Sunday, 21 March 2010

Muziek Parade, August 1977: The ABBA Story, part 4

Perhaps the failure of ‘Ring Ring’ in 1973 has led to an inspiration with big consequences. ‘Waterloo’ became the Swedish entry for the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton. And everyone knows what ‘Waterloo’ means: the end, failure, defeat. Alas, ABBA did not meet their ‘Waterloo’ in England. Even better, the fab four presented themselves to an audience of millions with a gusto that hasn’t been equalled yet. ABBA presented themselves so forcefully that now it seems that they will never disappear again.
The entire Anderson enterprise had joined in this peaceful but oh so commercial march to Brighton. With a precision, worthy of a military assault, Stikkan had figured everything out. As a commanding officer, he headed the campaign that should lead to only one goal: the conquest of millions of hearts. That’s one reason why they opted for the title ‘Waterloo’, as though it was a double challenge.
What had preceded Brighton? Stikkan had sent a memo to all his business friends all over the world, asking them to let him know exactly what was going on in the music business. Which trends are out there? Which rhythms are up and coming? At which sound will the judges prick up their ears and give high marks? His ‘secret agents’ sent Stig reports that were just as secretive, a desk full, and as a true chief of staff, Stikkan knew how to straighten everything out and... pass it on to Benny and Björn.
Step by step, ‘Waterloo’ was born. Step by step, it was puzzled out which clothes should be worn. Step by step, the act was worked out. Step by step, the international media were won over. Step by step, the enemy was driven away.
‘Waterloo’ would be understandable for the Japanese, but for the viewing public in Bulgaria as well. An up-tempo song was a good international choice at the time. When all this research was completed, the song was born. Stikkan and Björn spent hundreds of hours on that. The simpler a song and a presentation seem to be, the more sweat is at its foundation. With his somewhat cynical trademark smile, Stig now reduces matters to a proportion that’s just a bit too simple: “We were looking for and found a staccato boom-boom sound with a strong upbeat tune.” Well, it wasn’t that simple, Stig knows better than that.
Björn said: “Perhaps the song sounds a bit computer-like. I don’t blame anyone for thinking something like that. We played it safe. We weren’t allowed to make any mistakes, that would have damaged our reputation to the extent that we would have had to start all over again. Despite the fact that we played it safe, I still think that ‘Waterloo’ is a good song. I still believe that today. All three of us have worked very hard on it.” The three of them – Stig, Benny and Björn – wanted to achieve only one thing: the top. And that’s why that title ‘Waterloo’ was so nicely borrowed from a history book.
Apart from the musical part – the song, the arrangement – Stig had to take care of the visual effect as well. “You only have three minutes,” Stig says to MP, “and within these three minutes, it has to happen. The song has to work. The group has to be good. The presentation has to be flawless. In three minutes, you have to impress millions and millions of viewers. Not an easy task.”

Firstly, Stig made sure that the conductor was dressed in a Napoleon costume, complete with the crosswise hat. That was a great start already. Usually, these conductors take to the stage in their black outfits, they all look the same. This conductor won the audience over immediately. The first difficult hurdle had been taken. ABBA had to outshine the conductor with their costumes. That’s why Stig opted for glittery outfits that were so colourful and outrageous that even Gary Glitter’s costumes paled in comparison. Silk clothes, embroidered with all kinds of frills.
The people that didn’t favour ABBA had been removed from the judging panel and the audience was full of young people who understood what ABBA were doing. Alas, the sixteen other finalists paled into insignificance. ‘Waterloo’ had turned into a victory. The Spanish Armada had been defeated. Hardly recovered from their national victory, the question came up whether there would be any chances for ABBA to win in Brighton. Stig Anderson: “I can only say: we are going to win.”
And that’s how simple things are with a man like Stikkan Anderson. Shortly before the national final, he had decided not to present themselves as Björn, Benny, Agnetha and Anni-Frid any longer, but as ABBA. “It’s no use making things complicated for the people. ABBA is right. ABBA is understandable for everyone.”
The battle at ‘Waterloo’ had been won, but that didn’t mean that the four of them could rest on their laurels. It was like a series of European Cup games. In the quarter finals, you have beaten a team and right after that you are focussed on the semi final. It was the same thing with ABBA.
The single ‘Waterloo’ was released in every European country and Stig Anderson saw to it personally that all efforts were made to get this record into the charts. Stig sent out his people from public relations to do a lot of preparatory work for Brighton. In Sweden alone, he spent no less than 50.000 Swedish Crowns (at the time about 40.000 Dutch guilders) to display ABBA posters on every corner. Stig: “With ‘Ring Ring’ we had already cracked a lot of markets for the group. To me, it proved that ABBA appealed to an international audience. With ‘Waterloo’, the major breakthrough just had to come. There would be no way of stopping it.”

