ESC London 1963 — “Dansevise”

Eurovision 1963

full show

Date: 23 March 1963
Venue: BBC Television Centre, London
Winning country: Denmark (1st win)
Winning entry: Grethe and Jørgen Ingmann, “Dansevise”

Just on the strength of the contestants alone, you could argue that Eurovision 1963 featured more talent in the ESC than there has been in any Contest before or since. Going down the list of names, you find Esther Ofarim, Nana Mouskouri, and none other than FRANÇOISE HARDY singing for Monaco. When the queen of Francophone pop music is singing in your dinky little song contest, you should realise you’ve hit the jackpot.

The EBU, however, did not rush to prostrate themselves before the writer of “Le temps d’amour”, “Tous les garçons et les filles”, and a thousand other songs that no doubt my French readers are bursting to fill me in on. In 1963, Hardy, along with Ofarim and Mouskouri and many others in that year’s Contest, were merely rising stars, almost unheard of outside their own country; by some minor miracle, all of these stars had converged at BBC Television Centre on the same night. But there was one artist in amongst their ranks who had already had his biggest hit, and who already knew how to move the hearts and minds of people around the world. Small wonder, then, that he and his wife were the ones who came out on top that night.

There is, of course, some distance between Jørgen’s cover of The Shadows’ “Apache” and “Dansevise”. The former was a solo joint, riding off the success of an already-established hit; the latter without Grethe Ingmann (or her husband, for that matter) is a logical implausibility. “Apache” was a starry-eyed desert romp with nothing but a couple of guitars; “Dansevise” is a lushly-orchestrated swirl through windswept hills and meadows. Most importantly, though: I really like “Apache”. But I absolutely ADORE “Dansevise”.

The reasons for this are myriad, and if I was to elucidate all of them in detail this piece would be another two months late. But I want to begin with something we haven’t seen much in Eurovision, and that’s subtlety. Now, asking for subtlety in the ESC would normally get you laughed out of the arena, but the truth is it’s not that rare: we saw a song like that win just last year, and I’ve argued before that “Refrain” was a sophisticated attempt to verbalise the intricacies of nostalgia and loss. But even then, none of them felt particularly convincing. There was always something laboured about them, a feeling that you were watching a performance that methodically went through a list of heartbreak tropes. Even when Isabelle Aubret let rip in the bridge of “Un premier amour” it seemed calculated, a brazen attempt to grab at your heartstrings. By contrast, nothing in “Dansevise” feels forced: “I dance, and dance, and stop, and sense only you… why ever did you run away?” ponders Grethe, seamlessly flowing from pleasure into loneliness — every emotion in this song is gained, every dramatic pause earned. Even if those turns are a little abrupt, it merely adds to the emotional charge of the Danish entry.

This emotional honesty means that “Dansevise” feels altogether different — for the first time since we started this series, we have a Eurovision winner that feels like a sign of the times, something that fits into the ongoing narrative of Western popular music. When we last talked about that subject, rock music had just reared up its head across America, and the Europeans had turned their nose up in disgust. We catch up to it on the cusp of revolutionary change: the Beatles had just released Please Please Me the previous day, and youngsters in the UK were going insane over these new, exciting sounds. Within the year, the takeover would be utter and complete; songwriters either had to learn new tricks, or find themselves hopelessly adrift.

Of course, no hint of the Fab Four was to be found anywhere near the BBC Studios on ESC night, but you can still feel a subtle shift across the 1963 selections: I mentioned Françoise Hardy and Nana Mouskouri at the beginning of this piece, and from the moment the music starts on their songs, you can already feel the fresh air blowing through, in the understated, intimate way they sing them; the presentation, too, is so much more professional and dynamic than the static performances we’ve seen thus far. (Even the French song feels somehow much less pretentious and emotional.) But this does not apply to the Ingmanns’ song — because “Dansevise”, despite its best efforts, is still just a melodramatic ballad, is still part of the old guard being left behind. Any pop-oriented flourishes that Jørgen Ingmann brought to the table were from 1960, not 1963; the very fact that this more “mature” song won over more youthful entries indicates a jury still looking wistfully at the past, rather than the future.

Again, we saw this nostalgia way back when we discussed “Refrain”, but the sadness of Grethe Ingmann is much more tangible and acute than the hazily-expressed platitudes of Lys Assia. That question — “why ever did you run away?” — looms ominously over the song, a question that perplexes in its refusal to be answered. That the previous relationship brought her joy is beyond doubt: witness Grethe’s blissful face as she sings of their dances, the breathless way she talks of “my beloved friend” in the bridge. But any attempt to reclaim it is met with the coldest of receptions: “come, let us dance, let us dance, let us laugh,” pleads Grethe, and the orchestra loudly, cruelly turns her down.

