Toto Cutugno winner of Eurovision Song Contest 1990
Toto Cutugno winner of Eurovision Song Contest 1990

#EurovisionAgain 1990: Eurovision unites Europe

In May 1990 the Eurovision Song Contest took place in Zagreb just months before the war in Yugoslavia began. It was the first time the Contest moved 'behind the Iron Curtain' and it included several songs with lyrics that celebrated events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the newly forged European unity. Now #EurovisionAgain celebrates the 30 year anniversary of the show.

After Yugoslavia won the competition in 1989, revolutions in search of democracy broke out in Eastern and Central Europe. While tension was escalating in Yugoslavia itself, the Eurovision Song Contest went ahead anyway in Zagreb on the 5th of May 1990. Now that three decades have gone by, #EurovisionAgain pays tribute to the one-of-a-kind Eurovision Song Contest of 1990 by taking a look back on some of its biggest moments.

Eurovision Song Contest logo 1990EBU

Finally it's Yugoslavia!

Yugoslavia debuted in the 6th edition of the Eurovision Song Contest in 1961 in Cannes. However, it took the country 28 years to win the competition in Lausanne in 1989 with the song Rock Me performed by the band Riva, which originated from Zadar, in Croatia.

The song had been chosen to represent Yugoslavia in their national selection called Jugovizija. The programme was produced by JRT, the national public broadcasting system of the Socialist Federal Republic. This group was formed by all the sub-national public broadcasters in the Federation. Rock Me was one of the three songs entered that year by TV Zagreb, which we now know as HRT.

The choice of host city and main broadcaster came as no surprise. The Contest moved to Croatia’s capital of Zagreb and there was lots of excitement in the fact that it was the first time a Balkan country or a socialist state was hosting the Contest! In the meantime, Yugoslavia was undergoing a lot of changes and internal tensions within the Federation were escalating quickly. In fact, the first multi-party elections in Croatia took place on the 6th of May, exactly one day after the Eurovision Song Contest!

The event's motto was ‘music brings people together’ and in many ways it really did! Despite the ongoing friction, the Contest turned out to be a successful broadcast which managed to show a positive picture of Yugoslavia right before its breakup. It all started with a short film entitled Zagreb: City of Music, showcasing a beautiful place that was traditional yet modern and full of life and music. The film ended in the venue of the show, the Vatroslav Lisinski Concert Hall.


Two hosts and a mascot

Apart from an appearance in the brief instrumental excerpt played by the orchestra during the introduction of the show, the 1989 winners, Riva, were nowhere to be seen! This was particularly strange, not only because the band was Yugoslavia's first (and only) winner, but because it was also tradition for the previous years' winner to be extensively featured in the broadcast.

Helga Vlahović & Oliver Mlakar, the 1990 hostsHRT

The Contest was hosted by seasoned presenters Helga Vlahović and Oliver Mlakar, then 45 and 54 years old respectively. Despite both having presented the show Yugovizija on several occasions, the veterans got off to an awkward start.

They were highly criticised by the press for being 'too old'! However, during rehearsals they showcased their experience and were then favourably compared to their younger but less experienced stand-ins. In the end, their great professionalism earned them high praise by their critics.

For the first time in the history of the Contest, Helga and Oliver were also joined by a mascot named Eurocat the purple, animated cat! It introduced the postcard of each participating country alongside some kind of playful national stereotype of each country. For example, the Eurocat stood next to a column to introduce Greece, a Dutch windmill for The Netherlands and ran through geysers in Iceland just to name a few.

Eurocat in front of the Lisinski Hall in ZagrebHRT

The postcards themselves showed touristic videos commissioned to the participating national broadcasters as 1990 was the 'European Year Of Tourism'. Fitting this theme, the interval act consisted of another short film called Yugoslav Changes, which was not about the political turmoil the country was going through, but a touristic overview of the many different landscapes that Yugoslavia had to offer to its visitors.

The theme of the night

The Eurovision Song Contest in 1990 was unique in many ways. It built on from the modern approach of previous years and in retrospect, was a perfect picture of how television looked like in those days.

Its theme centred around the unification or coming together of people and was inspired by the very recent Fall of Communism and the Revolutions of 1989. Many of the songs were quite contemporary and featured lyrics that represented the time. The fact that the Contest was being held in Yugoslavia was perhaps an additional influence on the songs.