With ABBA, the inferiority complex of the Swedish show business had disappeared as well. Up till then, people had generally laughed when Swedish or other Scandinavian acts were discussed. For instance, they burst into loud laughter about the pronunciation. But that was all over now. Brighton was only a few weeks away and ‘Waterloo’ had already sold 110.000 singles and 97.000 albums in Sweden. Stig Anderson might have been full of confidence (and rightly so), but the ABBA members weren’t convinced yet. The superstitious Anni-Frid put on her good-luck charm again: a Mexican sombrero, that she didn’t take off up till Brighton. She wore that hat for a full two weeks, even in bed. Benny: “Indeed, that hat is our good-luck charm. I call it ‘our good luck hat’. People tend to laugh about it, but in show business you are superstitious. Therefore, when you see Anni-Frid wearing that hat, we are up to something very special. She even wore that hat in bed and you can imagine how awkward that is, but up till now it has always been worth it.”
ABBA has another good-luck charm: Björn’s star-shaped guitar. In other words: the conductor in a Napoleon costume... the girls in glittery outfits... the boys in their shiny, tight suits... Björn’s star-shaped guitar... the song ‘Waterloo’... all that ABBA had to say was: “Just try to ignore us now.”
In Brighton, not everything was looking prosperous. For some reason, ABBA was some kind of outsider. The people, especially journalists, were being rather negative and asked questions like ‘who do you think you are and what exactly is it that you do’ and ‘are you having a day off from school’.
It was Anni-Frid who managed to win these journalists over with her charming – but oh so sharp – answers. One wondered: ‘who is this well-mannered, courteous girl? You will not find many of those in show business.’ Anni-Frid was proclaimed the ‘Lady’ of the contestants, she had class, and she had the guts to speak up to the international media. She says: “It’s no trouble for me. It’s not my merit. It comes naturally.”
We haven’t talked about another good-luck charm yet. Even ABBA doesn’t talk about it much. It’s a textile donkey. A rather large doll, that’s not that easy to move around. But this donkey had helped ABBA through the Swedish final (ABBA says) so it should be present in England as well. The flight from Stockholm to London differed somewhat from the other trips that ABBA had made. Usually, there’s a lot of laughing and jokes are being told. But this time, the group just sat together, all of them in thoughts about the final. Seldom had a group been more motivated. “We didn’t talk about the Eurovision Song Contest at all,” Björn remembers, “but we knew that it was on all of our minds. All of us in our own (silent) way.” And about Brighton: “This town was a revelation for us,” Agnetha says, “the tension just faded away. There was a lovely fresh wind. Spring. I felt very happy.” But when ABBA took to the stage, there was no shiny, shimmering sea anymore that could take care of the necessary relaxation. The thought of five hundred million viewers or more was still rather daunting. The event took place in The Dome, a beautiful venue, packed with journalists, rattling telexes, ringing phones and clicking photo cameras. In short, the pulse of the Contest. Everything had been organised perfectly and it seemed as if Brighton itself – being a tourist attraction – got publicity worth a couple of million Pounds Sterling.

