Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Oor, August 1992: Björn Again, ABBA's second life

This is an extensive article from so-called 'serious' Dutch music magazine OOR about the 1992 ABBA-revival that was on its way at full force at the time. ABBA Gold had not been released yet. In this article there's still talk of a box-set to be released at the end of 1992, instead of the one-disc hits-compilation.
I read somewhere that the regular readers of this magazine were even upset that ABBA was on the cover of this issue, saying they felt embarrassed to be seen walking the streets, carrying a magazine with ABBA on the cover. Proof that there still was some educating to be done...

U2, Nirvana and Erasure are flirting with the indestructible catalog of the Swedish fab four. The Australian foursome Björn Again are experiencing triumphs as a fake-ABBA, while the record company is working overtime to get a four-piece ABBA-box in the shops in time.

The white suits, the platform-boots, the supermarket-version of glitter-rock, the helicopter, the song-titles such as ‘I do I do I do’, ‘Dum Dum Diddle’, ‘Ring Ring’ and those lyrics: ‘Money, money, money / Ain’t it funny / In a rich man’s world’, or: ‘Gimme, gimme, gimme a man after midnight!’. Perfect throwaway-pop. Simple, memorable and Euro-friendly tunes like ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ and ‘The Name Of The Game’. A total of eight number one-singles (in Holland), worldwide sales of two hundred million albums. A phenomenon.
Nostalgic feelings aren’t the only reason for the recent ABBA-revival. The duo Erasure released four ABBA-covers on an EP, titled ABBAesque: ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’, ‘SOS’, ‘Take A Chance On Me’ and ‘Voulez-Vous’. Even a group like U2 doesn’t feel embarrassed by their ABBA-obsession. Record company Polydor is planning their end-of-year campaign with a four-piece CD-box with the A and B-sides of the successful singles, completed with rare and/or unreleased material. What would you play at a private party: the Sex Pistols or ABBA?
“For me, the charts have lost much of their appeal after ABBA,” explains Erasure-singer Andy Bell. “I was too young for the Beach Boys, so for me ABBA was the first group that made those delicious, melodic pop-songs, with all those angelic choirs, that lifted you up. When they went disco with songs like ‘Voulez-Vous’, they seemed to fully understand that medium.”

At the office-slash-studio in Stockholm, that he shares with his partner Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus is willing to talk to us for half an hour, under the condition we won’t dwell on the past too much. That past is carefully protected by the ABBA-boys. Anyone who has the nerve to sample a part of ‘Dancing Queen’, like The KLF did, immediately has a lawsuit on his hands (The KLF had to get rid of every single record that was already pressed and even a trip to Stockholm to defend their cause couldn’t help matters).
So we cautiously start with the question if Björn has heard Erasure’s ABBA-tribute already.
“I’ve heard snippets of it, so I can’t fully judge it, but from what I’ve heard I can tell it’s done in the spirit of Erasure. They might be ABBA-songs, but you can’t compare the two groups. It’s fun that they did it. Most bands that have disbanded ten years ago are forgotten by now, so we see it as a compliment.”
What does he think about the four chosen songs?
“In their choice of songs they primarily had the danceability in mind, except for ‘SOS’. That was an important one for us, because with that song we proved we weren’t a typical Eurovision-act with only one good song. After ‘Waterloo’ (the last decent Eurovision-winner – MA) we were supposed to fade away silently, but with ‘SOS’ we broke that pattern. After that, practically every single reached number one, often in various countries at the same time. I remember we were at the Bahamas, writing ‘Voulez-Vous’. We flew to Miami and went into the studio with the Bee Gees’ session-musicians.”

When we ask what his favourite ABBA-song is, Björn reacts: “That has to be ‘Dancing Queen’, because that seems to be everybody’s favourite. It also was our only number one in the US.”
And what does he think about Björn Again, the fake-ABBA’s from Australia, carrying his first name, who are so successful?
“I’m flattered in a way, but I’m astonished that people are willing to pay money to see that group. What I like less is that they are copying us with an accent that reminds one of the Swedish cook from the Muppet Show. Now, I don’t have an accent like that, do I? Other than that I don’t object, although I only know them from television.”
We tell him that Björn Again’s live-performances are able to seduce the audience to an enthusiastic sing-along and that their choreography is spot on, complete with the outfits worn in the television-videos.
“Amazing,” he smiles. “I wouldn’t know how to explain it, other than that the original is no longer there to be seen...”
The ‘original’, or rather Björn, Benny and the ladies Frida Lyngstad and Agnetha Fältskog, called it a day towards the end of 1983, after having generated a turnover of around one billion Dutch guilders, more than their own King Gustaf. In that respect, ABBA is just behind the Beatles. What the fab four from Liverpool were to the sixties, ABBA was to the seventies. The remarkable, glittery costumes, the videos bordering on kitsch and the universal ‘come together’-ideal of the lyrics only partly explain the mystery of the overwhelming success. The music was rooted in decades of popular music from continental Europe.
“In Sweden we grew up with German, Italian and Swedish pop, apart from the music from England and America. The kitsch-element was of course part of the appeal.”

