Pete KnutsenBorn: December 12th, 1947, Kirkenes (Norway)
It was not long, though, before young Knut found there was a world of music to be discovered beyond the classics. “I must have been no older than ten or eleven when I first listened to The Shadows. I instantly liked what I heard – and so did some of my friends. We formed a rock group of our own, The Scavers. I played the piano and the guitar, but mostly guitar. I more or less taught myself how to play it. Because Hank Marvin had a Fender Strat guitar, I wanted one as well, but these were quite expensive. Instead, I picked a German brand, which had a vibrato arm just like the Strat did. Some years later, when The Beatles came along, I found that George Harrison played a Gretsch – and therefore I needed one as well! At the outset, we didn’t have a bass guitar, so with Terje Methi, who was to be the bass player, I decided that we’d make one ourselves in carpentry lessons at school. Later on, Terje bought a Höfner, the same brand which Paul McCartney used to play. Yes, we were well equipped! Initially, we mainly practised together, occasionally performing at school events. Our repertoire consisted of covers from our favourite artists from America and the UK.”
In the course of the following years, The Scavers developed from being a hobby band of four upstart boys to a sought-after rock-‘n’-roll act. They started touring, not only in Northern Norway, but in the southern parts of the country as well. In 1965, the band were signed by Oslo record label Troll, for which they recorded five singles with a mix of their own repertoire and songs by the likes of Chet Atkins and The Rolling Stones. Knutsen: “In Kirkenes, there was a solicitor working for Troll, who contacted us on their behalf. As there was no budget to bring us to Oslo, he told us we had to do the recording in Narvik while we were doing a series of performances at a hotel there. In Narvik, there was a studio owned by the NRK (Norway’s broadcaster – BT), but the engineer was due to go on holiday, so he just gave us the key to the studio, wishing us good luck on our recording. We were all alone! As there was nobody there to press the button of the tape recorder, we asked one of the cooks in the hotel to take care of that. Recording the two songs for our first single release, we found there was a short delay on the track – an echo we couldn’t get rid of. In the end, we decided the sound effect of it was actually rather interesting, so we left it that way. No, we never had a hit single. In fact, I think we released more singles than we sold. It wasn’t that we weren’t good enough; at least we never were in doubt in that respect. Perhaps our main problem was that we lacked a good vocalist. None of us were brilliant singers, but then… we got through it and it was really fun.”
Upon finishing their secondary education, Knutsen and his fellow-members disbanded their group. Pete himself left for Oslo to study music at university. “I had known I wanted to be a musician since I was ten or twelve. Fortunately enough, Kirkenes was a town bustling with cultural activity. There was a theatre, a brass band, a big band, and several smaller groups. During my high school days, I also played a little jazz – the old standards, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson… all those big shots. So, as a teenager, I had already been introduced to piano jazz, widening my outlook in the process. Musically speaking, I’ve always been an omnivore. While being in The Scavers, classical music was always there in the background. I was never a black or white type of person – it was always a grey tone, so to speak.”
“Having continued taking piano lessons until I was seventeen, I restarted three years later in order to be admitted to university. Playing the electric guitar wasn’t comme il faut in academic circles at the time, so I had to pick another instrument as my major subject. I had an excellent piano teacher, a woman professor from Denmark. I was quite enchanted by her. Of course, a large part of the curriculum consisted of music theory. I did quite a lot of choir arranging and conducting. After three years, I quit university. I’ve never wavered in my love for the classics, especially renaissance and baroque composers, but my aim was never to be a concert pianist. Studying music was just a means to progress.”
By the time he left the University of Oslo in 1969, Pete Knutsen had already been working as a professional musician for several years, working as a session musician in the recording studio and touring with the Reidar Myhre Orchestra. “Reidar is Wenche Myhre’s brother,” Knutsen explains. “Our group’s main singer, a Norwegian guy called Ray Adams, was very popular in Sweden at the time, so we did lots of touring there, playing in folkparks (open-air venues – BT) across the country. After some time, the group was extended with a trumpet player, a trombonist, and a saxophonist. Our repertoire changed as a result – from that moment on, we played lots of stuff by Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears. It was great, as there was plenty of opportunity to experiment with writing arrangements. Meanwhile, there was much work for me as a session guitarist in the recording studio. I never had to work my way into the recording business; it just happened… and I must have done fairly well, because I was asked again and again. Sometimes I even slept over in the studio due to the enormous amount of sessions.”
In 1971, the Reidar Myhre Orchestra underwent some changes in personnel, causing the group members to adopt a new name, becoming the Arman Sumpe Dur Express. In 1972, the group undertook an epic 140 day non-stop tour across Norway, performing on each day of the journey. “We toured quite extensively in Norway, that’s right,” Knutsen admits with some sense of understatement. “As the country is so vast, it involved travelling quite a few miles from one venue to the other. In the beginning, our repertoire didn’t change that much from that of the Reidar Myhre Orchestra. Reidar also stayed on as band leader, but being on the road with eight people was pretty expensive. At some point, Reidar Myhre quit the band as did the trumpet player and the trombonist. On the other hand, we were joined by Jahn Teigen. We were looking for a new singer. Jahn was living in Israel at the time, but after some letters back and forth we convinced him to come back to Norway. With him in our ranks, we were the first Norwegian act ever to perform at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark. That was in the summer of 1972. By that time, the group had undergone a profound development. We were more rock-oriented – and first and foremost, with Jahn Teigen, we finally had a frontman. Jahn had ‘it’ – on stage, there was nobody like him. We were very fortunate to have him with us.”
