Wolfgang Käfer

Born: October 31st, 1939, Český Krumlov = Krumau (German-occupied Sudetenland, nowadays: Czechia)
Died: October 3rd, 2022, Hillerød (Denmark)
Nationality: German (1939-1945, 1972-2022) / Czechoslovak (1945-1972)

Eurovision record
Wolfgang Käfer took part in the Eurovision Song Contest as a conductor on one occasion, in 1985, when he led the orchestra for Denmark’s entry ‘Sku’ du spørg’ fra no’en’, performed by Hot Eyes (Kirsten & Søren); in the international final in Gothenburg, this Danish entry finished eleventh. Though only appearing on the Eurovision stage on one occasion, Käfer was involved as an arranger in three more Danish festival entries between 1982 and 1990.

Biography
Wolfgang Käfer was born in Český Krumlov in 1939, one year after the town had been forcibly transferred, as part of the Sudetenland, from Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s Reich. Typical of the demographics of the area at that time, he was born of a mixed marriage of a German father and a Czech mother. “Germans and Czechs lived side by side in Český Krumlov,” Käfer explains. “It was not until the war that good mutual relations were destroyed. My dad, who was a schoolteacher and a man without strong political convictions, was forced into the German army when Hitler invaded Poland. After five years, he escaped and spent the last months of the war in hiding with friends in Czechoslovakia. I didn’t get to know him until I was six – in the meantime, I was brought up by mother and my mother’s mother, who lived with us. Though as a child I mostly spoke German, I understood the Czech language well.”

“At the end of the war, when Český Krumlov was returned to Czechoslovakia, I was one of the few children in kindergarten able to understand Czech – and our new teacher, a woman who was Czech, didn’t understand any German, so I volunteered to act as her interpreter. Most Germans were driven out of Czechoslovakia shortly after the war was over, but as we were a mixed family, we were given a choice. Father, who was heavily traumatised due to what he had had to go through as a soldier, would have preferred to leave, but, to my mom, Český Krumlov was everything. Out of love for her, he resolved to stay. He made a huge sacrifice, because, being a German, he was heavily discriminated against in post-war Czechoslovakia. We were spat on in the street for speaking German. He wasn’t allowed to take up his old profession, which would have been hard for him anyway as he hardly spoke any Czech. Instead, the communists put him to work in a chemical factory, a paper mill. Circumstances were awful. On average, people working in this mill were transferred after one year, but my father was made to work there for eight full years – and in the end, he contracted a lung disease and died. That was when I was fourteen.”

“Though he hardly ever spoke about music, my dad, musically speaking, was a very gifted man. I didn’t find out about that until I had been taking piano lessons for several years… I had started studying the piano when I was seven years old. The music school was right around the corner from where we lived. My parents didn’t own a piano, but, thanks to my piano teacher, I was allowed to practise in the music school, using one of the pianos there after the last evening lessons were over. On one of these evenings, my father joined me. There, in that empty music school, he grabbed a violin… and it turned out he could play it really wonderfully! Then, he picked up a guitar – and, once again, I was astonished to find that the instrument held few secrets for him. I never managed to find out who had taught him all of that. At any rate, he passed the musical gene onto me, because I really loved my piano lessons… and music in general. Every Sunday afternoon, I was glued to the radio listening to a children’s play which was accompanied by the most wonderful music I’d ever heard. Later, I found out these were compositions by Debussy, Ravel, and other classical composers. I remember thinking to myself that, when I was a grownup, I wanted to write that kind of music too.”

“Music really meant the world to me for practically as long as I can remember. My piano teacher felt I had the talent to go to conservatory, but my parents frowned upon the idea. My mother thought all musicians were alcoholics… As I didn’t do badly at regular school, I was sent to a technical secondary school in České Budějovice. After obtaining my diploma there, the communists barred me, the son of a German father, from continuing my studies at university. Shortly after the obligatory two years of serving the Czechoslovak army, I took up working as an electrician in Prague. After two years in Prague, I went back the southern part of Bohemia where I’d grown up. I became the electrical floor manager in the same paper mill where my father had been working, but I was thrown out after a short while. To keep the job, I would have had to join the Communist Party. I refused categorically – I didn’t want to be part of the political system which had killed my father. Thereupon, I joined a small company in České Budějovice which installed antennas. There wasn’t much of a choice in that… it was the only job I could get.”

Wolfgang Käfer’s trio performing in České Budějovice (1964)

“In the 1960s, beside my regular job in České Budějovice, I played the piano in cafés and restaurants. Of course, this happened in the evenings and during weekends – some three to four times per week. I joined an amateur big band. Later, I formed groups of my own, a trio and a quartet. In those years, I became very interested in jazz music. In my free time, I loved listening to the Radio Dance Orchestra from Prague. The band leader, Karel Krautgartner had his own radio show. We were also very fond of contemporary American bebop. Friends of mine somehow managed to lay their hands on a music magazine from the United States, ‘Downbeat’. Thanks to their connections in America, they were even sent LP records by John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and John Evans – now, that was quite something different… At first, I couldn’t understand how such music could even exist!”

“In 1967, Krautgartner’s pianist came to České Budějovice to be the judge in a competition for jazz pianists in which I took part as well – and he picked me as the winner. Now, at this event, a West German jazz band had been invited for a guest performance. The musicians were in awe of my style of playing and invited me to take part in a jam session; and after that, they invited me to come with them to West Germany. I was given permission to leave Czechoslovakia for three weeks, and during that period I played with these guys, who were semi-pros, in concerts in Bonn and Cologne. The musician who offered me accommodation in his house gave me a gramophone player as a present – and all the money I made with the band was spent on jazz records by Claus Ogerman and many others… yes, I really was having the time of my life!”

