Bjorn Again: You Saab Bastards!

Are BJORN AGAIN the camp, knowing, so-bad-it’s-good good-time covers band it’s OK to like? Or the malignant cancer eating away at real rebellious new rock music? STEVEN WELLS journeys to the black heart of the Aussie rip-off phenomenon and, for once, isn’t sure what to think.

FROM THE back of the hall, among the frantically jiggling, glitter-wigged drunks skidding on the beer-soaked carpet to crash into the skittle-like off-duty nurses dancing in a line and dressed like Marc Bolan’s maddest girlfriends after a coke’n’Oxfam binge, it all looks so authentic.

Bjorn Again are taking the piss, the audience are taking the piss. Nobody is being conned (are they?). There are none of the screwed-up, demented, hateful faces one sees at a Scottish Sex Pistols gig. There is no blasphemy here, no obscene grave-robbing. Everybody is having fun fun fun.

So why is this little devil on my left shoulder, pulling on my ear and whispering “necrophilia, nostalgia, the death of pop made rotting flesh! Smell the stench of a putrefying culture, witness the degrading spectacle of sad thirty something scum desperate to re-live their miserable childhoods!”

“Ignore him,” says the angel perched delicately on my right. “There’s only one difference between Bjorn Again’s Abba revivalism and the tedious and creepy Velvet Underground/Smiths/Sundays/My Bloody Valentine re-workings of the allegedly “credible” cacky southern English mewly bands; and that is that Bjorn Again are honest. Period. Come on! This is Christmas! This is cabaret, lighten up, dude!”

But there is something frightening about so many heterosexuals camping it up. Something unnerving about so many slightly flabby people sat rowing to ‘Oops Up Side Your Head’ and laughing hysterically. Unworthy social prejudices against student toga parties, it’s-so-crap-it’s-good-ism and ho-ho-jolly-let’s-get-drunk-and have-a-really-really-crazy-time-ism surface in my brain. This is not my peer group. These are the stiffs, the squares, the crapsters, the Queen fans, the people who pay money to go and see Phil Collins, the people who think the contestants’ quips on Blind Date are spontaneous, your mum and your dad — how dare they be having a good time? Bastards!

Pockets of gay men stand around and look bemused. There is something profoundly unusual going on here and it makes them uneasy. What happens when camp attracts a mass audience? If we define “kitsch” as mainstream culture redefined by a cool minority audience through camp, then how the hell does one react to an act that have become mainstream because they are kitsch?

The gap between Danny La Rue and Dannii Minogue has been bridged and the breeders are frolicking back and forth. Does the joke cease to be funny because everybody gets it? Or, like Vic and Bob, are there people here pretending to find something funny that is patently crap and unfunny? Or — even worse — are there people here who have actually come to hear the music!? Because they don’t make pop songs like that any more — OH NO! What a profoundly disgusting possibility!

There is an obvious need for a sort of NME Police to go around the audience at Bjorn Again gigs beating to death anyone suspected of enjoying the band for the wrong reasons. That’d teach them.

PEOPLE WILL keep on asking me if I enjoyed the gig. ALRIGHT! I SMILED! I TAPPED my foot ONCE OR TWICE. I even SANG ALONG a bit on ‘Waterloo’. I suppose, that, YES, I DID ENJOY MYSELF. Happy now, you BASTARDS?

“Har har,” said the PR, “they’ve got a great !EXCLUSIVE! story about meeting the other Benny and Bjorn.”

“Wait ’til you get their !EXCLUSIVE! story about meeting the other Benny and Bjorn in Stockholm!” enthused the manager. So I go backstage. People are shouting violently in Australian accents.

“YOU missed your bloody cue AGAIN! You gotta concentrate more for FACKSAKE!” and “You call that facking security! Two people got onstage, I was shitting it! What are we bloody paying these bastards for anyway?” and so on, the usual backstage banter of any touring Australian band.

“Hi!” smiles the manager. “I’ll go and see if they’re, er, ‘ready’.”

Close up, real close up, Bjorn Again do not look quite so, er, authentic. Except Bjorn, whose sheepish face and pupil-less gaze is frighteningly convincing.

