Gothenburg: A City Built on Rock ‘n’ Roll

A one-time insider revisits Sweden’s port city to find that it is still every bit the ultra-cool alternative musical paradise it used to be.  
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Gothenburg is home to open-air stadiums such as Ullevi, which can support large crowds, the perfect setting for a livewire concert. Photo by: Mats Andersson/WENN.com/WENN Ltd/Dinodia Photo Library

I’m in the foyer of the Concert Hall at Gothenburg’s grandest square, Götaplatsen, which is where the City Theatre and the Art Museum also stand—imposing structures framing the square on three sides. The evening’s philharmonic concert over, now commences a lounge-style show where two DJs remix the just concluded performance, while music aficionados tank up on wine. Soon the sampled symphonic orchestra resembles the soundtrack of a sci-fi film.

From there, I walk down the main boulevard, Kungsportsavenyn (often simply called ‘The Avenue’), and my feet start tapping to the music from bars and cafés that are bursting at their seams. The local edition of Hard Rock Café (Kungsportsavenyn 10, with two dance-floors) is competing with neighbouring heavier metal-leaning Rockbaren (Lorensbergsgatan 7), while youngsters sing in the street and a busker plays the saxophone in a park. I meet a few friends at Unity Jazz (Kyrkogatan 13) where entry’s free. A jazz trio is playing and we share a bottle of wine. When the red gunk is over, we pop around the corner to Sticky Fingers (Kaserntorget 7), a quintessential club with black-painted interiors, and catch the end of a groovy rock performance.

The second city of Sweden and its chief port, Gothenburg, on the country’s western coast, has had such a long association with music that it might well be called the Liverpool of Scandinavia. It feels good to be back. Disclosure time: I’m revisiting for a weekend as somebody who spent many years in town. I moved here as a teenager in the 1980s because of the happening scene. Volvo (founded in Gothenburg in 1926) was where everybody worked, unless one was employed to make ball-bearings at SKF (founded in Gothenburg in 1907), or laboured in the harbour which used to be the base for the Swedish East India Company (founded in Gothenburg in 1731, defunct 1813). After work, we’d play music or earn extra by helping out at theatres and concerts.

In the age of arena rock Gothenburg became the Scandinavian music hub as it lay virtually equidistant from three capital cities, Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen. Acts like the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, AC/DC, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Paul McCartney preferred to bring their shows here as fans from these cities could drive to town in hours. The town has arenas of all sizes—the indoor Scandinavium holds 14,000 people, outdoor Ullevi is suitable for 75,000 concert-goers and there are nice parks for open-air shows.

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Gothenburg, birthplace of one of the members of ABBA (top), has been a magnet for music stars such as Madonna and Elton John (bottom). Photos by: Ferenc Szelepcsenyi/Alamy/india picture (Abba), Mats Andersson/WENN.com/WENN Ltd/ Dinodia Photo Library (Elton John)

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But locals attest to its underground progressive subculture, which has spawned heavy metal bands, punk artists, cool cafés, record stores (top) and gritty street art (bottom). Photos by: Zoonar/C3455 Robert/Zoonar GmbH RM/ Dinodia Photo Library (Record store), Copyright: Frida Winter/Göteborg & Co (Mural)

 

But it wasn’t just a convenient stop for big names to tick off Scandinavia in one go; in the 1980s Gothenburg also had a healthy underground subculture of illegal clubs dotting its then run-down centre. Here, in ramshackle buildings behind innocuous graffiti-covered steel doors, bands played and beer was sold unlicensed—which was thrilling as long as one didn’t get arrested.

On my return, I was reminded of all this as the city museum had curated an exhibition on Gothenburg’s musical history, where I saw costumes, guitars and synthesisers that once belonged to outfits like Cortex, Leather Nun, Sator, Soundtrack of Our Lives and Twice a Man. The first world-famous group from the city was The Spotnicks, who in the 1960s dressed like astronauts, played instrumental music and had hits in Japan and Australia—they were the original Swedish superstars long before ABBA.

