Dance bands have been a central part of the Swedish music scene for over thirty years, but what on earth are they and what makes them so enduringly popular?
“Once you start digging, you realize how prominent it is,” says Gunilla Nilars, Executive Producer of SVT's hit TV show Dansbandskampen ('battle of the dance bands'), the final of which will be aired on SVT1 on Saturday night.
Bringing in a substantial rating of 1.2 million viewers per programme for SVT, Dansbandskampen shows just how popular the tradition still is within Swedish musical culture.
In the competition, 26 dance bands (or 'dansband' as they are known in Swedish) from across the country battle it out weekly until only five groups remain, one of which will be crowned the dance band champion of Sweden.
“As soon as someone mentioned the idea to me, I just thought 'why haven't we done this before'?” says Nilars.
“The popularity of such shows as Idol has helped,” she adds, discussing the success of the show, “and it has nice music and it's entertaining”.
However, she attributes the real reason the programme has won the hearts (and viewing time) of so many of the Swedish public to the sheer popularity of the genre:
“Dance bands are a strong Swedish tradition. They play tunes that are learnt in childhood and people remember them throughout their lives.”
The dance band phenomena can be traced back to the rock and roll years of the 1950s and 60s, although dance band music built on this genre by including the influences of swing, schlager, country and jazz.
Dance bands picked up where the old orchestral big bands left off; making popular, upbeat music usually featuring a four-time rhythm and a strong back beat, producing tunes that are perfect to dance to.
The bands are commonly named after the lead singer, which is sometimes shortened and the letter 's' is often replaced by 'z'. There is nothing prohibiting women from joining dance bands, but male only groups, or groups with only a female lead, have always been predominant.
Love, friendship, peace and dancing are typical themes for songs and often include a fair dose of nostalgia and patriotism. Some of the most well known dance band songs are; “Gråt inga tårar” (shed no tears) by Thorleifs, “Leende guldbruna ögon” (smiling golden brown eyes) by Vikingarna, “De sista ljuva åren” (the last sweet years) by Lasse Stefanz & Christina Lindberg, to name just a few.
The 1970s were the golden years for dance bands, with such groups as Flamingokvintetten, Ingmar Nordströms, Thorleifs, Wizex and Matz Bladhs being immensely popular. At its peak, there were about 800 full time dance bands in operation.
These years also saw the emergence of one of the most remarkable elements of the dance band tradition – brightly coloured, tight-fitting costumes.
At the time, the prominence of disco music was the most obvious reason for the outlandish outfits, but the continued use of the costumes by many current day dance bands is somewhat inexplicable.
“I have no idea why they still wear them,” comments Kristofer Kebbon, a pop music expert at the Swedish Music Information Centre.
“I think the traditional dance band costumes have become a bit of a joke, or at least they are worn with some measure of irony,” says Kebbon.
Robert Muhrer, member of one of the longest running dance bands the Bengt Hennings, established in 1967 and a finalist in Dansbandskampen, has a much simpler explanation:
“We just like the Las Vegas style – all the glamour and glitter!”
But in the preface to a recent book on the phenomenon, Svenska Dansband (2007), Inge Fridén from the group Garvis also pointed to a financial incentive that went some way towards explaining the outlandish costumes.
“The national tax agency gave instructions to the income declaration authorities which stipulated that clothes worn on stage had to be classifiable as 'fantasy costumes' if they were to qualify for a tax deduction when tax returns were filed. As such, you were not expected to walk around in private wearing the same clothes you wore on stage.”
Dance band concerts used to be held all over Sweden, but recent decades have seen their popularity wane in the major cities. But in the countryside the tradition has been kept very much alive, as Nilars explains:
“Outside the cities there is not that much to do, especially if you want to go and dance, and that is where the dance bands come in. It's a great form of evening entertainment in rural areas.”
Although not attracting as much of the limelight as more mainstream pop or rock groups, dance bands have a loyal following. Analyzing the role of dance bands in Sweden's music industry, Kebbon says the genre “definitely plays a big part”.
“Dance bands have never really featured that much in the media, but they do get played on the radio and there are a lot of events, especially live performances.”
“And it's not only older people, as you might think,” says Nilars. “Many people of different ages are interested in dance bands and travel all over the country to see their favourite groups play.”
Helped along by the success of SVT's Dansbandskampen, dance bands do seem to be enjoying something of a revival. Perhaps this is down to the growth of more modern and more international dance bands such as CC & Lee, another contender for Saturday's Dansbandskampen crown.
“I guess we are modern because we are more pop orientated rather than just singing traditional Swedish songs and schlagers. I recently saw on the internet a list of the top ten songs that apparently all dance bands sing – we have never sung any of them!” says band member Robert Furlong.
“We are trying to do something new within the dance bands,” Furlong continues.
Indeed CC & Lee have shed the dated look of a traditional dance band; with preened hair and trendy clothes, they look more like a cross between Westlife and Girls Aloud than the previous spandex-clad bastions of the genre.
Apart from offering some Saturday night entertainment in the farthest reaches of rural Sweden, the burning question of why the dance band musical tradition has been so popular for so long remains unanswered. Especially considering it usually involves watching middle aged men wearing a tad too closely fitting all-in-ones singing about themes pretty much disconnected from mainstream music (they're not exactly going to make it onto MTV are they?).
“There are a lot of different possible answers as to why dance bands are so popular, but to be honest, who knows!” answers Kebbon.
Not even the people who sing in them seem to really know quite why they have endured.
“I don't honestly know why dance bands are so popular still, but I guess it's because it is such a strong cultural tradition,” says Robert Muhrer of the Bengt Hennings.
“Dance bands have been part of Swedish music for so long, back to when people would go the Folkets Park (municipal parks) to listen to live bands.”
Perhaps the best answer comes from CC & Lee singer Robert Furlong, who simply replies,
“I'm not sure if it even really matters.
“As long as people are enjoying your music and dancing, then it doesn't matter what type of music you are playing, you have succeeded.”
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