What is rock? It’s impossible to define it as a simple genre of music as it is so broad that totally different sounding songs can be considered to be rock songs. Over the years we've also had winning songs with the word “rock” in the title, like 'Rock Me' or 'Rock’n’Roll Kids.' Today we are picking up our electric guitars and following the progression of rock music in the Eurovision Song Contest.
Let’s start at the very beginning. Rock and Roll originated in the United States in the early 1950s with roots in the previous decade in a style that drew heavily on country music and on African-American genres such as rhythm and blues. In the very first Eurovision Song Contest we find a good example of up-tempo 1950s rock’n’roll in one of the two German entries, So geht das jede Nacht performed by the Austrian Freddy Quinn. As every entry from the 1956 Eurovision Song Contest, besides the winner, its placement it’s unknown. Other 1950s entries such as Monaco and Germany in 1959 are more schlager influenced rock songs, all of them came far from finishing at the top.
A rocky relationship
Lots of subgenres emerged in the following decade. Not that we have many examples of it in the 1960s Eurovision entries, but over the years they’ve been represented in one way or another. Let’s take blues rock for example, characterised by the use of electric guitar and/or electric bass, piano or Hammond piano and drums. We find the best example of this in Austria’s 2015 entry, I’m Yours. Despite playing on home soil, The Makemakes finished at the bottom of the list scoring no points, proving again the difficult relation between rock and Eurovision.
Another subgenre from the sixties is folk rock, which mixes elements from folk and rock music. One of the main responsible acts for its popularity are The Beatles and while they never took part in the Eurovision Song Contest, another British-based band, The New Seekers, did. They represented the United Kingdom in Edinburgh in 1972 with a song that totally fits this genre, Beg Steal or Borrow. The song is also considered by some other ears as pop or country. It proved luckier than other rock entries, as it finished second, only behind Luxembourg’s French ballad, a much more successful genre in the competition. The similar-sounding Austrian entry that year, Falter im Wind, also fared well, placing 5th as performed by The Milestones.
Hitting the highs
Another example of rock subgenres includes country rock, and while we’ve had several country-flavoured entries in Eurovision, one in particular stands out for the use of a pedal steel guitar, a trademark of the country rock genre, and that is another runner-up in 2014. The Netherlands came close to winning with The Common Linnets and their bluegrass song Calm After The Storm, already a Eurovision Song Contest classic.
Over the years we have also had a number of oriental style songs, especially from countries in the east, like Georgia which entered the band The Shin whose song Three Minutes To Earth. The song had some national influences in the vocal arrangement but it was also mixed with pop, rock and, as they explained before the contest, it shares some rhythms with Indian music. The Shin also considered themselves as jazz rockers. Find out more about jazz in Eurovision here.
All of these subgenres contributed to the development of psychedelic rock, and for that style, let’s stay in Georgia. Two years after The Shin, they entered another band, the Young Georgian Lolitaz fronted by Nika Kocharov. Their entry was called Midnight Gold and it surprised many when it managed to reach the Final in 2016, but it was given the perfect psychedelic visual treatment by the crew in Stockholm.
Progressions over time
Building from this we arrive at progressive rock, and you’ll be wrong to think that we’re not going to find that subgenre in the Eurovision Song Contest. In 1974 there were several bands in the competition and one of them in particular entered a song in progressive rock style. The Korni group, representing Yugoslavia, came from Belgrade and even their looks matched the symphonic atmosphere of Generacija’42 (also known as Moja Generacija), which placed 12th in a field of 17. Despite the average result, they are considered one of the most influential bands in the history of rock music in Yugoslavia.
While we stay in 1974, you might have heard about the winning song that year, Waterloo. The song was considered as a rock entry when it entered Eurovision, though nowadays it’s labelled as pop-rock or even Europop. In any case, it was considered as “the rock revolution in Eurovision” when it won the contest for Sweden and went on to sell almost 6 million records, making it one of the best-selling songs of all time.
Glam rock has had representation in the Eurovision Song Contest thanks to Norwegian band Wig Wam. They entered the song In My Dreams at the 2005 Eurovision Song Contest in Kyiv and were one of the favourites to win, eventually finishing in 9th place. Only a sneak peak into Wig Wam’s performance in Kyiv will give you a better explanation of glam, where showmanship and visual style are highlighted.
The group seem to have opened the door to another nordic rock act, and now we’re going to talk about heavy metal rock. Lordi from Finland are a hard rock/heavy metal band whose genre has often been described as shock rock because of their highly theatrical live performances in which they wear monster masks and other horror elements. They performed what has become the most popular rock song in Eurovision history, Hard Rock Hallelujah. It was melodic metal song completed with a unique performance which could only win the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest in Athens. It’s still to date one of the Top 10 most watched clips in our YouTube channel. It broke many records: Finland’s first ever Top 5 in the competition, and their only one to date, the only hard rock song to have won the competition and it holds the Guinness World Record of Karaoke when approximately 80,000 people gathered in Helsinki to sing Hard Rock Hallelujah to celebrate Finland’s first Eurovision win!
