Shine On: Eddie Bengtsson

by coldwarnightlife

Photo: Petter Duvander

Eddie Bengtsson is rightly called the Swedish Vince Clarke. The poptronica specialist holds his own in a roll-call of synth masters, alongside Clarke, Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware and John Foxx, but he is not as well known outside of the Nordics as he deserves to be.

The story goes that Bengtsson initially wanted to become a drummer. Knocking out beats in his father’s apartment in southern Sweden, Bengtsson was intrigued by the electronic sounds reaching across the Baltic from European artists like Kraftwerk, Space and Jean-Michel Jarre.

When singles from post-punk leaders like the Human League, OMD and Silicon Teens made the journey to SkÄne, his drum kit looked positively anachronistic. The latter project caught his imagination the most, and Bengtsson wrote a fan letter to the band in care of their North London label, Mute Records. Instead of a signed picture, he received a reply from Daniel Miller, admitting that it was his own studio project.

The drum kit went back to the shop, to be replaced by a monophonic synth. He learned to play it with help from his girlfriend, Marina Schiptjenko, and they linked up with another friend to start Page. Songs came quickly to Bengtsson and his band-mates, and Page acquired a dedicated following as they issued a stream of popular, hook-laden singles. Unusually, Page stuck to Swedish, which limited their international reach but reflected their desire to create an authentically local pop sound.

Bengtsson has been at the core of Page for more than three decades, but his creative output has been too wide for one act. Bengtsson also writes and performs as Sista mannen pÄ jorden [EN: The Last Man on Earth and SMPJ from here on], which allows him to explore his love of themes drawn from science fiction. His previous outlet for that was S.P.O.C.K, which made the songs Depeche Mode should have but with a cosplay vibe. As This Fish Needs a Bike, Bengtsson has experimented with an English language act, but he continues to do his best work in his first language.

As a producer and remixer, Bengtsson has worked with a range of Swedish and international artists, including The Weathermen, Robert Marlow, My God Damn Territory, Naked Lunch, iSatellite and a host of other artists under the Electronically Yours banner. Bengtsson’s songs have been covered in live or studio settings by Rational Youth, Vision Talk, Celluloide and others.

There is a new Page album just around the corner, so it’s a good time to catch up with a true legend of poptronica.

10. Page – Dansande Man

One of the songs that Bengtsson is most closely associated is the first Page single, “Dansande man.” It was co-written with Anders Eliasson, who originally took vocal duties for the song but left before the band went into the studio. In this video from 1984, Bengtsson and Schiptjenko can be seen performing the hit at a show in Linköping.

9. This Fish Needs a Bike – Do It

Bengtsson’s only serious effort to develop an English-language project showed that his ability to knock out classy and catchy pop knows no borders. This Fish Needs a Bike has only yielded one album to date, but it is infused with the sophisticated synth stylings that Bengtsson has made his trade mark.

8. S.P.O.C.K – E.T. Phone Home

Originally formed for a friend’s birthday party, S.P.O.C.K is a stranger idea on paper than in practice. The songs contributed by Bengtsson are superior poptronica, on a plane with early Depeche Mode, but they use science fiction as both source material and setting. What, from a distance, looks like a Star Trek tribute act turns out to be a deeply philosophical and poetic project. Only Sweden could have made it work.

7. Page – Det syns ingen snö

As a live act, Page are a compelling proposition. Bengtsson is an engaging front man, and the band’s cult status means that domestic audiences know most of the words. Schiptjenko is a seasoned performer, too, but rarely steps outside of her modern art gallery to play these days. This clip shows the duo in front of their core audience, updating a classic song.

“Det syns ingen snö” started life as a cute, whimsical track, but it has been retooled by Bengtsson as a more straight-up dancefloor number. A studio version of this arrangement is expected on the next Page album.

6. SMPJ – Stadens alla ljus

Bengtsson originally offered “Stadens alla ljus” [EN: “All the City Lights”] to his former band-mates in S.P.O.C.K. They didn’t think it was S.P.O.C.K-and-roll enough for their live shows, so he recorded it as a SMPJ single. Inspired by his complex relationship with Malmö, it was also recorded in English for SMPJ’s first London shows.

5. Page – Som ett skal

Bengtsson’s love of space disco is well known. The sounds and visuals of bands like Space (of “Magic Fly” fame) and Kebekelektrik are part of Page’s DNA. The video for “Som ett skal” [EN: “Like a Shell”] captures that late-1970s vibe, while the track itself is bang up to date.

4. Page – Idag

Bengtsson recorded two albums as Page without Marina Schiptjenko. On one, he used synths to sound like guitars; on the other, he brought some in axes for real. The first approach confused Page’s fan base, who loved the band for its synth-only ethos; the second pushed away some who had got the gag first time round but thought Page were selling out to the commercial mainstream.

It’s a shame, because both albums contain some of Bengtssons best compositions.

3. The Volt – Live in Gothenburg

Bengtsson’s appetite for collaboration is considerable. Among his many projects has been this duet with Ulrika Mild, which reached into the vaults for an early Cold War vibe.

2. Sista mannen pĂ„ jorden – Ögon

Despite Bengtsson’s well-known love of science fiction, the name of SMPJ –  which renders in English as The Last Man on Earth – was not taken from the Vincent Price adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel, I Am Legend. The source is actually one of the earliest Human League tracks, and the choice shows Bengtsson’s attention to detail, as well as his love of the Sheffield sound.

SMPJ has only played once outside of Sweden (at the invitation of Cold War Night Life, we might add). The band’s first London show was a stormer, with several songs set in English and a limited edition CD released for the occasion. One track that remained in the original Swedish was “Ögon” [EN: “Eyes”], an evergreen live favourite.

1. Sista mannen pĂ„ jorden – Luft

One of the most beautiful songs ever written, “Luft” [EN: variously rendered as “Breath” or “Air”] is the title song from SMPJ’s second album. You don’t need to understand Swedish to appreciate the melodic power of the track, rendered over the simplest electronic pulses. It might be the story of an astronaut running out of air, but it’s rendered with unparalleled sensitivity. Rational Youth’s Tracy Howe has called it, “an absolute drop-dead gorgeous masterpiece,” and he isn’t wrong.

SMPJ on the Web:
Footage from A Secret Wish by Anders Wickholm.

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