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  • Writer's pictureDan Synge

Brighton Rocks

It’s April 1974 and Britain is on the verge of social and economic collapse. Still, there's some light entertainment on the telly and some funny looking Swedes...

The curtains are drawn in our south London home. Mum and dad have gone out leaving me alone with the babysitter, a retired post mistress from the village called Mrs Fitzgerald.

A glistening box of Terry’s All Gold awaits Mrs Fitzgerald’s attention on the antique side table. On the floor are some Twiglets in a bowl for me.

I’ve had my hot bath and changed into pyjamas and my red dressing gown ready for the long night ahead. This is, after all, the nineteenth edition of the Eurovision Song Contest, the competition launched in 1956 to promote peace and harmony through music and culture among the war-scarred European nations.

“Ladies and gentlemen, mesdames et messieurs…Katie Boyle!”

In front of the live studio audience at Brighton’s historic Dome stands our compere,

the undisputed queen of long evening gowns and faultless received pronunciation. Née Caterina Irene Elena Maria Imperiali dei Principi di Francavilla, Miss Boyle was the scion of Italian nobility and born in a palace in Tuscany. After modelling she became the face of the Camay soap commercials before settling down appear in several television panel games including What’s My Line and Juke Box Jury.

“This contest is being transmitted to more than 32 countries so something like 500 million people are watching at this very moment as well as the many millions who are listening to their radios all over Europe.”  

As Mrs Fitzgerald and I settle down for the show to begin, we can’t help but marvel at Miss Boyle’s shiny salmon pink number or the rows of smart middle-aged VIP’s sitting in the stalls.

“Doesn’t she look lovely!” beamed Mrs Fitzgerald helping herself to a Rum Truffle from the plain gold box. 

But before we get to hear any of what Katie calls the “specially composed entries”, we are treated to a short film about the host town. The south coast resort of Brighton, it turns out, is a last-minute replacement for little old Luxembourg who had to decline the opportunity to host for financial reasons. This was 1974 after all, a year in which practically the entire western world suffered an almighty recession in the wake of the global oil and economic crisis, driving up the price of crude oil by an unprecedented 300% in the process.

Here in Britain, the outgoing Conservative prime minister Edward Heath had brought in an emergency three day working week to counter the actions of striking unions and to help conserve our stock of coal, which in those days fuelled the nation’s electric power stations. Operating restrictions were also imposed on our three television channels which meant that, until just recently, broadcasts had to end by 10.30pm every night.

Lights out. Britain in early 1974

Consider also that for most households during this dark and uncertain period, queuing for basic items like bread became standard practice, while frequent electricity black outs meant candles became our main source of light on those long winter evenings.

On top of this, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had begun a deadly campaign to target the English mainland. Bombs had devastated parts of London in late-1973, but such incidents could not match the callousness of the attack on a coach that carried British servicemen and their families on the M62 in Yorkshire on the night of February 4th. Twelve were killed including a fusilier, his wife and their two young sons after a time bomb hidden in the vehicle’s luggage locker exploded.

However exciting the candles and the chaos might have seemed to us youngsters, for the grown-ups, early 1974 must have been a worrying time indeed.

And judging by the footage shown early on in this BBC presentation, it is abundantly clear that the seaside resort, first made fashionable by George IV in the early 1800’s while he was Prince Regent, was to quote the playwright Keith Waterhouse, “a town that always looks as if it is helping police with their inquiries”. 

There are glimpses of the famous Laines and a fancy-looking Regency building here and there, but the beach looks windswept and un-inviting, while the town’s famous pier is practically derelict, a draw only for a few small boys with their fishing rods.

Perfunctory signage at the Dome

Outside the event venue there appears to be some very perfunctory signage and visible through the newly sprung daffodils is a line of drab British made Austin and Morris saloon cars parked up in the driveway. Whatever glamourous international style razzmatazz is about to unfold inside this 18th century Mughal style palace, it has all been kept well under wraps. Now, according to a giant score board behind Miss Boyle, we are about to hear songs by Finland, Spain and Norway and then the United Kingdom. Our proud musical nation has already won the Grand Prix Eurovision de la Chanson Européenne twice. Dagenham girl Sandie Shaw won in 1967 with Puppet on A String while Lulu, the pint-sized Scottish songstress, repeated the feat two years later in a packed Teatro Real, Madrid with Boom Bang-a-Bang.

Our latest entry Long Live Love will be sung by the 26-year-old Olivia Newton-John, then a good five years away from being cast as high school sweetheart Sandy in Grease and several more before she was seen gyrating provocatively in a leotard for the video for Let’s Get Physical. Mrs Fitzgerald and I are unanimous in our support of the wholesome looking blonde, even though, it transpires, she has spent most of her life in Australia.

As a mere 10-year-old, however, I’m really looking forward to the appearance of children’s television stars The Wombles who have been booked for the segment of the broadcast when the international judges must tot up all the votes and the behind-the-scenes sound technicians start getting tetchy about those awkward live telephone link ups.

“Good evening, can you hear me Belgrade…?”

'They played golf and picked up litter'

The Wombles, it should be explained, were a rock band made up of five environmentally aware mammals who, in the original stories by Elisabeth Beresford, reside on Wimbledon Common in south-west London.

They played golf and picked up the litter that they found on their travels modelling behaviour that would become standard in these days of bottle banks and household waste recycling. A stop-motion animated version voiced by the late Bernard Cribbins appeared on our television sets shortly after the success of the book and Mike Batt, the ambitious young composer of its theme song, waived his £200 fee for the musical rights to all the programme’s characters. A move that was as smart as old Uncle Bulgaria as it turned out.

