What’s squeaky-clean, exquisitely produced, Scandinavian and goes OOMPAH? The answer to the riddle is ABBA …and here’s MICK FARREN to ask it.
THEY’D TOLD us that Stockholm’s numero uno disco nightclub was a place called Alexandra’s. From the way the muscle on the door looked at you when you told them you had a table booked, you could almost believe it was the city’s most exclusive niterie.
Inside, it’s black glass, mirrors and the kind of Edwardian whorehouse lampshades that they were selling in Biba’s five years ago.
On the miniscule dance floor a young woman who looks like a kind of lumpy, muscular Bibi Anderson is performing something that resembles a cross between the frug and Canadian Air Force Advanced Physical Training Routine. Another equally strapping couple join her on the floor. They start into a soft core porn-by-numbers version of The Bump.
An overweight computer salesman leads an equally overweight young woman out to join the other couples. They press against each other. The salesman rubs his hands over her thighs. They sway, roughly in time to the music. Right at that moment it’s Barry White. Later it evolves to the 1966 Spencer Davis Group.
At nearly three pounds for a drink it’s not even possible to get drunk. The whole image of Sweden as wall-to-wall Britt Elkands falls apart at the seams.
And who sent us into Alexandra’s, this feast of Scandinavian delights? None other than Bjorn Ulvaeus, one of the masterminds behind the group called Abba, the first Scandinavian pop ensemble ever to make a dent in the international entertainment industry.
I guess the only way you could have failed to be exposed to Abba’s particular brand of open-face. Ultra-Brite pop is to have spent the last twelve months in a sealed fallout shelter. Only someone totally insulated from radios, televisions and even pub juke-boxes could have missed them. Since their Eurovision Song Contest win in 1974 with a song called ‘Waterloo’, their music has poured forth in an unrelenting stream from just about every kind of electronic medium.
They’ve had hits (not one but virtually sequential hits, one after the other) in Britain, the U.S.A., most of Europe, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Australia. In Australia they beat both Sinatra and Andy Williams in TV ratings with their telly special. About the only market in the world that they haven’t solidly dented is Japan, and that seems only to be a matter of time.
Right about now (unless you’ve already given up and turned the page) you’re probably wondering what in hell am I doing going on about Abba? Has Farren lost his marbles, suffered brain damage, been bribed? (Funny you should mention it-Ed).
No, my friends, it is not what you fear. Just bear with me a while longer and all will be made clear.
Anyone who comes so fast and hard out of left field and sells so many millions of records has to qualify as a PHENOMENON. A squeaky clean phenomenon for sure, nowhere in the same bracket as Lou Reed, but a phenomenon just the same.
“Wait a minute,” you cry, “surely if a big corporation hype is being undertaken it’s no great hardship to use a band that’s a novelty in terms of its country of origin? Isn’t it just the Osmonds in a Bergman location? If they did it in Salt Lake City they can do it in Stockholm.”
That would be quite true, except for one thing, Abba are not the product of some faceless corporation mogul in the Hollywood Hills, with IBM time and lots and lots of money. Sure they’re a manufactured product, but the men behind them are Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, who happen to be in the group, and Stig Anderson, who is the boss of the almost one-man Polar Records label that had previously catered solely for the Scandinavian market.
In form and style, their closest antecedents are the early days of Motown – or maybe Philles.
Once again I hear the cries starting – Abba? Motown? Philles??
Okay, I know Abba don’t sound anything like either Motown or Philles. They aren’t funky, they have no soul and they’re bland to the point of making baby food seem raunchy. It’s the structure that produces the music that I’m talking about – and also the fact that a frightening amount of work goes into each one of their records.
Admittedly, to an ear that’s been weaned on rock and roll it’s hard to detect. I’d dismissed Abba as audio pablum and closed my mind whenever I heard ‘Mamma Mia’ in the pub until a couple of my noble colleagues pointed out just how complex the Abba backing tracks were.
They were right, too. It took quite a while to strip away the eager, healthy vocal sound, the cute-to-the-point-of-moronic lyrics and the continually bouncing Nordic boom-boom hereafter referred to as Eurobeat. Once that’s done, you’re actually left with a pop structure in the grand manner of The Beatles or Spector.
So grand, in fact, that it would be more than likely to go clean over the head of the average Abba punter.
The whole thing was sufficiently intriguing that, when the chance to go to Stockholm and look at Abba in their natural habitat came up, I went to investigate.
THE NATURAL habitat of Abba varies between a large, rather elegant house near the center of Stockholm and an island retreat outside the city. The house is where all Abba’s business is transacted; the country house is where they retire to at regular intervals to write, record and produce more songs.
The first part of the Abba story came from Stig Anderson. Anderson has medium length hair and the craggy features of a Hemingway character. He has been in the music industry since the early ‘60’s.
In 1971 his partner died and it was suggested that he hire Benny Andersson as a producer. Benny brought Bjorn Ulvaeus and as Benny and Bjorn they created a couple of Swedish hits. Then, teaming up with the two girls they made ‘Ring Ring’ which, although it made no mark on the U.K. market, was a major hit in Northern Europe. From there, world domination was in sight.
While Andersson talks, he is constantly interrupted by calls and secretaries. His office is just what you’d expect of a Swedish record company whose main attraction is Abba. It’s all bright, clean, stripped pine efficiency. The only thing in the entire room that doesn’t fit with the squeaky clean image is a big, almost life size painting. It’s of a schoolgirl in gymslip, crisp white blouse is unbuttoned and one breast is exposed. Her discreet and presumably masturbating hand has slipped under her skirt. The style is ultra realism. It’s the only sign of decadence in the whole Abba operation.
