Saturday, 6 February 2010

Muziek Expres, February 1981: The ABBA Business

Here’s part one of an interesting interview from Dutch pop magazine Muziek Expres that was held in November 1980 and published in February 1981.
The posters included here are from Dutch magazines Hitkrant and Pop Biz, that were published around the same time.

Frida Lyngstad, Anna Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. Four people who are responsible for record sales that are coming frightfully close to the world record that was set by the Beatles. Four people who have been responsible for the past five years for a pop virus that’s spreading all over the world: the ABBA Fever.
A golden team that owns a dictionary that consists of only one word: hits. And they are scoring them. One after the other. ABBA is the absolute phenomenon in the current pop business. And the smart pop machine keeps on producing. Creativity seems inexhaustible. How does this ABBA phenomenon actually work? Apart from gossip and slander, very little is actually known about the famous group. Therefore, this month we present you part one of a two-piece report: “The ABBA Business”. Rupert van Woerkom and Govert de Roos are reporting exclusively from Stockholm.

ABBA’s headquarter is situated in a grand mansion in the more expensive part of Stockholm. And Stockholm isn’t very cheap, for that matter. A beer at 7,50 Dutch guilders. A pack of cigarettes, 5 Dutch guilders. And of course, it doesn’t stop there...
When a taxi drops us off at Polar Music (the name of ABBA’s company) after a ten-minute drive (25 Dutch guilders), we are just in time to catch a glimpse of a ghastly photo session taking place on the lawn. The ABBA-boys are dressed in long mink coats, in between them the ABBA-girls dressed up as Santa Claus.
A while later at the top of the building. Hello Anna and Frida, hello Benny and Björn. ABBA smiles. The way ABBA always smiles. On the wrong side of their mouths. What’s even more remarkable: ABBA is complete. And that doesn’t happen very often lately. The quartet only gets together on a professional basis these days. Apart from that, they don’t. This only causes complications. As you know, half of the quartet – Anna and Björn – has separated. That’s why. I rather avoid questions about that subject. Indeed, they only agreed to do this interview under the strict condition that private matters would not be discussed. The reason for that is obvious. Nevertheless, the subject will come up in this interview.
The conversation has a rigid start. The ladies are doing all kinds of things in between. They chat with each other and sign Christmas cards, greeting cards, photo books and ‘Super Troupers’.
Their lack of interest is not received with thanks by me. That’s why I concentrate completely on Benny and Björn who are extremely talkative.
Later on, it turns out that it didn’t end there. The ladies feel as if they are redundant and demonstratively leave the room, but not before they’ve made it clear to me that I act “as if ABBA consists of two people” and that it’s “bullshit to talk about the criticism on ABBA instead of the music”. The ladies are gone. Good riddance. It will be a lot more fun talking to Benny and Björn. Especially about music.

Most articles about you have money and private matters as a subject. Doesn’t that make you sad?
Benny: “Money is a magical word. With ABBA, it’s actually the other way around. The work that we do, brings in the money. The work is magical. But whether there are these publications or not... you might say that we still get rewarded for our creative efforts. No matter how much negativity is written about us. We don’t always read it, but it does hurt.”
Björn: “In the first instance, the journalists themselves are to blame. We didn’t exactly cooperate. And the public is not to blame at all. They are the delusions of people who call themselves a journalist, which they are not, and work for magazines that deal in lies. They think that gossip is interesting for the public. That the public much rather wants to read sensational stories about the lives of the ABBA millionaires than about the music. I think that they are wrong...”
You don’t agree with the theory ‘publicity is publicity; it doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad’?
Björn: “That’s not the point. It’s about principles. You cooperate on a photo session and that’s a lot of fun. But then they add an absurd story to it.”
Benny: “There has never been a band, a band in our genre, that’s been taken seriously. You are only taken seriously when you play loud ‘heavy metal’, look interesting, write obscure lyrics or follow the pop trends closely. Only then, you are working seriously. And the most ridiculous criticism on what we are doing is that our motives would be commercial. But you have already made the commercial step when you turn fully professional and want to make a record. So commercialism isn’t a dirty word.”

Do you write your songs with a certain target group in mind?
Björn: “We don’t think about that. We only write for ourselves. We never think about which people we could reach with which songs. That has never been our aim. There was only one aim: making the kind of music that we liked. And it’s still like that. I’m extremely proud of what we are doing. That’s not arrogance, but pure enthusiasm.”
I’ve read somewhere that ABBA tries to reach every potential target group with their music?
Frida: “Oh, don’t be silly. You should never believe anything that you read.”
Even when I have written it myself? Like this interview?
Björn: “Well, almost everything that’s published about us has some untruths.”
Then why do you still give interviews?
Björn: “That’s a good one. Well, I can tell you this. We are far more selective nowadays. We think that the journalists of the few magazines that we still talk to won’t slander us.”
Benny: “You must have prepared yourself very well on this interview. I have no doubt about that. But you haven’t found the truth in all those clippings about us.”
Then it’s up to you to tell me what the truth is. (Benny and Björn burst into laughter). Sometimes, you are compared to the Beatles, when it comes to popularity, that is...
Benny: “The Beatles were a social phenomenon. Every comparison between ABBA and them is completely out of order. The success might be similar, but there are more groups that are having success. What they did was so unbelievable, so extreme. We are just a group like many other groups. We only have a little more success. The level that the Beatles have reached at the time, that level remains unbeatable. Did you know that the Beatles gave me the kick to start writing myself. Those first things with the Hep Stars and things like that, it was all the Beatles, man.”

