Danish pop band marks 20 years of fame in Asia

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KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA (AP) - The Danish pop band Michael Learns To Rock has sold more than 10 million albums, performed in packed stadiums and spawned a string of soaring ballads that echo every night through countless karaoke bars.

But the trio’s success belies a curious facet of its career: Two decades after releasing its debut CD, Michael Learns To Rock remains unknown in the United States and much of Europe but retains a legion of fans far away in Asia.

“When we started out by playing small gigs in small towns in Denmark, we had big dreams about world fame and fortune, but we feel privileged enough now to be embraced in Asia,” drummer Kare Wanscher said in an interview in Kuala Lumpur this week during a three-concert Malaysian tour.

Michael Learns To Rock initially comprised a quartet of two high school friends and their acquaintances who grew up loving pop music. They came up with their band’s name on a whim, inspired by Michael Jackson and 1980s groups such as Johnny Hates Jazz and Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

The young men enjoyed a promising beginning by winning a 1988 talent competition in Denmark and writing English-language songs that secured them a recording contract in the United States.

Despite recording their eponymous first album in Los Angeles and embarking on a promotional push in New York in 1991, the CD flopped in America. Their lead single, “The Actor,” received airplay in Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland, but the foundation for their future was paved by an Asian record executive who made it a No. 1 smash in Indonesia.

Other Asian nations such as Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines soon succumbed to the band’s charms, which blend the easy-listening wistfulness of Barry Manilow with the infectious melodies of ABBA.

“The honest feelings in our songs fit the Asian way,” said songwriter Jascha Richter, whose warm vocals have surely formed the soundtrack for numerous real-life teenage romances. “When we come to this region, we see a tradition for singing along to love songs that match our approach.”

Some critics call Michael Learns To Rock’s music mawkish. One of its biggest hits, “25 Minutes,” tells of a man who searches for a lover with whom he broke up, only to find her standing in a wedding gown in front of a church. She tearfully informs him that he’s 25 minutes too late.

But their radio-friendly earnestness turned the three men into Denmark’s biggest pop export, handing them respectable CD sales from Taiwan to Thailand and making them the headliners for a star-studded 1997 Hong Kong concert that marked the former British colony’s return to Chinese rule.

Another 1997 show in Hanoi nearly sparked a stampede when thousands of Vietnamese fans who were tricked into buying fake tickets hurled bricks through windows to enter the hall. Riot police escorted the band to safety.

These days, the band has a relaxed routine of making an album every few years and touring regularly, with recent stops in China and India. It plans to issue its eighth album this summer and still wants to perform in Bangladesh and Nepal.

Now in their 40s, with children they take on tour, the men say their youthful ambitions for wider fame have vanished.

“We’re busy and happy. We won’t try to spend a year in America to crack its market,” said guitarist Mikkel Lentz.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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