Flat Pack Pop: Sweden’s Music Miracle (BBC4 2019) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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This week I learnt a new expression – “Jante Law”. It is a Swedish term for something which is deep within their psyche and may be something of an eye-opener to us more selfish nations. Jante Law is the putting ahead of society before the individual, which means that any boasting of achievements or jealousy of those of others risk social disapprobation. This actually explained a lot to me about Sweden’s role in popular culture- why some members of Abba at the height of their fame became reclusive, and why some still are decades later, why even the choosing of a Eurovision entrant is done so widely and methodically (rather than our pick any three songs and get the public to vote on them approach) and with reference to this documentary why we know so little of the huge role that Sweden has played in popular music history over the last 30 years, with one producer and songwriter, Max Martin, now only behind Lennon and McCartney as the most successful songwriter of all time.

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Max Martin

The suitably reticent Mr Martin did not want to be interviewed for this, he wanted just his music to tell a story for him but presenter and music journalist James Ballardie found others prepared to do so to put together this story of a musical phenomenon in a fascinating one hour documentary. It is the story of how Sweden became the biggest exporter of pop music per capita of anywhere in the world.

The history does not begin with Martin but with another even more significant figure who was equally happy to be seen as just a backroom boy. This was Dag Volle, a club DJ from 1980’s Swedish clubland mecca “The Ritz” who began remixing US club hits to appeal more to Scandinavian tastes. Volle’s love for this type of music led to the name change of Denniz PoP, who after successful remixing of tracks by others sought to achieve the perfect pop record himself.

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Denniz PoP

We learnt how serendipity played its part when a tape sent to him by an aspiring Swedish foursome, along the lines of Abba, got stuck in his car cassette player blasting out the same song every time he used the car. This group was Ace Of Base and the track was reworked eventually to become “All That She Wants” – a global hit which topped the UK charts and got to number 2 Stateside. Just before that PoP’s name was established on European and worldwide charts through his work with a Nigerian dentist and wannabe rapper living in Sweden, Dr Alban and his “It’s My Life” track which topped charts all over Europe and got to number 2 in the UK in 1992.

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From then on things moved quickly. PoP developed a clear musical doctrine, opened Cheiron studios and enlisted a group of writers “moulded in his image” to produce the perfect pop sound. I’d found myself researching these just a couple of posts ago when I was reviewing Will Young’s debut as part of my Essential CD Collection and they were fresh in my mind when I watched this. If there was one special protégé that was Max Martin, lifted from heavy metal group “It’s Alive” whose love for more melodic sounds than he was making led to PoP seeing him as a kindred spirit.

We met other member of the team who also produced hits by the bucket-load for the company- Andres Carlsson, Stonebridge, Herbie Crichelow and jingle writer Jorgen Elofsson amongst them who shared how this magical formula worked. The fascinating thing was that the blueprint was always Abba, showing the integral part the foursome of a generation before played in all subsequent developments in Swedish pop. At the root of all of it (and also of Abba) was Swedish folk music which was simplistic and melodic.

Like Motown three decades before one of the main Cheiron principles was that it should sound good on the radio. “Production control” at the Detroit studio is now famous for its weekly meetings, tracks recorded by different artists and competitiveness between artists and producers to get their songs released but here it was taken to another level with sometimes up to a hundred versions of the same tracks flooding the Swedish clubs,  All this work was to hear what sounded good over the DJ decks and what would sound better on the radio or in an open-topped American car (rather than in a Swedish Volvo in the depths of winter). Recognising the US teen as the biggest purchaser of music PoP’s team looked to reflect American lives from a Swedish perspective. We learnt that this repackaging of ideas to produce a more effective version of the best of what is out there is also part of the Swedish make-up evident in companies such as Ikea and H&M.

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The inspiration behind all Swedish Pop

But behind this global success “Jante Law” forced these writers and producers to remain as far under the radar as they could (Ace Of Base enjoyed their global success and were vilified in the Swedish press) and then tragedy intervened with another great leveller – as cancer claimed Denniz PoP at the age of 35 in 1998.

