ESC London 1960 — “Tom Pillibi”

Eurovision 1960

full show

Date: 29 March 1960
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
Winning country: France (2nd win)
Winning entry: Jacqueline Boyer, “Tom Pillibi”

Even by the quirky standards of Eurovision, “Tom Pillibi” is an oddball. It is emphatically a silly love song, yet not once is the word “love” mentioned in its lyrics; it is a French song, yet it carries none of the self-seriousness that characterises other French winners; and it is the first (though certainly not the last) Eurovision winner to turn the whole song on its head in its final seconds.

Now, “oddball” in 1960 doesn’t mean much: Jacqueline Boyer did not come out belly-dancing or wearing an outrageously tacky outfit. Nor was it the most astonishing song of the Contest that year: even in the dreadful balladry that suffused the first decade of the Contest, we find songs being sung in Luxembourgish and Northern Sami; we find deep, atmospheric songs that come across as more than a little creepy. Yet “Tom Pillibi” is the one that everyone remembers and likes — not just because it won, but also because it’s genuinely intriguing… in a way.

Let’s start with the subject matter. The funny thing about “Tom Pillibi” is that it doesn’t describe a feeling, nor does it describe a story. It’s describing a character, a guy who every woman wants and every man wants to be. That sets it apart from most of the songs we’ve seen up to now: it’s still about a love affair, yes, but it remains curiously detached from the narrator. So much of it is spoken from a third-person perspective; Boyer’s mention of how “I think I’m his girlfriend” is almost a postscript. It’s more character study than love song, more profile than ode to a significant other.

In this, Boyer had history: the previous year, her father had sung about “mon ami Pierrot” on behalf of the Monegasques, but that had been a horrible flop because Pierrot was a sad clown and nobody likes hearing about sad clowns. Tom Pillibi, on the other hand, is a much more intriguing character: he is a man who has two castles, “one in Scotland”, “one in Montenegro”. (What a weird combination of locations.) He’s filthy rich and apparently devilishly handsome — both the king’s daughter and the shepherdess want him. In short, the perfect man. The only downside, of course, is that he’s “such a liar” and “none of that exists”.

Ah yes, the big reveal — just how effective is it? You could argue that Boyer has been slowly undermining our understanding of her boyfriend throughout this song: the castles, the shepherdesses, the fabled ships that bring back “gold and coral, and the most beautiful jewels”, everything Boyer mentions has a quaint fairytale feel to it, and she delivers all this with a knowing look in her eyes. It’s easy to say that everything was right there for the audience — but let’s be honest, did you really see the big reveal coming? More importantly: once you realised that this song had a twist, were you tempted to go back and look for the warning signs? Did you even care that Tom Pillibi was a serial fantasist, or was it enough listening to Jacqueline Boyer sing about it once? Eurovision is a frivolous affair at the best of times; the genial detachment of this song means that the most this particular plot development will get out of the listener is a slight smile. Doubtlessly we are meant to perceive the depths of Boyer’s love because she loves him despite everything, but the question you ask after all that is more likely to be “well, what does she see in him, anyway?”

But I grow weary with my cynical takes, and its forgettability is the one big flaw in what is otherwise a pleasant and delightful ditty. There is much one can admire about the song, not only in its lyrics but also the singer: I mentioned Boyer’s delivery in the previous paragraph, but that undersells just how much her performance endears you to the song. Her performance deftly balances innocence and coyness; one moment she’s absolutely lovestruck, the next she’s playful and knowing. And yet none of it is done cynically: the besotted look with which she proclaims how lucky her boyfriend is a genuine look of love, not just something done for the sake of performativity; her sly looks when she declares that Tom Pillibi “has only one flaw, but it’s nothing serious” have the air of a secret shared between two close friends. It pulls out all the stops to be genuinely engaging — the payoff might be slightly tepid, but at least you believe in the build-up this time. It’s a far cry from Teddy Scholten’s attempt at levity: unlike that haphazard excuse of a song, things just feel a little more thought through. Everyone sounds like they’ve done their work.

