few days ago, BILLBOARD announced that the music streams for ROXETTE had shot up a whopping 770% following news of the untimely death of their female singer MARIE FREDRIKSSON on December 9, 2019. Clearly I'm not the only one who likes their pop music to be over-the-top and frilly yet with a dose of wry wit and even a little sadness. Yes, the Swedish duo's playful and punchy catalog, which spanned everything from power pop to electronic dance beats to epic power ballads on a GEORGE PAL scale, was the stuff that pop dreams were made of. There was a knowing to the heartache that FREDRIKSSON put that lean mean contralto of hers into, but a bright-eyed innocence came through as well. Comparisons to ABBA were inevitable, but it was that 'knowing' that set ROXETTE apart as well as a cheekiness, especially on the more stomping pop rock tunes that were often issued by ROXETTE co-founder PER GESSLE. This was a pop package for the ages so it is no wonder people are giving the music of this formidable duo a second listen and maybe even getting lost in some pleasant memories. Aside from being the year of her death, 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of ROXETTE's breakthrough into the US pop charts with their sophomore album LOOK SHARP and that alone brings back memories. In 1989 I was a tall, skinny, lanky, un-athletic 14 year-old without a prayer. My only salvation was Top 40 radio which was world's away from the pop environment we have today.
Having not touched a radio dial with any real excitement or zeal since some time in the nineties, I can't say what one can expect listening to the radio now, but in the final year of the eighties, you could hear metal bands like GUNS AND ROSES and DEF LEPPARD alongside such dance pop from the likes of MADONNA, PAULA ABDUL and MILLI VANILLI (seriously) on your average Top 40 radio station. Somewhere in the middle of those two extremes you had THE BANGLES, THE CURE, REM and other college rock radio acts that happened to find their way onto BILLBOARD's HOT 100. You even had a burgeoning hip hop movement that was making its presence known through acts like TONE LOC and SALT N' PEPPA. This was the environment where a Swedish pop duo with absolutely no distribution deal in the United States ended up flourishing in. I'd call it a golden era but then I remember that NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK was big then as well.
With one album behind them (PEARLS OF PASSION, 1986), MARIE and PER GESSLE of ROXETTE issued their second album LOOK SHARP in 1988 and established themselves as hitmakers in their homeland. Any hopes of bringing the duo's delectable pop sensibility stateside proved futile as the band's label and distribution didn't feel their music had a chance in the U.S. market. Fortunately for PER and MARIE, a US exchange student was living in Stockholm just as ROXETTE became celebrities and bought a copy of the album LOOK SHARP. Upon his return to the US, the exchange student handed to album over to his local radio station and a DJ there heard a hit in the strutting opening track THE LOOK - a song punctuated by a rather slinky guitar riff, singer and guitarist PER GESSLE's elfin purr and a call and response that was punctuated by the very vocal chops of FREDRIKSSON.
Before long, THE LOOK was added to numerous radio markets throughout the US and eventually became an accidental number one BILLBOARD hit. In a time where playing the fame game is such a manufactured thing, it's definitely a shock to the system to learn there was a time when breaking through could happen by wild chance. Not to say that GESSLE and FREDRIKSSON didn't have the goods. Otherwise there wouldn't have been a top twenty follow up with the single DRESSED FOR SUCCESS, where FREDRIKSSON finally got to show what she was made of as a front woman with the punchy pop rock tune, but it was LISTEN TO YOUR HEART that gave ROXETTE their second number one single and FREDRIKSSON's incendiary performance made the power ballad an 80's radio classic. Rounding out the hit parade from LOOK SHARP was the guitar-driven dance pop of DANGEROUS where GESSLE and FREDRIKSSON both take charge vocally which ended up making it all th way to number 2 on the HOT 100.
