Thursday, 4 November 2010

Gangway: The sequel, finally

As this is my 100th post over the two blogs (my, erm, 'stronger', film site is here), I thought it was about time I followed up my first effort. Having become fascinated with Danish pop group Gangway, I decided to go to Copenhagen and meet the group's main songwriter, Henrik Balling, helped by the generous email introduction of Brian Iskov, the man behind fan site That's Gangway. At no point did Balling ever question what made me track him down; he probably figured it was best left unasked.

He met me at my self-proclaimed 'sweet' hotel, though there was something about the area that made me uneasy. 'This used to be the red-light district,' Balling announced as, dark coat flapping round his knees, we walked to a nearby café. Drug addicts sunbathed on the stone square in front of us, where a bright yellow box was marked with a pictogram of a needle and syringe. Balling laid out a cigarette packet and lighter, and wrenched off his coat to reveal a white T-shirt, holes at its shoulders. At first he was reticent, not unreasonably in the circumstances, but soon he opened up, revealing someone passionate, knowledgeable and deeply thoughtful about pop.

Balling was given his first guitar when he was 11, on the day The Beatles split up; you might think they were a huge influence but his passion was heavy metal. 'The first time I started buying albums, that was Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and a lot of Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin and all that,' he says. 'I still like hard rock a lot.' He puts the contrast between his influences and songs down to Gangway vocalist Allan Jensen: 'Allan has a very soft voice so I couldn't really write hard rock for him. If he'd been a different singer I would have written different songs.'

Structurally, Gangway's songs are classic pop songs but the perspective is unusual: they are novelistic, often written in a voice, and about characters (take the cavalcade of oddball neighbours in track Here's My House, for instance, from the 1988 album Sitting in the Park: 'The man next door's playing games with his daughter/The girl upstairs is always shouting 'bout demons'). It's a unique way of writing that seems to have sprung from a frustration with homogeneous pop product and as a way to turn around any shortcoming Balling may have felt as a songwriter. 'I realised very early on that I couldn't actually write songs like the really good, clever songwriters like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or John Lennon. I'm not a poet so I had to do something else.'

Balling was reading Alberto Moravia, Italo Calvino, Milan Kundera, Witold Gombrowicz and Thomas Mann, who had an advantage over him. 'Sometimes it's a problem if you're writing rock'n'roll, if you say "I" it's always yourself. When you write a novel it's normally someone else, so you can have someone who's a sadistic, right-wing doctor [but] if you do that in a rock'n'roll song, everyone will think that you are a sadistic, right-wing doctor. That annoys me sometimes.'

To the consternation of their contemporaries, Gangway sang in English: 'Everybody else was singing in Danish in those days and we thought they were uncool. It was not a conscious decision to sing in English it was just that everything we'd ever listened to in our lives was English. It's weird but it didn't sound natural if we tried to sing in Danish.'

Balling is also interested in classical music, reading biographies of composers he likes such as Stravinsky, Delius and Purcell. 'I've always listened to a lot of classical music and that's where a lot of my music writing comes from. I think Neil Tennant [of Pet Shop Boys] does that as well, and I think Paul McCartney did that. I'm not saying I'm as great as them but there's some similarities that come from that somehow.'

Success at home came quickly, peaking with their fourth album, Happy Ever After (1992), which sold around 40,000 copies (pretty good for a country whose population is one tenth the size of Britain's). By the time of seventh album That's Life (1996), sales had tailed away, leaving only a greatest hits Compendium (1998) to follow, for which the group got back together to record two final songs: 'That was a nice way to end it.'

Though there was never any conscious plan to their career, the band's failure to break the English-speaking market grates, 'because I think we were very close,' Balling says. You can sense how frustrating it must have been not to receive the acclaim they deserved from a territory in whose language they were singing, whose very best pop music they were emulating and to whose contemporary bands they were the equal, if not better. 'One of the reasons I think we didn't do it was it was very easy for us in Denmark. We should have moved to England, at least to show the record company that we really wanted it, like A-ha did, like all the bands that made it.'

We decide to head for a floating bar Balling suggests, to make the most of the summer evening. 'It's not something that keeps me awake at night, it's fine. But sometimes when I talk about it, I think we could have done more.'

POSTSCRIPT A few years ago, Balling and Jensen staged an intimate reunion gig in a Copenhagen bar, where they ran through an extensive set covering Gangway's 14-year career. In part due to the group's success in Japan ('I don't know how that happened'), there tends to be sporadic talk of a box set or reissued greatest hits but nothing has so far come to pass. Jensen made a very poppy solo album, One Fine Day (2001), and Balling continues to write new material, as well as producing. The Myspace page for his brilliant new band, The Quiet Boy, is here.

8 comments:

  1. You have no idea how happy it made me to read this! (And how jealous I am of you having met Henrik Balling!)

    I am a Canadian who was introduced to the wonders of Gangway through a Danish friend. I am forever grateful, as I count Gangway among my top 5, generally interchangeable, favourite bands ever.

    I'm currently studying in Sweden and have made a few trips to Denmark, and I'm always surprised and disappointed when no one HERE is familiar with them! It's terrible.

    I would have given anything to have been at that show in Copenhagen! Alas, I wasn't even aware of their existence at that time. :(

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  2. Thank you for your comment, that's really kind of you. Hope you're having a great time in Sweden!

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  3. I´m a hardcore Gangway fan and I live in Sweden and saw them at the reunite...it was soooo goood ;-)

    I have a little homesite mostly with the releases but always something ;-)

    www.gangway.se

    Best
    Peter

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  4. Lucky you, looking forward to checking out your site - thank you!

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  6. Oh my. Im Danish and heard them frequently at the radio ages ago. But you know what? I always thought they were British! Oh my.

    "My girl and me" is as British as it gets imo. Its a good pop song and I was searching for it on the net, when I stumbled across this website. Im not a fan of them in general, but right now Im just curious to hear more of their music that weren't played on the radio when I was younger. YouTube is great for these kinds of indulgences :-)

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  7. Henrik Balling is in the new band The Quiet Boy by the way.

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