Mike SergeantBorn: January 8th, 1945, Stirling, Scotland (United Kingdom)
“At the academy, my piano teacher was Margaret Spence. Unfortunately, she didn’t have much patience with children. Furthermore, although I knew early on that I wanted to be a musician, my interest was always in entertainment music… and the courses at the academy were classical. Béla Bartók was the first classical composer that I was introduced to as a kid – and that put me right off classical music. You cannot expect children to take an interest in a type of music that is so heavy! Even so , looking back, I was lucky to have learned to play the piano so thoroughly. After all, with the piano, it’s much easier to get to know the basis of all other instruments. My memories of the music academy aren’t all painful. I enjoyed bits and pieces of it. As for classical music, I didn’t become interested in that until much later in my life… Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms; in fact, virtually anything except Bartók!”
“When I came out of the academy, I was fourteen. For a couple of years, I played the piano in my father’s dance band. It was older music, but good fun all the same. By that time, though, I much preferred the guitar to the piano. I wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll music! All the kids loved it and I was no exception. For the first couple of weeks after I got myself a guitar, I was trying to figure out on my own how to play the chords. Then I went to a teacher, but he wanted to start me off right at the beginning. It didn’t help trying to explain to him that I had done six years at the academy. At that point, I decided I had better try on my own. Yes, I suppose you could say I’m pretty much a self-taught guitarist.”
“When I was sixteen, I formed a rock ‘n’ roll band with a group of friends in school. We called ourselves the Strangers. Of course, we weren’t professionals, but there were plenty of opportunities to perform. We were invited to play at weddings and that sort of thing. Our role models were mainly American bands… in the beginning, rock was first and foremost something which came from the US. Then, as the British boom took off, I became interested in English beat groups. By 1964, I was out of regular school and joined Tommy & The Apaches, a professional cover band. All group members were from West Dunbartonshire, but we were booked for venues across Scotland after winning the Daily Records MacBeat Contest in Glasgow, a competition with rock bands from all over Scotland taking part. We were the support act for groups like the Hollies and the Kinks when they came to play in Scotland. You could make a good living as a musician at the time. Scotland had a really lively music scene.”
“The only bad thing about being a rock band in Scotland was that you couldn’t get in the charts. After the Apaches disbanded, I joined a band from Glasgow, Studio Six. They were a more refined type of group. Writing our own material, we mainly drew our inspiration from American soul music. At some point, we realised that the Who had sold 5,000 records in one week and they were number six in the UK charts, while our new single had sold the same amount, but wasn’t anywhere in the Top 50! To make it as a recording band, we realised we had to go to London, so that’s what we did. We were signed to Brian Epstein’s organisation, NEMS. In the following year, four singles were released, but we never made it as far as the charts were concerned. Epstein got us a lot of work on the live circuit in England, though.”
“In 1968, NEMS received a request from Portugal to send recordings of UK bands who could come over to play in a club in Estoril for the carnival week. From that bunch, Studio Six were picked. Having done the gig, we were booked again to come back for the summer season. Initially, we were supposed to stay for two weeks only, but they kept renewing our contract – and in the end, we played in Estoril for two-and-a-half months. When we finally came back to London, we decided to disband. As a group, we hadn’t got anywhere, so we called it a day. While I was in Portugal, I had received an offer to join a Portuguese group, Quinteto Académico, which was a cover band, but a very good one. They had a small brass section and were playing in the style of Blood, Sweat & Tears. There were two British guys in it, one of them being Mike Carr, an excellent organist who later went on to work at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London. I decided to do it. I had nothing to do in London. Why not enjoy a bit more of the sun and get paid some decent money for it?”
“I was thinking of staying for a year and then get back. It was a case of going out, just seeing what will happen. When you’re in your twenties, you’re not thinking of the long-term future. After seven months with the Quinteto, we were offered a contract to play in Mozambique, which was a Portuguese colony at the time. I didn’t really like the prospect of going to Africa for six months. What was more, Mike Carr and the singer, Joe Jordan, were going to get paid double what the rest of us would get. I didn’t fancy that idea too much and left the group. The episode with the Quinteto had lasted no longer than roughly seven months. By that time, I had a Portuguese girlfriend and I was again invited to join a group, Objectivo. That was when I decided to stay in Portugal. I was an only child and both of my parents had died. With a girlfriend in Portugal, there was not much reason to go back to Britain. Yes, Portugal was a dictatorship and many guys my age were called up to perform their military service fighting in colonial wars in Africa, but the fact that I had a British passport meant the authorities never bothered me with that. I obtained a work permit and that was it really...”
Joining Objectivo in 1969, Mike Sergeant stayed with the rock band for three years, performing extensively across Portugal, including at the 1971 Vilar de Mouros Pop Festival. “With Objectivo, we really made an impact on the music scene here in Portugal. Like the Quinteto, there were a couple of guys from overseas in it – an American organ player, Kevin Hoidale, for example. It’s a band that is still being talked about nowadays. We did lots of concerts, at least three per week. It wasn’t hard to make a living as a musician in this country. Unbelievably, perhaps, given that it is so popular nowadays, I found the Portuguese weren’t really interested in their own music, like fado. Young people were craving music from abroad, and above all music that was in English. Objectivo’s repertoire was exclusively in English, which was one of the reasons for our popularity.”
