Saturday, 17 October 2009

Veronica, October 1979: ABBA is coming – success world tour exceeds all expectations

An article from Dutch magazine Veronica, published shortly before ABBA’s Dutch concert on their 1979 tour.
In the night of October 23, more than 7.000 ABBA-fans will barely be able to sleep a wink, if at all. Those are the happy few that have managed to obtain a ticket for the concert that the popular Swedish group will give at the Rotterdam Ahoy venue on October 24. Hours before the start of the show, they will be lining up in front of the Ahoy, over and over again checking if their precious entrance ticket is still in their pockets. The lines will be varying in ages from 6 to 60. Because ABBA is offering entertainment for the whole family. The hits will be sung along to word for word. A performance in Holland is like a home match for ABBA. Only in Australia, more ABBA-records were sold per head of the population.

The one-off concert in Holland, although the demand for tickets exceeded the supply approximately a hundred times, is part of a still expanding world tour that kicked off on September 13 in the Canadian city Edmonton. A flying start, at which the more than 20.000 strong audience almost tore the place apart. After Canada, it was the United States’ turn, still the most important pop country. It marked the first time in their existence that ABBA dared to face the Americans. Unique, when you consider that the group has already achieved a remarkable string of gold singles and platinum albums over there, merely thanks to a couple of television performances and an effective promotional campaign.

In America, you have to be mighty persuasive to get the public, that gets overflowed with hundreds of new records every week, interested in the musical achievements of a couple of fresh-looking young people from Sweden. Nevertheless, the clever promoters succeeded with slogans like ‘ABBA – the group that sold more records than the Beatles’. Even the imperturbable editors of authoritative pop magazines like Rolling Stone and Cream took notice of this. As a consequence, they started to pay extensive attention to the Swedish phenomenon. Because selling more records than the Beatles, who are still considered gods in America, is not a flimsy affair. Although this doesn’t say anything about the quality. But coincidentally, that’s at a very high level with ABBA as well. Because, although the outward image is mainly defined by the angelic Agnetha and the red-haired Anni-Frid, about whom a British reporter once wrote that she is so sexy that she could get the tower of Pisa to stand in an upright position, for years the extremely talented Vikings Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson have been responsible for a neverending string of exquisite compositions that are all good for millions of sales.
Time and time again, family matters were given as a reason for an American tour failing to occur. Fact is that the ABBAs have a big family. Björn and Agnetha, who formed a fairytale couple of sorts until their divorce, have two children. Anni-Frid and Benny, who were given a hard time in moralizing magazines until they got married, both brought along children from previous marriages. But the true reason was that manager Stig Anderson thought that ABBA simply wasn’t ripe yet for a successful attack on the Americans. That’s why he let the group gather experience in the rest of the world, where their success was secure in advance. Apart from that, the record sales in countries such as Japan, Germany and England was so gigantic that America wasn’t really necessary. Stig let his joyous quartet stimulate the American record sales with a performance in Olivia Newton-John’s TV-show, one of their opponents in Brighton, and short promotional trips to important radio stations. The results were very good.

It was the same Stig Anderson, an institute as a musician in his home country, who grasped the qualities of the foursome when they were still fooling around without any direction in the early seventies. In the sixties, Björn and Benny had been playing in well-known Swedish groups, that came to an end due to declining success and financial mismanagement. As a daughter of a bandleader, blonde Agnetha had an easy start of her career and through a part in Jesus Christ Superstar (she must have been the first blonde Mary Magdalene) she became a Swedish Trea Dobbs of sorts. Frida was the result of a short affair between her Norwegian mother and a German officer who beat a retreat after he had shot his bolt. Only recently, he was tracked down in Germany and father and daughter met each other for the first time. Agnetha and Anni-Frid, not hindered by any sense of rhythm, are the strongest eye-catchers that a group could ever wish for.
But in 1972, they were only the girlfriends of the ‘stars’ Björn and Benny and they were allowed to assist the twosome, then already under Stig’s supervision, vocally on a couple of records. Stig thought this combination was dynamite and urged the quartet to tighten their collaboration. They agreed. After all, this allowed them to mix business with pleasure. At the end of 1972, ‘People Need Love’ was released worldwide after some success in a Song Contest in Tokyo. Eventually, the record label only mentioned Björn and Benny but at Stig’s insistence, the girls were added as well. In America, they were still named Björn, Benny and Svenska Flicka. After this early success, Björn and Benny were ready to take America by storm. But Stig suggested that they should concentrate on conquering Scandinavia and Europe first. A shortcut to the European record-buying public is the Eurovision Song Contest, that attracts about 500 million viewers on a yearly basis. However, in 1973, their ‘Ring Ring’ didn’t manage to get any further than a third place in the Swedish pre-selections. Nevertheless, the single became a hit in several countries outside Sweden. Among others, it achieved a high placing in the Veronica Top 40. It was our first acquaintance with ABBA who, at the despair of many DJ’s who had never got to start a course of Swedish for beginners, were still named Björn, Benny, Anni-Frid and Anna. Stig acknowledged this problem for the non-Swedish DJ’s and changed their name to ABBA. Under protest of the group members, because in Sweden that’s a familiar brand of canned herring.

In Brighton in 1974, they hit the mark with ‘Waterloo’. The rest of Europe, including Olivia Newton-John and our Mouth and McNeal among others, were resolutely sung to a distance. The victory was followed by a couple of television performances in most European countries and a short tour. The success of the Swedes hadn’t remained unnoticed in America either. Sid Bernstein, an American promoter who had managed to sign up the Beatles for the gigantic Shea Stadium, offered Stig to set up a tour in the States. Stig was not at all keen about it. He pointed out to the group that record sales had to generate the big money in the fist instance, because extensive tours were getting ever more costly. After ‘Waterloo’, the group scored a couple of minor hits, but achieved a definitive breakthrough at the start of ’76 with ‘Mamma Mia’, a song that made ABBA a household name all over the world. They consolidated their position on the world market with songs like ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Fernando’, ‘Money, Money, Money’ and so on. The British trade journal New Musical Express called their music a stylish combination of the Beatles and Phil Spector.
The idea for a documentary about the group on tour grew into a full-length movie: ‘ABBA – The Movie’. Björn and Benny developed into renowned songwriters, slightly less ingenious than Lennon and McCartney, but ever so successful, judging by the sales figures. To be able to work for long periods of time and without interruption, an old movie theatre in Stockholm was rebuilt into a studio. It has such quality that groups like Led Zeppelin and Genesis are using it as well. On a business level, Stig kept a tight rein. Everything remained under one umbrella: the music publishing company, the merchandise and so on. Stig only doesn’t have a hold over piracy. It is assumed that in Hong Kong and Singapore, five illegal pressings are being sold in one regular ABBA-record. This didn’t prevent ABBA from becoming the bestselling group of all time.

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