Friday, 30 April 2010

Popshop, 1977: Intimate portrait, Björn (from ABBA)

Björn Ulvaeus is the non-bearded young man from the ABBA quartet. He was born on April 25, 1945 in the town of Gothenborg on the Swedish west coast. As an eleven-year-old, he learned how to play the guitar and he fooled around with his skiffle group. As a seventeen-year-old, he decided to form a dixieland jazz band, together with his musical pals, with the intention to play at parties and bring in some money for their education. But most of the time they sang in the style of the American Kingston Trio. Under the name West Bay Singers they entered a competition on Swedish radio. That’s where the well-known Swedish talent scout Bengt Bernhag got to know them. He introduced them to his boss, the well-known music publisher and producer Stikkan Anderson and he saw a future for them as well (and money), on the condition that they would change their name, because the West Bay Singers was too banal. The American Hootenanny music was starting to become popular and that’s why they were called the Hootenanny Singers.
With their first record, they made it big. It was an old Swedish song about workers in the wood, a big moment for Björn and his friends, but for Stig Anderson as well, who had just launched his own record label, Polar Records.
This success was followed by the inevitable tours around the Swedish folk parks in 1964. Everybody loved the Hootenanny Singers, but they weren’t stormed by pushy teenagers. In one way or another, the members of the group didn’t have enough musical ambition. In essence, they were all boys from a little town who were a little intimidated by this sudden success. They didn’t believe in a future in music. Soon, the boys started to go their own way: one of them became a car salesman, the other an accountant, yet another one started working in his dad’s company. Björn wasn’t very positive anymore either and he decided to go to Stockholm university. Björn chose to study law and economics. But it wouldn’t last very long. Luckily, there was Bengt Bernhag who believed in Björn and taught him the ropes of the business, especially in the technical area. Without Bengt, Björn would never have become a superstar.
Despite everything, the Hootenanny Singers stayed together a few more years. Especially in the summer months they toured the country, mostly with an old, borrowed Volvo. Although Björn didn’t want to betray the Hootenanny Singers’ trust, he was well aware of their limited possibilities: three blokes with a guitar and a fourth one with a bass. Musically, he was head and shoulders above the others. Björn was convinced that a Swede would be capable of more than some cheap success in the folk parks. He wanted to reach higher, further than that. Under Björn’s influence, the Hootenanny Singers started to switch from Swedish folk music to English-language pop music. Then Björn met Benny and musically they hit it off immediately.

Tell us something about your early childhood?
“I don’t remember that much about it anymore. I’m always amazed by people who can talk incessantly about their early childhood years. I barely remember anything. When I was eleven, we moved from the east coast to the west coast. Around that time, I started to play guitar as well, I remember that very well! My mother has always encouraged me in that respect. Later on as well, when I didn’t know exactly what to do after high school and we – rather to kill time more than anything else – tried to sing and play music. My mother signed us up for a song contest, without informing us about it. When we were invited, we didn’t even have a name for a group. Once again, it was my mother who came up with the name West Bay Singers!”
You are more or less singled out as ABBA’s intellectual. You also studied at university. Why did you quit?
“Several different factors must have been the cause of that. Because of those first tours, I had outgrown the narrow-minded and provincial mentality. I didn’t want to go back to my place of birth. I was still too inexperienced for a career in music, so I was off to Stockholm to the university. I changed from one course to the other and I didn’t know exactly what I wanted. But I believe my mind was more set on music than on my studies. The university meant some kind of safety net, in case the Hootenanny Singers would split up. But I still was a good student all the time. With a little more dedication and a little less musical ambition I would definitely have finished my studies.”
Why is it that you have always been fond of Benny as a friend and a partner?
“When I met Benny for the first time and we talked to each other, it was like I was listening to myself. We had exactly the same musical opinions. From the start, we thought we had to create original music instead of reproducing other people’s music. In the beginning, our only problem was finding a space to make music together. I called my father, who worked at a factory at the time, and he saw to it that an empty office was placed to our disposal, where we could install Benny’s piano and my amplifiers. It was the only office in Sweden where the lights stayed on at night and where work was in progress!”
Do you ever argue?
“Very rarely. Especially not on a musical level. We have totally different personalities. Benny is a cheerful guy, while I’m constantly pondering, experimenting and planning. These days, we are obviously far more critical of the music that we make, but we really don’t argue. And that’s still extraordinary, when you realize that it sometimes takes days to find one satisfactory chord.”
Is it true that you are arrogant?
“That’s the story. But I don’t think so. I like to talk and I talk easily. Sometimes too much and that’s not always to my advantage. It is also said that I’m too businesslike, but I don’t see that as a criticism. You have to be businesslike in life, otherwise you won’t make it. If I hadn’t been businesslike, I would still be a Hootenanny today or ABBA would have turned into a one hit wonder after Eurovision. It is claimed that sound technicians in the studio can’t stand me because I interfere with every technical aspect. I’m not stingy but I do keep an eye on the price of things.”
So you are the brains of ABBA?
“Benny is not very interested in money and all the traps that come along with it. He is the pure and simple musician. Benny provides the spontaneous musical ideas. Mostly I am the one who organizes them, who brings order in the proceedings and, well, makes the decisions every now and then, not because I want to, but because the others simply leave it up to me.”
Is it true that you can’t smile?
“Hahahaha! But joking apart: probably I have never known that I wanted to do this: being a songwriter, a performer, a technician in a recording studio. Sometimes I get the feeling that I’m most comfortable in the studio and it’s probably true that I’m actually predestined to work in the studio. If I really had to choose between singing and performing or producing records, I would choose the latter. Performing is really a big task for me. I’m hardly able to relax on stage. Every time that we are performing I have to encourage myself: go on, be friendly, smile, don’t forget to smile, smile again. Does it surprise you that it turns into a grin? I’m not very good at pretending in life, and that goes for the stage as well. But being a record producer, that’s appealing to me! Later on, I will probably become a cool, businesslike producer. It would be stupid to think that ABBA will stay on top for ten more years in this formula, wouldn’t it?”
How did you meet Agnetha?
“I was listening to the radio in my apartment, but without paying much attention to it. Then the crystal clear little voice of a singer got through to me. I’m not into all that sentimental stuff but there was something about that voice, and I didn’t even know Agnetha. I couldn’t even imagine how she would look like. But already then I knew that this voice had to belong to someone who was fragile, delicate and sweet. In my imagination – and that’s bizarre – Agnetha looked exactly as she looked like in reality. Several months later, a cute blonde walked up to me in a television studio and she introduced herself, but I knew immediately – even before she had said her name – that it had to be Agnetha. I had to catch my breath. The rest of the story is well-known!”

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