“I saw the sign and it opened up my eyes, I saw the sign.”
Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Inspired by Tom Ewing’s “Popular” (which traces the history of UK #1 singles) and Tom Breihan’s “The Number Ones” (which does the same for US #1s), “We’re #2!” looks at the history of those songs which almost but not-quite managed to reach the summit of the UK Singles Chart. Beginning a quarter century back from this column’s inception (March 2019) up until whenever the Present Day comes about.
003] Ace of Base – The Sign
Reached #2: 27th February 1994
Weeks at #2: 3 (non-consecutive)
“The Sign” is an indisputable bop, let’s get that out of the way at the top. Ace of Base’s second world-conquering smash is such an absolute classic of pop music, a track which delights and shimmers, sounding just as magnificent on the first listen as it does the seven-hundredth and even after 25 years of (over-)exposure. The chorus is a monolith but there are tonnes of other almost as giant hooks scattered about throughout the rest of the song – that morse-code-reminiscent whistle, the reggae drum-loops, how each new line of the verse is introduced by that popping collective “AH!” Vocalists Jenny and Linn Berggren are chipper without inducing cavities, the production (from Joker, Denniz PoP and Douglas Carr) is airtight, and its influence on and responsibility for the late-90s eventual submission to the Swedish Pop machine is undeniable. The only reason I’ve refrained in giving this a 5 is because I feel “All That She Wants,” the Swedish quartet’s previous world-conquering smash, is a better song, but “The Sign” is infectiously great. It would also be the last time Ace of Base would be a sensation off the back of their own music.
In fairness, the success of Ace of Base was forever unassured. Jonas Berggren formed the group in 1987 with two friends for a school project and his sisters Linn & Jenny as singers, later touring Swedish clubs playing Techno inspired by groups like Snap! and The KLF. One of Jonas’s friends quit unceremoniously in 1989, the other quit by no-showing a gig in favour of seeing The Rolling Stones elsewhere in that city necessitating Jonas draft his friend Ulf Ekberg to stand-in for the gig (he’d join full-time after), and the group couldn’t make inroads in a late-80s Sweden caught tight in the thrall of Heavy Metal. It wouldn’t be until 1991 when the quartet would finally begin building some momentum, responding to an ad in a local newspaper by producer John Ballard looking for talent and the eventual recording of their first demo tape, “Wheel of Fortune.”
They weren’t signed, although the practice and recording sessions did provide a vital component to their sound. The practice room for Ace of Base was right across from a collection of reggae artists and, to hear Ekberg tell it, the musically-opposed artists ended up “exchanging ideas.” Equally as important, 1991 was the year in which Swedish reggae-pop artist Kayo put out her self-titled debut. One of her locally-hit singles, “Another Mother,” had a sound which struck a major chord with the band. So, they put out “Wheel of Fortune” as their debut single – independently via Danish label Mega Records, since they were rejected by every Swedish label – and, whilst that floundered, sent “Another Mother”’s producer Denniz PoP a demo tape of their song “Mr. Ace.” PoP was not a fan of “Mr. Ace,” its crude clumsy songwriting displaying a sloppy amateurish band uncertain of what they wanted, but his habit of listening to demo tapes in the car bit him in the arse when the tape got stuck and so, for a fortnight, he was forced to drive around listening to “Mr. Ace” until he decided to produce the band.
Fast-forward to mid-‘93. The rejiggered and retitled “Mr. Ace” now has a minor-key (Linn’s insistence as major-key reggae-pop gave her nightmarish flashbacks to UB40 and “Red Red Wine”), no rap segments, the whistle hook moved from the track’s end to its start, and is renamed “All That She Wants.” It is the biggest song in Europe, going to #1 in the UK, Denmark, Belgium, Australia, Spain, and even #3 in their notoriously-hostile native Sweden. An album had been rushed out to capitalise on the success, Happy Nation, and it too shot to #1. But despite this, Ace of Base couldn’t secure distribution in America due to a belief that, in the popular American landscape of 1993 – the home of grunge, the Alternative Nation, R&B, and mainstreaming of hip-hop – the group just would not work there. That was until Clive Davis, head of Arista Records and music industry guru of the highest order, went vacationing on his private yacht into Europe, heard “All That She Wants” and, legend has it, immediately ordered his captain to the nearest port so he could call up the group’s Danish label head to demand a meeting and contract.
