On Sunday 9 September 2018 Sweden will elect a new government and unfortunately the nationalist party is predicted to grow even further. As a way to inoculate myself I have spent the summer listening to Swedish progg (yes, progg with two “g”s) from the early 70s.
The fact that the nationalist party wants more focus on Swedish culture betrays their ignorance about Swedish culture. Sweden is a country with a very low population density and large borders. As an effect, Swedish culture is often a reaction to and interpretation of what is happening somewhere else, and not so much about national romanticism.
Swedish progg is a case in point, as internationalism as well as solidarity were key ingredients and the focus was on progressive political thinking. As a result, Swedish progg was maybe more an offshoot of the hippie era than in synch with the progressive rock scene in the UK and the USA that at the time was more oriented towards establishing rock as an art form.
During my summer listening, I made up a list of the albums I liked best, more as a way of keeping notes than anything else. I ended up with twelve favourite records. But then I realised that the majority of them are not only overlooked germs but also available at very low prices, either as reissues or as originals.
So if you want to waste neither time nor money, here they are, in chronological order.
Life – Life (1971)
Even though some might say that Life’s self-titled album is not an overlooked gem but an established classic, it certainly went nowhere at the time. Originally scheduled for release in 1970 on major label EMI/Columbia but delayed to 1971, it got some great reviews that were forgotten by the public by the time it eventually trickled out in shops. Although a near mint copy costs you €1,000 on Discogs at the time of this writing, a mint copy of the RPM double CD reissue is listed for less than $7. If you don’t have it, you simply must get it.
Apart from Paul Sundlin and Thomas Rydberg, the trio that will recurrently feature in this article also comprised Anders Nordh. He had just come back from England after having played on the last Tages album (when the band was renamed Blond for the international market). With him Nordh brought Tages producer Anders Henriksson who was fresh from recording English prog rock band Quatermass, and as a result the album combines skilfully recorded and performed art rock with lyrics about life and eternity that could easily have felt pretentious if it weren’t for the forceful vocal delivery.
The mood on this album reminds me of King Crimson and the connection to the Swedish prog movement is merely the fact that it is sung is Swedish. In fact, an English version intended for the international market also existed as a promo at the time, and is included on the RPM reissue. Apart from new vocals, it also adds a few arrangement touches here and there, but somehow it doesn’t have the magic of the Swedish version. Don’t mess with a masterpiece.
Hawkey Franzen – Visa från gungor och sand (1971)
Hawkey Franzen played with Lea Riders Group in the late 60s, participated in the 1968 Swedish version of the *Hair’ musical, and had some connection or other to virtually any musician of note at the time. However, his solo albums from the early 70s have not garnered very much attention. Still, ’Visa från gungor och sand’ from 1971 is a thing of magic although it is a bit uneven. The songs are written and sung from the perspective of children, yet somehow manage to find a balance between the naive, the cringeworthy and the profound that is just brilliant. One standout track is ‘Kiki Lotta J:son Lindh’ which takes the perspective of a toddler in a baby cart, with her dad providing the melody line on flute. An incredible piece of music.
‘Visa från gungor och sand’ has only been reissued digitally yet has never been hard to find. You can pick up a copy for around €20 on Discogs but probably for half of that if you live in Sweden. Not so much a children’s record as a childish record, but nevertheless essential!
Kvartetten som sprängde – Kattvals (1973)
Released on the collectible Gump label in 1973, the group name was translated to *The Quarted that Blasted’ in Tobias Petterson’s ‘Encyclopedia of Swedish Progressive Music’. Well maybe they did that too, but given that their name is a play of words on Birger Sjöberg’s 1924 novel ‘Kvartetten som sprängdes’ or ‘The Quartet that Fell Apart’ it is of note that the band had been reduced to a trio at the time of recording this album.
Although I am not always fond of instrumental albums, there is so much fun stuff going on here that you somehow hardly notice. Musically there is a seamless fusion of rock music with Swedish traditional music and Scandinavian melancholy. Maybe it isn’t as unique, consistent or dark as what Jan Johansson did to jazz on ‘Jazz på svenska’, but there is a playfulness and lightness of touch here that simply draws you in.
Reissued on both vinyl and CD so no excuses not to pick up a copy.
Resan – Resan (1973)
After the disastrous experience with the Life album, Anders Nordh, Paul Sundlin and Thomas Rydberg regrouped with some other people as Resan (i.e. The Trip) and signed another major label contract, this time with Epic and released another abortive self-titled album.
Although the record is loosely constructed around a journey through life, the English translation of the band name is very appropriate as the music is very trippy. The band were allegedly living communally at the time and this is very much a hippie album. As such it is very loosely held together and in no rush to get things done. Nevertheless, it is absolutely brilliant and although the home recorded feel could make you believe this is all rather amateurish, performances are in fact top notch. The songs are also very good although the hard rock grandeur that defined ‘Life’ is replaced by a West coast vibe.
The lyrics have also matured considerably and represent a significantly different take on the themes from the ‘Life’ album. Interestingly, the penultimate track on the album is in fact titled ‘Life’, making the thematic connection explicit (and boasts some hard rocking riffs to underline that).
