Rony BrackBorn: June 23rd, 1956, Wilrijk, Antwerp (Belgium)
Keen to improve the sound of his high school band, Rony was about to purchase a new electric guitar. After attending a performance of Belgian band Placebo at Antwerp’s Jazz Middelheim summer festival, however, he changed his mind: “Marc Moulin, who was in Placebo at that time, had a small electric piano. I was at the festival with one of my pals from our little blues band. He immediately suggested buying such a piano instead of a guitar. It was a good idea, because no other of our rival bands included a pianist… and that is basically why I became a piano player again. Honestly, it was a good thing; I was a mediocre guitarist and rather more apt at playing the piano after all these years of classical studies. Besides, the sound of our band improved markedly thanks to that electric piano. After a while, I swapped this very small piano for a real Fender Rhodes. Meanwhile, I was keenly looking for inspiration in records of Chick Corea and Soft Machine. Surprisingly, given that we never were anything more than a local Antwerp band, we even made it to nationwide television; it was a live show broadcast from the American Theatre in Brussels. Some TV producer must have felt like showcasing young Belgian talent. How he found out about us is beyond my knowledge. One of the other acts in that programme was George Benson. He was very friendly and, during rehearsals, he even sat down next to me at the piano, playing a couple of bars – just for fun.”
After obtaining his secondary school diploma in 1974, Cynical broke up as group members went their different ways. Rony took up studying psychology at Brussels’ Vrije Universiteit, but after a year, he decided to stop in favour of trying to make a living as a musician. “While going to college in Brussels, I played with a band called The O’Kays, which was based at the OK Club, a discotheque in Antwerp. At some point, Fred Bekky (pseudonym of Fred Beeckmans – BT), who had recently disbanded his group, The Pebbles, had a conversation with one of the owners of the club, telling him about his plans to form a new band for which he was looking for a pianist. The manager suggested my name to Fred – and after hearing me play for a bit, he effectively offered me the job. I figured that this was a risk that was worthy taking... an opportunity to see if I could actually be a music professional. If it wouldn’t work after two or three years, I could always go back to university.”
Bekky’s group project, with himself, Sofie Verbruggen and Bob ‘Bobott’ Baelemans up front, was called Trinity; with Dutch producer Hans van Hemert behind them, they released several single records in the disco genre, of which ‘002.345.709 (That’s my number)’ was a top-ten chart success in Belgium as well as the Netherlands in 1976. “I was not involved in that recording,” Rony explains. “It was done in Hilversum. I was one of the background musicians who accompanied Bob, Fred and Sofie on their live shows across Flanders and the Netherlands. Initially, we mainly played cover tunes to make up for the lack of original songs, but week after week, the covers were replaced by Bob’s and Fred’s compositions. For me, Trinity was a learning project. I was in my early twenties and finding out day by day how things were done. While being in Trinity, Fred and Bob were also producing other Belgian artists. Whenever they were in the studio, I was hanging around, watching how they went about. Once, I substituted for a Dutch session keyboard player who was pretty popular at that time due to his specific style of playing. Having heard him at work several times, I played the piano part exactly the way he would have. Fred said he was rather impressed with the job I had done. Experiences like this made me realise that I wanted to get into the studio business. I preferred it way over touring and doing live gigs, where you would be playing the same songs night after night – whereas in the studio, new music is being created every day.”
For the time being, though, opportunities to prove his worth as a session player in commercial recording projects were few and far between. Whilst performing with Trinity, Rony got the opportunity to record demos in a small studio in Sint-Niklaas with top session players Evert Verhees (bass) and Willy Heynen (guitar): “With these two guys, I greatly expanded my knowledge. We played some pretty advanced stuff, involving complicated jazz harmonies. I found I could keep up with them. With the Sint-Niklaas session group, I also went to the London Music Fair where we played a couple of demonstrations.”