Produced by CLARENCE OFWERMAN and ADAM MOSELEY, LOOK SHARP was an album that was right at home in terms of the time that it was released. The effort was guitar driven enough to reach out to rock fans and boasted some effervescent electronic dance beats that could compete with anything THE MATERIAL GIRL was putting out. Upon wider release in the United States, it was clear the quirky duo were not going to be a critics favorite but the critics all seemed to agree that MARIE FREDRIKSSON was indeed the greatest weapon in ROXETTE's musical arsenal. Given the story of ROXETTE's unconventional entry into the U.S. pop charts, one may dismiss the success stateside as a fluke. But flukes don't go on to have four number one singles and a few top ten singles in between. Suffice it to say that two of those number one singles came from LOOK SHARP - an album that higher ups in the music industry didn't believe had a chance in the land of the free. Thirty years after its release, LOOK SHARP has been eclipsed by ROXETTE's follow up album -the far superior - JOYRIDE from 1991, but LOOK SHARP is a more wide-eyed and bushytailed experience. Despite the slickness of the production there is an unpretentiousness and honesty that shine through.
In the spring of 1989, ROXETTE reminded the record buying public (there was no downloading then) that pure unadulterated pop could be guitar driven too. THE LOOK kicks off with a memorable, swampy guitar riff recalling ZZ TOP and then a marching groove is set forth by some programmed hi-hat drumming along with other electronic flourishes. The sassy number has all of the hallmarks of a pop hit from the opening countdown to the call and response chorus where FREDRIKSSON takes charge despite GESSLE being the lead vocalist. And let's not forget the la-la-las. MARIE FREDRIKSSON maybe getting all of the praise for her vocals since her passing but something needs to be said for PER's quirky purring delivery which recalls MARC BOLAN of T-REX that helps keep the proceedings playful and dirty. No wonder it went to number one!
DRESSED FOR SUCCESS
On ROXETTE's breakthrough single THE LOOK it was PER GESSLE who took charge of the song vocally. Despite FREDRIKSSON's vocals being limited to the call and response chorus, we could tell that this girl was someone we wanted to meet. On the follow up single DRESSED FOR SUCCESS, we got to do just that. The peroclating pop rock stomper introduced FREDRIKSSON as a high octane belter with a desire to break free from the restrictions put upon her by life and to hit the big time. Given the lyrics, we assume that entails becoming a fashion model. It's hard to understand why the song didn't chart any higher, but fate had other plans for these Swedish exports.
This mid-tempo stomper could've easily found a home somewhere on the MIAMI VICE soundtrack with its welcome saxophone and spikey guitar riffs. Here FREDRIKSSON takes charge vocally on a number that demands that she eschew the nice girl approach of DRESSED FOR SUCCESS and become a little more streetwise. This gritty takedown of a lover who won't make up his damn mind would've made a fine single even if we weren't quite in the CROCKETT and TUBBS era anymore.
DANGEROUS made it all the way to number two after THE LOOK and LISTEN TO YOUR HEART had already reached number one. DANGEROUS was no match for JANET JACKSON's ESCAPADE. Making a pop hit was obviously paramount for the duo otherwise the song would've been better served with a straight ahead rock approach without all of the sequencing to pretty it up for radio. Inspired by an URSULA ANDRESS film who's title escapes me, the driving number has PER taking the verses, MARIE taking the bridge and both of them sharing the chorus which tells of a woman you've got to beware of. My suspicions that the direct rock n roll approach benefitting the song were proved spot on when I heard a live version of DANGEROUS on ROXETTE LIVE: TRAVELLING THE WORLD. They rocked it!
HALF A WOMAN HALF A SHADOW
Romantic disillusionment always sounded good being sung by MARIE FREDRIKSSON, but when you couple that disillusionment with a longing for a "reason to believe", you've got something truly special. HALF A WOMAN HALF A SHADOW is a deep cut built around a bouncey, resilient surf guitar riff and drum claps. For the first time on LOOK SHARP, FREDRIKSSON takes a more ethereal approach to her vocals while still ably issuing the chorus "Wash my pain away!" with all of the oompfh we have come to expect from the gamine pop rock singer thus far.