So !EXCLUSIVE! I hear that you met the, er, other Benny and Bjorn in Stockholm?

“Yes we did,” says Bjorn in his hurdy gurdy Swedish Chef from The Muppets voice. “It was very exciting but dangerous. Sparks flew from between our fingers…”

You mean kind of like the meeting of matter and anti-matter, the possibility of an implosion was imminent? It was like looking deep into some weird metaphysical mirror?

“Except that the mirror was fatter, older and had a beard,” says Frida. “Don’t print that.”

You get the feeling that Frida spends a lot of her time saying “Oops, don’t print that.” She is Loki, Norse goddess of mischief. In the course of a ten-minute chat, she manages to fit in, “You are not going to call us F dash dash C dash dash are you? What means this?” and “What is wank?”

I SAY TO them, what a way for adults (meaning me and them) to earn a living, eh? And, although they stay in character, you can see the merest flicker of panic behind the masks. Bjorn Again have taken a good kicking and it hurts.

You get the feeling that success has made a mess out of Bjorn Again’s hive mind — the more successful they get, the longer they’ll have to spend behind the ever-so-amusing masks and the madder they will become.

“You are right, Benny!” squeals Frida, staring with one eye through some rolled-up posters that a couple of gay men have left for the band to autograph. “It works!”

Benny looks at her nervously. This isn’t in the script.

When Bjorn rocks out (during a costume change) with the guitar guts and bones of (irony of stinking ironies) Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, you get the feeling that this mock frustration with “girls'” music might be, er, authentic. When the band (and ooh yes, they are a real band and, ooh yes, they really can play their own instruments) turn their attention to Erasure’s ‘Stop’, you can feel the sense of liberation that sweeps the stage.

Think about it. Think about what it must be like to be Bjorn Again. Think what it must be like to be the only people in the world who actually hate Abba’s music. I mean, there is not a lot going on here — just one joke! Now admittedly, that’s one more than Vic and Bob have, but this is a chart band, these people sell more records than all your fave po-faced, black-clad “real” bands combined.

Now I know why you’re worried — like me you’re addicted to the myth that rock must be original, fresh, subversive, dangerous, profound — sure, it’s a myth, but it’s a vital myth, right? That’s why there is no room in your world for ‘Achy Breaky Heart’, or ‘Ebeneezer Goode’, right? Not pure enough by half.

But you love Bjorn Again, don’t you? Yes you do, you went crazy at Reading, right? You’ve proved what a great sense of humour you’ve got. Now look again at this audience. Solidly working class, white, suburban, couldn’t-give-a-f— drunk naff weekend transvestites with a sprinkling of blinky-blinky-oh-crikey-I’ve-just-drunk-three-whole-pints-of-lager! studenti. See whitey get down! Whooooo! That’s you, that is. Nah, this is too easy.

BJORN AGAIN are a bunch of dead serious chancers lying underneath the milch-cow and guzzling themselves sick while they still can. And why not? After all, once this rock audience has been sucked dry, what does the future hold? A couple of decades on the Melbourne koala-in-a-basket circuit from whence they came.

After the encore, a disembodied Aussie voice comes over the PA desperately plugging the records and the show in Manchester — MESSAGE — Please give us all your available money NOW! — and a crime is committed. The crime is the admission (unforgivable in rock outside the tackier fringes of metal) that this is all about screwing as much money from the largest number of punters in the shortest time possible.

Bjorn Again have temporarily tapped into the British psyche in a way that the other doppelganger bands can only dream of, mainly, one suspects, because they are raping a rubber doll rather than an “honourable” corpse. As many people probably fancy the “real” Agnetha as fancy Jim Morrison but nobody, one suspects, will ever make a two-and-a-half hour movie about her life, in which she is worshipped as the tragic and flawed poet-godhead of an entire generation.

They are less cabaret than Ozzy Osbourne, Manowar or The Black Crowes, less tacky than Teenage Fanclub, less sad than Morrissey, less of a pathetic, grubby nostalgic joke than Carter and less (far less) profoundly fake than U2. The only people who could possibly hate them are folk, like me, who are actually paid to take pop music far too seriously. What’s your excuse?

© Steven WellsNew Musical Express, 19 December 1992

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