place in Madrid tonight: the Champions League semi-final between Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid.  Plaza Mayor was taken over by a crowd of rowdy but unthreatening Bayern fans, whilst we've seen a few German fans since we arrived.  When we entered the bar, the match had just finished, and some fans arrived in the bar a little while later.

It has been a long day though, so we didn't stay out too late.  Neither did many other people by the looks of it: by the time we get back to the old town, there's hardly a bar or restaurant still open. And it's not even midnight!  Madrid is definitely not living up to its all-night-party-city billing :)

Thursday, June 02, 2016

The Madrid Diaries: Day 1 - Tuesday 26th April 2016

Since our very successful summer holiday in Majorca last September, our thoughts quickly turned to another Spanish adventure.  Madrid has been on the cards for quite a few years now, but for one reason or another, it just didn't materialise until 2016.

We're usually hanging out on the continent for our spring break at some point in May - whilst carefully avoiding ESC finals week on my account - but 2016 was different.  Due to the capital city's inland location, we thought the temperatures might be a bit higher so we decided to bring our spring holiday forward a couple of weeks.

So we were Madrid-bound in the last week of April, and by the time we touched down at the massive Madrid Airport, the temperature was warm and sunny.  Very different from what it was at home - let's just call it a very long winter!  And having pre-booked transfers always makes you feel like a celebrity as you emerge from baggage reclaim to find a taxi driver holding up a card with your name on it!  That's one of the best things about the internet - the opportunity to book your own DIY city breaks without the need for those travel agents and their patronising ways (!)

Following a reasonably scenic journey into the city, it quickly became clear that like many of my other much-loved European cities, Madrid loves the great outdoors.  It was reassuring to see many of the city's inhabitants sitting outdoors at pavement cafes.  This might not seem much to some but it's a very distinctive aspect of foreign travel for us, especially when you come from a country where summer is very short - measure it in days rather than weeks!

We were based in the old town, just south of the massive Plaza Mayor, the city's main square. I would definitely recommend this area as a base for exploring the city centre on foot; and of course there are many, many restaurant options around.  My pre-holiday worries and misconceptions about the city - many of which related to the availability of mainly-vegetarian food in a city famed for all things pork and seafoody - were quickly laid to rest.  And it wasn't long before we found tapas - including some delicious queso manchego...


Faithful travelling companion, meanwhile, headed straight for the calamares!


After these and some other tapas for dinner, we did some exploring around Plaza Mayor and the surrounding back streets, before ending our evening at the Mercado de San Miguel, just off Plaza Mayor, at the top of the old town.  This is, on the surface, a food market but it's so much more than that.  For it is also a top spot for socialising of an evening in Madrid so it would be very rude not to sample the beer and sangria on offer from the numerous food stalls.  They're also teasing us with a Madrid speciality - churros.  We didn't try them on our first night but rectified this on day 2!


Before coming on holiday to Madrid we had this notion that it was an all-night party city, where "closing time" was an unusual concept.  The reality was very different however, on a Tuesday night in April.  Closing time did exist, even in the Mercado de San Miguel, so just after midnight we were heading back to our hotel, but with no complaints from us - it had been a long day, and we needed a good night's sleep to conserve our energies for our first full day in the Spanish capital tomorrow.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Square-Eyed Couch Potato: March-May 2016

Over the past two months, I went on holiday, then it was straight into the pre-Eurovision season, reading everything there was to read, and listening to the numerous podcasts which have become such an important (if time-consuming) part of the annual Eurovision adventure. There's one more thing: I've discovered some radio shows which I never knew existed, so these have taken me away from the small screen as well.  But I still managed to catch the following TV shows...


The second series of the irresistible "EMPIRE" (E4) continues with the usual cross-and-double-cross in the Lyon family.  It's soapier than ever, and is most definitely a 2010s successor to Dallas, only substituting the music business and the bling for the oil and the ten gallon hats.  Larger-than-life characters, a cracking soundtrack (by Timbaland) and cliffhanger after cliffhanger.  I seem to be the only person I know who watches this show; I just wonder what its ratings are over here.  It deserves a massive audience.  Even if you're not into the hip-hop music at the show's heart, it's unmissable viewing, and a rarity these days: a TV drama where the main characters are not only black, but black and successful.


I haven't watched "THE BIGGEST LOSER" (Sky Living) in years, but as I've started a fitness regime I thought I'd watch this for some motivation.  One of the contestants in this particular series was none other than Ruben Studdard, who won American Idol back in the day when I still lapped up every talent show going.  Being an American show, as the pounds come of, the sentimentality piles on.  But for some reason I still enjoy it.


Over on this side of the pond, "LOSE WEIGHT FOR LOVE" (BBC1) takes a new approach to weight loss - separating overweight couples to encourage them to lose weight.  This show only began last week, but I feel that it could be a long runner, as it didn't just focus on the weight-loss stuff but also the underlying psychological issues and insecurities....for me, this was very close to home, and there was definitely something in my eye by the end of the first episode. 


