MBW’s World’s Greatest Songwriters series celebrates the pop composers behind the globe’s biggest hits. In this edition, we meet Per Gessle, one half of Sweden’s second most successful band of all time, Roxette, and the writer behind all their biggest hits. World’s Greatest Songwriters is supported by AMRA – the global digital music collection society which strives to maximize value for songwriters and publishers in the digital age.
Per Gessle, founder of eighties/nineties Swedish hit makers Roxette, has written three US No. 1 singles on his own – The Look, It Must Have Been Love and Joyride (he co-wrote a fourth, Listen To Your Heart, with Mats Persson).
Only 10 writers have solo credit on more Billboard Hot 100 chart-toppers: Lionel Richie, Dianne Warren (both eight), Michael Jackson, George Michael, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder (seven), Prince (six), Phil Collins, Neil Diamond, Paul Simon (four).
First up, that’s pretty decent company to keep, and gives you an idea of Gessle’s achievements, especially as all those above him are from the US or UK.
Secondly, the youngest name on the list is George Michael, who would have been 60 next year.
Which begs the question: is anyone else ever going to leapfrog Gessle on this list? With the average number of writers on a modern hit totaling 9.1 (and rising), it seems unlikely.
As a kid, like many in MBW’s World’s Greatest Songwriters series, Per Gessle had a significantly older sibling – a brother – with a record collection to wonder at and crib from.
“He was a teenager in the sixties, so his record collection introduced me to pop and rock via bands like The Beatles and The Loving Spoonful,” recalls Gessle. “I liked hooks. I liked the feedback on the intro to I Feel Fine, I liked the I guitar sound on Till The End of the Day by The Kinks. I always went for those gimmicky things.”
In his teens, Gessle started writing poems, and quickly realized these were lyrics, but he couldn’t yet play an instrument to turn them into songs.
“Then”, he recalls, “I got the self-confidence to pick up a guitar because of the punk/new wave thing in 1976, when it was okay to sound bad [Roxette are named after a track by the UK’s pre-punk pub rock legends Dr Feelgood]. And our first band [Gyllene Tider] really did sound bad. But then we got better.”
In fact, Gyllene Tider got incredibly successful across Scandinavia, with No. 1 hit singles and albums in the early eighties when they were all still teenagers.
International success, however, only came with Gessle’s second band, Roxette, a duo with vocalist Marie Fredriksson, who sadly died in 2019 after a lengthy battle with a brain tumor.
“I first met Marie sitting by a piano, singing so incredibly; I’d never heard anyone sing like that,” says Gessle.
“I always felt like I was a decent songwriter. The problem was, I knew I could write songs that demanded a better singer than I was. As soon as I heard Marie, we talked about maybe doing something together.
“I first met Marie sitting by a piano, singing so incredibly; I’d never heard anyone sing like that.”
“Then in 1986 I wrote a song for a big Swedish artist, and she didn’t want to record it. I kept it and EMI Sweden asked me to translate into English and record it with Marie, and that was our first Roxette song, Never Ending Love, which was a big, big summer hit.
“Because of that, EMI in Sweden wanted Marie and myself to make an album together. The only thing I had at that time was an unreleased album in Swedish, we translated it into English and that became the first Roxette album [Look Sharp] featuring the two of us.”
An American exchange student took the record back from Sweden to Minneapolis that year and harangued his local radio station into playing a track.
The station’s programme director had no idea what from the album was the official ‘single’ – nor what the band/label might want promoted. So he dropped the needle on side one, track one – The Look.
“The station’s phone started to ring; people wanted to hear the song – and they didn’t know anything about it, or us. We didn’t even have a record contract in America, the album hadn’t been released. In fact, we’d been rejected by every US label.”
It wasn’t just a local US radio station’s phone that started to ring. Pretty soon, EMI Sweden were also fielding calls, from labels who had previously passed on Roxette, including one from their American colleagues.
Roxette’s three-year joyride was about to begin – and Gessle was about to prove himself as an all-time songwriting great…
You had over three years of continuous success around the world with Roxette. What was that like for you and how well did you cope with it?
I think I coped with it better than Marie did, she was a little bit lost. I felt very motivated and the more success I had, the better I became as a writer.
I’m very motivated by positive energy. Marie always complained that it was like she was living in this bubble, it was very hard for her.
She was also the main person on stage. I could always withdraw and write a song, plus I was the one talking to the record company etc. It was harder for her.
Can you tell us the story of writing It Must Have Been Love?
It goes back to when everyone turned down Roxette and we couldn’t even get on the radio in places like Norway or Denmark, which are neighboring countries.
In 1987, our German record label said, ‘We can’t get you on the radio here, but if you write a Christmas song, maybe we can get you on the radio in December at least.’
So that’s what I did, I wrote It Must Have Been Love (Christmas For The Brokenhearted). We recorded it, Marie was amazing, it sounded great – and the German company didn’t like it [laughs]! The only country where it did get released was Sweden, where it was a Gold record.
After that, Marie went back to her solo stuff and I started writing the songs that would become Look Sharp, so we basically forgot about that song.
A couple of years later, after our big breakthrough in the States, I was having lunch in Los Angeles with our Head of A&R, Ron Fair, and he asked me if I could write a song for this movie that they had got the rights to [Pretty Woman].
I told him I couldn’t. I just didn’t have the time to write anything new because we were going to, I think, New Zealand. But I said we have a great ballad with a Christmas lyric, I can change the words and Marie can redo the vocals next time we’re in Stockholm. That’s basically what we did, and it became this huge song in this huge film.
At the height of your success and fame in America, did you feel part of the scene over there or did you always both feel a little bit like outsiders?
Unfortunately the latter.
