For a brief period of time in the early 1990s, Roxette, a pop/rock duo from Sweden, stood among the top bands in worldwide sales and notoriety, brandishing a simple yet effective blend of pop with a slight edge and occasional hints of dance. The group claims influences ranging from the Beatles to Blondie to new wave music to Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin.
Perhaps, years after the fact, Roxette's popularity can be difficult to understand or appreciate in light of what critics considered its infectious but nonetheless lightweight music, lightweight even compared to what was otherwise on the airwaves at the time. Regardless, there was a time in 1991 when Roxette could command an arena filled with tens of thousands of fans in places as diverse as Buenos Aires, Frankfurt and Sydney. The 1992 release, Tourism: Songs from Studios, Stages, Hotelrooms and Other Strange Places, with a recording of audience members singing along to the tune of the group’s biggest hit, “It Must Have Been Love” - exemplifies this temporary but impressive hold Per Gessle and Marie Fredriksson had.
Roxette is believed to have worldwide sales of more than 75 million copies of its albums and singles, no minor achievement for any pop act. The group’s success in the United States alone was arguable. While seemingly not interested in doing so, even by default Roxette could not associate its image with the now-iconic ABBA, another Swedish pop group that struggled for recognition in America while still intact in the late 1970s, but that managed, through revisionism beginning in the early 1990s, to grow into something more intriguing as a legacy.
ABBA did have some Billboard Top Ten singles and one number one in the 1970s. Even though Roxette couldn’t ultimately leave behind the same legacy, the group did ABBA better on the singles chart, achieving four number-one hits on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1989 and 1991. Roxette also had two Number-Two singles and a few other Top 40 peaks until falling out of site of the Hot 100 in 1994. Even so, by that token, Roxette can be considered a highly successful singles act. The group has been certified by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) with two platinum albums – 1988’s Look Sharp! (released in the U.S. in 1989) and 1991’s Joyride -- and two gold singles – “The Look” and “It Must Have Been Love”.
In Sweden the group has had 17 Top Ten hits, and Roxette has developed a large following throughout South America.
Roxette's music is best summed up by the title of its 1995 greatest-hits album: Don't Bore Us - Get to the Chorus! Mostly written by Gessle and produced by Clarence Ofwerman, the songs were melodic pop, what Stephen Thomas Erlewine, senior editor of the All Music Guide, called “extremely catchy and simple hooks and melodies that are sweet but not saccharine.” Single releases tend to oscillate between lead vocals by Gessle - whose light, almost sunshiny voice fronts hits such as “The Look” and “Joyride” - and Fredriksson - whose grainy, throatier delivery can be heard on “Listen to Your Heart” and “It Must Have Been Love”, among others.
Though they have claimed that the original aim of Roxette was to apply Gessle’s pop compositions to Fredriksson’s vocals, they also claim that the spontaneously-written and -recorded “The Look”, the group’s worldwide breakthrough hit, came as a surprise with Gessle taking lead. Perhaps the claim can be questioned in light of the fact that the first single Gessle and Fredriksson released in Sweden in late 1985, “Neverending Love”, was a full-on duet (similar to “Dangerous”), as were several other single releases before the group’s reach expanded beyond its home country.
By the time singer/songwriters Per Gessle and Marie Fredriksson came together officially as Roxette, both were established artists in Sweden. They met in 1979 while in separate bands. Over the years - as Fredriksson moved from Strul and MaMas Barn (Mama’s Children) to going solo and Gessle performed with his band, the popular Gyllene Tider, and made two solo albums - the two encountered each other repeatedly in local music circles. In 1981, Fredriksson sang for the first time with Gyllene Tider on stage and was featured as a background vocalist for a Swedish-language album the band released in 1982 and for a Swedish-language solo album Gessle released in 1983.
While working on her first solo album, Fredriksson performed more background vocals for Gyllene Tider's next album, The Heartland Cafe, what some fans consider to be the first Roxette project. According to liner notes written by Gessle on a 1990 re-issue of the album, the group’s first English-language release was in response to interest expressed by Capitol Records, an American label affiliated with Gyllene Tider's parent EMI Group. Though Gessle had written one English-language song that appeared on a 1982 album by ex-ABBA singer Frida, it was, in fact, music set to a Dorothy Parker poem. Writing songs in English for Gyllene Tider was an attempt to reach into the lucrative American market.