I've just finished watching "THICKER THAN WATER" (More 4) a Swedish drama which started slowly but turned out to be very engaging indeed.  This was a very different kind of "Nordic Noir": a family saga beautifully filmed in the surroundings of the Åland Islands, where three siblings were made to stay together to run their late mother's guest house as a condition of their inheritance.  But they were to endure a number of troubles along the way.

Faithful travelling companion introduced me to the second series of "INDIAN SUMMERS" (Channel 4).  Now I missed the first series but quickly picked up on the characters and storylines.  This drama, set in the Raj in India in the years prior to independence, was very expensive to make, and certainly looked the part.  But it suffered from that modern TV curse - the ratings fall - but scheduled in that major ratings battleground of the Sunday night 9pm slot, then that was to be expected.  And who watches live TV these days anyway?  However, it could be argued that this show was killed by the critics, who continuously picked away at the plot lines.  So there's not going to be a third series, which is a shame as I was just getting into it.



It's May, which means that "CORONATION STREET" (ITV) will go into its annual big week of storylines, which also conveniently slots into the live week of Britain's Got Talent (flippin' eck, is that still going?).  This time we can expect the discovery of Callum's body, and the lead-up to Carla's departure from Weatherfield.  I will really miss Carla, my favourite Corrie character - I've loved Alison King since she was Lynda Block in "Dream Team" on Sky One.  Aah, "Dream Team"....now that was appointment-to-view TV!


I like cooking shows and I like travel shows, so when you combine the two then that's a must for the TV planner.  "PAUL HOLLYWOOD'S CITY BAKES" (Food Network) took the Bake Off judge to various locations, including Warsaw, Copenhagen and our most recent destination, Madrid (above) - and for a change, he was in more favourable mood and didn't need to criticise the cakes.


It's good to see "TONIGHT AT THE LONDON PALLADIUM" (ITV) back on our screens again. There's been a change since the last series: it's moved from Sunday night to Wednesday night and has one main host, rather than different guest hosts.  Good news: the main host is the wonderful Bradley Walsh, who is currently my favourite presenter on British TV.  He is so natural, funny and entertaining, and makes "The Chase" the best quiz show on our screens.  ITV being ITV though, they've got to fit in Peter Andre somewhere with a Palladium running gag.  And it's a good idea to record this and watch on fast-forward during the Joe Pasquale "release the squeak" segment.

I'll finish by fast-forwarding to a couple of delights still to come: a couple of re-booted blasts from the past.  Back in this blog's early days - 9 years ago, can you believe it! - I was a major fan of "Prison Break".  The other day, one of my friends at work showed me the trailer for the revived series which is due to air at the beginning of 2017.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9T-9fZn_oAIt

The first two seasons were edge-of-seat stuff; but I'd hardly started season 3 and quickly decided that its best days were behind it.  However, I do have the complete series box set at home so am going to watch all four series before the re-boot (with most of the main cast members on board) reaches our screens....


Another old favourite of mine, "Gilmore Girls" is also coming back with a limited series of four feature-length episodes.  It will be screened at some point on Netflix.  Now I don't have Netflix.  But the thought of a Lorelei and Rory return means I might just have to sign up!

So, Eurovision is over (reviews to follow over the next couple of weeks) and we are now heading into the summer months, so that will be a good opportunity for me to finally catch up on some of my massive TV backlog.  And then we have Euro 2016 and the Tour de France, and the Olympics, and the Vuelta, and ......oh well, I'll have plenty to watch!  Square-Eyed will be back at the end of July.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Eurovision 2016 - The Grand Final: preview, predictions and thoughts

Hi guys....once again I've fallen behind with all my blog posts so my 2 semi-final posts will be written up and published, along with my review of the final, hopefully - time permitting - within the next couple of weeks (and not 4 months later, like in 2015).  I'll make sure I don't lose my written notes this time!

Well, although I haven't really been into many of the songs this year, on the other hand I don't actively dislike any songs in this year's final either. Many of them just leave me with that 'meh' feeling but who knows, I might look back in future years with rose-coloured glasses and think '2016 was actually quite a good Eurovision year'.  Stranger things have happened.

I really ended up enjoying both semi-finals.  SVT have once again given us a very slick production whilst Måns and Petra are a good combination; a massive improvement on last year's dull trio of presenters, not to mention the screaming presentation duos of the mid to late 2000s.  I'm sure that M & P will do a great job in the final, with lots of humour guaranteed.  There is also the small matter of a big, big change to the voting.  This new format - which I guess is very similar to that used in Melodifestivalen? - should bring some much-needed excitement and will keep us on the edge of our seats until the last minute, rather than knowing who's won with several countries still to announce. That's assuming we don't have such a runaway winner that the end-section will be irrelevant of course.