By this time globally successful artists wanted in on the act. The Backstreet Boys, N-Sync, 5ive, Westlife and Britney Spears owed much of their success to these writers. Max Martin adopted the central role and the team went from funeral to working on Backstreet Boy’s multi-million selling “Millennium” album but the central force had gone.

Eventually, the writers moved away from the studio set-up and took what they had learnt from Denniz and notched up hits, continuing to this day for the biggest artists of the world including Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Ariana Grande, One Direction, Madonna, in fact virtually every global pop superstar. Martin has set up MXM Studios in the US and has for the past eighteen years being working with many Swedish producers as part of his team, still observing Denniz Pop’s principles and developing them into their unique formula they term “Melodic Math”.

At the end of this excellent hour we saw Max Martin being awarded the Polar Music Prize from the Swedish King, still concerned about the ramifications of Jante Law. I found the whole thing fascinating, more for what it told us about Swedes than the music which was on generous display throughout. Managing to achieve this level of success in this media-hungry day and age without many people even being aware of their existence just really grabbed my attention and got me thinking.

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A Year To Fall In Love (Channel 4-2018)- A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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With sport dominating the early summer TV schedules those of us who are looking for an alternative are being pushed towards the search for love.  Or that is what it feels like in my house where I’m still needing my nightly fix of Love Island and on Tuesday night Channel 4 unleashed “A Year To Fall In Love”.  This documentary show features the video diaries of 20 people over a year as they attempt to find “the one”.  This appealed because I thought it was going to be pacey – 20 people, one year all in the space of an hour.  I thought this might curb Channel 4’s love of the “recap” as there just wouldn’t be time.  In the TV schedules this programme did look like it was going to be a one-off rather than a series.  At the closing credits (when we’d seen less than 20 people) I discovered this was just a taster for the rest of the series which would be tucked away on the All-4 catch up service rather on Channel 4 itself.  Feeling just a little duped a visit to All-4 revealed 6 online episodes.  I’m not too sure why C4 would shunt this over onto the online platform, other than suggesting that it’s not the social-experiment-for-our-times I’d anticipated but something more along the lines of summer-time filler.

yeartofall2Freddy has a year to fall in love

The most fascinating aspects of this programme were the statistics. Nearly 40% of people now meet their partners online which has changed the whole rationale of the way in which people select and relate to a partner.  Online the choice can be overwhelming bringing the user into contact with people that they would never meet in their everyday social and professional life but this selection process does bring about anxiety, inability to make a decision and commit to it and a fear of being “ghosted”- a term I’d never heard before watching this.  The pitfalls of choosing online were clearly brought home in this.  The most important way to make an impression is therefore the profile photo.  Also, apparently the average relationship lasts for three months so for most it’s not too long before the whole process has to begin again.

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On this first episode we met performance artist (?) Freddy who asked out a girl who had known as a friend for some time; husband-hunting Sophie who was on the look-out for a wealthy man who wears a big watch (?!); Nick who was struggling with the etiquette of online dating: Niki, who was keeping her girl/boy options open whose first weeks of recording her quest seemed to show progressively dodgy choices to the point where she was scared to answer her phone and Brighton resident Xander negotiating gay dating apps.  There were considerable ups and downs for all proving once again the road to love is far from smooth.

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Niki has a year to fall in love

However, the format of the programme was such that I found myself not too bothered as to whether their searches would be successful and whereas I might watch further episodes to find out more if it had a weekly time-spot on Channel 4 going onto All-4 for box-set viewing is probably something I will not bother with.  Most of us still have that mind-set that online viewing shows cannot be as good as main channel picks and because this means I am questioning C4’s commitment to this project maybe it’s not for me.  I’ll stick with “Love Island” (and I couldn’t imagine me writing that a couple of months ago!)