Because the arrival of Jahn Teigen signalled some sort of a new beginning, the band changed its name once again. As Popol Vuh – later renamed Popol Ace to avoid confusion with a West German band bearing the same name – the group was to attain major success in Scandinavia with distinctly progressive rock repertoire, heavily influenced by bands such as Jethro Tull, Focus, and Genesis. Apart from Teigen and Knutsen, the main other group members in Popol Ace were Arne Schulze, Thor Andreassen, and Pete Knutsen’s old friend from Kirkenes, Terje Methi. While Schulze wrote most of the repertoire, Knutsen did his fair share of songwriting too – composing, amongst others, ‘Hunchback’, the opening track of the band’s first LP, released in 1972. Knutsen’s influence on the group’s sound was even more profoundly noticeable in the arrangements, experimenting, as he did, with electric piano, mellotron, and synthesizer.
“Yes, we were quite well equipped. We were the first band in Norway to dispose of a Minimoog, one of the first to have a Rhodes piano, and we also had the first mellotron. Our style was more symphonic than most other rock groups. The arrangements were created by the group as a whole. When we weren’t away touring, we were busy rehearsing together from dusk until dawn. Our record company was Polydor International. Because they wanted to launch us internationally, we were given the possibility of recording our material abroad. For the recording of one of our albums, we stayed at the Château d’Hérouville just outside Paris (the castle owned by film composer Michel Magne – BT), where we had the chance to enjoy a comfortable stay while working on our material. Much of the mixing was done in London. These were exciting times. After a few years, we switched to the UK branch of Polydor. They wanted a hit single, but we never managed to produce it. In our mindset, we were never very commercial – and, frankly, it wasn’t our ambition to be, either.”
In 1977, Jahn Teigen left Popol Ace. After his departure, the band stumbled on for one more year, releasing a last album, ‘Curly sounds’, before finally disbanding in 1978. Knutsen: “Unfortunately, there were lots of hurt feelings when Jahn left the group. Though we didn’t want to admit it at the outset, we couldn’t go on alone without him. Furthermore, our other guitarist, Arne Schulze, was eager to try his luck in the United States, where he had grown up. It was sad to see the adventure coming to an end. In those six wonderful years, we also toured beyond Scandinavia – to Belgium, the Netherlands, and West Germany. To our dismay, we were never given permission to play in England, however much we tried to get our paperwork in order. Trade union rules made it virtually impossible for musicians from abroad to work in Britain. Beside our failure to write a hit, this was another factor why we never achieved our breakthrough in the UK.”
While being a member of Arman Sumpe D.E., Popol Vuh, and Popol Ace, Pete Knutsen managed to extend his session work considerably, becoming Oslo’s most sought-after record arranger from the early 1970s onwards. Initially, he mainly worked with rock artists such as Bjørn Nordvang, but, fairly quickly, more mainstream pop and schlager commissions came his way as well. In 1973, he scored Ellen Nikolaysen’s album ‘Freckles’, while he was also responsible for the arrangement of ‘You made me feel I could fly’, with which she won the World Popular Song Festival in Tokyo (1974). For Inger Lise Rypdal, Knutsen wrote the orchestrations to two consecutive number one hits in 1973: ‘I mitt liv’ (her cover version of Mocedades’ Eurovision entry ‘Eres tú’) and the hauntingly beautiful and understated ‘En spennende dag for Josefine’. He also worked with Stein Ingebrigtsen, nicknamed ‘Mr. Norsktoppen’ because of his seemingly endless string of chart successes in the 1970s. How did Knutsen become so successful as a record arranger almost overnight – and, moreover, how did he manage to combine it with being a member of Popol Ace at the same time?
“Well, at the time, I worked twelve hours a day, so it was not a problem,” as he dryly comments. “As for your other question – I admired the older generation of arrangers for their skills, but I guess producers felt I was more contemporary than some others in my approach. Of course, I was relatively young – that played a part as well, because it’s true that I was often coupled to younger artists. Inger Lise Rypdal is a good example. She was profoundly influenced by Aretha Franklin and preferred singing rhythm and blues, but her producer wanted her to sing in Norwegian. Once he had convinced her, her output was lifted to a higher level as a result. She became more credible as an artist, if you want. I was happy to help her on her way. We kept up our cooperation for the next decade. Having said that, I also worked with artists from previous generations – Nora Brockstedt, to name just one. Versatility is an important trait of any arranger. Over the years, I’ve always liked working on different genres of music. As an arranger, I’ve never thought of myself as a subordinate of an artist or a producer. On the contrary, I allow myself to be inspired by whatever music happens to be put on my plate.”
“It was nice to have my arranging work as well as Popol Ace. I thoroughly liked being on stage, but the studio work was something I loved as well. I never preferred one over the other… I’d say the ambition was divided evenly, fifty-fifty. To my mind, writing an orchestral arrangement is far more interesting than trying to compose a hit song. That’s perhaps a little too shallow for my taste. I like things to be a little more complicated. Thanks to my background, having studied music at university, I had the advantage over many other musicians of being familiar with sheet music writing. The basic knowledge was already there. Looking for ideas, I listened to whatever records from abroad I could lay my hands on... the Hollywood composers and big band arrangers from America first of all; Nelson Riddle, Neal Hefti, Frank Foster from the Count Basie Orchestra – those guys and their music were all quite important to me. In those early days, every score was entirely handwritten. I had to learn to hear in my head what I was writing down on paper. By the time I went into the studio to record the material, every detail had to be thoroughly prepared. We didn’t use overdubs so much in the early 1970s, so string and brass sections had to be recorded simultaneously. These were large orchestras! Mistakes in the score had to be avoided at all cost to prevent wasting a lot of people’s time during a session.”