We are also promised something very different tonight - an appearance from none other than Justin Timberlake (above), performing his new song.  Now, firstly, can I say that I've always been a big JT fan, but I don't really appreciate ESC being used as a vehicle to plug his music.  So there may be the tenuous link with Swedish songwriters, but I would have preferred a Swedish artist (or selection of artists) to showcase their talent - thinking back to Darin and Agnes in 2013's semi-final for example. ESC may be constantly looking to the future and innovating year on year, but the inclusion of an American act, along with the contest being broadcast by a US TV network for the first time, suggests that there may be more afoot.....are we looking at the USA's eventual participation in ESC?  The contest is also being screened in China, so who knows what may happen next.

To be honest, I wouldn't want ESC to expand any further and go down that 'globalisation' route, and further diluting the European aspect of the contest.  Maybe the various continents/regions of the world could establish their own equivalent song contests, with, say, the top 4 songs from each contest then going on to compete in a "World Cup" song contest event along with the top 4 of ESC. I believe there are plans for an Asia-Pacific version of ESC and I'll be very interested to see how that goes.


Which inevitably brings me to the elephant in the room.....there has been a bit of criticism lately regarding Australia's participation in ESC; much of this is from people who haven't bothered to research the reasons why they are in the contest.  By this stage I'm quite ambivalent about it - I'm happy to see such a genuinely Eurovision-loving country get an opportunity to compete, but I can't really see them sticking around in the longer term, especially if an Asia-Pacific version of ESC becomes a reality.  What cannot be disputed is that in just two years of competing, Australia have raised the bar for professionalism and credibility.  Guy Sebastian was excellent last year - I still love "Tonight Again" and although I'm not a particular fan of "Sound of Silence", Dami Im gave a faultless vocal performance worthy of an international superstar.

By sending hugely talented, experienced and professional performers with strong songs, Australia in just two years have cracked the formula for Eurovision success and acclaim, which the UK can only watch and envy.


Tonight Joe and Jake, two agreeable young lads who formed a duo after competing individually in "The Voice" (which now seems to be a breeding ground for many a Eurovision contestant from various countries) will be representing the United Kingdom with "You're Not Alone".  This song won the rather half-hearted UK final - although I suppose we should be grateful that the BBC even ran to a national final at all - and as Simon Cowell would say, "do you know something?" I think this is the UK's best entry for a long time, and it deserves a place on the left hand of the scoreboard for a change.  I'm proud of this as a UK entry - it's contemporary enough and you remember it after just one hearing.  The guys sing well and do the best with the material and staging that they are given. Come on Europe - vote for us!  We don't all want "Brexit" despite the media's obsession - and in the words of this song "we're in this together"!

In an interview during the BBC4 semi-final coverage I think it was Jake who said that they wanted to change the perception of the contest in the UK.  However, given the UK mainstream media continuously perpetuating wildly inaccurate stereotypes and ideas about the contest, that will be an uphill struggle.

By the way, I was thrilled to get 10 out of 10 qualifiers from semi-final 2.  Don't think I've ever had a 10 out of 10 before....just wish I'd put bets on!

So, on to my predictions for the final.


Being a year-round ESC fan, it is very easy to get swept up in the hysteria generated by bloggers, tweeters, superfans etc about certain songs.  However, the majority of the ESC viewing audience will (a) only watch the final and probably don't even know about the semi-finals and (b) be completely oblivious to months of gossip and speculation in the fan world.  So, putting myself into the shoes of a "casual viewer" it would be impossible (or is that impaa-see-baal, eh Dima?) to see past a Russian win. Viewers will be blown away by the technical excellence of the staging, just like last year's winner. Unlike many superfans and bloggers, the casual viewer won't be debating with themselves that the song is too "old fashioned"/reminds them of Sakis Rouvas etc etc.....they will just be impressed by the whole spectacular "show".  And I wouldn't mind Sergey winning, because he is a good pop star, and he takes me back to the good old "Sounds of Europe" days when Rachel and Keira introduced me to his music.

On the other hand, maybe the problem with the staging of "You Are The Only One" is that it's just too cold, too clinical, too calculating?  Sergey didn't really need all that over-the-top staging - he's good enough without it.  Then there are the wider implications of Russia hosting the contest again, given the specific issues around, let's just say, gender politics.

What are the alternatives?  Well, I'm predicting big things for Ukraine.  Jamala's performance of "1944" in the semi-final the other night was emotional and spine-chilling.  But is it just too intense to be a winner? Meanwhile, after that performance on Thursday, Australia have also become serious contenders.  And if they win, the contest will have to take place somewhere in Europe.  Dear Australia, if you win, please please please host ESC 2017 in Glasgow....! #wishfulthinking


But Eurovision's not all about the big show or the big voices, so I still predict Sweden and Italy as top 5 contenders. The "less is more" nature of their entries will contrast the bombastic staging or vocal performances of the top 3 favourites.  There was so much hate for Frans after he won Melfest; but to a viewing public who have never heard of Melfest or schlager, they will 'get' his song and he will tap into the Justin Bieber/Ed Sheeran fandom.  And there are a lot of them.



