ESC Lugano 1956 — “Refrain”

Eurovision 1956

full contest (audio only)

Date: 24 May 1956
Venue: Teatro Kursaal, Lugano
Winning country: Switzerland (1st win)
Winning entry: Lys Assia, “Refrain”

Pop music really took off in 1956. There had been revolutions in popular music before, but none of them shook the world quite as much as the rock and rollers did. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis, all of these people had burst onto the scene in the twelve months preceding May 1956, their howls and their pelvic shakes a clear assertion of youth and fervour. Yet none of that seemed to have any impact on the stage in Lugano, where Europe’s best song of the year was instead a placid ballad vaguely about growing up and losing your innocence.

(No footage of Assia’s entire 4.5-minute performance exists, but it’s close to the studio version.)

“Refrain” is such a grown-up song, in fact, that it’s hard to draw a line between this and the raucous, ecstatic offerings that we see on the Eurovision stage today. There are no screamed vocals, no pained rhymes, no clumsy attempts to seduce the audience. The loudest thing you can hear in those four-and-a-half minutes is the swell of the orchestra as it begins the song, a swell that dies down as soon as Lys Assia’s voice floats ethereally into the soundscape. Emphasis on “floats”: she never raises her voice above a soft croon, making sure it’s always sing-song and dreamy. And what of the things she sings of? Not torrid love affairs or naïve paeans to a blossoming one: no, in its very first line, “Refrain” spells out its target audience — it’s those who remember “the colour of the sky, the perfume of my twenties”. All past tense: anyone under the age of thirty is shut out of the song and left to enjoy more childish fare.

The message, then, is clear: we’ll have none of that ephemeral kiddie stuff in here. This contest is for real music, for those of us who actually have taste, who know how to savour every word and prefer subtlety instead of that noisy ruckus America seems to be crazy over. That smugness was part of the appeal of Eurovision: it may have been a contest for peace, yes, but it also prided on European exclusivity. After all, being a peacemaker means being the grown-up in the room, for while everyone surrenders themselves to chaos and cacophony, you can stand calmly above it all, pass judgment on the affairs of the day, and people will trust in whatever you have to say. Your authority remains intact.

Trouble is, that kind of solitude can so easily turn into self-satisfied aloofness: you spend so much time stuck in your own little world that you lose all sense of proportion and your thoughts just spiral, meandering without getting to the point. So it is with “Refrain”: throughout the song, we are treated to image after abstract image as Assia tries to unwind her feelings — the memories of “flowers on my window shutters”, rain dripping on her “roofs of ennui”. It’s styled as an address to a bygone paramour, yet so much of it feels like this soliloquy, delivered with no particular audience in mind. The result is an almost five-minute long tune that sorely tests your patience — especially considering its l-o-n-g intro and outros. At one point, just when you think the song is about to end, Assia doubles back and starts singing it from the top, and let me tell you the groan that escaped me at that moment was almost inhuman. (Wikipedia claims that the 1956 Contest prohibited songs from exceeding three-and-a-half minutes, so either “Refrain” was brazen enough to ignore the rules, or the article is lying. This is Wikipedia, so I’m guessing the latter.)

The impatience was shared: even as Switzerland and “Refrain” loudly touted Europe’s relevance and spoke fondly of their halcyon days, the truth was that everyone else was tired of listening to the grown-ups. Europe was indeed older and wiser after World War Two, but the world, ever in search of eternal youth, was leaving for other continents, other generations. The 32-year-old Assia is already a hermit, unwanted in this modern day and age: “alone and without the springtime/ I’m running in vain through the woods, the fields/ Say, do you remember our past loves?”. The only reply comes from the orchestra and a few tinkling piano notes — any human who might have listened moved out long ago. It was thanks to this that Eurovision was born: having to deal with its traumas of separation and growing up alone, it created its own strictly European bubble, where it could console itself on its own subtlety and refinement. The choice of “Refrain”, the song which most blatantly looked back on a lost past, then becomes obvious: here is a time when we were happy and innocent, when we were somebody. Perhaps we can regain this peace and quiet if we come together, and just sing to ourselves.