After Objectivo disbanded in 1972, Mike Sergeant worked as a freelance instrumentalist for recording sessions and in theatre orchestras. Furthermore, he joined two groups led by José Cid, rock band Quarteto 1111 (1972-76) and vocal group Green Windows (1974-76). “I first met José back in 1968, when I came over to Portugal with Studio Six and he was in the audience at the Ronda Club in Estoril. In 1972, when Tozé Brito, the Quarteto’s bass player, escaped to England to evade the military service, José requested me as his replacement. By then, José and I were already good friends. We liked the same music from America and England. With the Quarteto, we did lots of live gigs. A producer from England, Ivor Raymonde, was very impressed by José and the rest of us, but he was looking for a more polished sound. This gave José the idea to form a vocal group which included the wives and girlfriends of the guys in the Quarteto. That’s how Green Windows started. After José went solo in 1974, both groups soldiered on for a while, but with considerably less success than before.”
In April 1974, the Carnation Revolution toppled Marcelo Caetano’s authoritarian regime, which was replaced by a democracy with distinctly left-wing tendencies. “It was a funny revolution,” Sergeant recalls. “In fact, it’s the only revolution I’ve heard of in which nobody was killed. The cultural scene in Portugal changed radically as a result. All the left-wingers who had been silenced or exiled got to speak up. Many musicians were involved in left-wing movements. For some years, music in Portugal became very political indeed. Honestly speaking, most of those politically inspired balladeers were pretty bad musicians. Someone like José Afonso – he may have had interesting things to say, but he would have done better by putting down his opinions in a book. The things he wanted to say were too complicated, too elaborate to sing a song about. Given he was silenced by the old regime I can understand why he was so popular as a person, but his music wasn’t interesting. Having said that, I wasn’t mixed up with that. The musicians I was on stage with weren’t too involved in politics… fortunately.”
In 1975, José Cid was invited to represent Portugal in the Yamaha Music Festival in Tokyo. Cid asked Mike Sergeant to write the arrangement for his entry, ‘Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’. “I already knew the song before José asked me to arrange it,” Sergeant recalls. “We were friends and one time, when I was at his place, he played it to me at the piano. It wasn’t until sometime afterwards that José was invited to go to Japan. I had never written an arrangement and it had never crossed my mind to write arrangements as a career. By that time, I was an experienced session musician – and by accepting José’s request, I was simply doing what any good session player does; work on whatever music is asked of you. José knew that I had done the music academy in Scotland. I had learnt all about harmony and the range of each instrument. I had no idea if I would be good at it, but I simply sat down and wrote it. Having worked with José for several years, I had an idea what he needed… and of course I knew what a song in this pop rock style should sound like. It wasn’t that difficult… some strings and a bit of brass in the style of Blood, Sweat & Tears. José was happy with it.”
“Not long after, I was offered the position of Head of A&R at the Portuguese branch of Polydor. I worked with them for a while. My job was to work with artists on their repertoire, looking for the right songs for their albums, occasionally writing additional material myself, producing them, and also writing arrangements. I worked with artists in all kinds of different genres… Cândida Branca Flor, Rui Guedes, and a folk group called Banda do Casaco. Yeah, I think my style of arranging was kind of distinctive – infectious and pop-oriented. It wasn’t about what music I liked personally. You simply had to get the sheet music done and record it. One thing I had never studied was conducting – of course I conducted the studio sessions for my own arrangements, but that was relatively easy. I never asked the advice of more experienced arrangers, although I was good friends with guys like Thilo Krasmann and Jorge Machado. When you’re good friends with someone, you don’t go asking them, “How would you do this?” It never really came up.”
After quitting Quarteto 1111 and Green Windows in 1976, Mike Sergeant remained active as a stage player alongside his studio work, co-founding a new pop quartet, Gemini, which, apart from him, comprised Tozé Brito and two girls, Fátima Padinha and Teresa Miguel. The group’s LP ‘Pensando em ti’ (1977) was one of the most successful albums of the decade in Portugal, selling over 200,000 copies.
“Tozé and I felt there was a vacant spot in Portuguese music. There were lots of balladeers and a few pop singers, but no real commercial pop group. Forming Gemini was a professional idea, so to speak. To allow time for all this, I quit Polydor. We invited Fátima, who had been in Green Windows, and Teresa. With Tozé, I started writing song material. All arrangements were done by me. The single release of ‘Pensando em ti’ was my first number one hit as a songwriter. It stayed at the top of the Portuguese charts for three months. One morning, some six months after we’d released our debut album, Tozé called me and said, “Hey, you’d better go to the SPA, the Portuguese performing rights society… I’ve just been down there and I’ve picked up nearly 300,000 escudos in performing rights!” Initially I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. Now, at the time, houses in Portugal were cheap. From the money of that LP, we purchased two floors of a villa in Lisbon. Tozé got the section of the house which was on the ground level, while I bought the first floor. It was as simple as that!”
With Gemini, Mike Sergeant took part in the 1978 Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Dai-li-dou’, one of the tracks on their second studio album. The following year, the group disbanded. “We had sold records and we had done Eurovision,” Sergeant explains. “We felt there was hardly anything left for us to do here in Portugal. By that stage, Tozé wasn’t really interested in carrying on as a performer. I regretted it at the time... I liked being on stage more than him, but I had no plans to continue as a solo artist. The record company asked me to do a couple of solo singles, but I never liked being the front man very much. Tozé and I promised the girls that we would find them something, a new group perhaps. During my years with Gemini, I had taken on a lot of work as a session arranger. Combining the two activities became harder and harder. Given that so many artists turned to me to write arrangements, I decided to focus on doing that full time.”