There were 22 entries in ‘Eurosong’90’ and many divided them into two groups: the songs with themes that dealt with freedom and/or unity and then 'all the other songs'.

A nasty start

Spain took the stage first with one of the 'other songs' called Bandido, a unique entry mixing pop, flamenco and house influences. It turned out to be a very interesting start to the Contest. The sister duo act called Azucar Moreno entered the stage only to leave moments later. Their music didn't seem to start at first and by the time it eventually did, they walked off stage with very puzzled expression on their faces!

As it turned out, the sound engineers in charge of playing the backing tape played it without any volume! When they realised their error and turned the volume up, the Spanish conductor Eduardo Leyva couldn’t cue the orchestra in time. The sisters, called Encarna and Toñi Salazar, realised that no one was in sync and so decided to go offstage. A nerve-wracking and long 40 seconds later, the duo re-entered the stage, the tape resumed again, and the orchestra joined - this time without any failures!

Although they did not have the best of starts, Azucar Moreno gave a strong and passionate performance and ultimately reached 5th place in the voting. This brought Spain back into the Top 5 after six years! Bandido also became a big hit, not only on home soil, but also around the world, including in host country Yugoslavia. Their participation in the competition cemented Azucar Moreno’s long and successful career in Spain and they still remain a popular favourite among many Eurovision fans to this day.

Unite unite Europe

With everything that was going on in Europe at the time, it was little wonder that a song celebrating European unity won the competition. Italy's entry Insieme: 1992 (Together: 1992) finished in first place and was a powerful anthem featuring the Italian canzone style with resonating lyrics such as “...this is an Italian song for you” sung in Italian and “unite unite Europe” sung in English.

It was written and beautifully performed by one of Italy’s top stars of the time, Toto Cutugno. He was was accompanied on stage by the vocal group Ashes and Blood, or as they were called back home in Slovenia 'Pepel in Kri', who also represented Yugoslavia in the Song Contest in 1975. The band added another dimension to the live performance and was something that didn’t go unnoticed by the international juries.

Toto Cutugno won for Italy in Zagreb in 1990CROPIX

The mention of the year 1992 in the title of the song refers to the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992 which is considered as the establishment of the European Union and the new stage in the process of European integration and the single market.

Insieme: 1992 was mainly a hit in central Europe and went on to become one of the Top 50 songs of 1990 according to the 'Eurochart Hot 100'. Whether it was intended to be a political statement or a celebration of unity, the song clearly moved the audience and gave Italy its second Eurovision trophy after Gigliola Cinquetti’s Non Ho L’età in 1964. Both Toto and Gigliola would go on to host the Eurovision Song Contest 1991 in Rome.

White and black

Surprisingly, one of the other entries made it even higher in the 'Eurochart Hot 100'. France’s White And Black Blues ended up as one of the Top 30 songs in Europe that year! Its lyrics also had a unifying message and were written by none other than the 'bad boy' of French pop music himself, Serge Gainsbourg. The powerful lyrics discussed racism and the need to overcome prejudices. The song and its message tied with Ireland in second place!

Serge had previously won Eurovision for Luxembourg back in 1965 as the songwriter of Poupée De Cire, Poupée De Son. Gaisbourg had previously been advised not to accept France Télévisions’ offer to write another song for the Contest but after meeting the multi-talented performer and French representative, Guadeloupean Joëlle Ursull, he not only accepted the job, but also produced the track and appeared in its promotional clip!

Joëlle was not only a singer but also a dancer, model and actress. She gave a lively performance of White And Black Blues which was met with great enthusiasm by several juries! The French jury amassed the highest number of “12 points” with a total of 6 in comparison to Italy’s 3! However, their act was somewhat ignored by 4 national juries, including that of Italy. In the end, Italy had 17 more points over France and Ireland.

Sweet 16

The United Kingdom jury failed to award any points to either France or Italy and were one of the pre-Contest favourites with Give A Little Love Back To The World. Their entry had an environmentally friendly hymn performed by Welsh newcomer, Emma (Booth), who was just 15 years-old and the youngest performer possible at the time.