Given sixty-six years of hindsight, the final choice seems almost shockingly quaint — this overlong tune was the song that Europe thought could unite everyone in harmony? But if one approaches the song on its own grown-up, mature, wistful terms, then the pleasures of the (second) Swiss entry floats to the surface. There’s no denying that the song is about denial and nostalgia, but it’s an alluring picture of denial and nostalgia: a “garden full of sun”, “the path where you took my hand”, all scenes of pastoral simplicity that Assia describes with the lightest touch, her voice balancing nicely between warmth and melancholia as she talks about lost loves. I’ve spoken above about how the lyrics are abstract as to become infuriating, yet you can still locate that despondence in between the lines, a subtextual sadness that refuses to go away. Despite everything that’s befallen her in her twenties, she manages to remain classy.

In 1956, that touch of class was enough to win over the audience at the Teatro Kursaal: yes, almost everyone else was serving up near-identical chansons, but Assia’s sincere refinement seemed a cut above the rest, both innocent and grown-up enough that the jurors allowed the home entry to win the Contest (although allowing the Swiss panel to vote on behalf of the Luxembourgers must have helped a bit). The EBU were likewise pleased enough with the quality of Project Cultural Superiority to hold a second Contest the next year. Nowadays, though, we ask more than class out of our Eurovision winners: as I noted at the start of this piece, we expect them to be a lot louder and cheesier than this. But what “Refrain” has in common with subsequent winners lies in how it knows exactly what it’s been assigned to do. It does not promise a second Renaissance, nor does it have the ability to promise one — it’s far too aware that its best days are behind it. But it does realise that it has the power to seal off the world for a while, and (through self-delusion or otherwise) make everyone’s lives just that little bit happier. Just like the Eurovision Song Contest, then.

Rating: 5/10

Best song

I’ll start with the actual contenders for each year before moving onto my personal favourites. Secret voting for this year meant that only a winner was announced, but most people cite Germany’s “Im Wartesaal zum großen Glück” as the runner-up. Which simply baffles me: this wildly uneven song swings into so many moods, you’re never really certain who or what is on the receiving end of this Greater Happiness promised by Walter Andreas Schwarz. There is a rumour online, never corroborated but repeated in Chris West’s book, that Belgium’s Fud Leclerc came in third place, which if true would begin a long tradition where a vastly overrated Belgian ballad received accolades it didn’t deserve. (More on this thirty years in the future.)

Those looking for songs more suited to modern sensibilities should look at other countries. For instance, the Netherlands’ “De vogels van Holland” was the first ever song to be performed at Eurovision, and it’s a lovely novelty tune about the birds of different countries (but mostly Dutch ones), well sung and never irritating. Italy’s “Aprite le finestre”, a gorgeous ode to spring, did one better and had their own little twist on Edvard Grieg’s “Morning Mood” — trust the Italians to come up with a classic tune. But it’s Luxembourg’s “Ne pas croi” that won the day for me: Michèle Arnaud’s scolding of a young man for wasting his youth away is jumpy and delightful, and in a sea full of drowsy ballads this tune, short and sweet at just under two minutes, easily stood out from all the others. (It also gave us Eurovision’s first fakeout ending, which just goes to show you how playful it is.) Overlong, soporific tunes would be the norm for years to come; hats off to Luxembourg for seeing so early on the virtues in being different.

1stSwitzerland, “Refrain”Luxembourg, “Ne pas crois”
2ndGermany, “Im Wartesaal zum großen GlückItaly, “Aprite le finestre
3rdBelgium, “Messieurs les noyés de la SeineNetherlands, “De vogels van Holland

Next time

Gimmicks arrive at Eurovision, and the Danes kiss for longer than is necessary.

6 thoughts on “ESC Lugano 1956 — “Refrain”

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