First and foremost, as a session musician, Mike Sergeant teamed up with his old friend José Cid, working as a co-author, instrumentalist, and co-arranger on four of Cid’s albums between 1978 and 1982. Sergeant also arranged Cid’s huge hit success ‘Verdes trigais em flor’ and accompanied him as musical director at the 1981 OTI Song Festival, held in Mexico City. Sergeant’s most lasting memory of those years, however, is his contribution on Cid’s much-acclaimed concept album ‘10,000 anos depois entre Venus e Marte’.
“You know what is so incredible about that album? José asked Ramón Galarza, Zé Nabo, and me to write one song each for it, while he himself set out to compose the remainder. Without even any discussion about the style of music, we went to our respective houses to write a tune. When the three of us convened to discover what the others had come up with, it all seemed to fit perfectly well together. Listening to that album now, I don’t notice any difference in style between the things the four of us wrote. It’s as though it had been written by the three of us in close collaboration, which was not the case! The great thing about working with José is that he’s one of those musicians who can handle almost any genre; rock, blues, fado, pop, he has it all. That’s what has made him so popular with audiences in Portugal. He never interfered with me as an arranger. In general, I recorded the rhythm track and the orchestra before José even came to the studio to do the vocals. He gave me total freedom.”
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mike Sergeant also wrote arrangements for the likes of Manuela Bravo, Paulo de Carvalho, Dina, and the Duo Ouro Negro. Moreover, one year after the breakup of Gemini, Sergeant and Tozé Brito formed the girl quartet Doce, which included Gemini’s Fátima and Teresa. Produced by Brito and Sergeant, the group got off to a flying start with two enormous hits in 1980, ‘OK KO’ and ‘Amanhã de manhã’ – the latter being a composition by Mike himself.
“I’m really proud of that song. It’s still being played on the radio today. I wrote it on the piano in one night. A piece of the song came to me just like that. When I played that bit, I realised that would be the end of the verse – so then I worked on the beginning of it. When I got that done, I played the whole thing through and it was ready. The whole process didn’t take longer than an hour at most. When a song comes out that easily, you know there’s a good chance that audiences are going to like it. Usually, in music, the easiest ideas are commercially the most viable ones. I rushed down the stairs to let Tozé know. As I told you, Tozé Brito lived one floor below me in the villa we had bought. I just said, “I’ve got a bomb for you here… this is surely going to be a number one!” The next morning, he had done the lyrics and we called the girls into the studio to record it. I was so sure that it was going to be a success, and it was! The single went straight to the top of the charts. Commercially speaking, Doce was perhaps even more successful than Gemini had been. I didn’t work with them for much longer than a year. I had a falling out with the girls. After that, Tozé worked with other arrangers.”
Apart from his studio work, Mike Sergeant was also regularly commissioned to write radio jingles and tunes used for advertisement campaigns as well as music for theatrical performances. “I can’t say theatre is my favourite podium, but I have done quite a bit of that over the years. After being in the accompanying band for several revues in the early 1970s, I was sometimes invited to write the music as well. The revue, or revista in Portuguese, stems from the Vaudeville shows in France, but revista in Portugal more or less became a distinct genre. Especially in Lisbon, it was very popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Having lived in Lisbon for a few years, I knew how to write in that style, although it didn’t always come easy. Later on, in the 1980s, theatre pieces I worked on were usually done with pre-recorded music accompaniment. An example of this was the Portuguese stage version of a play by the Italian writer Diego Fabbri. We did all the tracks in the studio to be used in the theatre. It was a sign of the times that no budget was put at our disposal for a live band or orchestra to back up the performance.”
In the world of television, Mike Sergeant composed the music for several children’s programmes, most notably ‘Fungágá da bicharada’ and ‘Topo Gigio’, in the 1980s. Later on, he was the musical director of the music show ‘Regresso ao passado’ for one season (1990). “That was a weekly show with 60s music. Each programme required new arrangements to a bunch of songs. Writing and rehearsing those took up a couple of days per week. For the programme, I had a live band at my disposal. I was asked by the same guy who had invited me to work on ‘Fungágá da bicharada’, a talent show for children. Writing music for children’s television isn’t as easy as it might seem at first sight. Composing simple melodies that appeal to kids can involve a lot of thinking. You had to try and enter into their minds, so to speak. Later on in my career, in the recording studio, I also worked a lot with a children’s vocal group, Onda Choc, but that was easier, because I didn’t have to write their repertoire – they were recording cover versions of international hits. My work was to write the arrangements by following the original. Yes, the concept was simple, but Onda Choc were very successful at the time!”
In the course of the 1980s, the recording business in Portugal, like almost everywhere else in the world, collapsed, with record sales crashing and budgets for studio sessions becoming ever smaller. “The whole structure of the game changed in those years. Very often, whole orchestras were replaced by just one synthesiser. Let’s face it, synthesisers and other electronic devices are supposed to help musicians, not to kill them! To record companies, it became just a question of money. Why would they pay for a string orchestra if you can put one guy at the synthesiser to play the string lines? Most of the audience wouldn’t notice anyway – unfortunate, but true. Over time, people have become accustomed to listening to computerised sounds in pop music. The development started in the 1980s, but things have become even worse since. Nowadays, if a group want to record an album, the company will ask them to record the basic tracks themselves. They don’t want to pay for an expensive studio session. In the old days, there would have been an arranger who would write the parts and record them with professional musicians. Arrangers are a bit like dinosaurs. They’ve become extinct. Nobody needs an arranger any longer.”