“All That She Wants” finally receives distribution in the US and, just like everywhere else, becomes a sensation, topping out at #2 on the Billboard 200. Happy Nation is charting in the US based on imports alone, but Davis doesn’t want to officially put it out there yet, not until its success has been assured with a few more prospective singles. He orders Jonas and Ulf to go and record a cover against their will – everyone compromises on Tina Turner’s “Don’t Turn Around,” which would go to #5 on the UK chart and be their last Top 10 hit for four years – then has Jonas play him a basic demo of a song the band were planning on holding back for their sophomore LP. Davis immediately hands the track to Denniz PoP, fast-tracks its release for the new version of their debut album and, so confident in its success, renames the record after the new hit-single-in-waiting: The Sign.
Despite how that looks, “The Sign” is a distinctly different beast from “All That She Wants,” even if the sound is very similar to their breakthrough hit. Synthesised whistles, staccato bouncy piano stabs on every second beat, a reggae inflection to the usual Euro-pop framework; those were Ace of Base signifiers, but “The Sign” cuts its own path. Sixteen bars of bright unchanging drum machine for radio DJs to mix into and talk over before the song starts assailing the listener with hooks left right and centre, contrasting with “All That”’s similar intro which is moodier and more scene-setting. Both Jenny and Linn take vocal duties this time around – Linn had handled “All That” solo, making Jenny the only member of the group to not have contributed to their other big hit – although it’s honestly hard to tell the two apart without the music video to guide me, aside from the “life is demanding” whose pinched register is clearly Jenny. We’re in a major key, which may have played a role in the song’s slow devaluation into a corny embarrassment in the cultural sphere. Most importantly, at no point when listening am I reminded of Hall & Oates’ “Maneater” and led to questioning how on earth Ace of Base weren’t lawsuited out of existence. (I kid, really, but also “All That She Wants” is super-reminiscent of “Maneater.”)
English, it would likely not surprise you, was not Jonas Berggren’s native language. Whilst it lacks obvious language speedbumps like “it’s not a day for work, it’s a day for catching tan” in “All That,” “The Sign” does suffer from being clunky in its sentiments bordering on meaninglessness. This would seem to be by design. Jonas validated theories in a March 2015 interview with Billboard that the song is about a protagonist recognising their relationship isn’t working and deciding to split, but then immediately stated “it can mean something [different] to everybody… it’s individual how you judge it.” Jenny, in a March 2013 Esquire interview, instead sees it as an aspirational self-help anthem: “It’s about when you suddenly visualise something and it becomes something you use to change your life. You realise, I should do this or not do it anymore.” That deliberate vagueness keeps “The Sign” from hitting the heights of “All That,” but, by Jonas’ own admission, Ace of Base were more focussed on “[looking] for the word that sounded good with the melody,” and the words do indeed sound very good with this particular melody.
Still, this is likely why “The Sign” has fallen to the level of a ‘guilty pleasure’ in the public sphere. Unlike the Max Martin disciples that followed in the late-90s TRL boom, “The Sign” is not vapid. It’s not a series of cut-and-paste lyrics that mean jackshit and therefore devoid of value (somehow), but it does carry enough of the signifiers of that kind of vapid garbage, and is so obviously a product of its time, for cynics to lump the song in with them. The last forty seconds even give themselves over to a goddamn key change! Nowhere is the punchline status of “The Sign” in popular culture more apparent than its recurring inclusion in the original Pitch Perfect as a short-hand signifier for how lame and conservative the Barden Bellas are before Becca shows up to shake them into the 21st Century – it’s kind of hard to escape the image of somebody spontaneously projectile vomiting whilst performing your song. Fortunately, the wave of poptimism has at least managed to restore the song’s reputation to some degree in recent years, it’s a regular fixture on Top Pop/Dance Singles of the 90s lists.
The same cannot be said for Ace of Base’s post-Happy Nation career. Labels demanded a rushed production of their sophomore LP, The Bridge, in a desperate attempt to strike whilst the iron was hot despite the group having been run ragged by non-stop touring and promotion of their debut, plus Jenny having been traumatised by a mentally-unstable fan breaking into her house one night and holding her at knifepoint. Released in 1995, it wasn’t quite a failure – it hit #1 in their native Sweden, two of its singles charted in the Top 20 here in the UK, and the album still went platinum in the US – but it wasn’t much of a success either. (On critical terms: it’s a bloated, uninspired, and trend-chasing mess of a record.)
