Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Screw Beijing, 2008 is all about Belgrade

The Eurovision Song competition is like a musical based on the last two hundred years of European politics. War wounds and old grudges supposedly dissolved by treaties, unions and handshakes are still alive and well. The songs apologise for past mistakes, display Big Four arrogance or give a country the chance to put its best foot forward in a celebration of new found national identity. This is why Russia will never win, the UK will always suck, Germany will always be happy and fun loving, Eastern Europe will dominate the competition for the next decade and why Cyprus' 12 points will always go to Greece.

Eurovision has entertained me for about eight years now, and when Tim Clark attended the 2002 show in Tallinn, I’ve imagined sitting in some far off land watching the freak show unfold on stage in front of me. For an Australian, once you’re overseas, you are overseas. Jumping countries, oceans and time zones doesn’t matter to us, just as long as we don’t go back home in between. It’s not that we don’t like Australia, but the time and money involved in leaving means that once we go, we go properly. Even my tangent journey through Cuba, Mexico and the US couldn’t stop me going. Those travels had to be truncated and adjusted to fit around my bad pop music schedule. My own Eurovision experience began in March last year, on a boat bouncing around the choppy waves of the Japan Sea. While I nursed a good dose of embarrassment and a fresh gash to my forehead over some beers, my Finnish saviour/captor explained to me (in the Mika H√§kkinen voice all Finnish men seem to have), his country's entry to the 2006 competition: “We will win Eurovision this year. We have a Monster Rock entry. Lordi.” – His black clothing and long blond hair gave him the authority to speak on monster rock, but not Eurovision. I questioned a country’s logic behind entering a rock band with cookie monster vocals into a competition traditionally full of formulaic pop songs, but he was addiment. Finland would be victorious. Jump forward a couple of months to a dinner party in St Petersburg, where the hosts [a couple in their forties who frequent the Tuska (Finnish for severe pain) festival], were expressing their joy that a monster rock band, as ludicrous as they were, took home the prize. This as the first chace I had got to vew the performance, and from that moment, Finland’s genius was apparent. Then in August last year at the Sziget festival, I met Sofia, a Finnish newspaper and radio journalist. We were the sole representatives from our respective countries and after bonding over shots of Unicum and late night dancing, an invite to Helsinki was extended to me.

The day of the competition arrives and Sofia and I take the four Melbourne tram stops to the Hartwall Areena where the show is being held to collect my media pass. I was a little nervous, as the confirmation email I sent back acknowledging my accreditation hadn’t been replied to, and I feared that my trip to Finland may have been in vain. We enter the press centre, pass through the metal detectors and x-ray machines and head for the accreditation stand. I present my ID and the girl behind the counter types a few things into the computer. “Sorry. You’re not on the list.” Crestfallen, I explain the email conversation with the media rep where I had been granted a pass but hadn’t received confirmation and the girl asks me to wait while she speaks to her boss. She comes back and says that everything is cool. I sit, my photo is taken and my pass is printed out. This makes my day. Sofia expresses her disappointment that she had forgotten to apply for a pass and I ask her to wait while I collect my orientation pack.

The press area was a space where a family of jumbo jets would consider settling down in, raising a few Cessnas and maybe even digging a veggie patch. The huge space was dotted with little areas where people could just chill out and watch the competition or interview the stars, with various stalls and rooms devoted to the different elements of entertainment news making. Clusters of journalists had claimed their spots, swapping contact details in a display akin to an American Psycho business card exchange session. Finnish volunteers would dart between the groups, handing out little messages or running miscellaneous errands from one side of the room to the other. I collected my orientation pack (a black kannettava tietokone bag with colourful, Marimekko designed Eurovision graphics sprawled in one corner), and took a tour of the media area, soaking in the grand concept that I, after eight years of following it, was at Eurovision. I wanted to keep the tour quick, but my legs involuntarily walked me to a door marked “Canon professional photography services”. Within, I found two guys in full photographer regalia (think vests with pockets), one busily working away at a rather lusty looking camera, the other giving me a big smile welcoming me to his stall. I ask if they do sensor cleaning, expecting the usual “no, but we know a place in a far off land where you can get it done for €60 and it will take about a week” answer. What I got was: “Yes, free and we can have your camera back in 15 minutes. How does that work for you?” For the second time in the last 10 minutes my day is made. The guy behind the counter then starts showing me an unfamiliar, but impressive looking Canon camera. The €4,000 EOS-1D Mark III. Umm.. yeah.. wow. This tech is a serious piece of hard-core camera porn and I fondle it for a bit.