After Popol Ace had fallen apart, Knutsen remained active as a performing musician alongside his session work, joining, as he did, the Frode Thingnæs Quintet, a ‘super group’ of some of Norway’s best studio musicians. In the combo, Knutsen alternately played the guitar and the synthesizer. Between 1978 and 1981, the quintet released three instrumental albums, the second of which – ‘Direct to disc’ was rewarded with the Spellemannprisen for best jazz record of the year. The group’s leader, trombonist and arranger Frode Thingnæs (1940-2012), was one of Knutsen’s best friends in the music business.
“Frode and I didn’t get to know each other until I worked on an album with Nora Brockstedt. I’d done some of the arrangements. When the session was due, however, the bass player didn’t show up. As a result, I had to play the bass myself, but as everything was done live, I needed someone else to conduct. Thereupon, I contacted Frode. I knew his reputation – he was a very skilled musician… so Frode sort of saved me on that occasion. That session heralded the start of our friendship. We bonded quickly and became soulmates. When he asked me to join his jazz group, I was on cloud nine. I mean, this guy used to work with Dizzy Gillespie! His aim with the quintet was to create jazz with a little funk feel to it. Though Frode wrote most of the material himself, I composed some pieces for the group as well. Even if it was kind of a pet project on the side for all five of us, we performed in jazz clubs and festivals across Scandinavia. In all, it was great fun. Sadly, Frode passed away some years ago. He is sorely missed. Apart from being a fantastic musician, he was a nice addition to the human race.”
In the second half of the 1970s and into the 1980s, Pete Knutsen remained one of the most prolific arrangers in Oslo’s recording studios. Amongst many others, he worked with the New Jordal Swingers, Grethe Kausland, Anita Skorgan, and Dollie de Luxe. In spite of mutual relations having cooled somewhat after the breakup of Popol Ace, Knutsen was commissioned to co-arrange Jahn Teigen’s first solo album, ‘This year’s loser’ (1978). Moreover, he scored no fewer than four LPs for Hanne Krogh. One of Knutsen’s most lasting working relationships, however, was with Wenche Myhre, for whom he arranged as well as produced several albums, whilst also accompanying her on stage at home and abroad.
“I was her bandleader for many years, doing shows with her across Scandinavia. I’ve known Wenche since we were both very young. In the studio, I first teamed up with her as an arranger when recording her album in 1976. At the time, we were under contract at the same record company, Polydor, which somewhat facilitated our cooperation. For that LP, Wenche and I shared the producing credits. Over the years, we’ve remained close – and we’re still working together. Wenche has been among the finest artists I’ve been involved with. She’s a nice character and a sterling professional both on and off stage. That’s part of the reason she’s still so popular, not only in Scandinavia, but also in Germany. In fact, in the days before the fall of the Iron Curtain, her music was even listened to in the GDR. Today, she’s still performing for audiences in the eastern as well as in the western half of the country.”
Meanwhile, beside writing record arrangements, Pete Knutsen widened his range of activities by composing and arranging the soundtracks to several Norwegian motion pictures, including ‘Operasjon Cobra’ (1978) and ‘Søsken på Guds jord’ (1983) as well as by composing radio and TV commercials, writing music for theatre performances, and working as a music producer and bandleader for a long list of television shows for Norway’s public broadcasting service NRK. He also founded his own production and publishing companies. More surprisingly perhaps, given his withdrawn character, he taught arranging and orchestration at Oslo University for some fifteen years. Was he a natural-born teacher?
“No… in fact, I was very nervous! When I was asked to do that arranging course, I thought it was exciting enough to give it a try. A lecture lasted for two hours, but usually I found that, after fifteen minutes, I had used up all my carefully prepared notes… and I had no idea what to do with the remainder of my time. Then, I would turn to the students for help, asking them to pose me questions and generally what they wanted to get to know more about. I mainly focused on instrumentation and orchestration, based on classical themes – teaching them to write for piano and strings, for example. The students were very understanding towards me and some became good friends. I did it for some fifteen years, but it took up a lot of my time. There were several lectures a week, and I had to go through the homework of twelve to fourteen students, checking their assignments. At some point in the 1990s, I decided to quit, as the workload beside my arranging work was becoming too demanding… and also because I kept being dissatisfied with the quality of my own lessons. Having said that, I really loved the job.”
Continuing to be in demand as a studio arranger in the 1990s, Pete Knutsen worked on records by, among others, Tor Endresen, Finn Kalvik, and Benny Borg. Furthermore, he also wrote the arrangements to no fewer than four albums by Haugesund-based folk-rock group Vamp. Knutsen’s favourite project of the decade, however, came in 1997, when he joined the all-female Norwegian string quartet Strings Unlimited to London’s Abbey Road Studios. “That was a special project, because they did an album with exclusively Beatles songs, which were recorded in the same studio used by the Beatles themselves all those years before. Being a Beatles fan myself, I thought it was quite an experience to stand on that holy ground… the studio used by them and their arranger George Martin. There, I found myself seated behind a mixing console with a mouth-watering 96 channels – which was quite funny, because we didn’t need all these facilities given there were just three violinists and a cello player on the other side of the glass. The album turned out nicely, because the four girls were good musicians… and I have to admit I’m quite happy with my own arrangements for this album!”