It had a lot to deal with the fact that we weren’t English or American. In those days, the industry was so focused on the UK and the US. Even after we had a No. 1 in the US with The Look, EMI in the UK marketed us as an American band. They didn’t want to say that we were from Sweden.
Today, with all these Swedish writers and producers, it’s quite a hip country to come from in the music business – but in those days it wasn’t like that and we did feel like outsiders.
I’ve always been very good friends with Björn [Ulvaeus] from Abba, and he said the same thing, they always felt like outsiders.
Why do you think that level of success didn’t last for Roxette, and how did you feel about it slipping away?
When we first started getting attention in the States, having been rejected by everybody, a lot of labels reached out, but EMI had an option, so we wound up with them.
We were on the Hot 100 chart with different songs, without falling off, for over three years, it was a long span of hit records.
But then in 1992, the plan was to release the biggest ballad off Joyride – a song called Spending My Time – all coinciding with our first US tour.
The problem was that as soon as the single was released and we were about to tour, EMI got sold to SBK Records. A hundred and twenty-three people were sacked overnight and there was no one left [at EMI] who was interested in us; it was a disaster.
But we didn’t really think that much about it, because we had success all over the world. So we just went somewhere else. But yeah, looking back, I think we should have had a little bit more staying power in the States. Even today America is still the biggest market for our back catalog.
“A hundred and twenty-three people were sacked overnight and there was no one left there who was interested in us; it was a disaster.”
In 1995 we decided to take a break. We did an album and world tour called Crash! Boom! Bang! in ’94/95 and that was a big success, not in the States, but elsewhere, particularly South America and Australia. [The full-length album wasn’t released in the US at the time. Instead, EMI issued a 10-track CD called Favorites from Crash! Boom! Bang!, selling it cheaply through McDonald’s, making it ineligible for the charts]
Marie had married, she had her second child, and we took a break for four years. I went back to my Swedish band and did some solo stuff.
Then I started writing the new Roxette album, Have A Nice Day [Top 5 in various territories, including the UK, Australia and Germany, it didn’t chart in the US].
With a few exceptions, you write alone, words and music. Why is that and why do you prefer it?
It just seemed natural for me to write melodies to my own lyrics. But of course I always have collaborators with me when I make demos and when I’m in the studio.
I always tell people that one of my biggest strengths as a musician is that I always chose very good collaborators, people who know everything I don’t know.
“Modern pop music tends to be what I call ‘laptop music’. Everything sounds basically the same, but then everyone is using the same plugins.”
It could be like an engineer, or a fantastic piano player like [longtime Roxette producer] Clarence Öfwerman. I can show him the chords and ask him for eight different things based on those chords. And then I’ll take number two and number seven, maybe combine them; it’s like a jigsaw puzzle.
Generally, I feel the more people involved in songwriting, the less personal it gets. And the older I get, the more I think music has to be personal – especially these days when modern pop music tends to be what I call ‘laptop music’. Everything sounds basically the same, but then everyone is using the same plugins.
And what do you make of the upward direction of the average number of songwriters it takes to create a hit?
Well, I know how people work, I understand it. People use people who are good are different things.
I read an interview, I think maybe it was on MBW, with Nile Rodgers. He was talking about how he produced Let’s Dance for David Bowie, and saying that if he’d played that role today he’d be credited as a co-writer on every track.
Today, if you’re sitting around in the studio and someone comes up with a bass groove, or a drum sound, they’re going to want 5% of the song or whatever it might be. I get that.
But someone has to be in charge; I don’t see how you have nine people thinking the same thing. Which means the more people are involved, the less personal it becomes.
Do you think it’s fairer, though, if someone comes up with a riff or a beat, to credit them as a writer?
I think it has to do with what kind of project you decide it is. When I’m doing albums on my own or with my band, everyone knows that they’re my songs. The guitar player or the bass player might fool around with a few things, but I always have the last say, because it’s my song.
It’s a very interesting question, I don’t know. When I collaborated recently with another Swedish artist, we decided from the start that no matter what goes on, the writing credit will be 50/50, because then it stops it becoming an issue.
The important thing is for everyone to agree and know where they stand from the start.
What do you think is the biggest issue facing songwriters today?
I think it’s so different now, because there’s so much music coming out every day; it’s so easy to release music.
I started reading music papers in the seventies, and there were weeks where I knew every single that got reviewed.
Today I know so many songwriters working around the clock, but it’s really hard for them to get noticed because there’s so much music out there.
“Pop music always reflects the era where it comes from. And if you look at pop music now, it’s very much like how the world looks today: run by amazingly big companies looking for the easiest way to make money.”
I also understand the problems writers have with streaming services, but it’s a different era. In the sixties and seventies, there was more romance about the business.
Pop music always reflects the era where it comes from, and if you look at pop music now, it’s very much like how the world looks today: run by amazingly big companies looking for the easiest way to make money.
In the old days, nobody knew what was going on. It wasn’t a big industry to be in, it just happened. I think we’ve lost so much over the years.
Which of your songs are you proudest of?
That’s a tough one. I think some of those songs that Marie interpreted, like Listen to your Heart or It Must Have Been Love, or album tracks like Queen of Rain or Perfect Day. It was always incredible to hear her interpret those songs.
But it depends what you mean. The Look, for instance, is amazing because it’s corny and it’s funny and it’s got this wonderful groove. It’s just it’s got all the ingredients of a big pop hit, so I think that’s a really cool track.
What advice would you give to a young songwriter just starting out?
It’s crucial to try to find what is unique about your style. What do you do that makes you stand out in the crowd?
You have to try to find that – and it’s easier said than done.
AMRA is the first of its kind — a global digital music collection society, built on technology and trust. AMRA is designed to maximize value for songwriters and publishers in today’s digital age, while providing the highest level of transparency and efficiency.Music Business Worldwide