Consequently, Sergeant was not involved in many studio sessions after the mid-1980s, although he did work with crooner Gabriel Cardoso and fado singer Pedro Vilar. Instead, Sergeant once more turned to the concert stage, joining the band of José Cid. For more than twenty years, he was Cid’s musical director for live shows in Portugal and beyond.
“Working with José was a fulltime job. For most of the year, we were on tour, performing five days per week, usually from Wednesday to Sunday. I played the guitar and I was MD, but it didn’t mean much. Every time José came up with a new song, I did the arrangement. Then I rehearsed it with the band, varying between five and eight musicians. When we went to the stage to play, everyone knew their parts and there was little more for me to do than just play along with the others. We performed in various countries in Europe as well as in North America, but I can’t say I was very fond of all the travelling. People seem to think that musicians live a glamorous life, being paid to travel from country to country just to do concerts. They always forget the time you have to spend away from home, the time on the road, then setting up all equipment, testing it, rehearsing, eating something, and then finally getting on stage. People only see the bit when you’re performing. No, touring was very tiring. Of course, if you’re a musician, the stage is always calling you. If you haven’t been performing for a while, there’s an attraction. But, as I grew older, being on the road for most of the year… no, I had had enough. That’s why I decided to stop working live ten years ago (in 2011 – BT).”
“José himself is still ready to go on stage again. He’s three years older than me and he doesn’t need the money, but he likes performing. We’re still in touch. Oh yes, I’d call him a friend… in fact, I’d call him my brother! He lives 250 km away from me, on his farm up in the north of Portugal, which means I don’t see him as much anymore as I used to. He is doubtlessly the most important musician I’ve worked with in my life. Our partnership in the studio and on stage lasted a really long time, some forty years!”
“Looking back on my life in music, I think I can say that I couldn’t have done much more than I have here in Portugal. Given that there were no decent studios in the first ten years when I lived here, you can only go to a certain point in terms of quality of recordings you work on. Obviously, the level of popular music in Portugal was also much lower than in the UK. When people here asked me; “What do you do,” and I would answer, “I’m a musician,” they would usually reply; “Yeah, but what’s your job?” You have to imagine that I came from a country where being a musician was regarded as on par with being a doctor or a lawyer – or at least as a perfectly respectable way of making a living. It was a culture shock! I’m quite proud of what I’ve achieved, but had I lived in another country, I don’t know whether I would say the same. Yes, I think I could have done more elsewhere.”
“I haven’t been up to much since retiring from the stage… simply enjoying the lazy life, that’s about it! No, I never considered moving back to Scotland. Life in Portugal is good and I’ve got children and grandchildren living here. Still, even after fifty-two years of living in Portugal, I think of myself of British. I’m happy to be here, but I don’t feel Portuguese. The mentality is different. Just to give you an example… when I want to get something done, I’ll do my best to do it quickly. The Portuguese are used to taking things much easier. Not that I’m annoyed by that any longer… I’m too old for that! Besides that, the language has always remained somewhat of an obstacle. As a musician, I used to think more about the composition and the arrangement and not bother too much about the lyrics – and that way I got by fine. Compared to Engish, Portuguese is a bit complicated, with different genders for nouns which I’ve never managed to get into my head. I still make mistakes. People here will notice right away that I’m not a native… well, and my name is a giveaway as well, of course!”
Mike Sergeant in the Eurovision Song Contest
Sergeant’s first taste of the festival came in 1974, when he was part of José Cid’s vocal group Green Windows, which participated in the Portuguese Eurovision selection with two songs, ‘No dia em que o rei fez anos’ and ‘Imagens’. Moreover, in that same competition, Sergeant also played the guitar backing up Cid’s solo performance of the poetical ballad ‘A rosa que te dei’. Green Windows came close to winning the competition with a second and third place, but the ticket to the international Eurovision final in Brighton went to Paulo de Carvalho and ‘E depois do adeus’.
“I guess we were a bit disappointed not to win at the time. Especially with ‘No dia em que o rei fez anos’, we were hopeful of perhaps winning the festival. Like almost all the Green Windows’ repertoire, it was a song written by José himself. It’s a typical José Cid song, very Portuguese in terms of music and lyrics. In the Portuguese charts, it was much more popular than ‘E depois do adeus’. It clearly appealed to the Portuguese public. Looking back, though, I don’t think we could have done any better in Eurovision than Paulo de Carvalho. His was such a nice melodic song, with an excellent arrangement done by José Calvário – and of course Paulo has a fantastic voice. He deserved to go to Eurovision. I don’t think Green Windows could have made an impact abroad. At the time, José and I were in the Quarteto 1111, a pop group – and Green Windows was little more than a spin-off, in which the wives and girlfriends of the guys in the Quarteto took part. I wouldn’t say it was intended as a joke, but it was supposed to be a bit of fun. The group was too Portuguese for the international stage.”
Having written his first studio arrangements in 1975, Sergeant made his debut as an orchestrator in the Festival da Canção the following year, when Carlos do Carmo interpreted a composition written by Tozé Brito – Brito being a fellow-member in various groups in which Sergeant was involved, such as the Quarteto 1111 and Gemini. In 1977, Brito and Sergeant decided to enter the competition as performers with Gemini, a pop quartet comprised of themselves and two girls, Fátima Padinha and Teresa Miguel. Apart from providing his vocal contribution, Sergeant also penned the arrangement to their performance of ‘Portugal no coração’. In the Portuguese final, Gemini finished sixth, far behind… the same song, interpreted by another vocal group, Os Amigos. Os Amigos were a star ensemble, including, amongst others, Paulo de Carvalho and Fernando Tordo. Tordo also was the composer of the song.
