The Number Ones

March 12, 1994

The Number Ones: Ace Of Base’s “The Sign”

Stayed at #1:

6 Weeks

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.

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Within the grand narrative of global pop music, the Swedish quartet Ace Of Base were a blip, a one-album wonder who came and went. Between 1993 and 1994, Ace Of Base essentially conquered the world, and their hits from that album will always work as strange, anachronistic reminders of a very specific early-Clinton moment. Ace Of Base themselves were not terribly important, but the group’s short-lived success stands as a kind of proof of concept. In Sweden, a certain form of sleek, shiny, bulletproof computer-pop music was just starting to come into existence, and that sound would rule the pop charts in the century to come. Ace Of Base gave some indication that this new hybrid style could work. After the group’s run ended, an Ace Of Base collaborator would become arguably the most successful pop musician on the planet. From that perspective, Ace Of Base’s fingerprints continue to linger on the Billboard Hot 100 even now.

This column has covered Swedish pop music before. In 1974, a band called Blue Swede became the first Swedish group to top the Hot 100, and they did it with a supremely silly cover of “Hooked On A Feeling,” an already-silly song that had already been a minor hit for BJ Thomas. The same day that Blue Swede reached the top of the Hot 100, ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest, kicking off a tremendous historic run. ABBA only made one American chart-topper, 1977’s glorious “Dancing Queen,” but that group’s ecstatic artificiality came to define the entire idea of Swedish pop music in a great many minds. Ace Of Base, another group of two men and two women, never escaped the inevitable ABBA comparisons.

Ace Of Base emerged just shortly after the heyday of Roxette, a duo who were, in their time, the most successful Swedish group in the history of the American pop charts. Roxette’s astonishing four #1 hits were defined by a certain cheerful inanity — colossal hooks, absurdist lyrics, slick textures, hard riffs. Like so many other groups, Roxette essentially offered up a funhouse-mirror version of what was happening in America. They took American corporate-rock sounds, polished them to an unreal gleam, and sold them back to America. Ace Of Base essentially did the same thing, though they sounded nothing like Roxette. The sound of American pop music had shifted since Roxette’s run, and Ace Of Base reflected that. “The Sign,” Ace Of Base’s one American chart-topper, is a strange and hypnotic combination of sounds and ideas — chirpy and effervescent bubblegum melodies over deep digital-reggae beats. This particular mad-scientist crossbreed should not exist, and yet it resonates.

The four members of Ace Of Base weren’t trying to rewrite the rules of global pop music. They were lucky to be on that stage in any capacity, and they must’ve known how unlikely their rise was. Ace Of Base came from Gothenburg, a beautiful little city on Sweden’s West Coast that’s mostly known for soaring, triumphant death metal. Jenny Berggren, one of the group’s two singers, once claimed that Ace Of Base had trouble booking Gothenburg club dates because crowds in their hometown were more into metal. I love the idea of these future pop stars getting booed offstage because they weren’t At The Gates or In Flames.

Three of the four members of Ace Of Base were siblings — primary songwriter Jonas “Joker” Berggren and his two sisters Jenny and Linn. Their father was an X-ray technician, and they grew up in a Gothenburg suburb. Jonas was a fan of new wave and dance music, and he started a band in the late ’80s. The group went through a few different names before settling on Tech-Noir, named for the club that Arnold Schwarzenegger shoots up in The Terminator. Jonas’ sisters joined the group as singers. One night, Tech-Noir were supposed to play a Gothenburg club gig, but the Rolling Stones were playing in town that night, and Tech-Noir’s bassist skipped his own show to go see the Stones. At the last minute, Jonas got his friend Ulf Ekberg to fill in, and Ekerg became a permanent member of the group. This would later turn out to be a problem for the band.

