In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
What a run. Roxette had one of the all-time great random-ass pop-chart origin stories. The Swedish duo blew up stateside because an American exchange student brought their CD to his Minneapolis radio station. After that bit of good fortune, their giddily nonsensical banger “The Look” somehow made it all the way to #1. Maybe Roxette had no business on the Hot 100, but once they got there, they stayed there for longer than anyone could’ve logically thought possible. Ultimately, that still wasn’t that long; Roxette’s period of American visibility really only lasted about two years. But in that two-year period, Roxette racked up a grand total of four American #1s — three more than fellow superstar Swedes ABBA. In the grand scheme of things, that’s fucking incredible.
As a pop-chart force in America, Roxette burned fast and bright. They didn’t leave a whole lot in the way of lasting impact; I have never once, for instance, seen any sort of artist claim Roxette as an influence. But Roxette’s music has aged gloriously. Per Gessle and Marie Fredriksson’s charged-up, hyper-focused guitar-pop sometimes came off as an affectionate parody of American studio-rock, especially once you factored in the verging-on-gibberish lyrics. More often than not, though, those quasi-parodies worked better than the real thing. Gessle and Fredriksson knew their way around a hook, and their production was big and sharp and intensely sugary. They made jams. And as it happens, Roxette’s final Billboard #1 hit was the best and brightest and silliest of all of them.
Roxette’s first three chart-toppers all originated in the time when nobody in America had heard of the group. “The Look” And “Listen To Your Heart” both came from Look Sharp!, the 1988 album that the above-mentioned Minnesota exchange student took to his radio station. “It Must Have Been Love” was even older — a Christmas song, made for German radio, that finally became a hit when it was repurposed for the Pretty Woman soundtrack three years later. But when it came time to make Joyride, their third album, Roxette were stars, and they had to contend with record-company expectations. EMI, Roxette’s American label, wanted them to come to Los Angeles and record with American professionals. Roxette refused. They had made all their bangers at home in Sweden, and they would continue to make all their bangers at home in Sweden.
Roxette spent a good year working on Joyride. Per Gessle wrote most of the songs himself, and the band recorded them with Clarence Öfwerman, who was both their regular producer and their keyboardist. Gessle later said that the duo “wanted to make a harder album, get away from the dance-sequencing thing, which didn’t fit us very well.” I don’t know if you could call Joyride a “hard” album with a straight face, but the group could’ve easily dove headlong into mushy balladry with that record, and they resisted that urge. Even at their most presentable, Roxette always had a certain loony energy to their music, and Joyride preserved that. “Joyride” track might’ve even boosted that energy up a couple of notches.
Gessle got inspiration for “Joyride” from a couple of different places. One was an interview with Paul McCartney, who described the process of writing songs with John Lennon as a “long joyride.” Listening to “Joyride,” it’s pretty clear that Gessle wasn’t familiar with all definitions of the word “joyride.” This being a Roxette song, those lyrics are a lovably absurd linguistic tangle, but I’m pretty sure that Gessle thinks he’s singing about an amusement-park attraction, not drag-racing or doing donuts in a stolen car. At least, I think that’s what he’s getting at when he describes someone as “the heart of the funfair.” But I think the lost-in-translation quality makes the song weirder and more dreamlike and generally better. Also, I don’t have any particular desire to jump onto a rollercoaster or to steal a car, but Marie Fredriksson could probably talk me into either activity.
Gessle also got the idea from a note that his girlfriend left on his piano when she was about to go out shopping. The note said, in Swedish, “Hello, you fool, I love you.” That’s a wonderful and goofy and romantic thing to say, so of course Gessle built a song around it. (He also married that girlfriend in 1993, and they’re still together now.) In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Gessle also names a few influences on the track: T. Rex, the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, Eric Idle’s whistling on Monty Python’s “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life.” Gessle said that he’d seen Life Of Brian just before writing the song and that he’d always wanted to put a whistling break into a song: “I did the whistling myself. It’s overdubbed 12 times, but I did it.”
You can hear bits and pieces of all those influences on “Joyride,” but the song doesn’t really sound like any of them. There’s a bit of Beatles in Gessle and Fredriksson’s harmonies, especially on the “we’re all magic friends” bit. Maybe there’s some T. Rex in the song’s crunchy riffs. There’s definitely some whistling, and the whistling makes for an irresistibly silly little touch. But really, all of “Joyride” is irresistibly silly.
The “Joyride” chorus comes crashing through the wall like the Juggernaut. It’s absolute fist-pump singalong material — a dizzy love song to fools everywhere. But the song has more hooks than that chorus. The whistling break is another hook. The glittering synth tones, the sudden and short breakbeat burst, the growling guitar notes — all hooks. The best part of the song is near the end, where Fredriksson just growls out the name of the band: “Rock! Sssset!” I firmly believe that more rock songs should involve the band yelling their own name mid-song whenever possible. (Maybe that’s one fo the reasons I love hardcore so much. In hardcore, bands actually do that pretty often.)