“Shortly after coming back to České Budějovice, I was given the opportunity to work as a sound engineer at a local theatre which specialised in performances for children. Quite soon, I was asked if I could write the music to one of the plays due to be performed there. I had always dreamt of writing music, so I put in all the energy I could. The score was pre-recorded in a radio studio with a small group of musicians… a string quartet, a flautist, and an oboist. Previously, I had done some arranging for the small bands I had been in, but this was something different. I bought several books about orchestral arranging, voraciously working my way through them. Then, I simply started writing the arrangements. The director was pleased with the result – and I was given several more plays to write music to subsequently.”

“Early in 1968, a five-piece entertainment band from Prague came down to České Budějovice to play in a local café. For some of their performances, I replaced their pianist, who was a good musician but a heavy drinker. At some point, they were due to go on a tour in West Germany – and the kapellmeister, maestro Salzmann, who wanted to get rid of the other pianist, asked me to come with them instead of him. We spent the first month in a club in Heilbronn, but the tour lasted for a full year which took us across West Germany with even a brief interlude in Norway. When the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring, I was abroad, but even so, I returned to my country. For some time, I continued to work with Salzmann in Prague, but, unfortunately, he fell ill and the group disbanded.”

Wolfgang Käfer’s quintet in České Budějovice with singer Arana Klimentová; Käfer himself can be detected on the far right, wearing a suitcase (1966)

“Having worked as a professional musician for over a year, I didn’t want to go back to having a daytime job – and that’s why I took the decision to form a dance band of my own: the Prague 69 Quintet. As I wanted to go abroad again, I rang an agent from Austria, who booked us for performances in upmarket restaurants and clubs. Later on, we also worked in Germany. Even after Dubček had been deposed, Czechoslovak authorities gave permission for people to work in the West, as long as thirty percent of the revenues were paid to the state upon return. For our performances, I re-arranged material by Burt Bacharach and Sergio Mendes, which we alternated with contemporary German chart successes. We made some 2,500 Deutschmark per month, which enabled me and all four other band members to buy a car. We enjoyed the work we were doing, while it earned us a good living at the same time.”

“In 1971, when we had been abroad for some two years, we were playing in Lübeck, in Northern Germany. One evening, I was approached by an agent from Denmark, who asked me if we were interested to come to Copenhagen. Well, of course we were! At the start of the summer season and towards the end of it, we played at a fantastic hotel, the Sheraton, with mostly American audiences, people who appreciated good music. In between, we played in a smaller café in downtown Copenhagen and at a venue in the north of Denmark. While we were at the Sheraton, I met this girl, an architecture student who worked at the hotel during the summer months. Now, some years before, my first marriage had broken up, as I had fallen in love head over heels with this Danish girl, I decided to stay in Copenhagen when our engagement at the Sheraton ended. My fellow-musicians went back to Czechoslovakia, but I didn’t – which meant I had to stay away for good, as I would have been arrested by the communists for staying abroad illegally. Soon after, my girlfriend and I got married. She continued her studies, but I had to find myself a job urgently. Of course, nobody in the Danish music business knew my name, so I had to start at the bottom all over, working for a small candle manufacturer while playing the piano in bars and hotels in the evening hours. I also spent some months away from Denmark, in Zurich and Munich, performing with various music bands. These were not the best of times for me, because the ensembles I played in were pretty awful.”

“Because I couldn’t cope, I decided I had to come back to Denmark to think of something else. My dream had always been to write and arrange music, so I went to various record companies, explaining that I was an aspiring arranger looking for work. One of the executives I spoke to was Helmer Olesen – and like all the others, he promised to call me back, but never did. It was extremely frustrating. I didn’t want to go on playing piano bars until 1AM for the rest of my life. At some point, I got in touch again with the drummer of the little orchestra in Munich I had been playing in the previous year. He was a guy I had gotten on well with. We soon found out we both had the ambition to write music. Each of us had composed three pop songs we were rather satisfied with. That gave him the idea to lend me 4,000 Deutschmark, commissioning me to record his songs as well as my own with Copenhagen musicians. Having written the arrangements to all six tunes, I hired a studio and a full session orchestra with strings and brass as well as an excellent Yugoslavian vocalist to record the material.”

“Of course, my goal was to sell the material to a record company, but, though I knocked on many doors, producers remained unimpressed. At one company, Sonet, after having been shown the way out by yet another producer, I bumped into one of the executives, a certain Mr Bach. He ushered me into his office. It turned out he had heard my arrangements – and he thought they were really great. He asked me to work as an arranger on some of his projects. Moreover, the session musicians I had worked with for those six songs were in awe of the quality of the orchestrations I had done. They told others about this young arranger from Czechoslovakia who had come to Denmark… which slowly but steadily resulted in new commissions from other producers and companies starting to come my way. The music business in Denmark was small and, speaking honestly, the level was rather low. I found myself being a big fish in a small pond in Copenhagen. I don’t think I could have carved out a similar position for myself in Czechoslovakia. The six songs which I recorded with the guy from Yugoslavia were never released, but nonetheless those 4,000 Deutschmark were a good investment. They paved the way for everything I’ve been doing since as a music professional.”

