November 26, 2023

Ftom the Vaults: Hitz

Alrighty then.  What do Britney Spears, Max Martin, Backstreet Boys, Denniz PoP, Kelly Clarkson, and N’Sync have in common?  If you ignored my imaginative spelling in the title (done as an homage to Mr. PoP), then you probably already guessed ‘hits’ as in ‘hit records’.

I could have tried to get you off track by adding ‘Sweden’ to the list, but the Abba fans out there would have still answered ‘hits’.  In his 2015 book, The Song Machine – Inside the Hit Factory (Norton Books), The New Yorker staff writer John Seabrook set out to connect all of the above threads, and more, into a cohesive story of how modern hit records are made.  Not just any old hit records, but those specifically filed under the genre called ‘Pop’.  

     In the olden days, ‘hits’ were defined by the number of copies a particular song’s sheet music sold.  Once records hit the scene, it was all about the number of units (records) that were moved.

The market was so competitive that rival labels would record their own versions of other label’s hits songs.  There were often several competing records of the same tune by different artists on the charts at the same time.  It was also a common practice for many record label owners to add  their own names as co-writers so they could collect royalties alongside the song’s original writers.  Music was a big money deal for some, but not necessarily for the artists and songsmiths.

       In 1999, worldwide record sales hit a never to be reached again peak of $27 billion.  The whole notion of pushing hit records had the rug pulled out from under it when Shawn Fanning sparked an industry shaking cataclysm.  According to Seabrook, the nineteen-year-old Northeastern University freshman, “Created software for a downloadable ‘client’ – an app, basically – that allowed people who had it to scan one another’s hard drives and download the music they wanted for free.  In its early stages, Fanning told Sean Parker, a friend he knew over IRC (an early text-messaging network) about his idea, and they agreed to start a business together.  Fanning was the coder and Parker was the pitch man who raised the money.”  They called it ‘Napster’ while the music industry would soon regard it as ‘Satan’.

     Early in the dot-com boom the pair of young entrepreneurs were able to raise $70 million in venture capital.  Their user base increased from 30,000 to 20 million in six months, reaching a peak of 60 million users before the roof caved in.  According to Seabrook, “The founders’ fond hope was that the [major record] labels would take Napster over and make it their digital-music distribution service.  But the labels weren’t interested in joining forces with the devil.  Instead, they put Napster to sleep, filing suit against the company for copyright infringement in December of 1999.” 

     Looking back with hindsight, Parker now says, “There was this unique opportunity in history.  We said, ‘If you shut down Napster, it’s going to splinter and you’re fighting service after service and you’re never going to get all those users back in one place.’  And that’s what happened.  [We said] Look, you just have to see this – it will be a Whac-A-Mole problem – and they just couldn’t see it.  It was the biggest existential threat to the music business and they wouldn’t listen.”  Napster would be driven from the village gates, so to speak, only to be replaced by a horde of imitators like KaZaA, Grokster, Morpheus, Limewire, and any number of other ‘Moles’.

     The digital music sharing war raged into the new millennium and the record men at the five major music groups (who accounted for 70 percent of the market) ignored the changing musical landscape.  In this case, their “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude was akin to ignoring the holes in the bottom of the boat.  The suits in control didn’t sound the alarm until their revenue plummeted as file sharing ‘free’ music exploded.  To make matters worse, as the industry landscape changed, the big three music groups (Warner, Universal, and Sony) were busy gobbling up the competition.  The industry was now being run by corporate bosses with little or no music business acumen, something the owners of the smaller labels had plenty of, at least until all the smaller labels began to disappear.  

     The music-loving entrepreneurs who started their independent labels were displaced by true suits who turned the industry into a web of ‘corporate enterprise’ with their eye on quarterly earnings and timely results, not making hit records.  They only saw the profits and when file sharing knocked out the foundation of the industry (which was selling hit records), it was too late to turn the tide.  As Island Records founder Chris Blackwell saw it, “I don’t think the music business lends itself very well to being a Wall Street business.”  To understand how Denniz PoP figures into this story, we need to go back to 1992 when a 28 year-old DJ working for a Stockholm-based music company called SweMix laid hands on a demo tape that arrived and was addressed specifically to him. 