Lordi’s victory opened many doors for rock in the Eurovision Song Contest as we have witnessed in the past 10 years. The first one to try to build on that success was of course Finland. In both 2007 and 2008 they sent hard rock songs to the contest but with less success. When they hosted in Helsinki their singer was Hanna Pakarinen who despite getting two sets of 12 points, finished in 17th place in the Grand Final with Leave Me Alone. In 2008 Finland sent metal band Teräsbetoni who managed to reach the Grand Final with Missä Miehet Ratsastaa. It hasn't all been good news though. Metal was also present in the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest with Max Jason Mai who brought the more hardcore sounds of rock with his song Don’t Close Your Eyes on behalf of Slovakia, which didn’t qualify for the Grand Final and is still to date Slovakia’s last entry in the competition. Their Czech neighbours had also sent a hard rock band in 2007, Kabat, however they placed last in the Semi-Final that year.
Another form of rock that developed from the 1970s was punk. And yes, there has also been punk at the Eurovision Song Contest in several forms. Most recently in 2015 by… Finland! They sent the most unique act in that style of music, Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät, which was formed in a workshop for adults with learning disabilities. One year before them the children’s music band from Iceland Pollapönk (pönk = punk) made their way to the Grand Final with their punk-injected No Prejudice, which managed to sneak in the singles charts of UK and Austria. Quite an achievement! …unlike the late punk entry from, you guessed it, Finland again in 1982. Nuku Pommin was a protest rock song against nuclear bombs that scored no points in the contest held in Harrogate.
Tough luck also for the pop punk entered by Andorra in 2007. Salvem El Món was sung in Catalan and English by the teen band Anonymous but the failed to get into the Grand Final in Helsinki, finishing 12th out of 28 semi-finalists.
More recently we have also seen alternative rock, disguised as grunge or 'Brit pop' with the main contributor being Turkey which has entered rock songs in 2008, 2010 and 2011. Special mention goes to their 2010 entry, We Could Be The Same by maNga, which was the runner-up to Germany in the Eurovision Song Contest in Oslo.
The new success of rock probably inspired other countries in 2011 to send their rock entries, like Denmark which contributed the pop rock band A Friend In London and the alternative rock hymn New Tomorrow, which gave them a Top 5 placing in Düsseldorf that year. The song charted in several countries the week after the contest.
Another rocky country to send a song in that style that year was Georgia with the Nu-metal band Eldrine, which changed their lead singer in time for the contest, a move that proved successful as One More Day found a place in the Top 10, with its mix of rap metal. Another entry that could be considered as rap rock is the entry from Montenegro in 2013, Igranka, performed by the hip-hop duo Who See in astronaut costumes, and the guest vocalist Nina Žižić. It faced some tough luck in its Semi-Final in Malmö as despite a strong result from the televoters it wasn’t appreciated as much by the juries and finished in 12th place that night.
Alternative rock also derived from alternative metal, which was represented as recently as this year in the Eurovision Song Contest as part of the home entry. The band O.Torvald formed in 2005 represented Ukraine on home soil with the song Time which finished in 24th place, Ukraine’s worst in the history of the competition. Other more pop inspired alternative rock entries fared better in Eurovision, like Something Better by the band Softengine from… Finland! In 2014 they went through the Grand Final finishing in 11th place, Finland’s best placing since Lordi, which was rewarded by the song charting in several European singles charts after the contest.
Other songs on the alternative side of rock that were performed at the contest recently but didn’t reach the Grand Final include Switzerland’s entry 2012, Unbreakable by Sinplus and Belarus’ entry in the same year, We Are The Heroes by Litesound whose mix is more electro.
In 2016 Montenegro entered the band Highway performed The Real Thing in the first Semi-Final. Emma’s La Mia Citta for Italy in 2014 which ranked 21st, one of the country’s worst placings in the history of the contest. We can also include in this category the entry from Cyprus last year, Alter Ego, by the band Minus One who, just like Emma, finished in 21st place in the Grand Final.
Slowing things down
What about slower types of rock? In Eurovision we’ve had soft rock from Switzerland in the shape of The Highest Heights, a Semi-Final entry by the band Lovebugs in 2009. There have also been lots of ballads with electric guitar arrangements over the years that don’t really fall in the rock category, but Armenia’s band Dorians got help from Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi when writing their 2013 entry Lonely Planet, managing to qualify for the Grand Final. In that same year Bonnie Tyler represented the UK with Believe In Me, written by Desmond Child.
Let’s finish with our own style, with a more Eurovision genre: ethnic rock. The Albanian act in 2013 was a duo formed by Adrian Lulgjuraj and Bledar Sejko who performed what can be considered as a mix of rock and Albanian folk music, Identitet. In 2012 Kaliopi represented FYR Macedonia and qualified for the Grand Final with Crno e Belo.
As is plain to see, rock at Eurovision is a broad genre. Which is your favourite rock style song?