Friday, July 30, 2010

Army of Lovers - a retrospective

In 1990, I was stationed in Spangdahlem, Germany. For television, you had AFN (the Armed Forces Network, part of AFRTS, the Armed Forces Radio Television Service), which was a single channel and pretty much got everything a year late (except football and baseball games which they played live, so games tended to start around midnight).

They've apparently improved lately, with newer shows and multiple channels. But for 7 years as a kid and 8 years as an adult, that pretty much described what we had to watch.

Fortunately, some German entrepreneur saw a market, and we had TKS Cable. They had a limited selection of channels, but that was still more than one. We had AFN, BBC, Sky TV (also from of the UK), MTV Europe, a couple of German channels. So it wasn't like we had a vast selection of channels to choose from, but there it was.

And it was there, on MTV Europe, where I discovered a Swedish musical group called "Army of Lovers." They never made it big in America, but their videos were amazing. Flamboyant, colorful, laced with humor, completely over-the-top, and somewhat hypnotic. Sadly, the music wasn't always up to the level of the videos - basic Disco-era Wall of Sound schmaltz. Listenable, with strong hooks, but not particularly challenging. But that wasn't the glory that was Army of Lovers - their biggest strength was always the video.

Army of Lovers was formed in 1987 (under the name Barbie, later Barbie and Friends) by Alexander Bard, Jean-Pierre Barda and Camilla Henemark (who liked to be called "La Camilla"). Bard, the short redhead, was the musical brains of the operation, and seemed somewhat goofy. Barda, the black-haired prettyboy, sang lead, did choreography, and posed a lot. And La Camilla... well, she had a bunch of cleavage.

A lot of eyeshadow was used to create this band.

Their first album, Disco Extravaganza, had been intended to be released only in Sweden. However, after they appeared on a Japanese TV show, it was also released in that country. And unknown to them, the record company gave them a limited release in America, but titled the album Army of Lovers. No real triumphs came from it (although the track Viva La Vogue appeared in Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead with Christina Applegate and the then-unknown David Duchovny).

They really didn't enjoy major success until a year later, with their next album, 1991's Massive Luxury Overdose, where they hit with arguably the highest-charting song of their career, Crucified (it was in heavy rotation on MTV Europe for a while, which happens to be when I saw it).

Later that year, they had a second hit with Obsession.

Now, you have to understand that, technically, "hit" is a subjective term. These two songs would prove to be the only two that they recorded which were ranked on the US dance charts. And that's the US dance charts only, and neither song went higher than number six. Still, they sold millions of albums throughout Europe, and Crucified was a #1 hit in 13 countries.

(What is it with bands from Sweden and the letter "A"? ABBA, Ace of Base, A'Teens, and Army of Lovers. I mean, if it wasn't for Roxette and Europe... and all the rest... OK, so this argument seems to be breaking down. Pretend I didn't say anything...)

Toward the end of 1991, following a moderately public fight (the details are unclear), La Camilla left. She released several singles that failed to chart, and recorded (but never released) an album called (perhaps ironically) "Temper."

Realizing they needed a third member, Bard and Barda hired Michaela Dornonville de la Cour (a blonde this time). They even reshot the video for "Obsession" with Michaela (you can see it here if you have to), with a cleaner, but somewhat less interesting, ending. For the US release of Massive Luxury Overdose, they replaced two of the original tracks with four new songs they recorded with Michaela, and reshot the cover art.

Michaela had worked for the Camilla Thulin modelling agency, as had La Camilla (the name is just a coincidence). Camilla Thulin is one of Sweden's best-known designers, and designed most of the costumes in the Army of Lovers videos of the Nineties. Michaela owned a small jewelry company called "De La Cour Entertainment," and she invariably wore her own jewelry in every picture and several videos, and made sure that mention was made of them in the liner notes.

In 1993, Army of Lovers became a four person group with the addition of Dominika Peczynski, yet another model from the Camilla Thulin agency (odd how all the women in the group started as models...), and they released The Gods of Earth and Heaven. This album, however, was never released in the US. The first video off Gods was Israelism.

Israelism was banned from MTV Europe, apparently for making fun of Jewish culture and history. Oddly, Dominika and Jean-Pierre were both Jewish. Some taboos you just don't touch.

In 1994, they released Glory, Glamour and Gold. The album received some critical acclamation. The first release was "Lit de Parade" their first collaboration with another Swedish band, "Big Money."

In retrospect, with MTV already leery about their attitude toward religion, perhaps it could have been considered a mistake to spend money on a video set in an ancient graveyard outside an abandoned church, brewing a potion and resurrecting a knight apparently from the Crusades. In two languages.

The video received little or no airplay. Glory, Glamour and Gold went on to become the lowest-selling studio album Army of Lovers ever produced. In 1995, Big Money broke up, Michaela left Army of Lovers, and La Camilla returned. Details why vary, depending on who you ask. Army of Lovers finally broke up in 1996.

In 2001, they reformed long enough to do three new songs, which were included in a greatest hits album, Le Grand Docu-Soap. One of them was a remake of the song from Hair, "Let the Sunshine In," where they tried to recapture what made their early videos special. And they almost succeeded.

The symbolism is obvious: Alexander wakes up from a long sleep, calls the other members to resume their place in the Army. They're back. As you watch it, most of the video elements are taken from earlier videos - and what can you say about the fact that, striding down the corridor, Jean-Pierre slides a cucumber into his pants?

All in all, if any lesson can be taken away from the history of Army of Lovers, it might be that eye-catching videos are not enough to provide a lasting musical career.

But I still have a soft spot in my heart (or possibly in my head) for Crucified and Obsession.


(Update: 1/2015): So I've fixed most of the videos (don't even try to find an copy of "Crucified" from YouTube that you can embed). Because, once again, Army of Lovers have returned!

Their updated website (appropriately subtitled "Big Battle of Egos") has some hints as to the current status of the group. (Scroll down to "an open letter signed by the Army Of Lovers members to the Queen La Camilla".)

The legend continues.


Paul Ellis said...

I've never heard of Army of Lovers. Their videos are... there's a lot of words I could use, I guess. I'm going to have to go look some of their stuff up.

Nameless Cynic said...

Yeah, some of their stuff is a little bit scary. I'll admit that I was picking and choosing the best videos. You want to check out the other end of the scale? Look for their "Ride the Bullet."

It was another one they reshot after La Camilla left. It's actually hard to find a clear copy of the original, but that doesn't matter. Either version is full of bright colors and odd images. The important point, though?

Without actually timing it out, I think that 80% of the song is made up of the line "Gonna ride the bullet" repeated over and over and over.

And over and over.

And over.

Ranks right up there in the "Worst Song Ever Produced" category.

coffees1stluv said...

wow now thats alot to take in all at once , but it does show that given a chance anyone can different genres of music , and hell after a few glasses of wine it wasn't so bad , but now im gonna need some coffee with 2 creamers 3 sugars and ill holla

Nameless Cynic said...

Yup. The wine definitely helps.

Rude and not Ginger said...

I've actually got to thank you. I have a friend who likes to flaunt his individuality by loudly enjoying things no one else had heard of. He went to hipster heaven when I suggested Army of Lovers after watching a few of the posted videos.

The wine DEFINITELY helps.

Nameless Cynic said...

You're welcome. I like to think of my life as a public service, bringing joy into the lives of those less fortunate.

By the way, if you want to continue the geekgasm, Michaela released a couple of singles of her own. She's also recently released something new, which goes in a somewhat different direction. Looks like it's been a hard two decades for her, though.