Sunday, 31 January 2010

Muziek Parade, July 1977: The ABBA Story, part 3

Part three of the ABBA-story from Dutch magazine Muziek Parade, 1977.
Once again, Benny and Björn were sitting together, talking about their collaboration. The piano had been closed and Björn had put his guitar aside for a while. B&B had made a couple of records together, that didn’t become hits. On stage, everything was going well. They managed to win over every audience, but still B&B felt that something was missing in their act. They talked for hours and hours, since the twosome could never talk enough about music. But this time, everything was more serious: should they continue or quit?
While B&B were sitting together like this, they actually didn’t realise that the solution was close at hand. Actually, just a couple of steps away from them. To be exact: in the other room of the apartment. Because that’s where Agnetha and Anni-Frid were.
Björn now says about that: “It was a strange situation. The girls were around us constantly. The four of us went out together, we did a lot of things together and it didn’t occur to Benny and me to ask them to join our line-up. On the other hand, it’s quite understandable, since Agnetha and Anni-Frid both had their own careers and were very successful at that. They actually didn’t need us.”
It all happened in November 1970. B&B had signed a contract to perform at the restaurant ‘Valand’ in Gothenburg. And once again it was Björn who cut the knot. He remembered the not so successful performance by Agnetha, Benny and himself. “Why,” is what Björn thought, “why wouldn’t I ask Anni-Frid to complete our line-up.” Anni-Frid – a little reserved, as always – wasn’t ecstatic about the idea, but said in a cool manner: “Let’s give it a try.”
And shortly after that, the billboards outside the restaurant read: “Tonight – performance by ‘The Engaged Couples’”. The quartet’s first name: ‘The Engaged Couples’. The performance wasn’t very successful. At the time, it was customary that groups performed while people were having dinner. Therefore, these groups had to be very persuasive to get all the attention focused on them, instead of the tasty dishes. It didn’t work out and the next day the newspapers read: “The group didn’t work and Agnetha sings off-key.”
Now, Benny says to MP: “And those critics were right. We had a bad act and... Agnetha did sing off-key.” Even today, it’s still difficult for Agnetha to sing in tune, but the problem has practically been solved. Björn noticed a couple of other problems: “We didn’t sing and play our own music. And that was completely wrong. We let ourselves get talked into doing some kind of cabaret stuff. Our act didn’t come off. When I compare that to what we are doing nowadays, I’m ashamed of that November performance.”

