It started some time in the mid-1960s, when Magnus Uggla and some schoolfriends had a short-lived cover band. Or perhaps it began even earlier, when Magnus was sitting on the kitchen worktop at home in the family flat listening to his mother’s singing lessons. But it was only when he moved to Nacka and started singing in a hard rock band that the songwriter Magnus Uggla was born.
“I worked as a delivery boy for Riksteatern. And to pass the time, I wrote hard rock songs in my head as I went between jobs. It was all very Black Sabbath-influenced, and I could hardly call it composing. It was mostly a kind of daydreaming to pass the time.”
Magnus’ career as a hard-rock singer proved to be short-lived because he was thrown out of the band.
“They took the coward’s way out: broke up the band and reformed the next day without me. I was pretty mad, but I didn’t give up music because of it. Just at that time, David Bowie appeared on the music scene, and with him what came to be called glam rock. That was more my thing, so I started to write songs about glitter and glamor.”
Magnus’ older brother happened to have a pal with his own recording studio, where Magnus laid down four songs with his own piano accompaniment. But the record company turned him down, and Magnus and some other musicians ended up recording the songs themselves in the studio in free evenings. The result was what would eventually be the album Om Bobbo Viking (‘Bobbo the Viking’).
“But it was tough to get anyone to listen. I remember a Mott the Hoople gig at Konserthuset in Stockholm. I was quite drunk, and after the concert I passed a tape of the songs to the guitarist. It was rather embarrassing the next morning…”
But the tapes did find a use at last. The record company CBS had a policy of putting out a Swedish record every month. And just when Magnus knocked on their door, they hadn’t filled that month’s slot.
“So I was signed up and Om Bobbo Viking came out in 1975. Sadly, two years too late. Glam rock was over, and I had got into symphonic rock anyway.”
That was clear when the follow-up album Livets Teater (‘The theater of life’) came out. Magnus now regards it as his worst record:
“Livets Teater is turgid, pretentious and vague – all the things I am not. There was a big budget and the whole studio mafia of the time played on the record. They were cocksure and I was scared to death. Janne Schaffer told me in the pub a few months later that I was the worst artist he had ever worked with. But he did play some nice guitar, particularly on the song Sommartid (‘Summertime’) which was my first successful studio production.”
Magnus Uggla is keen to emphasize the importance of working with a good producer.
“I think a producer and arranger can take the song up a level. Anders Glenmark is the best I have worked with – Fyra sekunder (‘Four seconds’) started out as quite a mediocre song, but with a sharp arrangement and good production, he elevated it to something much greater.”
Neither Om Bobbo Viking nor Livets Teater sold particularly well, even though Magnus toured around performing the songs for several years. But things turned around with the third album – Va ska man ta livet av sig för när man ändå inte får höra snacket efteråt (‘Why take your own life when you can’t hear what people say afterwards’) and the single Varning på stan (‘Warning in the city’) brought him his big breakthrough.
Still, Magnus had not yet found his feet as a songwriter.
“My first records are the ones the critics like best. I personally think they are my worst. Today, I know what I’m doing as a songwriter. I didn’t then. My songs were so turgid at that time. There were loads of bridges, refrains and middle 8s – the songs were absolutely stuffed with things. Now I write much more simply. In purely structural terms, the songs I write now are very traditional.”
Magnus composes in different ways depending on the instrument he is using. With the guitar, it is what he calls ‘traditional songmaking’, and he cites Trubaduren (‘The troubadour’) as a typical guitar song.
“When I write on the piano, I usually start with the bass. If I have a walking bass, I can combine it with lots of different chords. Once I’ve found the harmonies I want, the melody almost writes itself. Kung för en dag (‘King for a day’) and Hand i hand (‘Hand in hand’) are examples of this. But Hallå (‘Hello’) – the first track on the first album – is also built up this way. Although I didn’t understand that at the time. I just put my fingers on the keys and played.”
Like many other songwriters, Magnus thinks that inspiration is overrated. He collaborates a lot with Anders ‘Henkan’ Henriksson, and it’s hard work that counts:
“He comes to my studio at ten in the morning. Then we sit down and start jamming together – me on the guitar and him on the piano because he’s the better pianist; he’s classically trained. If we get writer’s block, we have a few tricks, like starting from an existing song and playing around with it. Then things soon take off somewhere completely different. And then the inspiration often comes too.”
Magnus and Henkan are both influenced by classical music. In Magnus’ case this goes right back to childhood.
“We listened to tons of classical music at home, because my mother was a singer and taught music. And today I only listen to classical stuff – popular music is no longer a source of inspiration for me. Benny Andersson is one of the few great songwriters in Sweden, and Karl Gerhard and Povel Ramel are the only lyricists I can relate to.”