The Prague 69 Quintet on their summer tour in Denmark (1971)

Among the first studio projects Wolfgang Käfer got involved with was the album ‘For the children of the world’ by the Olsen Brothers, which was received favourably and sold well. Before long, Käfer became one of Denmark’s most sought-after studio arrangers. Artists he worked with in the 1970s and 1980s include Birthe Kjær, Torben Lendager, Jannie Høeg, Johnny Reimar, and Swedish jazz singer Östen Warnerbring. Käfer’s most successful involvement, however, was with Danish rock group Gasolin’. For this band, he worked on the albums ‘Gas 5’ (1975) and ‘What a lemon’ (1976), writing the string arrangements to some of their biggest hits, such as ‘Fatherless hill’ and ‘Sct. Emetri’.

“Those Gasolin’ guys got in touch with me because their regular arranger was unavailable,” recalls Käfer. “They were the best rock group around in Denmark at the time. I wasn’t a particular fan of their repertoire or rock music in general, but I was happy to work with them. I listened to their material, thought hard about the most effective way of putting in some string lines, and wrote the scores to the best of my ability. The group members were satisfied with the way the first album turned out; as a result, they asked me back for their next project. Those albums sold incredibly well. This is music which is still being played on the radio in Denmark.”

Apart from his work as a studio arranger, Käfer quickly made his mark as a composer of so-called ‘library music’, instrumental pieces intended to be used in radio, TV, film, or advertising campaigns. Käfer: “The sound engineer who had been in the control room for that very first recording with the singer from Yugoslavia helped me with this. He turned out to know a kapellmeister of a radio big band, Ib Glindemann. Glindemann wrote stock music for several UK libraries – and he told him about me. Not long after, Glindemann called me, asking if I was interested in writing compositions for him. All those pieces were arranged for a large studio orchestra. For each melody which I composed and arranged for him, he paid me 500 crowns – for which he bought the right to put his own name on the work. Glindemann himself recorded the material with an orchestra of studio musicians. I was a ghost writer for him, so to speak – and it was a deal which worked well for the both of us, but after two years, I felt the time was right to continue doing this type of work independently, publishing the titles using my own name.”

From the early 1980s onwards, composing library music became an ever-more important part of Wolfgang Käfer’s professional life. He recorded dozens of albums with instrumental music for the music libraries of Chappell, Warner Chappell, and Carlin in the United Kingdom, and for the Sonaton library in Germany. As such, his music was purchased by a variety of film production companies and other media, including BBC Television; in 2005, one of his compositions, ‘Warlord’, was even included in an episode of the popular American animation series ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’.

“Usually, libraries commissioned me to write a series of tunes centred around a given subject,” Käfer explains. “Such a subject could be ‘industry’, or ‘hospital’, for example. From my childhood onwards, I had always been dreaming of making a living as a composer – so this opportunity was the best that could have happened to me. Artistically, this type of work offers much more freedom than writing arrangements for pop singers. As a composer, you can sit at the piano and write whatever springs to mind. To make my music as attractive as possible for potential customers, I made a habit of recording each tune in several versions… one of thirty seconds, another one of one minute, the conventional time spans for advertisements. Apart from being an artistically interesting activity, writing stock music has been rather profitable; in fact, it became my main source of income. My compositions were sold internationally to some fifty different countries.”

Close-up, taken from the official 1985 Eurovision Song Contest programme

In 1975, Wolfgang Käfer was asked to write his first arrangement for the renowned DR Underhållningsorkester, the light-entertainment orchestra of Danish Radio. Over the next forty-odd years, Käfer came up with some 200 pieces for the ensemble. “At the beginning, Kai Mortensen was still nominally in charge of the orchestra,” Käfer recalls, “but he was an elderly man by then, and I was closer involved with his successor, Robert Cornford, a fantastic arranger from England. Neither of them had an easy time leading the orchestra. Even though there was a fully-fledged symphony orchestra at DR, the musicians in the Underhållningsorkester felt they were entitled to play Beethoven and Bach as well… which was strange, because this was an orchestra created to play light music. Most orchestra members, though, hated anything that wasn’t strictly classical. One time, while they were preparing for a television show for which I had done part of the arrangements, I was surprised to find that all the players in the rhythm group had put pieces of cotton in their ears. They wanted to avoid having to listen to the very music they were playing. I could hardly believe it. One other time, I had written a score which included a piccolo solo, but, while sitting in the control room during the recording, it struck me that the piccolo couldn’t be heard at all. It turned out the lady who held the piccolo refused to play the solo… and for a very good reason too, because she couldn’t play a single note on the instrument! I liked writing for such a large ensemble, but the mentality of the musicians always remained problematic.”

From the mid-1980s onwards, Wolfgang Käfer became involved in film music as an arranger on a regular basis, writing the orchestrations to various feature films and television dramas, including ‘Jul på slottet’ (1986), ‘Kun en pige’ (1995), and ‘Blinkende lygter’ (2000). In 1992, he received the commission to compose and arrange the music to the film shown in the Danish pavilion of the World Expo in Seville, called ‘Vision Denmark’, featuring six short orchestral pieces fitted onto a film showing aspects of Danish life. “It was recorded with a symphonic orchestra,” Käfer adds. “The style is half-way between classical music and an American-style film score. I was asked by the film company charged with producing the film. I was very honoured that Denmark should have asked a Czech composer to do the job for them. Yes, I guess this is one of the music pieces I’m most proud of.”