That first – bad – performance didn’t break up the quartet. On the contrary. The group got together to find out exactly what should be improved. Since Björn thought that ‘everything’ could be improved, every suggestion was taken seriously. It was decided to not perform together again for the time being, but instead work on their repertory and their voices separately. Agnetha started composing again and she came up with ‘If Tears Were Gold’, recorded it and it became a giant hit. Agnetha also did some guest appearances as Mary Magdalene in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. Later on, she recorded another single: ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ and went on tour through the country. Anni-Frid joined a theatre company and performed constantly at a theatre in Stockholm. Björn re-joined the Hootenanny Singers. Benny started playing with the Hep Stars again.
In November 1971, the foursome tried out another act. Again, in Gothenburg and this time the reception was clearly more positive. One newspaper wrote: “There’s a lot of tempo in the show. Musically, it’s all solid and the lyrics are excellent at times. Keep on going.”
But critical Björn said: “I’m far from being satisfied. Okay, it’s better than last year, but I’m not planning to go on the road like this, let alone into the studio.”
Björn and Agnetha did record a song together, titled: ‘This Is The Way Love Starts’. Agnetha was under contract with CBS-Cupol and Björn actually joined her as a guest. But Stig Anderson objected to the record’s release. He was allowed to. Björn had a contract with him.
Agnetha had a record deal with CBS for a long period of time and this has also slowed down the collaboration between the four of them. Up till January 1, 1976, Stig had to hand over royalties to CBS, simply due to the fact that Agnetha was still under contract there. So the three other ABBA-members were slaving away for a record company that they didn’t have anything to do with. But Stig had decided to go ahead with it, to keep the quartet together. He saw a big future for the foursome and he was prepared to pay a lot of money for that. On May 19, Stig Anderson said to MP (while being in Holland for a big international business meeting): “I’ve made a vow to the boys. I said to them that I could make an international breakthrough happen for them, as artists, but as composers as well. I said, sing and write in English and I will turn you into stars. Stars that will be known all over the world.” That’s not a small promise and as we know now: he kept his word. In the music business, it’s usually out of the question that a threesome can actually achieve something worthwhile. There are always quarrels, there are always discussions, that lead to nothing. Stig Anderson says to MP: “Generally, it’s true that a threesome can’t achieve something positive that lasts. But in our case, it’s a different matter: Benny is a pop guy, with a lot of experience. Björn writes and sings good songs, that are easily accessible. A good example is the Hootenanny Singers’ album ‘Sweden’s Most Beautiful Songs’, and I can write a decent lyric myself. Furthermore, I’m some kind of father figure. They can rely on me.”
Bengt Bernhag’s tragic death actually paved the way to a more intense collaboration with Stig. He gave B&B all kinds of opportunities to produce other artists, within Polar Records. On top of that, Björn became some kind of talent scout.
Due to Björn’s dissatisfaction with their second performance as a quartet, and due to them producing other Polar artists, the thought of forming a group with the four of them had faded into the background. But then the historical mile-stone occurs. B&B meet a very gifted technician at the Metronome Studio in Stockholm. His name: Michael Tretow. A very young guy, who would later invent the ABBA-sound. He always listened to the tapes that were sent in by young talents. He encouraged young people. In short, the kind of man who is crazy about music, just like B&B. Therefore, it’s not strange that Michael met B&B regularly at the studio. B&B practically slept in the studio, they spent that many hours there. B&B experimented a lot with the tapes in the studio and had a lot of discussions with Michael. Tretow was also the technician that worked on the album ‘Lycka’ (‘Happiness’) that B&B recorded together.

At one night, Michael asked B&B to let the girls come in to do some backing vocals on B&B’s recordings. Stig Anderson remembers very well: “The girls only came over to help their boyfriends out. There was no ulterior motive.” Anni-Frid and Agnetha sang their parts and left the mixing to the boys. Michael played the tape to Stig. He almost fainted with astonishment. B&B were called in. “I can’t credit this record to B&B,” Stig said, “it’s the girls who make the record work. They should be credited on the label as well.”
B&B were stupefied and didn’t share Stig’s opinion. Björn now says to MP: “Benny had left the Hep Stars and I would say goodbye to the Hootenanny Singers as well, because we wanted to introduce ourselves as Benny & Björn. When the tapes were played and Stig said that all four names should be on the label, I shouted that that was impossible.” And furthermore: “You can’t call a group Björn – Benny – Agnetha & Anni-Frid, that’s far too long. People don’t have time for that.” Then Stig explained that the foursome hadn’t been successful on stage and that it would probably take months before they would get any recognition from the public. “Release this record, let the audience get acquainted with you, not as a stage act, but as recording artists. Let the audience have their say whether there’s a future for you as a quartet.”
That first record was indeed released. Its title was ‘People Need Love’/‘Merry Go Round’ by Björn – Benny – Agnetha – Anni-Frid. The record made the number two spot on the Swedish charts and was at least equally successful in the other Scandinavian countries. Benny and Björn recorded another song together, called ‘She’s My Kind Of Girl’. It became a hit, but only in Japan.
They would stay together as recording artists. They didn’t think about performing yet. B&B went into the studio again. Agnetha and Anni-Frid toured through the country. All four of them now knew: we are going to make it. The formula is there. Now the execution.

