ESC Cannes 1961 — “Nous les amoureux”

Eurovision 1961

full show

Date: 18 March 1961
Venue: Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, Cannes
Winning country: Luxembourg (1st win)
Winning entry: Jean-Claude Pascal, “Nous les amoureux”

It took me a very long time to figure out the subtext. I was aware, of course, that “Nous les amoureux” was a song about a love affair, and a forbidden love affair at that. But the mentions of how “they would like to prevent us from being happy” or “nothing is more obvious than love” were so discreet, it never really occurred to me that this was a particular kind of love affair, one that meant real danger and scandal back in 1961, and it wasn’t until I had it literally pointed out to me by goddamn Wikipedia that I realised the song’s gay implications. In my defence, however, I had been sidetracked by the sound of Jean-Claude Pascal singing one of Eurovision’s most breathtaking winners.

We’re five pieces into this series now, and we’ve seen some pretty good songs. One or two of them even have replay value. But this is the first one that sounds like a stone-cold classic, and the difference from its predecessors is visible from the get-go: instead of the bright, lilting melodies that we got from Lys Assia or André Claveau, this is the first winner to be sung in a minor key, and a brash one at that: the orchestra screeching, the atmosphere ominous. It’s intense right from the very start, and it makes its mark as a dangerous song — and even when the song quietens down, a sense of menace continues to lurk in the background, waiting to pounce. That tension is, of course, nothing new: listen to any 50s contest and you find a glut of songs that clamour for your attention, trying to distinguish themselves with a veneer of tension. But very few of those got your blood pumping; the genuine urgency in “Nous les amoureux” comes straight out from a Hitchcockian thriller. It’s stressed, jumpy, always alert.

Some of that nervous energy obviously came from the subject matter: with half the continent still treating homosexuality as a prosecutable offence, Eurovision in 1961 was far from the over-the-top gayfest it now prides (heh) itself on being. The danger of airing out your forbidden love affair (even discreetly) bleeds out into the melody and the orchestral arrangements. It’s easy to reduce it into part of the aesthetic, that nervous energy as tense soundscape, but you can read the genuine anguish behind it — even when Pascal delivers most of it with a wry smile on his face, the frustration is bubbling away just beneath the surface, the feeling that only “hell is waiting for us” inescapable. There’s even a sense of resentment towards those who have it easy, those who could never understand the pain: “we will have to acquit ourselves, you who have never been condemned”. The LGBTQ experience not being a huge part of my life, I hesitate to say much about a perspective I know very little about — but even I can pick out the anger and the fear, woven into the fabric of this song.

But what struck me the first time I listened to “Nous les amoureux” — and which still strikes me most, so many years on — is just how it’s still a brilliantly calculated piece of art, how it manages to capitalise on that emotional intensity and transforms it into greatness. A lot of this is down to Pascal himself, whose vulnerability and longing is slowly but surely offset by triumphal self-righteousness. This is not done in a sudden burst of emotion, either: rather, he reveals his helplessness by degrees, delicately exploring one fear after another, allowing every emotion to percolate fully through our minds before moving on. With every move forward, the volume shifts upward just a bit and he gets more anguished — but even so, his performance is carefully modulated, quiet parts intruding and contrasting with the loud. In our modern era, where every song (and every Eurovision song) is a shameless display of uninhibited emotion, it feels astonishing, a breath of perfume stacked on top of fresh air.

This delicacy of craft isn’t just Pascal’s prerogative though: the orchestra, too, contributes so much to this song. I haven’t said much about the orchestra’s role in Eurovision: the only time we talked at length about it was to discuss how Teddy Scholten used it as a crutch for her undercooked excuse of a song. (Yes, I’m going to fume about it in every piece until something worse comes along.) In time, of course, it would become a symbol of obsolescence, of Eurovision’s struggle to keep up with the times; but in these early years the orchestra is essential: instead of having the singer do all the heavy lifting, they allow the melody to breathe and fill in the soundscape. “Nous les amoureux” is a prime example of that assisting role, as the orchestra dips in at just the right time — like the stuttering brass just after “we sleep on the knees of the good Lord”, or the loud hits that surround “condamnés”. The lyrics were already dramatic, but with that touch of musical help it sounds positively explosive. (As perhaps intended.)