Here’s where we get into some thorny shit: Ulf Ekberg was once, by most accounts, a neo-Nazi skinhead. In 2013, Vice ran a long piece about Ekberg’s past, including his time in a teenage punk band called Commit Suiside that also included Anders Klarström, the future head of a far-right hate group called the Swedish Democrats. A tape of Commit Suiside’s music, which circulated years later, included some really, really racist lyrics. Talking to Entertainment Weekly after that Vice piece came out, Ekberg said that he’d never been affiliated with the Swedish Democrats and that the super-racist songs on that tape weren’t actually by Commit Suiside: “The racist songs on this demo were not by us, but our potential association with such groups is a matter I truly regret.”

In that Entertainment Weekly piece, Ekberg doesn’t mention any specific racist allegiances that he did have in those days, but he does admit to some kind of general regrettable past views: “I have not been involved in violence or political activism in the past 25 years. However, I find some of my thoughts from those days nauseating to myself today… Ace of Base never shared any of these opinions and strongly oppose all extremist opinions on both the right and left wing.” Nazis are always trying to change the subject to left-wing extremism, aren’t they? Ekberg has always been reluctant to discuss his fascist history, and early reports on those affiliations almost certainly hurt Ace Of Base’s career. As far as I can tell, there’s no evidence that the three Berggren siblings have any similar skeletons, but you always have to wonder about a group that has a guy like Ulf Ekberg in it.

Ulf Ekberg is the person who thought of the group’s new name. Tech-Noir wasn’t memorable enough, and the name “Ace Of Base” came to Ekberg one morning when he was hung over and watching Motörhead’s “Ace Of Spades” video on TV. Ekberg and Jonas Berggren both played a few instruments, but Ace Of Base’s sound was almost entirely concocted on keyboards and drum machines. The group had a rehearsal space next to a reggae band, and they soon started integrating reggae beats into their sound, which gave the Berggren sisters’ voices a weirdly frictionless quality. It made them sound like they were floating in space.

Ace Of Base made a demo tape, but they couldn’t convince any Swedish labels to sign them. Eventually, they made a deal with the Danish label Mega. Their 1992 debut single “Wheel Of Fortune” became a big hit in Denmark and then spread through Europe, even going top-20 in the UK. After “Wheel Of Fortune” got them some attention, Jonas Berggren gained enough confidence to call up Dag Krister Volle, a Stockholm producer that the group admired.

Dag Krister Volle, known professionally as Denniz Pop, is the man who basically invented Scandinavian pop music as it exists today. Denniz Pop started out as a DJ, and he saw the effect that beat-driven music — rap, house, reggae — had on dancefloors. Pop wanted to figure out how the gleaming Swedish melodies of groups like ABBA and Roxette could work with those beats so that the beats and melodies would strengthen and support each other. Pop started producing records in 1990. The first single that he produced was “Hello Afrika,” a bright, percussive dance track for Dr. Alban, a Nigerian-born dental student who DJ’ed in the same club where Pop worked.

“Hello Afrika” was a hit in Sweden and in a few other European countries. In 1991, Pop produced a single for another Nigerian-Swedish artist, a singer named Kayo. Kayo’s Pop-produced “Another Mother” was full-on Swedish reggae — a sparkling and slow-winding Scandinavian take on early dancehall. Jonas Berggren loved it, and he wanted Ace Of Base to sound just like that, so he sent a demo tape to Denniz Pop.

The song on that Ace Of Base demo tape was called “Mr. Ace.” One night after leaving his studio, Pop grabbed the tape and played it in his Nissan Micra on his drive home. Pop didn’t like the song, and he decided that he didn’t want to work with the group. But the tape got stuck in the car’s tape deck, so Pop listened to it every time he drove his car for the next few weeks. In that time, the song snuck up on him, and he started to realize what he could do with it. When Berggren called Pop, Pop was ready to put Ace Of Base to work. He brought them into re-record “Mr. Ace,” and the song became “All That She Wants.”