International breakthrough
ABBA received the passport to international acclaim when they entered the Eurovision Song Contest. 1974 would be the year of the truth. Slowly but surely, their fear of failure had drained away and it was replaced by a big confidence. Confidence in their singing qualities. Confidence in their composing talents. With Stig Anderson as some kind of ‘umbrella’. Topped off with Michael Tretow as the ingenious technician. It just couldn’t fail. But we are not in Brighton yet.
The new single ‘Ring Ring’ was launched in 1973. A simple title, simple straightforward music. And all of this at the occasion of the Swedish heat for the Eurovision Song Contest... but... it all had to take place in Stockholm in February and Agnetha was pregnant. Agnetha was rather confident when she said: “My baby will wait until the party is over and... we have won.” Well, ‘Ring Ring’ received an ovation. The audience was ecstatic, but... it didn’t win. The judging panel had something against ABBA and Stig Anderson and gave them low marks, that put ABBA in third place. To great discontent of the audience, and ABBA as well. Behind the scenes, there was a lot of complaining and grumbling going on and words like ‘fraud’ and ‘it is a put-up job’ were flying round. But again, it was Stig Anderson who calmed everyone down like some kind of father. “Let them talk,” he said, “we were the best and the sales figures will prove that.” It’s getting annoying, but Stig was proven right. ‘Ring Ring’ reached number one in Sweden and the album of the same name achieved wonderful sales figures... all over Europe. There you go, the breakthrough was achieved.
These sales figures swiftly took away the disappointment. ABBA toured through Europe and Stig made all the arrangements for the Eurovision Song Contest 1974. He overwhelmed the international media, made sure that ABBA-records were released all over the world and urged B&B to come up with a cracker of a song for 1974, to make sure that they wouldn’t fail again.
Four days after the national final in Sweden, Agnetha and Björn’s daughter was born in a Stockholm hospital. Her name: Linda.
Linda already had her first encounter with the press after four days. She was happily snoozing in the arms of Agnetha while Björn was sitting there as proud as Lucifer. The photographers were wearing masks and white aprons, to prevent the baby from catching an infection.
Agnetha: “The birth of Linda is a highlight in my life. All of the success that we were going to achieve with ABBA would pale into insignificance to my experiences with Linda. I was extremely proud that I did it. I will never become a great mum when it comes to cleaning and things like that, but I want to live for Linda, I would do anything for her.”

After ‘Ring Ring’ came a new single, titled ‘Love Ain’t Easy’ and again there was no ABBA on the label, but Björn – Benny – Agnetha & Anni-Frid. Stig Anderson says to MP: “I believe that I had proven to be on the right path with the four of them. And I had kept my promise. But those four names were starting to become a problem. It was far too long and this had to be fixed.” When Stig talked or wrote about the four of them at Polar Records, he always said and wrote A-B-B-A. The initials of the four of them.
Later on, they decided to name the group ABBA, because it had a nice ring to it, because those letters referred directly to the persons involved and... because it still read the same when it was put backwards. A simple solution. The newspaper Idningen in Gothenburg had wanted to help them to come up with a name and this brought about suggestions like Flower Power, Black Devils, Golden Diamonds and BABA. But they didn’t need them anymore. Generally, the name ABBA was immediately adapted and used by the DJ’s. Still, there was some fuss about that name. Sweden happens to have a herring factory. An enormous company that has the same name. This could cause some problems. That’s why Stig hurried to the herring boys, who luckily didn’t have any objections. From that day on, every new ABBA-record was automatically sent to the 1500 employees of the company. As some kind of appreciation. On the other hand, those herring people must be very happy as well, because every time the name ABBA is mentioned in the media, they get free advertising for their products too.
Anders Elstrom is the manager of the herring factory. He says: “In the beginning, people thought that we had financial interests in this musical group. That’s obviously not true. We are happy to be associated by name with these fresh, young people, who are so full of ideas.” The company’s employees manager Per Brolund adds: “It’s never hard for us to find new employees. In the beginning, people think that they are dealing with ABBA. By the time that they notice that that is not the case, they have become accustomed to the pleasant atmosphere in our company and they want to stay.”
Manager Elstrom still remains cautious: “There is one danger attached to that name. If ABBA ever decides to involve themselves in crazy things that will discredit the name ABBA, we will bear the negative consequences as well.” But it will never come to that. Benny – Björn – Agnetha – Anni-Frid and... Stig will make sure of that.

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