With the album LOOK SHARP, ROXETTE boast a kind of innocence - a way of doing things that seems unburdened by previous success or some kind of cynical money grab. That doesn't mean ROXETTE can't be adults when it comes to matters of the heart and the dance rock gem of CHANCES is ROXETTE and FREDRIKSSON at their most playful and sexy. The chorus echoes the ABBA hit TAKE A CHANCE ON ME from over a decade earlier but this song's minor progression and urgent, driving programmed drumming aren't playing around. FREDRIKSSON goes all BETTE DAVIS with the subject matter and isn't taking no for an answer.
LISTEN TO YOUR HEART
In the late eighties, a power ballad delivered with a strong female voice was territory that the band HEART had mined the most successfully thanks to ANN WILSON's precious larynx, but in the late Summer of 1989, ROXETTE gave that band a run for its money with LISTEN TO YOUR HEART. For such a dramatic number it's suprising that the lyrics tell the story of a friend telling another friend not to give up on the guy she's with. This is where the public first learned that FREDRIKSSON could sing anything and her pyrotechnic performance helped earn ROXETTE their second number one single from an album (LOOK SHARP) that no one saw coming.
***It wasn't long before Hollywood came a calling. Specifically producer GARY MARSHALL needed a love ballad for his 1990 rom-com PRETTY WOMAN starring RICHARD GERE and relative newcomer JULIA ROBERTS. Who better than that Swedish duo who could crank out a power ballad like nobody's business? IT MUST HAVE BEEN LOVE was originally a Holiday-themed ballad issued by ROXETTE released in 1987 called CHRISTMAS FOR THE BROKENHEARTED, but with some retooled lyrics, it became GESSLE and FREDRIKSSON's third number one in the US. Making things better was the fact that the song was attached to the top-grossing film of that year.
Soon it was time for another album and ROXETTE didn't disappoint with the 1991 release of JOYRIDE, an immaculately produced album loaded with wry power pop moments and the epic slow burns that would best showcase FREDRIKSSON's precious pipes. The driving SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND-styled title track showcased GESSLE on lead vocals and became ROXETTE's fourth and final Number one single while the FREDRIKSSON fronted ballad FADING LIKE A FLOWER made it to number two. Rankings aside, JOYRIDE was to be the last of the great guitar oriented pop albums before the grunge movement came along in the early nineties. One could argue that rock n roll's new found relevance and the rise of hip hop in what was left of the nineties could've lead to the absence of all of the sun and fun that ROXETTE shamelessly provided, but I always blamed the duo's loss of momentum on that fact that EMI felt it appropriate to sell the bands' 1994 album CRASH BOOM BANG exclusively at MCDONALD'S outlets in the US. From there, the band's fortunes in the US declined and new material from the dynamic duo would never make it to the airwaves. Despite the lack of distribution Stateside, ROXETTE released two enormously successful albums HAVE A NICE DAY (1999) and ROOM SERVICES (2001) but the momentum stopped the morning of September 11, 2002 when MARIE collapsed from a malignant brain tumor. Following a long, painstaking recovery, the dynamic duo got back together for CHARM SCHOOL in 2011. The cheeky first single SHE'S GOT NOTHING ON (BUT THE RADIO) and the rock anthem WAY OUT were like a clarion call letting the whole world that ROXETTE was back in business but it was the plaintive FREDRIKSSON-led ballad NO ONE MAKES IT ON HER OWN that should've reminded people why ROXETTE was able to breakthrough in the first place.
With the passing of FREDRIKSSON, it is difficult to see what is in store for the legacy of ROXETTE. Other press have made mention of the fact that IT MUST'VE BEEN LOVE is the duo's most memorable song, but there was so much more to this pop anomaly that went on to sell a reported 80 million records worldwide. Theirs was a music with a big old heart on its sleeve that could make you dance, make you bang your head and sometimes make you cry. If a pop band can make you do that, then that is a pop band worth holding onto for all time.
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