May 9, 1967
“Puppet on a String” by Sandie Shaw
#1 on the Record Retailer Singles Chart (UK), April 27 – May 17, 1967
The Eurovision Song Contest was founded in 1956 with the noble aim of uniting the world through song. This friendly competition (ideally, anyway) brings together musicians from countries across the continent and neighboring environs as if to say, regardless of language, ethnicity, or religion, we can all appreciate a ridiculous pop spectacle.
Like many such lofty goals, however, Eurovision’s was doomed to fail. Countries collude to select winners for political, rather than artistic purposes; controversy abounds; real-world rivalries intrude. Nowadays, Eurovision, with its cheesy songs and pandering performances, is perceived more as a joke than a tool for world peace.
The UK, like many competitors, has an ambivalent relationship with Eurovision. One of a handful of countries guaranteed a spot in the competition each year, it has nevertheless earned a reputation as a perpetual loser, thanks to poor showings in recent years.
Yet the UK has also won the contest five times since its inception, even if it took over a decade to notch its first win. Predictably for Eurovision, it was with something terrible. Less predictably, even the artist recognized its terribleness.
When Sandie Shaw agreed to present a song for Eurovision, her career was verging on the doldrums. Starting with 1964’s “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me,” she had four consecutive singles enter the Top 5 of the UK charts. By mid-1966, however, she was stuck in the lower reaches of the Top 40.
Her manager, Eve Taylor, persuaded Shaw that, in order to maintain her career, she needed to branch out from pop-rock sylph to a more mature entertainer the whole family could tolerate. Her first assignment: to perform five new songs on the light-entertainment program The Rolf Harris Show, with the audience voting on which one Shaw would bring to Eurovision.
Of the five, Shaw preferred the up-tempo, Bacharach-esque “Tell the Boys,” which would fit comfortably alongside her winsome take on the girl-group sound. The audience, on the other hand, elected the herky-jerky novelty “Puppet on a String.” “I hated the song from the first oompah to the final bang on the big bass drum,” Shaw would later say. “I was repelled by its sexist drivel and cuckoo-clock tune.”
The song, which pairs carnivalesque lyrics with a calliope-like arrangement, would have been tough for any singer to pull off. But Shaw was especially miscast. Hits like “Girl Don’t Come” and “Long Live Love” had established her as a purveyor of sophisticated pop made relatable by her untrained voice and slightly shy demeanor.
Arguably the coolest of her British, girl-pop peers, with enviable bone structure and a perfect bob, the choice to weight her down with a kitschy eardrum-buster seems especially egregious. The fact that it’s pitched slightly too low for her vocal range, forcing her to awkwardly strain and put odd emphasis on certain notes, only adds insult to injury.
“A lot of writers made the mistake of writing for Sandie Shaw, while we wrote a song for Europe,” co-writer Phil Coulter argued in the book 1000 UK Number One Hits. However poorly “Puppet on a String” fit into Shaw’s discography, however, it had the right blend of aggressive catchiness and lack of subtlety that Eurovision often rewards. Add in the fact that Shaw was wildly popular throughout the continent, thanks to multilingual recordings of her hits, and the UK was a shoo-in to win the competition for its first time. When the votes were tallied, “Puppet on a String” had more than twice the points of its runner-up — one of the widest margins in the contest’s history.
Add in the fact that Shaw was wildly popular throughout the continent, thanks to multilingual recordings of her hits, and the UK was a shoo-in to win the competition for its first time. When the votes were tallied, “Puppet on a String” had more than twice the points of its runner-up — one of the widest margins in the contest’s history.
“It was a horrible song…but it was really nice to win and represent Britain,” Shaw told The Telegraph in 2010. “I love winning, I’m incredibly competitive.”
“Puppet on a String” did give Shaw a career bump, at least. It topped the UK singles chart for three weeks, and did even better in Ireland, Germany, and Spain, the last in its iteration as “Marionetas En La Cuerda.” Although the singles she released in its wake did reasonably well, however, none of them approached the success of “Puppet on a String” or her early hits. Shaw only entered the Top 10 once more, with 1969’s “Monsieur Dupont,” before retiring as a pop singer in the early ’70s. (She’d mount a comeback in the late ’70s to less success.)
Shaw’s win inaugurated a brief era of British success at Eurovision. The UK tied for the win in 1969 (with Shaw’s peer Lulu at the mic), before winning outright again in 1976 and 1981. The glory didn’t last long, however: the UK’s next Eurovision win wasn’t until 1997, and it hasn’t won since.
For the country that’s arguably the most successful at exporting its pop music to the rest of the world, the world’s biggest pop music venue has proven a surprisingly poor showcase for its talents.
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