In a rare Irish interview, we delve deep into the world of Mr Eurovision to hear of lost nights out, his exploits with Louis Walsh and what he really said about Jedward.
It’s a vicious circle: Johnny Logan – Mr Eurovision – doesn’t talk to the Irish media much, and when he does, he tends to get misquoted... which puts him off talking to the Irish media, leading to him being misquoted.
But he’s agreed to meet up with us today for a chat, in Bruxelles pub just off Dublin’s Grafton Street – the place where he used to rub shoulders with the likes of Phil Lynott and Bob Geldof back when it was known as The Zodiac in the 70s. But before we launch into the interview proper there’s something he wants to clarify.
“On The Late Late Show recently Ryan Tubridy had Jedward on as his guests,” Johnny says, “and he asked them what they felt about me saying that they are an embarrassment to Ireland? I’d like to clear that up, as this is the only interview I’m going to be doing with the Irish press ahead of Eurovision."
He goes on: “I never said that Jedward were an embarrassment to Ireland. Much as I love the country, I have no right to speak for the people of Ireland. What I said was that I find them embarrassing to watch. It’s like watching two Frank Spencers in Some Mother’s Do ‘Ave ‘Em. It’s like watching a train crash – you can’t look away, but at the same time you don’t want to see it.
“I genuinely wish them the best of luck at Eurovision – I think it’s a good song they’re singing – but I honestly don’t think they can sing. They’re very lucky to have four good backing singers who can cover that up. I think they’ll get through the semi-finals – and I don’t think they’ll do that badly – but I can’t see them winning.
“It’s not an age-related thing,” he insists, “it’s not a nasty thing. It’s just that someone asked me about them and I gave my honest opinion, as I’m entitled to. Unfortunately a lot of people will say something positive if asked their opinion in order to appear in a good light – but I just can’t do that. Especially if I’m caught off guard. I don’t think about the repercussions, I just say what I’m thinking.
“I’m not apologising for what I said, I just don’t like being misquoted.”
It must be annoying being Johnny Logan – you’ve a thirty-year career behind you, with multiple Eurovision wins along the way (his own wins plus as writer of Linda Martin’s winner) and you’re still packing out venues and selling records in decent numbers across Europe. And yet the thing you’re most likely to be asked about is whoever happens to be representing Ireland in a given year. And when that happens, you end up being misquoted. Irksome to say the least.
“The Eurovision has always been an easy target, and my association with Eurovision has made me an easy target,” he says, with a resigned shrug.
“There’s a nastiness in some of the media in Ireland. I remember being told that people don’t want to read about Johnny Logan taking a little old lady across the street. They want to read about me taking her half way, mugging her and leaving her to be hit by a car.”
With the Jedward clarification out of the way, we can concentrate on other stuff. Johnny was 24 when he first won Eurovision. A young man with the world at his feet (well Europe, anyway). We want to hear about the nights out. We want to know how he coped spending time with his then manager Louis Walsh? And in recent times who did the better TV ads – him or Bertie Ahern?
But before all that, a quick look at the balls up that was his initial post-Eurovision career. You see, Johnny Logan won Eurovision in 1980 wearing a white suit and singing What’s Another Year? and then pretty much disappeared from sight as far as Ireland was concerned until he won again in 1987 with Hold Me Now, a song he both wrote and performed.
His initial Eurovision performance should have set him up for life, but the money he should have been earning never quite made its way into his bank account. Plus he spent four and a half years in court battling with his pre-Eurovision manager who was keen to be in on the action after Johnny’s Eurovision success, despite the fact that by the time of Eurovision a young Louis Walsh was helping Johnny out with the management side of things.
I was performing in front of the Queen, but I still had no money and I was living in a house in London with five students.
“The statement I got six months after winning Eurovision showed that I’d earned nothing,” Johnny says. “I was young and innocent and there was no-one looking out for me. Louis was around, but he was as young as I was and while I was in court Louis was mostly busy doing his own thing.
“Eventually I went to London where I was doing some pretty high profile stuff, such as performing in front of the Queen, but I still had no money and I was living in a house with five students. It was while I was in that house that I wrote Hold Me Now.
“It wasn’t that I was set adrift after winning Eurovision, it’s just that as long as my court case was ongoing I wasn’t allowed to talk to the press about what was happening. I’d read articles about me, mostly lies, but I couldn’t say anything, and people believe what they read.