As for Italy, it took a long time for "No Degree of Separation" to register with me, but the staging is unusual and very sweet, I think Francesca's natural low-key charm will appeal to viewers and there is also a lot of love for Italian-language songs in Europe.  All of this will add up to a successful final placing.

Another one to keep an eye on is Austria's "Loin d'ici" sung by Zoe.  I'd originally written this off as too sickly-sweet but it all made sense in the semi-final.  In a time when native language at Eurovision is an endangered species, we have to support the only fully native-language song, which comes from a country which doesn't even speak that language!  I think even Alanis Morissette would be impressed by that level of irony.

What about my own favourites?  Well, I'm still cheering for Justs but I can't see "Heartbeat" winning now, for some reason.  I'm also pretty gutted that the draw has killed the Netherlands' chances - as has that embarrassing 10 second pause - because I really thought at one time that "Slow Down" could win the whole contest. I still think Serbia is underrated too; when I heard "Goodbye" for the first time it gave me "winner-chills".  As for France, it's one of the few accessible, catchy pop songs in the contest but the staging of the song seems to have rolled back its chances of winning.

So with just under 2 and a half hours to go, let's hope for a memorable and enjoyable Eurovision Song Contest final tonight.  And of course may the best song win!  On a personal note, it will be a very strange night: it will be my first Eurovision final on my own, without mum.  But she is with me in spirit and will hopefully inspire me to write a good review :)

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Eurovision Semi-Final 2: my foolish predictions

Got 7 out of 10 the other night.  I'll write more about the semi-finals over the next few days but in the meantime, here are my predictions for tonight's qualifiers.

Latvia
Poland
Israel
Serbia
Lithuania
Australia
Bulgaria
Ukraine
Georgia
Belgium

It was a tough decision to omit Norway in favour of Georgia but I have my reasons.  (No time to go into detail as I'm doing this quick post before heading off to work!)

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Eurovision Semi-final 1: my foolish predictions

Yes it's that wonderful time at last....tonight sees the first of this year's ESC Semi-finals and it actually looks a tougher one to call than I first thought.

So here are my foolish predictions of who will qualify tonight. In no particular order.

Russia
Armenia
Netherlands
Cyprus
Azerbaijan
Iceland
Bosnia-Herzegovina
Malta
Austria
Estonia

Although you should never write off Greece. (Even with a duff song and that 2nd slot of death) in which case either Austria or Estonia should be afraid.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Editorial: What happened to my Eurovision Song Contest? An older fan's view.

For a long time I have been planning to put down my thoughts about the changing face of the Eurovision Song Contest. So here they are.  Warning: it's a very long post, and
there will be some constructive criticism ahead.

My life as an ESC fan.

Firstly, before you all rush to complain, let me explain something. I have been a massive fan of the Eurovision Song Contest for over 40 years now.  I couldn't imagine life without it; what was once a one-night event transformed into an year-round obsession.  Months of national finals and selections, followed by the contest itself, followed by the analysis, followed by that thing called Post-Eurovision Depression (PED) - let me tell you, it does exist! - and then it starts all over again.

If anyone around me dares to criticise the Eurovision Song Contest, I will immediately put them right. I will tell them that the contest has changed, it is a modern, relevant television event with commercial and credible songs which people actually like enough to download - even here in the ESC-phobic UK!

The Eurovision Song Contest is constantly evolving.  The 61st contest is just days away.  But if I'm honest, the contest has lost its identity somewhere along the way.  It's not just ESC itself either: national finals season in 2016 did not hold its usual appeal for me.  Granted, I had a number of other distractions going on at the time, but the overwhelming feeling was just disappointment.  Where were all the great/catchy/distinctive songs?  Where were those "wow!" moments?  Week after week brought so many songs which weren't great, weren't bad, but just....there.  I usually take a large number of songs from national finals and continue to play them long after ESC season is over; but there are very few songs standing out from 2016 season, and even some of those took a long time to grow on me.

Perhaps all that is a reflection of what, for me, is now the main thing which is wrong with the Eurovision Song Contest.  There's too much emphasis on the vision, rather than the song.

Euro-VISION.

After last year's contest, I wrote a post stating that although I preferred "Grande Amore" to "Heroes", I thought "Heroes" was the right winner for the modern-day contest - a contemporary song, with a dazzling and memorable visual presentation.  As in every ESC, the following year's songs/staging/presentation are inevitably influenced by the previous year's winner.  So following Conchita's big ballad win, a barrage of ballads were inflicted on us.  After Måns' victory last year it was inevitable that a number of entries would follow in his wake and focus (more than is necessary) on the visual impact.  This year, the visual gimmicks are being taken to a whole new level.  Just as I predicted.

It's not a new thing: the visuals have always been important at ESC, but I would argue that the visual aspect now seems to be the main focus of ESC, to the detriment of the songs. Yet there would be no ESC without songs!