“All That She Wants” came out on Mega in August of 1992, and it took off throughout Scandinavia. For a little while, “All That She Wants” and “Wheel Of Fortune” sat at #1 and #2 on the Danish charts. Mega wanted an Ace Of Base album out quickly, so the group got together with Denniz Pop and recorded their Happy Nation LP in a few weeks. “All That She Wants” spread throughout Europe and topped the UK chart, but American labels weren’t interested until Clive Davis heard “All That She Wants” on a yacht while he was on vacation. Davis immediately determined that the song was a hit, and he summoned Ace Of Base to New York. When Ace Of Base arrived at Clive Davis’ office, they had to watch a 40-minute documentary on the man’s record-business history before they were allowed to meet with him. The group made the deal with Davis and Arista, and “All That She Wants” became a #2 hit in America. (It’s a 10.)

Clive Davis didn’t want to release Happy Nation in America without making some changes. Much as he’d done with Milli Vanilli, another group who’d taken off in Europe a few years earlier, Davis oversaw a revamped, retitled version of the Ace Of Base LP. Clive Davis was always big on cover songs, and he wanted Ace Of Base to remake something old. They were resistant to the idea, but they eventually agreed to record a version of “Don’t Turn Around,” a song that Diane Warren and Albert Hammond had written in 1986. “Don’t Turn Around” started off its life as a Tina Turner B-side. Two years later, it became a #1 UK hit for the pop-reggae group Aswad. Eventually, Ace Of Base’s cover reached #4 in the US. (It’s an 8.)

Before “Don’t Turn Around,” though, Ace Of Base had another song ready to go. After finishing Happy Nation, Jonas Berggren wrote an exceedingly simple song that he thought might work as the lead single for the second Ace Of Base album. Clive Davis demanded to hear this new song, which Berggren called “The Sign,” and he loved it. When Happy Nation came out in the US, Clive Davis changed the album’s title to The Sign.

“The Sign” isn’t Ace Of Base’s best song, but it’s a fine example of the group’s whole mysterious, evanescent appeal. Like “All That She Wants,” “The Sign” has a full on deep-skank dancehall reggae beat, or at least the Swedish approximation of one. Jonas Berggren and Denniz Pop’s production is rhythmically busy, packed with panning snares and 808 hits and synth notes that work as percussion. The off-kilter one-drop reggae beat is a little faster than what you might hear from Jamaica, but the murmuring bass is just as deep. Berggren and Pop offset that beat with an eerily inviting synth-whistle riff and with the Berggren sisters’ vocals, which have their own mesmerizing effect.

Linn Berggren sings lead on “The Sign.” It’s a song about an epiphany. Linn’s character has gotten out of a shitty relationship. She’s not happy, and she’s figured out that she can do something about it. The lyrics definitely come from someone who does not speak English as a first language, and there’s an appealing brokenness to them: “Under the pale moon/ For so many years, I’ve wondered who you are/ How could a person like you bring me joy?” In John Seabrook’s book The Song Machine, Ulf Ekberg describes the band’s linguistic philosophy: “I think it was to our advantage that English is not our mother language because we are able to treat English very respectless and just look for the word that sounded good with the melody.” This would become the Swedish way — the shadowy art of melodic math. Many, many hit songs would adapt that same idea.

“The Sign” shows just how that form of Swedish pop music works. The song has a simple, memorable, endlessly catchy chorus, and it repeats that chorus about a million times. The sounds are all sharp and streamlined, and the song goes down so easily that you almost don’t notice how ridiculous it is. You can dismiss the lyrics, or you can look at them as a confounding poetic prism. That endless-repeat chorus ends with an open-ended question: “No one’s gonna drag you up to get into the light where you belong/ But where do you belong?” I don’t know, Ace Of Base. Where do I belong?

“The Sign” might be about making a huge life decision, but it sounds light and frothy enough to dissolve into air. The Berggren sisters sound like bored, happy aliens. They’ve never presented themselves as reggae musicians, so people didn’t even think of “The Sign” as a reggae song. It just sounded like some streamlined, futuristic version of pop music, and that’s basically what it was. Radio loved “The Sign” and the song stayed in constant rotation for months; Billboard eventually named it the #1 single of 1994. Ace Of Base’s album sold nine million copies in the US alone, and it was huge in the rest of the world, too.