Apart from films and television programmes, Wolfgang Käfer wrote the arrangements to several musicals as well as a ballet performed at Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre. In the 1990s, in a completely different genre, he penned the orchestrations for several concert programmes given by pop singer Stig Rossen with big bands and even with a classical orchestra, the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra. Käfer: “I also arranged two albums for Stig, both of which were gold records. The setlist for those symphonic concert consisted of internationally known songs… I particularly remember writing the arrangement to Billy Joel’s ‘Leningrad’ for Stig. Examining the lyrics of ‘Leningrad’ inspired me enormously. When I read about this son of a Russian soldier who perished in World War II and who grew up behind the Iron Curtain, it was as if I was reading elements of my own life story. I was hugely inspired and wrote a grandiose orchestral intro to the song. Whenever writing an arrangement to a song, I make a point of reading the lyrics first, to see if I can find elements which can be used in the orchestration. Another good example was the song ‘Dachau’, which I recorded more recently with a Danish opera singer called Amin Jensen. When I read the lyrics about the concentration camp, I thought back on my youth and the horrible stories my father told about what he had seen… the atrocities of the war. I wish I had had the opportunity to talk to him about all of this more extensively, but, of course, he was dead by the time I reached adolescence…”

In 1990, shortly after communist rule in Czechoslovakia ended, Wolfgang Käfer was able to travel to his country of origin for the first time in nearly twenty years. Straightaway, he saw the opportunities of working with Czech musicians: “Practically immediately when Havel took over power, I drove to Prague and went looking for one or two classical conductors who I knew by name. I asked them, and others, if it was possible to record music with them; and, universally, the reaction I got was that they would be thrilled to do it. This was a moment I had been longing for. For twenty years, I had been annoyed by the lack of dedication of Danish studio musicians. Actually, the first recording I did in Prague was the album ‘Det stille ocean’ with Jørgen Olsen and the Prague Film Symphony Orchestra. My hopes of finding a better mentality among musicians were fully justified. Here were people who knew that, in order to get the best possible result, discipline was a prerequisite. After doing several more pop albums, I also started coming over for my own library music projects.”

Wolfgang Käfer’s composition ‘Vision Denmark’, the musical accompaniment to the Danish film shown at the 1992 World Expo in Seville

In the 1990s and into the 2000s, Wolfgang Käfer wrote the arrangements for dozens of recording projects, mainly working with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Among the Danish pop artists who did an album arranged by Käfer and backed up by Czech classical musicians are Jette Torp, Lene Siel, Simone Egeriis, and Birthe Kjær.

Back in Denmark, Wolfgang Käfer taught composition and arranging at the Royal Danish Academy of Music for two years, while he also was an arranging teacher for Koda, the Danish Association of Composers, Authors, and Music Publishers, for some time. As an arranger, he wrote the music scores to album releases of, amongst others, Jakob Sveistrup and Birthe Kollo. In 2017, Käfer worked on a very special project with guitarist, songwriter, and singer Søren Sebber Larsen: a vinyl album recorded with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and various vocalists, including Jørgen Thorup and Annette Heick. Käfer: “Søren Sebber Larsen is one of the few people in the Danish music business who I genuinely think of as a friend. I’ve worked with him on various recording projects over the years, but this one was particularly ambitious, as he wanted all songs recorded with a full symphonic orchestra. Søren’s brother, who made a fortune as a shipbuilder, put a huge budget at our disposal to go to Prague and make it happen. Søren and I chose the repertoire together, a mix of classic songs by Burt Bacharach, Van Morrison, and others, alternated with some new songs written by Søren himself. When the LP was ready, Søren and I were both very happy with the way it had turned out. Unfortunately, not many copies of this album were sold, but that’s the way things go sometimes…”

Until this day, Wolfgang Käfer has continued writing library music. In 2018, he released his latest instrumental record, ‘Orchestral trailer music’, which was recorded with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. “Composing still is my passion,” Käfer explains. “The music in me simply needs an outlet. I’m so happy that I can just sit down at the piano and create the music there and then. The ideas are still there… sometimes, when I’m watching television, I think of a melody, make my way to the piano, and write it down. Some of these music pieces are ready in ten minutes, others need a lot more time and energy – it depends. Writing the scores to my own tunes has become a lot easier since the arrival of the synthesizer, which is a wonderfully helpful tool to check if a string arrangement sounds right. These days, the most difficult part of the job is finding the budgets for sessions with a full orchestra. The English stock libraries aren’t keen to invest money in large orchestras any longer, which means we usually have to rely on the Danish Composers’ Association to put an advance at our disposal. Nowadays, I sell most of my compositions to a Danish music library co-owned by my youngest son, Daniel.”