Gimmicks are nothing new.  There have always been daft gimmicks, unusual clothes, quirky dance routines.  But nowadays, it's taken to a whole new and often ridiculous level, as each country looks for new and challenging ways to impress the viewing public.  However, one person's visually dynamic presentation is another person's sensory overload.  Sometimes you reach the point where enough is enough, and channelling Father Ted for a moment, you're thinking "just sing the f*****g song" and to hell with the flashing lights, the visual effects, the dress projections, the holograms, the irritating backdrops, the interpretive contemporary dance....etc etc.

And then, there are the clothes.  An outfit can make or break your chances of qualifying.  Looking at some ridiculous outfits from this year's rehearsal clips, I just wonder if these these people have learned nothing from Moje 3?  Or are they perhaps more interested in a Barbara Dex award than a place in the final? Bad styling has always been a 'thing' in ESC but with such a strong focus on the visuals in today's contest, "what were they thinking??" is a phrase which increasingly comes to mind. A dress/suit/outfit should complement your performance, not distract from it.

The modern-day ESC is a triumph of slick production and technical excellence, and the visual effects, styling and overall package play a crucial part in where a song will end up on that scoreboard.  (So I guess if you can't beat them, join them ..... I've even overhauled my grumpy old method of marking ESC entries and will introduce a new marking system this year to reflect other aspects apart from the song). However I can't help but hark back to the "old" Eurovision when you had an actual stage set, with only minimal movement, and the most "visual effects" which you could expect were subtle changes in lighting.  The main focus was on the song, and the vocal performance of it.  There was little opportunity to enhance the song, unless you threw in a few props or a daft little dance routine. And that was that.

Change is necessary.  Everything has to evolve to survive.  ESC wouldn't have made it to 60 years without those vital changes.  And I certainly wouldn't want the contest to go back to the days of the type of invited audiences who were, in the words of the late great John Lennon, "rattling their jewellery".  That was the most significant, and positive change, in the contest's evolution; allowing the fans to attend gave the contest a terrific new dynamic.

Four other factors in the evolution of the ESC since the late 1990s have had a dramatic impact on the contest:

1: The internet.
2: Televoting.
3: The abolition of compulsory native language.
4: The abolition of the orchestra in favour of backing tracks.

I am very positive about the first two aspects - the internet gave ESC a whole new lease of life and turned the contest into a year-round event.  (On a personal note, it also introduced me to lots of wonderful people who share my ESC obsession).  As for televoting, despite the usual criticisms/allegations, I just love the idea of being able to vote for my favourite song(s) every year. There will be big changes to the voting this year, yet again, but televoting will never be abolished. Like the internet, it is an interactive and inclusive aspect which keeps the contest alive.

As a long-term fan, the third and fourth aspects did have an impact on my enjoyment of the contest. What really sparked my interest in ESC, even as a child, was hearing songs sung in a foreign language.  Of course free language isn't a new thing, we've had it in various incarnations in the 60s and 70s, and continuously since 1999.  But there are fewer than ever native language songs in the 2016 contest.  That doesn't please me at all, but it's also a reflection of a wider trend within European music, where English appears to be the chosen language, and the "globalisation" of music over the past 5 or 6 years, where every singles chart features the same songs.....

Contrast that with a trend over the same period in Sweden, where a number of artists, from the most commercial and popular to the obscure and alternative, have elected to record songs in their native language and enjoyed great success as a result.  If Sweden was not so focused on winning again and rushing to topple Ireland as all-time ESC champions, I just wish they would have the balls to send a native-language entry.  Dream on, huh?

One other very irritating thing has arisen in recent years across national finals and ESC - the number of songs by songwriters from other countries who submit numerous songs to different competitions. The same names keep popping up, year after year, all across the continent during national finals season.  And when it comes to ESC itself, the "bought-in" syndrome is very evident.  The best-known example of this is Azerbaijan.  Their debut entry from 2008, "Day After Day" may not have been to everyone's taste, but crucially, it was a 100% home-grown songwriting product.  Since that time, Swedish songwriters have provided the Aze entry every year.  Whilst that suggests a clear hunger to win, it's also a slap in the face to that country's domestic songwriters.

If I ruled Eurovision world....

It would never happen but I would love to see more native-language songs at ESC.  Perhaps a system could be introduced where countries would have to send a song in their own language every second year?  Or perhaps more controversially, a points incentive where countries would be rewarded for sending native-language entries and therefore give them more chance to qualify from the semi-finals? But like I said, that will never happen!

So the orchestra will never come back, I know that.  Like Monaco and Luxembourg at ESC, it belongs to another generation.  But I would like to suggest that all artists competing in a particular year's ESC could be given the opportunity to re-record their song with an orchestral backing track and choose whether to use this version or the usual studio version.  I acknowledge that there are many songs which do not benefit from the addition of an orchestra, but there are many others which would be completely transformed and enhanced by the orchestral backing track,.