“That year, all songs in the Portuguese festival were interpreted by two different groups or soloists,” Sergeant explains. “Fernando and Os Amigos did a demo version of it first. When Gemini were chosen to do the B version of it, they gave us their demo. I was supposed to write a new arrangement to it. I found it very difficult to imagine a new version of a song that was already done. I wrote an arrangement that was a bit faster. I liked the song, but its style suited Os Amigos better than a pure pop group like we were. I mean, the lyrics were very political. I would say that put us at a disadvantage from the start. Having said that, the song wasn’t exactly Fernando’s style either. Musically, it was a bit more commercial than most of his other compositions – but why not? Os Amigos went for a commercial sound to try and win the festival. That’s what we were all in it for in the first place!”
Gemini’s version of ‘Portugal no coração’ was included on their hugely successful debut album ‘Pensando em ti’. Os Amigos went to Eurovision, where they placed fourteenth. For the international final, the group had a new arrangement written by José Calvário, which bears a striking similarity to the version done by Sergeant for Gemini. “Listening to it now, it does seem a bit as if José Calvário borrowed a bit from both arrangements, the original by Os Amigos in the Portuguese selection and my version for Gemini, to do the final one in Eurovision. I’m not saying that he stole anything from me… Calvário was an excellent musician who didn’t need to steal stuff from anybody. I never discussed it with him, but I think he must have heard some elements in my arrangement that he wanted to incorporate in the final version. It’s quite flattering to think that such a good musician was inspired by my work.”
In 1978, Gemini were back in the Portuguese final with no fewer than four different songs – and this time, the group won, with ‘Dai-li-dou’, an upbeat tune composed by Vítor Maméde and arranged by Thilo Krasmann. When asked why he didn’t write the arrangement for the song himself, Sergeant explains, “The RTP had invited Gemini to do the festival as artists. It was up to the songwriters to ask the arrangers of their preference to do the job. Now, Vítor was good friends with Thilo Krasmann – in fact, they ran a record company together at the time… so that’s why Thilo did it. I liked his arrangement. It’s not the sort of tune that I would have enjoyed arranging. In its approach, the song is quite commercial, but it’s sort of jazzy at the same time. I’m not a jazz man at all and I am sure my arrangement wouldn’t have been as good as Thilo’s; especially the brass parts, which are excellent. I thought ‘Dai-li-dou’ was a good song, but I was surprised when we came first. José Cid took part in the Portuguese final as well with ‘O meu piano’ – and I expected him to win. We couldn’t believe our luck. For a commercial pop group like Gemini, doing Eurovision was very important. We wanted to reach as wide an audience as possible… and with Eurovision, you’re guaranteed of a public of about 200 million!”
Eyeing an international launch, Gemini released their Eurovision entry in three different languages, recording the song in Paris with French conductor Guy Mattéoni, who kept Krasmann’s original arrangement intact. The Eurovision Song Contest final was also held in the French capital that year. Given that it was Sergeant’s first experience in the international festival, it comes as no surprise that the event made an indelible impression on him. “That first time, I was amazed how clockwork the competition runs. When you’re scheduled to do your rehearsal from 9.30 to 10.10, you have to be on stage at 9.30 – there’s no way somebody in the organisation is going to take pity on you and give you some extra time in case you showed up late. I was shocked. I had never been in a show where the organisers used a stopwatch to check that everyone would be allowed exactly the same amount of rehearsal time. In Portugal, I had got used to things never running on time! Of course Eurovision is a hell of a competition to have to organise. The way it’s done is very professional.”
“Backstage, I remember trying to have a chat with Izhar Cohen from Israel, but that proved nearly impossible. The Israeli delegation had security around them like nobody else – not only in Paris, but in other Eurovisions I was involved with later as well. You could talk to them for a bit, but not too long. Other performers I met were the Italian group, Ricchi & Poveri. In Italy, the kidnapping of Aldo Moro was on everybody’s lips. The Italians were about to withdraw due to the situation. Literally up to the time when the group went on stage to sing, there was the possibility that a telegram would arrive from Rome saying that Aldo Moro had been assassinated by the terrorists who held him hostage. In that case, Italian television would have withdrawn from the contest. The group told me about their situation earlier on during rehearsals. It was a terrible situation for them to be in, but in the end they could do their song as scheduled” (sadly, Aldo Moro did not survive his abduction; Italy’s former prime minister was killed by the Brigate Rosse two weeks later – BT).
At the contest in Paris, some participating artists had to cope with severe sound problems during rehearsals, but the Portuguese group and their musical director Thilo Krasmann weren’t among them. “Our rehearsals were fine,” Sergeant recalls. “Thilo gave the impression of having an easy time with the orchestra. It was great to have him with us in Paris. He was a lovely man, a wonderful friend, and a great musician. When we went to Eurovision, we were a group of five – there were the four of us and Thilo. He joined us for meals and drinks in the evenings. He may have been a bit older than the rest of us, but it didn’t show! He was lively and enjoying the occasion. Being the composer of our song, Vítor Maméde was also part of the delegation… and we were joined by some newspaper reporters from Portugal. We were a happy bunch!”