The eleven-track Heartland Cafe was released in February 1984. Capitol took six of the tracks and released an extended-play (EP) record in the United States with an abridged title, Heartland, but the company insisted on a different name for the band. Gessle and the other members of Gyllene Tider (Swedish for “Golden Times” or “Golden Age”) chose the title of a 1975 Dr. Feelgood song, “Roxette”.
The Heartland Cafe sold 45,000 copies in Sweden, which is considered a minor success. It proved even less so internationally. The newly-named Roxette issued one near-invisible hit in the United States, “Teaser Japanese”, whose video reached MTV's studio but received no rotation to speak of. It and subsequent singles fared better in Sweden, and Gyllene Tider briefly toured the country to support the album. However, “the album died soon enough and the international career died before it even started,” Gessle wrote. “We decided to put Gyllene Tider to rest... until further notice . . . .”
Gessle recorded a third Swedish-language solo album, released in 1985 and again featuring Fredriksson on background vocals, and Fredriksson recorded a second solo album. Upon the advice of their mutual record company, the Swedish subsidiary of The EMI Group, Gessle and Fredriksson joined to record an English-language single. “Neverending Love”, credited to Roxette, was released in late 1985 and reached the Swedish Top Ten.
Gessle and Fredriksson quickly recorded a full-length album, using songs Gessle had written originally for his third solo album. With the release of Pearls of Passion in October 1986, Roxette became an even bigger success in Sweden with singles such as “Soul Deep” and “Goodbye to You”. Passion was followed by a compilation of re-mixes of those same songs, titled Dance Passion. Some of the releases originally from Passion reached European radio outside of Sweden.
In 1987, Fredriksson released and publicized her third solo album. Meanwhile, Roxette released a single, “I Want You”, in collaboration with Eva Dahlgren and Ratata. Later in the year, Roxette released “It Must Have Been Love (Christmas for the Broken Hearted)”, a holiday-themed song that received some attention and kept Roxette's name alive on some European radio as Gessle and Fredriksson prepared the next album. Gessle has said that the single was Roxette's first ernest endeavor to reach beyond Sweden toward markets such as Germany, though EMI Germany decided against releasing the single.
The full-length follow-up, Look Sharp!, was released in Europe in October 1988, two years after Pearls of Passion. Gessle and EMI Svenska chose to highlight Fredriksson’s singing and released “Chances” and “Dressed for Success” as the first singles.
After Success’s run on Swedish radio emerged, “The Look”, a novelty song highlighted by synthesizers and a clangy guitar line as well as esoteric lyrics sung by Gessle about a woman “walking like a man, hitting like a hammer.”
While studying in Sweden, an American exchange student from Minneapolis, Dean Cushman, heard “The Look”, then one of the most played songs on radio, and brought a copy of Look Sharp! home for the 1988 holiday break. According to Gessle, Cushman “badgered” a Minneapolis radio station, KDWB 101.3 FM, to play the song. Based on positive caller feedback, the station’s program director copied the song and distributed it to other stations, and within weeks the song became unique throughout the region and, ultimately, nationwide.
EMI Svenska’s parent group, which had not previously agreed to an American distribution of Look Sharp!, immediately issued a single to American record stores and radio stations and pressed copies of Look Sharp! “The Look” reached Number One on the April 8, 1989, Billboard Hot 100, where it remained for one week. At the end of the year, Billboard named “The Look” one of the 20 biggest Hot 100 singles of the year.
Roxette then assembled an international tour as EMI issued “Dressed for Success” as the second single in the United States, and the song peaked at Number Fourteen. “Listen to Your Heart” was released thereafter. A power-ballad, the song managed to garner great listener interest even though it differed from the synth pop of “The Look”, instead resembling the guitar-heavy ballads of Heart. The single, the first ever to be released in cassette-only format without a 45 RPM 7-inch vinyl alternative, spent a single week at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for the week ending Nov. 4, 1989.
A fourth single in the United States, “Dangerous”, was released at the end of the year and spent two weeks at number two on the Hot 100 in February 1990.
It was around this time that Touchstone Pictures approached EMI and Roxette about contributing a song to the soundtrack of the upcoming film, Pretty Woman starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts. Gessle has claimed that “It Must Have Been Love”, by then a two-year-old recording, was chosen because Roxette didn’t have time to compose and record a new song while touring through Australia and New Zealand.
Gessle and producer Clarence Öfwerman took the old recording, had Fredriksson replace a single Christmas-referenced line in the song, added some instrumentation and background vocal overlays, and gave the song to the soundtrack producers, who Gessle claimed turned it down. Gessle also claimed that, after re-editing the film before release, the producers re-requested the song, and it was added to the soundtrack.
