On the eve of Abba’s British live debut, Harry Doherty looks at the reasons for their amazing success — and asks the rock biz for its verdict.
A FEW million fans will, through no fault of their own, miss Abba when their tour winds its way to Britain next week. It’s funny to think that about six months ago in a little fish restaurant in the centre of Stockholm, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson, the writers and producers in the group, cautiously quizzed me on their “ambitious” plan to play at a major London venue.
They intended to play at Wembley Empire Pool and doubts had set in as to whether they were capable of filling the place. Little did we know that, having finally settled for the Royal Albert Hall, public interest would be enough to fill the hallowed interior of that prestigious venue something like 300 times over.
At that stage. I recall, plans for Abba’s first world tour were nearing completion. Björn and Benny were nervous. The big moment was at their doorsteps, when Abba, who had charmed supporters all over the world with their neatly manufactured pop records and warm promotional films. would leave their Scandinavian retreat and place themselves in front of audiences for examination.
It would be a concise tour, they decided, in some areas taking in only one concert per country, and if there wasn’t perfection, the much-respected name and pop legend of Abba could very easily be blown.
A living legend they are. In Britain it’s roughly reckoned that one in every ten homes has an Abba record in the family vinyl collection. In Australia, which has gone absolutely nuts over the Swedish smilers, the same calculations are even more incredible. There, it’s said that one in every three families has a copy of Abba’s Greatest Hits album.
That, my friends, puts a new slant on the word “popular”. It’s shattering to ponder upon what their reputation will jet to when they finally break the States.
That is certain to happen this year.
But Abba have no intention of blowing it when they hit the stage. From reports of concerts already seen in Europe, it appears that audiences have sat open-mouthed when they found that the group could reproduce their hit singles note for note, without a fault. Abba, mind you, make sure that there are no gaps. Behind the four in the group — Björn (guitar), Benny (keyboards) and vocalists Frida Lyngstad and Anna Fältskog — there are ten other musicians and three more female singers.
Nor have they been content, it seems, to satisfy the basic instincts of their audience and leave it at that, as one would expect them to do. Their two-hour show also includes what manager Stig Anderson describes as a “mini-musical”, for which they have acquired the services of an English actor. Manager Anderson explained why they decided to take the stage set a step further than the predictable.
“It’s something we have been discussing for some time. Let’s just say that it’s a first step to write a little musical, which is something we have been dreaming of for years. The segment in the show is a forerunner to something else, a complete musical perhaps. It adds a new dimension to Abba and shows the abilities and possibilities for the future.
“Maybe we’ll do it next year. One of the reasons we’ll be doing the musical is that we don’t want to do the same things we have done before. We would like to develop all the time, come up with new ideas and. if they are worthy, put them into action.”
Another “idea”, he revealed, was a major feature film Abba were working on. It would be semi-documentary and much of it is being filmed on their tour. The first scenes are to be shot outside the Royal Albert Hall next week. Swedish writer Lars Holstrom is preparing a script, and the film and the soundtrack from it are due out around October.
Anderson is the man who has astutely guided Abba to their phenomenal world-wide success. Back home in Sweden, he is accepted as the fifth member of the group, just as Brian Epstein was seen as the “fifth Beatle” and Roy Thomas Baker, until last year, as “the fifth Queen.”
As well as handling the business end of affairs, however, Anderson also dabbles in writing with the group members. He is credited with penning four tracks on the latest album, Arrival, including ‘Dancing Queen’, as well as some of the older hits, ‘Mamma Mia’, ‘SOS’ and ‘Fernando’. Versatile indeed.
He claims the credit for noticing the potential that Ulvaeus and Anderson possessed. His partnership with Björn goes back to 1964 when Ulvaeus played in a group called the West Bay Singers. Anderson renamed them the Hootenanny Singers, which eventually grew into Abba. The girls had been following solo careers until their respective boyfriends persuaded them that the way forward was as a singing quartet.
