The Song That Changed My Life is a regular series in which writers and musicians reveal the one track that shifted their own personal tectonic plates. This week, the ever-sardonic Gavin Haynes gets sentimental for an 80s pop track.
In 1989, South Africa was in the throes of violent upheaval. The Cold War was ending, the geopolitical plates were shifting, and that in turn was blowing the lid off of our own long-suppressed national reckoning. In squalid cells, dissidents examined their loosened teeth, and awaited the wet bag, content with knowing that the centre could no longer hold. In the corridors of power, ministers gave orders to shred forests of secret files, as the inconceivable merged necklessly with the inevitable. Every shopping mall was ringed with metal detectors. The post offices all displayed bomb identification charts. It was a great time to be seven years old and in love with Roxette.
Even today, if you listen to Roxette, you are listening to the quintessential pop music of white South Africa. Long after the rest of the world lost interest, they’ve continued to tour there. The bands that have become especially big in SA since – Counting Crows, Nickelback, Dave Matthews – all stand in the vale of the sonic environment they carved out. Bells, whistles, flim-flammery, nods to hip-hop, tinges of electronica: this is not the currency of white South African pop music. The currency of South African pop music is straight up and down guitars with extremely melodic hooks. It is missionary position. It positively revels in being vanilla.
In that context, Per Gessle and Marie Fredriksson’s 1988 album, ‘Look Sharp!’, seemed lab-engineered to tick all of the RSA’s boxes. And so it proved. Again and again, they found the bullseye on the national radio playlists. First with the brooding opener ‘The Look’, then with the personal achievement anthem ‘Dressed For Success’, then the poignant ballad ‘It Must Have Been Love’, then the nervy pulse of fourth single ‘Dangerous’. Roxette asserted that you could take pop and rock and combine them.
‘Dressed For Success’ kept them at number one for 12 weeks, and, faced with such overwhelming national assent, I bought the album on cassette and listened to it for several hours every day, until it had become the totality of my personality.
As it turned out, ‘Look Sharp!’ was fairly underground by the measure of what came next. Its sinuous melancholia made it the ‘Definitely Maybe’ to the kajillion-selling popsterpiece ‘Morning Glory’ that followed on. 1991’s ‘Joyride’: from the opening title track all the way to contemplative closer ‘Perfect Day’, Gessle laid down a fifteen track melodic masterclass. He borrowed from Sweden’s seventies pop golden age but added a laconic cool that was all his own: a mandolin here, a Beatlesque psychedelic mid-section there, a Dylanesque harmonica solo there – a fizz of knowing nods that suggested he’d probably got some other records in his CD shuttle that I’d not even heard yet.
Most revolutions are soundtracked by Buffalo Springfield, but this one was all Roxette. In 1991, two thousand armed right-wingers fought police in Ventersdorp while ‘Fading Like A Flower’ bloomed across the national pop charts. The Inkatha Freedom Party massacred 46 at Boipatong, and the country found solace in ‘Joyride”s soulful fourth single ‘Church Of Your Heart’. By the time Brigadier Oupa Gqozo’s troops fired on demonstrators at Bisho, killing 28, ‘How Do You Do’, the first single from ‘Tourism’, had shimmied to the top of the hit parade. And at every juncture, I was there, in the back of the car, pestering my parents to turn it up while they smiled less indulgently than they had when I was younger and cuter.
Of course, from then on, like my later affair with the Gallagher brothers, following Roxette became a game of sharply diminishing returns, the pitting of hope against expectation. By 1994’s limp ‘Crash! Boom! Bang!’, I’d jumped ship to Blur’s ‘Girls And Boys’ on the strength of Damon’s tracksuit top in the video. But that there was a ship to jump from was largely Roxette’s doing.