Philip Lodge, student at Cambridge University wrote an essay titled ‘Compositional Procedures In The Songs Of ABBA’, in which he claims that both composers (Björn and Benny) possess an ingenious talent, comparable to that of Mozart.
“The New Grove Dictionary, the authority on music-history, states that in the seventies no-one has been able to break through the Anglo-American domination of popular music. It’s inconceivable that ABBA is simply ignored, that their music is only seen as cheap, commercial rubbish. I’ve looked at Heinrich Schenker’s analysis. His definition of what makes a piece of music an artistic masterpiece, can be applied to ABBA, without a doubt. I’ve studied 42 ABBA-songs and come to the conclusion they all have an interesting structure. ‘Money, Money, Money’, for example, has a rather complicated arrangement, in which certain elements stay the same and others change constantly, rhythmically, melodically and harmonically. Also they didn’t shy away from more complex matters lyrically. That’s what made those songs so strong ad memorable. The Beatles were good at that as well, but ABBA was more constant.”
Björn is flattered with these kinds of tributes. “Benny and I have always been very critical,” he explains. “We got rid of a lot of material that others certainly would have used. We were able to be tough on ourselves. A lot of people thought we worked in a strict formula, but that’s not true at all. It was an insult to be called ‘the hit-factory’. We never recorded more than 12 or 14 songs a year. Everybody wants hits. Some people say: we could write dozens of hits like ABBA’s if we wanted to, but we are too serious for that. Nonsense, of course.”
“Another secret was the sound of the two girls’ voices, separately as well as together. Pure coincidence! There were people who said we consciously planned it this way, that we even married these girls because of the usefulness of their looks and their voices. Again: nonsense. Benny and I ran into Frida and Agnetha almost at the same time, we fell in love and got married. Coincidentally, they were both singers. We had already known each other for about two years before we started working together. We went on holidays together, we sat together, had fun and someone would grab a guitar and start singing. Then we realized how fantastic it sounded. That’s how we discovered ourselves. Subsequently we entered the Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Waterloo’. From that moment on our professional collaboration started. The fact that we were both couples made no difference to us, although we were selling more records after our divorce.”

Benny/Frida and Björn/Agnetha got divorced in 1980. Their love wars were documented in detail in their song-lyrics. After all the criticism heaped upon their often as banal and trivial regarded lyrics, the album ‘Super Trouper’ (1980) reflected the desire to be taken seriously. With songs like ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ and ‘The Winner Takes It All’, it seemed as if Björn and Benny couldn’t write about anything else but their own love-quarrels.
What happened to the individual ABBA-members after the group fell apart is rather obscure. The blonde Agnetha Fältskog released three solo-albums: ‘Wrap Your Arms Around Me’ (produced by Mike Chapman), ‘Eyes Of A Woman’ (10CC’s Eric Stewart) and ‘I Stand Alone’ (Peter Cetera). None of these records produced any hits. She also played in a Swedish movie, but that was it. Resolutely, she has turned her back on the ABBA-camp, married the Swedish surgeon Thomas Sonnefeld and seems to consider a part in the Swedish version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Aspects Of Love’.
The brunette Lyngstad was slightly more successful with her Phil Collins-produced album ‘There’s Something Going On’, but after the Steve Lillywhite-produced ‘Shine’, she primarily spent her time on the Swedish environmental movement Der Naturaliga Steget (the natural step), of which she is leading the division Artists for the Environment, that is preparing a huge charity-concert in Stockholm at the moment. Her new life-partner is Count Ruzzo Reuss, a German architect.
Because of regularly returning threats, blackmail and extortion, the ABBA-boys lead a secluded life. Benny married TV-producer Mona Norklit and Björn remarried Lena Kallersjo, who works in the advertisement-business. The duo Andersson-Ulvaeus is still active as songwriters. Two musicals, Abacadabra (1982) and Chess (1984), the latter managed four years at London’s West End. The renowned duo also wrote the major part of the songs for two albums of brother/sister duo Gemini. Ulvaeus lived in England for a few years and did some things in the computer-business as well. Apparently, in his spare time Andersson is an avid ornithologist, he released an album on which all Scandinavian birds can be heard. The success-duo is working on an album with the 23-year old Swedish singer Josephin Nilsson.
“It’s very recognizable for us, because it’s all very poppy material,” says Björn. “We also hope to use more contemporary dance-rhythms than with ABBA.”
A new musical is on its way as well, based on The Emigrants, a series of four books by Swedish writer Wilhelm Moberg. “One of the most important literary works in the Swedish language. The very powerful story about Swedish emigrants who moved to America in the previous century.”

