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Sweden's Roxette Is Making It Big Almost by Accident

September 23, 1989|J.D. CONSIDINE | The Baltimore Sun

All around the world, pop groups dream of making it big in America.

Not only is the United States home to the biggest and most competitive pop market on earth, it is also the most prestigious, being the back yard of global superstars like Madonna and Michael Jackson. To paraphrase a song lyric, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

Roxette, therefore, must be particularly pleased with itself. With its one album "Look Sharp!" this Swedish duo has put three singles into the Top 40 so far this year: the chart-topping "The Look," the '60s-styled "Dressed for Success" and the current "Listen to Your Heart."

But as singer-guitarist Per Gessle explained, making it big in America was the last thing Roxette expected. "This is way far beyond our dreams," he said over the phone from his record company's Los Angeles offices. "When we started out, our target and our goal was getting into the German market, the European market. The U.S. market is very difficult to get into; it's so tough to get in here without contracts and managers and lawyers behind you."

There were no managers or lawyers behind Roxette, however--just an exchange student who happened to buy a copy of "The Look" and bring it from Sweden to Minneapolis.

"It was by accident," Gessle said. "This radio station in Minneapolis, KDWV, picked the song up from one of their listeners, and it just snowballed. When it hit the charts, we didn't have a recording contract or anything. Lucky us!"

Having an American hit without having an American recording contract was not without its difficulties. "It was a problem to match the airplay with record sales, because there was no record in stock," Gessle said. "A lot of things had to be done before they could release the single here--paper work, decisions to be made. They did a great job, the marketing people here."

But then, Roxette seems a fairly easy band to market. Although the band's sound is wonderfully contemporary, blending rock-oriented guitar flourishes with synthesizer-driven dance beats, what ultimately sells the group is its sense of melody. In fact, given Roxette's flair for crisp, pop-oriented catch choruses and bright, lustrous vocal harmonies, more than one reviewer has likened the group to ABBA, Sweden's last great pop band.

That resemblance goes deeper than mere tunefulness, however. Just as the four members of ABBA had achieved success on their own before joining forces, Gessle and partner Marie Fredriksson were already pop stars in Sweden before forming Roxette.

"We started Roxette as sort of a hobby project," Gessle said. "Marie was in the middle of her solo career, and I had broken up this band (Gyllene Tider, or Golden Times) and did a couple of solo albums as well. We were quite busy doing that. But we always had this dream of getting abroad."

Going international meant singing in English, however, and though most Swedes speak English--indeed, learning English is compulsory in Swedish schools--Gessle explained that most Swedish artists prefer to sing in Swedish.

"In Sweden, when you hear an English song on the radio, no one really cares about the lyric at all," he said. "It's the same in Germany and Europe. The English language is just another instrument.

"We also have a sort of singer-songwriter tradition in Sweden which I think is very important. Many artists write their own stuff and are very lyric-oriented, sort of the Leonard Cohen-Bob Dylan tradition. They're not really interested in going into the English language and trying to reach another audience. It has to be sung in Swedish."

Fortunately, Gessle is quite at home writing in English. "I started out writing lyrics when I was 13, which was four years before I started writing music," he says. "I've always been interested in languages and words, always been writing poems and stuff like that. Even if I was singing in Swedish, I would be writing stuff in English meanwhile.

"I've always been very fascinated by pop music and pop culture. I collect records and know a lot about music, (and that way) I think you learn all the traps of lyric writing. So when you write the song, your goal should be to avoid all the cliches and do something different--because it can be done."

Perhaps the most distinctive thing about Roxette is the group's sense of humor. The spine to the album version of "Look Sharp" includes the slogan, "Two Good Friends, Three Great Chords, 12 Brilliant Songs," and that's typical of the band's wry wit.

"We thought maybe we should make fun of the glamorous side of this business," Gessle says. "It's nice to keep your distance from what you're doing."

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