Sweden may get all the kudos in the pop music world (more of which later) but Norway has had a fair few moments in the sun...albeit a wintery sun fast declining over the peaceful fjords as we sip our £12 beers dressed in prohibitively expensive athleisure wear, probably eating whale blubber. Much has been written about the peculiarly Scandinavian sensibility of pain juxtaposed with pleasure. The Swedes (to be fair) seem to have perfected this hybrid of hedonistic misery, balancing the two emotions to come up with some of the most amazing pop music ever. The Danes seem to veer towards the more hedonistic side of things (see: Aqua - “Hello Barbie, let’s go party!”) whilst Norway tips the balance to the other side of the spectrum. It’s understated pain round these parts, make no mistake.
If the Scandinavian countries were The Beatles, then Norway would be George. Third out of four in terms of cultural punch, self effacing, overshadowed by more showier colleagues, capable of sublime moments of outstanding beauty, peaceful and supremely rich, with natural oil reserves…. (mmm….see how quickly that tenuous metaphor fell away…). On that note, we take a look at Norway’s finest pop moments. And none of them feature that annoying pixie-man with the fiddle who won Eurovision in 2009.
Disclaimer: I don’t know how to do that “o” letter with a diagonal line through it on my keyboard, so you’re just going to have to imagine a whole lot of vowels with some weird embellishments….
Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) – The Beatles
Speaking of The Beatles, it would be churlish not to mention this lovely sitar-enhanced song, inspired by an affair with an older woman who’s portrayed as slightly other-worldly, definitely experienced, and most obviously in control. It’s a great addition to the suite of Beatles songs where machismo is replaced with self doubt, and confidence is undone by a sweet naivety and nervousness. Lovely.
Now, onto serious business…
10. La Det Swinge – Bobbysocks
Or “Bobbysocks!”. 1985 was the first Eurovision I can remember watching, and even as a seven year old, I probably thought “what year did I wake up in?” La Der Swinge - like most Eurovision songs until the second half of the 90’s – brilliantly and blatantly doesn’t care what year it is, and makes zero attempt to be anywhere near a prevailing trend. So it ends up being half 50’s pastiche, and half completely timeless and amazing.
There’s a great pissed-up honesty about the performance, and – coupled with the woman on the right looking about 20 years older than her colleague – means that we’re left with the impression that we’ve gatecrashed a Weatherspoon’s, and Mother and Daughter are doing their karaoke speciality. In fact, screw your eyes up and you could be forgiven for thinking it’s being sung by Gloria Hunniford and Karen Keating (RIP). Amazing.
9. There’s Something Going On - Frida
Frida? That Frida? But she’s Swedish I hear you cry?! Well, not so. The darkness of Nazi Germany’s occupation of Norway did have one upside, in the illegitimate creation of pop deity. Daughter of a Nazi soldier, Frida had a dream, a song to sing, jumped the border to Sweden and didn’t look back.
Whilst I must give due reverence to an enigmatic recluse living in the Swedish hinterland foraging for nuts and berries (Agnetha), winning Wimbledon five times and writing pop smashes about your messy divorce (Bjorn), and being a true musical genius and having Ikea furniture named after you (Benny), fun-time Frida is my favourite member of Abba. Whilst she wasn’t always given the best solos, she’s still responsible for some amazing Abba moments (“Knowing Me, Knowing You”, “The Visitors”, “Super Trouper”, “When All Is Said and Done”.) And one of the worst (“I Have a Dream’). But she compensates with some frankly amazing / alarming fashion choices and an iconic “fuck you” divorce haircut which, frankly, defies description.
This song itself is a deliberate rockier move away from Abba, although it still mines that icy early 80’s production from Abba’s last years, courtesy - this time - of Phil Collins. You can tell it’s produced by Phil Collins because it’s got “It’s me - Phil Collins - playing the drums” drums all over it. She delivers it in a brilliantly cold, domineering way and the whole thing is so 1982 it hurts. Should only be listened to wearing a fake red leather jacket and an aggressive amount of blusher.
8. Stay On These Roads – A-Ha
There are a few A-Ha songs that could have made this list, but none sounded quite as portentous and sweeping as this. It’s all minor keys, crashing cymbals, big skies and some unspecified pain, most probably tackling life’s big questions (if life’s big question was “look how pretty I am.”) They do a pretty decent job of bottling the sweeping majesty of the Norwegian landscape, distilling it into song form, and serving it up as pure as the water they drink.
7. Closing Shot – Lindstrom
If you like your club tunes hand-clappy, slow burning, and with a fantastically woozy, elastic baseline, then this is for you. If you’re still there at the 7 minute mark, it explodes into a firework display of noises before it reduces itself to a series of electronic ping pong sounds at its end. Understated brilliance.
6. I’d Rather Dance With You – Kings of Convenience
It's my musical theory that every country has their own Belle and Sebastian equivalent. Peter, Bjorn and John are Swedens. Kings of Convenience are Norways. This song errs on the right side of cutesy and annoying by playing it with a straight face. The sharp string backing gives the song some backbone, and the wistful harmonies bring the track full circle back into greatness (even though the video borrows some obvious Wes Anderson-isms to negligible effect).