      His real name was Dag Krister Volle (Dagge to his friends) and his place of employment, SweMix, was a collective of ten Swedish DJs led by JackMaster Fax (nee – Rene Hedemyr).  In the late 1980s, the SweMix guys would laboriously use razor blades to cut and splice tapes of US and UK hits into dance tracks for European audiences.  PoP hated jazz, loved funk and soul, and was partial to spinning ‘anything with a funk bass line.’  When Denniz was in the booth at a club called Ritz the night Public Enemy opened for LLCool J, Swedish music journalist Jan Gradvall remarked, “It was like seeing the light.  Visual proof that exciting music didn’t have to be played on guitars, bass, and drums, but only a Technics 1200 (a high-fidelity turntable favored by DJs).”  Denniz grew tired of remixing other artist’s hits (which SweMix would sell – that was how they made their money) and began to dream of making his own hits.  He said, “In the end, you have remade an original song so much that you have now made a new song and just added vocals from the original.”  He tried to convince his fellow DJs they could turn Sweden into a global power in pop music, but nobody believed him.  

     Dagge gained the nickname ‘Prince of Pickups’ for his skill at removing and placing the stylus of his Technic 1200 in precisely the right groove when he was DJing.  He took ‘Denniz’ from ‘Dennis the Menace.’  He began to follow his own path, creating cool beats he used as the base for his own dance mixes.  The other SweMix DJs hated what he was doing, but the dancers at the clubs loved it.  Denniz didn’t play any instruments.  His preoccupation with music began when he would sit at home and endlessly spin records in his teens.  He had some modest success producing a couple of hits (one by a Nigerian dental student who went by ‘Dr. Alban’).  The collective realized they had been wrong and allowed him to rejoin and about this time, he got ‘the tape’.

     Ulf Ekberg and Jonas Bregman were making demos with their four piece techno band in the basement of an auto repair shop when they heard another Denniz PoP produced hit called Another Mother.  They traveled to SweMix to meet him, but PoP was engaged elsewhere.  They went home and sent him a tape with a note that said, “Please listen to our tape and call us.  Ace of Base.”  On the way home from the studio one night, Dagge put the tape in the player in his car – something he often did to preview new music.  He listened to the first track (Mr. Ace) and decided it had some catchy hooks but they were not arranged correctly.  He ultimately decided to not produce the band, but when he got home, he found he could not remove the tape from his car’s player.

     When he picked up his co-producer (Douglas Carr) the next day, the tape was still playing. For the better part of two weeks, they repeatedly listened to (and made fun of) the demo until Denniz suddenly heard something different in the song.  According to Seabrook, “[PoP] saw a way to marry the melody to the beat by breaking everything down into basic elements and then layering it all together.”  The next morning, Carr again heard the annoying song playing in PoP’s car, but this time Denniz said, “I think I am going to produce this!”  Seabrook notes, “Pop music would never be the same.”  What ABBA had done for pop music coming out of Sweden in the 1970s was about to be equaled if not eclipsed by PoP’s vision.

     Once the Ace of Base guys got back in touch with him to ask what he thought of their demo,

Denniz exclaimed, “I’ve been waiting for you guys to call.  I really want to work with you guys.”  A month later, they were in Stockholm to record Mr. Ace with PoP producing.  According to Ekberg, “Jonas and I are good at melodies, but there were too many things happening on the track.  Denniz was very good at erasing things, and making the sound picture cleaner, and simplified.  I think he took away maybe fifty percent of our instrumentation.”  It was a template Denniz himself had explained in response to the question, ‘How hard could it possibly be to write such simple songs?’:  “It’s much more difficult to make it simple, especially achieving a simplicity without having it sound incredibly trivial.”  Lundin said (simply):  “Denniz was an arrangement genius.”  Eckberg further recalled Pop saying, “I don’t care how we do it, as long as it sounds good.”