“At a given point,” Rony continues, “Willy Heynen, who wrote a lot of arrangements for Etienne Verschueren’s BRT Jazz Orchestra and the TV Orchestra of Francis Bay, asked me to become his copyist. That was a generous offer, given that I had no experience in that field whatsoever. Willy sent me his arrangements, which I copied over to individual partitions for each instrument. Mostly, I did this writing overnight – and in the morning, I dropped the partitions off at Willy’s. Heynen got me in touch with Freddy Sunder, another experienced arranger for radio and television – and I started doing the same job for Freddy. Usually, when bringing them the partitions, I stuck around for a bit. Willy and Freddy gave me lots of pointers… textbooks about harmony and tonal music, for example. I spent hours and hours with them, picking their brains about any given type of music. Both of them were seasoned musicians who knew their trade. Freddy Sunder was a very nice bloke. He liked his alcohol quite well… and so did I at that time. Sometimes, we spent hours and hours with a bottle of whiskey and a pack of cigarettes on the table, talking about music or life in general. I continued working for Freddy and Willy for some three years. Copying their arrangements never really progressed into writing arrangements for the BRT orchestras myself. All the same, though, Sunder and Heynen are among a variety of musicians from different corners of the industry who helped me obtaining the information I needed to become an all-round music professional.”
Of course, Rony’s parents were not overjoyed about their son’s decision to quit his university studies in favour of the vagabond life of a musician. “They felt tours and studio sessions were no career,” Rony laughs, “and who could blame them? My dad wasn’t a fan of modern pop music either, so it was hard for me to convince him to come to any of my concerts. One day, however, Evert Verhees needed me and Walter Mets to back up Toots Thielemans with him for a set of five songs in an open-air concert. Now, you have to know that my father played the harmonica; and Toots was his big idol. So I told dad that he really had to attend this show I was playing in, claiming that I was sure he would like it, of course without telling him about Toots. I still remember how his jaw dropped in amazement when Toots walked onto the stage. Afterwards, I guided him into the dressing room where he got to meet Toots, who congratulated him on having such a talented son. From that moment on, my father was completely at peace with my career choice. After all, what could go wrong after Toots Thielemans had assured him I was going to make it?!”
Meanwhile, after an unsuccessful bid to win the Belgian pre-selection for the Eurovision Song Contest (1977), disco group Trinity soldiered on for one more year before Fred Bekky and Bob Baelemans finally decided to disband in 1978. Not long afterwards, Antwerp-based impresario Hans Kusters signed Fred Beeckmans (Bekky) as well as Rony Brack as backing musicians for a tour with Dutch troubadour Boudewijn de Groot. Brack was also responsible for the Fender Rhodes parts on De Groot’s 1980 album ‘Van een afstand’, which was recorded in Hilversum’s Wisseloord Studios.
“It was one of the first times I got to work with top level session players,” Rony recalls. “After the album release, we did a tour across the Netherlands and Belgium, which lasted for about a year. Working with Boudewijn was good fun. He was rather detached, but generally speaking a very laid back type of guy; I have nothing but good to say about him. Being on stage with him was a completely different experience than I had become accustomed to with Trinity, who were performing in discotheques with people standing up, laughing, dancing, talking; with Boudewijn, we played in theatres, with people sitting down and listening, being very quiet – which suited me rather better. One of the other players in Boudewijn’s band was Henny Vrienten, who managed to annoy all the rest of us at every soundcheck by playing the weirdest of reggae bass lines. He was always going on about how he wanted to play reggae music – and none of us took him seriously at the time, but it was not long before Henny’s own band Doe Maar became really popular with songs in that genre!”
When the Boudewijn de Groot concert series ended, Brack embarked on a short Pebbles reunion tour with Fred Bekky, Bob Baelemans and Luc Smets (1981). While this tour was not particularly successful commercially, it was important in another way, as it was the first time Rony Brack played the synthesizer. “The tour was sponsored by British Music Store, who had given us one of the first polyphonic synthesizers, an Oberheim OBX. Luc Smets was at a loss at how the bloody thing worked! He preferred sticking to just playing the piano, passing the synthesizer on to me. I tried the manual – but it turned out to be completely useless. Books – not available. As it turned out, Ghent’s University had an electronic music department, so in utter desperation I called them, but their scientists were mainly interested in creating ambient noise, not in music. So what could I do? Well, I just spent hours and hours, trying to do something with it… and after some trial and error, I quite got the hang of it!”
