SCANDINAVIAN BANDSTANDWHICH NORTHERN EUROPEAN COUNTRY HAS EXPORTED THE RUNNIEST TOP 40 CHEESE?
If it ain't sung in English, a quick score as a novelty hit is the best a pop ditty can hope for in the U.S. Don't believe us? Just try naming more than one song by Domenico Modugno ("Volare") or Kyu Sakamoto ("Sukiyaki"). Betcha can't!
Yet since 1970, the American pop charts have played host to scores of Scandinavian recording artists. By eschewing their native lingo in favor of phonetic English, those crafty northern Europeans have been able to rack up numerous hits on this side of the Atlantic. Their mangled pronunciation of the Queen's English, however, is nothing compared to the damage such bands inflicted on our poor eardrums. If somebody wanted to put an end to cheesy, decadently stupid pop records, he could start by dropping bombs on Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
Dark and serious Finland doesn't directly apply here, since a Finnish band has yet to score a Top 40 hit. With good reason--Finland's suicide rate is the highest in the world. Forget wallowing in darkness for six months, it's more likely that hearing all the sickly, chirpy sounds of their continental neighbors is what drives so many Finns to end it all. After reading this encapsulated history of Scandinavian rock, you also may wish to hurl yourself into the Baltic Sea.
PASS THE DUTCHIE 1970 Colossus, a fledgling U.S. record label, has delusions of a Dutch Invasion when it signs Shocking Blue, the Tee Set and the George Baker Selection to its roster. Surprisingly, all three groups chart in the U.S. Top 40 on their first outings. Shocking Blue zooms ahead of the wooden-shoe pack to capture the No. 1 slot with "Venus." Lead singer Mariska Veres coos the tune in English and just barely pulls it off. It took 16 years and Bananarama's cover version for most people to decipher that "herr wet puss wah wah crystal ass" was actually "her weapons were her crystal eyes."
The Tee Set's "Ma Belle Ami" peaks at No. 5. Their lead singer's English ain't that bad, but he croons most of this ditty in French to cover himself, anyway, thus confusing the Dutch cause. After the George Baker Selection scores a modest No. 21 with "Little Green Bag," the hits stop charting and the Invasion's battle plans are in tatters.
1972 The Dutch are slow in sending reinforcements, and, when they do, it's the lame he-she duo of Mouth and McNeal. Though not married, they are forever joined together in holy idiocy with "How Do You Do?" Imagine the courage it took to sing "How do you do, mmm mmm, and then we can na na na na . . ." with a straight face. Americans refuse to go double Dutch, and M&M are quickly shown the door.
1973 The Dutch focus their sights on the hard-rock marketplace and ship over . . . Focus!! This quartet brings yodeling into the pop/rock vernacular for the first and last time with the rollicking instrumental "Hocus Pocus." Give these zany Dutchmen points for trying to assimilate with the Americans--they even title one of their artery-clogging progressive-rock albums Hamburger Concerto.
1981 Willem van Kooten, owner of the copyright on Shocking Blue's "Venus," decides for some inexplicable reason to affix that former hit to "Sugar Sugar" and a dozen Beatles favorites. The resulting "Stars on 45 Medley" is a worldwide smash. Unfortunately, Dutchman Bas Muys' lame John Lennon impersonation anticipates Julian Lennon by four years.
1974 and 1983 It hardly helps the Dutch Invasion force that nine years separate its most popular group's two U.S. hits. Golden Earring peppers its songs with American pop-culture references--"Radar Love" features allusions to Brenda Lee, while "Twilight Zone" gives that Serling fellow the nod. In 1994, "Radar Love" actually hits Americana pay dirt again when it's used for a Miller Genuine Draft commercial, but it's too little too late. It's been 12 years since "Twilight Zone," with nary a peep out of the Earring (or any band with a member named Hans, for that matter).
