Sunday, 1 November 2009

Muziek Parade, June 1977: The ABBA Story, part 2

Part two of the ABBA-story, as published in Dutch magazine Muziek Parade in 1977.
In part one of this exclusive ABBA-story, you’ve been able to read how the quartet grew up and when and where they’ve had to deal with which problems in their short life. But a well-known musicologist once said: “Not everything is coming up roses on the way to the top. You must have experienced the pricking of the thorns as well.” Well, Anni-Frid, Benny, Björn and Agnetha surely did. All four of them have experienced their own worries and through these experiences they’ve become richer and stronger. Especially richer in the sense of ‘character’. Or you might say ‘hardened’, because only the strongest are able to pursue the road through the jungle to the top. But, the foursome had not reached that top yet.

There were four young people, with their special qualities and talents. How did those four get together and who lit the fire to success? Because that was actually the situation that the four of them were in. The same situation in which the Beatles once found themselves. Four talented people had to meet someone like Brian Epstein to make them immortal.
For ABBA, that person was Stikkan Andersson. He was called Mr. Show Business in Sweden. A relentless worker, who managed to pave his way to the top with his brains. Stikkan, a former school teacher, grew up without a father. His mother wasn’t married. Nowadays, people in Sweden shrug their shoulders about a situation like that, but at the time in the town of Hova, near Gothenborg, people thought otherwise. Especially in 1931. Stikkan felt like some kind of underdog, a misfit and to stand out, he decided to study and work very hard. He took all kinds of jobs after school-hours to get the money for a real guitar. When he barely had one, he started playing in local bands to make even more money... to be independent. He was fifteen years old when he left school and he started writing songs right away. He wanted to make money to finance his studies. His aim: becoming a teacher. He was eighteen years old when his first song was published. Stikkan’s biggest problem was that he couldn’t write music. He played like a devil and he had the best ears, but he couldn’t write. He made up all kinds of songs: folk songs, revue pieces. He sang and played them in the parks near Gothenborg. Alone, but together with a friend as well. In between all these activities, he succeeded in becoming a teacher and he started to teach chemistry and maths in Stockholm.
Even then, he found the time to perform in the evenings and write songs. In 1960, his job as a teacher came to an end. He wrote a song for the well-known Lil-Babs: ‘Are You Still In Love With Me, Klas-Goran’. It became a big hit. Then, Stikkan actually realised that show business was his future. Now, Stikkan tells MP: “It had taken me a whole lot of effort to achieve what I wanted: becoming a teacher. But show business got hold of me. If I had remained a small force in that merry-go-round, I would have returned to my old job, but everything pointed to the fact that I could reach the top.” It just goes to show, that you can’t plan everything in your life. After his song for Lil-Babs, there was a huge demand for songs by Stikkan. Everyone wanted to record something that he had written. That’s why he rented a place, put a desk in it with a ragged typewriter on it and he started his own publishing company. It seemed as if a breath of fresh air was going through the music business in Sweden. An exporter had been added, because the first thing that Stikkan did was write letters and send them out all over the world. In every letter he asked: do you want to translate my songs and have them recorded? He also asked these foreign publishing companies to give him songs that he could translate into Swedish. Alas, Stikkan worked like a slave. In Sweden, people said: “He is a living dynamo.” And that’s true. Even now. “You can only achieve something by working very hard,” Stikkan says now, “I work eighteen hours a day and I still don’t have enough time.” Stikkan rapidly changed his name into the simpler Stig. His hard work and understanding of the business once took six of Stig’s songs into the top ten, an absolute record in Sweden. After having worked five years as an independent, he counted the number of songs that he had written: 3.000... Like we said, Stig brought new life into show business. Up till then, it had been an drowsy bunch. He whipped it into shape and everyone saw that it was good. Does he have bad qualities as well? “Yes,” he says, “I’m very selfish and I have the nerve to admit that I work hard and have talent. My biggest mistake: I can’t relax.”
An honest guy as well, that Stig. Due to his approach, that was completely his own, his hard work and his know-how, Stikkan became Sweden’s biggest music publisher. He dominated the charts. He was the man who could spot a talent at a mile’s distance. It was that Stig, who acquired the nickname Mr. Show Business. It was that Stig, who caught Björn in his nets. Stig says about Björn: “I saw his talent right away. Björn is musical, he is intelligent, he’s also a good leader. And you mustn’t underestimate that last aspect. Show business is a very hard profession. There’s a huge amount of gossip. It demands a lot from a person. Björn has the trait of being a match for these tensions, that are inherent to this crazy world of being an artist.”
Meanwhile, Stig had founded his own record company (Polar Music) and presented his plans to Björn. “I knew Björn pretty well, but when I told him about my plans, it was as if I was talking to my reflection in the mirror. Björn was bursting with ideas and he offered suggestions that I hadn’t even thought about myself.”