Looking back, does Käfer have any regrets? “Well, perhaps, but just one: I orchestrated quite a few movies over the years, but I would have loved writing a film score myself. Unfortunately, such an opportunity simply didn’t arise. Otherwise, I consider myself really lucky to have been able to work in so many different fields of the music business. I don’t think I could have had the same career as an arranger if I’d gone back to Czechoslovakia in 1971, where the studio world was dominated by a clique of musicians from Prague – and I always would have remained the outsider coming from a provincial backwater. In Denmark, somehow, I never really had to make an effort to make progress, career-wise. You know, I am one of those people who made his hobby his profession. That’s a lucky thing, even more so since my dear wife passed away in 2018. It’s hard getting over losing her, but music is good to me – when sitting down at the piano, I don’t have to think about anything else. At this stage of my life, I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

At work with Czech cello soloist Michaela Fukácová (2007)

Wolfgang Käfer in the Eurovision Song Contest
Wolfgang Käfer took part in the Eurovision Song Contest as a conductor only once, but he was involved in the festival as well as the Danish pre-selection in other capacities on many more occasions. In 1978, when Denmark returned to the Eurovision Song Contest after not having participated in eleven consecutive editions, Käfer wrote the arrangement to ‘San Francisco’ by the Olsen Brothers, one of the melodies in Melodi Grand Prix, the Danish Eurovision pre-selection. On that occasion, Käfer left conducting the orchestra to someone else, Ole Kurt Jensen. Did he lack the confidence to stand up in front of an orchestra himself?

“It’s not that I’m too modest. No, I’ve always preferred giving way to professional conductors, peopled who studied the subject and gain their living that way. I never studied conducting. Of course, when doing a studio recording where there was no conductor available, I did the job without making a fool of myself, but I’d rather sit in the control room closely listening to every detail of the arrangement while it’s being played by the orchestra. When recording my library music in Prague, I never conduct myself – there are so many excellent conductors available in Czechia, classical conductors who spent years studying to become as good as they are… so why would I ask them to cede their place to me? I know what I’m really good at – I’m a professional composer and arranger, and as such, I’m always very happy when I can work with excellent professionals in other fields, instrumentalists and conductors alike. As for the 1978 Melodi Grand Prix, ‘San Francisco’ was a good song and I’m convinced it would have done better internationally than ‘Boom boom’ by Mabel, who beat us and represented Denmark that year. In fact, that song was a catastrophe, wasn’t it?!”

From 1978 onwards, Wolfgang Käfer arranged songs for the Danish Eurovision pre-selection practically every year, and in 1982 he also had a hand in the song which represented the country on the international stage, ‘Video-video’ by Brixx. The song itself was very synthetic, synthesizer-oriented – and because that year’s Danish Melodi Grand Prix had been held without live orchestral accompaniment, the need to write an additional live orchestration only arose after Brixx had been chosen. “I was asked to jump in by the group itself,” Käfer explains, “not by the front man (Jens Brixtofte – BT), but two of the guys backing him up. I had worked with them in the studio previously and they wondered if I could help out. It was an easy assignment. They were keen to have these typical disco string lines added to the rhythm track. For the Eurovision Song Contest, the rhythm was played from a backing tape, while the strings were performed live by the orchestra. The song itself didn’t particularly inspire me. I cannot say anything positive about it, to be honest.”

Single release of Brixx’ Eurovision effort ‘Video-video’ (1982)

The following year, once more, the Danish juries chose a rather superficial dance tune to represent the country in the Eurovision Song Contest, ‘Kloden drejer’, performed by Gry Johansen. “The story is rather similar to what happened with Brixx,” Käfer recalls. “The three composers of Gry’s song approached me to write an additional orchestration to a rhythm track which they had done in the studio. Because they lacked the theoretical knowledge to write an additional orchestration for the Eurovision Song Contest, they needed someone else to do the job. After Eurovision, a single of the song was released with an arrangement by Jan Glæsel, but the original Eurovision version is mine and mine alone. Again, I didn’t think much of the song. Working on a Eurovision arrangement was never my passion… this was work, a job that had to be done. Eurovision songs never really inspired me in any way, and I did it because I made a living as an arranger. If I had had a choice, I’d never have worked on this kind of repertoire.”

In an interview, Gry Johansen once said that ‘Kloden drejer’ was not the type of song which benefited from being performed with an orchestra – quite the opposite: she feels it would have done better without. Käfer: “I don’t know if she’s right; to me, and I repeat myself here, the song itself simply lacked quality. Afterwards, Gry went looking for all kind of cheap excuses. I remember she claimed that, to her, Eurovision was just a job which she wasn’t really interested in. That was a rather silly remark, because, when you take part, you should give it your all, no matter what your personal thoughts are. Later on, I recorded a single with her, but she never really achieved her breakthrough as an established artist in Denmark. She’s a nice girl and we’ve been good friends and colleagues, but something is missing – a little bit of personality perhaps.”

In the 1982 and 1983 editions of the Eurovision Song Contest, Wolfgang Käfer’s arrangements were conducted by Allan Botschinsky. “Allan was a very good trumpet player,” Käfer comments. “He did the Eurovision Song Contest because he was the leader of the Danish Radio Big Band at the time. I never had any problems with him, but he was a rather distant guy. It wasn’t easy to get to know him well. When I worked with him, he simply got on with the job in a businessmanlike fashion. Later, Henrik Krogsgaard took over the Eurovision conducting job from Allan. Henrik is a completely different character, very friendly and generous. One time, when he conducted one of my arrangements in a television show – it might have been the Danish Melodi Grand Prix or some other programme –, he was courteous enough to call me, telling me how good he felt my score was. It was a gesture I appreciated enormously. Such a wonderful man!”

