An article from a Dutch newspaper about the book Bright Lights, Dark Shadows by Carl Magnus Palm.
It took a long time before ABBA was being recognized by pop-musicians. By that time, ABBA had long become tired of the fame. This is what Carl Magnus Palm writes in a voluminous book about the popular Swedish band’s history.
After winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974, the big success was waiting to happen. But things weren’t going well for the Swedish pop-group ABBA for a long time. The first concert-tour throughout Europe became a disaster; it left the members of the group with an aversion for outings like this. Apart from that, the punk-movement was claiming its territory. Punk was hip and from that corner, ABBA’s musical achievements were judged devastatingly.
It wasn’t until much later that punk-musicians admitted to having used ideas from ABBA’s work occasionally. Among them, The Sex Pistols. Things were probably even more difficult in their home country. The cultural elite was being commanded by the socialists. According to them, making money was a dirty industry at the time.
The progressive music-movement Progg nagged the group on many occasions. Musicians who wanted to work with ABBA, were being made clear that they could forget about the rest of their career. According to Progg, any amateur-musician was far superior to professional artists who wanted to make a living with solid music-productions. Despite all this, ABBA broke one sales-record after the other in Sweden. In the end, Progg was proven wrong. A group of Progg-musicians was visiting Cuba, in the hopes of getting revolutionary ideas about leftwing-oriented music. But the first thing they heard were enthusiastic questions about... ABBA.
Carl Magnus Palm has written about ABBA before. For his ‘Bright Lights, Dark Shadows’, he completed all his accumulated knowledge with stories of people who were actively involved in the ABBA phenomenon in one way or the other. ABBA was going against the grain, is the point that Palm gets across. The commercial success was highly at odds with the conscience of the leftwing cultural elite. It caused a permanent, severe criticism on the group in their own country. It wasn’t until the eighties, when ABBA had long disbanded, that the group was being recognized for their musical achievements.
In other parts of the world, the group was being butchered as well, despite the sales-successes. Anyone who claimed to have any serious pretensions in pop-music, clashed with everything ABBA stood for. Still, all major stars were following the Swedish quartet’s productions closely. It all sounded so simple, but ABBA’s catalog is full of ingenious harmonies, extraordinary chord changes and groundbreaking studio techniques.
In the early nineties, U2’s Bono was one of the first rock-stars who openly declared his admiration for ABBA’s work. Kurt Cobain was an ardent fan of the group. R.E.M. has played ABBA-repertoire, The Lemonheads and The Fugees gave their own interpretations of ABBA-songs or sampled characteristic hooks from the arrangements. ABBA has definitely had its influence on pop-music, is what Palm reasons. Not so much because of the unbelievable sales-figures, but more because of their musical approach and achievements in production. “ABBA have taken their place as a classic act, although this immediately causes big problems for rock-historians,” according to Palm. “They still don’t manage to grant ABBA their rightful place in pop-history, because American or English roots are absent.”
Palm’s voluminous biography is exploring the lives of the four ABBA-members Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad extensively. All of them had been active in the Swedish music-industry for a considerable amount of time, albeit with varying success. In the early seventies, slowly but surely, ABBA started to evolve from that. It wasn’t a concept that was thought out in advance, the author makes clear. But the road to commercial success was planned carefully.
Manager and music-publisher Stig Anderson took care of that. He had made his way from poor slob to successful music-publisher and he wanted to show the rest of the world that a country like Sweden was capable of producing a world class act. With the help of the Eurovision Song Contest, he rocketed his group to the top.
Anderson was a controversial character in the Swedish music-business. He liked to see himself as the man at the top of what was to become a prominent business-empire. But the alcoholic manager made one mistake after the other and became the laughing-stock of the Swedish business-world. He died in 1997, stripped of all illusions he once cherished. Palm accurately describes the interferences of the man who was, according to him, undeservedly called the fifth ABBA-member. It’s an intriguing picture, just like he’s portraying the four group-members as ordinary people. Stripped of all the madness of their glory days, they turn out to be four vulnerable people with hot-tempered personalities, doubts and fears.
If there’s one thing that becomes clear from this biography, it’s that ABBA has lasted so long, against all odds. The enormous success was a big burden on the shoulders of the foursome. It resulted in intense confrontations. Not so much between the two singers, although this often has been claimed with firmness. But more between the two couples.
The four ABBA-members get to have their extensive say in this biography as well. Twenty years on, they’re looking back on that turbulent time with a refreshing insight. They elaborate on the reasons for the, for the fans unexpected, end in the early eighties. Anni-Frid Lyngstad doesn’t beat around the bush: “We were tired of each other. We had gone through so much with each other that the fun had disappeared.”