In the voting, ‘Dai-li-dou’ did not do well, picking up no more than five points and finishing near the bottom of the scoreboard. “Ah, well, we never expected to win or even do well,” Sergeant explains. “The song simply wasn’t good enough to make an impact. It wasn’t bad, but it lacked international quality – and perhaps so did we as a group. Back in those days they were still sending great entries to Eurovision. We were up against some really very good songs. When we were about to come on stage, I was very nervous. I was thinking about all those 200 million people watching. “Oh god, if I get a note or a step wrong, there are going to be a lot of people who notice!” Once we were on stage, the worst nerves passed. The performance we gave was good. We had nothing to be ashamed of. Paris was an experience unlike any other that I had had – and not a bad one. We certainly weren’t feeling depressed when we got back on the plane to Portugal. If you don’t want to lose, you shouldn’t take part in a competition. There’s always next year… that’s the spirit in which you have to do Eurovision.”
‘Dai-li-dou’ was included on Gemini’s second LP, which didn’t do as well as their first full album. The quartet continued for one more year before disbanding. For Mike Sergeant, it heralded the end of his career as a singer. Instead, he focused on session work fulltime, writing arrangements for different artists – and in that capacity, Sergeant was much in demand, given that he was commissioned to write four orchestrations for the Festival da Canção in 1979 and a staggering nine in the following year’s edition. Among the songs scored by Sergeant in 1980 were the runner-up, ‘Doce’ by the girl group bearing the same name, and the walkaway winner, José Cid’s ‘Um grande, grande amor’.
“That festival in 1980 was crazy. Having to do all those nine songs, you could say I was overloaded with work. Generally speaking, I’m a fast writer, but this was a bit too much. After José went solo in the mid-1970s, I remained close to him both on and off the stage. I was one of the arrangers he liked working with in those years; the work was subdivided between myself and Shegundo Galarza. José wrote ‘Um grande, grande amor’ specifically for Eurovision. Although he doesn’t agree with me, I feel it’s one of his better songs. It has a clear structure and the lyrics were well-thought out. As a whole, it has instant appeal, precisely what you want from a Eurovision song. When he had written it, he brought the demo tape to my place here in Cascais. He gave me some indications about what he had in mind and then left me to do the job. The arrangement is nothing special really. I just followed the music José had written.”
Even though Sergeant wrote the arrangement to ‘Um grande, grande amor’, he didn’t get to conduct it in the Festival RTP da Canção or in the Eurovision Song Contest, held in The Hague (Netherlands). Instead, Jorge Machado took the honours. “That was because Jorge had been booked by the RTP to conduct the festival here in Portugal and as such to lead the orchestra for the winning song in the Netherlands. I wasn’t unhappy about that at all. Jorge was a lovely man and a very good musician and arranger. He was older than me and perhaps a bit more old-fashioned in his approach, but he knew what he was doing. As the arranger, I was allowed by Portuguese television to come along to The Hague. While Jorge was rehearsing with the orchestra, I was in the theatre, sitting with the rest of our delegation. Jorge didn’t need any advice from me. He was more than capable of managing on his own. I had no role – basically it was rehearsal, go to a party, rehearsal, join an excursion, have a dinner somewhere, and finally go to the concert. But I enjoyed it.”
The international juries placed ‘Um grande, grande amor’ in seventh place, equalling Portugal’s best result in the contest at that point. Still, Sergeant and the Portuguese delegation couldn’t help feeling slightly disappointed. “The day before the festival in The Hague, there was a poll among delegates. As it turned out, a lot of people thought José was the favourite to win. This was the one song that was going to bring Portugal the Eurovision trophy. It was a good song, the orchestra did a fine job on the score, and José did well. He wasn’t nervous and was hoping to build an international career on top of his participation in the festival. Before we came to Holland, I really believed in the chances of the song too. Why didn’t we win? Well, because of a little problem called Johnny Logan! The first time I heard ‘What’s another year’, I knew pretty much that that was the winner. I only had this reaction twice… once in 1974 when I heard ABBA singing ‘Waterloo’ – and with Johnny Logan in The Hague. He was the obvious choice… although I still had hopes. Apparently, it wasn’t meant to be.”
In 1981, Mike Sergeant was back in the running in the Festival da Canção as an arranger – and for the first time also as a conductor – with Cocktail, a girl band who were the direct rivals of (but distinctly less successful than) Doce, for whom Sergeant had composed the monster hit ‘Amanhã do manhã’ the previous year. Music and lyrics for Cocktail’s entry in the 1981 festival, ‘Vem esquecer o passado’, were credited to Mike’s wife Luísa. “Well, actually I wrote it myself,” Sergeant admits, “but I couldn’t enter the festival in Portugal as a composer because I had no Portuguese passport. Eurovision was a competition between songwriters, you see. It was no problem for me to be in it as a performer, arranger, or conductor – but as a composer, no way! It was an annoying situation. I was working as a songwriter all year through, and quite successfully so, but once the most important music event of the year was due, I couldn’t be in it. The Cocktail song wasn’t one of my best. It was a typical Eurovision song – or at least an attempt at that – and I was hoping it might do well, but I’m not really proud of it. It didn’t even come close to winning.”
