Saturday, August 18, 2007

A toast to Swedish music

Though leftwing hearts once soared at the mention of Leningrad, Managua and Havana, those of us who cling to the hope of a slightly more caring and sharing world are these days instructed to look to Sweden. It's great there: taxes are sky-high, but everyone is happy, and they're so brimming with Nordic genius that they invented flat-pack furniture, Ericsson mobiles and Saab cars.

As if to decisively confirm that Sweden is as close to heaven on earth as humanity is ever to likely to get, they are also no slouches at pop music, a fact that popped into my head the other day when I was giving yet another play to a new(ish) single by a Stockholm-dwelling trio prosaically called Peter, Bjorn and John. A crepuscular wonder entitled Young Folks, it successfully captures the magical experience of pulling someone in a wee-hours dive and experiencing a momentary feeling of existential liberation. It also features possibly the best example of recorded whistling since John Lennon's original and best rendition of Jealous Guy, though that's probably by the by.

Further research revealed that PB & J recently won the Swedish equivalent of a Grammy - cleverly called a Grammis - and are occasionally accompanied by a drummer called Lars Skoglund. From there, it was but a small hop to a big old Proustian rush, and the memory of a strange three days I spent back in 2002, hot on the trail of Swede-rock's essential secret, the mysterious reason why talented people from this dark and cold European country had so bucked pop's Anglo-American imperialism. Things have gone a little quiet since, but these were the fleeting days when Swedish musicians, like unexpected finalists in an international soccer competition, were giving rise to strange talk about Britain's place as Europe's rock hegemon being under threat - and thanks to the wan and useless likes of Coldplay, Travis and Embrace, there was nothing we could do about it.

So, I talked to the excellent and now sadly marginalised Hives. There were also encounters with the not-so-excellent Sahara Hotnights and Division of Laura Lee, and a tragically overlooked group of long-haired bohemians called Citizen Bird, whose singer, Simon Ohlsson, met me in a Stockholm bar and explained why everything in his home country had aligned so wonderfully: chiefly, a welfare state prepared to indulge the dreams of aspirant young rock'n'rollers, and crushingly dark winters that left musicians little option but to knuckle down and learn the slippery art of writing half-decent lyrics in their second language.

In Ohlson's case there was, perhaps, another factor: a methodical approach to inebriation that, it seemed, was all part of Simon's life-code. Not for him that British behavioural tic whereby we affect to get drunk by accident. "Are you dronk yet?" he kept asking. "I'm pretty dronk." And fair play to him: he was.

Now, it's rather unlikely that lining up the ales and approaching a night out as an intoxication contest is indeed the true secret of great Swedish music. With the possible exception of Benny Andersson - whose big beard and habit of bouncing up and down on the piano stool always suggested a Viking-esque heartiness - I cannot picture the members of Abba doing so, nor that ice-cold indie matinee idol Nina Persson from the Cardigans, the slightly sinister members of the pop franchise Ace of Base, or the long-lost Swedish rapper Stakka Bo, who was kind of like the Stereo MCs, only funny.

There again, I can recall a night out with the Gothenburg retro-funsters The Soundtrack of Our Lives - while we're here, whatever happened to them? - that proceeded in much the same way, so maybe there's something to it. Whatever: a toast to such Swede-pop classics as SOS, Gimme Gimme Gimme, My Favourite Game, All That She Wants, Young Folks, and many more besides. It's Friday, after all: as my friend would have it, let's get dronk!



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