Frida, in fact, is still enjoying enormous success as a solo artist and still releases her own solo albums. One of them, Frida Ansam (with a sleeve photograph so sensuous that it would make the Leaning Tower of Pisa stand to attention), is a collection of cover versions sung in her native Swedish tongue.
Titles include Bowie’s ‘Life On Mars’, the Beach Boys’ ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ and 10cc’s ‘Wall Street Shuffle’, as well as the original Swedish version of ‘Fernando’.
The album, available only in Scandinavia unfortunately, portrays Frida as a very strong and emotive singer and shows the true value of the music, that if sung properly and with enough feeling, it transcends all language barriers.
With Stig Anderson at the wheel, Abba then prepared to take on the rest of Europe and, with a song called ‘Ring Ring’ entered the Swedish competition to decide who would represent the country in the Eurovision Song Contest.
They finished a mere third however, and had to wait a year for their turn, in 1974, when they bopped back with a little tune called ‘Waterloo’, which was a gem among the crap that was performed at that year’s Eurovision, held, if you remember, in Brighton.
Anderson, though, has been taken by as much surprise, as everybody else by Abba’s meteoric climb to fame and fortune.
“I could always see that Björn and Benny had great ability as song-writers. That was so evident. I knew they would be able to make a world-wide name for themselves as writers. I was thinking more of them writing songs for world stars and being writers and publishers rather than performers. But it turned out better than that. It happened that they did their own songs better than anybody else. It’s been a fairy-tale since.”
Whether they had won the Eurovision or not, he felt, success for Abba was certain anyway.
“We had been big on the Continent before Eurovision. ‘Ring Ring’ was a hit before ‘Waterloo’ in 1973. That’s when it started to happen. We saw what could be done. That’s when we made up our minds about the future.
“We sat down after ‘Ring Ring’ and worked out what was wrong with it, trying to sort out why it was a hit for some of the continent but not for southern Europe and England. Then, in the next year, we decided to write something that was more of a pop song and which would change the Eurovision Song Contest situation.
“Most of the songs in it were very bompa-bompa and we wanted to change that. English songwriters write these really corny songs for England all the time and we wanted to come up with something new.
“The Eurovision was a big break but all Eurovision winners are mostly just a one-shot success and many people suspected that it was the same for Abba. It took some time to convince them that that wasn’t the case with us. We knew that if we kept putting out good records, they would break through eventually.
“But the Eurovision really just made things happen faster for Abba. It would have happened regardless of it. After all. America and Australia aren’t interested in the Eurovision.”
Abba’s formula writing since then has earned the respect of a broad spectrum of musicians. Even the punks acknowledge that it has its good points. Very few musicians will knock their music, a reflection of Abba’s capabilities.
Eno is an admirer and says he likes their singles. On the other hand, Roger Chapman, of the Streetwalkers, commented “Snore” — such a positive reaction from an “important” contemporary singer and writer to a phenomenon.
Another Abba fan is Nicky Chinn, who, with Mike Chapman, epitomises the British formula writing team. In four different pop fields, Chinnichap have successfully manipulated and wrung the last drops out of their formula with bands like Sweet, Mud, Suzi Quatro and, their latest acquisitions, Smokie.
“They make some of the best pop records in the world today,” Chinn said. “They write very good songs and when I say very good songs, I mean that they are always different. I don’t think ‘Money Money Money’ was their best but ‘Dancing Queen’ was a classic and so was ‘Fernando’. They just keep coming up with terrific songs.
“The production is immaculate. It’s absolutely perfect. Their whole set-up, in fact, is really good. Those promotional films they keep sending over are really excellent. I find it very difficult to fault them at all.
“Writing like that may be something you are born to do but it takes a long time to find out you’ve got it. Once you’ve got it, one of the reasons it’s not hard for them to come up with good stuff is that they know the market they’re aiming at and it’s fairly, formula-oriented, which isn’t a criticism.