Stig Andersson is a very definite part of the team that produces Abba’s records. He writes some of the lyrics and generally lets Benny and Bjorn use him as a kind of sounding board. They try out new songs on him first and depending on his response they decide what’s commercial and what isn’t. Although I can no way go along with his taste there’s no denying that, so far, he has an uncanny feel for public taste, but so, for that matter, has the editor of The Sun.
We move downstairs to a basement office to meet the group themselves. A photo session is winding up. Abba have been decked out in Daily Mirror Pop Club T-shirts. The two girls, Frieda and Anna, drop into instant posed animation for the camera. In between they seem kind of bored.
Benny and Frieda are engaged. Bjorn and Anna are married.
That’s right, folks, it’s a family act.
Bjorn Ulvaeus is thin and intelligent, he tends to do more of the talking. Benny Andersson is bearded and jovial. Anna and Frieda have the aloofness of the professionally decorative. It quickly becomes clear that they do not play any great role in the creative side of the act. Shortly after the interview they leave the room.
There’s a little initial fencing around. The two men are open and friendly. They are neither idiots or cynical pap-pushers who calculatedly feed the public what they think they want. They obviously like the work they’re doing, take great pains with it and are anxious to extend their creativity as far as possible.
They are both products of the somewhat isolated Scandinavian pop scene. Bjorn played with a folk outfit called Hootenanny Singers, while Benny was in a band called the Hep Stars who played “Hermans Hermits songs and that kind of thing.” Just the name conjures up pictures of what these groups must have been like. I have visions of earnest Swedes solemnly intoning M.O.R. babble learned off the records.
“You have to realise that, in Sweden, we don’t have the rock and roll background that there is in Britain or America. We listened to Chuck Berry and The Rolling Stones of course but we didn’t quite grow up with them in the same way that you did.”
I ask them about Eurobeat. Why are they so obsessed by that jolly, obnoxious boom-boom?
Benny volunteers: “That is the popular traditional music of the Northern Europe. Our folk songs sound like that. The first instrument I ever had was an accordion. My parents bought if for me when I was about ten.”
An accordion! It seems to almost symbolise the problem of Abba. It fits, but it’s hard to explain. Outside of maybe Clifton Chenier, as far as I’ve ever been concerned, the only good accordion is a dead accordion. I think we have maybe defined the culture gap, if not bridged it.
Earlier, in Stig Andersson’s office he had played me a cut called ‘Intermezzo’ from the album Abba. It’s obviously the prime example of Benny stretching out beyond the song Song For Europe format. It’s an instrumental from the Wakeman/Emerson/ Moraz bag, except the Eurobeat bounces through it. It is impressively put together. A lot of work and technical skill obviously went into it and it gets right up my nose. It also proves that Eurobeat is so deeply ingrained in the souls of these Swedes that they will probably never lose it.
The time comes when there’s no getting round the central unpleasant question: “How come you take so much trouble with the production of the music on your record and then stick these moronic lyrics over the top?”
I do my best to phrase it more politely, but it still comes out sounding mildly insulating.
To my surprise nobody is actually insulted. Benny shys away slightly. “We don’t want to write political songs. We don’t want to turn our records into speeches.”
I explain I didn’t mean politics, just imagery and content. Love songs can have a hell of a lot more depth than anything Abba have ever attempted. I point at examples like ‘Yesterday’, California Dreamin’ and ‘God Only Knows’. Bjorn looks thoughtful.
“I’m glad you brought this up. It is possible that we’ve been concentrating too much on the music and neglecting the lyrics. You have to realise that it is very hard to create images in a foreign language.”
You always write in English?
“Yes. So few people speak Swedish.”
It wouldn’t be possible to do something part English and part Swedish, the way McCartney used French in Michelle?
“Anything’s possible. I think we are becoming far more fluent in English. Since we’ve been touring we find it much easier to express ideas.”
The interview changes into a discussion of lyrics. Both Benny and Bjorn seem anxious to learn all they can. It could simply be a case of flatter-the-journalist-so-he-writes-nice-things, but I do get the feeling that these guys who have suddenly started producing world-side hits from what must be a musical backwater, want to soak up information like sponges.
The conversation moves on to morality.
Don’t you feel that, with Abba, you could almost be turning out a kind of palliative; jolly songs that create the illusion that things aren’t as bleak as they really are?
We are in the middle of a depression.
“We don’t plan in advance what we are going to do. We just go to our island and record whatever’s in our heads.”
Bjorn joins in: “We have not felt the effects of the depression too much in Sweden.”
I think about the people merrily knocking back their £3 drinks. Perhaps he’s right.
There’s one other thing I feel I ought to find out about. Abba are a group who have been promoted to a large extent by the medium of television. What do they do when they play live?
“We don’t play a great many concerts. It’s a problem to reproduce what we do on record live. When we do play we have something like 17 people on the stage.
“We also don’t like to be committed to lengthy tours. It means we can’t go out to our island and record. This is the most important thing.”
Surely when you go to America to play concerts you’re going to be pushed into the Las Vegas circuit?
“We don’t want to become a Vegas act.”
That is very firm. I wonder how these earnest Swedes are going to deal with the big league music Mafia.
You don’t feel the need to play regularly to a live audience?
“Not at the moment, but things are always changing.”
A bottle of Aquavit comes out and the interview winds down. I don’t really feel I’ve got the whole picture. I’m not sure I’d have it if I spent a whole week with Abba. Finally Bjorn drives us back to the hotel. This, in itself, is pretty unusual for a pop star.
I suppose that brings us back to where we came in: The gymnastic frug in the discotheque. Abba (and young Sweden, for that matter) appear serious, hard working, painstaking and eager.
Unfortunately, they don’t have natural rhythm. And that’s why Abba are Abba, and not The Beach Boys.
© Mick Farren, New Musical Express, 24 April 1976