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How Portugal’s 1974 Eurovision entry toppled the country’s fascist regime

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In musical terms, Portugal’s entry for the final of the Eurovision song contest on 6 April 1974 was not what you would typically call a success.

E Depois do Adeus (And After the Goodbye), performed by Paulo de Carvalho, with lyrics by José Niza, came joint last with Norway, Germany and Switzerland, narrowly avoiding an embarrassing nul points and only slightly redeemed by the fact that the winning song that year was nothing less catchy than Abba’s Waterloo.

But while De Carvalho would not go on to enjoy chart-topping glory like his better-known Swedish counterparts, E Depois do Adeus left a different kind of legacy – just a few weeks later, it changed the course of history.

By 1974, the situation within the Portuguese military had reached breaking point. Portugal was in its 13th year of fighting a colonial war on three African fronts, forcing the authoritarian, ultra-nationalist Estado Novo regime to sink increasingly untenable levels of manpower into maintaining control.

Paulo de Carvalho singing E Depois do Adeus, Portugal’s 1974-Eurovision song contest entry, which was used to trigger the Carnation Revolution. Photograph: Shutterstock

As the war dragged on, the Portuguese military’s flailing attempts to top up its officer pool were met with a backlash from its junior staff officers, who started organising among themselves.

The internal opposition quickly grew into a sophisticated, organised and politicised force: the Movement of Captains. A large number of these officers agreed that the war had to end – something that could only be achieved politically.

Moreover, the Portuguese armed forces had to be brought into line with the will of the people, which required a transition to democracy. By April, plans to topple the regime were well under way, coordinated by Maj Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho.

At the time, Carlos Almada Contreiras, the movement’s navy liaison, was stationed within the navy’s communication centre in the ministerial buildings that ring Lisbon’s Commerce Square on the edge of the Tagus. Carvalho had given him a problem to solve.

“There’s this plan of operations, which was distributed [among movement officers] by hand, or even at times by word of mouth – but then it was necessary, close to the start of the operation, to say across the country: ‘This plan is going ahead… there’s no turning back.’”

The challenge, Contreiras recalls 50 years later, was to “transmit a signal that could be heard across the country that confirmed the operation”.

He adds: “The communication systems of the three military branches – army, navy and air force – weren’t interconnected, so we couldn’t use them. That’s when I remembered something I’d read in this book.”

On a trip to Spain, Contreiras had been given a copy of The White Book on the Change of Government in Chile, edited by Augusto Pinochet, which detailed that country’s recent military coup. It described a military warning system that involved playing a string of pre-agreed pop songs through civilian radio stations.

If the movement could convince a radio station that covered mainland Portugal to play a specific song at a prearranged time, that could be the signal to start the whole operation.

But what station and what song? Carvalho had a connection with a corporal who had served under him in the war and was now working as an announcer at the Lisbon Associated Broadcasters.

Separately, Contreiras had been introduced to the journalist Álvaro Guerra, who had a contact with the Catholic station Rádio Renascença and its progressive late-night programme Limite.

Having access to two stations was good, especially as it soon emerged that Lisbon Associated Broadcasters only covered greater Lisbon. It would trigger operations in the capital, and Rádio Renascença in the rest of the country. As for what songs were to be played, the movement leaders agreed – they wanted something symbolic, that asserted their vision for Portugal.

Residents on the streets of a working-class district of Lisbon after the coup that brought down the dictatorship in April 1974. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

A tradition of “interventionist” music had long been present among the opposition to Portugal’s stifling dictatorship, typified by the folk singer José “Zeca” Afonso.

Linked to the underground revolutionary left, Afonso had an extensive back catalogue of sharp, poetic protest songs, many of which had been banned by the state censor. His opposition to the dictatorship had lost him his teaching job in the late 1960s and his activism had often landed him in prison. Afonso’s songs were hugely popular among soldiers and officers on the African front, where their lyrics were adapted into attacks on the incompetence of their superiors.

Initially, the movement had chosen the song Venham Mais Cinco (Bring on Five More) – but that is when the problems started. Venham Mais Cinco was banned by the state censor. Not only that, but the movement’s contact at Lisbon Associated Broadcasters was nervous about playing a protest song at all – it risked attracting too much attention.

With the planned date for the coup fast approaching, Carvalho suggested that the announcer choose something else – “some banality” that would not raise any eyebrows. That choice was E Depois do Adeus.

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While the song itself was politically uncontroversial, its author,Niza, was a socialist activist who had produced Afonso’s records for the label Orfeu. Rádio Renascença, on the other hand, could afford to be a little edgier with its music – the officers eventually settled on Grândola, Vila Morena (Grândola, Swarthy Town) – an Afonso song that had not found its way on to the banned lists, but whose lyrics still spoke of liberation, struggle and solidarity.

Even so, given the last-minute nature of the conspiracy, the movement’s contacts at Limite had to quickly record a performed reading of the first verse as a preamble, so that it could plausibly slot into the programme’s poetry segment.

At 10.55pm on 24 April 1974, the voice of João Paulo Diniz crackled out to greater Lisbon, introducing Paulo de Carvalho and E Depois do Adeus. Navy liaison Contreiras, despite being within the station’s stated range, could not pick it up on his radio – an officer colleague in the city centre had to call him to confirm the song had been played.

Contreiras then gave the nod to Guerra for the journalist to take the short drive to Rádio Renascença and make sure Grândola, Vila Morena was aired. Guerra’s colleague João Paulo Coelho, who had been left out of the loop, almost ruined the whole plan by loading up an advertising reel moments before Grândola, Vila Morena was meant to come on.

Manuel Tomás, the only other person in the room fully aware of the conspiracy, nudged the sound technician’s hand and forced a track change – just in time.

Grândola, Vila Morena was broadcast across mainland Portugal at 12.20am on 25 April and the Movement of Captains had both their signals. Across the country, a coordinated military operation quickly overwhelmed government forces, culminating in the siege and eventual surrender of then prime minister Marcelo Caetano in central Lisbon.

As the movement announced its intentions through occupied radio stations, huge crowds of civilians took to the streets in a mass spontaneous surge of popular support for the captains.

Less than 24 hours after the first signal was aired, the oldest fascist dictatorship in Europe had fallen and Portugal’s transition to democracy, the Carnation Revolution – named after the flowers the surging populace spontaneously offered the soldiers on the streets – had begun.

Both E Depois do Adeus and Grândola, Vila Morena are forever embedded, inextricably, in Portuguese history in a way their authors could never have anticipated but would always cherish.

By the time Eurovision 1975 rolled around, Portugal was a very different country – its colonial empire was being dismantled, its population was no longer choking under the boot of fascism and the streets were alive with revolutionary fervour.

Portugal’s entry that year was fitting for a country that had just overthrown a brutal dictatorship and whose population was finding their footing in a new world: Madrugada (Dawn) by Duarte Mendes, a singer who had been one of the April captains, proudly bearing a red carnation on his lapel.

It was a song about light and music finally breaking through the darkness. It placed 16th.

The Carnation Revolution: The Day Portugal’s Dictatorship Fell by Alex Fernandes is published by Oneworld (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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