Needless to say, ‘Resan’ was left totally in the cold by Epic and originals now cost more than hen’s teeth. Luckily it has been reissued by Subliminal Sounds on vinyl, and there is also a digital reissue. This album has not left my iPhone once since I downloaded it. An all time favourite.
Bättre Lyss – … till den sträng som brast, än att aldrig spänna en båge (1975)
Although I defined Swedish progg as having a political agenda, the only album that actually lives up to that promise in this list is the sole privately released album by Bättre Lyss. And since every song and almost every sentence here is political, it lives up to that in spades.
Given the importance of the lyrical content, you might want to get the original vinyl issue with 33 revolutions per minute, since the lyrics make up the front and back of the album cover. On the 2017 Guerssen/Sommor CD reissue reading the lyrics is nigh on impossible. Original copies aren’t extremely expensive, there is also a Guerssen/Sommor LP reissue you might want to pick up instead as it comes with a digital download that at least to my ears sounds better than the original vinyl.
Although recorded direct to stereo with few overdubs and displaying the rawness of a live-in-the-studio recording, this is a very accomplished album musically speaking: the dynamic combination between quiet parts and hard rock riffs are reminiscent of the Life album, and are indeed performed by Life’s Anders Nordh, who also helps out with some of the interesting arrangements here. The vocals are also of the top-of-your-lungs variety, although maybe not so much an influence from Life as a necessity here given the semi-live nature of the recordings.
Bättre Lyss means “better listen” by the way, and you really should! This is also a better listen than most other political albums you can find!
Figaro – Figaro (1976)
Here we find Anders Nordh and Paul Sundlin from Life and Resan joining up with a couple of friends for yet another self-titled one-off album for yet another major label (CBS). By 1976 one could argue that Swedish progg was already past its prime, and with Figaro we are as far away from political Swedish progg as you could get. Lyrics are if not directly lightweight then at least humorous, the production tries (and manages) to sound expensive and there is even a bona fide hit single in the form of the track ‘Framåt’. But hey, I am a pop lover at heart and ‘Framåt’ is really incredibly catchy and propulsive; a great song.
The single B-side ‘D. J.’ is the only major dud on the album, combining an irritating lack of melody with an un-funky delivery telling an uninteresting story about a disc jockey who should watch out that his records don’t get stuck in their groves. But on an album full to the brim with genuinely inspired pop music, even a track like that becomes acceptable, especially as it is placed at the end of side A and gets stuck in an endless run out groove, repeating “stuck in the groove”, “stuck in the groove”, “stuck in the groove” until you needle wears out.
I am sure that this album was despised by many upon its release, and it has never been reissued. However, there is a copy on Discogs for €10 and if you stumble upon it in a Swedish used records store, I would expect it to cost less than half of that. I would love to see an expanded reissue because I have a feeling there might be some interesting stuff lying about that was deemed either too uncommercial or too silly and never used on the album. But unfortunately, this album will never gain cult status and my dream will never see fulfilment.
Andreas Aarflot – det rivna pianot (1977)
I discovered Andreas Aarflot sole album ‘det rivna pianot’ through a Japanese friend of mine who called it a Swedish Hatfield & the North. I can tell you right away that this album does not come close to that. I would definitely bring not one but both Hatfield & the North’s two studio albums to that desert island in the record collector sky where you can only bring ten albums. Nothing can compare to that.
But the inspiration is definitely there and musically speaking I think that Aarflot comes closer in spirit to the Canterbury sound than many others by being not only technically advanced and performing sudden twists and turns but also doing that with a lightness of touch and lyrical sense for melody. Although definitely prog in the English sense, that is because the album displays whimsy and quirk rather than ELP-like heavy handedness.
Vocally though, this is Swedish progg of the primarily female high-pitched variant with lyrics that by 1978 no longer have to be revolutionary to be accepted but at least are politically aware.
I am a bit surprised that this album has never been reissued as I believe sheer quality of the music should guarantee international interest. I probably have five copies of it by now as I keep finding them for just a few Euros and feel so sorry for the album that I reflexively purchase it again.
Completing the list
Although that brings the bargain basement pricing to a close, my top dozen also contains a few obvious and easy to find classics, namely: Mikael Ramel ‘Till dej’ from 1972, as well as ‘Kebnekajse II’ by Kebnekajse and Samla Mammas Manna’s ‘Måltid’ from 1973. However, the final two albums in my list have for some strange reason never been reissued and are getting quite difficult to obtain in decent condition. I am talking about the self titled debut album by Arbete och Fritid from 1970 and ‘Tussilago Fanfara’ the sole 1977 album by electronic duo Anna Själv Tredje.
Finally, there is also a post scriptum to the Life story that has been a featured part of this text, as Paul Sundlin and Anders Nordh in 2014 privately released a follow-up to the Life album, titled ‘After A Life’. Unfortunately it is sung in English and begins with a couple of rather uninspired tracks. Overall, the music is slowed down and gives a laboured feel as it if was a struggle to get the sounds onto the tape. In a sense it really does sound as if was recorded after a life, and after a very long one at that. But if you get past the fact that this is a different album from a different world, there are actually a few quite beautiful tunes here.