Ace Of Base
Photo credit: Philippe Caron / Contributor
Ace Of Base's "The Sign" Turns 25: How America Fell Back In Love With Swedish Pop
Only nine musical acts topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1994, and the publication declared one the bestseller of the year: "The Sign" by Swedish-pop torchbearers Ace Of Base. The song by the now-defunct quartet (siblings Jenny, Jonas and Linn Berggren and Ulf Ekberg) spent four weeks at number one starting the week of March 12, 1994, and returned to reign for two more weeks beginning May 7 after being displaced by R. Kelly’s "Bump n’ Grind" for four weeks in April.
"I got a new life, you’d hardly recognize me, I'm so glad," the Berggren sisters sang with sass on this withering, grooving breakup song. "How can a person like me care for you? Why do I bother, when you're not the one for me? Is enough enough?"
While Swedish duo Roxette hit the American pop charts in the late '80s, Ace of Base’s Stateside arrival coincided with an ABBA revival that brought Swedish music back into the international consciousness.
"I think the comparisons are quite obvious, we are four — two guys, two girls — and we make pop music and are from Sweden, but we have nothing to do with ABBA," Ulf Ekberg said in a French television interview in 1999. "We weren’t listening to them in the '90s — maybe in the '70s, when we were small kids like this, but we were never really inspired by ABBA. And when we started Ace of Base, ABBA was really out, out out. No one talked about ABBA; especially not in Sweden. But we were really lucky that a revival of ABBA came in ‘92, ‘93 with [greatest hits record] ABBA Gold. And we were out with the first single, second single and the album and then suddenly the wave of Swedish music from ABBA came out together with us and we were riding a little bit on the wave for sure."
"The Sign" is the title track to the group’s 1993 album release in America. The full-length was released sans the single as Happy Nation in Europe the year before and renamed The Sign once Clive Davis, the head of their U.S. label Arista, heard the newer song. When Davis got the demo tape for "The Sign," he passed it on to Swedish producers Douglass Carr and the late Denniz PoP to polish.
"They wanted something different from the European album, to make it more special," Jonas Berggren told Idolator in 2014. "I had 'The Sign' only just in my head. The first time anyone heard it was Denniz PoP, who got a rough demo. It was just instrumental and I remember that he thought the verse was the chorus. Arista loved the song!"
"The demo we got was very basic; it sounded like one of those preprogrammed tracks on a cheap family keyboard where you press a button and the band starts playing," Carr told Slate in 2015. "Denniz’s skills for making and mixing fat beats is here in full blast. He knew what the dancefloor needed, and we had the speakers and the volume to know what was going to happen in the clubs.”
What the dancefloor needed was a propulsive bassline, which Carr revealed was a little bit tricky.
“The bass took some figuring out,” Carr remembered. “I remember us talking a lot about the space that the reggae bass players always make in their music, and how important that is—that sense of air.”
The finished version was airy — and loud as hell.
“An interesting part is that the song was so loud that we had to reduce the volume by three decibels compared to the other tracks when we mastered the album,” Jonas revealed to Idolator.
25 years on since "The Sign" became a number one hit in America and the song is still instantly memorable.
“For us, the melody and the hookline come first,” Ulf told EuroMenTravel in 2016. "Lyrics come last. What we do when we write a song is something we call ‘cowboy lyrics.’. Meaning, we simply ad-lib to the music and later form this into actual lyrics. It’s the melody that counts the most. And the hookline has to be there, engaging, drawing you in. Everything else comes at a later time. You see, that really is key to making good music, you have to be passionate about what you do. In the end, making good music is not about making money. It’s about passion."