5. Do It Again – Royksopp featuring Robyn
For a pair of studio boffins who announced their arrival with a tasteful album of dinner-party background electronica (Melody AM), Royksopp latterly revealed themselves to be capable of creating a full on bop. Of which this is one. The pairing of Royksopp and Robyn (first witnessed on the excellent “The Girl and the Robot”) seems - on reflection - to be the perfect musical pairing. They helped bridge the gap between her long pause between albums, whilst she seems to push their buttons (literally) into sharpening their sound into full on dancefloor epics. Which gave birth to the 2014 mini album “Do It Again”. (As an aside, the attention-deficit in me has a lot of time for the concept of the “mini album”. I’d encourage Mumford and Sons to make a mini album. Or, in fact, a “no album”).
Robyn conducts the stops and starts of the song like a particularly strict personal trainer, and it all ends in a crescendo of keyboard runs and shimmering electronic noises, like splintering shards of ice. Amazing.
4. Inspector Norse - Todd Terje
The song and the video together act as a self prophesising manifesto as to what function dance music should perform and how you should react to it.
“My passion for music, it’s really about me loving to dance. And there are certain types of electronic music that give me the urge to dance, and I feel I have to dance when I hear it.”
Succinctly put, Mr. Todd Terje.
As an act of putting theory into practice, it really can’t be beaten.
3. Heartbeat – Annie
It’s a mystery why Annie isn’t more successful. She is – of course – Norway’s Robyn, and maybe there’s only room for one imperious Sandi queen, but (in true Norway style) Annie is a softer, more understated version. In fact, you could rename this song “Dancing With My Friends”. It covers much the same territory as the more celebrated track, but it’s the flip side of the coin. Everybody seems to be having a great time on the night out, there’s no obvious heartbreak, and certainly no broken bottles.
But its lack of edge is also it’s strongest element. This song feels like an amazingly cool night out that you’d want to recapture time and again, but it remains tantalisingly out of reach. As Annie states at the end, “I won’t forget the greatest times I’ve had when I was dancing with you.” That it’s in the past doesn’t matter. Because there’s always the alluring prospect of it happening again.
2. Never Ever - Royksopp featuring Suzanne Sundfor
In case anyone’s asking (probably no one), “Never Ever” encapsulates pretty much 90% of what I want to listen to in 2019. It’s got a great chorus, the production is pristinely sharp, it keeps building to a series of “moments”, and it sounds like unthreatening club music a 41 year old me would like to hear at an Ibizian afternoon pool party before it all gets too much and I have to go to bed.
On this track, Royksopp outdo “Do It Again”. Indeed, they did it again. With bells and added handclaps.
(I totally love this song!)
1.The Sun Always Shines on TV - A-Ha
“Take On Me” and “The Sun Always Shines on TV” are like a 1-2 sucker punch to the gut that - commercially - A-Ha never came close to again. The two songs are cleverly linked visually through the start of this video, but whereas "Take On Me" acts almost as a sonic trigger to signal their arrival (with that bouncy keyboard line), this song ramps up the dramatics and desolation in equal measure. Imagine releasing your first two (and arguable best two) singles at the start of your career and realising it won’t get better than this?
Indeed, A-Ha remain a peculiar proposition in pop. They released many good singles after this but didn’t harness this early impact (at least not in the UK), possibly due to a combination of accidental mis-positioning in the market, and a reluctance to fully embrace what they really were. But when your first single is as jauntily pop-tastic as the aforementioned “Take On Me” and it’s sung by an elastic-voiced man with dauntingly model-like looks that almost hurt , can you really complain that you were unfairly bracketed in the Smash Hits/teeny bop box?
A-Ha have subsequently been at pains to point out their seriousness, before “doing a George Michael” became a thing. But their seriousness was actually there from the very start. It’s certainly there in the lyrics to this song which - although over reaching themselves - they earnestly stamp their troubled introverted musings all over.
Morten Harket begins with a claim that he "reached inside myself and found...nothing there to ease the pressure of my ever worrying mind."
Later, he asks us, "Please don't ask me to defend, the shameful lowlands of the way I'm drifting gloomily through time." Have we accidentally popped up in a Joy Division song?
However, what marks "The Sun Always Shines on TV" as definitely not a Joy Division song is A-Ha's taste for the dramatic. , It's there in the delivery which puts stern emphasis on odd phrases ("The sun!") And it's there in the music. From the slow Baroque build up of the hymn-like opening, to the echoey organs of the mid section, there's something of a communal religious experience about this track. It's entirely appropriate that the video was shot in Southwark Cathedral, with a cast of (albeit slightly freaky) mannequins. As a package, it comes across like a proto church rave. In this way, it sort of reminds me of "It's A Sin".
With "The Sun Always Shines on TV" A-Ha proved they understood two fundamentals about pop music. Make it dramatic, and make it as over the top as you dare. It's a shame they seemed to reign these flourishes in after this, because this song is a total 80's highlight.