Good timing turned Ace Of Base’s The Sign into the luckiest hit of the ’90s

Photo: Catherine McGann/Getty Images. Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio.

Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.  

Throughout 1993, the Swedish quartet Ace Of Base was inescapable. Its international dominance began with “All That She Wants,” initially released as part of the group’s 1992 Europop tour-de-force debut, Happy Nation. The song—which can be read as either a celebration of a woman who enjoys one-night stands, or a warning to her potential suitors—is a catchy marvel of simplicity. A glacial synth hum and strolling reggae rhythm provide propulsion, while the occasional saxophone curlicue and mysterious whistle give it intrigue, as well as a hint of melancholy.

“The story is about a woman who is always leaving, and that is because the woman is not whole in herself,” vocalist Jenny Berggren explained in 2012. “I think by changing to minor [chords], people can hear that sadness and relate to that song. I really believe the most beautiful songs are sad-sounding.”

People did relate—all over the world. “All That She Wants” topped the charts in numerous countries. After it inevitably wore out its welcome, Ace Of Base could’ve easily become a footnote, the kind of dance-pop one-hit wonder that flourished throughout the ’90s. But a funny thing happened after Happy Nation was repackaged and rearranged for the U.S. market, where it was given the new name The Sign: Ace Of Base became a genuine phenomenon. In April 1994, the quartet—Ulf “Buddha” Ekberg and a trio of siblings: Jonas “Joker” Berggren, Malin “Linn” Berggren, and Jenny Berggren—became the first Swedish group to top the Billboard album and singles charts simultaneously. Months later, the group one-upped itself when both The Sign and its title track, newly added for the U.S. release, topped Billboard’s 1994 cumulative year-end lists.

When all was said and done, The Sign went nine-times platinum and spawned four Top 20 U.S. hits, on its way to becoming one of the best-selling albums of all time. It also achieved near-total cultural saturation: On Full House, Stephanie Tanner’s band Girl Talk covered “The Sign.” The German ska-punk band WIZO put its goofy spin on “All That She Wants.” In 1999, when South Park needed an instantly recognizable 1996 signifier for the episode “Prehistoric Ice Man,” it used “The Sign.”

It’s easy to see why The Sign resonated. The record breezily bridged ’80s new wave and the Europop of the ’90s, striking a balance between contemporary club glitz (“Voulez-Vous Danser,” “Young And Proud”) and nods to retro electro (the Madonna-esque disco of “Dancer In A Daydream”). Though superficially glossy, Ace Of Base’s music has a slight edge: Its lively beats take influence from taut techno (“Happy Nation”) and easygoing reggae (“Living In Danger”), put in service of frothy, catchy melodies.

Thematically, it also offered a smarter, subversive take on pop’s standard romantic coyness. “Dancer In A Daydream” is refreshingly forthright about its hookup invitation, with the man—as in “All That She Wants”—once again cast as the hunted prey, while “Voulez-Vous Danser” is a similarly bold declaration of attraction. Within its bubbly melodies, the title track also contains nuggets of philosophical wisdom (“Life is demanding without understanding”) alongside pointed existential questions (“No one’s gonna drag you up, to get into the light where you belong / But where do you belong?”). And its music contained a similarly thoughtful approach to the way that certain keys can subliminally affect mood: “When we recorded ‘The Sign,’ it was a bit too merry,” Jonas Berggren told Billboard in 2015, echoing his sister’s thoughts on “All That She Wants.” “So we put the ‘da na-na na-na na-na’ in between the melody lines. It’s a bit minor in that part. It becomes major and minor, as a total.”

This approach to toying with the sonics of pop makes sense, given the band members’ musical backgrounds. Ulf Ekberg was a massive Kraftwerk fan who met and bonded with Jonas Berggren over their mutual love of Depeche Mode. They first teamed up in a band called Tech Noir—named for the dance club in The Terminator—which eventually morphed into Ace Of Base. Even that name has a surprisingly heavy inspiration: Ekberg saw the video for Motörhead’s “Ace Of Spades” while lounging in front of a TV, powering through a particularly nasty hangover, and the moniker evolved from there.

That same serendipity informed the band’s sound, as well as its meteoric rise. The group’s rehearsal space was next to a Jamaican reggae band—“As we had the loudest speakers of all, the reggae band couldn’t help but notice us,” Ekberg said in 2014—which led to the two groups swapping musical ideas. And that just so happened to align with cultural trends. Reggae was “enjoying its greatest mainstream acceptance ever,” Billboard touted in its June 12, 1993, issue, the same week that reggae-tinged songs by Inner Circle (the Cops theme “Bad Boys”), UB40 (“Can’t Help Falling In Love”), Snow (“Girl, I’ve Been Hurt”), and Big Mountain (“Touch My Light”) were all on the Hot 100. The next month, Billboard introduced a reggae chart alongside a profile on the genre, in which it spotlighted “All That She Wants,” then just a European hit, for its “ragga-rocksteady dance mixture.”