“The idea came during a seventies-revival in 1988 in our home-country Australia,” says John Tyrell, drummer and manager of Björn Again. “ABBA had always been one of the most popular bands in Australia, so it seemed like a good idea to do a kind of fun imitation of them. It started out as a joke, but one thing led to the other. We learned the accents better and better, and even a few words in Swedish. We are now on the road for three years, and have 700 shows behind us. It has exceeded our own expectations. The response we get is amazing. Although no-one dared to admit it at the time, everyone seems to have been an ABBA-fan secretly. Everybody sings along, and knows the songs.”
“I have seen Björn Again once,” Andy Bell confesses. “I thought the joke was running thin after a while. I would have liked it better if the two singers had been drag queens. With Erasure, we’re also paying tribute to ABBA and we’ve even tried to use the original ABBA light-show, but all the lights were rusty or broken. We used the same blue satin for our jackets.”
The criticism doesn’t bother Björn Again at all. “That Swedish accent was done deliberately, because ABBA always spoke a kind of broken English,” says Gavin (Björn). “When we performed in Sweden, they were even ‘slamdancing’. We’re not a cabaret-act, but a rock & roll-band.”
Nonetheless, Björn Again are giving interviews as if they were ABBA themselves. “We’re a sort of ‘Spinal Tap’,” says Gavin. “Platform boots give you a certain view on the world.”
“I like to chat about blue eye-shadow and glittery outfits,” says Jeanette (Agnetha). “Our favourite song? At the moment it’s ‘Chiquitita’, because it’s about friendship and everyone sings along as if the whole world is full of friends.”
Don’t they get tired of these songs by now? “You’re not the first to ask that question,” answers fake-Björn. “That’s why Benny and I are working on a musical called ‘Backgammon’, but we can’t agree on the lyrics. Benny’s lyrics are all about Frida.”
Björn Again has met musicians who have played with ABBA and they liked what they are doing. ABBA themselves haven’t reacted at all. Just before a performance for Swedish television, they received a telegram saying: anybody who looks like me, deserves success. Björn: “But the ABBA-office denies its authenticity. They probably think we’re trying to make a profit of them, but that’s not how things are. Phonogram Australia wanted to record an album with us, but we said no. We are a live-act. I think we stimulated the sales of ABBA-albums to a great extent. In Australia, more ABBA-records than ever are being played on the radio today.”

The real Björn makes clear we can ask our last question. We ask if he misses ABBA.
“When it comes to the so-called glamour: the travelling, hotels, limousines, there’s not much to be missed. The same goes for the concerts, although we rarely toured. We did two major tours, of which the first concerts were really exciting, but I wouldn’t go through it again just for that. Still, there have been wonderful moments. Writing a song that you’re satisfied about, reaching number one in the charts, hearing the sales-figures of your records... but I don’t miss that either. That’s ancient history. I was a different person then.”
“They will never be able to completely get away from it,” Andy Bell thinks. “ABBA will always come back to haunt them. They will still see pictures of themselves everywhere. Actually, it was all over for them pretty quickly. They didn’t have the time to take everything into consideration quietly. ABBA was cool, just like Debbie Harry: they weren’t trendy, they didn’t care about the clothes they were wearing. Still they had their classic look. I was in school at the time and it wasn’t trendy at all to like ABBA. Only if you were a bit ‘femme’, like me and my friend, you dared to admit it. For most others it would take ten years before they finally dared to admit the music was pretty good.”
ABBA is okay. Recently, Björn and Benny sang ‘Dancing Queen’ together with Bono at a U2-concert in Stockholm. So it’s not so bad with that haunting after all. But who knows what really goes on ‘in a rich man’s world’?