“Back then I came across like I was moody, I was upset all the time and that I acted like the world hated me. Sometimes that’s exactly how I felt, because it’s upsetting to be misrepresented all the time.
“Some of the time I had the tendency to look serious because I was very nervous. A lot of the time what you were seeing was a look of fear.”
It sounds grim, but it wasn't all bad. Away from the spotlight young Johnny was managing to have the time of his life.
“I had some great times,” he says. “There were lots of times I cried myself to sleep at night... with laughter. I laughed and partied my way around Europe. There are photos of me with a sledgehammer taking chunks out of the Berlin Wall as East German guards came over to stop me.
“I remember being in Paris with my brother doing a TV show that went on too late, meaning we missed the last plane home. They put us up in a hotel, gave us a driver and booked us a table at one of Paris’s best nightclubs.
“I’d never had a Tequilla Sunrise before, but that night I made up for it. My brother and I woke up in a room I’d never seen before, in a hotel I’d not planned to stay in, with the driver sleeping in the spare bed across the room from me, having missed the plane we were booked on for a second time.
“I eventually got a flight to Portugal for another TV show while suffering from the worst hangover of my life. Yet somehow I turned up and did the show... then went straight out to another all night party, getting back to the hotel as most of the guests were getting up for breakfast.
“I’ve got lots of stories from back then, most of which I shouldn’t repeat.”
Which brings us to the story of Louis Walsh’s encounter in a gents’ toilet...
“It was the night I won Eurovision back in 1980 and I was in The Hague with Louis," Johnny recalls. "In order to get away from the press we ended up in one of the seediest nightclubs you could imagine. I was chatting to a woman about whom the best thing that could be said was that her tattoos were spelt correctly. Or at least the ones I saw were.
He came back, wide-eyed saying “It’s a man! It’s a man!”
“Louis had been chatting to this other woman beside us. He headed off to find the toilet and when he came back he was white faced – he’d gone into a cubicle only to have the person he’d been talking to go into the one next to him.
He kept saying “It’s a man! It’s a man!” I had to say to him “Didn’t the Adam’s apple and the deep voice give it away?”
“I had a lot of fun. I basically had a party that went on for pretty much 30 years. It’s only recently stopped.
“I stopped drinking six years ago because I’m not getting any younger and because I felt that the balance had tipped to the point where, in my relationship with drink, the drink had the upper hand.
“I only planned to give up drink for a year, but during that year things started going really well for me. I released an album in Scandinavia called The Irish Connection which went Double Platinum and I haven’t looked back since.
“These days I’m writing, performing and looking after all my own management decisions, so it’s best to have a clear head.”
But back to the old drink-fuelled days. What about the girls? There must have been a fair few girls hanging around, eh Johnny?
“Of course there were girls. But was I with girls? I’m not prepared to say. I’m a married man and I’ve been happily married for 34 years.
“There were many times I was in nightclubs until all hours. I’d be stupid to say I wasn’t. I wasn’t Daniel O’Donnell – I was one of those people who, if it was possible for me to make a mistake publicly, then I would do.
“I had an awful lot in common with Gerry Ryan. I didn’t do drugs, but my drug of choice was alcohol. I liked to party. But I was 24 years old when I won the first Eurovision and the attention was wonderful.”
Johnny’s early bad experiences in the music business meant that from the time that he had his second bite at the Eurovision cherry he was savvy enough to know that he needed to keep a tight grip on his future career.
“I paid off my last debt from 1980 two weeks before I won the second Eurovision,” he explains. “I made sure that I made enough from the second Eurovision win to be set up for life. Not to be rich – I’d still need to carry on being a working entertainer – but to be comfortable. I did the second Eurovision knowing that I had to win, and that if I won I’d be able to re-launch my career.
“I was an innocent going into the first Eurovision, but for the second one I knew exactly what I was doing and it was nerve-wracking. I wasn’t doing it just to be proud to win for Ireland, I was doing it because I needed to. As a result I got signed by Sony in Germany where there’s a huge market and where I didn’t face any of the prejudices I’d face in Ireland or the UK, so that’s where I headed.”
Not that he ever really left Ireland behind: “I had an apartment in Germany that I’d use when I was recording or doing other work over there, but my home was Ireland.
“My family and I have always lived in Ashbourne in Co Meath. My work has always been abroad, but I love Ireland, I love being Irish and I love the people of Ireland – even if I don’t always love the media. As corny as this sounds, being in Ireland fills my soul up.”