According to Brack, his mastering of the synthesizer was the key moment in his career as a musician. Virtually overnight, he became one of the most sought-after session players in Belgium. Brack: “Back then, one of the most prolific music producers in Flanders was Roland Verlooven. I had done the odd studio session with him before as a pianist or Fender Rhodes player. After he had seen what I did on the Pebbles tour, he booked me on a studio session to do a synth part. I cannot for the world remember for which artist it was, but Roland was very happy with it – and then this new local synthesizer player became the talk of the town. From that day on, I was immersed in sessions in all the main recording studios in Brussels twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Remember, I was the only person available… with the exception of Dan Lacksman of Telex, who was a great synthesizer programmer and sound engineer, but he needed a pianist to play. Once producers found out I was more than just a programmer and that I could actually play the synths, they hired me to do the programming as well as the playing. For some time, in the early 1980s, I must have played on ninety percent of the music productions in Belgium that involved any kind of electronic stuff. I owe Roland Verlooven, who was a wonderful man and a great friend anyway, a big ‘thank you’ for taking the gamble and giving me the opportunity.”
In the course of the 1980s, Rony Brack played synthesizer in studio productions with countless Belgian artists from all corners of the popular music business, including the likes of Urbanus, Will Tura, Henri Seroka, Plastic Bertrand, Jeff Reynaerts and Clouseau. In 1983, Brack discovered Dutch singer-songwriter Hans de Booij, with whom he recorded his successful debut album.
“That Hans de Booij album was virtually a one man band; there is a saxophonist playing on one or two tracks, but everything else – piano, synthesizer, bass, rhythm box, arrangements, production… the whole thing was done by me, as there was no budget to hire others to do it. These were demo recordings, with which we hoped to convince publisher Hans Kusters to give us the chance to do the album in one of the regular studios; without my knowledge, however, Kusters released the demos – and then sales went through the roof. Unfortunately, there were some discussions about rights and money afterwards, but in spite of that, I had proved I could be more than a session musician; if need be, in cases when there was no top-notch producer like Roland Verlooven, Pino Marchese or Lou Deprijck at hand, I could help out as a producer whilst playing keyboards and synths at the same time. In the second half of the 1980s, I did more and more producing work, though often without being credited accordingly. The job involved hiring the right session musicians, writing little arrangements here and there and leading sessions. It was never my ambition to be a producer, but circumstances sometimes made it inevitable that I was one.”
In 1985, Rony got to work with harmonica genius Toots Thielemans for the second time, as he was commissioned by producers Bruno Castellucci and Evert Verhees to take care of the synthesizer parts of Toots’ album release ‘Your precious love’. “Evert and Bruno wanted to create a more modern sound for Toots,” Rony explains, “in line with what Quincy Jones was doing in the US. I brought in the electronic stuff they were looking for. It was a good album – and working with Toots always was a highlight. He was one of the nicest persons imaginable. It didn’t matter to him if your status in the industry was high or low; he simply respected every musician. Moreover, he was very humble as well. During the recording of ‘Your precious love’, Toots explained to us that he needed a couple of days off because he had a gig in London. These were the early days of satellite television, and I remember watching a Billy Joel concert, broadcast live from Wembley Stadium – and out walks Toots, playing along to just one song. When he came back to Brussels, we asked: “Is that what you call a gig?” But Toots just shrugged and said he was quite happy about it. In spite of being one of the world’s greatest musicians, he had no qualms about playing the second fiddle to others.”
Towards the end of the 1980s, Rony Brack got involved in a new type of Belgian underground music, ‘new beat’ – nowadays recognised as one of the precursors of techno. He was the producer of house act Big Tony and released several records under the pseudonym B-Art, including a cover version of Adriano Celentano’s ‘Prisencolinensinainciusol’. Rony hit his stride when he composed and recorded the 1988 world-wide hit song ‘Drop the deal’ under the new artist name Code 61.
Brack: “Essentially, ‘Drop the deal’ is a compilation of sound samples with additional vocals done by me. The entire instrumentation was mine as well. Initially, I was quite happy that the new beat thing came along. The genre offered the possibility to come up with something original. By this time, cheaper synthesizers with pre-sets had appeared on the scene. After a while, everyone used these pre-made sounds, the result being that, for some years, many European pop music recordings sounded alike. It took the art away from synthesis. With new beat, I was looking to get away from that. On the downside, the genre was marketed by finding a bunch of good-looking guys to perform the playbacks in video clips and TV appearances; it didn’t take long before I got tired of this fake stuff, all the more so when those involved wanted more and more money, more than I would agree to. It was disappointing, but all things have to come to an end at some point.”
