The Number Ones: Roxettes “Joyride”

In The Number Ones, I review every single # 1 single in the story Billboard Hot 100, starting with the beginning of the chart, in 1958, and working me up into the present.

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what a race. Roxette had one of the all-time great pop-chart stories. The Swedish duo blew up the stateside because an American exchange student brought their CD to his radio station in Minneapolis. After that bit of luck, their insanely junk banger “The Look” somehow reached all the way to # 1. Maybe Roxette had nothing to do with the Hot 100, but once they got there, they stayed there longer than anyone had logically thought possible. In the end, it was still not that long; Roxette’s period of American visibility actually lasted only about two years. But during the two-year period, Roxette received a total amount of fire American # 1s – three more than other superstar Swedes ABBA. In the big picture, that damn thing is incredible.

As a pop-chart force in America, Roxette burned quickly and brightly. They did not leave a whole lot in the way of lasting impact; For example, I have never once seen any kind of artist claim Roxette as an influence. But Roxette’s music has grown older lovely. Per Gessle and Marie Fredriksson’s charged, hyper-focused guitar pop sometimes came out as a loving parody of American studio rock, especially when you consider the bordering on gibberish lyrics. But more often than not, these quasi-parodies worked better than the real thing. Gessle and Fredriksson knew the way around a corner, and their production was large and sharp and intensely sugary. They made jam. And as it happens, Roxette’s finale Billboard # 1 hit was the best and smartest and dumbest of them all.

Roxette’s first three top lists all emerged at a time when no one in America had heard of the group. “The Look” and “Listen To Your Heart” both came from Look sharp!, the 1988 album that the aforementioned Minnesota exchange student took to his radio station. “It Must Have Been Love” was even older – a Christmas song made for German radio that finally became a hit when it was reused for Beautiful woman the soundtrack three years later. But when it came time to do Joyride, their third album, Roxette were stars, and they had to contend with the record company’s expectations. EMI, Roxette’s American label, wanted them to come to Los Angeles and record with American professionals. Roxette refused. They had made all their bangers at home in Sweden and they would continue to make all their bangers at home in Sweden.

Roxette spent a good year working on Joyride. Per Gessle wrote most of the songs himself, and the band recorded them with Clarence Öfwerman, who was both their regular producer and their keyboardist. Gessle later said the duo “wanted to make a harder album, get away from the dance-sequencing thing that didn’t suit us very well.” I do not know if you can call Joyride a “hard” album with an upright face, but the group could easily have dipped headlong into the messy mess with that record, and they resisted the urge. Even when they were most presentable, Roxette always had some bad energy for their music, and Joyride preserved it. The “joyride” track may have even boosted that energy a few notches.

Gessle got inspiration for “Joyride” from a few different places. One was an interview with Paul McCartney that described the process of writing songs with John Lennon as a “long joyride”. When listening to “Joyride,” it is quite clear that Gessle was not familiar with all the definitions of the word “joyride.” Since it’s a Roxette song, those lyrics are a lovable absurd linguistic jumble, but I’m pretty sure Gessle thinks he’s singing about an amusement park attraction, not drag races or making donuts in a stolen car. At least I think that’s what he comes up with when he describes someone as “the heart of the amusement park.” But I think the lost-in-translation quality makes the song more weird and more dreamlike and general better. I also have no particular desire to jump into a roller coaster or to steal a car, but Marie Fredriksson could probably persuade me to both activities.

Gessle also got the idea from a note that his girlfriend left on his piano when she was going out shopping. The note said in Swedish: “Hello, you fool, I love you.” It’s a wonderful and silly and romantic thing to say, so of course Gessle built a song around it. (He also married his girlfriend in 1993, and they’re still together now.) In Fred Bronsons Billboard book number 1 hits, Gessle also mentions a few influences on the track: T. Rex, Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, Eric Idles whistling on Monty Python’s “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life.” Gessle said he had seen Brian’s life just before he wrote the song, and that he had always wanted to put a whistling pause in a song: “I whistled myself. It’s dubbed 12 times, but I did.”

You can hear pieces of all these influences on “Joyride”, but the song doesn’t really sound like any of them. There is a bit of the Beatles in Gessle and Fredriksson’s harmonies, especially on “we are all magical friends”. Maybe there’s something T. Rex in the song’s crunchy riffs. There is definitely some whistle, and the whistle gives an irresistibly silly little touch. But really, the whole “Joyride” is irresistibly silly.

The “joyride” chorus rumbles through the wall like the Juggernaut. It’s absolutely fist-pumping singalong material – a dizzying love song to fools everywhere. But the song has more hooks than the chorus. The whistling pause is another hook. The sparkling synth tones, the sudden and short breakbeat burst, the growling guitar tones – all hooks. The best part of the song is nearing the end, where Fredriksson just grunts the name of the band: “Rock! Sssset!” I’m convinced that more rock songs should involve the band shouting their own name in the middle of the song whenever possible. (Maybe that’s one of the reasons I love hardcore so much. In hardcore, bands actually do pretty often.)