Since winning Eurovision for a second time Johnny’s performances in Ireland have been as rare as a banker’s apology. His most recent Dublin gig was at Vicar Street back in 2007 – his first in the city for 20 years. The reception he got that night was about as warm as it’s possible to get, but the subsequent begrudging review in The Irish Times reminded him why it’s easier to have a career away from his homeland.
“The Times review complained that my pants were too tight. Nothing about the music,” he says. “But I have to say that I was amazed by that gig – it was a great night and it was in my country and I was among my people. I honestly felt a great warmth from the crowd."
All the travelling back and forth between Ireland (where he lives) and Scandinavia (where he’s huge) has given him plenty of time to reflect on the past. So any regrets, Johnny?
He sighs: “I have loads of regrets, man. I wish I’d copped myself on when I was younger. I’ve made so many mistakes in my life, but I’ve learnt that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
“There are people that I’ve been involved with from a management point of view who I’ve trusted and I should have known better. There are things I’d have done differently, but there are also things that I’d have done exactly the same. I’m still making mistakes, but I’m happy with where I am now.
“I’ve got regrets about not making certain records and about a few that I did make. I’ve recorded some shite in my time, some real shite. That said, I’m proud of a lot of what I’ve done too.
“Importantly, my three sons are all well educated and have had a good start in life, so in one sense I’ve succeeded.”
In recent years Johnny has come to public prominence again in Ireland thanks to his series of ads for McDonalds. In the ads, Johnny would appear in his signature white suit and deliver a burger to some young fella having a tough time, thereby distracting them from their woes.
When it comes to regrets, getting involved with McDonald’s isn’t one of them.
I’d try to sound ‘cool’ in some early interviews I gave, but I’d read them back and realise what an asshole I came across as.
“What worked for me was that it showed people that I was willing to laugh at myself and it introduced me to a whole new generation. I worked with a great crew and had a great time filming,” he says.
“When I was younger I tried hard to be credible, but I gave up on that a long time ago. I’d try to sound ‘cool’ in some early interviews I gave, but I’d read them back and realise what an asshole I came across as.
“I think it’s an Irish thing to not want to be seen as above ourselves. As part of that, you have to be willing to take the piss out of yourself.”
There are, however, drawbacks with not always taking yourself too seriously.
“When I pick my youngest son up from school I’m not allowed to get out of the car because when they see me the kids sing stuff like “You’re lovin’ it, Johnny” copying the McDonald’s strapline and start singing Hold Me Now,” he admits.
“I suppose it’s a Dad’s job to embarrass their kids from time to time, and I think I’ve fulfilled my responsibility on that front on a number of occasions.”
Of course Johnny is not the only high-profile person to appear in an Irish ad making fun of themselves in recent times, with one particular Drumcondra-based former Taoiseach turning up in a cupboard to promote his News Of The World column.
This was a very stupid and a very greedy decision, because it wasn’t just his reputation he was damaging.
“Bertie should never have done that. He was our Prime Minister – where’s the dignity that he carries with him on his shoulders?” Johnny says.
“I like Bertie as an individual very much. I know people hate him because of what’s happened to the economy here, but as a person he’s a very good man who’s very personable. But this was a very stupid and a very greedy decision, because it wasn’t just his reputation he was damaging, it was the whole country he was representing.
“You asked earlier about my regrets: well that should be one of the things that he would want to change in his life."
Despite his annoyance with the Irish media, the Johnny Logan sitting across from me in Bruxelles sipping a coffee seems pretty content with his lot in life.
He's making an effort to get fit (“for the first time in a long time”) he’s continuing to tour and release records in Europe and he’s on the verge of signing new deals in Germany and South America. And around this time of year there will always be work to be done performing his Eurovision winners on a variety of TV shows.
So as a man now in his 50s, if he could go back in time and impart some advice to the young, fresh-faced Johnny Logan on the night he won Eurovision for the first time, what would he say?
“Remember whatever you’re going through, it’ll end and you’ll come out the other side. Always look at the positive aspect of everything – there’ll be a lot of negative people around you, but don’t give the f*ckers the time of day, just laugh and keep moving forward.
“There are always people in life who see the glass half empty – learn to see it half full. It’s a big world out there, so get lots of holidays, make lots of money. Oh, and have loads of sex.”
Johnny Logan makes a rare Irish performance on 6 June, at the Noggin Inn in Dublin as part of a tribute concert for the late Paul Ashford from the band Stepaside.