The Swedish pop scene of the sixties was dominated by a small group that hardly knew or saw each other, because they were constantly touring all over the country. It was only by coincidence that they met each other. Benny and Björn met each other at one evening in a motel, just outside Västervik, Björn’s place of birth. The Hep Stars were there and the Hootenanny Singers as well. In the bar, they were chatting and gossiping along. But Benny and Björn engaged themselves in a conversation about music. How it should be played, what should be played and Björn now remembers: “It was like I was talking to myself. I was amazed by the fact that Benny thought the same way about the music business as I did.”
Björn and Benny agreed about one thing right away: the Hep Stars and the Hootenanny Singers should only sing their own compositions, instead of putting covers on their repertoire. It was that same evening – or rather night – that Björn called his father and asked where he could rehearse together with Benny. Believe it or not, but a place was found with a piano in it. All other amplifiers and so on were carried to that place and Björn and Benny played till the break of dawn as if their lives depended on it. Björn had worked with other people and Benny had written songs with friends as well, but never before had there been such an understanding from the word go as there was now. Early in the morning, Björn and Benny had to leave the rehearsal room because the local farmers had to work there. But one thing was certain: a new twosome had found each other. A lot of sessions would follow in Stockholm and some time later, the first joint song saw the light of day: ‘Isn’t It Easy To Say’. It was recorded by the Hep Stars. The second song: ‘Flower In My Garden’, once again for the Hep Stars. “We couldn’t write a single note,” Benny tells MP, “and we had our own way of working. We just played along and as soon as we had found a hook that we liked, we elaborated on that. Writing lyrics wasn’t an easy task for us either, so we saved that for last. We started with some ‘lalalala’ and then we moved on to words that suited the notes. It’s just as well that no one has seen us on the job,” he remembers while roaring with laughter, “otherwise they might have put us away in a mental institution.” Still, it took a few more years for Benny to leave the Hep Stars. To MP: “It’s not easy leaving your friends.” But still, he chose to go his own way and he suggested to Björn to continue writing songs together. Björn introduced Benny to Stig Anderson who remembers now: “I was rather surprised that Björn introduced Benny to me. Two completely different personalities who wanted to start something together. Obviously, I support every initiative and later on, I understood why those two complemented each other so well. Because of the music.”

The commercial Björn founded his own company together with Benny, Union Songs, and put it in Stig’s stable. It was the intention that Björn and Benny would compose the songs and that Stig would supply the lyrics. In show business, nothing is more difficult than the kind of collaboration that Björn, Benny and Stig had. But the threesome got along splendidly.
Björn tells MP: “The collaboration was running smoothly. Benny and I worked out our ideas and put them on tape. Only then, Stig was involved. And he always had something good to add. The good thing is that we actually never had any arguments among the three of us. Of course we’ve had some disagreements about compositions, but arguments, no, never.” And Björn adds: “In our profession, you can’t have any arguments, it’s disturbing and paralysing. You can’t create something good with someone that you don’t get along with.” And the threesome was a success because of the amicable bond between them. That foundation turned this threesome into probably the best team in the history of music.
Stig, with his commercial insight, suggested to provide all the songs with English lyrics from now on. Stig: “When you write in Swedish, you only sell records in Sweden. But show business is an international business and English is pop music’s language.”
A candid Björn: “I feel most comfortable when I have to prepare a recording session.” He likes to take care of everything. “I feel at home in the studio. There’s always a wonderful atmosphere. An exciting atmosphere as well. I like that. On stage, I’m rather shy and withdrawn. If I had to choose between performing on stage and working in the studio, my choice would be the studio. In the long run, I want to end up in the studio anyway. I can’t go on traveling forever.”
What very few fans know is that Björn travelled along with the Hep Stars for a while... and together with Benny, he recorded an album, titled ‘Happiness’... which was an enormous flop. They recorded a single together (‘My Kind Of Girl’) which became a hit in Japan, but not anywhere else. The Hep Stars and the Hootenanny Singers both fell apart. The four remaining Hep Stars formed another group under the name The Rubber, but eventually had to give up.

