Wednesday 19 December 2018

Disappearing without trace into Eurovision

Despite Celine Dion and Abba, few can survive the mysterious curse of the Eurovision, writes Declan McCormack SOMEWHERE in Raheny. Saturday, April

> Disappearing without trace into Eurovision

Despite Celine Dion and Abba, few can survive the mysterious curse of the Eurovision, writes Declan McCormack

SOMEWHERE in Raheny. Saturday, April 29, 3am

The Eurovision going-away party is in full swing in the palatial house-cum-private bar of Raymond Smith, the co-composer of this year's Irish entry. It's some send-off a melodic valediction for Eamonn Toal and the team that will represent Ireland in Stockholm on Saturday, May 13.

Toal himself is giving a virtuoso performance, singing pop classics like Whiter Shade of Pale on a cordless mike to the accompaniment on a grand piano of Brenda Burke, a former Eurosong competitor and master tinkler. Toal has a superb voice and is an excellent showman. ``I'll sing Millennium of Love before I get locked,'' he announces. He sings it faultlessly and with some vocal embellishments. It gets douze points and more from the freeloading audience, many of whom know the words.

It's a very different story on the infamous Eamonn Toal website where the song and the singer have been mercilessly slagged, pilloried and generally savaged as being ``corny'', ``crap'', ``cliché-ridden'' and dated in the Seventies''. The singer's mullet, too, has evoked vituperative ridicule. ``Get it off!'' is the message it sounds like something spewed by some gin-sodden floozies on a hen night in a strip club.

Saturday, April 29, 3.10am

I adjourn to a colossal creche which is connected to the Smith mansion and which is managed by Raymond's dead-on daughter, Rachel. Earlier, the creche had served as a dining-hall where a toque-wearing chef and assistant doled out wonderful comestibles. Gerry Simpson, co-writer with Raymond of Millennium of Love, was gigging up until an hour ago at a private party in the Green Isle. Glamour.

Gerry tells me about his brother Spider (Dermot) Simpson who was on the verge of megastardom back in 1987 when a terrible road-accident left him paralysed until his death in 1992: ``He spoke with his eyes.'' Tears are in Gerry's eyes as he speaks. Spider was four years younger, and they were very close. Gerry was the manager of Spider's band. ``He inspires everything I do,'' he says ``Everything'' includes running his own studio, Sidetrax, in Drogheda, and writing Millennium of Love.

And you suddenly realise that the ``corny'' sentiments in the song are sincere and from the heart. ``I write from the heart,'' says Gerry.

Raymond agrees. They wanted to write something meaningful. People may find the lyrics lamentably Pollyannaish, if not Samantha Janusish, but for Gerry and Raymond they are a call for a better world. ``If we change just one person,'' says Gerry, ``it'll be worthwhile.'' Yes, go on, make the call. Televote for Ireland.

But despite the evident sincerity, Gerry is by no means po-faced about the Eurovision. He can take the slagging, aware that if you enter you must be prepared for the 1,000 barbs that Eurovisionaries are heir to. He loves to tell the story about the distraught Irish mother who moaned about her sons, all of whom had disappeared without trace one went on the Missions, another joined the Foreign Legion, and the youngest won the Eurovision Song Contest.

Last year was a perfect example of this. The Mullans didn't win the Eurovision but they did win Eurosong with maximum votes and in Jerusalem last May they were convinced by everyone in the Irish delegation that they were shoo-ins to win. They came a very disappointing 17th with just 14 votes.

``It was a real downer,'' says Karyn (real name Karen) as she downs some bevvies in Maureen's bar at the back of the Olympia as, inside the theatre, Gene Pitney warbles about Tulsa to near-hysterical fans. Before his set, the two Mullan sisters had got a warm though not ecstatic reception for their support act, included their classy new song Independent Woman and a crowd-pleasing lively version of Proud Mary.

Meanwhile, up in Box Six, the girls' mother Patricia Mullan had looked down and prayed for her daughters. Patricia, despite having six children ranging from four to 22, plus a teaching job, looks remarkably well like a prettier, younger version of Pauline Collins. But she's nervous. It's tough in the box. It seems a long way from watching her talented daughters playing to 200 million people from the International Conference Centre in Jerusalem.

Bronagh, who has the kind of Medusa-like hair that evokes awe not criticism, agrees that being ``pumped up to believe we'd win'' made it harder to accept ignominious defeat. ``It took about three months to recover,'' she says. To recover as much from the high of participating as the low of getting so few votes.

Because, despite the poor result, they had a ball in Jerusalem, and were ``treated like royalty'' and befriended by the Israelis, who were ``lovely''. ``The Israelis liked us for being down-to-earth,'' says Karyn. They also no doubt fell for the sisters' eye-pleasing looks.

But they kept the best champagne for last. ``The best party we had was when we came home,'' laughs Karyn. ``Aer Lingus gave us six bottles of champagne. The party lasted for days we just got the house tidied up before our parents returned.'' Their parents, four other siblings and some supporters had stayed on in Jerusalem for an extra few days.