Pretty Woman was released in March 1990 and went on to make more than $178 million at U.S. box offices and more than $460 million worldwide, becoming the most successful film of the year. The soundtrack went on to be certified three times platinum by the RIAA. Though not the first single released from the soundtrack, "It Must Have Been Love” would prove to be the most successful, spending two weeks at number one on the Hot 100 beginning in the June 16, 1990, edition.
The song had staying power on the chart, spending two additional weeks at number two after falling from the perch, a total of nine weeks in the Top 10, and a then-impressive 17 weeks in the Top 40. Billboard named “It Must Have Been Love” the number two Hot 100 single of the year behind Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On”. The song would prove to be Roxette's most successful single release, peaking at the top of the singles charts in many countries and number three in the United Kingdom, the group’s highest chart position there.
As 1990 wound down, Roxette completed its tour and returned to Sweden to record its full-length follow-up to Look Sharp! The fourteen-track collection, titled Joyride, was released in March 1991, peaking almost immediately at number twelve on the Billboard 200 album chart.
J.D. Considine of Rolling Stone magazine reviewed Joyride: “By emphasizing its sense of personality, Roxette delivers more than just well-constructed hooks; this music has heart, something that makes even the catchiest melody more appealing.”
The title-track single took off quickly, bearing a similarity to “The Look” and featuring Gessle whistling and singing lines like “Hello, you fool, I love you”, which he claimed his girlfriend left in a note to him one day. “Joyride”, the single reached number four in the U.K. and spent a week at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in the May 11 issue.
Its follow-up, “Fading Like a Flower (Every Time You Leave)”, a power-rock song similar to “Listen to Your Heart” but uptempo with Fredriksson on lead, spent a week at number two on the Hot 100 in July. It was then that Roxette embarked on an even more ambitious tour, eventually reaching more than one million fans in 108 concerts, including a few dates in the United States.
But it was at this time, as Per Gessle has contended, that EMI’s American subsidiary made personnel changes that resulted in a downturn in the publicity for Roxette. Though Gessle has never fully explained, Roxette fans and close watchers could easily see that the momentum in America was slowing down dramatically. Though Joyride was certified platinum and made impressive worldwide sales, surpassing Look Sharp!, subsequent singles from the album - the ballad “Spending My Time” and the bouncy “Church of Your Heart” - failed to reach above the Number 30 position on the Hot 100. The same can be said for the U.K. chart, where “The Big L” (another bouncy pop-rock song), “Spending My Time” and “Church of Your Heart” failed to reach even the Top 20.
Some longtime Roxette and Per Gessle fans have contended as well that Roxette was not able to compete, especially in the American market, with the changing tide of popular music. The Billboard Hot 100 singles and Billboard 200 album charts were showing an increasing dominance toward the end of 1991 by new or emerging genres such as new jack soul and grunge. Groups like Boyz II Men, Color Me Badd and Nirvana were sitting at number one, and harder-core rap and hip-hop showed signs of their eventual rise to prominence, pushing aside simpler, more commercialized pop with which Roxette's music had seemingly blended perfectly.
Despite the lag in publicity and sales and airplay in the United States, Roxette maintained a respectable showing pretty much everywhere else and continued with the Join the Joyride tour through the end of the year. Instead of releasing a brand-new full-length album, Gessle and Fredriksson re-mastered older recordings, including several slated for but not included on Look Sharp! and Joyride. They also recorded some of their live performances, recorded a country-and-western-inspired version of “It Must Have Been Love” in a Los Angeles studio, and recorded new material in various locations around the world -- an empty dance club, an un-air-conditioned hotel room -- and compiled everything on to the album Tourism: Songs from Studios, Stages, Hotelrooms and Other Strange Places, released in October 1992. Gessle has said that the album was meant to “capture the energy within the band,” especially in the spontaneous performance of songs such as “Here Comes the Weekend” and “Never is a Long Time.”
The first single off the album was “How Do You Do!”, followed by the ballad “Queen of Rain” and an electrified version of the song, “Fingertips”, originally recorded acoustically for the album and re-titled “Fingertips ‘93” for single release. Tourism barely dented American radio and record stores but gave Roxette its first Top-20 single in the U.K. in over a year with “How Do You Do!”
It was also in 1992 that Marie Fredriksson released her first solo album in Swedish in five years, titled Den Standiga Resan (The Eternal Journey).