At the time of writing, Magnus Uggla is top of the Swedish charts. But not with a song he wrote himself – at least, not to begin with. Jag och min far (‘Me and my father’) was written by Olle Ljungström, but Magnus thought it felt odd to sing about Olle Ljungström’s dad.
“So I started to make a few changes, I wanted to make it more like a hymn. Henkan found a few bars of a largo by Handel which we borrowed, and I gradually rewrote the lyrics. In the end it was a totally different song. Olle’s fans think I destroyed his song, but for me they are two different songs.”
In 1988, when Magnus replaced the words ‘Robert Zimmermann’ with ‘Björn Afzelius’ in his recording of Mikael Wiehe’s Vem kan man lita på (‘Who can you rely on?’) , he was forced to withdraw the disk and record the song over again. So what did Olle Ljungström say about the makeover?
“Olle was happy. And in the TV program Så mycket bättre (‘So much better’), it is taken as read that you can do what you like with the songs. That’s why it’s smart to work on a song few people have heard – hit songs seldom come out better than the original.”
Still, all the royalties from Jag och min far go to Olle Ljungström, despite Magnus’ changes to both lyrics and music (see fact box).
“That’s how it works on that program. It was the same when Miss Li rewrote my song Första gången (‘The first time’) – all the royalties came to me. And I don’t begrudge Olle the money, I really did mess around with his song. On the other hand, it’s sad not to get any credit for my contribution.”
Magnus Uggla is one of our most successful songwriters. But he has not had an international career or written for other artists.
“When I arrived in 1977, I had a request from the UK to make a record of my best songs in English. I really liked the idea of being an international star. But it was hard to succeed outside Sweden at that time, it wasn’t at all like it is now. And after struggling for three years, I gave up the attempt. I write in Swedish and my audience is in Sweden.”
“If I haven’t written for other artists, it’s simply because I am afraid of being rejected. I’ve had inquiries from time to time, but it would be so painful if my song was slated.”
So what makes a really good song?
“Everything has to work and fit together: the intro, the verse, the bridge and a chorus with good hooks. If it is a Swedish song, it also needs to have a good theme that people can identify with. And then a twist at the end. Jag mår illa (‘I feel bad’) is quite a good example, although the song may sound dated today. You couldn’t write a more sure-fire hit.”
Magnus talks a lot and often about hits. That’s what fires him, writing hits, and he cites Kung för en dag as another example.
“Good theme, good hook in the chorus and a verse that suddenly takes off in a different direction.”
So what tips does he have for any songwriters hoping for a 40-year career?
“Be persistent. Always try to make it a little bit better, always keep going to the end. I was in a show recently with Ace Wilder, and she said she was worried about being a ‘one hit wonder’ after her success with Busy Doin’ Nothin’. ‘No worries,’ I told her. ‘If you’ve had one hit, you can make more’.”
My three best songs
Trubaduren. “The best lyric I have ever written.”
Kung för en dag. “It ticks all the boxes for a good hit song. You don’t do anything so brilliant many times in your life.”
Pärlor åt svin (‘Pearls before swine’). “Good song, good lyrics and good production.”
My best record
Alla får påsar (‘Everyone get a bag’). “I made this in 1993 together with Anders Glenmark. It includes some of my best songs, which I still play today.”
My biggest flop
Livets Teater. “If I could, I would take it back completely.”
Göran Hägg on…
Trubaduren, lyrics by Magnus Uggla, music by Magnus Uggla and Anders Henriksson:
“One notes the interesting narrative idea with Uggla the troubadour putting himself in the place of the defeated listener. Subconsciously or quite consciously triumphant? Should it be sung in a whining, ironic tone? Clever rhyming. Without the music, it would never have had these repetitions, which reinforce the heartrending or comical complaint.”
‘För har en speleman en enda gång
börjat sjunga på en gammal sång
då ska alla runt omkring va’ med och skråla
Har han blott en enda gång gett skri
lär han sjunga varje melodi
ifrån underbara Creedence till Carola’
(‘For once a minstrel has started singing an old song, everyone around has to sing along. If he has opened his mouth just once, they say he can sing any melody, from the wonderful Creedence all the way to Carola.’)
Works registered with STIM:
First recorded work:
Most performed works:
Astrologen (‘The astrologer’)
Efterfest (‘After party’)
Pärlor åt svin
Rewriting a song – who gets the money?
To change someone else’s musical work, you first need the permission of the author, who owns both the financial rights and the copyright in his work.
For a person who has edited the lyrics or music of a song (with the author’s permission) to gain a share of the rights, the original author or the music company has to give their consent to STIM (the Swedish performing rights association).
In the TV series Så mycket bättre, the participants sign an agreement with the production company to the effect that they are free to change each others’ songs, but that the original author still gets the proceeds.