     The other key ingredient to a Denniz PoP arrangement was making sure the beat worked even if the lyrics were treated as a secondary plot device.  For instance, the first verse of All That She Wants includes the lines It’s not a day for work / It’s a day for catching tan.  The writers from the Brill Building days relied a lot on wit and metaphor.  The SweMix guys were not so concerned with grammar and usage.  As Ekberg explained, “I think it was to our advantage that English was not our mother language, because we were able to treat English very respectless, and just look for the word that sounded good with the melody.  As Seabrook puts it, “[The were] Freed from making sense, which made the lyricists’ horizons boundless.”

     So how did All That She Wants fair in the states?  The musical trends at the time leaned heavily on Grunge and its themes of alienation, suicide, and despair.  In comparison to the raw vocal delivery over beds of crashing drums and crunchy guitar riffs delivered by flannel clad bands, it seemed crazy to even float a foreign synth-pop band on these shores.  Surely this new sound would be lost in the wake of R&B generated pop by the likes of Whitney Houston and Boyz II Men and the newly emerging hip-hop groups.  What it would take to get Ace of Base signed in the states was the ear of an old time industry vet who cut his teeth discovering and signing new bands.  

     For Ace of Base, those ears belonged to the head of Arista Records, Clive Davis.  As soon as he heard All That She Wants, he interrupted his European yacht vacation to hasten to the nearest port so he could make a call:  “Kjeld, I want this band!” he told his Danish colleague.  Before they knew what hit them, the band were on the way to New York to meet Davis at the BMG Building in Manhattan.  Davis insisted they needed two more singles to break their album and suggested they cover an Albert Hammond / Diane Warren song Don’t Turn Around.  When he asked if they had any more songs in the pipeline, they mentioned The Sign, a track they wanted for their second album.  Davis was adamant – he added three tracks to the band’s European release Happy Nation, renamed it The Sign (which would be the band’s third single), and released it in the states on November 23, 1993.  An old A&R man like Davis knew what he was doing – the album entered the top three of the Billboard Top 200 and remained there for 26 consecutive weeks.

     Tired of his fellow DJs in the collective and their dismissive attitude toward his new direction, PoP quit SweMix in 1992.  The company was then bought up by BMG so founding member Tom Talomaa and Denniz took their windfall and opened a new studio, Cheiron.  Though the new venture was supposed to be a studio / record label, the label part was expensive and quickly fizzled.  Davis had handed The Sign to Denniz hoping he would give it the same magic touch he had on All That She Wants.  Again, Davis knew what he was doing.  The Sign entered the charts in late 1993, spent six weeks at number one and was the top-selling single of the year.  The album of the same name sold over 23 million copies and earned Arista $42 million. 

     As promising as the Ace of Base story was, they proved to be a band with a short shelf life.    When it came out that Ulf Ekberg had belonged to a neo-Nazi party in his younger days (for which he apologized for when it came to light), it put a damper on their future.  Of the two Berggren sisters in the band, Malin, hated flying which led to her diminishing enthusiasm for performing in 1995 (no doubt fueled by the 179 flights they took that year).  They managed two more albums before they disappeared.  Not good news for them, but Denniz PoP had now established himself and there were many other artists out there searching for that elusive hit record,

     Tragically, Denniz PoP died on August 30, 1998 after a short battle with cancer.  It was  something that had weighed on his mind for years before he was even diagnosed.  His legacy from his earliest successes creating hits continued to grow after his death. PoP’s influence on pop music today is undeniable.  The list of bands and artists who owe more than a tip of the hat to Dagge Volle include ‘N Sync, Boy to Men, Backstreet Boys, Brittney Spears, Celine Dion, and on into pop leaning rock bands like Bon Jovi.  Seabrook sums up PoP’s career as follows:  “The heart of the old Cheiron crew is in L.A. these days.  The hit-making methods developed at Cheiron by Denni PoP have spread throughout the UK and United States.  Swedish hitmakers, once a crazy dream of Denniz PoP, supplied one quarter of all the hits on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2014.  The Swedes have become a driving force in K-pop as well.”  Not bad for a music loving, non-instrument playing kid who just liked to use infectious beats to mold the songs of others into hits that started on the dance floor and then conquered the world.


Top Piece Video – Ace of Base and the infections Denniz Pop beat on The Sign