In the following seven years (1989-1996), Brack mainly worked for the French-speaking market. He produced Pierre Rapsat’s album ‘J’ouvre les yeux’ (1989) whilst also teaming up with Philippe Lafontaine, Alain Souchon and Maurane. Furthermore, he performed in stage shows across France with singer Gilbert Montagné. Meanwhile, Rony had met his future wife, Los Angeles-born singer-songwriter Toni Kasza. Having come to Europe to attempt a breakthrough, she was picked up by Belgian producers, who were looking to have her compositions recorded by others – but who eventually gave her the opportunity to record a solo album. “I met Toni in Brussels,” Rony comments. “We were good friends for about a year and a half before we became more than friends. Unfortunately, while working on her album, the guys of the production company got in financial trouble – and the album was cancelled. As a favour, I was given the original tapes of the material that had already been recorded. As it happened, with a good friend of mine, saxophonist Pietro Lacirignola, I had just opened a little studio in Brussels, Music Lab. There, we finished her CD, ‘Broken hearts and promises’, which was released on Sony Records.”
By the mid-1990s, Toni and Rony were living together with two sons – and Toni was working extensively as a backing singer in Brussels’ recording studios. Rony sold his part of the Music Lab studio to Pietro Lacirignola to focus on production work, but, as he puts it: “I got more and more tired of the local music business. Belgian productions were done in small studios with minimal budgets. My job was being a producer, but many artists were convinced they could manage their albums without me. I had no dreams anymore – and I wasn’t even forty yet, so I needed to change. Because I was working with some of the biggest artists in France, I could have gone to Paris, but in the end we chose Los Angeles. I had already visited the States several times and even did some studio work there with producer Greg Penny, who was a great friend. I had come to appreciate American mentality. In Belgium, when making a record, people were always asking me to create a certain sound they had heard on an album from England or America. When that happened, I was always wondering why you would want to do something that already exists. In the US, something new is always appreciated. Besides, Americans are optimistic. They believe in what they do and simply hope it works – and I like that approach. I was looking forward to try my hand at making a living as a musician in the USA.”
Finally, in 1996, Rony Brack and his family took the leap, settling down in LA. Thanks to the royalties of his hit composition ‘Drop the deal’, Rony had ample time to look for work. In the following four years, he mainly teamed up with two friends in the record business, Greg Penny (connected to KD Lang, Elton John, etc.) and engineer Lee DeCarlo (John Lennon, Aerosmith, The Eagles). Thanks to DeCarlo, Brack was involved in recording the album ‘Stronger than death’ with heavy metal guitarist Zakk Wylde. Moreover, he was a producer for demo recordings with young artists eager to obtain a record deal. After a couple of years, however, Rony began to think of a new career change: “Lee DeCarlo, who had been my big supporter in the record business, was about to retire… and I wasn’t really enamoured with being a babysitter of alcoholic rock ‘n’ roll artists any longer. There was a lot of drugs and alcohol involved – and at some point I found myself driving home an inebriated artist who had started throwing microphones at a colleague during a nightly recording session. It was ridiculous. At that point, I thought to myself: “There have got to be nicer ways to make a living than with these kind of guys”.”
“As it happened,” Rony continues, “once in a while, I was playing recreational football with a bunch of European guys. Luck had it that one of them, Mike Young, a Welshman, was a cartoon film maker. Once he found out I was a musician, he told me he had just begun working on a children’s animation series for TV, ‘Horrible histories’… and he was looking for someone to compose the music to it. Of course I took the job. Unfortunately, it stopped after the 2002 season, but by that time, I had met some other people along the soccer fields where my kids were playing. They were preparing a series of short documentaries for TNN television about people who became famous overnight; it was called ‘Fame for 15’. As all of these stories were so different, they required different types of music. I could insert tango music when the subject was an Argentine plumber, and a drama score when the story turned sad – it was all over the place: bouzoukis, African stuff, you name it. This job suited me down to the ground! I had never really thought of myself as a composer before, but it turned out I really liked writing music to images.”