That includes the writers, too. We’re still some years away from their Eurovision masterpiece, but Cour and Popp’s musical flair are already on show here: tinkling glockenspiels and swirling strings exist side by side. So they create this stereotypical fairytale romance, but from the start they’re already trying to break it: ramping up the keys at every turn of verse, it stretches the veneer of perfection that Tom Pillibi supposedly represents. When Jacqueline Boyer reaches the end of a verse, the orchestration drops, just a bit, so that you can hear her sigh dreamily “that blasted Tom Pillibi”. The illusion is being dismantled, gently, firmly; the tension ratchets up with every key change until the twist sends the whole edifice crashing down. (Trust the French to demonstrate aggression by weaponizing music.) After the laziness of the past couple of winners — and indeed, the stupor of every single French entry thus far — a song this chirpy is a pleasant surprise and a welcome relief, something that reminds us that France can turn out some pretty good stuff when it’s willing to experiment.

And here we circle back to the point I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Yes, the big reveal may have come off as a little unearned and underwhelming. But at least they tried, and that effort raises the bar, just a little, in demonstrating what a Eurovision song can do. The ESC is no stranger to unconventionality, and twisty character studies of pathetic characters weren’t new either. But “Tom Pillibi” captured the juries’ imagination in a way the earlier songs hadn’t: here was a song that didn’t let romance get in the way, a song that managed to raise your eyebrows at least once. Eurovision songs these days are of course designed to raise eyebrows (as well as the ire of many a conservative); but none of this was on show just yet, and as Chris West scathingly writes about this year, “watching Eurovision in 1960, one would have had no sense that the coming decade would end up being regarded as one of unparalleled radicalism in Europe”.

That assessment’s not quite right (as mentioned above, there’s a little more experimentation than you’d expect for 1960) but many of the songs definitely come across as stale, or trip over themselves trying to make their experiments work. The beauty of “Tom Pillibi”, fluff though it turned out to be, was that it remembered that its twist was much more than a gimmick. There was a performance to weave it into, an audience to reach and endear. Compared to the others, the 1960 French entry does seem a little subdued, and you kind of wish it could have done more, but there’s no denying that it alone remembers to combine intrigue and songcraft. The effortless way it does that means that it’s the one that broke through, the one that hinted at Eurovision’s slow turn (the very, very slow turn) towards innovation in the 60s. Even as the Contest as a whole continued to resist the trends happening outside the Continental bubble, there were people trying to shake it up, just a little — and the best example was that blasted “Tom Pillibi”.

Rating: 6/10

Best song

Another second place for the UK, with one of the ookiest songs this year. Having seen how much success his brother had had the previous year, Bryan Johnson decided that he, too, would like to give this Eurovision lark a go; the result was “Looking High, High, High”, which Chris West describes as sounding “like a scoutmaster trying to jolly along laggards on a cross-country hike”. Yet that doesn’t capture just how insipid and stuffy it is; he sings with the air of a man who thinks himself too good for this shit — why, why, why did they sink so low? Third place, on the other hand, is a little gem: Monaco’s “Ce soir-là” is a dark, intense piece that mopes about what happened “that night”. François Deguelt looks intensely pained as he struggles to describe the aftermath of a love affair, to the backing of a moody, mysterious beat and many an orchestral flourish. It could so easily tip into melodrama, yet he does it with the most vivid imagery and yearning looks, letting the emotions carry him along, and the result is never unbelievable.

That said, though, Monaco is a bright spot in a rather mediocre year. It’s not as bad as 1959, but as previously mentioned most of the countries either relied on their one gimmick too much or simply didn’t bother — a recipe for disaster when repeated across a dozen or so songs. Of the thirteen songs on offer, I found Denmark’s “Det var en yndig tid” to be a sweet and lovely trifle, sung with sincere conviction, evocative of an earlier, more innocent time. I confess to being an absolute sucker for those, so third place it was. And having won my heart the previous year, Germany very nearly made it two in a row with “Bonne nuit ma chérie”, the other dark and moody song of London 1960. It’s better at creating that mood, for sure: Wyn Hoop’s intense stares and soft croonings must have mesmerised many a viewer, and the song is easier to lose yourself in. But you know what? I prefer the exotic lyricism of Monaco this year: it twists and turns in its anguish, and Deguelt describes it so well that you can’t help but be drawn in. A consummate performer, and unquestionably the highlight of the year.

1stFrance, “Tom Pillibi”Monaco, “Ce soir-là
2ndUnited Kingdom, “Looking High, High, HighGermany, “Bonne nuit ma chérie
3rdMonaco, “Ce soir-là”Denmark, “Det var en yndig tid

Next time

A gay man goes to Eurovision, and makes it all “woke”. In 1961.

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