Stig arrived together with the group and wanted to do some business in advance. He travelled to London and played ‘Waterloo’ to a music publisher. The man refused to buy the song. “To protect him from embarrassment, I won’t mention the man’s name. He said something like: ‘With a ragged piano like that, you won’t be able to excite anybody. That’s old-fashioned.’” That same music publisher called Stig after the show and asked him if he could still buy ‘Waterloo’. “I just hung up the phone,” Stig smiles now.
Back in Brighton, Stig noticed that ABBA was a favourite among the bookmakers: 6 to 1. But when the moment of truth drew near, the opinion changed drastically: 20 to 1. In reaction to that, Stig, Benny and Björn started to place bets everywhere. They placed several pounds on... ABBA. Favourite at that moment: Olivia Newton-John with ‘Long Live Love’, followed closely by our very own Mouth & McNeal. Despite everything, Stig felt that it just couldn’t go wrong. Brighton had been closed off for everyone who didn’t have anything to do with the Contest. Nervous police officers were keeping a close watch on the people. And there was a special, strict security for the members of the groups from Israel, Greece and Ireland. At the time, there was an enormous fear running through England for the bombs that could be placed anywhere by the IRA. An event like this Contest would attract huge international publicity for the terrorists. Anni-Frid remembers vividly, when she says: “You couldn’t move a muscle without a security officer checking your pass or frisking you. I thought that was a shame. Especially in Brighton, it was a lovely, quiet and romantic town.”
The rehearsals started one day before the broadcast and they didn’t go smoothly for ABBA. The group had brought along their own backing track and when it was played, it all sounded horrible. The ‘boom’ in the song is extremely important and when it doesn’t come out of the speakers in the right way, its chances are severely diminished. The Swedish friends gathered around the technician and after several stressful moments, he had found the inaccuracy and ABBA was – more or less – able to do their rehearsal. That day, it was Agnetha’s 24th birthday and this meant that, after the rehearsals that for the rest were flawless, the group immediately opened a bottle of champagne at their hotel and raised their glasses to her health. And that’s how they spent these last hours before the big event. And as these hours passed by, the tension in the ABBA team increased. There were doubts: “would the backing track be flawless” or “will Anni-Frid’s voice make it through” or “won’t we burst out of our too tight costumes.” Despite this rising – and also exhausting – tension, the quartet slept for a full ten hours... in other words: this tension is so exhausting that the body just craves to get some sleep.

Saturday April 6. The day of the big finale. Benny was the first to get out of his bed and into the breakfast room, but he wasn’t able to digest any sandwich or biscuit. “I saw everyone making their way through giant English breakfast dishes,” Benny says, “I didn’t understand that. That bacon and eggs. Just the thought made me nauseous already. I really was very nervous. There was so much at stake for us. We had been working day and night for Brighton. The campaign just couldn’t fail, but I knew that the smallest mistake could lead to our mishap.”
Björn: “I felt the same way as Benny, but I was totally relieved when that technician dropped by to tell us that everything was just fine.”
Around noon, ABBA already withdrew to make the necessary preparations for their performance that evening. The costumes were checked, and again fitted. Flaws were pinned away and Agnetha handled the flat-iron to smooth obstinate wrinkles.
Agnetha: “I said then: these costumes look great on us. If we sing as good as we look, then no one will stand a chance.” There was yet another dress rehearsal, another camera rehearsal and more waiting. “To encourage us,” says Björn, “I had brought along a tape recorder with ‘Waterloo’ on it, and psychologically, I believe that was the right thing to do. We all believed in ‘Waterloo’. That was our support. So every time when the mood dropped, I played that tape.”
The group took another energetic walk on the beach – to the disgruntlement of the organisation – and returned rosy cheeked. Björn: “I felt great. Like a boxer would feel before a match: well rested, well trained.” At that moment, the four of them didn’t know about a review of ‘Waterloo’ in the Swedish paper Dagens Nyheter, written by Christa Lundblad. “For me, it was a stab in the back,” Stig says, “you don’t do something like that to your own people.” Christa wrote: “The song ‘Waterloo’ by ABBA is pure plagiarism. The intro is stolen from 10CC, the chorus comes from ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ by the English group Foundations and the saxophone sounds come from Junior Walker records. I also recognise pieces from Tchaikovsky’s first piano recital. In short, ABBA has listened to quite a lot of records before they created ‘Waterloo’. It will probably turn into their personal ‘Waterloo’. They’ve asked for it.”
A ‘criticism’ like that is indeed a stab in the back and Stig was furious. Especially because hatred like that was still alive, against him and ABBA.