“They’re clever enough to know where they’re going. Once you’ve got something that works to a formula, and is also quite musical, sometimes it’s easier than changing style with every record.
“But I also think that in a year or so, the public may be wanting Abba to develop and the trend they are on at the moment may not be as successful. They’ll want a little more. It’s like the Beatles realised that ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘Please Please Me’ wasn’t enough and came out with ‘Yesterday’.
“I’ve noticed that a lot of people have decided to compare them to the Beatles. They may be comparable in terms of sales, but the Beatles had something very special in their songs and their whole approach, and I don’t think Abba have reached that stage yet.
“You’ve also got to bear in mind that Abba have the marketing know-how behind them. Ten or 12 years ago the record companies didn’t have that. God knows what the Beatles would have sold if they had.
“So one thing Abba must work to in about a year’s time is something of a change, because trends change quickly in this business and the formula pop record they have tended to come out with so far might not be as acceptable. If they want their market to move with them instead of beyond them, they have got to do something a little different and special.
“Personally, I think that they have got to come up with a ballad soon. If I were Abba, I would be saying that in a record or two’s time, we’ve got to come out with a hell of a ballad, before their public gets tired. For instance, the last single (‘Money Money Money’) could have been better, and the public reacted to this.
“As far as they were concerned, it wasn’t in the groove and they weren’t going to buy it. I mean, Abba should have had the Christmas number one, even before Johnny Mathis, but their public showed that what they presented wasn’t exactly what they wanted.
“I would imagine that they have got it in them to move on and develop, but only time will tell. This is the thing about a phenomenon. Will it last? Theirs will, I think. They have a couple of very bright guys in that group.
“I was thinking the other day about the late Sixties and early Seventies, just after the Beatles split and heavy bands, like Led Zeppelin, started to sell really well. Heaviness was the thing. The last thing one expected to see was a pop group to come along.
“I can’t answer why. Maybe there are two reasons. One is that they make tremendous records. The other is that the world is a depressed place at the moment and many people want to be happy. Abba have a very pretty image. It’s very attractive. Everyone loves each other and all that.
“That was what people wanted. Everybody suddenly got fed up with four-minute solos. So timing had a lot to do with it. I’m sure that if they had happened two years earlier, it might not have meant a thing. Abba would have been just another hit group and nothing more. But the people now are ready for that type of image and they became much more than just another hit group.”
Of course, there has been more to Abba than the exceptional talent of writing and performing outstanding pop songs. There’s an operation behind them — so slick and effective that little is left to chance.
In Britain, Abba are on CBS. Consider their list of hit singles last year: ‘Mamma Mia’ came into the charts in January and started dropping after about ten weeks. When signs of a decline surfaced ‘Fernando’ was put out and hung around for 13 weeks before sales fell, when, in August, ‘Dancing Queen’ took up the baton, staying in the chart for the same lengthy period.
And when it showed signs of faltering, out came ‘Money Money Money’. Obviously the same relay operation is being put into action this year. ‘Money Money Money’ is slipping. The new single has already been nominated. ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’ is out on February 18.
But to get to the real backbone of Abba’s ultra-businesslike approach you’ve got to drift across Europe to Stockholm, to Polar Music and Stig Anderson in the suburbs of that beautiful city. Anderson has the entire situation off to a tee.
The rundown is this. Abba have their own publishing and recording company in Scandinavia, but throughout the world, their music appears on a wide variety of labels. CBS. of course, in Britain; Atlantic in America; RCA in Australia; Polydor in Germany and other parts of Europe; and Disco-Mates — a subsidiary of the Tokyo Broadcasting System — in Japan.
Abba are signed to each of those labels for a maximum of only three years. The logic is that if the label doesn’t get it together, then they lose the group when their contract comes up for renewal.