After ‘Horrible histories’ and ‘Fame for 15’, both of which occurred in 2000-2002, one thing led to another. Rony was signed by Warner Bros Productions to write theme tunes and cues to their productions for several television stations, which he has been doing ever since. His compositions have been used for a wide range of programmes, including daily talk shows, such as the Tyra Banks Show and the Ellen DeGeneres Show, to infotainment programmes including, amongst many others, ‘Judge Mathis’ and ‘Crime watch daily’. He has also contributed cues to long-running gossip shows Extra (on NBC) and TMZ (FOX).
“Warner Bros has what could be called a private music library,” Rony explains. “Editors can choose what kind of music to put in a particular sequel of a daily show or a documentary. There is a pool of about a dozen of writers available for some twenty-five shows – and we each write in the style that we are most familiar with. There is a guy who is very good at hip-hop, someone else is a little bit better at blues – and my talent seems to be the dramatic stuff… so if there are casualties to be shown on screen, that is good for me! For a daily show, there are usually six or seven composers involved. There is not much competition between us, because there is plenty of work. Working for Warner has allowed me to broaden my outlook on music. An example? Well, some years ago, I was commissioned to create a trailer with a really bombastic orchestral sound. Of course, in Belgium, I had written simple string arrangements, but writing trailer music is in a completely different league. I immersed myself in textbooks about orchestration – which took me straight to classical music, a genre which hitherto had never really interested me much. Once I had listened to a bit of Tchaikovsky, I really got into his music. It is wonderful how you can draw your inspiration from some guy who wrote his music over one-hundred years ago.”
Away from television music, Brack co-composed the music to several films – but mainly as a ghost-writer for others. In 2017, he wrote the entire score to ‘Pure bodies’, a French-Belgian short film, which received several prizes and was featured in the 2018 Palm Springs International Shortfest. Of late, he has become involved in writing music for Oculus, a Virtual Reality (VR) production company. “I am always keen to try my hand at new things,” Rony comments, “and this was something I had never done before. Nowadays, more and more cinemas include a VR room, which allows playing movies where the scene is all around you – as if you are walking in the Grand Canyon, for example. Now, as a composer, you are supposed to write music that fits all time frames that people need to cross the valley or do anything else in any particular experience. The music has to be built up in different layers; nothing like those repetitive loops which people hated so much in old computer games! The most famous of the VR experiences I did is Space Ride, which was distributed to cinemas across the world. In Space Ride, a pilot flies his plane into outer space… and it is so realistic that some people in the audience actually threw up when the plane was upside down. These VR things make a nice change from my TV work.”
After so many years in the United States, does Rony Brack never miss Belgium? “Well, actually, not really. What I do miss is a Belgium that is no longer there. I look back fondly on the fifteen years in which I had the opportunity to work with great artists, but that time doesn’t exist anymore – most studios are out of business and the people I loved working with have moved on as well. It is fair to say that I have become accustomed to living in America. Yes, I am rooted in LA. For a start, the weather here is much better than in Europe! Most importantly, though, after all these years, I am still happy being able to make a living as a composer here.”
Rony Brack in the Eurovision Song Contest
Five years later, Brack was credited as one of four songwriters for ‘Si tu aimes ma musique’, Belgium’s entry to the 1982 Eurovision Song Contest in Harrogate. Strikingly, though the song represented the French-speaking broadcasting service RTBF, singer Stella Maessen, who had grown up in the Netherlands, had never performed in French before – and she had to learn to sing the words to her Eurovision song phonetically. The music to ‘Si tu aimes ma musique’ were by Fred Bekky and Bob Baelemans, whilst the lyrics were attributed to Rony Brack and Jo May. In reality, Rony wrote the original English-language lyrics (‘If you do like my music’), which were then translated into French by Jo May to comply with Eurovision rules.