Gry Johansen performing in the 1983 Danish Melodi Grand Prix

In 1985, the Danish Melodi Grand Prix was won, for the second year in a row, by the duo Hot Eyes, Kirsten Siggaard and Søren Bundgaard. After the upbeat ‘Det’ lige det’, which had landed them a more than respectable fourth place at the Eurovision final in Luxembourg in 1984, they came up with an equally gimmicky song for the 1985 edition: ‘Sku’ du spørg fra no’en’, which tells the story of a woman meeting a guy in the discotheque and wondering where she saw that face before, only to realise that they were friends in their early childhood – an element in the lyrics which was reinforced by the stage performance, in which Kirsten and Søren shared the podium with Bundgaard’s nine-year-old daughter Lea, who took over for a part of the vocals. At the international festival final in Gothenburg, this Danish entry was conducted by Wolfgang Käfer.

“I had already been contacted by Søren Bundgaard before the Danish Melodi Grand Prix,” Käfer recalls. “The national final didn’t use a live orchestra that year, and he was looking for someone to help him to prepare an effective studio arrangement. Actually, Søren’s first choice was Henrik Krogsgaard, but, for some reason, Henrik was not available; I seem to remember he was ill at the time. At that point, Bundgaard thought of me as a replacement. The studio job was straightforward enough; there was no orchestra and we prepared an arrangement using just rhythm instruments and synthesizers. Bundgaard, who had written the song, had very fixed ideas about the harmonies and he wasn’t really keen to take into account my suggestions. As I found out later as well, when working with him on other projects, he didn’t like giving much freedom to others. When I had found some better harmonies for a given piece, he used to say that that was not what he was looking for. He wanted his instructions to be followed, and that was it. Sometimes, he came up with very silly ideas… and when I had prepared an arrangement for him, he wanted to adapt all kinds of things himself because he felt I hadn’t stayed close enough to what he had had in mind. Therefore, my impact on the arrangement of this Eurovision song was actually rather limited. It was a straightforward enough job. I wrote the score and went home – I didn’t even stay in the studio for the actual recording.”

After ‘Sku’ du spørg fra no’en’ won the selection in Denmark, Søren Bundgaard was confronted with a problem: in the national final, the song had been performed by Kirsten and himself using playback, with three children on stage and without a background choir, while the rules of the international Eurovision final, due to be held in Gothenburg (Sweden), stipulated that all vocals had to be performed live – with a maximum of six persons on stage. So, he took the decision to make do with just one child, Søren’s daughter, while adding a choir of three singers to back up the front duo. According to Eurovision rules, this now meant that all music had to be performed live by the orchestra; after all, backing tapes were only allowed provided the instruments included on it were performed in play-back on stage. Now, however, because six vocalists were required to perform the song, there was no possibility of including any miming instrumentalists on stage.

Asked about this, Wolfgang Käfer says: “Be that as it may, but the rhythm for our song wasn’t performed live! After this song won the final in Denmark, Bundgaard saw little reason to change the arrangement – he essentially wanted to keep it as it was. I added a small orchestration of strings, brass, and some minor rhythm elements such as a vibraphone part, but the main part of the rhythm track was put on a backing tape. The backing tape started with a click track, for which I didn’t need to wear headphones, as the click was played over the loudspeakers. It could be heard clearly in the television broadcast as well. Actually, this click was one of the reasons why I decided to accept Søren’s request to conduct the song on stage in Gothenburg. As I already told you previously, I don’t think of myself as an accomplished conductor, but with such a track indicating the tempo, very little could go wrong. Moreover, I thought to myself, if guys like Krogsgaard and Botschinsky could conduct the orchestra in the Eurovision Song Contest, there was little reason why I couldn’t have done it. After all, they weren’t professional conductors either.”

Single release of the 1985 Danish Eurovision entry

Käfer’s explanation left us a little puzzled, as using a rhythm tape without musicians miming the instruments on stage was in clear breach of the Eurovision rules which applied at the time. Therefore, we contacted the 1985 Eurovision Song Contest’s chief conductor, Curt-Eric Holmquist, to ask him about the matter. “The rules were exactly as you describe them,” he maintains. “When using a backing track, there even was a rule which stated that the instruments on stage had to be mimed by the same people who recorded them in the studio. Of course, this was impossible to control, but anyhow… What is clear, though, is that the click which can be heard at the start of the song was on a backing track. Mr Käfer is absolutely right on that. My drummer, Per Lindwall, who I asked about this as well, emphatically denies having used a click himself; he never used any artificial tool to get the tempo right. It’s possible, though, that Per played the drums live over the backing track – I don’t remember anything about this, though, and neither does Per, which makes this possibility rather improbable.”

As there’s little point in using a click without having a backing track, there can only be one conclusion: Wolfgang Käfer’s memory does not betray him, and the Danish performance in 1985 definitely broke Eurovision regulations. On the one hand, it’s very surprising that the Danes weren’t forbidden to use their tape when the rehearsals in Gothenburg got underway, even more so as delegations were used to watching each other’s performances carefully to look for regulation breaches – but, on the other hand, most attention was usually devoted to the ‘three-minute-rule’, the rule stating that no song should exceed the maximum time of three minutes. The Luxembourg entry in Gothenburg also seems to have employed a rhythm track without miming musicians on stage, proving that control of the applying rules in Gothenburg was particularly lax – more lax perhaps than in other editions of the contest.

Generally speaking, in the 1980s, more and more delegations were competing playing hard and fast with the rules, using a sequencer in the orchestra playing synthesizer sound; and also synthesizers in the orchestra reproducing pre-recorded vocal samples. In 1990, the Swedish delegation in Zagreb went so far as to ask the European Broadcasting Union for clearer guidelines regarding backing tracks in view of the fact that some countries at that year’s contest were clearly using pre-recorded elements not visible on stage – most notably, again, the Luxembourg entry.