I leave the service booth to tell Sofia what’s going on, and almost bump into her as I walk out the door. It appears she had talked her way into getting a last minute press pass. Nice work. Her work gives her a totally legitimate reason for getting one, just totally forgot to apply when she was supposed to. We walk past one of the massive plasma screens where the previously dispersed crowd had gathered and we’re informed that the full dress rehearsal was about to commence. I pick up my camera and rejoin Sofia. The demon guy beckons the audience to walk through the vail of smoke and disappears. Cue awesome video. dramatic helicopter shots of arctic landscape; Exploding ice; monsters running about the place changing into wolves. The sort of images I would have loved on my quilt covers as a kid. Simply awesome. As the pre-packaged footage dissolved into the live performance from the nearby auditorium, soaring power cords and flames fly from the guitars while Mr Lordi stands at the end of the catwalk holding a fireworks spewing axe over his head. In his other hand, a microphone to scream the lyrics from Eurovision’s highest scoring song ever, “Hard Rock Hallelujah”. It was at this moment the weirdness of returning to Helsinki melted away and like a bed in a hotel with overzealous cleaning staff, my day was made for a forth time.

We then left, on the hunt for outfits for the evening. I had the plan to be the best dressed photographer there. Judging on the early look in at the competition; anything with a collar was going to suffice. I had suit tunnel vision and after flaking out on a perfect three piece in Tampere (€40 is a bit steep for a one time use suit), I was desperate. Sofia informed me that that day was €1 day at the national op-shop chain store UFF. At the most, I’d be dropping about €5 to look the shit for the evening. But as soon as we entered the first store, which was seething with people and looked as if it had come off second best with a mechanical ransacking machine, I knew landing something snazzy would be a challenge. There were no complete suits and my only options were mixed trouser jacket combinations that did not do my chances of best in show any good. Sofia managed to land a cute little red dress straight away, a world first for a male/female shopping team. Deciding not to waste time calling Guinness, we headed to the next UFF, passing a few groups of people sporting the distinctive yellow bag and found the same situation. No clothes and the results of an all conquering Ransack Machine. I was beginning to panic; with my suit pipe dream looking like it was coming to an abrupt end. We headed to the next and final store, and it looked worse than the others. Every rack empty, except for the occasional Makita hat and lonely shoe. I look at the attendant in despair and she points to a set of stairs leading to a big basement crawling with eager shoppers and chock full of racks of clothing. Pay dirt. After getting into a discussion with a Finnish rapper, I eventually went home with a speckled number and a stripy orange shirt with matching 70s tie. Sofia and I returned to her flat where we met up with her boyfriend and a couple of their mates. We drank Russian Champagne and tasty Romanian vodka, celebrating a day well done.

Unfinished champagne bottle in hand, we arrive at the venue an hour or so early and separate so that Sofia and Antti can grab their assigned seats. I enter the press zone and start mingling with the now much larger crowd of journos and media types. I meet Latvian, Spanish, Finnish, British, Ukrainian, Armenian, Serbian, Russian… you name it, I met it. The UK people were far too important to chat to me, the Finnish were out in force, the Czechs were swimming in beer and the Russians were easily the best dressed of the night. When it neared the time for me to leave and head over to the show, the Ukrainians corralled me into their corner of tables and plied me with some fairly nice vodka from their home country. I see the clock, freak and run out of the building. I run all the way to the venue, discovering half way that my new woollen suit was not really cutting out as something to exercise in. I make it to the door, where I am informed that no pro cameras are allowed in the venue. Bummer. I check the camera and find the way to my seat. I enter just as Lordi are walking out onto stage. There is a little confusion with the security guy, but I managed to get my seat as the pre-recorded operatic section finishes and Lordi thump into their song. I swear, this is just what Eurovision needed. An injection of twenty hours no sunlight crazy from a little Scandinavian place like Finland. Sparks fly and I smell the burnt sulphur of the on-stage fireworks. I get comfortable and enjoy the spectacle, feeling I have so far had a pretty cool day. I have arrived.

