Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer -- a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single -- by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late Marie Fredriksson of Roxette by diving into the first of the Swedish duo's four Hot 100 toppers, the late-'80s pop/rock marvel "The Look."
If it seems like Roxette's debut single "The Look" arrived out of nowhere in the spring of 1989, it's because it did. Nobody pegged the Swedish duo of Per Gessle and Marie Fredriksson, the latter of whom died this Tuesday (Dec. 10) at 61, as international hitmakers. They had no profile in the States and barely registered in Europe. Back in their homeland, Gessle and Fredriksson had been around the block a few times as members of other bands, and seemed fated to remain a Scandanavian sensation when a series of lucky breaks brought them stardom in America -- and, in turn, the world.
"The Look" -- a gleaming piece of pure pop, studded with hooks and harmonies -- was the key that unlocked everything for Roxette. It's the record that caught the attention of Brian Phillips, a program director at the Minneapolis Top 40 station KDWB 101.3, who then made it his mission to turn the song into the No. 1 hit he believed it to be. The fact that he ultimately achieved his mission obscures the fact that "The Look" and Roxette were -- contrary to one of their early hits -- fairly unlikely candidates for such success at the twilight of the 1980s.
Start with the band itself. Musically and geographically, they didn't fit the bill of a charting act: Apart from Falco, who took the synth-rock novelty "Rock Me Amadeus" to No. 1 on the Hot 100 in 1986, the Billboard charts were chilly to Europop throughout the 1980s, so the reluctance to bands hailing from their country of origin was one obstacle for Roxette to clear. Another lay in how underneath all the state-of-the-art studio gloss Roxette was a power-pop group who came of age during the glory days of punk. Per Gessle hid this fact in plain sight, swiping the title of their breakthrough Look Sharp! from Joe Jackson and naming the group itself after "Roxette," the 1974 debut single from the gnarled, nasty pub rockers Dr. Feelgood.
When Gessle sat down to write "The Look," he had another hard rock group on his mind: ZZ Top. That little ol' band from Texas gussied up its blues-rock with synthesizers and drum machines earlier in the '80s -- and if you squint, it's possible to discern the ghost of their Diamond-certified early-MTV blockbuster Eliminator underneath the stylish snap of "The Look."
The song hums along to a robotic R&B throb which provides a solid foundation for Gessle's colorful flourishes. Dressing the song in diamond-hard guitar riffs, circular psych-pop melodies, and clanking keyboards, Gessle decided to leave his placeholder words in place because he liked how the lyrics reminded him of Marc Bolan's penchant for nonsense. In a sense, "The Look" was indeed glam-rock for the age of George H.W. Bush: stylized and stylish on the surface, yet classically structured at its core. Equal parts craft and trash, it was the platonic ideal of a hit pop single.
Phillips recognized the outline of a massive hit when he heard "The Look," but it took him some time to give Roxette a chance. Look Sharp! came upon his radar when Minneapolis native Dean Cushman implored KDWB to play the band on its airwaves. Cushman had fallen for the band while he was an exchange student in Sweden, purchasing a copy of the album (their second, following 1986's Pearls Of Passion) and bringing it back home. He dropped it by KDWB, but Phillips didn't rush to listen to the import CD -- only choosing to spin it when Cushman asked for it back. Not expecting much, once he heard "The Look," he thought it sounded like a No. 1 hit -- and a couple of his DJ colleagues agreed.
"The Look" became a staple on KDWB's playlist, and Phillips dubbed tapes of the tune to send to stations scattered across America. Soon, "The Look" was put into rotation everywhere from Los Angeles to New York, but there was a catch: Roxette didn't have a deal in U.S. Just prior to KDWB's adoption of "The Look," the American division of EMI passed on releasing Look Sharp!, leaving the duo free to sign elsewhere. Before they had a chance to ink a deal with another label, "The Look" became a word-of-mouth phenomenon, pushing EMI to secure the duo to a deal early in 1989.
On the week ending February 11, 1989, "The Look" made its Hot Shot Debut on the Hot 100 at No. 50, a position earned entirely on the strength of airplay. A little over a month later, it cracked the Top 10, reaching No. 1 on April 8, 1989 -- which just happened to be the 15th anniversary of Blue Swede's "Hooked on a Feeling" becoming the first Swedish hit to top the Billboard Hot 100. But unlike Blue Swede, Roxette was no novelty act. Over the next two years, the duo racked up three additional number ones, a total that eclipses that of ABBA, the gold standard in Scandinavian pop. But Roxette was different than ABBA, too. Gessle rightly claimed "We are much more rock-oriented than ABBA was," and "The Look" is the single that proves this to be true.
Much of its toughness derives from its hard backbeat and ringing six strings, but the swagger also comes from Fredriksson. During the verses, Gessle plays it deadpan but when the chorus kicks in, Fredriksson overpowers her partner in the call and response, and she brings the song to a transcendent close during its sing-song coda. It's a production that highlights the strengths of both members of Roxette, an aesthetic that suits a song where the rush of the hooks and melody deliberately overshadows the duo's personality.
Every element of "The Look" was designed so the song would be a smash hit and that precision engineering was evident to all that heard it. Decades later, those same qualities still shine -- that nagging chorus and crystalline guitar line remain incandescent -- which is as it should be, as they're the parts patterned after tried-and-true pop hits from years past. Time, however, has made "The Look" familiar, suggesting that its success was an inevitability when the opposite was true: It was a hit single lying in wait, ready for the right ears to recognize it's potential. That it was discovered by an exchange student and a Midwestern programmer remains one of the minor miracles of late-'80s pop.