Björn - Agnetha
A romantic bird would probably be inspired by the following lines: It was on a Sunday... just out of a sad love song... sad and slowly the rain was falling down... a gloomy day. But Björn thought otherwise. He bounced out of his bed because Sunday is his day. To get out and get some fresh air. He turned on his radio and... all of his intentions vanished into thin air: he heard a crystal-clear voice, sentimental, sweet, engaging. He listened to the entire song. The dry announcer said: ‘I Was So In Love’, sung by Agnetha Fältskog. Björn fell in love instantly... with the voice. Still, it would take a few more months before he would meet this girl. He bought the record and listened to it a thousand times. “I was fascinated. I hadn’t heard such a sweet voice before. I even took the record along while travelling and played it when I was alone in my room. That girl just had to be sweet, soft and nice.” This is what Björn says now. A couple of months later, it happened in Gothenborg. The Hootenanny Singers and Agnetha would perform there. “A dream of a girl walked up to me,” Björn says, “and she said: ‘Hello, I’m Agnetha, I’ve always wanted to meet you’.” And it turned out that Agnetha loved Björn’s music. Björn and Agnetha gazed in each other’s eyes... love at first sight. Björn: “She was exactly like I had imagined she would be.” Agnetha: “In reality, Björn looked far more handsome than on the record sleeves.” Only three months later, they got engaged and decided to live together in the Kungsholm area in Stockholm.

“I had to get used to this delicate doll,” Björn explains, “because in reality, she’s a temperamental girl. Whenever we have an argument, she throws all kinds of things at me, but then she’s over it. Agnetha needs all that tossing and throwing.” They didn’t stay together very long, because Björn had to go on tour through the country with his Singers and Agnetha had to perform at several venues as well.
The blonde beauty: “I thought it was awful to be alone again. Okay, he called me constantly, but that’s not the same as being together. I missed Björn terribly, to the extent that I didn’t want to perform any longer. Not because of the travelling, but because I could hardly see Björn, if at all.”
Still, Agnetha and Björn found the time to go on a holiday to Cyprus and this laid the foundation for a tighter collaboration. Back in Sweden, the couple recorded their first album together. In October 1969, they got engaged officially. The papers wrote: ‘The pop romance of the year’.
Agnetha and Björn got settled in a three-room apartment in the expensive Lilla Essenger district in Stockholm. Thinker Björn had decided something else: “Agnetha, I believe it would be better if we don’t perform together too much. If we see each other day and night, our relationship might come to an end rapidly, statistics are proof of that.” Although Agnetha thought otherwise, she agreed. Agnetha and Björn got married on July 6, 1971. In Sweden, it’s any girl’s dream wish to get married in the summer. That’s the time of liberation. The snow has melted... the country is being kissed by the warm sun and... caressed by the crystal-clear sky. That’s what the poet says. Agnetha became the most beautiful bride that Sweden had ever seen. Björn had found an old Gothic church. As white as a sheet. In the idyllic town of Verum in the county of Skane, in the south of Sweden. This marital year also turned out to be the year that Agnetha, Björn and Benny went on a joint tour. “Our threesome received a very good response,” Björn tells MP, “but still something was missing. We weren’t complete.” Their lives became even more incomplete when Björn got the news from Stockholm that his mentor Bengt Bernhag had committed suicide. Bengt had had surgery and he would remain an invalid. He couldn’t bear this thought and ended his life.
Bengt had been working closely with the boys for years and was Stig’s partner as well. Björn and Benny got in a boat and steered it to the middle of a nearby lake and talked about the situation. Björn and Benny still do this today whenever they have to make difficult decisions. On that lake, they decided to take Bengt’s place, beside Stig. At the same moment that Bengt passed away, a record produced by him was in the top ten, titled ‘Never More’... The artists: Hootenanny Singers.