After the party-to-end-all-the-other-parties came the let-down. Astronaut syndrome. Back to earth. Still, they weren't slow to get their act together. ``New material, new image,'' says Bronagh, who writes their songs and who has lost three stone since last year. Both sisters look wonderful and are in great humour.

They did small gigs in pubs, and some biggish gigs too. They performed with George Martin at his concert in the NCH and appeared on a Dutch programme called Lattelu, a cross between TFIF and Eurotrash. And they worked on material for a forthcoming album.

``We live at home and keep the expenditure down to a minimum,'' says Karyn. It's very different from being VIPed in Jerusalem for that glorious week, but in truth the Mullans have avoided the path of least resistance and least originality chosen by manufactured pop bands and taken on the harder route writing their own material and developing their own style.

At times it looks amateurish they could do with some professional styling and choreography but they have a lot going for them, including Bronagh's compositions and harmonies and Karyn's uniquely soulful voice.

But for the moment, they're out there plugging and signing their single all over Northern Ireland not so much casualties of Eurovision as living proof that the struggle to succeed in the capricious world of pop is a long-term war not a one-night battle.

Saturday, April 29, 4.30pm

Eamonn Toal is walking into Studio 1 for a Winning Streak appearance. Standing nervously in the wings, waiting for their grande entrance, are the four contestants. Lotto boss Ray Bates looks like a bespectacled heron.

Eamonn wishes all the contestants the best of luck. It is a thoughtful gesture which becomes him. He'll need all the luck he can get when the televotes start coming in on Saturday, May 13, in Stockholm.

He gets a very warm reception from the audience a fair cross-section of middle Ireland when he's introduced by host Mike Murphy. And there's a very good reaction to the song. He's interviewed and comes across as polite and good-natured which he is. He takes what he calls ``his first opportunity to thank all who voted for Millennium of Love''.

``Nice gesture,'' says Ray Bates in the wings.

Eamonn is genuinely grateful to the public for giving him ``the biggest platform I've ever got''. He's enjoying the build-up to Stockholm immensely launching the single on the Late Late, and appearing on Sibin on TG4 with various Eurovision luminaries including Johnny Logan, Linda Martin, Niamh Kavanagh and Liam Reilly. ``Reilly was great,'' he observes. ``They all advised me to enjoy the week.'' There is a dire implication there that it's the only week in the sun you'll ever have, son, but Eamonn doesn't see it that way.

He comes from a big, musical, Castleblayney family. Five boys, three girls and a dad, Fat Sam, who was a drummer and vocalist in a band. Fat Sam died tragically on stage, drumming, when he was only 57. Though Eamonn lives now in Dunshaughlin, Co Meath, he is a ``stony grey soil'' of Monaghan man ``Mr Patrick K and all that.''

By trade he's a blacksmith. ``No horses or horseshoes that's done by farriers.'' He makes ornamental gates gateways to heaven.

He cheerfully tells me he's been slagged off by Zig and Zag as well as Bull Island. He can handle the knocks he once played soccer for Monaghan United.

As for the raging controversy about his unshorn locks the tresses that distress a nation he insists that ``middle-aged ladies love them'', and so does his pretty, London-born wife, Sandra. ``If Bono advises me to cut it I might consider it,'' he laughs. Bono and U2, and The Eagles are his musical heroes.

But Sandra is his real hero. They met when he was managing a Ladbroke's office in North London. The Eurovision was always important in the Toal family. Eamonn remembers Bucks Fizz: ``Who doesn't?'' The first record Sandra ever bought, in 1970 when she was six, was Dana's All Kinds of Everything. There's a relentless circularity about Eurovision.

``It's like a monster,'' says Gerry Simpson, the co-writer. A monster that devours its own.

``In the end you have to be good,'' says Eamonn. The punter will decide. On record sales and douze or nul points. In Eurovision, 24 lose and only one wins, and even he/she/it can't be guaranteed international success after that. Some succeed, like Abba and Celine Dion, but most don't

On Winning Streak everyone's a winner. Some more than others. Families wave banners. It's a bit like the flag-waving at Eurovision.

Mike Murphy did commentating duty for Ireland at Eurovision several times. As he walks down the corridor to his changing-room, he's removing his blue jacket.

``I did it after Abba in Stockholm ... can't remember much,'' he says amiably. ``Eamonn is a nice fella ... the song seems to have all the Eurovision ingredients: the studio reaction was good that's a good barometer.'' He strives manfully to remember who sang for Ireland in 1975 or the following years, but it escapes him. ``It's terrible,'' he laughs, ``it's all a blank and a blur.''

A bit like Eurovision for many participants. The Duskies' song said it all in 1982 Here Today, Gone Tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the Mullans are battling to succeed in Belfast and Eamonn Toal is hoping to make a favourable impression in Stockholm and launch an album afterwards. None of them wishes to have a mother who laments the children who did Eurovision and then disappeared without trace.

* Eamonn Toal, Millennium of Love, Crashed Records; The Mullans, Independent Woman, Sorelle Music. Both available in all record shops. Eurovision is on RTE1 at 8pm, Saturday, May 13.

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