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Sweden’s anti-commercial music movement that took on politics and Eurovision

Sweden's anti-commercial music movement that took on politics and Eurovision
Nationalteatern in 1981. Photo: Lars Jakobssom/TT
You might think there were celebrations in Stockholm when it hosted the Eurovision Song Contest back in 1975. But the event also sparked protests and a debate about commercialisation so heated that the next year, Sweden didn't participate at all.

The reason was Progg, a rebellion against commercial music that threw up bands such as Nationalteatern, the Hoola Bandoola Band, and Blå Tåget. 

What was progg? 

Progg, short for den progressiva musikrörelsen or ‘the Progressive Music Movement”, was a reaction to the heavily commercialised British and American-influenced pop and rock which swamped Sweden from the mid-1960s.

It is generally dated back to two free, illegal festivals held on Stockholm park Gärdet in 1970, which were inspired by Woodstock in the US, and by the Almstriden (Elm War), in the summer of 1971, when hippies occupied part of Kungsträdgården, a central square with a small park in Stockholm to prevent a group of 13 elm trees being cut down.

Stylistically, progg blended together elements of garage rock and roll, Swedish folk, cabaret, jazz, blues, and protest songs. Like punk a decade later, it had a DIY ethos, prizing expression above musical skill. 

The meant that some of the bands, particularly the less famous ones, were fairly rough around the edges, at least judging by the performances at the protests against Eurovision in the film Vi har vår egen sång (We have our own song). 

In the documentary about the Hoola Bandoola Band, the Scanian blues, roots and reggae musician Peps Persson, who was on the edge of the progg movement, captured what many bands lacked, when asked what he thought about them in their heyday. 

“I thought they had really great lyrics, but I didn’t think they ‘swung’,” he says.

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What happened at Eurovision? 

A biting and sardonic song by the Gothenburg progger Ulf Dageby, sums up the mood in its title: Doing the omoralisk Schlager-festivalern, or “doing the immoral Schlager festival”, ‘schlager’ referring to the simple, catchy songs beloved of the festival.

Going by the name of Sillstryparn (“the herring strangler”), Dageby, part of the band Nationalteatern, lays into ABBA and Eurovision as little better than tools of capitalism, criticising their songs for their lack of political messages.

Och här kommer ABBA i kläder av plast/Lika döda som sillkonserver. (“And here comes ABBA in plastic clothes, as dead as preserved herring”), goes one memorable line. 

Och världens melodi, förtryck och slaveri/Vad fan rör det våra artister? (“And the world’s melody, oppression and slavery, our artists don’t give a damn about that”.)

De ställer upp på allt, de tar det smörigt kallt/I fascisternas feta ister  (“They’re willing to do everything, they take it greasily cold in the fascists’ fat lard”). 

How big was progg? 

Progg never rivalled pop, punk or synth music for popularity, but in its day Musikens Makt, progg’s house magazine, was arguably Sweden’s dominant music magazine, the equivalent of the UK’s New Musical Express (NME). 

Progg bands such as Nationalteatern and Blå Tåget are, moreover, now regarded as part of Swedish rock history.

But because one of the main requirements to be progg was to sing in Swedish and refuse deals with international labels, almost no one outside of the country has ever heard of them. 

In 2000, the Lukas Moodysson film Together, about a Swedish commune in 1975, celebrated some of the big progg bands, with the soundtrack featuring Nationalteatern, Marie Selander and Turid Lundqvist, as well as commercial pop music from ABBA and Ted Gärdestad. 

How did politics come into it? 

The biggest labels, Nacksving, Silence and MNW, were all highly politically engaged, only releasing bands that expressed the ‘correct’ left-wing ideas.

The singer-songwriter Ulf Lundell, for instance, was rejected by both MNW and Silence, while the Kebnekajse, which was signed to Silence, received considerable criticism for the lack of left-wing ideas expressed in their songs, and eventually signed with the commercial company Mercury Records. 

Nackswing, based in Gothenburg, was one of the most ideological labels, releasing records by Nationalteatern, Motvind, and other local bands. 

Even more far-left was Proletärkultur, a record label owned by KPML(r), a Swedish communist party centred on Gothenburg, whose roster including the band Knutna nävar (Clenched Fists). 

Progg songs often feature people in factories in a similar way to Swedish Arbetarlitteratur, (“Proletarian Literature”), which also had a renaissance in the 1970s. 

Classics are Nationalteatern’s Hanna från Arlöv, (“Hanna from Arlöv”), where a working-class woman’s protest in a laundry teaches the, presumably less working-class, narrator of the value of standing up for his or her rights, Strejken på SAAB, “The Strike at SAAB”, by Fria Proteatern, or Är du lönsam lille vän, “Are you profitable, little friend?” by the band Gläns Över Sjö och Stränd. 

Songs can also express political ideas in fantasy, with songs like Blå Tåget’s På Väg till Koppargruvan, (“On the way to the copper mine), which features a man driving to his shift who get hi-jacked by a tailless fox, and a skinless bear, which then takes him to a posh hotel, where they together assassinate the politicians and businessmen conspiring to further destroy their environment. 

What happened to progg? 

Clashes between the hard-left and the more hippie-inspired elements of progg hit the movement hard in the late 1970s, and by the early to mid-1980s, it had become deeply unfashionable and was eclipsed by a wave of punk and synth bands. 

But Swedish punk bands shared progg’s DIY approach, and perhaps the most loved song of Sweden’s most loved punk band, “Staten och kapitalet” (State and the capital), is a cover of the Blå Tåget’s “Den ena handen vet vad den andra gör“, “One hand knows what the other is doing”. 

Getting on for 50 years since Progg’s heyday, bands like Nationalteatern, and Hoola Bandoola band member Mikael Wiehe, are like any other ageing rockers performing their golden oldies across Sweden. 

Finally, as Sweden’s contribution to global music increasingly seems to be about super-producers like Max Martin creating identikit hits for the big US stars, it’s easy to start longing for a bit of anti-commercial rebellion. 


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