I would also change the rules on songwriters.  Abolish the current system and instead, songwriters must be a native of the country for whom they are writing a song.  This could encourage and motivate "local" songwriters to up their game and submit quality songs rather than being overlooked in favour of all the usual international songwriting suspects.  I'd also change the rules in national finals whereby each songwriter or songwriting team is only allowed to submit one entry to their national contest each year.  In my recent Eurovision Memories post on the 1985 contest, I noted that the songwriters were featured in the postcards. Eurovision used to be a songwriters' contest - they got the trophy, rather than the artist singing their song - and perhaps a rule change like the one suggested above would give songwriters from all over Europe an incentive to raise their profiles in the contest.

Can you feel the fan power coming your way?

In the modern-day Eurovision Song Contest, the fan power cannot be underestimated.  Thanks to social media, songs can be chosen in national finals and then dumped in favour of something else as a result of fan power.  This year that resulted in Malta's song being replaced, whilst San Marino got a disco remix.

I'm delighted that Eurovision is picking up a new generation of young fans which will hopefully ensure the contest's popularity for many, many years to come.  I just wonder if all those from the fan community who fill social media with all that "YAAS SLAY QUEEN SLAY!!" nonsense (I guess I'm just too old for this game!) will stick around in years to come or will they move onto the next passing fad?  However, Eurovision is not a passing fad - it's for life. And it inspires insane levels of loyalty and devotion.

Social media, which has fuelled ESC fandom like nothing else, also breeds insane levels of intolerance, and the dark side of this came to the fore on two occasions this year; following the shock result in Poland, where fan fave (and potential ESC winner in their eyes) Margaret didn't win, the resulting furore and many of the comments afterwards made me feel quite ashamed to be part of the fan community.  Ditto Frans' win in Sweden.  Being a Eurovision fan is a privilege and it also brings responsibility.  We are not just fans, we are ambassadors for our often-criticised event. We need to stick together, and I'm saddened if the future of our fandom is going to be characterised by the "haters" turning against their fellow ESC fans, just because we like, or don't like, a song or a country it is representing.  Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and should be allowed to express it.

But I also want to highlight the positive side of social media.  I have many good friends on Twitter who share my love of ESC.  Whether they are tweeting from the host city or from home, they all bring the contest alive every year and have given it such a special dimension for me.

The problem with the songs

The best thing about following Eurovision, and all the national finals prior to it, is that it has always provided us with an opportunity to discover new music, new artists, and a welcome alternative to the increasingly tedious chart fodder of the 21st century.

The Eurovision Song Contest in recent years has become so risk-averse and safe, with very, very few exceptions to that rule.  My main criticism of 2016 national finals season was that so many songs were so generic, lacking any specific national characteristics, or were "inspired by..." other songs from the past year's Top 40 rather than trying to offer something original, quirky, alternative or what is increasingly becoming an endangered species at ESC - a catchy, melodic pop song which you can sing along with and remember after just one hearing.  That was once the criteria for an uptempo ESC contender.

This year's template appears to be the mid-tempo ballad - Sia's "Chandelier".  Now I have a big problem with this, because I really can't stand that song at all.  Even now, it still enjoys heavy rotation on radio, and where would a million talent shows be without it?

That song leaves me cold.  And so do all the songs in this year's competition which are inspired by it. A great ballad should give you chills, not leave you cold.

Bring back the pop!

Take a look at any top 40 chart in Europe.  Pop music these days has been redefined. You'll find the usual EDM, tropical house, r'n'b, rap, and all the same old generic mush masquerading as pop music. But pure pop music, in the way I define it, is missing.   Anything which is catchy, even "cheesy", with a memorable chorus you can sing along with, is described as "dated".  I've heard that description this year and in previous years about some ESC entries.  Well, give me "dated" any day. I previously complained that the "melodi" had gone out of the Melodifestivalen songs, well I guess the same could be said for ESC.  And before you ask, I'm not advocating the return of schlager but a few more good tunes would be nice.

Bring back the fun!

A couple of years ago, whilst watching ESC with me, my late mum was complaining about how the fun had gone out of the contest, and how it had become very serious.  At that point I became all indignant and went on about how the songs need to be more credible, how we couldn't go back to the boom-bang-a-ding-a-dong nonsense which many people in this country still associate the contest with. On the plus side, ESC is now free of all those silly/novelty songs; but a little bit of enjoyment in songs or performances wouldn't go amiss. There is a lot of pretentiousness in ESC now.  Last year's ballads, and this year's "Chandelier"-a-likes mean that the fun factor is at an all-time low  So whatever you think of him, give thanks for Serhat this year, and raise a smile when he sings that line which we all know as "I got to pee inside your mind..."

But joking aside, a bit of enjoyment wouldn't go amiss.  Yes, modern Eurovision is a very serious business, but apart from the ballads, a number of songs are clinically, cynically manufactured to win at all costs; they try too hard and lack any natural charm.  In previous years on this blog I have highlighted the importance of the need to "connect" with the viewers; something which is often missed out in the rush to technical excellence.  Get that connection right and the votes are guaranteed.