In early 1993, Roxette became the first non-native-English speaking artists to be featured on MTV's Unplugged series, though the songs from the performance were never released on an official Unplugged album.
It was also in 1993 when Roxette recorded and released “Almost Unreal”, a song originally slated for the film Hocus Pocus starring Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Nijimy. However, the song was moved to the soundtrack to the film based on the Nintendo video game Super Mario Bros. starring Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper. The film, which cost more than $40 million to make, earned only $20 million at the box office. Supported by an expensive video and ultimately receiving respectable airplay, “Almost Unreal” managed to briefly reach the lower end of the Billboard Hot 100 but reached the Top Ten on the U.K. singles chart, the group’s first time there since “Joyride” two years before.
A yet second re-issuing of “It Must Have Been Love” managed to reach the U.K. Top Ten at the end of 1993 as well.
Roxette took a turn – “adult”, as Marie Fredriksson described -- with the 1994 release of Crash! Boom! Bang!, an ambitious set of music both loud and, at times, somber. Bryan Buss of the All Music Guide wrote, “To go from the painfully pretty ‘Fading Like a Flower (Every Time You Leave)’ on Joyride to the apathetic ‘Vulnerable’ on this album shows a serious downward slide.... Though the two have an edge on this album, they almost seem to have become a bit bored.”
Though considered successful throughout Europe, the full fifteen-track set of Crash! Boom! Bang! tanked in the United States despite a successful campaign by McDonald’s, which advertised and sold a ten-track “favorites” compact disc. The “favorites” CD reportedly sold more than one million copies, ranking as one of Roxette's most successful releases in the United States.
Moreover, the first single release from Crash! Boom! Bang!, the distortion guitar-heavy pop hit “Sleeping in My Car”, managed to grab attention, reaching the Billboard Top 50 and the U.K. Top 20, as well as returning Roxette to number one in Sweden after several years. Subsequent releases, including the title track, “Fireworks”, and “Run to You”, made chart showings worldwide but not in the United States. They did each make the Top 30 in the U.K. Roxette embarked on another, all be it scaled-down, worldwide tour, skipping the United States in the process. It was during this tour that Roxette became the first Western band invited to tour China.
Despite the effort, Crash! Boom! Bang! would be the last Roxette release EMI would issue in the United States.
In 1995, Roxette released the greatest-hits compilation, Don't Bore Us - Get to the Chorus!, which featured as well new songs released as singles, including the ballad “You Don’t Understand Me”, co-written by Desmond Child. The song managed to hit the Swedish Top Ten. Also that year, a compilation of singles-only (B-side) recordings, alongside some of the 1993 Unplugged material, was released in Japan and parts of South America under the title Rarities.
In 1996, Roxette took instrumental masters of many of its ballads and recorded translated Spanish lyrics over them, released on the album Baladas En Espanol, which sold well in Argentina, Chile and other parts of South America. Also in 1996, Marie Fredriksson released another solo Swedish-language album ("In a Time Like Ours"). And Gessle reunited with Gyllene Tider for what turned out to be a wildly successful tour in Sweden.
Per Gessle released a solo English-language album, The World According to Gessle, in 1997. One song, “I’ll Be Alright”, featured Fredriksson singing background. Jason Damas of the All Music Guide wrote, “Gessle’s gravelly voice and full-throttle guitar attack [were] always the reason why Roxette stood out from their peers in the early ‘90s, and it’s the same reason why Gessle’s first English solo album does just the same.... At its best moments, The World According to Gessle sounds like The Cars in their heyday, and that’s quite a complimentary comparison.” That same year, Gessle released a greatest-hits compilation of his Swedish-language solo material, Hjartats Trakt.
Gessle and Fredriksson reunited in 1998 to record material for a new Roxette album, Have a Nice Day, which was released in March 1999. Containing elements of techno and house music, Have a Nice Day produced singles that returned Roxette to the upper half of the Swedish singles chart. The first single, “Wish I Could Fly”, came as close to the U.K. Top Ten as any single Roxette had released since 1993. Damas of the All Music Guide called Have a Nice Day “an effort to encapsulate Roxette's trademark sound with Brit-pop and electronica, and, by gosh, it works.” He called one of the tracks, “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around What’s Already Gone”, “quite possibly the best song (Gessle has) ever written.” Sales were brisk in South America as well, but there was no U.S. release of Have a Nice Day.