Still, Denmark’s song in 1985 broke regulations more flagrantly, in that there was a backing track without any instruments included in the stage performance. None of the blame for this can be laid at Wolfgang Käfer’s door, though; the idea to use the backing track must have been Bundgaard’s – and Bundgaard should have been told by the Danish broadcaster’s delegation leader in Gothenburg, or, failing that, by officials of the EBU, that his playback track could not be used for the performance.

In as far as Wolfgang Käfer was looking forward to taking part in the Eurovision Song Contest, the experience was mainly a disappointing one for him. “I was expecting to meet interesting musicians from other countries – composers, arrangers, instrumentalists – but in Gothenburg I soon discovered that members of each delegation were primarily concerned with their own entry. There was no spirit of togetherness, no people from different corners of Europe hanging out together – as far as I can remember, everyone was jealously looking at the others. There was little mutual understanding… just rivalry. The Swedes had done a good job on the organisation and the orchestra was just fine. The rehearsals were flawless. I had an easy time. As far as I remember, we didn’t do much sightseeing – there were just the rehearsals in the morning, and then straight back to the hotel.”

Kirsten and Søren together – photo taken from the press kit of the Danish Eurovision delegation in Gothenburg (1985)

“Of course, Søren Bundgaard and the others were hoping they could win the contest,” Käfer continues. “All other participants harboured those same illusions, but, frankly, I was never very hopeful. Kirsten Siggaard has a good voice, but the song itself wasn’t good enough. I was just doing the job I was supposed to do there, leading the orchestra, and there were no hiccups in the performance – so I’ve no reason to feel ashamed about having taken part in this Eurovision Song Contest, but I didn’t feel any disappointment on a personal level when we only finished eleventh. Doing Eurovision wasn’t a childhood dream for me, but when they called me and asked me to step in, I did my best to do it professionally. I never felt any nerves either. The atmosphere in our delegation afterwards was subdued. Søren’s daughter was in tears. She believed she would win – and who can blame a nine-year-old? It was a silly idea to go to Eurovision with a child. In those years, Bundgaard enjoyed quite a lot of success with his Eurovision melodies, and he represented Denmark as a songwriter on several occasions, but this song certainly wasn’t his best effort. In fact, it wasn’t good at all.”

Asked about his thoughts regarding the winning entry, ‘La det swinge’ by the Norwegian duo Bobbysocks!, Käfer says: “No, that was horrible too! It wasn’t an interesting composition – a very simple rock-‘n’-roll tune, nothing more. There were other countries’ entries which were better, more interesting to listen to. Unfortunately, in Eurovision, the best songs usually don’t win. Every year, when watching the contest, there are always two or three really good songs, but they hardly ever come first. I must say I liked Johnny Logan’s two winning songs; those were really good compositions and well performed, but such exceptions are really, really few.”

Almost as an afterthought, Käfer adds: “Still, there was one very positive side to my Eurovision participation in Gothenburg! By that time, I hadn’t been back to Czechoslovakia for almost fifteen years. If I had done that, I would have been imprisoned for having escaped the country illegally in 1971. But suddenly, after this Eurovision Song Contest, I received all kinds of phone calls from old friends from Czechoslovakia. They turned out to have seen me on television! Czechs loved watching television programmes from the West – and apparently Eurovision was widely watched that year in Český Krumlov and České Budějovice. People over there must have forgotten about me, but when they saw my face, they remembered who I was. It was all rather unusual and unexpected; after all, Eurovision is about the only time in my life when I stood in the spotlight. Those Czech friends who called me included people I hadn’t met since my days in kindergarten. They must have obtained my phone number through my ex-wife who was still living there. Also, distant relatives of mine living in West Germany contacted me. They were excited to see me in such a television show. It just goes to show that almost everybody watched Eurovision back in those days.”

Wolfgang Käfer being introduced to the audience at the 1985 Eurovision Song Contest in Gothenburg

Four years on, in 1989, we find Wolfgang Käfer’s name on the participants’ list of the Danish Melodi Grand Prix as a songwriter; with Jørgen Olsen, the elder half of the Olsen Brothers, he composed ‘Fugle’, a stylish, lushly orchestrated ballad. “Jørgen is someone who I worked quite closely, practically from the moment I arrived in Denmark,” Käfer comments. “I had arranged several successful albums for the Olsen Brothers in the 1970s, but we remained in touch in later years; and, sometimes, he called me about songs he was writing, wondering if I was interested to listen and give some suggestions. At some point, he wanted to do a ballad and asked me to write a melody. Jørgen came to my place and, together, we wrote ‘Fugle’. The initial idea for the music was mine, and after I had played it to him at the piano, Jørgen added the lyrics. The arrangement for the studio version was recorded in London with the London Symphony Orchestra. The year after, we recorded several more songs, but by that time, the Iron Curtain had come down – and we completed his new album in Prague. In the Melodi Grand Prix, ‘Fugle’ did not win, but many of the other composers who took part told me afterwards they felt that, musically speaking, it was the best song in the competition.”