As entertaining as the rest of the show was, there really wasn’t anything that out did the stage presence of Lordi. The roar after Hanna (the Finnish act), was deafening. Watching the small factions within the crowd jump up and go mental for their respective countries was a cool sight. The performers all went through their numbers, the stage team use a fancy grid system displayed on the floor video screens to perform complicated stage changes and a carefully choreographed camera crew run about with steadi-cams and swing crane mounted cameras. All invisible to the audience at home, but really exciting from a production point of view. Once all the bands had done their thing, I headed back over to the press area for the count. Thankfully the Magary Medal like drag of this part of the show has been stream lined in the last few years, relegating the first 7 votes to a quick graphic, saving the drama of the 8, 10 and 12 points to the country’s reps. This usually goes without a hitch, but the Slovenian girl (who said she was the previous year's entrant), was coked to the eyeballs and got distracted by singing and looked as if she forgot to read out the results. I can just imagine Terry Wogan ripping her a new one with his commentary. Once the count was nearing the end, Ukraine and Serbia became the two clear leaders. When it became clear who had one, all cameras were pointed at the Serbian media contingent, making them the stars of the night. The BBC group, who were the rudest people there, walked off in disgust, thinking they were the deserving winners of the night. Righto. Please for the love of all things holy; there is so much good English music. Take this competition seriously and don’t come back until Bill Drummond (a suggestion bounced around between friends), is onboard. The Ukrainians were graceful second place getters, with the realisation that the novelty act for the evening had already been and gone last year and that there was a few more bottles of vodka left. Not able to attend the after party, the stories I’ve heard since make it sound like that was the spectacle of the evening. The lead guy from Swedish group The Ark, who had convinced himself that victory was theirs, complained about the competition being rigged, got drunk, lost some clothing and started swinging punches with a group of jubilant Serbians. I’ve since been told that at a gig back in 2000, the guy swung naked from the rafters of the venue, while slurring along to the music. How very rock and roll.

A great time had by all, and depending on where I am this time next year, I might see you in Belgrade.

By the way, my mum is really cool. She just went to the Hill Top Hoods playing with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. Nice one.



ElmoreGirl said...

Great commentary, Dan! I taped the Friday night Eurovision semi-final contest, on the night I went to see the Hilltop Hoods, and watched it Sunday afternoon. Then SBS broadcast the final on the Sunday night. I thought the lead singer of the Serbian performers looked like Ricky Wong of "We can be Heroes" but she had a brilliant voice. I actually liked the Andorran band and the Ukraine band, and thought the Netherlands lead singer looked like Halle Berry. I liked most of the songs but some were a bit ho-hum. There's a certain type of Eurovision song! (instantly recognisable as such). But others stand out and transcend that. I remember Sandie Shaw winning in 1968 with "Puppet on a string", [Lily Allen has just ripped off the beginning of that song!] and Dana in 1970 with "All kinds of everything", and of course Abba in [I think] 1974. Was it "Waterloo"? [no matter]... I haven't watched it for years and probably would not have this year, except for the fact that you were there! It was pretty spectacular... thanks for the insight into behind the scenes.

Eric(K) said...

Hey dan whats up? I didn't realise you read my blog, i have been following yours since budapest and so have a few of my friends, you have inspired quite a few among the masses. Budapest is its usual self, brilliant but yet there's also so much wromg with the place. the homeless have doubled in number because of the good weather, anyway i'm glad you enjoyed the video and ireland despite the weather

later skater