Motels are strange places. Lonely places. But also places where contacts are being made easily. We’ve seen this with Björn and Benny’s first meeting. It was this night ‘on the road’. After a performance, Benny went into the bar to get a nightcap, he felt tired and hung over. A beautiful, elegant girl was sitting at the window. With beautiful hair. Benny recognised her but he couldn’t place her. He asked the bartender who she was. “Her name is Anni-Frid Lyngstad. She’s a good singer,” was his answer. A while later, Benny sat down at her table, after having introduced himself. Obviously she knew Benny from the Hep Stars. Anni-Frid remembers: “Actually, nothing special happened. There was no sparks flying, or anything. We drank something together, chatted with each other and said goodbye.”
And Benny: “I didn’t expect that we’d meet again.” But then they run into each other again in a radio studio. They are guests on a game show. After the recording of the show, Benny asks Anni-Frid to go and have some dinner. She accepts his invitation and that evening, they talk more than they eat. They talk to each other for hours on end and all of a sudden: they have a connection...
Up till then, Anni-Frid had been living a lonely life. She had divorced from Ragnar Fredriksson in a pleasant way and now lived in Stockholm. “I met Benny at the right time,” she says now, “I was very lonely, spent most of my time alone in my apartment and thought about the children constantly. I was withering away. I missed the solid base of a marriage. I need something to hold on to.” And her career wasn’t running very smoothly either. She had released nine singles in the past three years and two of them made the charts. She did some irregular TV-performances. Actually, Anni-Frid was looking for the right material to record. Time and time again, she had declined all the pop material that she had been offered.

Anni-Frid and Benny started to live together on April 1, 1970 in the Vasastan district in Stockholm. It was a small apartment on the first floor near a busy street, that they turned into a love nest. But it was too small, because there was no room for Benny’s piano. The double bed took up a lot of space and there was hardly any space for a chair due to the piles of records. Benny to MP: “Although it was small, it was wonderful being with Anni-Frid. It’s just that we went out a lot, especially to people who had a piano. Or I would go to the church to play the organ.” Benny and Anni-Frid are still not married, but every year they have a celebration on April 1. And that’s no joke. Benny and Anni-Frid don’t really believe in a marriage certificate. “We got engaged in August 1969, that was an important decision for us.” They got engaged at a well-known restaurant called Hamburger Bors, where Anni-Frid was performing at the time, together with pianist Charlie Norman.
Anni-Frid experienced a severe backlash from the press when she got engaged to Benny. Headlines like ‘singer leaves her family to play with the big boys’ were the order of the day. The media weren’t easy on her, but she fought her way back, together with Benny. “You can’t fight the gossip that appears in the papers,” Anni-Frid says, “that’s why it’s so important to have a strong person beside you, who helps you through a backlash like that and Benny was there for me. I’m eternally grateful for that.”
For a while, Anni-Frid even considered bringing her children into the apartment, but there wasn’t even room for a piano, let alone for two children. “Then I made the decision to leave them with their father permanently.” A while later, the couple moved to a romantic, eighteenth century house in Stockholm. Why? “Now we get much more space. I can have my children to come over for visits here,” Anni-Frid says.
Life goes on, Benny keeps on touring and Anni-Frid has some travelling to do as well. And the thing that happened to Björn and Agnetha, now repeats itself: Anni-Frid and Benny can’t live without each other. They think it’s awful having to work separately. Even to the extent that she would rather not fulfil several engagements with Charlie Norman to be able to be with Benny in Stockholm, at least for a few days. That decision led to the discontinuance of the contract with Charlie.
Anni-Frid is fully welcomed in the group that Stig Anderson has assembled around him. She’s a complete part of the package, although a musical collaboration is not in the cards, not yet. Björn and Agnetha and Anni-Frid and Benny get along great, visit each other’s homes, go to the opera together, attend ballet performances and even initiate classical-themed record evenings for friends and acquaintances.

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