WHAT'S ALL THE fuss about putting Elvis on a stamp? Swedish postal patrons have been licking and sticking stamps featuring the pop-rock band Roxette since last October.
"That was a kick, of course," says Roxette's singer-guitarist-songwriter Per Gessle, calling from the Minneapolis hotel room where he woke up about 20 minutes ago.
"It was almost like being knighted, I guess. I have used them a lot. I used to send cassettes to my record company with them. They can't refuse the music that way," he laughs.
Roxette, the inspired teaming of Gessle and striking lead singer Marie Fredriksson, makes cheery, clean-lined, well-crafted pop that's comfortable in any environment -- the musical equivalent of IKEA furniture, another popular Swedish export.
But there are many misperceptions about Roxette, and the pop cognoscenti ignorantly dismiss them as ABBA clones (that Swedish pop quartet was also honored with its own stamp in Sweden), as brainless bubblegum, here today, gone tomorrow. But Roxette is enjoying the Revenge of the Nords: These one-hit wonders have had nine upbeat, melodic worldwide hit singles, and are touring the States to support their beautifully made third album "Joyride." They appear Sunday at Patriot Center.
"Commercial" isn't an ugly word, Gessle says -- "Look at the Beatles!" And he proudly proclaims Roxette a "singles band."
"People complain that listening to a Roxette album is like listening to a greatest-hits album," Gessle says. "For me, I think that's a compliment. We try to treat every song as a potential single, and no filler at all on the albums."
But you can't set out to calculate and engineer a pop hit, Gessle says. Currently all the record industry execs are trying to figure out just what went right with Nirvana.
"The perfect pop song has to stand out, has to have some ingredient that makes you pump up the volume in your car when it comes on the radio," Gessle says. "It could be the lyric, or it could be a sound or it could be an arrangement. 'Nothing Compares 2 U' is a perfect hit record. As soon as it starts -- 'What's this?' you know? As soon as you hear it, the world stands still."
That's the heart of a lifelong student of pop music talking. "I started collecting records when I was seven or eight years old; I was really influenced by my older brother," Gessle says. "That's been my whole life, I've always been a big pop fan, growing up to T-Rex and David Bowie and the Beatles and Creedence and that kind of stuff."
Long before "The Look" broke Roxette worldwide, both Gessle and Fredriksson were established solo stars in Sweden -- he as lead singer and guitarist in the pop band Gyllene Tider; she as a solo vocalist with bluesy, jazzy Joni Mitchell-ish ways. They're not kids -- Gessle is 32; Fredriksson, 33.
"We had so much success at home singing in Swedish separately before, so the whole idea for Roxette was to do something in English, to have a chance to reach out outside of Sweden," Gessle says, being polite about the duo's plans for global pop conquest.
It's certain that Roxette would have hit these shores sooner or later, but their first smash, "The Look," was helped by a fluke -- an American exchange student in Minneapolis brought his Swedish Roxette cassette tape to a radio station in Minneapolis, and before long the tune was No. 1 in 20 countries.
"I was talking to one of these girls at MTV in Canada, and she thought it would be like a Paula Abdul dance thing," Gessle says. "And I was like 'Whaaaaat?' It's not like that at all. It's more like a very basic rock 'n' roll thing. But that's the price you have to pay for not touring here. In Europe we're sort of a household name touring-wise, and everyone knows what Roxette is about live. That's why we've started off playing small theaters here; we'll start from the beginning and build. I just hope that people give Roxette a chance, don't dismiss us as this lip-syncing MTV band, because we're not that at all. Totally the opposite."
In fact, Gessle says Roxette has been an active touring band since he and Fredriksson joined forces in 1986. He says live versions of such hits as "The Look" and "It Must Have Been Love" (which was used in the movie "Pretty Woman") are "quite different. Everything is a little bit edgier, and we don't try to do replicas of the records. Like the song 'Soul Deep' on the 'Joyride' album is three minutes, but onstage it turns into 11 minutes or nine minutes, depending on Marie's mood of the day. We try to change songs and change arrangements, and we do songs acoustically, use accordion and mandolin."
Gessle says "Marie is the big performer, she really loves to perform, and I'm basically the writer, sort of organizing stuff. I'm basically the Jeff Lynne type who wants to spend hours and hours in the studio." He describes their relationship as a brother-sister thing. "It would be really hard to do this on your own."
ROXETTE -- Appearing Sunday with Russ Irwin at Patriot Center. Call 202/432-7328.