And the lyrics! I love the “Joyride” lyrics. They are not quite as overwhelmingly junky as the ones Roxette used on “The Look” a few years earlier, but they are somehow even more endearing in their confusion. Consider: “She has a train running in the city! She has a club on the moon! And she tells all her secrets in a wonderful balloon!” Fantastic! None of that matters! She sounds amazing! Roxette must have known that the “wonderful balloon” bit was funny when they got a whole bunch of people to sing that phrase in chorus.Even better, later in the song, Fredriksson, who sounds like she’s in church, moans that Sunshine is a lady rocking you like a baby. Hi! Your fool! I love you!

The “joyride” video remains committed to the spirit of ecstatic nonsense. Roxette gets off their tour bus in the middle of the desert somewhere and they jump up on the hood of a red sports car. The car drives quickly through the landscape, while both Gessle and Fredriksson play guitar on the bonnet. There’s a whole lot of rear screen projection in this video, but Roxette also seems to be on that hood in at least some of these pictures. (Did Roxette pioneer in joking with the whip?) I’m also pretty sure they’re supposed to be flying on the wing of a plane in a couple of those moments. In one shot, Gessle throws his guitar down to the ground and and different Gessle catches it. Clearly, the whole thing is rocking extremely hard.

“Joyride” became a worldwide hit, and oddly enough, it became the first Roxette single to reach # 1 in Sweden. (They had been in the top 10 of their home country a lot of times, but they had never gone all the way.) Then Joyride album came out, Roxette had never toured in America, so they finally gave it a try. They also followed “Joyride” with the Fredriksson showcase power ballad “Fading Like A Flower (Every Time You Leave)”, which peaked at # 2. (It’s an 8.)

“Fading Like A Flower” turned out to be Roxette’s last real American hit. The album’s next two singles, “The Big L” and “Spending My Time”, both languished in the bottom ranks of the top 40. Joyride went platinum, like Look sharp! had before it, but it did not sell better than that. Gessle later claimed that EMI stopped promoting Roxette after merging with a few other labels and firing all the people who had worked on the Roxette record. But America’s appetite for that kind of endorphin-rush pop-rock was sadly disappearing, and Roxette came to seem pretty dated pretty quickly. Even in the best label situation, I can not imagine a version of Roxette that would have grown big through the grunge era.

Still, Roxette’s singles stayed on the Hot 100 for a few years. Their second major soundtrack look was “Almost Unreal.” Gessle wrote it for Hocus Pocus, and Fredriksson sings the phrase “hocus pocus” on the hook, but it ended in 1993 Bob Hoskins Super Mario Bros. movies instead. “Almost Unreal” peaked at # 94, and its video plays like a great little time capsule. After 1994’s backseat-bumpy jam “Sleeping In My Car” peaked at # 50, Roxette never returned to the US charts.

For the rest of the world, Roxette persevered. They kept making records and their singles kept playing all over Europe. In 1995, they became the first Western group since Wham! to travel around China. Gessle and Fredriksson also made solo records, and those records were hugely popular in Sweden. (Gessle was also briefly reunited with Gyllene Tider, his Swedish-language band before Roxette.) Many of Roxette’s later records were not even released in America, and they continued to thrive regardless.

In 2002, Marie Fredriksson underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor, and Roxette took a break. The operation was successful, and Roxette reunited in 2010. From there, they continued touring and making records until 2016. That was when they released God karma, their last album, and when Fredriksson’s cancer returned and became bad enough that she could not continue playing shows. Brain cancer killed Marie Fredriksson in 2019, 17 years after she was first diagnosed. She was 61.

Per Gessle has continued to release solo records, including one released last year, and he has occasionally toured with the surviving members of Roxette’s backing band, playing shows under the name Per Gessle’s Roxette. Earlier this year for Metallica’s weird project Metallica’s blacklist, PG Roxette covered “Nothing Else Matters”, a song that came out back when Roxette was still running wild on the US charts. (The original “Nothing Else Matters” topped # 34. Metallica’s highest hit, 1996’s “Until It Sleeps”, topped # 10. It’s a 7.) Gessle made “Nothing Else Matters” sound like a Roxette song . That’s a good thing for me. More songs should sound like Roxette songs.

Roxette will not appear in this column again. I will miss them.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: This section turned out to be more difficult than it should have been. “Joyride” was apparently on the soundtrack to an episode of season 2 of Beverly Hills 90210, but I can not find that scene on the net. And unfortunately, virtually no prominent artists have the cover “Joyride”, despite the fact that it is a fantastic song that at least for me seems extremely coverbar. (Hi! Last year! Cover “Joyride”!) So I’ll have to go with this lively 1991 version of “Joyride” from former number 1 artists, The Chipmunks:

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