Asked about the 1982 Belgian entry, which landed a more than respectable fourth place at the international festival final in Harrogate, Rony admits: “I don’t remember that much. After Trinity split up, I continued working with Fred Bekky as a session player. Back then, I wrote and co-wrote some English song lyrics from time to time. My English has always been pretty good, so whenever I came across some awful lyrics during a studio session, I corrected them to avoid horrible mistakes being recorded. Whenever I wasn’t entirely sure if a certain line was correct, I called one of my American friends living in Belgium. I was always wondering why people were spending all their time and energy to have their baby record released and paying so little attention to the lyrics. It isn’t more complicated than a phone call. As for ‘Si tu aimes ma musique’, I don’t think I did anything more than write those English lyrics; everything else that came after – submitting it for the Belgian finals, translating it into French or recording the studio version – was done by others. I wasn’t in the Belgian delegation for Eurovision Song Contest. Of course, I was happy for Fred Bekky. He is one of the most influential people in my career, a friendly guy and a good musician.”
As one of Belgium’s most sought-after session players in the 1980s, it comes as no surprise that Rony Brack was involved in recording the studio version of several Belgian pre-selection efforts – as well as the odd international entry. Most notably, in 1984, he played synthesizer on the record version of that year’s Belgian Eurovision song ‘Avanti la vie’ by Jacques Zegers (composition: Henri Seroka).
Towards the end of the 1980s, beside his work as a synthesizer player, Rony Brack did more and more production work for Belgian and French artists; Philippe Lafontaine was one. Rony: “Lafontaine was a very good singer-songwriter who had to wait many years before finally managing his breakthrough with ‘Cœur de loup’, his hit in 1989. Before that, he didn’t have a budget to his disposal, but he still asked all the good session players to help him; I played on many of his records as well. Sometimes, he paid us a little bit and sometimes he didn’t… but we all liked his music and hoped he would be a star. He wrote ‘Cœur de loup’ in one day. We were already in the process of recording his new album, but he needed one extra song – and he came up with that. We were in a real hurry. Everything had to be done in one afternoon session. When I came into the studio, it turned out all instruments were out of sync – and had to be put right. We just did one take. It was a case of a last minute demo becoming a big hit.”
Philippe Lafontaine’s chart success with ‘Cœur de loup’ must have played a role in RTBF’s decision to ask him to represent Belgium in the 1990 Eurovision Song Contest in Zagreb without having to go through any form of pre-selection process. Having been given carte blanche, Lafontaine chose to sing ‘Macédomienne’ (My Macedonian girl), an ode to his wife who originated from Macedonia, one of the states of Yugoslavia – poignantly enough the country where the international festival final was due to be held. As Lafontaine was adamant not to make profit from the love for his wife, he decided not to release the song; thus, only a minimal number of promo singles was printed.
As the song’s producer, Rony Brack was not overjoyed about Lafontaine’s decision. “Philippe was claiming he didn’t want to make money in his wife’s name. At the time, I told him he was a madman. “I just produced a record for you and you don’t want to sell it?” We would certainly have made some money out of it, even if it had sold only a couple of thousand copies. As far as I could make out, this whole trick of destroying the original record after five-hundred copies had been printed was 90% a commercial trick and 10% the love of his wife. I quite liked ‘Macédomienne’, though admittedly Philippe composed songs that inspired me more. We did the recording at Dan Lacksman’s studio in Brussels. I played virtually every note of it on synthesizer. It’s basically completely programmed, except for the guitar part, which was played by Eric Melaerts. The very low background vocals were all mine as well.”
“I agreed with Lafontaine to produce his song on one condition,” Rony adds. “which was I wanted to conduct it in the Eurovision Song Contest. Philippe was completely ok with that. I wrote a string arrangement, done with synths for the studio version, but which were going to be done live in Zagreb. As I was no expert of working with real orchestras, I called upon Gyuri Spies to orchestrate my arrangement. I wanted to avoid going to Zagreb and finding out during rehearsals that I had committed some silly mistake… writing the cello parts an octave too low or too high, something like that. Gyuri was a professional orchestrator who wrote my lines in the right height with the right intonations. The arrangement did not include any brass. There were just the strings, whilst all rhythm instruments were included on the backing track. As I had done the backing vocals on the record, Philippe and I for a while considered having me sing and conduct at the same time in Zagreb, but in the end we agreed that this was too risky and stressful – and therefore they hired an extra backing singer, Eric Chale. This would allow me to focus on the orchestra. The rest of the backing group consisted of Philippe’s regular studio musicians. Understandably, he relied on the people who had helped him doing his previous records. They could look forward to a week of relaxation as they didn’t have to think of anything more than pretending to play the parts which were on the backing track.”