One of the four ABBAs, Björn Ulvaeus, was born in Gothenburg and their tradition of peppy pop was continued in the 1990s by the city-based disco group Ace of Base. But more than muzak, Gothenburg stood for the alternative scene: it was the capital of progressive rock from the 1970s and on. Topping the 1980s and 1990s alt scene were bands like Blue for Two, Broder Daniel, Lucky People Centre (which had its own illegal nightclub) and Little Dragon that achieved cult status in Europe. But at home in India (where I now live), musicians I speak with mostly know of ‘Gothenburg sound’ as the melodic death metal that emerged in the 1990s when the city spawned HammerFall, At the Gates, In Flames, Freak Kitchen, Dark Tranquillity and—of course—the spoof metal outfit, Black Ingvars.

Over drinks, I discuss my museum experience with senior synth poppers Karl Gasleben and Anna Öberg, who nowadays run their own studio where Gasleben is producing albums with his two bands, the old-school Twice a Man and the disco-punk The Ändå, while Anna is recording a solo album. Would you call Gothenburg the Swedish answer to Liverpool?

“Hard question,” says Gasleben, who isn’t comfortable with the idea of having his old synthesiser on display at a museum. “Maybe Manchester.” He’s a diehard local and lives in a forest outside town. “For work reasons, I could have moved to Stockholm, but there’s that special spirit here—with lots of events happening. Also, Gothenburg is closer to Europe, so it’s easier to drive a tour bus down to Hamburg to play a concert.”

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Once a working class town, Gothenburg has morphed into a university hub (top); When tired of walking, hop on to the city’s old-school trams (bottom). Photos by: Copyright: Beatrice Törnros/Göteborg & Co (festival), Copyright: Dick Gillberg/Göteborg & Co (tram),

However, Anna, who actually lived nearer to the European continent in southern Sweden, specifically picked Gothenburg in the 1980s as the base for her band Ladomir, once the hottest indie act on the scene. “Already when I was 13, I decided that I must move here because Gothenburg was the home of progressive music, which you wouldn’t find in Stockholm or my hometown Helsingborg. One has that impression that Stockholmers are snobbish and Gothenburg is welcoming, maybe because it’s an old working class town. So I travelled here with my musicians even though we had nowhere to live or rehearse.”

And what happened?

“We went to Musikens Hus [the House of Music], you know the café there, and before the end of the day we had three places to rehearse in and stay overnight.” Gasleben philosophises as is his habit, “It’s not as if the other cities are bad, but Gothenburg has more of an atmosphere of everybody helping everybody.”

Indeed, both of them speak of a certain idealism that laid the foundations for the city’s musical fame. Even the people who ran illegal clubs were rarely in it for the money, more because they believed in the underground scene. Times have changed though; concerts have become commercial as bands must make money from ticket sales rather than dwindling record sales. Much of the manufacturing industry has also moved abroad and the city has become more of a student centre because of the University of Gothenburg (founded 1891 and the largest in Scandinavia with about 40,000 students), a separate University of Technology (founded 1829), and schools for fine arts, music and performing arts. Students love music, so if anything, there appears to be more of it now and cheaper, as students can’t afford to pay much. Music has become more accessible too as clubs are legal establishments thanks to the liberalisation of alcohol policies.