Since the early 1970s, Pete Knutsen has regularly contributed arrangements to the Kringkastingsorkestret, the Norwegian Radio Orchestra – initially, mostly songs competing in the so-called Melodi Grand Prix, Norway’s Eurovision pre-selection, but eventually for other projects as well. In 2003, most notably, he wrote all arrangements to ‘Silently loud’, a Popol Ace reunion concert with the Radio Orchestra. Asked about his involvement with the orchestra, Knutsen comments: “In the 1980s, they were maybe becoming a bit obsolete. Some of the older musicians had difficulties keeping up with developments in pop music, but they’ve thoroughly redeemed themselves since. This is due in part to the influx of a new generation of musicians who are more open-minded to modern music styles. Their rhythm group has improved – and so, generally speaking, has the quality of arrangements. These days, they are doing a lot of live concerts with pop singers; I’ve been doing lots of arrangements for programmes with the orchestra away from classical music. Over the years, I’ve always loved writing for them.”
While Pete Knutsen has continued writing for the Radio Orchestra until the present day, commissions to write arrangements for album projects have somewhat dried up over the last twenty years; compared to the early 1970s, when large orchestras were the norm, the business has changed beyond recognition. Nonetheless, Knutsen has continued working on pop music, mostly from his home studio, scoring albums for the likes of Kate Gulbrandsen and Scandinavia. In 2013, he took care of the arrangements to the CD ‘Jumping for joy’, recorded by Tor Endresen with the Stabsmusikken Big Band.
“That album was quite a highlight. All song material was original, written by a friend of Tor’s from Bergen, who hasn’t had any formal music education, but can come up with the most wonderful melodies, which is quite remarkable. I wrote all the arrangements and also did the production. The best thing was that we recorded it the old way: Tor was in the same studio with the big band and a string section, where he recorded the vocals while the band was playing simultaneously. That’s how Frank Sinatra always did it! Tor and I have been close friends for decades. He lives in Bergen, but we still regularly talk on the phone. In the old days, whenever he was working in Oslo, he usually stayed at my house. I cannot begin to tell you how many common projects we’ve engaged in over the years!”
For several years, Pete Knutsen was a staff member of NOPA, Norway’s Association of Composers, Authors, and Music Publishers. In the course of his career, he won several awards, most notably a Spellemannprisen in 1980 for his merits as a studio arranger and session musician, while he and the other members of Popol Ace had the privilege of being inducted in the Rockheim Hall of Fame in 2017. When finally asked if he is satisfied with the career path he has had, Knutsen does not hesitate.
“Oh yes, very much so. I don’t have any regrets. I’ve done exactly the things I wanted to. I consider myself very lucky in that respect. Thinking back on the music genres I worked on, I did them all, ranging from schlager to writing string arrangements for a classical pianist, Kjell Bækkelund. Over the years, I’ve also developed a keen interest in the technical part of the job, for which I had to rely on others in the first stages of my career. Nowadays, I write my sheet music using a computer and I can make a complete recording in my home studio without needing the help of an engineer. Writing arrangements is something I’ve loved doing from the very beginning – and I’m still loving it. I intend to go on doing exactly that for many years to come.”
Pete Knutsen in the Eurovision Song Contest
“It was always exciting to take part in the Melodi Grand Prix, be it as an arranger or as a songwriter. As a youngster, I listened to in on the radio long before my parents bought a television. There were some great entries – ‘Sommer i Palma’ by Nora Brockstedt is a great example from those early years… a song with nice harmonies, meaningful lyrics, and well performed. No, I never looked down upon it – right, I was part of a rock band (Popol Ace – BT) in the 1970s, but Eurovision was always an attractive event to be a part of. Judging songs and comparing them among one another by giving votes may be rubbish, but it’s good fun at the same time.”
In 1976, for the last time in the history of Melodi Grand Prix, all participating entries were performed in two different arrangements: one by the NRK Radio Big Band and one by a smaller combo, consisting of the members of Popol Ace, led by Pete Knutsen – with the purpose of giving each song an orchestral and a more contemporary, pop-oriented, version. Besides being the M.D. of his combo, Knutsen also wrote the big band arrangement to the winning entry in that year’s Melodi Grand Prix: ‘Mata Hari’, composed by his close friend Frode Thingnæs and performed by Anne-Karine Strøm, Frode’s wife. Even though the arrangement was not his, Thingnæs himself conducted ‘Mata Hari’ at the international Eurovision final in The Hague, where Norway finished seventeenth, obtaining just seven votes.
“Frode was an excellent musician and would have been perfectly capable of writing the orchestration himself,” Knutsen recalls, “but he wanted someone else’s input to his composition. He said he didn’t want to repeat himself – and we were very good friends, so he asked me. ‘Mata Hari’ was supposed to be a disco song; and the purpose of the arrangement was to underline that, and to give the song an international flavour. It was perfectly logical that Frode conducted it himself in the Eurovision Song Contest. Anne Karine was his wife, he was an accomplished conductor in the record studio, and it was his composition. It would have been very odd if he hadn’t done it himself, I would say. It was an interesting song, professionally made, and I never understood why it did so badly in the voting… but then, when it comes to Eurovision, I’m usually wrong when guessing which songs will do well, and which ones won’t!”
While Anne Karine Strøm at least picked up some points, two years later, Norway’s Eurovision entrant Jahn Teigen finished twentieth and last at the festival final in Paris without obtaining a single vote for his rendition of ‘Mil etter mil’. Having left Popol Ace, of which he was the lead singer, Teigen had just embarked on a solo career – and he managed to turn his failure into a success by making light of his bad result; Teigen even called his first solo album, released shortly after Eurovision 1978, ‘This year’s loser’. The LP features a version of ‘Mil etter mil’ with just a rhythm group and some subtle strings arranged by Pete Knutsen – standing in contrast with the brass-laden Eurovision version, which had been orchestrated and conducted by Carsten Klouman.