Donning a home-made Womble suit made by his mum, Batt and his presumably eco-conscious band mates, who included among their number the rock guitarists Chris Spedding and Robin Le Mesurier (son of Dad’s Army actor John and Hattie Jacques from the Carry On films), quickly amassed eight hit singles and four gold discs.

The Wombles: fiddle infused glam eco warriors

The debut single The Wombling Song (‘underground, overground, wombling free’) borrowed heavily from Penny Lane by The Beatles and stayed in the charts for 23 weeks while the fiddle infused glam stomp of Remember You’re A Womble outsold even The Sweet’s classic Teenage Rampage in 1974. But before the promised Womble interlude, Mrs Fitzgerald and I would sit patiently through an earnest lady pianist from Finland, some bouzouki playing from Greece and some tank-topped Israelis called Poogy, not forgetting the lovely Miss Newton-John who, in a long pale blue gown, gamely delivered a predictable sounding oom-pah style ditty which sounded suspiciously like the one performed years earlier by our own Sandie Shaw.

It was the eighth Eurovision act, however, which made us both edge a bit closer to the screen. “We’re looking at Sweden, a country full of mountains, lakes and forests…and of course it’s full of blonde Vikings,” began the David Vine voiceover in a pre-recorded segment designed, presumably, to showcase the personalities of these funny looking artists from various exotic European corners.

“These are the ABBA group,” continues Vine, “…Björn, Frida (sic), Anna (sic) just beside her with the long blonde hair and…Benny.”

Then suddenly, as it cut to the live broadcast in Brighton, we saw Sven-Olof Walldoff enter the orchestra pit to rousing cheers. “Oh, and it’s Napoleon!” exclaimed Vine, otherwise a Ski Sunday and Superstars presenter, remarking on the conductor’s distinctive bicorne hat and frock coat ensemble. One can only imagine the froideur of any French contingent watching. They may not have found the joke quite so amusing.

But with France’s entry having been withdrawn suddenly in respect of their recently deceased President Georges Pompidou, an international incident had been avoided.

Around about this juncture, I had almost certainly been thinking it might be time to leave Mrs Fitzgerald with her dark chocolate assortment and head to the comfort of my bed.

But by now the cameras had panned to the stage, where the as-yet-still-unknown band of Vikings were ready to go. Bearded Benny at the grand piano and Björn on the far side wearing silver boots and hunched Troll-like over a matching custom electric guitar shaped like a star.

The opening riff to the song kicked into life then the two female singers raced to front of the stage like mums in an egg and spoon race, a sparkling riot of hair, velvet and glitter before beginning their alternative history lesson.

It was a moment that would change the course of late-20th century popular music:

My, my – boom! – at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender…’

From my lowly position on the burgundy carpet next to Mrs Fitzgerald’s armchair, my immediate impression was that for a pop group they all looked a little on the mature side and indeed not far off the age of my own parents, who were close to forty then. The two women in the group seemed staggeringly beautiful and had notably good hair and teeth – not always a given for entertainers in the 1970’s.

'A moment that would change the course of late-20th century popular music'

However, it was impossible not to be swept along by the catchy saxophone-driven beat and the irresistible chorus with its – to my ears – nonsensical refrain ‘Waterloo, how would you feel if you won the war?' The official lyrics turned out to be: ‘Waterloo, I was defeated, you won the war’

But whatever was being lost in translation, this ten-year-old child and his retired

postmistress chum were now rooting firmly for the Swedes.

And from here on, the subsequent procession of dreary piano ballads, neo-folk posturing and pathetic attempts to catch the latest prog rock wave seemed utterly meaningless.

Of course, Sweden ran way with La Grand Prix that night with a whopping 24 points.

Even the ice cool polyglot Miss Boyle dropped the sang froid to call the Swedes back on stage for a final rendition of the song.

“They say they’re shocked at having won, I don’t believe it for a minute,” added the plummy BBC Director-General standing next to her.

“Oh, and it’s Napoleon!” ABBA win La Grand Prix

ABBA’s closing performance was an altogether different beast to their more controlled version earlier on in the show. Firstly, Frida very nearly garrotted herself with a stray microphone lead as she attempted to climb through the tiny hatch that opened to the illuminated concert stage.

There were barely restrained tears of joy on Agnetha’s face as she swung her velvety blue hips to this instant pop masterpiece and we, cheering along at home, witnessed the first of a few soon-to-be trademark faceoffs between the girls.

As the polite English applause rang out yet again, the newly crowned blonde bombshell Agnetha planted an affectionate kiss on husband Björn’s cheek. Oh boy, what a night!

With the tune still ringing in my ears I said goodnight to Mrs Fitzgerald then crept upstairs to my bedroom and tried to close my eyes.

At last, there was another group as good as The Beatles. And as if to prove my allegiance to this new Scandi pop sensation, the very next day I began to draw and colour in a poster-sized homage to the group detailing both their incredible silver platform boots and Benny’s unfeasibly-shaped guitar.

Before a critical re-evaluation of their back catalogue in the mid-1990’s, ABBA with their colour co-ordinated jump suits and cheesy Euro disco melodies would become the epitome of uncool. If you were into real rock music, you just wouldn’t go there.

But for now, nothing would stop these Scandi ‘souper troupers’ from their victorious march into pop legend.

Extract from You Really Got A Hold On Me, a music memoir out soon

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