Reggae was also being embraced on then-fledgling “alternative” radio, where the likes of UB40, Ziggy Marley, and Shaggy all landed hits on the Modern Rock Tracks charts. As a result, by the time “All That She Wants” finally crossed over to the U.S. that year, it became simultaneously a mainstream pop and “alternative” hit: The track peaked at No. 17 on the alternative charts the same week it leapt to No. 21 on the Hot 100, on its way to topping out at No. 2. It was soon joined there by “The Sign,” as well as its version of Tina Turner’s 1986 B-side, “Don’t Turn Around.”

All of this was a bit of a fluke, considering how close Ace Of Base came to never getting distributed in America at all. The band spent a few years failing to spark much interest in labels before finally getting a demo of “Wheel Of Fortune” in the hands of Denmark’s Mega Records, which issued Happy Nation in 1992. And despite the European success of “All That She Wants,” no Stateside label wanted to back it. Even the album’s European distributor, Polygram, declined. The sole person who saw Ace Of Base’s potential was Clive Davis, then the head of Arista Records. In his memoir, The Soundtrack Of My Life, Davis recalls first hearing Happy Nation while on vacation aboard his yacht, then almost immediately heading back to land so he could call Mega and close the deal. It was at Davis’ prompting to find another hit that the band wrote “The Sign,” while he personally sent them “Don’t Turn Around” to cover. The group gave it a brisk, breezy vibe that verges on tropical, and the track ended up as one of the record’s anchors alongside “The Sign,” a song Davis liked so much he named the album after it.

Beyond its own chart success, the impact of Ace Of Base could quickly be felt across the whole of pop radio, as it both directly and indirectly ushered in the era of mega-producer Max Martin. Denniz Pop, co-producer of both “All That She Wants” and “The Sign,” co-founded Cheiron Studios, the Swedish enclave where Martin cut his teeth in the early ’90s. It was there that Jonas “Joker” Berggren worked with Martin and Pop on tunes for Ace Of Base’s 1995 follow-up, The Bridge, including the moderate U.S. hit “Beautiful Life.” Meanwhile, Martin was putting his imprint on hits like the Backstreet Boys’ “Quit Playin’ Games (With My Heart)” and Robyn’s “Show Me Love,” establishing a sound that would soon dominate popular music.

Ace Of Base, unfortunately, wasn’t quite so lucky. The Bridge didn’t enjoy the same success as The Sign, while subsequent records produced even greater diminishing returns. The band was also facing increased meddling from Davis: In 2011, Jonas Berggren revealed on Facebook that Davis had forced Linn Berggren to sing 1999’s “Everytime It Rains,” even though Jenny Berggren was more into the song. “[Linn] went, very sad, and recorded it, and you can hear she doesn’t like it on the rec,” Jonas wrote. “After this she just wanted to get out of this buissness [sic] and I understand her.” The band released its final album with the original lineup, Da Capo, in 2002. After a 2010 record that featured Ekberg and Jonas Berggren working with two new lead singers, Ace Of Base officially became defunct.

Its legacy became even more muddled after a 2013 article appeared in Noisey, discussing Ekberg’s youthful consorting with neo-Nazis. A demo tape credited to his adolescent punk band, Commit Suiside, featured songs with racist lyrics, the article said, while Ekberg himself was linked to the Nazi-founded Swedish Democrats. (Ekberg has since denied both allegations.) Though the musician had alluded to his hate-filled past before—notably in a 1997 documentary, in which he discussed his friendliness with skinheads—the Noisey piece reignited the controversy, prompting Ekberg to reiterate in interviews that his old lifestyle was “based on poor judgment and ignorance.” As he told E! Online, “I have always been deeply regretful of that period in my life, as I strive to bring happiness to people, and during that period I did not live up to that standard. I have not been involved in violence or political activism in the past 25 years. However, I find some of my thoughts from those days nauseating to myself today.” He also stressed that “Ace Of Base never shared any of these opinions and strongly oppose all extremist opinions on both the right and left wing”—though that didn’t stop possibly tongue-in-cheek conspiracy theories from sprouting up.

The band’s slow decline into ’90s novelty and that brief flirtation with internet outrage aside, Ace Of Base’s reputation seems to have been salvaged in recent years, particularly in light of the current, “poptimism” embrace of its descendants. It’s been name-checked as an influence by stadium stars (Lady Gaga, Katy Perry) and indie-rockers (Twin Shadow, Trust, Yeasayer) alike; arbiter-of-cool Beck even considered covering one of its albums for his Record Club (an idea that, regrettably, never took shape). A 2015 odds-and-sods collection, Hidden Gems, was well-received, while a cover of “The Sign” could be heard soundtracking a 2016 Uncle Ben commercial—and the original, along with “All That She Wants,” can still be heard wherever undeniable monster pop hits are played. The Sign’s cultural domination may have been a fleeting moment based on timing and luck, but it secured them an enviably enduring musical legacy.

Cleveland-based writer seen in many places. Fond of dusty record stores, good sushi and R.E.M.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter