Sunday, 13 September 2009

Muziek Parade, May 1977: The ABBA Story

In May 1977, Dutch magazine Muziek Parade (MP) started a series of articles, covering the story of ABBA. This is part one.
ABBA has turned the world upside down. ABBA has the world under its spell. What is that magic? The group has had number one hits in all European countries, but in Australia and America as well. In the United Kingdom, the Swedish quartet has received no less than 32 gold, platinum and silver discs at a celebratory occasion, taking place at the Royal Garden Hotel. In 1976, ABBA achieved yet another magical number: 40.000.000 records found their way through the world, more than any other artist has achieved since the Beatles. What is the secret of ABBA? MP believes that ABBA is so irresistibly popular because of their fresh musicality, their openness, their honesty and inventiveness. ABBA is now. ABBA makes the world happy with a spontaneity that isn’t contrived. A sizzling presence, in every corner of the world. ABBA, four young people, like me and you. Who are they? What are their doubts, their fears, their loves, their hate, their problems and passions?

For instance, did you know that Anni-Frid (Frida) is the expelled daughter of a Norwegian girl and a German soldier. Did you know that Benny’s past is overshadowed by a secret fiancée, who had two of his children, but still didn’t marry him? Did you know that Björn is a somewhat frustrated intellectual, an underrated musician who has to fight the critics that qualify his music as being ‘plastic’ every night? Did you know that Agnetha (Anna) is ‘just’ a girl from the country who is trying to hide her shyness behind a mask of arrogance?
And then there’s the ‘fifth’ ABBA. That’s Stikkan Anderson, a former teacher who turned the Swedish show business upside down with his way of doing business, his controversial way of ‘managing’ and... his unceasing hunger for success.
MP brings you the complete story of ABBA, in separate episodes. The story of ABBA is the story of the new Beatles. A story about their problems, their secrets, their love for each other. Here is for the first time the most genuine story about their life. A look behind the scenes. A spotlight on the true ABBA. In other words: the truth about ABBA.

Agnetha (Anna)
‘Little Gerhard’ was the name of the man at the record company, who had to decide which songs would make it onto the records and who should sing them. This Gerhard was driven mad by his family. There was this group that could sing. These stories sounded familiar to Gerhard. He had heard them a thousand times before. And every time he gave the same answer: “Send me a tape. I will listen to it and give my honest opinion.” The family made the tape and Gerhard listened. He rang them and said: “I don’t think very much of it but there is one particular song with a part that’s being sung extremely well. If you work on that and sing it in the same way as on the tape, then I see possibilities.” Those parts that caught his attention happened to be the only parts that were not being sung by Gerhard’s family. This was a new girl that had joined the group: Agnetha Fältskog, a radiating blonde.
Anna was born in Jönköping, April 5, 1950. She was still very young when she performed for the first time. Her father was the initiator of several local parties and he thought that his daughter should be in the limelight. Anna will never forget that performance: “Not even if I’d live a thousand years. It was awful. In the middle of my song, my pants fell down. The audience burst into a hysterical laughter. I was six years old at the time.” Just like Benny, Anna played the accordion at an early age with her father and grandfather. Anna got her first piano when she was barely ten years old. She couldn’t be happier and it wouldn’t take long before she could play very nicely. Later on, she composed her own songs and wrote the accompanying lyrics. Those were the first contributions to her father’s revue. At the age of fifteen, she already sang with an orchestra and two years later, she made guest appearances with other groups. And this is how she found her voice on a tape with ‘Little Gerhard’. Gerhard worked at CBS-Cupol. He asked her to sing an entire tape of songs and Gerhard fell for ‘I Was So In Love’, an insignificant song about a lost love. But for Anna, it was serious, because her romance with Björn Lilja had deteriorated. The result was this song. Gerhard was impressed and asked her to come to Stockholm for a recording. Anna said goodbye to her mother and father and got on the train, ready for her big adventure. When she arrived at the studio, her heart was pounding, but the strings had barely started playing her ‘I Was So In Love’ when Anna sat down at the piano and sang like never before. “It seemed as if I was floating,” she says now. Gerhard was enthusiastic, but his boss wasn’t very excited about this girl from the country, until he heard the tapes. He summoned Anna immediately and a contract was signed.
The young girl received a monthly salary right away and they made agreements for the next three years. This had never happened before.
‘I Was So In Love’ entered the charts at number one. Anna moved to Stockholm and remembers: “That song was written because of Björn Lilja. I owe my first successes to him. We never got back together again, but we did remain friends!”

Her father had quit his job as well and devoted his time completely to his daughter’s career. For hours and hours, he sat at the piano with his apple of the eye, he helped her through difficult times. And whenever things didn’t work out with composing, they went out. That’s what he called unwinding. “I owe a lot to him,” Anna says. “I will never forget what he did for me.” From the beginning, Anna has had a determined attitude, she gave her honest opinion about the songs she wrote and about the arrangements that had been made. Whenever she was critical, she knew how to get her points across without offending anyone, or rather: she inspired.
Anna is a romantic girl and whenever she’s at the piano, she lights two candles, turns off the lights and just plays... then the good songs come automatically, like ‘Without You’ and ‘If Tears Were Gold’. Actually, it’s astonishing how a girl from the country fitted in so easily in the big city of Stockholm. She says: “I wasn’t that self-confident at all. I’m rather shy. But I don’t want to show it and the way to hide it is putting on a brave face.”
Her father wrote a successful song as well: ‘One Summer With You’. For a while, Anna was in love with a well-known German composer, Dietrich Zimmerman. They composed songs together, but things never worked out between them. At one point, Anna even made the front page of the newspapers, when she had written a song called ‘Gypsy Friend’. People thought that she spoke of gypsies in a derogatory way, but Anna managed to set the record straight. Ever since this incident, she doesn’t engage herself in songs that could give rise to confusion any longer, but restricts herself to love songs.

Björn Ulvaeus had formed a singing group. “Just for fun.” With a couple of schoolmates. But his mother thought she was witnessing the start of a musical miracle. She made up a name for the group and, without telling the boys, she signed the group up for a talent contest, to be broadcast on the radio. They didn’t win, but someone did listen to the programme, someone who saw so much potential in this group that he would launch them in a big way.
World War II was coming to an end, when Björn was born on April 25, 1945. When he was barely eleven years old, the family moved to an idyllic little town at the east coast, Västervik, which means ‘West Bay’.
Björn learned how to play the guitar and was crazy about the skiffle music that was very popular at the time. At the age of seventeen, he gathered a couple of guys together and said that he wanted to start a Dixieland band. He wanted to play here and there and save some money for his education. But Björn had no idea how to play Dixieland and automatically, the group turned into an enlarged version of the Kingston Trio. Gradually, they became more popular and got a couple of opportunities... until Mrs. Ulvaeus signed them up for this talent contest, under the name West Bay Singers. And now we get to this man who listened to the radio. He listens to the name Bengt Bernhag, the most important scout of Swedish talent. He produced records with artists that no one else wanted to work with. He made hits with them. He discovered an old trumpet player. Everyone laughed at him. But Bengt had the last laugh, because he made records that sold like hotcakes. Ah well, Bengt thought the name West Bay Singers was interesting. He involved a music publisher in the plot: Stikkan Anderson. Bengt and Stikkan asked Björn to make a demo. The group travelled to Stockholm with sweaty hands. There they were, in a real recording studio. The first thing that Stikkan did was change their name. At that time, the ‘hootenanny’ music was getting more popular and he called the group The Hootenanny Singers. The first record: ‘I’m Waiting At The Charcoal Kiln’, an old Swedish folk song. It became an instant success.

Stikkan had just founded his own record company (Polar Records) and this record of Björn with his friends was the first release on the label. They couldn’t have wished for a better start. Stikkan says: “The group looked good. Their music was excellent and I believed I could make something out of it, provided that they were guided properly.”
Student Björn had quit school and went on tour through the country. What seemed like a bit of fun, became serious. Björn thought it was wonderful, but the other members of the group didn’t think of a career in music. “They took jobs at a farm or selling cars,” Björn remembers. “I believe that the boys were actually afraid to take the plunge into the uncertain world of show business,” Björn thinks now.
He decided to take residence in Stockholm, signed up as a student in economics and law. On the one hand, Björn was anxious to get his degree, but on the other hand, he was quite taken with music. Now he had to make a choice. Although studying came very easy to Björn and he completed one preliminary examination after the other with success, he still decided to quit college and follow Stikkan and Bengt’s advice. Bengt considered Björn his son and taught him all the tricks that were needed in recording music. And Stikkan taught him the business side of making music. You could hardly imagine a better trinity. A friend says: “He learned Stikkan’s lessons very well. Björn is not only a good musician, but on a business level, he might even be better. That’s because of his education. He is able to calculate in a cool manner. You can hear his brains working.”
For the time being, Björn stayed with The Hootenanny Singers, but he understood that the group wouldn’t be his future. That’s why he already worked on a solo career, together with Bengt. At the time, he said: “I want to be world famous.” Björn didn’t have any role models that he could look up to, but he didn’t mind. “I’m going to do what no other Swede has accomplished yet,” he said. The Hootenanny Singers scored hit after hit. Not because the group was that well-balanced musically, definitely not, but because they played the right songs. “We played exactly what the audience wanted to hear,” Björn says, “but my ambitions reached much further than that.”

Anni-Frid (Frida)
Those who completely ignored the young Norwegian girl when she passed by were still the most polite people. Others called her names or spit at her. Did she do something wrong? Not exactly, all she did was fall in love with a German officer. Indeed, a soldier who was one of the occupiers during World War II and... the girl was expecting his child.
Synni Lyngstad was the name of this 19-year-old girl, in love with the much hated occupier. At least one of them. His name: Alfred Haase. He seemed so different from the others. To Synni, he was a nice guy, who was forced to do things that he hated to do. She listened to him, to his stories, to his sadness. The entire Norwegian village Narvik knew about her secret meetings and people warned her: “He may be nice, but he is a German. The war will soon be over and then he’ll forget about you.” Sadly, they were proven right. Towards the end of the occupation, young Alfred was transported back to Germany. He even promised to come back to marry Synni but he never returned. Their child was born on November 15, 1945. Her name: Anni-Frid, after Synni’s grandmother. That winter was probably the coldest that Europe has ever had to endure but the ice was warmer than the feelings of the inhabitants of Narvik towards the unmarried mother. Anni-Frid got a very nasty nickname: ‘tysk-barn’, or ‘German child’. Synni still waited two more years for Alfred. He didn’t come and during that period, Synni withered away completely. Anni-Frid was barely two and a half years old when her mother died of sorrow. Twenty-one years old.
Her grandmother fully realised that Anni-Frid was facing a very difficult childhood as a ‘German child’ and decided to gather her shabby belongings and move to Sweden. They took residence in the little village Torshälla. This is where Anni-Frid grew up.
Anni-Frid still remembers that time and in an affected tone of voice she says: “I can still sympathize with my mother. A young girl that had to endure so much difficulties. She found strength in the love for her German boyfriend. But that strength dissolved when my father didn’t return. I believe they are both victims of the war. Something must have happened, otherwise he definitely would have returned to Norway to marry my mother. I even tried to find my father but without any luck. I even believe that his ship went down on his way home. We can’t imagine now that people have been so hateful towards my mother. An awful time.”

Anni-Frid feels more like a Swede than a Norwegian. She called her grandmother ‘mama’ and felt very happy. “Mama encouraged me in everything I did. She taught me how to sing during those long, cold winters. Then we sat around the fireplace and she taught me all those Swedish and Norwegian songs.”
Anni-Frid was exactly ten years old when she performed for the first time. This took place at the local Nuts building in front of children and a couple of parents. She loved these performances so much that she took dancing lessons and later on, singing lessons as well. At a very early age, she knew that she wanted to build a career in show business and therefore, ‘mama’ and Anni-Frid moved to Eskilstuna, where Anni-Frid got the opportunity to sing with an orchestra. She was thirteen years old, actually too young. A couple of years later, she had her own orchestra – The Anni-Frid Four – that accompanied her three or four times a week. “That was a great time,” Frida remembers, “we did get paid but actually we were doing it for fun.” Around this time, Frida fell in love with the bass player of her group. His name: Ragnar Fredriksson. A very nice guy, who got along with everybody. She was sixteen years old, when her son Hans was born, followed by daughter Lise-Lotte a couple of years later. Everything seemed to work out fine with Ragnar. They went on tour and were able to leave the children with ‘mama’. Quite a relief.
Anni-Frid is eighteen years old when she enters a talent contest. She is a beauty, who makes the judges’ heads turn when she sings ‘Besame Mucho’. Obviously, she wins and it’s Ragnar who is the happiest of them all, not realising that this first big success would turn into the beginning of the end of their marriage. After this victory in Vasteras, Anni-Frid entered a competition called New Faces in Stockholm. Once again, she won the contest, with a song titled: ‘A Day Off’. And now things started to move very quickly. She got one contract after the other and she had to tour the entire country. At this time, the separation from Ragnar became reality, to whom she said: “It’s very difficult, but I feel that I have to pursue my career. You stay with the children.” And Ragnar understood. Anni-Frid said goodbye to him and to Hans and Lise-Lotte... facing a golden future on her own.
Frida moved to Stockholm, into a tiny apartment and now she remembers: “No one can imagine how lonely I was. On the outside, I was smiling but on the inside, I was shrivelling up with sadness.” But Anni-Frid made the only right decision. Her heart was in music and she knew that Ragnar could give the children the attention they deserved.
Anni-Frid rushed into her profession wholeheartedly. She made records regularly, that all sold very well. She performed with famous artists and went on tour in Japan and Venezuela. She performed on the most well-known Swedish TV show Hyland’s Corner and fought her way to the top. She has reached that top.

When someone asks Benny what kind of diplomas he has, he invariably answers: “My driving licence and swimming diplomas A, B and C. I didn’t get further than that.” He admits it openly, this jovial Swede. In school, he was no good. He couldn’t keep his mind on the lessons and only jumped up when English was being taught. He learned that language very easily. “I want to work hard and study as much as I can,” Benny says, “but only in one subject: music.” That is spoken plainly by a man, who would command the direction of a group later on and would give the Swedish pop scene new energy. His father and grandfather understood this headstrong guy, who only cared for musical instruments instead of books. They gave him a piano-accordion.
Benny was born in the vicinity of Stockholm on December 16, 1946. The above mentioned is what is known about his childhood. So it’s very understandable that he – barely fifteen - left school as quick as lightning because it didn’t interest him at all. He only wanted to play his accordion, which instrument he would soon know through and through. “It’s nice to originate from a musical family,” Benny says, “music gives life its spunk and I was fortunate that my parents understood me. I got even more instruments, a flute, a fiddle. I inherited my love for folk music from my father.”
After school, Benny did absolutely nothing for two years. He just couldn’t decide what to do. He joined a nameless group to play the piano, not because they thought he was that good, but he was good at driving and he was the only one who could transport the instruments. And he automatically added the job of being a pianist to that of being a driver. And no one had the nerve to speak up to him. Svenne Hedlund, singer with the famous group Hep Stars saw Benny playing one night and thought he was very good. “His hair was a bit short,” he says, “but he had a good feeling for show and he just played very well. And when the Hep Stars needed someone to play the organ, they asked Benny to join them. Within a couple of months, Benny’s short-haired head disappeared and he threw his ties in the waste basket. Now, he was a Hep Star. Benny enjoyed himself extremely well. This was the life he he had been craving for. No one bothering him with school books. No one ordering or criticising him. Benny enjoyed this life of travelling and he kept on smiling, even when the other Hep Stars were exhausted. And that’s how he kept up the good spirit, with his jokes. The Hep Stars were really very popular and were considered the Swedish answer to the Beatles. Money didn’t play an important part for Benny either. He only wanted to play. Sometimes he would suddenly disappear at parties. After some searching, he would eventually be found, at a piano.
“I think I’ve come up with a nice melody.” It was called: ‘No Response’ and it became a huge hit for the Hep Stars. He also wrote two other important successes for the Hep Stars: ‘Wedding’ and ‘Sunny Girl’.

Benny’s biggest problem: he can’t write music. So, he just plays around on the piano, searching for the harmonies and that’s how he comes up with the melody. When everything is finished, it’s only in his head. At that point, Benny needs someone who writes down the product of his mind.
Like we said: Benny enjoyed himself with the Hep Stars and his fondness of his colleague Svenne Hedlund turned into a friendship that you only experience once in a lifetime. They were idols in Sweden. But this fame had a dark side as well. Benny couldn’t go out anywhere without being hounded by fans. That’s why he could never devote himself to another big hobby: having a nice dinner at a restaurant. That’s why he treated himself to big American cars.
Benny found a good friend with whom he could compose songs: Lars Berhagen. And together, they composed hit after hit for the Hep Stars. This string of successes ended abruptly when Lars wanted to write ‘better songs’ and Benny thought that their repertory was good enough. Reason enough for Lars to slam his piano, put away his guitar and end the partnership.
Actually, it started to go downhill for the Hep Stars at the same time. The group founded their own company, built a house from which all activities would be initiated: Hep House, took a gamble with a couple of costly projects and the company was gone. “We were professional as musicians, but amateurs as businessmen. That destroyed us,” Benny explains. For instance, the group made a movie in Africa. Or rather, they wanted to make one. Everyone was there, but nothing was filmed. Due to the ‘British Sound’, everything had to be recorded in London. The movie was never released.
A totally different problem occurred in the summer of 1966. Benny broke off the engagement with Christina Grönvall, a beautiful woman who gave him two children: Peter and Helena. Their relationship had to remain a secret, because at the time the fans wouldn’t accept that their idol was married.
Christina was extremely mad at Benny and shared her entire marital life with a Swedish gossip magazine. “The only contact that the children had with their father was through the gramophone record,” she snapped. “He ended our relationship with a phone call.” And that’s how a lot of gossip about Benny’s life with the Hep Stars became known in the media. This period of his life has left its mark on the jovial Benny.

1 comment:

George said...

In fact, these are word for word parts from the bestselling 1977 Abba book in English written by Edgington and Himmelstrand.