In 2000 Fredriksson released her own greatest-hits compilation of her Swedish-language material, titled after one of her songs, "Antligen" (“At Last”). Meanwhile, Roxette signed a U.S. distribution deal with Edel Music, which re-released Don't Bore Us, Get to the Chorus!, replacing some non-U.S. hits with songs from Have a Nice Day.
Room Service followed in 2001 to some critical raves. “Probably the best Roxette album since Joyride,” wrote Leslie Mathew of the All Music Guide. “Room Service is an exciting, immediate, high-gloss pop gem that contains very little filler indeed.” The first single, “The Centre of the Heart”, emerged as a result, hitting number one in Sweden and making a slight dent in the U.K. It was followed by “Milk and Toast and Honey”. Roxette again went on tour.
After that came another set of compilations, The Ballad Hits, in late 2002 and The Pop Hits in early 2003. Each set contained a separate CD with material previously available only on CD singles. The single, “Opportunity Nox”, was released from The Pop Hits in 2003.
In June 2003, Gessle released what had originally planned to be a small side project: his first Swedish-language solo album in 18 years. One of the tracks, “Pa Promenad Genom Staden” (“Strolling Through the Town”), featured Fredriksson singing back-up. Titled Mazarin (“Cupcake”), the album ended up solidifying Gessle’s legacy in his home country, reaching number one on the Swedish album chart and eventually going five times platinum (300,000 copies shipped). In 2004, Gessle and Gyllene Tider reunited for a 25th-anniversary celebration that included the band’s first album in 20 years, Finn 5 Fel!, and another wildly successful tour in Sweden. By the end of the tour, the band had played to almost half a million (492,252) fans, resulting in the second biggest tour in Europe that year.
Meanwhile, in September 2002, after a fainting spell, Marie Fredriksson was diagnosed with a brain tumor, which was subsequently removed in surgery. It was during her recovery that she wrote and compiled songs for her first-ever English-language solo album, The Change, which was released internationally but not in the United States in October 2004. Inspired by Fredriksson’s brush with mortality and made mostly in partnership with her husband, Mikael Bolyos, The Change was a far bluesier and melancholic set of songs than anything Roxette recorded. The album entered the Swedish chart at number one, reportedly selling 30,000 copies in its first week. The first single, “2:nd Chance”, entered the Swedish singles chart in the Top Ten. The album to date has sold more than 350,000 and has seen several other international radio releases, including “All About You” and “A Table in the Sun”.
In 2005, Belgian dance group D.H.T.’s trance-cover of “Listen to Your Heart” became a worldwide club hit. Originally released in Belgium in 2003, the various mixes of the song reached U.S. clubs in late 2004. By the mid-summer of 2005, the song reached the Top Ten of the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number eight in August. Throughout 2005, several songs were released as re-mixes and covers. Among them: two prominent versions of “Fading Like a Flower” hit the dance floors, one a trance cover by German group Mysterio, and one a sampling by Dancing DJs that reached the U.K.’s dance chart, and a “white label” (independent, unauthorized) release, “Joyride 2005”.
On Nov. 23, 2005, Per Gessle released his first English-language solo album in eight years. Titled Son of a Plumber, the album opened to generally good reviews in Sweden, though the daily newspaper Aftonbladet (“The Evening Sheet”) called it weak. Son of a Plumber immediately shipped platinum in Sweden (60,000 copies). The first single from the album was double-A-sided, meaning two songs were released to radio: “C’mon” and “Jo-Anna Says”.
Gessle told Aftonbladet's Per Bjurman that the songs on Son of a Plumber were personal in nature. “I really wanted to do an album that’s me,” he said. “The lyrics are mainly about me and my life, and they feel very important. . . . We never had a target group in mind when we did this album, and that was very liberating.”
He was still publicizing the album when, on Nov. 29, 2005, Gessle and Marie Fredriksson appeared at the Dorchester Hotel in London at a presentation of awards by Broadcast Music Incorporated, better known as BMI. Gessle received an award for “It Must Have Been Love”, which, by 2005, had been played on U.S. radio more than four million times. He and co-songwriter Mats Persson also received an award for Dance Song of the Year for D.H.T.’s cover of “Listen to Your Heart”. The single was certified platinum the previous month by the RIAA.
The ceremony marked the first time Gessle and Fredriksson had appeared in public together since before the onset of Fredriksson’s brain tumor and subsequent surgery in 2002. When asked by an Aftonbladet reporter if there would be a Roxette reunion, Gessle replied, “We haven’t decided yet. No doors are closed. . . . We’re still young.”