After competing as a conductor in the 1982 Festival da Canção with three songs, Sergeant had just one iron in the fire in the 1983 edition – but that one effort turned out to be the winner, ‘Esta balada que te dou’, a gentle melody performed at the piano by singer-songwriter Armando Gama. Sergeant wrote the orchestration, while the production was taken care of by his old friend Tozé Brito.
“It wasn’t the first time I worked with Armando. I had known him for quite some years. He was a good songwriter, a good musician, and a pleasant guy to work with. He was with Polydor. As I wrote many arrangements for that company at the time, I was commissioned to score some of his tunes. Initially, he was part of a duo, Sarabanda, with a girl called Cristiana Kopke. They took part in the Festival da Canção, but their entry didn’t do anything. After that, I orchestrated one Sarabanda album, and one album for Armando as a solo singer. So, when Armando received the news that ‘Esta balada’ had been admitted to the Festival da Canção in 1983, he asked me to be his musical director. When I first heard the song, I liked it, although the chorus instantly reminded me of ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ by Paul Simon. It’s not a rip-off, it’s just those six or seven notes. Armando left me free to write the arrangement as I liked. I first did the rhythm parts and then added some gentle string lines. The choral arrangement is also mine. In the Portuguese final, Armando won hands down. I was surprised because the guy who came in second (Herman José with ‘A cor do teu baton’ – BT) was very popular in Portugal… but from a musical point of view, I wasn’t surprised. Armando deserved to win with that song.”
Having led the orchestra for the winning entry in the Festival da Canção, Mike Sergeant was, by default, the conductor of the Portuguese delegation at the Eurovision Song Contest as well. In 1983, the international final was held in Munich, West Germany. “I wasn’t too excited about it, to be honest. It wasn’t the ambition of a lifetime to conduct in Eurovision. This was the third time I was part of the competition. It was a proud moment to have your name called out and to be introduced to all those viewers, but no more than that. By that time, I had conducted so many orchestras in the studio and on stage. A couple of years previously, in Mexico, I was the musical director for José Cid when he represented Portugal in the OTI Festival. I didn’t have the kind of nerves like in Paris, when I had to perform. When I went to Munich, I was totally at ease with standing up in front of an orchestra. It was just another gig – a routine job, if you like.”
“To me, conducting an orchestra has always been a means to an end. I don’t really like being the front man, not on stage and not in front of an orchestra. I never studied conducting, but the actual directing of the orchestra is really quite easy in pop music. It's only about beating four in a bar. You actually see a lot of conductors who give the count-in to the orchestra and then stand there with their hands almost continually to their side. If you trust the orchestra, there’s no problem in that. I did that a few times as well.”
“Being a good conductor is all about musicianship, about having a good ear. When something goes wrong in rehearsals, you’ve also got to be able to make fast decisions. When I went to Mexico with José, the orchestra’s two French horn players were notoriously difficult to tune together. This could have become a real problem, but after a short while I just said that we would use only one of them. It was a bit tricky, because you cannot insult a player by bluntly sending him the message that the orchestra will sound better without him. You’ve got to come up with a plausible excuse… so an element of psychology is required too. At the contest in Munich, however, the rehearsals were fine. The orchestra was very good. I didn’t have to worry about the tempo. Armando played the first eight bars on the piano, after which I counted in the orchestra following his lead. No, I wasn’t nervous at all.”
As so often before, Portugal, in spite of having one of the musically more interesting contributions in the contest, finished in the lower half of the scoreboard. The international juries put Armando Gama in thirteenth place. “This song was ‘touch and go’,” reflects Sergeant. “It could have done well, depending on what type of song the juries were looking for. I don’t think Armando felt all that disappointed. Personally, I don’t have that many memories of Munich… just lots of beer! One night, a party for all delegations was thrown by the guy who wrote the winning song the year before, Ralph Siegel. That was a bit unusual. Typically, the bigger parties at Eurovision were held either by local councils or the organising broadcasting companies, but Siegel just did it on a personal level, as a gesture to all those participating in the contest.”
In the remainder of the 1980s and the early part of the following decade, Mike Sergeant became more and more involved in his work as José Cid’s musical director on concert tours, leaving less time for session work. As a result, he took part in the Festival da Canção as an arranger only three times in the ten following years. In 1996 and 1997, however, when José Cid entered the festival as a songwriter, Sergeant was called upon once more to conduct the orchestra. “But there wasn’t much to it. In 1997, when José’s song was performed by Os Meninos da Sacristia, the arrangement wasn’t even done by me, but by the guitarist in the group, Francisco Martins. As he was going to be on stage, he obviously couldn’t conduct at the same time. They gave me a call at the last minute, asking me if I could do the job for them. It was just those three minutes… I didn’t really have much to do with it.”
In 1998, for the third successive year, José Cid entered a song in the Portuguese selection. This time, his composition came first. With the maximum vote of all juries, folk band Alma Lusa won the ticket to the international final in Birmingham with ‘Se eu te pudesse abraçar’. Commissioned by José Cid, Sergeant wrote the arrangement for the song and came along to the United Kingdom to conduct the orchestra for the Portuguese entry.
“The song was based on Portuguese folklore, with an instrumentation including a fado guitar, Portuguese bagpipes, and a ukulele. José put the group together specifically with this song in mind. Alma Lusa always was a one-off project for Eurovision. I wasn’t involved in creating the group, which consisted of musicians José had worked with previously. The girl who sang the main part, Inês Santos, was a recent discovery of his. I had met her once before in the recording studio at José’s farm in Northern Portugal. When José had finished writing the song, I went up there to record the basic track with him. He then asked me to add a string arrangement, but we didn’t do that the same day. A week or two later, he came down to Lisbon, taking the demo with him. He headed into town, leaving me with a recording machine to do the job. When he came back to me around dinner time, I was already done. I kept it very, very simple. The song was mainly about the rhythm track and the folkloric instruments. It didn’t require anything more than just some strings very discreetly in the background.”