“That album was done after Jahn had come back from Paris,” Knutsen comments. “He and his producer wanted a sound which was more in line with contemporary pop music. To my mind, Klouman’s version was great, but they felt it was a little bit too orchestral and old-fashioned. In fact, that string arrangement was my only contribution to Jahn’s album. He wasn’t particularly close with the other members of Popol Ace after the break-up of the band, but, somehow, he or his entourage must have felt I was the right man for the job.”
Beside his involvement as an arranger, Pete Knutsen also played keyboards in several editions of Melodi Grand Prix, amongst other the editions in 1979 and 1981. “But I did several more than just those two years,” Knutsen affirms. “Back then, the pre-selection was accompanied by the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, but they didn’t have a fixed rhythm group. The musical director of Melodi Grand Prix, Egil Monn-Iversen, asked the percussionist of the orchestra to put together an additional rhythm section with freelance musicians – and I was one. Egil was a special character, but I didn’t find him difficult to work with. He was really versatile: he worked for television and theatre, but he also was a film producer, owning his own production house. He wrote the music to quite a lot of films; and because he lacked the time to arrange his music, he asked me to take care of that. He trusted me and it was a nice cooperation. He was a perfectionist in everything he did. As an arranger, he was second to none. The arrangements he wrote for the Melodi Grand Prix were always excellent.”
In 1983 and 1985, Pete Knutsen tried his luck in Melodi Grand Prix as a songwriter, composing the ballad ‘Lengsel’ for Cathy Ryen and ‘Ring, ring, ring’, an up-tempo song, for Pastel. The latter song finished third, behind Bobbysocks and Anita Skorgan. It was a historic entry in one way – it was the first-ever song in the Norwegian Eurovision pre-selection to use an additional rhythm track with the orchestra. “That’s right,” confirms Knutsen. “Bass and drums were on a sequencer. The rest of the band was live. I wanted the song to sound more modern – and I was eager to experiment a little with that combination of sequencers with live guitars and a live orchestra. Even back in the 1980s, when music productions were infinitely less complicated than nowadays, it was hard to get the sound of the rhythm group exactly right when working with an orchestra. I’m not an enemy of backing tracks; especially in the Eurovision Song Contest, a production which is so complex, they can be a useful tool.”
In 1985, after ending last or near the bottom on so many occasions, Norway finally bagged its first Eurovision win with Bobbysocks and Rolf Løvland’s composition ‘La det swinge’. Was Knutsen surprised that this was the song which broke Norway’s vicious Eurovision circle? “No, it didn’t come as a surprise to me. The song was nicely done and Hanne and Elisabeth gave a great performance. When I was in the Norwegian final with ‘Pastel’, I already suspected Bobbysocks would win it. Winning Eurovision was an important moment for our country. In some way, we deserved it after all those bad results. I remember we finished up with ‘nul points’ without any good reason. Thinking back of Finn Kalvik’s song (‘Aldri i livet’ in 1981 – BT) – that was really good, professionally done… Benny Andersson of ABBA was involved in writing the arrangement. It didn’t make sense we finished last and, thinking of it now, it still doesn’t make sense that not a single country voted for it on the night.”
Now that Norway had earned the right to organise the Eurovision Song Contest, public broadcaster NRK decided to host the event in Bergen’s Grieghallen. Pete Knutsen was involved in the production – though not as an arranger or conductor, but as a music producer. “I was in the control room, taking care of the sound production. I didn’t have to talk to the various delegations in rehearsals, no – there was another guy who did that. I was in the control room with one or two others transmitting the sound to his studio. Another part of my job involved producing the interval act, the song performed by Sissel Kyrkjebø. We did that in the NRK Studios in Bergen a couple of days before the Eurovision Song Contest. It was composed by Egil Monn-Iversen. Egil also composed and arranged most of the incidental music in the show. In view of his skills as a musician, he was the obvious choice for musical director of the contest – and he delivered. True, Egil conducted many Norwegian Eurovision pre-selections, but never went abroad. Why? Well, I’m only speculating now, but I think he felt it was a little bit below his dignity. That’s a feeling I had, which I cannot verify in any way.”
Thinking back of the 1986 Eurovision Song Contest in Bergen, Pete Knutsen remembers a particularly terrifying incident which occurred mere minutes before the broadcast began. “Five minutes before the start of the show, the mixing console went black. It just didn’t function. We were all looking at each other in dismay. What should we do now? Then, a local engineer simply switched it off, and then switched it on again – and then it worked. Oh, it was a terrible moment! We were so afraid that it would happen again during the transmission. In that case, the whole of Europe would have been staring at a black screen. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. I was really satisfied with the production – and so were the delegates from the rest of Europe. Looking back, Eurovision 1986 was a very exciting and prestigious project for the NRK and for the whole of the country. We gave it everything we had. Do you know there were aggregates in the basement of the auditorium which provided the electricity required for the broadcast? Those generators had been borrowed from the biggest hospital in Bergen. If the hospital had needed them, they wouldn’t have had any. Talking about priorities… actually quite shocking if you think of it now! That’s how important Eurovision was for Bergen and the NRK.”
At that time, Pete Knutsen regularly worked as a sound producer for NRK music shows – including several editions of the Melodi Grand Prix in the second half of the 1980s. Meanwhile, the broadcaster had taken the decision to do away with the Radio Orchestra for the Norwegian Eurovision pre-selection, replacing it by a smaller band of a rhythm group with some brass players – in all ranging from ten to fifteen elements, without a string group. It was up to the producer to appoint a musical director for the show. After the job had been taken care of by Terje Fjærn (1985, 1987), Fred Nøddelund (1986), and Arild Stav (1988), the broadcaster invited Pete Knutsen to step in for the 1989 edition of Melodi Grand Prix, due to be held in Stavanger.