Let's get back to the songs.

Judging by the rehearsal clips I've seen so far, ESC 2016 is all visual gimmicks, and sadly lacking in substance.  Perhaps it's time to get back to basics, back to less-is-more, back to songs.  We need to reclaim ESC as the Eurovision Song Contest rather than the Euro-vision Song Contest.  Whilst maintaining a high level of visual entertainment, there just needs to be a better balance between both aspects.  In the meantime though, I have to swallow my grumpy old pride.  Despite all my moans and groans, the Eurovision Song Contest is still the world's greatest annual event and as long as I live, I will always be a fan.  And it will always be "my" contest, my obsession.  That will never change :)

Monday, May 02, 2016

Eurovision 2016 pre-rehearsal rankings

Just getting my rankings down here before the rehearsals start and then it will probably all change!

LATVIA
NETHERLANDS
RUSSIA
FRANCE
SERBIA
SWEDEN
BULGARIA
CYPRUS
GEORGIA
NORWAY
POLAND
ESTONIA
BELARUS
ITALY
DENMARK
ICELAND
AZERBAIJAN
UKRAINE
AUSTRIA
BELGIUM
FINLAND
SPAIN
UNITED KINGDOM
GERMANY
ISRAEL
SAN MARINO
SLOVENIA
LITHUANIA
BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA
IRELAND
MONTENEGRO
ALBANIA
AUSTRALIA
ARMENIA
FYR MACEDONIA
MALTA
HUNGARY
CZECH REPUBLIC
CROATIA
GREECE
SWITZERLAND
MOLDOVA

Notes from National Finals: Melodifestivalen - The Final 12.03.2016

Normally on Melodifestivalen final night I would be at home, laptop connected to the telly, but 2016 was different.  I was on a weekend break to London with faithful travelling companion, only managing to catch the first few songs on my tablet before we headed out to dinner.  I would catch up with the final later though.  Despite my disappointment at the standard of songs in Melfest this year, and the trend towards generic radio hits, I guess it must be said that most of the songs in the final deserved to be there.  But did the presenters?

During this year's heats Gina Dirawi had a different co-presenter every week, as a nod to the past (15 years of the current Melfest format); for the final, her co-presenter was bringing things right up to date.  William Spetz is one of those modern-day bloggers/YouTube celebrities; we have a lot of them over here too, but I can't say how good they are as I'm way out of that demographic.  Anyway, young Mr Spetz was just a little too plastic for me but he did ok I guess.

Thankfully no musical numbers to open the show - just a theatrical reading by Stina Ekblad - and a surprisingly short opening; only 10 minutes!  The postcards featured the various artists having a look round Friends Arena.  By the way, I really liked the backing music to the postcards this year.


1.  "Hall om mig hårt" - Panetoz
They have become a tighter and more professional outfit since their first appearance in Melodifestivalen, with snappy choreography adding to their usual goofy dancing around.  I know a lot of the fan community don't like Panetoz but they do bring a much-needed feelgood factor and they absolutely deserved their place in the final.


2. "My Heart Wants Me Dead" - Lisa Ajax.
Toilet rolls and too-short dress aside, this song had definitely grown on me since its heat and since that time it has booked a place in my annual top 50 chart.  Of course it has a great similarity to Zara Larsson, but that can only have been a good thing, such is young Ms Larsson's growing worldwide popularity.


3. "We Are Your Tomorrow" - David Lindgren.
Unfortunately the title of this calls to mind a cringeworthy charity song, and the best bit about it is him farting around with lasers in the first minute of the song.  No offence to David, he sings and dances well, but he never really presents a strong enough case to represent Sweden at Eurovision.


4. "Kizunguzungu" - SaRaha.
Petra Marklund lookalike Sara brought life and exuberance to this year's contest and 9th place in the final wasn't too bad for an unknown debutant.  And it had a key change, what more does a Melfest song need?  Kizunguzungu was infectious, and fun.


5.  "Human" - Oscar Zia.
Oscar co-wrote this with highly rated duo Smith and Thell.  He's a very attractive young man (I think my mum would have liked him) who came out prior to the contest and said that this was a very personal song for him.  He would go on to win the international jury vote (although not for the first time in Melfest, that was eventually overruled by the televote) and you can see why; the song's dramatic staging and sharp camera angles recalled a music video and seemed to capture the spirit of a modern-day song contest which is about more than just a song.


6. "Don't Worry" - Ace Wilder.
This is another song which fits the modern-day Eurovision template - if it's no longer about the song, but about the whole visual package, then this was definitely the finished article.  From the twirling light-boxes to the fabulous choreography of her backing dancers, every Swedish Eurovision box was ticked.  And what Ace lacks in vocal power she sure as hell makes up in charisma.