Don’t Agnetha and Frida think it’s a shame that they are not writing songs anymore?
Agnetha: “I’m not as ambitious as the boys. Although I’m now going to write a song for the Swedish heat of the Eurovision Song Contest. I still have to write the song. Apart from that, singing with ABBA is an extremely tough job. Don’t forget that it’s the sound of ABBA. And it takes a lot of time as well. We are doing the vocal arrangements. I don’t believe that there are two masterminds in the group ABBA, but four. Even though Benny and Björn are doing all the preparatory work, that doesn’t mean that we don’t count.”
Frida: “We don’t miss the writing of the songs. We are satisfied with the way things are going now. For that matter, I’ve often wondered if I could ever write a better song than Benny and Björn. The answer is no. There’s an absolute democratic spirit in our group. All four of us make the decisions, but apart from that, we do have some kind of distribution of tasks. Everyone of us has their speciality. Where we are the sound, Benny and Björn create the possibilities for that sound. It’s all about the quality of our input and not about the quantity.”
Agnetha: “In the end, we are very creative in the studio. And that’s what I like most about this job. The recordings.”
Frida: “Furthermore, we do a lot of things besides ABBA. ABBA is definitely not our only sanctifying interest. For instance, I’m busy on a... how do you call that, Björn?”
Björn: “... a crash course...”
Frida: “... a crash course in French. That’s three months instead of two years.”
Benny: “But apart from that...”
Frida: “... I believe that the contributions by Agnetha and myself are just as important as Benny and Björn’s.”
Benny: “Definitely. Just imagine Björn and me doing all those television shows on our own. ABBA is nothing without Agnetha and Frida.”
Frida: “We would never continue working with ABBA if we wouldn’t have fun doing it.”
Björn: “One of the most important things that keeps the fun within the group at its highest level, is the fact that we don’t repeat ourselves. ABBA’s music is full of variations. There isn’t any song that resembles another and sometimes they are complete opposites. I also believe that’s ABBA’s forte. Because, artistically speaking, it remains identifiable, while it still changes all the time.”
Benny: “A lot is possible in the ABBA frame. Mostly, members of a group will go into the studio separately as well because the band that they are playing in is stuck in a certain musical pattern. That’s why they record a solo album. It gives them the opportunity to finally do something different. To satisfy their own creativity. We don’t need these solo albums. Simply because there are possibilities to do other things within the ABBA frame. ABBA is not stuck in one and the same musical pattern.”
Björn: “It seems very tiresome to me. The same style, time and time again...”
Anna and Frida’s Swedish cackling, straight through Benny and Björn’s answers, is starting to annoy the gentlemen. From the mouthful of annoyed Swedish coming from Björn, aimed at his female colleagues, I conclude that the ladies have to be quiet. He can’t concentrate and Benny nods as well.
This only adds fuel to the fire. First, we are overwhelmed by an abundance of female Swedish exclamations, then the twosome turns to me. They ask if I’ve forgotten that the agreement was to talk about ABBA’s music? And that ABBA consists of four persons and why I only concentrate on Benny and Björn? I try to defend myself by saying that my questions are first and foremost aimed at ABBA and not at any person in particular. And that the ladies are rather playing themselves down. They’ve had enough when I conclude my argument by saying that talking about a crash course in French is not relevant for this interview. Agnetha and Frida put on their masks of steel. If looks could kill.
Björn: “This wasn’t according to plan. I do not know what kind of nonsense this is. But don’t let it get you down. You know what women are like and we are still here, aren’t we.” He winks.
Benny: “Where were we?”
Björn: “The fun.”
Benny: “The fun has remained because we keep on doing different things. Of course, you might think that it’s easy to say now. But the proof is there. ‘Waterloo’ is something completely different than ‘Does Your Mother Know’.
Talking about ‘Waterloo’. Did you think at the time that a lot more was in store for you?
Björn: “We never thought it would get out of hand this massively.”
Benny: “But I did have the feeling that we were on to something that wouldn’t consist of only one hit. There was more to come, although it hadn’t been written yet. But that it would grow into these proportions, we didn’t even dream about that.”