The age rule had been established in time for the 1990 Eurovision Song Contest after the participation of a 12 year-old boy (Gili from Israel) and an 11 year-old girl (France’s Nathalie Pâque) raised the age question in the previous year. The new rules stated that "the performers must be at least 16 years old in the year they compete." Emma narrowly qualified having been born in 1974.

Emma and her backing singers in 1990BBC

Just like Italy, Emma was joined on stage by five strong backing vocalists who gave another strong live rendition that helped the UK reach 6th place.

The strong 5

So, Italy came in first place, France in second (with Ireland), Spain fifth and United Kingdom sixth. So, what happened to Germany? Although the Big 5 (or Big 4) rule was not introduced until 1999, these countries were still considered consistent participants in the competition. In the end, Germany ended up reaching 9th place and this meant that the 1990 event was the last year all of the Big 5 countries ended up in the Top 10.

For most of the Germany's participation in the Contest since 1956, it was simply referred to as Germany. The 1990 competition was the last time the country participated as West Germany (or FR Germany), before the German reunification later October 1990.

It's 1990 entry Frei Zu Leben (Free to Live) was another pre-Contest favourite and yet another ode to unity. With the German reunification in sight after the fall of the Berlin Wall, free movement and the need to celebrate it was clear. The song was penned by Eurovision veteran Ralph Siegel who aptly chose Yugoslav-born Daniel Kovać to perform the song in Zagreb alongside German-born Chris Kempers.

Daniel Kovać and Chris Kempers sang Free To LiveARD

From top to bottom

Ireland actually led for a big part of the voting before ending up in second place with France. Singer-Songwriter Liam Reilly performed his nostalgic ballad Somewhere In Europe on the piano. It told a beautiful love story set during a road trip around Europe and also featured many famous landmarks across the continent. Liam ended up returning to the Contest the year after as the songwriter of the Irish entry performed by one of his backing singers in Zagreb, Kim Jackson.

Many entries discussed the current affairs of the time, including Norway's Brandenburger Tor sung by by Ketil Stokkan and Austria's Keine Mauern Mehr (No More Walls) sung by Simone Stelzer. However, their songs achieved quite different results. Norway finished in equal last position with Finland while Austria finished in the top 10. Simone Stelzer actually got her ticket to Zagreb after the winner of the Austrian national final was disqualified!

Other participants sung about other topics, including Iceland who reached 4th place with Eitt Lag Enn (One More Song) and was the country's best result at the time! This came only one year after finishing last with 0 points in Lausanne! The 1990 song was a nordic uptempo 'eurosong' that was cheerful, easy going and very catchy. It was charmingly performed by Stjornin, a male and female duo made of Gretar and Sigga. Both were back in 1992 when they achieved another Top 10 ranking for Iceland. Sigga even made a third appearance as a soloist in 1994 but unfortunately it would take another 9 years for Iceland to improve on this result.

Tajči sporting a Marilyn look at EurovisionHRT

The host country of the Eurovision Song Contest 1990 hopped on the retro pop-rock songs trend which helped them to improve their results and ultimately win the competition in 1989. Rather than sending a song about freedom and unity, their entry Hajde Da Ludujemo (Let's Go Crazy) was a happy number performed by the Marilyn Monroe look-alike Tajči and took Yugoslavia all the way up to 7th place.

Cyprus went in a totally different direction and sent a song about love and the dangers of having a partner who talks too much! Milas Poli was heavily influenced by the sound of British producers Stock /Aitken / Waterman who were highly successful at the time. Rumour had it that the song was written and produced by the trio with the connection that S/A/W's first record production was the Cyprus entry in 1984 and the official composer was another British man, John Vickers.

We learned only some days ago that the singer from Cyprus, Anastazio, became one of the first people on the island to be infected with COVID-19 back in March. In July he was still in hospital with serious complications having spent 21 days in a coma during that time. While he was still recovering, Anastazio made his condition public in an attempt to raise awareness of the consequences of the virus. We wish Anastazio a full recovery.

The end

At the end of the voting, Toto Cutugno splashed water on his face and hair which caused his hair dye to run! He covered this up with the jacket he wore for the winning reprise. During that reprise Toto joined the audience and dedicated his victory to a hopefully united Europe in 1992.

Toto Cutugno joins the audience during the winning repriseCROPIX

The Eurovision Song Contest 1990 finished with the wish for a unified country but in the end it did the opposite. By 1992 the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia officially dissolved.

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