For Rony Brack, who was not an experienced conductor at all, standing in front of the Eurovision orchestra was quite a prospect. “Yes, I was excited. It was an experience I was very interested in, though I never aspired at being a conductor in the true sense of the word. Conducting classical orchestras is an art form of its own… and something I would make a mess of in the first sixteen bars. But there was no reason to be nervous; I would be working with a click track and there was only the string section to take care of. The main thing would be to count in the orchestra correctly. After that, you could stand on your head and the string players would have finished playing such a simple arrangement without much problem anyway! It was more an honour thing than real conducting. Nevertheless, in the build-up to the contest, I read articles about the basics of conducting and bought a textbook about it. I also asked one or two colleagues from the business with more experience than me for a word of advice – simply to make sure I would not make a mess of the one-two-three-four at the beginning!”
Again, as a proof of how special he felt the occasion of conducting the Eurovision orchestra was, Brack took a most unusual baton with him to Zagreb. “It was a kind of magic wand, if you like,” he laughs. “At the time, I was exploring New Age and meditation. It helped to calm me down a bit and have a nicer outlook on life. Though I did not live in the USA yet at that time, I regularly travelled over to Los Angeles with my American wife Toni… and there I discovered this whole New Age scene. People were walking around wearing crystal earrings; and across LA, there were specialised bookstores and shops which sold those cheap New Age crystals. One day, in Santa Monica, we walked by one of these stores – and all of a sudden, in one of the shop windows, I saw this wand which was full of crystals, and I said to my wife: “Look, wow, that is cool!”, and then right after: “Wait a minute, perhaps I can use that to conduct the orchestra in Zagreb”. This was only weeks before the contest was due, and I needed to buy a baton anyway as I didn’t have one. So I just bought it. I thought of it as a novelty; a way to make the experience of doing Eurovision even more memorable.”
Judging from interviews with other competitors in the 1990 Eurovision Song Contest in Zagreb, virtually nobody realised they were travelling to a country which was about to descend into civil war – but Brack was an exception: “I remember having a phone conversation with my brother-in-law, who taught political science at Indiana University, shortly before the festival. He said: “It is ok to go there now, but in six months Yugoslavia probably doesn’t exist any longer”. He saw what was coming. Once in Zagreb, I found the city really nice. Our delegation was staying in a small hotel, right in front of a park where I could jog a bit in the morning hours. The people were very friendly and I loved the food. Close to the hotel, there was a small restaurant which served a wide variety of mushroom dishes. When abroad, I always have a tendency to eat the local food instead of hotel meals – and this restaurant was excellent, so I went there a couple of times during the week.”
Armed with his crystal wand, Rony Brack climbed the conductor’s platform to do the rehearsals with the Yugoslavian orchestra. Were there any hiccups? “Well, the beginning was a bit of a challenge,” he recalls. “The first time I counted them in, the musicians started playing half a second late – in other words, not in sync with the pre-recorded stuff on the backing track which came through my earphones. That’s when I found out that distance matters! The orchestra had been put up on three or four balconies. The musicians sitting on the top balcony didn’t see my hand coming down at the same time as the guys sitting right in front of me. I realised that I had to speed up a bit, and, when we tried a second time, everything was just fine. Otherwise the rehearsals were quite uneventful. After these three or four run-throughs, I knew there was nothing to be nervous about.”
During rehearsals, some of the other participating conductors noticed that hardly any camera attention was given to the orchestra, and none at all to the maestros conducting it. As it turned out during the first dress rehearsal, the local producers had decided to do away with the traditional bow allowed to each country’s conductor in advance of the song, in order to cut time. In the Eurovision Song Contest, this was an unprecedented move.