HOW SWEDE IT IS 1974 Just as the first wave of the Dutch Invasion is throwing in the towel, the Swedes come on like gangbusters! Blue Swede reaches No. 1 with its insane "oooga shaka"-riddled version of B.J. Thomas' "Hooked on a Feeling." Sadly, it wasn't even the group members' idea--they copied it note for note from a British studio group called Saccharin. Blue Swede's follow-up is a frustratingly sensible version of the Association's "Never My Love" (sans "oooga shakas") that charts at a conservative No. 7.
Luckily for Sweden, ABBA picks up the baton and scores its first U.S. breakthrough with "Waterloo." Ironically enough, America comes to be regarded as ABBA's commercial "Waterloo." The band's total of 14 U.S. Top 40 hits and only one No. 1 ("Dancing Queen," 1977) is still viewed as a dismal failure compared to the shitload of records ABBA sells worldwide. Perhaps that's because the band's English has always been suspect at best (witness the group's 1980 hit "The Wiener Takes It All").
Over the years, several delirious PR people have made claims that ABBA is "the largest-selling quartet in the history of recorded music." Must've never heard of this group called the Beatles. You know--mop tops, "yeah, yeah, yeah," changed the face of pop music, etc., those guys. Somehow, Bjorn, Benny, Anni-Frid and Agnetha just never rolled off the tongue the way John, Paul, George and Ringo did.
1989 Roxette, a Swedish duo many Americans initially mistake for the Thompson Twins with sensible hair, outdistances ABBA's chart performance when it reaches No. 1 four times. Its most memorable hit, "The Look," is virtually identical to Prince's "U Got the Look," which many confused with ABC's "The Look of Love." It's a wonder the ad geeks who penned the "Jordache Look" jingle didn't sue the whole lot of them!
Ace of Base scores a No. 1 with "All That She Wants (Is Another Baby)," a song that could be the unofficial anthem for the rhythm method of birth control still advocated by the Catholic Church. It's too early to tell if this quartet has real staying power, but one thing is certain--in every interview the members have done so far, they bitch about being compared to ABBA. Maybe if we start comparing them to Blue Swede . . .
1995 Predictions: Ace of Base already may be just another pretty Swedish face if Whale is any indication of what's to come from the land of good chocolate and cuckoo clocks.
Singer "and media personality" Cia Berg is unlike any Swiss Miss yet--a deliciously dirty dominatrix who's proud of her poor enunciation ("I meet choo on a chooseday" would do even Mariska Veres proud). Check out the other song titles on We Care, Whale's debut album for Virgin: "Young, Dum and Full of Cum," "I'll Do Ya" and "Eurodog," where Berg implores the listener "to smear my braces with mayonnaise." All this against ultraheavy Beastie Boys rhythm tracks. Whale's first single, "Hobo Humping Slobo Babe," is about a rich girl who delights in balling homeless men. It reached No. 24 on Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks chart, whatever that may be. All we want to know is, how long do we have to wait for Casey Kasem to honor a long-distance dedication for "Young, Dum and Full of Cum"?
And if Whale's too rad for your Swiss sensibilities, there's always Bjorn Again--not exactly ABBA, but an incredible simulation. Technically, the to-the-T tribute band doesn't belong in this roundup since it hails from Melbourne, Australia. According to the group's bio, Bjorn Again started dressing like ABBA after its helicopter crashed into a giant glittering platform shoe from outer space. Hmmm. There's even a press clipping that recounts how the real Agnetha was recently mobbed in Paris by crazed Bjorn Again fans who thought she was the fake Agnetha! If there's a God, please let this be true!
GIVE MY REGARDS TO NORWAY 1985 The most memorable thing about a-ha was the band's groundbreaking video for its No. 1 hit, "Take On Me," which used a part-live, part-animation technique that reduced singer Magne into a pencil drawing. Before we could thoroughly erase him and a-ha completely out of our lives, the lads performed the least memorable James Bond theme ever for the even less memorable flick The Living Daylights. Shaky, not stirring.
The ABBA tribute band Bjorn Again is scheduled to perform on Thursday, September 21, at Anderson's Fifth Estate in Scottsdale. Showtime is 8 p.m.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.