Let’s get back to The Dome. Back to the room where all the finalists were gathered together. “I was astounded,” Benny says, “how they had been able to get so many people in such a small room. The atmosphere was extremely strained, fuelled by the enormous heat. I got the impression that everybody wanted to perform first. Due to this room, the performance wasn’t a hard task at all, but a relief.”
One by one, the contestants took to the stage and returned at least just as nervous.
Benny: “I can imagine how they felt. A dry mouth from all this waiting and the tension. I was feeling sorry for those who had to wait the longest in this nerve-racking tension. And then all of a sudden, like in a dream, I heard our name being called. I kissed Agnetha and Anni-Frid and gave Björn a pat on his shoulder. ‘This is the moment’ I said.”
Björn: “That’s typically Benny. He acts very relaxed, but he is just as nervous as us. On stage, I didn’t think about anything else than those 500 million viewers. The strangest thoughts are going through your head. You feel as if something horrible is going to happen... forgetting the lyrics or stumbling over. We looked at each other and at that moment I decided that I would never perform on my own. During the Contest, in that final and at that moment, I loved Agnetha, Anni-Frid and Benny. We felt that we needed each other and that we were giving each other that support too. That has been the best moment of my ABBA career, that togetherness, the support, the help. When the first notes had been played, we felt by intuition: this is good, it hasn’t been in vain. After ‘My, my, at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender’, the nervousness had faded as well. We sang and played as never before. The conductor in his Napoleon costume turned around for a while and winked at me, and that was the last push we needed to give everything we had to give,” according to Björn.
And then those three minutes are over. A whole team has worked on that for months. The foursome goes back to the ‘sweating room’ and are stacked away with the other artists.
Anni-Frid: “Waiting for the results was truly unbearable for everyone. It simply hurt. I deflated like a balloon, the tension just disappeared.”
The ‘sweating room’ was getting ever more crowded... the tension was rising and Björn and Benny tried to get away from this scene, but they were sent back by security agents. The rescue came: ‘Waterloo’ at number 1 – ‘Si’ by the Italians at number 2 and Mouth & McNeal’s ‘I See A Star’ at number 3. Benny: “We had won and I just couldn’t believe it. We were jumping around like madmen and kissed everybody that crossed our paths. I had never kissed Stig the way I did then and... we weren’t ashamed of this fun. Anni-Frid started to look pale and she thought that she was about to faint. Björn was completely upset when he couldn’t find his guitar.”
Anni-Frid: “The television cameras were all pointed at us, in that little room. All of Europe has seen us like that, in that tension, but in that discharge as well. I wouldn’t want to go through these minutes again.”
There was even some kind of riot with the security agents when the composers of ‘Waterloo’ could pick up their trophy. The agents knew that Stig was the writer, but didn’t understand that Björn and Benny were co-writers. An explanation didn’t help here, only extreme measures: Benny gave one agent a shove and dragged Björn along out of the dismay. And one minute later they were standing there, eye to eye with 500 million Europeans. The scene that preceded this wasn’t captured by the camera. Unfortunately.

The four had to get back on stage to perform ‘Waterloo’ one more time. Photographers were storming the stage, so that this second performance came to nothing. Back in The Dome, the questions started to come, a cargo really and if it hadn’t been such a happy occasion, all those pushy people who wanted to see and touch the foursome, would have frightened you. Anni-Frid remembers: “In my entire life I haven’t seen so many photographers together. I think there were about 150 of them. I also gave the strangest answers to certain questions. I couldn’t do anything else because they asked 10 questions at the same time.”
At that moment, Stig revealed the Swedish review. It caused an uproar. And ever since that moment, the relationship between Miss Lundblad and ABBA hasn’t been very good. It was around midnight when ABBA managed to get away from the crowd and get back to their hotel, for a nice hot bath and fresh clothes. However, the night wasn’t over yet. In honour of ABBA, a cold buffet had been organised that hasn’t met its equal in show business yet and there was... champagne. Rivers of champagne, so it seemed.
And in the early hours of ‘the day after the night before’, Agnetha, Björn, Anni-Frid and Benny were strolling across the silent beach. Arm in arm, and they hardly said a word. The rustling sea and far away, the roaring of the breakers. Stig Anderson had left them alone on purpose. He was right about that because the foursome wanted to be alone for a while. They wanted to be able to digest all these tensions. They wanted to find themselves again after all these turbulent months, after all this time of working very hard. And there they were, young people in love, who had overcome an important hindrance in their lives. A hindrance that opened up a whole new world, because from Brighton onwards, things would only get tougher for them. Stig signed numerous contracts during these days, for television performances all over the world. And on the Brighton boulevards, the Sunday papers appeared with the headline ‘The Anderson formula has worked’ and more favourable reviews. The foursome didn’t read them then... they were strolling back to their hotel... to their room... where they threw themselves on their beds... and went to a happy sleep... of about ten hours!

3 comments:

Ellie said...

This article is one of the best yet! It is very interesting to hear ABBA talk about the eurovision song contest, I especially like the part about Frida's somberero! : ))

Monica said...

This was a nice article about ABBA one of the better ones written. :o)

Monica said...

Bjorn is wearing Agnetha's sweater again. :o)