“The main reason for no longer using the Radio Orchestra was that it seemed a bit obsolete at the time. Some of the older musicians had difficulties keeping up with developments in pop music. The NRK production team wanted the approach to be a little more modern. I was happy to be asked to lead the band. It was a wonderful job to be given. I picked the musicians myself. The next step was to subdivide the arranging work. Part of it was done by me, but I asked others to share the workload with me – musicians who I knew had the skills to do it… guys like Rolf Løvland, for example. The programme took quite a lot of rehearsing. The musicians have to know the score inside out before the sound engineers come in to start their part of the job. From that moment on, it becomes a technical exercise – and, understandably, the production crew doesn’t have patience for discussions within the backing band. I myself played the guitar. It was a conscious choice not to conduct the band from the front, but play along with them. It would have been pretentious to stand up in front of a group of eleven musicians and wave your arms. It was all rhythmical music, which essentially plays itself.”
The 1989 edition of Melodi Grand Prix was held in Stavanger – and a local girl won the competition, eighteen-year-old Britt-Synnøve Johansen with ‘Venners nærhet’, a ballad penned by Inge Enoksen. “Britt was a newcomer, but I wasn’t surprised when she won,” Knutsen recalls. “During rehearsals in Oslo, I picked her out. I thought the girl was impressive enough to win the whole thing – mind you, this was a unique moment, because it must have been the only time I predicted the winner correctly! After preparations in Oslo had finished, all musicians and competitors travelled to Stavanger. It was NRK policy at the time to get away from Oslo now and again to do productions in other parts of the country. They wanted to prove they realised that there was a part of Norway beyond the fringes of Oslo, so to speak.”
As a rule, the musical director of the Melodi Grand Prix also conducted the orchestra for the Norwegian entry in the international Eurovision final. After Britt-Synnøve Johansen had won the national final, Knutsen sat down with the production team behind ‘Venners nærhet’ to discuss the Eurovision version of the arrangement: “They wanted me to write the arrangement for the big orchestra in the international final. The arrangement in Melodi Grand Prix was really a team effort. Svein Dag Hauge, who was the producer of the song, had written the rhythm part, but the composer and even the lyricist had had a say in the instrumentation. I spoke to all of them and took into account all their comments. They didn’t give the song away to me, but they all had their ideas – and they were entitled to them. It was a great team, the way I experienced it. They had it all worked out beforehand, which meant my job as an orchestrator was really easy.”
Following Celine Dion’s win on behalf of the Alpine state the year before, the 1989 Eurovision Song Contest was held in Switzerland. At the Palais de Beaulieu in Lausanne, Pete Knutsen rehearsed ‘Venners nærhet’ with Benoît Kaufman’s 55-piece festival orchestra. “The rehearsals were easy. It was obvious from the start that this was an excellent orchestra with seasoned, all-round musicians in all sections. They could cope with anything. The best thing with such musicians is to just let them play. That’s what I did… I didn’t want to annoy them by giving instructions which were superfluous anyway. There was no need to make any adjustments. I was pretty secure about the sound I wanted – and they gave me exactly what I was looking for. It was an honour to conduct the orchestra for my country, but it wasn’t a hard job at all. No, I wasn’t feeling nervous at all. In fact, honestly speaking, they could have played it perfectly well without me, but it was a tradition to have a conductor in Eurovision – and it was a pleasure that I was called upon to do the job. On the other hand, when conducting such a large orchestra, some conducting technique is required. Most importantly, it was vital to get the tempo exactly right. There was no click track... everything was played live from the very first bar.”
Not all entries in Lausanne were played live. Four songs were performed to a full backing track: the contributions from Austria, West Germany, Iceland, and the United Kingdom. In spite of the lack of an orchestration to be conducted, the BBC delegation to Lausanne included a conductor, Ronnie Hazlehurst. In rehearsals and in the live show, Hazlehurst took the honours, but, in reality, his presence didn’t have any function. “It was weird and sad at the same time,” Knutsen comments. “There he was in rehearsals, sitting on a stool in front of the orchestra conducting the backing track. For the UK entry, only the vocals were live; all music was pre-recorded. I remember being surprised to meet Ronnie in Lausanne. He was quite a celebrity, a great arranger and band leader. After the UK had finished their rehearsal, I spoke to him. Sadly, he noted how our line of work was disappearing. The writing was on the wall, and Ronnie knew it. He said it was inevitable that the orchestra would disappear from the festival altogether, sooner rather than later. It was a weird situation. I wondered why Ronnie was there in the first place. He was simply being there as the BBC’s musical director. I remember feeling for him while he was waving his arms to a playback tape.”
In spite of a spirited performance by Britt-Synnøve Johansen, the Norwegian song in Lausanne failed to catch the imagination of the international jurors, finishing seventeenth among twenty-two entries, picking up thirty votes. Knutsen: “I have no idea why it didn’t do so well. To my mind, the song was more than ok. It was cleverly made and Britt performed it well. She was young, but her behaviour didn’t betray any insecurity; quite the opposite, she came across as a very experienced performer. She had her boyfriend with her, and a sound engineer from Stavanger who she was friends with and who looked after her in rehearsals and beyond. Thinking back to it, we had a great Norwegian team in Switzerland. Everybody was happy. The Swiss were brilliant hosts, offering us a very nice boat trip on Lake Geneva. We had a great time. I have the best of memories of Lausanne.”
The following year, Knutsen once again led a band of eleven musicians – himself included – for the Norwegian Eurovision pre-selection, held in the entrance hall of Hotel Royal Christiania in Oslo this time around, a rather unusual venue for such a large event. The competition was won by Ketil Stokkan, performing his self-penned ‘Brandenburger Tor’, a song dedicated to the reunification of Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Did Knutsen feel Stokkan’s song was the correct winner?