What is left, then, is the swirling despair of rejection and incomprehension that accompanies loss. (I haven’t talked much about the onstage presentation, but I’ll just make a quick note of how the whirling spirals onscreen beautifully frame Grethe and Jørgen, adding to their sadness.) That orchestral rejection happens a couple of times in “Dansevise”, and each time you hear nothing but Jørgen’s guitar in the aftermath, devastated, lonely, lost. Eventually, Grethe joins him, but she can only start the song back from the top — even if our narrator has learnt how to accurately articulate her emotions, it has not resulted in enlightenment. She never does find out why her beloved friend has run away (her last words in the song are, as they were two minutes before, “come back, beloved friend”) and her attempts to recapture those beautiful moments sound faintly pathetic: “come back, come back/ We can dance wherever you want to…” She’s so desperate, she’s conceding power — never once realising that the power was never hers to concede.

At this point, the parallels to real life should be becoming clear. They were unintentional, of course — the writers never intended “Dansevise” to act as an epitaph to a pre-Beatle Europe, just as audiences in March 1963 never felt the ground shifting beneath their feet when they listened to it either. But the incomprehension and dejection still feels tragic, particularly when you consider how much hope is in there. “A whisper in the hedge; they say that it is no longer night”, “life is beginning”, and so much else — this is not the affected, performative happiness of Teddy Scholten or André Claveau, but genuine appreciative bliss. That sincerity makes the contrast so much more heartbreaking: they had finally uncovered the key to joy, only to find that it had somehow slipped from their grasp and was now in the hands of a newer generation. Jørgen Ingmann (and his wife, for that matter) would never enjoy real fame outside the European continent ever again, while the young upstarts of London 1963 would go on to greater heights, finding both inspiration and success in the land that, only a few years ago, their forebears had oh-so-casually rejected.

Europe wouldn’t get the memo for a few more years, and we’ll get to grips with the fallout of that in the next couple of entries. However, the threnody had already been written, and the funeral was played out onscreen: first the orchestra, then the lyrics, then Grethe herself all fade away, till only Jørgen Ingmann remains — alone in the gloom of the studio, quietly and morosely plucking away at his guitar, mourning a beloved friend who, unbeknownst to him, had already left them behind forever. But what grace and beauty they processed that grief with.

Rating: 10/10

Best song

The 1963 Contest is, for all its starpower, only a modest step up from the nadir of the previous year; although there are no dreadful songs in the lineup, some of them (mostly in the first half) will still make you check your watch. The Swiss entry teeters on joining that club, with the rather by-the-books ballad “T’en vas pas”; luckily a bit of great acting from Esther Ofarim saves this from being an entirely dull affair and was surely behind it ultimately placing second. Behind it was the Italian entry “Uno per tutte”, where the nebbish Emilio Pericoli unabashedly proclaimed himself to be a wannabe Casanova (well, he is Italian) — the song may be amusingly silly, but he got third place for his country, so I guess the joke’s on us.

That said, there’s plenty of good stuff too: I’ve already alluded to Nana Mouskouri (Luxembourg), but there’s also Sweden, Yugoslavia, Spain… all refreshing in their understated tenderness and intimacy. However, it’s indisputably Françoise Hardy who leads the pack with “L’amour s’en va”: there’s just something quietly devastating about the Monegasque entry that hooks you to the screen, keeps you staring at her eyes — and yet she’s only my third place, because there were two members of the old guard who just did it so much better. Second place goes to the French entry — yes, I was surprised too! Alain Barrière did the impossible with “Elle était si jolie”, and delivered a song which just about gets right the regret from losing your love. It’s a finely-tuned work refreshingly devoid of the melodrama, and it’s one of the rare cases where France deserved better. But for me there’s only one true winner, and truth be told it was never going to be anything but Denmark, because “Dansevise” is such an expertly crafted masterpiece of love and loss — it is no exaggeration to say that it holds you, haunts you, and refuses to let you go. A classic if there ever was one.

1stDenmark, “Dansevise”Denmark, “Dansevise”
2ndSwitzerland, “T’en va pasFrance, “Elle était si jolie”
3rdItaly, “Uno per tutteMonaco, “L’amour s’en va”


“She’s not old enough?” Her song doesn’t show it.

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