All of this is, as ever, nothing new. Songs with life-or-death lyrics came a dime a dozen in the early years of Eurovision, and I’ve just said how the orchestra regularly played sideman to the artists onstage. But I think “Nous les amoureux” was the first instance where the juries decided to reward emotional impact over some disparate criteria of artistry. The songs before this have all been pretty lofty, yes, but sometimes that art failed to connect on an emotional level — think Jacqueline Boyer’s winner from the previous year, or way back to Lys Assia’s abstract painting of nostalgia. The closest a song had ever gotten to blending emotion and artistry had been “Volare”, and it had been so dangerously avant-garde that the juries gave it third place. Luxembourg’s first win heralded a shift in the way Eurovision songs were viewed. Now, emotional heft, the way a song moved you, mattered just as much as songcraft. It wasn’t all about sticking two fingers up at America and its vulgarity anymore. (An ironic conclusion, given what Pascal would return to the Contest with 20 years later.)

Nevertheless, it made its mark. This was the first winning entry that awed me when I was first looking into Eurovision history: buried in a montage of winners, it was no more than a 20-second snatch of music, but it was the first one that stood out. Here was a song that had stakes, one that seemed to care about its audience, enough to actually address them and tell them something. I didn’t know anything about its subtext, and I doubt that my opinion of it would have changed much had I known. No matter: its danger, its atmosphere suggested a whole different ballgame, one that would herald a whole bunch of exciting winners to come. As we shall see, that sentiment would prove to be somewhat misguided — but this one, at least, remains a tour de force after all these years.

Rating: 9/10

Best song

I’ll give you one guess as to who took second yet again. Yup, it was the UK, on an absolutely hot streak during this period. Unlike their last two entries, though, I feel a lot more comfortable with this: the Allisons’ “Are You Sure?” is a genuinely great pop song that recaptures the effortless magic of the Everly Brothers — sorely needed in an atmosphere still largely dominated by drab solo ballads. Third place went to the Swiss entry “Nous aurons demain”, which was a loose and gentle (if somewhat boilerplate) ballad that represents 60s Eurovision’s most basic instincts. Doubtlessly Franca di Rienzo sung well in Cannes, but so did everybody else in those days, and it makes for a solid if forgettable performance.

That’s what juries thought in 1961, but what about the Internet in 2022? From what I’ve seen, the online fandom has coalesced around two major picks, which also happen to be in my top three. One is the aforementioned “Are You Sure?”, the UK entry that bounces along chiding a lover for leaving — it’s over and done with in less than two minutes, but it’s never less than a bundle of joy and a delight to the ears. Those who prefer a more energetic song, however, have flocked instead to “Estando contigo”, a dramatic and very powerful song that uses Conchita Bautista’s pipes to their fullest extent and establishes debutant Spain as a force to be reckoned with. (One common theme we’ll see as we move along is debuting countries coming out firing on all cylinders.) And look, these are all wonderful… but I’ve been singing Luxembourg’s praises for so long, it feels odd to switch my allegiance now, and besides “Nous les amoureux” is just a stone-cold classic: defiant, elegant, hopeful, triumphant, its ability to awe persists — even in an era where such things no longer raise an eyebrow.

1stLuxembourg, “Nous les amoureux”Luxembourg, “Nous les amoureux”
2ndUnited Kingdom, “Are You Sure?”United Kingdom, “Are You Sure?”
3rdSwitzerland, “Nous aurons demainSpain, “Estando contigo

Next time

The French win Eurovision yet again. It is terrible, until you listen to the other songs.

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