“Honestly speaking, no, I can’t say so. I think most people preferred Tor Endresen and ‘Café Le Swing’ – and I have to admit that I was one. I arranged the song for Tor, and also added some elements to the composition; the version I had been given to arrange was impossible to sing because the range was too wide. To solve the problem, I changed the key between the verse and the refrain. ‘Brandenburger Tor’ was arranged by Rolf Løvland. Once it was chosen, I worked with Rolf on the orchestration for the international final. We often cooperated, Rolf and I. A couple of years later, the two of us co-signed the arrangement for a song he composed for Tor Endresen (‘Radio Luxembourg’ in Melodi Grand Prix 1992 – BT). Rolf was still young and eager to learn as an arranger; therefore, he was always keen to have me take a look at his work.”
The 1990 Eurovision Song Contest was held in Zagreb, Yugoslavia – a country which, in retrospect, was on the brink of civil war. “We sensed that something was brewing,” Knutsen recalls. “The atmosphere between the contestants was really good. Nobody was even thinking of mixing politics and music. But there was an incident at a restaurant where we were with the whole Norwegian delegation. The dinner itself was nice enough. During the evening, we were entertained by a local pop group who were playing on a small stage. When they were done, I wanted to congratulate them on their performance. I thought they were really good. After having climbed onto the stage, though, I was told to get off immediately. “Don’t touch this, don’t speak to them!” – that was the unmistakable message I was given. As it turned out, their lyrics were rather political; and it would have been considered inappropriate to mingle with them, as it could have been interpreted as an endorsement of the views expressed in their music. I must say I was astonished. It’s not a situation we were accustomed to in Norway.”
During rehearsals, it appeared that the Yugoslavian production team had decided to leave out the traditional conductor presentation before each song. After the maestros of all participating countries had threatened to go on strike if the decision was not reversed forthwith, a compromise was reached: there would be no bow, but each conductor would be shown counting in the orchestra. “Yes, there was talk of a strike,” Knutsen remembers. “The Yugoslavian producer didn’t want to waste time on presenting the conductors. There was a petition, and of course I signed it. I wasn’t angry, but it would have been a pity – I mean, it was a tradition to present the conductor of each entry. The final outcome was satisfactory, however, and that’s what counted. The rehearsals itself were flawless. On stage, Ketil was accompanied by the drummer and bass player of the band with which he toured in Norway, but they didn’t play live. No, there was no backing track! The bass player and drummer of the orchestra simply played their parts. The drummer in the orchestra was a German guy called Andy who I got on well with. He did an excellent job.”
In the voting, disappointingly, Norway’s entry finished joint-last with Finland, as both countries obtained eight points. Knutsen: “I can’t say it felt like a personal humiliation. As said, there’s no way to predict what juries will go for. There was not much reason to blame ourselves, as the performance by Ketil and the orchestra had been good. Perhaps the subject of ‘Brandenburger Tor’ was slightly too controversial and too political for Eurovision – bringing a song about the fall of the Berlin Wall. It shouldn’t have been a problem, but there was quite a backlash against Ketil in Norwegian media afterwards. Some journalists blamed the bad result on his lyrics. It was all rather unfortunate. I didn’t really understand why they went after him in that fashion. I didn’t get involved in any of that. Ketil was a pleasant guy to work with. As for myself, if I felt any disappointment afterwards, it was forgotten the next day, because there were other projects to focus on. There was more to do in life than just Eurovision.”
In 1991, as usual, Norway’s broadcaster NRK asked songwriters to submit their work for the Melodi Grand Prix, but the selection committee decided – perhaps taking into account that a disappointing result like the one in Zagreb had to be avoided at all costs – that none of the material was good enough to represent the country abroad. Therefore, for the first and only time to date, the NRK resolved to make the choice for its Eurovision entry in an internal selection rather than in a television show with various candidates. First, the group Just 4 Fun was chosen, a vocal quartet including Hanne Krogh – one of the girls of Bobbysocks, the Eurovision winners of six years before. Four songs were taken into consideration, amongst which Rolf Løvland’s ‘Jeg kan se en stjerne falle’, but, in the end, it was decided upon to send the quartet to Eurovision with an up-tempo rock song called ‘Mrs. Thompson’. It was presented to the Norwegian television audience in a TV special with a live band led by Pete Knutsen.
“The NRK invited several composers to write a song for the group,” Knutsen comments. “I was in the selection committee which chose ‘Mrs. Thompson’. It was a happy song and I think it was nice enough. As far as I can remember, I was one of the committee members who voted for it to go to Eurovision. It was written by Dag Kolsrud, an accomplished composer and a guy who I had worked with before. The broadcaster asked me to conduct it in Eurovision. Dag had done a studio version of the arrangement with synthetic instruments, and, once the song had been chosen, I cooperated with him to turn that into a good orchestration. Again, there was no backing track – we wanted to do everything completely live. Dag had his comments which I took into account when writing the score. I also worked on the vocal arrangement, but this really was a team effort between Kolsrud, myself, and the four group members.”
As Italy’s Toto Cutugno had won the previous year’s festival in Zagreb, the 1991 Eurovision Song Contest was organised in Rome. “In the Cinecittà Studios,” Knutsen adds. “My overriding memory of Rome is that there were security officers just about everywhere. These measures had been taken due to Italy’s participation in the Gulf War against Iraq. For our rehearsals, we were bussed from our hotel to the auditorium and back. Once we were at the concert hall, we weren’t allowed to go for a walk outside while waiting for our rehearsal. The Italians were all right, but there wasn’t really any festive atmosphere. Again for security reasons, we didn’t get to see anything of Rome’s historic city centre either. In all, the experience was a very strange one.”
