This is Pop, a new series from Netflix, looks at how the Swedish DJ launched band Ace of Base to global success, with his Stockholm studio Cheiron later behind 1990s pop hits for the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears
It was a broken car cassette player that helped change the course of pop history. Stockholm DJ Denniz Pop had been given a demo tape by a new band from Sweden’s second city, Gothenburg, and as it was stuck in the cassette deck he found himself forced to listen to it time and again any time he was driving. The band were Ace of Base and the song was tentatively called All That She Wants.
Pop — real name Dag Krister Volle — initially had little time for the song, but the more he heard it, the more he realised that it contained the germ of something good. He contacted the group — sisters Malin and Jenny Berggren, their brother Jonas and a mutual friend Ulf Ekberg — and invited them to join him in Stockholm so they could put manners on the demo.
The producer approached the task as though he was working on a symphony of great complexity. He wanted every second of the song’s run-time to count and he was meticulous in his efforts to bring out the pop qualities that lurked just beneath the surface.
Every time he tinkered with the song, adding reggae-pop elements and tweaking the drumbeat, he would play an instrumental version at the club where he DJ’d. With every improvement, the crowd seem to respond more favourably. But he wasn’t ready to release it until he had spent hundreds of hours finessing every detail.
It was August 1992 when All That She Wants finally got a release — and it was an instant success. It topped the charts in the UK and Ireland and reached number two in the US Billboard 100. In one fell swoop it took the band from barely knowns in their own country to household-name status all over the world. And it would almost certainly not have happened without Denniz Pop’s ear for talent and a near Stakhanovite work-rate in the studio.
All That She Wants was no flash in the pan. With Pop at the tiller, Ace of Base ploughed an indelible furrow in 90s Europop and they spawned innumerable imitators.
Denniz Pop was keen to emulate the success with other groups and in 1997 he established his own studio Cheiron with the express purpose of writing and producing global pop hits. It soon became Stockholm’s answer to the Brill Building and Tin Pan Alley and several of Sweden’s most talented young songwriters found themselves hammering on its door.
The story of Denniz Pop, the studio he established and the far-reaching successes of the songwriters who first plied their trade there is told compellingly in the new Netflix series, This is Pop.
One of Pop’s protégé’s at Cheiron was Max Sandberg. The Swede had made small in-roads into the hearts of metal fans with his band It’s Alive, but there was a pop writer within him that was straining to get out.
Employing the more western-sounding Max Martin, he began working with a new Floridian boy band who had come to Cheiron with the hope of finding big hits. The Backstreet Boys were keen to be America’s answer to Take That and Martin gave them the ammunition. Among the early songs he wrote for them was Quit Playing Games (With My Heart) which, in the words of US critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine, was “as irresistible as teen pop can be”.
The Backstreet Boys became stupendously popular very quickly and Cheiron kept cranking out the hits. In the world of manufactured groups, Martin was being spoken of as the writer-producer with Midas-like gifts and at the end of the 1990s a procession of fame-hungry acts were sent to Stockholm, indulging *NSYNC, Boyzone and Westlife.
Jive Records — a regular client of Cheiron’s services — also thought one of their newest signings could use some of the Swedish gold dust. Britney Spears was just 16 when she pitched up at the studio, but the precocious young star had her own sense of what songs would best work from her. A Max Martin-composition Hit Me Baby One More Time had been lying around, having been rejected by several acts, including the Backstreet Boys. But Spears liked what she heard and Martin liked the way she sang it.
Producers now talk about the Spotify-effect — the importance of the first few seconds of a song being strong in order to keep the listener’s attention. Martin believed that the first second was crucial and Baby One More Time — as the song was renamed — gets off with a proverbial bang.
A combination of Spears’ talents, Martin’s fanatical attention to detail and Nigel Dick’s memorable video made the teen an instant superstar — although hindsight shows that success came too soon for a wonderful talent who did not get the support she needed.
The change of title was understandable considering the sadomasochistic allusions in the original. But with Spears’ recorded version retaining Martin’s words, some critics were troubled that the song was about domestic violence.
In fact, Max Martin had meant nothing of the sort. Like most Swedes, his English was close to fluency, and yet it wasn’t quite perfect. What Martin had meant by “hit me baby one more time” was “hit me up by calling me one more time” but his insistence that the lyrics fit the melody meant the dodgier, more controversial line had to do.
It’s far from the only time his lyrical prowess has come second to his melodic gifts. Even the members of the Backstreet Boys will struggle to tell you what their most emblematic song, I Want It That Way, is about.
One suspects the quintet, and Martin, don’t really care — after all, it was this tune that helped propel them to staggering sales. They remain the bestselling manufactured boy band of all time.
Cancer forced Denniz Pop to take a backseat. Although he’s credited on Britney’s first album, she never got to meet him. He died, aged just 35, in 1998.
Cheiron shut its doors shortly afterwards, but its impact continues to be extraordinary. The publicity-shy Max Martin has been churning out the tunes ever since and is third on the all-time list of writers of US number one singles. John Lennon and Paul McCartney occupy the first and second slots, respectively. Martin was instrumental in helping turn Taylor Swift from country-lite star to cultural icon thanks to songs like Style and Shake It Off. He also wrote once inescapable hits for Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake and the Weeknd.
Martin, in turn, has proved to be an excellent mentor for his songwriting compatriots. Karl Johan Schuster — aka Shellback — has written for everyone from the aforementioned Swift to Adele, as well as the likes of Usher and Maroon 5. He signalled his talent at the age of 22 when he wrote Pink’s monster hit, So What.
Ever since the gargantuan success of Abba, Sweden has punched far above its weight when it comes to pop and Cheiron and their protégés have played a part in that.
And, yet, it comes with pitfalls. Brilliant as Martin et al have been, they helped introduce a homogeneity into mainstream pop that can make the fare — on paper — from very different artists sound indistinguishable from each other.
The meticulous approach to every second of each song pioneered by Denniz Pop and perfected by Martin has robbed much of modern music of its strangeness and spontaneity.
And it all began thanks to a broken car stereo.
‘This is Pop’ is on Netflix now