The conversation: Eurovision, treat or travesty?
Bucks Fizz's Cheryl Baker never misses Eurovision, while rock writer Charles Shaar Murray thinks it's a showcase for European culture at its worst. Susanna Rustin lets them argue
Cheryl Baker and Charles Shaar Murray debate the merits of the Eurovision song contest. Photograph: Graeme Robertson
Tonight's 56th annual Eurovision song contest will see the kitsch and the glam of the European pop circuit collide. Susanna Rustin brings together rock writer Charles Shaar Murray, who thinks Eurovision brings out the worst in pop music, and Cheryl Baker, who won the contest 30 years ago with Bucks Fizz, who can't wait to tune in.
Charles Shaar Murray: I've regarded Eurovision as a bit of a joke since my teens. Our entries always seemed to be from the most banal end of showbiz – when Britain was making some of the most innovative pop music in the world.
Cheryl Baker: Don't let Sandie Shaw hear you say that.
CSM: I thought Puppet on a String [with which Shaw won Eurovision in 1967] was possibly the worst record she made.
CB: She was the reason I wanted to be in a band that did the Eurovision song contest. I thought she was great. I thought Eurovision was the equivalent to the Olympics. I thought if you can't win an Olympic gold, then this must be the next best thing.
CSM: What I didn't like about Eurovision is what I call the oom-pah quotient. Take 1968. Even by the standards of post-early-60s Cliff Richard, Congratulations was a terrible record. Even the singers I respected, as soon as they got into Eurovision, it was awful. I mean Lulu, when she was 15 she cut Shout, which was one of the greatest white R&B records in a decade with a lot of white R&B records, and suddenly she gets on Eurovision and it's Boom Bang-a-bleeding-Bang! It's like taste suddenly takes a nosedive, and even though European cultures are all different, when you put them together, suddenly you get down to a sub-nursery rhyme level that I would have felt embarrassed to listen to on Uncle Mac's Children's Favourites when I was nine.
CB: But the song won, so it might just be that you're too picky.
CSM: I was too picky even when I was nine.
CB: I understand that Eurovision isn't everyone's cup of tea. It's popular music and it's the oom-pah songs that usually get through. Not always, though. What did you think of Lordi when they won with Hard Rock Hallelujah?
CSM: The Scandinavian death metal band? I thought that was hilarious. Don't get me wrong, I don't look down on pop music. In the 60s I loved Dusty Springfield's records, the Bacharach and David stuff, Phil Spector, and it's worth remembering that all the great rock bands in the 60s – the Beatles, the Stones, the Who – were functioning as pop groups, putting out singles and appearing on Top of the Pops.
CB: If you fast-forward to now, Eurovision is an extravaganza – the lights, the special effects, the pyrotechnics. And the reason people remember our song from 1981 is not because Making Your Mind Up was a great song, but because we ripped our skirts off. In those days it was like, oh, something extraordinary's happened!
CSM: Don't worry, I don't want to ban it or anything. It's just that Eurovision's over there and I'm over here. It's an index of how tastes have been shaped.
CB: The X Factor took its cue from Eurovision, because it's a talent show, isn't it? But it's a European talent show, and it's not the song that wins, it's the whole package – what you look like, sound like, what the song's like. It went off the radar for a decade or more, and even when Katrina and the Waves won in 1997 [with Love Shine a Light] people didn't really care. They still think Bucks Fizz was the last British act to win. But it has come round again, I think for old times' sake. And for Blue to enter this year, an established band – their careers could be on the line.
CSM: In the 60s you had Lulu and Cliff Richard, who were already pop stars. It wasn't like, "Let's design this record and then find some talented unknowns to do it." There have been periods when the British entry was always a Top 10 hit.
CB: Every song that won used to be a hit record no matter where it was from. Bucks Fizz went to No 1 right across Europe and here I am now, 30 years on. That song, those three minutes of fame, gave me my career.
CSM: Do you still perform that song? Do you still do the skirt thing?
CB: Yeah, even though we're pushing 60. We're performing at GAY [a London nightclub] on Saturday night, and I guarantee you the place will erupt when the skirts come off.
CSM: I've been thinking about what it is about this oom-pah stuff, or its modern, glitzy equivalent, that I don't like, and I figure it's because most of the music I like is derived from an African-American tradition – soul, blues, rock, reggae. But the Americans ain't in it, the Latin Americans ain't in it, the Caribbeans ain't in it.
CB: In Eurovision? That's because it's Europe! Although there is Israel.
CSM: I have a problem with that. It's like they're saying, OK, we may be geographically in the Middle East, but culturally we're down with you white folks. Here's my Eurovision nightmare: this is what all popular music would have been like if the Nazis had won.
CB: Ha ha ha!
CSM: It's so goddamned white, it's so goddamned oom-pah. Think of the bass line of Puppet on a String.
CB: Oom-pah oom-pah oom-pah-pah, oom-pah oom-pah oom-pah-pah!
CSM: It all sounds like Bavarian marching bands.
CB: Well, that particular one does, but I Can from Blue this year is a really strong single. There are strong songs every year. I'm not an Abba fan, but Waterloo was a great pop song.
CSM: The artistic saving of Eurovision could be for countries to enter stuff that shows the influence from other parts of the world.
CB: If you go back to the beginning of Eurovision in the 1950s the contest was between I think a dozen countries, and it was all white. And I think you're right that it's progressed in that same vein.
CSM: If the French entry had an Algerian influence, or the British one had a bhangra or dubstep sound, I would love that. I very rarely make patriotic statements, but let's say we had co-leadership of planet pop with the Americans, yet here we are coming below Kazakhstan in Eurovision now. Why the disjuncture between the talent and the result?
CB: I hate the voting, but they changed the system last year and we still came last, so I'm not sure we've got that excuse anymore. But I do still love the competition, it's a joy. I never miss it.