The British charts had largely moved on by ’95 and when the pendulum of pop tastes began swinging back in Ace of Base’s direction by the release of their third full-length in 1998, Flowers, they’d pivoted their sound to the kind of middlebrow slop overheard in Superdrug stores. The group scored a fluke #5 hit with lead single “Life is a Flower” and an even fluke-ier #8 position with the uninspired Bananarama cover “Cruel Summer,” but the album bricked just like The Bridge and they were basically finished. That’s without even mentioning Linn’s crippling phobia of flying, her gradual minimisation from the group (to the extent of significantly blurring her face on the Flowers cover art) in a manner that comes off way less amicable than everyone involved insists, a flurry of poorly explained and short-lived vocalist switches (allegedly due to label interference), multiple aborted attempts to get new material out the door, constant re-recordings of their biggest hits, and Ulf’s pre-Base past as a registered Neo-Nazi playing in a Nazi punk band called Commit Suicide rearing back up.
Regardless, despite their super-short run at the top and super-messy comedown, Ace of Base and “The Sign”’s influence run deep throughout Pop music in the years since. There’s the aforementioned Max Martin who kicked off his career working under Denniz PoP and his music with Britney Spears & Backstreet Boys would define the genre at the turn of the millennium. Katy Perry cited “The Sign” as a key influence in the production of her global smash sophomore album Teenage Dream. So too did Lady Gaga when working on The Fame Monster. I’d also argue that “The Sign” laid a foundation for our current monogenre pop landscape, where pop music takes sounds of different genres & cultures and absorbs them into its amorphous self for streams and profit. What was Drake’s “One Dance” but his own version of “The Sign,” subsuming dancehall stylings seamlessly and non-threateningly into his sound much like Ace of Base did reggae and techno? The difference being that you can still put “The Sign” on at a party and have the place unashamedly go off, whilst “One Dance” just sinks into the background. Despite everything else surrounding Ace of Base, “The Sign” cannot be denied or taken away. They still have that. And “All That She Wants” which was the better song.
Bonus Beats: Here’s an acoustic and ultra-quiet Mountain Goats cover of “The Sign” from 1995, recorded for the B-side of their Songs for Peter Hughes EP.
Bonus Bonus Beats: Here’s an extract from the American Dad! episode “Great Space Roaster” in which Roger, attempting to kill the Smith family for performing the hurtful comedy roast he requested for his birthday, plays “The Sign” whilst stalking the corridors of a space station. I still don’t know why, but I’m also not going to pass on the opportunity to reference American Dad!.
The #1s: Two songs ended up keeping “The Sign” from reaching the top spot. The first, and also responsible for the non-consecutive nature of “The Sign”’s three weeks in second – both songs were bumped down a slot by the second #1 in this subsection for a week, “The Sign” briefly recovered – was Mariah Carey’s absolutely ginormous cover of Badfinger and Harry Nilsson’s ballad “Without You.” Based off of Nilsson’s interpretation rather than Badfinger’s original, it was her first UK #1, (to date) her only one as the sole credited artist, and spent four weeks at the top. It’s a 2.5.
The second song to stop “The Sign” was the barely-a-song novelty instrumental Eurodance nonsense “Doop” by Doop, spending three weeks at the top of the chart. It’s a 1.
The gaps: Since this series’ remit exclusively covers #2s that weren’t also #1 at some point or another, we’re going to have semi-frequent time-skips. Between February 13th (the date that “Breathe Again” dropped out of #2) and February 27th (when “The Sign” first reached #2), the #2 slot was held by former #1 D:REAM’s “Things Can Only Get Better.”
Five-star flops: Debuting on the 13th of March (the one week “The Sign” was not at #2) in its peak position of #5 was “Girls & Boys” by Blur from their era-defining Parklife. We’re avoiding all work cos there’s none available and this is a stone-cold 5.
(Blur would score two #1 singles, “Country House” in 1995 and “Beetlebum” in 1997, plus two #2s we’ll cover in due course.)
A new instalment of We’re #2! will be posted every week.