Brack: “We were told they didn’t have enough satellite time at their disposal to finish the whole show. Rather unwisely from their point of view, Yugoslavian television had put all conductors in the same backstage room together for the rehearsals. It was obvious that the majority of them were not going to put up with this. “You go conduct it yourself,” was the attitude towards the organisers. I heartily agreed. Conducting in Eurovision was an honour, so we didn’t deserve being put somewhere in the back. I have never seen a concert somewhere without the conductor being announced in some way or another. It was simply a bad idea! We decided to go on a strike. We wouldn’t do it unless they reversed their decision. I was one of the younger guys. There were others who spoke up on behalf of us, but they must have done so convincingly, because panic broke out in the production team. We were locked up in our separate room to avoid the press finding out about it. It was quite an experience! Actually, it took quite long before they got it solved – and in the end, there was some sort of a compromise. We were to be shown on screen, but the duration of the close-ups would be several seconds shorter than usual.”
Rony’s most vivid memory of this episode of all conductors of the contest being locked in one room is of Alyn Ainsworth (1924-1990), who led the orchestra for that year’s UK entry. “Alyn was a guy I looked up to,” Brack explains. “Generally speaking, during the Eurovision week, I hung out a lot with conductors from other countries, exchanging anecdotes and talking about each other’s careers – some of them were guys who had never stood in front of an orchestra, but there was a bunch of seasoned musicians as well… and Alyn Ainsworth was one. I knew him by name and reputation; one of the best and most experienced conductors in the business. While we were all locked up, I found myself seated next to him. There was lots of noise in the room, people shouting and arguing – talking about going on strike. And all the while, Alyn was just sitting there, stone-faced. I introduced myself to him as the conductor for Belgium and we started a little conversation. We were both looking at the chaos around us, and at some point, he turned to me and just said: “Exciting, isn’t it?” That was his very British, very phlegmatic reaction. It was his only comment on the situation. We were all in a mess and he obviously wasn’t keen to get involved. I’ll never forget that one little sentence of his. What a musician he was! Very sad to hear he passed away so soon after the contest.”
Surprisingly perhaps, Brack does not recall any comments by the orchestra musicians about his unusual baton. It was a part of his outfit which drew their attention: “For the dress rehearsal and for the broadcast as well, I wore Converse shoes – these very old-fashioned basketball shoes with cloth on the sides. Mine were orange with yellow and blue. I have always been fond of striking colours. For Eurovision, I felt it was only proper to dress up in full tuxedo… but I wasn’t going to wear plain black leather shoes. I never wear black shoes! That’s why I picked my psychedelic basketball shoes instead. In the first dress rehearsal, the musicians on the front row were pointing at my shoes and smiling. These guys were sitting there all day long, and understandably, as soon as something came along which broke the mould, it gave them something to talk about. It was a bit of fun for all of us.”
In the end, Philippe Lafontaine and ‘Macédomienne’ finished twelfth amongst twenty-two competing entries. “I expected him to come in higher,” Rony Brack recalls. “In fact, I was convinced he could do really well, but Eurovision voting is unpredictable. Usually, it isn’t the best song that wins, and then there’s the political voting to cope with as well. As for our entry, it proved hard to recreate to perfection the background vocals of the record version. Having said that, by the time of the voting virtually everybody was completely drunk. Backstage, participants from different countries were drinking champagne and whiskey at the bar. It was getting really rowdy. I suppose alcohol helped not to be disappointed. Even though I had quit drinking completely by that time, I don’t remember being overly disappointed myself either. It was simply a great experience to have been involved in the Eurovision Song Contest once in my life. It is a unique event. No other contest comes close to it in terms of media exposure. I wasn’t in it because I was proud to represent my country, because I am not a very big patriot, but obviously Eurovision is an interesting cultural phenomenon.”
In 1996, Rony emigrated to the United States, where he still lives today. Has he continued following the Eurovision Song Contest? “No, not really, except for some bits and pieces. Sometimes, I read about it on Belgian teletext and sometimes I saw snippets from the concert appearing on the Internet. There is no orchestra and all music is playback. Nowadays, most of the entries are sort of pop music leaning towards dance. There is no way to do that with a real orchestra, but you could do it live. Get a drummer, a bass player, a couple of guitar players and six or seven keyboard players, and it could work. They do it in American Idol. The guys in that band definitely are a bunch or really great musicians who can play anything. Of course, production-wise it’s easier and a lot cheaper to use backing tracks. Then, you don’t need a mixing board, 3,000 microphones and 10 km of cables. Anyway, all these dance acts are more about dancing than about the singing, so we are talking of an altogether different kind of entertainment than back in the time of the contest in Zagreb.”
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