This ingenious system is all down to manager Anderson, whose 15-year experience in the music business has taught him a thing or two. He proudly spoke about his handling of their affairs. “This is also something that never happened before, not even with the Beatles. With the publishing company, I learned from my experiences with all other European companies I handled for Scandinavia. I told the group that from the beginning, we must have a very good operation so that if it happened one day, we would be ready for it. It is really 100 per cent control, over records, writing and publishing.
“As far as the different record companies go, I knew that one big record company could be very good in one territory, but it’s not for sure that it’s good in all territories, so I picked them all by hand. That keeps it much more specialised and everybody knows that they’ve got to do a good job or else the contract is terminated.”
The Japanese deal has just expired and America is due soon. No doubt, they will be put under Anderson’s microscope and all flaws pinpointed. Yep, Abba’s home industry is indeed incredible.
But Abba, says Anderson, are careful that the business doesn’t get too tangled up in the music. They are aware that they work to something of a formula at the moment but they won’t stay that way.
“We have discussed the development of the group. The philosophy is that we will try to come up with new things all the time, hence things like the film. To do the same things all the time is boring.
“But one of the reasons we have the success we have is that we think it’s fun to write songs and be in the music business. It’s a funny business and we love it.
“Anything can happen in show business. Two years ago, nobody in the world would have dreamed that something like this would come in from the cold. Who the hell thought this could happen in Sweden? In this business, you see, you can be sure of nothing.
“First, the States was the centre of music. Then, in the Sixties, the Beatles came along and all of a sudden, English music became hot and London became the centre of the music world. But they forgot the rest of Europe, and then Sweden comes along and now the music people consider that anything can happen anywhere in the world. It’s good, not only for Sweden but all the continent.
“If a man comes from somewhere like Belgium now with his group, they will listen good. They are starting to learn that music is something that belongs to all of the world, not just to one part.” •
JUSTIN HAYWARD: “They’re the best quality record-making machine in the last 10 years. I’m not sure about their image, but I suppose they need to do something like that to help sell. My wife is their number one fan. I’ve got tickets for their concert.”
ERIC STEWART (10cc): “They’re an excellent commercial group and their records are superbly produced. I loved the bass part on their last record. I think they fill a very necessary gap in the market. Musically, I’m impressed. They’re a competent band.”
JOHN MILES: “I admire their production technique. They’re great singers, too. I always enjoy hearing them on the radio, although I don’t play their albums at home.”
JOHN ENTWISTLE (The Who): “Greatest Hits is the one I’ve got. The clothes are a bit up the wall and their image is a bit up the wall but their records are very good. We don’t see much of the fellas in the group. They always seem to be off camera. I know just how they feel. I like them a lot but there’s something vaguely depressing about two Swedish ladies singing in English. Maybe they record their vocals backwards and it comes out that way.”
JOHN ELLIS (guitarist with the Vibrators): “Actually, I think Abba are very good. It doesn’t really matter what they look like as long as they make your feet tap and you can enjoy them. We both play music. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t like Abba and Abba shouldn’t like the Vibrators.”
PAT TRAVERS: “I’ve always got off on their singles. They’re really good quality. I don’t mind hearing them on the radio but I don’t think I would buy a ticket for their concert. Whoever writes their songs is musically interesting.”
NIGEL PEGRUM (Steeleye Span): “I admire them tremendously for their business set up. Even when I saw them on the Eurovision, I thought they stuck out a mile as having universal appeal. I’d go to their concert if I could, more out of curiosity than an evening’s entertainment.”
DUNCAN MACKAY (Cockney Rebel): “They’re a great middle-of-the-road group, probably one of the best in the world. They’re very well produced with a very clean sound.”
ARIEL BENDER: “I’m not that familiar with them apart from their singles, but they are certainly the best in that field. Although I wouldn’t go out of my way to buy or listen to one of their records, I wouldn’t object to listening to them.”
KEVIN COYNE: “I like ’em. They make well-produced records with lyrics that suggest concern for humanity, like ‘Money Money Money’. I’ll give it four.”
© Harry Doherty, Melody Maker, 12 February 1977