Abba: the sound of business

TO STIG Anderson, it’s a familiar story. “I’ve seen it all a hundred times,” says Abba’s business manager, record company president and lyricist. “First, we get the Number One hit; then the fan mail, the calls and letters; and then the merchandising companies approach us.”

The Number One hit was ‘Dancing Queen’, Abba’s first Number One in America, after a slew of Top Ten hits, and the rest is following on schedule. America is Abba’s final frontier.

They’re already the biggest pop group Europe has seen in years, the number one group across the continent, including England. In countries as diverse as Australia (where Best of Abba sold 860,000 copies in a nation of 14 million) and Turkey, Abba are huge stars; in fact, no one is bigger. Worldwide, they have sold 27 million singles, 12 million albums. The U.S. could up those figures by 25%, but it’s only the icing on the cake: with the possible exception of the Eagles, no group in the world has sold as many records over the last three years as Abba.

But Abba’s rise has been more methodical than meteoric, leading some to suspect that the group is more interested in marketing than music. Anderson insists that this is a canard. “If you’re writing good songs, why shouldn’t the marketing be as good as the rest of it?” he asks. “After all, this is the first time in the history of show business that there has been 100% artistic control of writing, marketing, recording and record label. We’re just not giving it away to some third, fourth, fifth or sixth party.”

Abba’s music is as tightly controlled as that dialogue. Every song, not just a few, rides on sprightly rhythms, bounces from melodic hook to melodic hook and is overlaid with the chiming vocals of Agnetha (Anna) Faltskog and Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad. It is just the sort of music that, years ago, dominated the American Top 40 — intense beat, frothy instrumentation and well-sung lyrics, much like Cyrkle’s ‘Red Rubber Ball’.

But there is a communal thrust to all of this. Anna is married to Bjorn Ulvaeus, one of the group’s principal writer/producers and its guitarist; Frida lives with Benny Andersson, the other writer/producer and the group’s organist. Bjorn and Benny sing too; in fact, as Bjorn and Benny, they released a 1971 LP in Sweden. In 1972 they and then publisher Stig Anderson decided to “make hits for the world,” and found they had the necessary vocal presence right in the family — Anna and Frida. Stig became the lyricist, because his trade for many years had been translating foreign hits for the Swedish market. (At one time in the Sixties, he says, every other song on the Swedish chart had his words.)

By 1974 Abba’s ‘Waterloo”‘ had won the Eurovision song contest; it eventually sold 5 million copies, plus another 3 million albums, worldwide. The group by now was recording for the label Anderson had set up for them, Polar (it also records local Swedish artists), and Stig was shrewd enough to shop for the proper record label in each nation. And they used TV effectively, spreading Anna’s and Frida’s likenesses everywhere in the pop press, tabloid dailies and on posters.

Abba’s attitudes toward their native Sweden are contradictory. On the one hand, they leave each winter (a big part of the year in that region), write English lyrics (“Because,” says Anderson, “that’s the international musical language”) and — Anderson insists — “have nothing to do with Sweden.” On the other hand, they record local artists on Polar and continue to reside legally in Sweden, despite a confiscatory 85% tax rate.

Anderson considers the tax rate ample evidence that the group isn’t completely mercenary. He admits the music is commercial — the group does get the U.S. Hot 100 to listen to every week — but claims that it is also natural. “Some people believe we are doing this for money’s sake, but we aren’t,” he says. “Otherwise, why would we be such perfectionists, turning out only one LP per year? It’s also fun — the money comes with it.”

But if they aren’t in it just for bucks, what’s next, after the conquering of America? “I don’t know,” Anderson says. “Yesterday I said the moon.” Currently, a movie is being prepared (much footage was shot during the group’s recently concluded Australian tour) which involves a disc jockey in hot pursuit of an interview with Abba; there’s also some thought about doing a musical for the legitimate theater. Either venture should be more successful than when, years ago, Anderson approached Ingmar Bergman to inquire why the director didn’t try using Swedish pop music in his movies, as American and English directors had used pop from their countries. “He didn’t say anything,” Anderson remembers. “But his next film was called The Silence.”

When they’re bored with it, Abba says they’ll quit. In the meantime, Anderson insists defiantly that Abba’s hit-singles success comes from no formula at all. “I’ll tell you what I tell everyone who asks that — if it’s a formula, why don’t you go out and find it?”

© Dave MarshRolling Stone, 14 July 1977

Leave a Comment