What kind of standards do you have when you release a single?
Björn: “In principle, our aim is that every song that we compose, should be a potential hit single. When we go into the studio with a song, there should never be a feeling of: ‘we’re going to record a B-side’. It has to have single power, otherwise it’s not a good song.”
Benny: “We choose the singles, but the opinions of certain people obviously do count as well.”
How do you get to work?
Benny: “It starts at the beginning. Composing. Slaving away on an out of tune piano and, if necessary, an out of tune guitar. I can’t actually describe that stage. Something comes into existence from a couple of chords or a catchy lyric. ‘Super Trouper’, two exquisite words for a spotlight, because that is its literal meaning. The title was there before the song. It’s one of the few songs that we wrote in the studio. The exception proves the rule. Usually, we have a clear overview of a song in advance. In general, a song is already completely thought out before we’ve recorded one note. At the same time, ideas that originate in the studio are sometimes so good that they end up in the song as well.”
Sometimes, you are playing hit singles by other groups in the studio. Is this done to get in the mood or do you use parts of them as well?
Benny: “You mean that we are copying something? No, we don’t do that. Maybe, it’s done sometimes to get in the mood, yes. To create some kind of atmosphere. You can’t always explain everything in words. Sometimes an atmosphere from another song can do the trick.”
What are your sources of inspiration?
Björn: “Mostly separate singles, but if you do want to hear a couple of artists’ names, who are not only admired by us, but whose atmosphere can clearly be found in some ABBA-songs: Beach Boys, Beatles. BeeGees.”
Benny: “The Beach Boys can be found in every ABBA-song.”
How do you compile an album?
Benny: “We don’t have one specific concept. There is never a specific direction that we are moving in. We never know how an album will be like. That’s determined by the songs. They are all highly different from each other. We think in songs. Song by song. When we have an album full of songs, it will be released.”
Björn: “Actually, it’s been like that for years. We still have the same working method.”
Could you finish this sentence. ABBA became famous because of...
Björn: “Hundred thousand factors.”
Benny: “But first there was the music. That’s where it starts. Let’s just say that it’s wonderful when you’ve reached a recognizability. When people start to recognise your sound. And they always hear the voices first. I think it’s also a fact that our songs don’t have any gaps, that it’s one hundred percent music. From start to finish. And you can call the rest talent, for all I care. I think it’s a feeling.”
The best album is always the next one. Are you satisfied with ‘Super Trouper’?
Benny: “You are never satisfied...”
Björn: “‘Super Trouper’ is a warm album. Warmer than ever. It is a naked album, due to its simplicity. But I’ve never felt this warm while listening to an ABBA-album...”
Polar’s vice-president enters the room. Above all, she’s the group’s confidant. The conversation continues in Swedish. There’s a sudden mood swing. You can see it in the faces of both gentlemen.
Benny realises that we don’t understand what’s being said. “I’ll explain later...” What was up? ABBA would travel to Germany the next day for a performance on the television show Show Express. This was cancelled due to a telephonic kidnap threat that was confirmed in writing. ABBA thought that going to Germany was too dangerous and decided to cancel. Subsequently, the television show would go ahead anyway but then live from a Stockholm television studio, and especially without an audience. It was far too dangerous. Hence the uptight mood of the ladies. And now Benny says that he is strained as well. Because the two biggest Swedish evening papers Expressen and Aftonbladet have suggested a person to be kidnapped to the kidnappers: Linda (7), Agnetha and Björn’s daughter. She is even on the front page of Aftonbladet, looking sad. Words like ‘immoral’ and ‘those bastards’ are flying around. Interview over.

The next evening, seven o’clock sharp, we are standing at the gate of the Swedish television studio at Strindberggatan in Stockholm. The security inside makes a couple of phone calls, and the gates open. On our way to Studio B, the security is standing practically shoulder to shoulder. Dressed in camouflage green and equipped with flashlight, walkie-talkie and baton. The hermetically guarded studio makes a striking contrast to what’s happening outside. An intimate canteen party of sorts. ABBA having coffee and the thee extra musicians Ola Brunkert (drums), Mats Ronander (guitar) and Rutger Gunnarsson (bass), about ten television people complete the company, together with us.
Agnetha, Frida, Björn and Benny, in full regalia, have to take to the floor. The light above the sign ‘sändning’ pops on. It means broadcast, but it’s just a dress rehearsal for the three songs that will be recorded in half an hour: ‘The Winner Takes It All’, ‘Super Trouper’ and ‘On And On And On’ (the next single after ‘Super Trouper’). And to make things even more complicated. Nothing is left to chance. The broadcast in Germany will take place tomorrow night, but just in case something might go wrong on that particular evening, then they will have the tape that’s been recorded this evening.
The rehearsal and the recording. It all goes effortlessly. As if nothing has happened. That’s how ABBA looks. And that’s also how ABBA looks when Govert de Roos is allowed to take some pictures for a couple of minutes in a back corner of the studio. “One minute,” Agnetha shouts, but it appears to be a joke. Govert asks if she wants to see a Polaroid picture. “To get an idea of how it will turn out.” She nods and reacts with a “that’s nice”. Immediately followed by: “it’s not thát nice”. But that appears to be a joke as well.

2 comments:

LasVegasFan said...

What a fascinating article! The authors definitely did not seem charmed by the girls. Is there a Part II? Thank you for your hard work. I really enjoy reading all of the translations!

Michel said...

Thanks LasVegasFan! I appreciate your comment. And yes, there is a part 2 of this article. I'll have to dig it out somewhere, but eventually I will get to it.