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The first episode of “A Year To Fall in Love” was shown at 10pm on Tuesday 19th June and is available like the rest of the series on All-4 catch-up/online service.

The Real Full Monty (ITV 2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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It’s been 20 years since film-goers were captivated by a depiction of unemployed Sheffield steel workers who became a male strip troupe to the sounds of Hot Chocolate, Tom Jones and Donna Summer.  “The Full Monty” was a massive hit and even had Prince Charles alarmingly joining in on the action.  The film had much to say about men, about what unemployment does to a community, about thinking outside of the box, about friendship and featured a group of men discussing issues and coming to terms with things that Sheffield steel workers might find difficult.

The popularity of the film even had royals joining in (I’ve spared you the video of this!)

One of the things us men still feel difficult to talk about is prostate and testicular cancer.  This one-off documentary showed an attempt at linking a celebration of the film’s China anniversary with raising awareness.

Alexander Armstrong & Ashley Banjo

The man at the centre of this was “Pointless” host and possessor of a surprising yet profitable singing voice, Alexander Armstrong.  He enlisted the help of Dance legends Diversity’s inspiration Ashley Banjo to put together a routine for a group of male celebrities who were expected to eventually bare all in front of a packed crowd at the London Palladium.  Male celebrities willing to do this were a bit harder to find, 600 were apparently asked and of those who agreed some had been directly affected by prostate cancer themselves, Wayne Sleep, Dom Littlewood who had endured cancer diagnoses and Elliot Wright, brother of the more famous Essex boy Mark, whose father was about to undergo radiotherapy for the condition.  They were joined by a couple of ex-Strictly alumni, McFly’s Harry Judd and swimmer Mark Foster and also Stuart Wolfenden from “Emmerdale”.  A representative from the Afro-Caribbean community was welcomed in Red Dwarf’s Danny John-Jules, who also had dancing experience.  This was a particularly appropriate move as we found out in the programme that those from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds are disproportionately more likely to be affected by prostate cancer.  A visit to a garage mechanic who was working hard to promote awareness provided sobering moments.

From rehearsal to performance

ITV produced a good documentary here .  It certainly had the potential to be cheap and cheesy.  The process followed by Ashley Banjo to teach the dance would have been familiar to those of us who have watched his various Sky 1 series.  I always made a point of watching these because of the sheer passion for dance from the Diversity crew and how this infectiousness spread during the course of every episode towards group of often inactive workmates keen to astound loved ones with a professional standard street dance routine.  But here on ITV there were other issues to contend with, mainly getting naked in front of a packed London theatre.

The first unveiling down to underwear saw two surprising objectors (Sleep and Wolfenden) and added tension came along the way when Danny John-Jules had to pull out over work commitments and Ashley (whose body, let’s face it, is highly impressive) had to wrestle with his conscience to see if he could bring himself to bare all alongside the other celebrities.  Along the way there was a visit to Sheffield to see landmarks from the film and a trip to meet the stage cast of “Calendar Girls” who are also stripping off for our entertainment.  The message that ran through was that men should be checking for lumps and getting tested for the often symptomless early stages of prostate cancer.  To do this in what was actually a fairly family-friendly show in which there was a chance to see celebrities get naked (!) was really quite a canny idea.  Okay, so it was not especially original but it did have an original slant, it was well-paced over its 90 minute length and it was heart-warming.  Overall, it recalled audience responses of 20 years ago when we willed on those original Sheffield steel-workers in the movie.  I found myself doing the same for this equally unlikely group of strippers.

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I did feel, however, that at the end of the programme the ITV announcer could have been a bit more pro-active at pointing viewers in the right direction to get help rather than just talking about up and coming shows.

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The Real Full Monty was shown on Thursday 15th June at 8.30 pm on ITV.  It is currently available on ITV catch-up services.

More information on the issues raised by this programme can be found on:

Yourprivates.co.uk

Macmillan info on Prostate Cancer