“On the other hand, the orchestra was very good. Thinking back on the Eurovision orchestras I worked with, the one in Rome was perhaps the one I was most satisfied with. It was exceptional, consisting as it did of experienced musicians able to play in any style demanded. The communication with them was smooth – there was no problem at all. On the other hand, the musicians weren’t always treated with the courtesy due to them. In Rome, I remember there was one delegation – I don’t remember which country it was – who asked the saxophonist to play like David Sanborn (an American jazz saxophonist – BT). At that point, I just thought: “If you want your sax solo to sound like David Sanborn, why don’t you hire David Sanborn?” It isn’t fair to ask an excellent music professional to imitate somebody else.”
In spite of all the care taken by the Norwegians to select a suitable entry, Europe was duly unimpressed: ‘Mrs. Thompson’ was awarded with fourteen votes – and ended up in seventeenth place, near the bottom of the scoreboard. Knutsen: “Why we scored so badly is beyond me. It was a good song and the four voices sounded great together, but Europe decides. No, I wouldn’t say it was too rock-oriented for Eurovision. To my mind, it fitted in quite well. The group fell apart not long after the Eurovision Song Contest, but the careers of the four members didn’t suffer as a result, least of all Hanne Krogh’s. I remember very well that Carola won it for Sweden. She deserved to win, I must say. During her performance, the monitor speakers died and she couldn’t hear herself singing, but she just continued doing her thing. That was quite impressive.”
In the following years, the Melodi Grand Prix procedure was reinstated. In 1992 and 1993, Rolf Løvland was the programme’s musical director, but in 1994, for the fourth and last time, Pete Knutsen was called upon to lead the band and conduct the competition’s winning entry in the Eurovision Song Contest – in this case a song called ‘Duett’, a power ballad composed by… Rolf Løvland. The entry was performed by young Jan Werner Danielsen with Eurovision veteran Elisabeth Andreasson. Pete Knutsen, for his part, was satisfied with the choice of song: “Oh yeah, that was the right winner of the final in Norway. It’s one of Rolf’s best compositions and the two performers did a great job on it as well. Most importantly, perhaps, their voices worked well together. As before, Rolf wrote the initial version of the arrangement, upon which we sat to write the orchestration together.”
The 1994 edition of the international Eurovision final was held in Ireland’s capital, Dublin. Knutsen: “It was a nice experience being in Ireland. As far as I’m concerned, the Irish did a good job on the organisation. We were entertained with lots of Guinness. The Guinness firm sponsored the show – and I had no complaints, so to say! During rehearsals, Rolf was at my side. It was good to have him there, but there were no problems while preparing the performance with the orchestra. As far as I remember, Rolf wasn’t disappointed that he couldn’t conduct the song himself. The two of us have always been good friends, until this day. I really had high expectations for our song, and in fact I was a little bit disappointed when we came sixth. I can’t tell if we should have won, but I was very satisfied with the vocal presentation by Jan Werner and Elisabeth – two powerful voices and really very interesting artists.”
“My best memory of Dublin is a moment which occurred after the show was over,” Knutsen adds. “All week, Rolf and I had been close with the musicians in the orchestra. Noel Kelehan, their conductor, was a great chap too. They were a great bunch and we loved having a good time with them. When the broadcast was at an end, a large banquet was held to which everyone involved in the contest was invited. Instead of going to the feast straightaway, Rolf Løvland and I walked to the platform where the orchestra was sat and helped the rhythm section pack their instruments, so that those guys could join us at the banquet. They thought it was very unusual for a conductor and a composer to come onto the stage to help them pack, but they were very grateful for our efforts – and we went to the banquet together, the Irish guys, Rolf, and myself. We enjoyed going there with them after having worked together so pleasantly. It was nice to finish the week in Ireland like this.”
After his fourth Eurovision participation in 1994, Pete Knutsen did not return to the contest, thus missing out by just one year on Rolf Løvland’s second festival win with Secret Garden and ‘Nocturne’. Does Knutsen feel any pride in having been a conductor in the Eurovision Song Contest on four occasions? “Yes, I’m really proud of it. It was nice to work abroad, representing my country. Doing Eurovision certainly was a highlight in my professional life. I was always impressed by the standard of musicians in those Eurovision orchestra. It was a pleasure to work with such consummate professionals – also in terms of sound production. In a contest, delegates usually stick mainly to their own delegation, but there were always those colleagues from abroad you were happy to meet. In Zagreb, Curt-Eric Holmquist was Sweden’s conductor – I had regularly done arrangements and music production for him, working on a show programme called ‘Scantertainment’, a co-production between Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian television. Curt-Eric was a fine colleague and it was nice to hang out with him in another context. Though there wasn’t always the opportunity due to do so, I attended other countries’ rehearsals now and again. I thought it was pretty exciting to sit and watch others at work with the orchestra.”
Has Pete Knutsen followed the Eurovision Song Contest until today? “Yes… unfortunately, it has all become a bit plastic – and it’s such a long show nowadays. It seems to go on forever. I don’t know if Eurovision has a future. There are too many countries in it; even Australia has become a participant, which I think is a bit weird. I don’t enjoy watching it as much as I used to, but, as a professional, I just cannot miss it. In the current setup, an orchestra or live band wouldn’t work. It’s just impossible given the way the show is produced nowadays. It has become such a complicated programme, with an enormous number of entries, each with a very specific sound with lots of samples and synthesizers. It’s impossible to recreate all those different approaches using one and the same orchestra. Sadly, the show as a whole has become dependent on playback, on backing tracks.”
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