Abba: Mamas & Papas of the ’70’s

LOS ANGELES – The hottest group in the world recently flew into town, but only a scattered few knew they were even here.

It’s claimed that Abba have actually sold more records worldwide than any group except the Beatles. Other boasts being bandied – Abba’s current American hit ‘Fernando’ has been #1 in well over 20 different countries, and they’re reputed to be Sweden’s biggest export next to the Volvo. Admittedly, it’s hard to get an accurate picture of exactly how huge globally Abba really are. But all over Europe, their singles go Top Five in a matter of days. In Australia, they’ve had five records in the Top Ten at once (shades, again, of the Beatles) and in England, their ‘Dancing Queen’ recently completed its seventh straight week at #1.

In the United States, though, Abba are still essentially an unknown quantity, which explains why their Los Angeles stopover was hardly front page news. They have had hits here – ‘Waterloo’, the wondrous ‘SOS’, ‘Fernando’, – but it seems as if people are just discovering that this one Swedish quartet is responsible for all of those records over the last two years. In America, Abba are…not quite faceless, but nameless (the group moniker ABBA is an anagram of the members’ first initials, Anna, Bjorn, Benna and Anni-Frid, who goes by Frida). One reason for their invisibility is that they’ve never played live in the States (and rarely stage concerts anywhere). Benny Andersson, however, said that Abba wants to tour – “We are preparing a tour now for January, February, and March, playing in Europe, England and Australia.”

What about America? – “When the time comes,” he says. “We’ll wait until there’s a demand from the audience. We could come here as a supporting act, but it takes so much money and so much time to do it the way we want (a 13-piece band and no backing tapes)…We can wait,” he concludes just a little smugly, an implicit reminder that Abba can manage to keep up the car payments without the U.S. market.

They are concerned about their relative invisibility, however, and to that end were taping six L.A.-based TV shows (Dinah, Tony Orlando & Dawn, etc.). For Midnight Special, Bjorn and Benny mimed guitar and piano while Anna and Frida sang ‘SOS’, ‘Mamma Mia’, ‘Fernando’, and the upcoming follow-up ‘Dancing Queen’. Attired in complementary white kimono outfits with embroidered plants and cacti and so forth, they looked like sort of a Nudie’s High Karate Marshal Arts ensemble.

Another problem: A fresh-faced European pop group who makes bright and bouncy records that are played on AM radio is hardly calculated to warm the image-conscious hearts of America’s powerful progressive FM programmers. And in America you need FM radio to sell albums; elsewhere Abba’s album’s go to #1 as fast as their singles, but here their LP sales lag far behind.

I tentatively broached the topic to Benny, asking him whether he was at all concerned about FM acceptance. He had his answer ready – “To start with, the main thing for us to do is the music we enjoy. If you like it you buy it, if you don’t, forget it. We try to change every number – we don’t do another one the same as the last one. We’d love for everybody in the whole world to love our music. That’s what we’re aiming for.”

Already, Benny is doing much better than he could have dreamed when he was slogging up and down Sweden’s outdoor rock circuit in the 60’s with the Hep Stars. “I joined them in 1963 – they’d been going for a year. Not one of the first bands, but the most popular. One of the reasons we became popular is we played good old rock & roll while the other bands played Beatles and Hollies stuff.” The Hep Stars were Sweden’s biggest band (they had a couple singles out here), and their catalog includes intriguing artifacts like ‘Farmer John’, ‘Surfin’ Bird’, ‘Tribute to Buddy Holly’, and the Beach Boys’ ‘Hawaii’. “I’m a Beach Boys fan. If we come close to what they’ve done I’d be happy.”

Bjorn Ulvaeus, meanwhile was in a folk group called, appropriately enough, the Hootenanny Singers. “The Kingston Trio had their hits, and we were inspired to form a group…near the end of it we tried a little folk-rock.” But mostly it was Swedish-language folk music, an album of which was released in the States as the Northern Lights.

Bjorn and Benny met while touring and decided to write together. “Then we stopped working,” says Bjorn. “I think it was by the end of the Hep Stars, 1969 or 1970.” They called themselves, appropriately enough, Bjorn & Benny, under which name a few singles came out on Playboy here – but after Abba had already been formed. Anna and Frida were both well-known singers, again mostly Swedish-language material (early Abba singles were recorded in both Swedish and English, but not any more). Bjorn continues, “We met with the girls on tour, we used them for backing. We wanted to do songs like we’re doing now, and they wanted to do that, so we joined together to see what happened.”

What happened was the refinement of perhaps the archetypal pop sound of the 70’s. Bjorn and Benny, who write and produce the material draw on the production techniques of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson among others (Bjorn: “To be on the safe side we have people in Stockholm to whom we read the [English] lyrics to check details that might slip by us”). What they’ve added is the unique front-line unison vocals of Anna and Frida, which contribute an icy clockwork cast to the music, never mechanical or stilted, but attractively alien. Bjorn and Benny are also grand masters of the AM hook, as ‘Waterloo’, ‘Mamma Mia’, and that unforgettable chorus on ‘SOS’ attest. Their albums are full of similar delights (as well as the occasional clinker, like the diabolical Connie Francis-styled ‘I Do I Do I Do I Do I Do’).

Lately, Abba have branched out into new areas. ‘Fernando’ is an enigmatic Latin-tinged tale of revolution and romance. Says Bjorn: “It’s supposed to be puzzling – it’s to create an atmosphere.” ‘Dancing Queen’, out here in January, could be their biggest hit yet. It’s a frighteningly commercial song – the ghost of a Bo Diddley beat merging with the subtlest suggestion of Silver Convention strings creates a most captivating discoid number.

Abba seem quite content with their super-pop image. They’re relaxed, assured, level-headed, and supremely confident that they’ll reach their goal of conquering the world musically. Penetrating the FM barrier remains a stumbling block, but with their music – frothy enough to meet the lowest-common-denominator requirements of AM radio but internally fascinating enough to appeal to the most demanding pop connoisseurs – they may not even need FM. It looks as though Abba are, at this point, unstoppable.

© Ken BarnesPhonograph Record, November 1976

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