“Although I never discussed it with him, José must have been keen to do Eurovision again. He didn’t play in the original recording which we submitted to the RTP and he wasn’t part of Alma Lusa in the Portuguese final. Then, all of a sudden, when I called him to discuss some other matter, José told me he had decided to include himself in the group for Birmingham, playing the accordion. Together, we prepared a backing track including all rhythm elements. It was José’s choice to do so. Just the strings were played live by the orchestra in Birmingham. It made my life as a conductor very simple. I only had to count in the string section. Of course, the rehearsals were flawless. In England, there are so many good musicians waiting in the wings to get their chance that it’s very rare you get to work with mediocre orchestras. British musicians are among the best you can get anywhere. Even though it was my fourth time at Eurovision, I never ceased to be amazed by the way it runs – the same clockworks as always. Excepting the staging, which had become a little bit more professional in the meantime, it was more or less the same contest as at my first go in 1978.”
“Honestly, I went to Birmingham without expectations. I was excited by the prospect of doing Eurovision for the fourth time, but if it had been with a song like ‘Um grande, grande amor’, I would have been more excited. ‘Se eu te pudesse abraçar’ wasn’t one of José’s better songs. It won the festival in Portugal because it wasn’t a great final. The other entries were even weaker. José’s name and reputation probably gave it a bit of an advantage, pushing it into first place. It’s one of those songs you listen to, you enjoy it because the melody is pleasant, but when the next song comes up, you’ve forgotten all about it. It was too bland to make an impression. Furthermore, even if Inês always sang in tune, I didn’t like her voice very much, but that was very personal.”
In Birmingham, Israel’s Dana International walked away with the Eurovision trophy, while Alma Lusa finished in a joint-twelfth position in a field of twenty-five competing entries. “We finished more or less as I expected,” Sergeant comments. “I was sure we were not going to win, but we weren’t among the worst entries either. Harmonically, our song wasn’t very interesting, but let’s face it; when you go to Eurovision in the UK, you don’t want to try to do a rock song in English. There’s no point in that – the public there have already heard music like that. It’s much better to bring some Portuguese folklore to the stage. It was a good idea to work it into the song. It was a pity the contest was won by that song from Israel. I don’t understand why people voted for it. It wasn’t good at all.”
The 1998 Eurovision Song Contest in Birmingham was the last edition of the festival with a live orchestra. When asked if the demise of the orchestra in the festival was inevitable, Sergeant reflects, “Well, this all has to do with those who manage television nowadays. If you put someone who doesn’t know anything about music in charge of your TV station, he will look at the papers and make a simple calculation. Hiring an orchestra for a week is expensive. Without an orchestra, the show will turn out much cheaper, and that’s the only thing those guys are interested in. For exactly the same reason, record companies in the 1980s refused to pay for large studio orchestras, because directors realised they could hire one guy with a synthesiser to replace up to thirty musicians. When the Eurovision Song Contest stopped being a live music programme, it lost a lot of its attraction. Back in the day when I took part, the whole of Portugal came to a standstill when the Festival da Canção was held. Literally everyone watched it. That’s not the case any longer. With all music pre-recorded, there’s no atmosphere to the show. In fact, it’s become pretty rubbishy. The same is true for the international festival.”
“Yeah, I do still watch it… not because of the songs, though. With very few exceptions, the music isn’t interesting at all. Some of the winning entries were really ridiculous – I mean, that Austrian guy who won a couple of years ago… people can be straight, gay, transvestite, whatever, it’s all fine with me – but going on stage for 200 million people with a long evening gown and a big beard is a bit weird, isn’t it? It’s become a completely different contest nowadays. For me, watching Eurovision is essentially a bit of nostalgia – I mean, it was quite an important part of my career. Back in the 1960s, when living in Britain, I didn’t even watch it. I wasn’t interested. It was only after coming to Portugal that I realised the importance of the event. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, winning the Portuguese final was a huge career booster – even a stepping stone to a professional career for some. If you wanted to make yourself heard, that was the podium to do it… and, having reached the Eurovision Song Contest four times, I think I made the most of it!”
To close off our interview, we couldn’t resist asking Mike’s opinion of Salvador Sobral’s ‘Amar pelos dois’, Portugal’s first-ever Eurovision winner. “The first time I heard that song, I realised how good it was. It’s funny, because it’s the only song that Salvador’s sister ever wrote which is up to that standard. It’s a pretty song which is a bit jazzy and with Brazilian influences, especially in the lyrics. Salvador’s interpretation was marvellous. In all, it was totally different from any other song in that Eurovision Song Contest. People here in Portugal were ecstatic about winning the festival. In the past, Portuguese musicians were trying a bit too hard to figure out what Eurovision wanted and write accordingly… but Eurovision is always changing. You can never tell if the winner is going to be a ballad or an upbeat number. I guess Salvador’s win was important in that respect. Finally, musicians here realise they don’t have to follow trends in other countries to be successful in Eurovision – and now they’re more positive in their approach; “we did it once, we can do it again”, that sort of thing… and it might happen. Stranger things have happened, you know!”
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