The following year, Käfer was involved in the Melodi Grand Prix as an arranger again, first and foremost of Jørgen Olsen’s new attempt, ‘Berlin’, but also of ‘Hallo hallo’, the eventual winning entry, performed by a young girl from Funen, Lonnie Devantier. “The two composers of Lonnie’s song contacted me prior to the Danish selection programme,” Käfer recalls. “They were Torben Lendager and John Hatting, guys who I had done several recording projects with in the past. They were used to working with me and wanted me to take care of the arrangement. Quite different from what an arranger is usually asked to do for Eurovision songs, I was given few instructions by them. They gave me the demo tape, and, as far as they were concerned, I could do everything I want with it, as long as it was understood that the sound was supposed to be happy, upbeat, and commercial. Contrary to those earlier Eurovision stints I was involved in, this arrangement was played completely live, first in Denmark at the Melodi Grand Prix and later in the international Eurovision final as well. There was no backing track. The two songwriters were happy with what I’d come up with. I remember watching this Eurovision Song Contest while staying in Czechoslovakia. It was a good performance. The girl sang well and the sound mix was good too. No complaints as far as this one’s concerned!”

In the Eurovision final in Zagreb, ‘Hallo hallo’ finished eighth among twenty-two competing entries. One year later, Wolfgang Käfer had his second try as a songwriter in the Danish pre-selection, taking part with ‘Afrodite af i dag’, an American-style power ballad. Performed by Helle Børgesen, it did not come close to winning the ticket to represent Denmark abroad. Käfer, commenting: “Helle was a member of DR’s radio choir. Since she was keen to take part in Melodi Grand Prix, she asked me to write a song for her. My youngest son, Daniel, wrote the lyrics to it. It’s not a song that I’m really proud of. As a composer, I’ve always felt more at ease writing instrumental music. I find it hard to think about lyrics and vocals when composing a melody. Still, this song was picked for the Danish final, but I never had high hopes for it.”

Lonny Devantier after winning the Danish Melodi Grand Prix in 1990, surrounded by the composers of ‘Hallo hallo’, Torben Lendager (left) and John Hatting

Does Wolfgang Käfer’s Eurovision involvement end here? Well, not quite. He wrote several more arrangements – most recently, in 2010, he took care of the orchestration for ‘How will I know’, with which Simone Egeriis attempted her chance in the Danish selection programme. This song, recorded with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, finished third, two places behind the duo Chanée & N’evergreen and their ‘In a moment like this’.

Meanwhile, does Wolfgang Käfer still follow the Eurovision Song Contest today? “No, I don’t watch it anymore. Eurovision never was a podium of excellence, but in more recent years it has evolved into something in which show and looks are the only things that count. The music is there, but it’s been put away safely in the background. In such a setup, an orchestra has no place. Most of the compositions taking part nowadays have been prepared electronically in the recording studio. Of course, this type of music can be done with an orchestra as well, but producers and songwriters wouldn’t accept their material being given another sound, inevitably different from what they recorded in the studio. There’s no way the tide will turn back. Nothing we can do about that: the orchestra will never come back to Eurovision.”

Other artists on Wolfgang Käfer
Danish singer-songwriter Søren Sebber Larsen, a close friend of Wolfgang Käfer’s, employed his help as an arranger on several of his albums. Larsen’s admiration for Käfer goes back to his childhood: “Back in 1976, when I was a naughty boy of ten years old, I loved the music of Danish rock group Gasolin’. Their songs appealed to me, but especially one from their fifth album, ‘Sct. Emitri’, had something extra to it. Being so young, I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was… but there was something in the sound – those strings, playing as a counter-melody to the main vocal line. The album sleeve stated that strings and woodwinds were by Wolfgang Käfer. As years went by, I noticed that, whenever my ears and heart were excited by a string arrangement, it was more often than not a score written by Wolfgang. In 2006, about to record my third solo-album, I had a couple of tunes that could use strings and woodwinds. There was only one person I could call. After I had done some demos, Wolfgang and I went to Prague together to record strings and brass in the Rudolfinum concert hall. The result was amazing – and especially the song ‘October’ turned out marvellously. Since, we have collaborated on more than thirty songs. Wolfgang’s arrangements are always stunning to ears and heart alike… they always seem to support and reinforce the tune without getting in the way of it, while somehow succeeding in finding a tasteful way to complete the picture. He just has a way of finding the ‘highlights’ in a melody, using them cleverly and tastefully. There are elements in his jazz background as well as his upbringing in the closed-off country that Czechoslovakia used to be, which have given him a certain pompous, but at the same romantic and melancholic style. His music has the power and beauty of the river Moldau that flows through Prague! If you ask me, Wolfgang Käfer deserves to be up there with the greats: Bacharach, Mancini, Artie Butler, Nelson Riddle, Don Costa, and Ennio Morricone. He is a true craftsman.” (2020)

Käfer with his close friend, singer-songwriter Søren Sebber Larsen (2017)

Links & sources
  • Bas Tukker did an interview with Wolfgang Käfer, subdivided into two sessions: November-December 2020.
  • Many thanks to Søren Sebber Larsen for his dedication to Wolfgang Käfer.
  • Thanks to Curt-Eric Holmquist, Tin Španja, and Daniel Beach for sharing with me their insights and thoughts about the ‘backing track saga’ in 1985.
  • Photos courtesy of Wolfgang Käfer, Søren Sebber Larsen, Bill Holland, and Ferry van der Zant.
  • Thanks due to Daniel Beach and Edwin van Gorp for proofreading the manuscript; and to Edwin van Gorp for putting the article online.

  

Songs conducted
1985: Sku' du spørg' fra no'en