Ace Of Base couldn’t keep that pace up. Ulf Ekberg’s neo-Nazi past started to get press attention, and the Berggren sisters got exhausted from all their promotional work. Around the same time that “The Sign” hit #1 in America, an obsessed and disturbed fan broke into the Berggren family’s house and threatened Jenny with a knife, a traumatic and disillusioning experience for her. By the time Ace Of Base came out with their 1995 sophomore album The Bridge, the group’s popularity was in freefall. The Bridge, which took a sharp turn toward Euro-house, limped to platinum in the US, but it was nowhere near as big as The Sign. “Beautiful Life,” the biggest single from The Bridge, peaked at #15.

“Beautiful Life” might’ve been a flop for Ace Of Base, but the song is historically important because of the people who worked on it. By this time, Denniz Pop had founded a new Stockholm studio called Cheiron, and he’d started mentoring other songwriters and producers. Pop’s latest protege was Karl Martin Sandberg, the shy ex-frontman of a Swedish glam metal band called It’s Alive. Pop gave Sandberg a new name: Max Martin. Martin co-produced “Beautiful Life” with Denniz Pop and Jonas Berggren, and the song became the first US hit with Max Martin’s name on it. Martin never left the charts after that. We will see his work in this column many, many times.

Denniz Pop did not live to see the Scandinavian pop revolution that he’d kicked off. Pop died of stomach cancer in 1998 at the age of 35; “The Sign” would be his only American chart-topper. Ace Of Base kept working, but their returns diminished. The group made the American top 10 once more. At the behest of Clive Davis, Ace Of Base included a cover of “Cruel Summer,” the 1984 hit from former Number Ones artists Bananarama, on their 1998 album Flowers, and that cover peaked at #10. (It’s a 7. The Bananarama original peaked at #9. It’s a 10.)

Linn Berggren had mostly left Ace Of Base by the time Flowers came out. She sang backup vocals on the record, but she ceded the lead-singer spot to her sister Jenny. Ace Of Base kept recording, but their 2002 album Da Capo didn’t even get an American release. Eventually, both Berggren sisters left the group, and the two guys brought in other singers. Those new singers left, too, and Ace Of Base has been functionally inactive for about a decade. We won’t see them in this column again, but their form of bright, otherworldly, club-friendly Scandinavian pop music might never leave us.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the great lo-fi cover of “The Sign” that the Mountain Goats released on their 1995 EP Songs For Peter Hughes:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: On a 1995 episode of Full House, Jodie Sweetin’s character Stephanie Tanner has a band called Girl Talk. They try to cover “The Sign” at a talent show, and things go badly. More than two decades later, Girl Talk made a return on the Netflix reboot Fuller House, and they once again covered “The Sign.” Here’s a video with both versions of Girl Talk playing “The Sign”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: There’s a 1999 South Park episode about a guy from 1996 who gets frozen and then thawed out three years later. The scientists studying this guy keep him in a sealed room where it’s always 1996, and they use “The Sign” as a soundtrack even though it’s not a 1996 song. Here’s that scene:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Brooklyn indie supergroup Girl Crisis doing a sort of ethereal homespun choral cover of “The Sign” in 2011:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In the opening scene of 2012’s Pitch Perfect, an a cappella cover of “The Sign” takes an unfortunate turn. Here’s that scene:

THE 10S: Snoop Doggy Dogg’s effortlessly self-assured G-funk fantasia “Gin And Juice” peaked at #8 behind “The Sign.” Smoke a ounce to this; it’s a 10.

THE ASTERISK: Counting Crows’ coffeehouse ramble “Mr. Jones” never came out as a single, so it never charted on the Billboard Hot 100. During the reign of “The Sign,” though, “Mr. Jones” reached #5 on the Radio Songs chart. If the song had gotten a full single push, if it been able to compete on the Hot 100, who’s to say how high “Mr. Jones” could’ve gotten? (It’s a 6.)

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