Lynda Woodruff time!  Mans Sell-Me-Love! Bjorn Bjorg! Josephine Born-in-a-Bush! Juicy Burger! Nubbe and Helan Gar! This is hope and this is glory!  Some fans may be a bit fed up with this sketch, but she is still one of the heroes of our time :)



7. "Constellation Prize" - Robin Bengtsson.
Like fellow finalist Lisa Ajax, Robin is yet another artist who got his big break on Swedish Idol. And once I got over my initial annoyance at the stupid song title and the similarity between this song and "Stole The Show", I actually began to really like this song a lot, and of all this year's finalists I would hope that he really gets a meaningful career out of this.  My favourite song of the night.  And on a completely shallow note, who could resist those piercing eyes...?


8. "Youniverse" - Molly Sandén.
My main gripe with this song is the stupid spelling of its title.  Otherwise Molly gave an excellent vocal performance - I still think and hope she will represent Sweden some day, but hopefully with something less overblown and contrived than this.  Although I have to say that the ending of the song is excellent, chills-down-the-spine stuff.


9. "Put Your Love On Me" - Boris René.
Boris is a kind of Bruno Mars/Olly Murs hybrid, with the commercial appeal of both artists, but also with the appealing underdog-vibe.  His day job is football, rather than singing, and anyone who sings "you got my heart in a litter box" (well it sounds like that anyway) just makes me smile.


10. "If I Were Sorry" - Frans.
This is introduced with a reminder of that awful Zlatan song.  But Frans is now 17 years old and this is his big break at an 'adult' pop career.  "If I Were Sorry" is the anti-"Heroes" with minimal staging and the corniest cockney accent since Lena - although he did actually live in England for a while so it's more authentic I guess - and it's everything which a Swedish Eurovision entry shouldn't be. Not a wind machine in sight.  It's a Eurovision song as sorry-not-sorry hashtag, and he's also tapping into the whole demographic of the Ed Sheerans and the Justin Biebers and the less-is-more acoustic trend. It's more Kedvesem than Euphoria/Undo/Heroes.  Do I like it?  Well...yes, in a way, because there is something natural and unforced about it; and in a year of national finals/selections dominated by Sia wannabes, this turns out to be a very welcome distraction.


11. "Save Me" - Wiktoria.
Where Frans was the lowest of the low-key, Wiktoria Johansson was just trying too hard, suffering from that over-singing disease which blights every talent show going.  "Save Me" managed to tap into the country-pop trend which had been popular over the last couple of years, but left me cold. I could see her back at Melodifestivalen again, if not next year then definitely the year after.


12.  "Bada Nakna" - Samir and Viktor.
In 2016, SVT finally got the message that we're fed up with all the Kempe songs every year as he only had one - yes, only ONE! - song in Melfest 2016.  It's this one.

Samir and Viktor are of course the perfect modern example of fame-over-talent and their vocal ability (or lack of it) seemed more exposed here than on "Groupie".  It wasn't the only thing being exposed though, as S and V targeted all kinds of demographics and took their tops off.  For some reason this reminds me of a song which a national football team would record for a tournament such as the Euros or the World Cup!?!

So, songs over, it was interval act time.  After Jonas Gardell's "schlagerskolan" it was time for last year's Melfest winner - who also went on to win Eurovision - and a reinvented version of "Heroes", slowed down and with children in place of the little balloon-men.  I'm guessing that we'll get something similar at Eurovision.

With Måns having done his thing, it was time for the international jury votes.  Well, where would we be without a bit of Klitos Klitou (!) and also the fabulous Maja Keuc who speaks brilliant Swedish!

By the end of the international jury vote, Oscar, Frans and Ace were top 3.  Whilst the televotes were being counted it was time for a medley of some of Melodifestivalen's greatest hits of the past 15 years, including Mendez, the Brandsta City Slackers, Timoteij, Mariette, Linus Svenning, Sarah Dawn Finer (who is looking great these days!), Magnus Carlsson, Caroline af Ugglas, Andreas Johnson, Nanne Grönvall, Anton Ewald, Kikki and Bettan, Charlotte Perrelli, After Dark.

Oh, and Martin Rolinski.  Still got it, never lost it :)


With our memories jogged it was time to go back to the present for the televoting results.  What immediately struck me was the closeness of the vote.  Frans won with only 68 points rather than the usual over 100 expected of a winner.  He's the youngest winner of Melodifestivalen since Carola - but only 14% of the Swedish public liked "If I Were Sorry" enough to vote it as a winner.  So why didn't the whole of Sweden get behind their entry?  Perhaps they saw the result as a foregone conclusion anyway?  I guess we'll never know.

It would be fair to say that "If I Were Sorry" has not been welcomed by a large section of the Eurovision fan community, who expect Sweden to send a different type of song, sung by a different type of singer.  But it is 2016, and love or hate it, Sweden has sent something very contemporary and I'm predicting a definite top 10 result.  And I'm not sorry, no.