The city has received multiple facelifts and grungy areas around Järntorget have become partially pedestrian and filled with offbeat bars, where music and drinking—and good food—can be enjoyed until late in the night. Conveniently located within walking distance from Järntorget square are Pustervik (Järntorgsgatan 12) in an old theatre with a nice lobby bar, Bengans (Stigbergstorget 1) which is also the best music store for both new and used records, Musikens Hus (Djurgårdsgatan 13), Holy Moly (Andra Långgatan 31), Oceanen Culture House (Stigbergstorget 8), and Hakelverket (Karl Johansgatan 11). There’s folk music at Folkmusikkaféet (Södra Allégatan 4) and jazz or soul at Nefertiti (Hvitfeldtsplatsen 6). The area is also dotted with second-hand shops dealing in books, records and retro clothes.Gothenburg’s reputation as Sweden’s friendliest city and the fact that it hosts Scandinavia’s main film festival (February) plus Europe’s second biggest book fair (September), not to mention arts, theatre and dance fests, has made my once seedy harbour hometown into a real tourist hotspot.

Getting Hip to Gothenburg: Places to Eat, Drink and Party

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Sailing on the city’s municipal ferries, visitors can catch views of the opera house. Photo courtesy: Goran Assner/imagebank.sweden.se

There are lots of outdoor music events in the summers. The amusement park Liseberg (Örgrytevägen 5) regularly includes open-air concerts in the entrance ticket rate (with past performers such as ABBA and Alice Cooper) while free shows with popular Swedish bands can be caught at the city’s own festival Kulturkalaset (August) when music fills its squares. Annual ticketed fests such as Way Out West (in Slottsskogen park) has showcased everybody from Patti Smith and Iggy & The Stooges to Chemical Brothers and Pet Shop Boys, while heavy metal’s own festivity, Metaltown has featured acts like Marilyn Mansion and Slayer. Electronica and DJ music has its Summerburst festival and experimental music installations form the backbone of Gothenburg Art Sound-festival (which has brought in stars like Laurie Anderson). Göteborg Jazz Festival is devoted to trad jazz, and there’s even a full-fledged carnival for those who like street dancing, Hammarkullekarnevalen.

Any time of year, a perfect Gothenburg day starts with breakfast at one of the many cafés—classics include Eva’s Paley (Kungsportsavenyn 39) and Junggrens next door (Kungsportsavenyn 37). Worth trying is the quintessential prawn salad sandwich, räkmacka—served all over town—followed by visits to a few museums. The multi-dimensional World Culture Museum (Södra Vägen 54) is particularly nice with lots of free programming, while Röhsska Design Museum (Vasagatan 39) is an attraction for those interested in Scandinavian style. For lunch, sample the city’s famously fresh seafood at Sjöbaren which has branches in the centre and the cooler western parts (Lorensbergsgatan 14 and Haga Nygata 25 respectively), or at the indoor fish market Feskekörka (Fisktorget 4). Post-lunch, one is tipsy enough to appreciate art galleries such as Konstepidemin (Konstepidemins väg 6) or the world-renowned Hasselblad Center (Götaplatsen) for photography. Then digest it over a few more drinks at one of the many friendly bars—try the last surviving old-style beer hall Ölhallen 7:an (Kungstorget 7). For high-culture vultures, there’s opera at the Göteborg Opera House (Christina Nilssons gata), or avant-garde dance and music at Atalante (Övre Husargatan 1). Many clubs are concentrated around The Avenue, like those mentioned in the beginning (plus also Trägårn and Valand, etc), but the hipper places are two kilometres to the west, around Järntorget square. There are more alternative clubs on the outskirts of town, such as Truckstop Alaska (Hisingen), Kulturhuset Kåken (Kålltorp), and Smedjan (Tollered). Most have surprisingly decent beverage selections and grub. For example, Musikens Hus has the classic Café Hängmattan (Karl Johansgatan 16) with wholesome veggie nourishment; Pustervik theatre serves cheap soup of the day; Sticky Fingers sticks to a burger and booze menu. But traditionalistic post-concert hoggers hit one of the late-night junkfood joints such as 7:ans Gatukök (Vasagatan 7) and grab a ‘half special’, a paper plate of sausages in a soggy bun covered with mashed potato and shrimp salad.

Unless they are free or pay-as-you-like, show tickets are usually Rs750-1,500 for a club, but arena shows may cost Rs7,500 or more.

  • Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).

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