And the lyrics! I adore the “Joyride” lyrics. They’re not quite as mind-bogglingly nonsensical as the ones that Roxette used on “The Look” a few years earlier, but they’re somehow even more endearing in their confusion. Consider: “She has a train going downtown! She’s got a club on the moon! And she’s telling all her secrets in a wonderful balloon!” Awesome! None of that means anything! She sounds great! Roxette must have known that the “wonderful balloon” bit was hilarious, since they got a whole bunch of people to chant that phrase in unison. Even better, later in the song, Fredriksson, sounding like she’s in church, wails that the sunshine is a lady who rocks you like a baby. Hello! You fool! I love you!
The “Joyride” video remains committed to that spirit of ecstatic meaninglessness. Roxette get off their tour bus in the middle of the desert somewhere, and they jump up on the hood of a red sports car. The car goes speeding off through the scenery, with both Gessle and Fredriksson playing guitar on the hood. There’s a whole lot of rear-screen projection in this video, but Roxette also seem to be on that hood in at least some of those shots. (Did Roxette pioneer ghostriding the whip?) Also, I’m pretty sure they’re supposed to be riding on the wing of a plane in a few of those moments. In one shot, Gessle throws his guitar down to the ground and a different Gessle catches it. Obviously, this all rocks supremely hard.
“Joyride” became a worldwide hit, and weirdly enough, it became the first Roxette single to reach #1 in Sweden. (They’d been in their homeland’s top 10 a bunch of times, but they’d never gone all the way.) When the Joyride album came out, Roxette had never toured America, so they finally gave that a shot. They also followed “Joyride” with the Fredriksson-showcase power ballad “Fading Like A Flower (Every Time You Leave),” which peaked at #2. (It’s an 8.)
“Fading Like A Flower” turned out to be Roxette’s last real American hit. The album’s next two singles, “The Big L” and “Spending My Time,” both languished in the lower reaches of the top 40. Joyride went platinum, just as Look Sharp! had before it, but it didn’t sell any better than that. Later on, Gessle claimed that EMI stopped promoting Roxette after merging with a couple of other labels and laying off all the people who’d been working the Roxette record. But America’s appetite for that kind of endorphin-rush pop-rock was sadly fading, and Roxette came to seem pretty dated pretty quickly. Even in the best label situation, I can’t imagine a version of Roxette that would’ve stayed big through the grunge era.
Still, Roxette’s singles kept charting on the Hot 100 for a couple of years. Their second big soundtrack look was “Almost Unreal.” Gessle wrote it for Hocus Pocus, and Fredriksson sings the phrase “hocus pocus” on the hook, but it ended up in the 1993 Bob Hoskins Super Mario Bros. movie instead. “Almost Unreal” peaked at #94, and its video plays as a great little time capsule. After 1994’s backseat-humping jam “Sleeping In My Car” peaked at #50, Roxette never returned to the American charts.
In the rest of the world, Roxette endured. They kept making records, and their singles kept charting throughout Europe. In 1995, they became the first Western group since Wham! to tour China. Gessle and Fredriksson made solo records, too, and those records were hugely popular in Sweden. (Gessle also briefly reunited with Gyllene Tider, his pre-Roxette Swedish-language band.) Many of Roxette’s later records didn’t even come out in America, and they kept on thriving regardless.
In 2002, Marie Fredriksson got surgery to remove a brain tumor, and Roxette went on hiatus. The surgery was successful, and Roxette got back together in 2010. From there, they kept on touring and cranking out records until 2016. That’s when they released Good Karma, their final album, and when Fredriksson’s cancer returned and got bad enough that she couldn’t keep playing shows. Brain cancer killed Marie Fredriksson in 2019, 17 years after she’d first been diagnosed. She was 61.
Per Gessle has kept releasing solo records, including one that came out last year, and he’s sometimes toured with the surviving members of Roxette’s backing band, playing shows under the name Per Gessle’s Roxette. Earlier this year, for Metallica’s weird project The Metallica Blacklist, PG Roxette covered “Nothing Else Matters,” a song that came out back when Roxette were still running wild on the American charts. (The original “Nothing Else Matters” peaked at #34. Metallica’s highest-charting single, 1996’s “Until It Sleeps,” peaked at #10. It’s a 7.) Gessle made “Nothing Else Matters” sound like a Roxette song. That, to me, is a good thing. More songs should sound like Roxette songs.
Roxette will not appear in this column again. I will miss them.
BONUS BEATS: This section turned out to be harder than it should’ve been. “Joyride” was apparently on the soundtrack of a season-two episode of Beverly Hills 90210, but I can’t find that scene online. And sadly, virtually no prominent artists have covered “Joyride,” despite it being a great fucking song that, at least to me, seems supremely coverable. (Hello! You fools! Cover “Joyride”!) So I’m going to have to go with this spirited 1991 version of “Joyride” from past Number Ones artists the Chipmunks: