Don't It Make You Feelgood?
by John Davies
No one in the UK or the US would have believed in the late years of the 1980s that the pop chart was being watched by intelligences more Scandinavian than our own; that as men busied themselves about their various musical concerns, *they* observed and studied, the way a man with a microscope might scrutinize the creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency, men went to and fro about the globe, confident of our record empire over this world. Yet across the gulf of the Baltic Sea, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic to the damage their hairspray was doing to the Ozone layer regarded our chart with envious eyes and slowly, and surely, drew their plans against us.
I first recognised and understood that I was listening to a Roxette song while in a pub in Liverpool. Our school’s art department had taken us to visit a gallery there on the only weekday it closed to the public so, promising our embarrassed teachers we’d go and soak in the architecture of the city we all piled into a nearby boozer. As would any group of A level students. Sipping an ice cool cider, I suddenly became aware of a song playing on the pub’s radio. A man was saying something about a woman having the look and woman with a voice – and what a voice – was loudly agreeing with him. And then there was a lot of na na na na na-ing. Of course I’d heard this before. It was that group my friends had described as ‘a poor man’s Eurhythmics’ – Roxette. In that pub recognition changed into something else. Passing a casual comment that I liked the song, one of my fellow piss-artists scoffed. ‘It’s a Prince rip off!’ he sneered, adding: ‘Plus they’re foreign. It’s crap, John.’ I shrugged, smiled and turned the subject to something else while thinking, ‘Nah, mate – that attitude’s crap. I like this. I’m going to follow them.’ Little did I know just how deeply Per Gessle and Marie Fredriksson would go on to infiltrate my musical life from that moment on through to the present day.
I say that but, I have to confess that following The Look it wasn’t until Listen to Your Heart that I became fully aware of them again. Although as familiar as anything now, Dressed for Success and Listen’s joint A side Dangerous didn’t really register on the John-radar. Listen to Your Heart, however, blew me away – excellent orchestration, strident vocals and proudly embracing being a power ballad (Per has stated that he deliberately overwrote the power ballad angle) it appealed from the off and then, of course, It happened. If you’re asking why I have capitalised the ‘I’ in ‘it’, you won’t be for long.
In 1990 a song invaded the charts. Unchecked, it then leaked from the entrapments of the current rundown and ‘infected’ every love compilation album released for years. At one point it probably sat in more homes than actually wanted it to be there. Not bad for a song that only features in the film it was ‘written for’ for seconds. I am, of course, talking about It Must Have Been Love [hereafter IMHBL], spring-boarded into the limelight by being in the box office smash, Pretty Woman and on the bestselling soundtrack to that film. Of course, IMHBL was not written for Pretty Woman at all. Oh, no. IMHBL was actually written years before and was Roxette’s 1987 Christmas single. Due to The Look being a massive hit in America following an exchange student pestering his local radio station to play tracks from the Look Sharp! album he had brought back from Sweden, Per and Marie were hot property in America without having done any promotional work to break there. When asked to contribute to the Pretty Woman soundtrack, Per embraced the new Green way of thinking and recycled it, fully aware that few outside of Europe would have been aware of its yule time original. By changing, ‘It’s a hard Christmas Day’ to ‘It’s a hard winter’s day’ Per created a song that will never go away and which will always form part of their set list whenever they play a concert. Why is it so popular? I believe the key to that, and, indeed, the success of Roxette overall, stems from one word, ‘Simplicity’.
Roxette have never professed to be deep and meaningful (although they frequently are). At times it even appears as though Per is actually playing games with the English language as he enjoys the ‘How to get line 1 to rhyme with line 3’ game in his song writing - which does lead to some unintentionally ‘funny’ lyrics [one of which has to be in the belting Things Will Never be the Same in which leaves turn hard and blue just to fit it with needing to rhyme with ‘you’. My friend, Julian – mentioned in my Mylene Farmer piece on Winterwind - once defended that line by saying, ‘They’re blue because it gets really cold in Sweden!’ Yeah, Nice try.] Also, even if you are exposed to English records from an early age writing in English when that is your seconds language is not easy - and this has led to some equally amusing moments in Roxette’s catalogue where second meanings might not have been picked up on [in the slow ballad So Far Away Marie passionately demands that someone should come inside her now. In a totally spiritual way. Yeah. That’s right. Spiritually.]. What Roxette deliver in their records is bold and simple and they have the innate ability to create earworm hooks that guarantee when you get to the chorus for the second time you’re already starting to hum along. Indeed, as the title of their first greatest hits album proudly states, ‘Don’t Bore Us – Get to the Chorus!’
Moving away from the actual music, people who dismiss Roxette for not being ‘in’ and call them ‘untrendy’ totally miss the point. They’ve never tried to be ‘trendy’. Quite simply, Marie was born to sing and Per, raised on the Beatles, Elvis and Tom Petty, requires music in the way other humans need oxygen. They write and perform fun, crowd pleasing songs, balancing power pop with ballads and that is their focus, not whether they are wearing the coolest trousers in pop. Which, considering some of their clothe choices over the years is probably for the best. In fairness, though, they didn’t and don’t need to try and be ‘trendy’. Although they wanted to appeal to a world market, Roxette was a hobby project. Both were already major stars in Sweden before they teamed up, ‘To do something in English’, borrowed a name from a Dr. Feelgood song and formed their duo. In between Roxette projects they continue to have highly successful solo careers to this date – although Marie’s did take an unscheduled break but we’ll come to that period in due course.
So, with IMHBL having firmly established Roxette in my life, A levels made way for my time at University. It was while there that my liking for the group really took hold and became a deep rooted ‘passion’. As I documented in I Don’t Speak French while at University I befriended Julian who introduced me to the wonders of Mylene Farmer. Being a lover of all things Swedish as well as a Francophile, he also shared and developed my liking of Roxette. However, that friendship started after I had become actively involved with the LGB Group there. Roxette played a major part in my life immediately prior to that – at the time I took a deep breath and attempted to come out (for the first time).
Without going into the finer details, I’d arranged to meet up with someone who ran a gay youth group in Sheffield. I turned up and waited outside the pub (there’s a running theme here) with Roxette playing on my Walkman. I waited for a long time. As the clouds broke and the opening strains of Cry played through the headphones I realised the guy wasn’t going to turn up. With Marie’s haunting voice enveloping me I walked away, returning to the isolation of being “in” and elected not to bother coming out after all. I didn’t need to. I had my music. That would be enough.
Within weeks of that firm decision I was the secretary of the University’s LGB group so I really held fast with that resolution. However, I had been right in my assertion that I had my music. I always had had my music. I’m a tad obsessive when it comes to groups/artists. While I am always aware of what is around music wise, my life is broken into chunks of relay race obsessions. As I emerged from within the sounds of my parents I went from The Human League to Howard Jones, from him to T’Pau and from there to Roxette (and from there in tandem with Mylene Farmer). While all of these ‘batons’ are ones I still champion I believe the reason Roxette stands spikey-haired above them all is quite simply they formed the soundtrack to my life as I went from insular and closeted to coming out, being accepted and moving on to becoming the person I am today. The emotions of that time are linked to Per and Marie’s music so indelibly that, however strange this might sound, it became a part of not just cathartic release/comforting me but a fully legitimate part of who I am.
From that personal turning point, Roxette have always coloured my life and rarely left whichever portable musical device I have owned. Through Julian I became aware of pre-The Look Roxette and hunted in vain for years for their first album, Pearls of Passion (and its side project Dance Passion). Although Julian taped it for me, I wanted a physical copy and that release was difficult to track down. The only time I saw the original CD was in London when I was attending Pride. Alas, I did not have a spare £20.00 on me so I had to wait until the eventual re-lease years later to actually own that early gem (where Marie’s early attempts to sing in English rather charmingly sees, ‘Romans hiding in the dark’ rather than the desired ‘romance hiding in the dark). Back in Sheffield, the release of the Joyride album had me scouring every music shop for in-store publicity material – which I acquired in abundance and I still have the enormous blow-up card display of the extremely colourful album cover. In pubs (there’s that theme again) I played their music on every jukebox going – much to the amusement and annoyance of everyone there [to this day I’m sure some people believe Joyride’s B side Come Back (Before You Leave) was a single I played it that much]. Still in Sheffield, I saw them twice in concert, attending the Joyride and the Crash Boom Bang tours. The latter involved me travelling back to Sheffield, though, as I was based in Manchester by then, University behind me. More recently I have had the enormous pleasure of seeing them for a third time in Manchester as they toured the word again in 2012. As I hit 40 I was watching a group I had adored since around the age of 20. Musically, life didn’t begin at the big four zero it simply continued - which, as far as Roxette is concerned, is actually pretty remarkable. In fact, it’s ‘almost unreal’.
Shortly after the release of Room Service, Marie fell gravely ill with brain cancer. Her chances of survival were extremely low. Even though she did, thankfully, pull through it was doubtful we would hear new Roxette material any time soon, if indeed at all. As Per said to fans at that time she “hadn’t just had a cold”. However, against all the odds, Marie did pull through. Roxette are now back together with two new albums under their belts and their last tour was globally huge, lasting longer than the ones conducted during their 1980s/1990s peak. Although Marie does need helping onto the stage now, and while she can occasionally forget a lyric here and there, it simply does not matter. She’s back where she belongs and where she wants to be. On the 4th July 2012 at the MEN Arena I stood and felt time ebb all around me. When she sang, her voice as powerful as it had ever been, she surrounded me, blurring my timeline into one solid moment spanning a direct line from a pub in Liverpool to my day to day life at that moment. I will, however, remain eternally grateful that she did not sing, Cry. That particular moment in my life, while I know all about it, is not one that I like revisiting too often.