Sunday, 9 May 2010

Viva, February 1977: A day with ABBA, a colourful but decent circus

Have the turbulent days of the Beatles returned? It seems as if a new quartet is going to turn the world upside down. Their name: ABBA, lettered in gold please, because the millions are already pouring in. When the joyous Swedish foursome paid a visit to our country a couple of weeks ago, Viva spent a – tiring – day tagging along with them and watched the whole circus from a distance. Turbulent it was, but smooth, decent and completely programmed as well.

ABBA is Big Business in capital letters. And this means that every step they take and every handshake they give can be worth a lot of money. From the moment that the swinging group from Sweden set foot in our country at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, a machinery was set in motion that hasn’t met its equal yet. On my way over in the car, our photographer Gijsbert Hanekroot already warned me that it would probably turn into a battle today. And he was proven right in that respect. Photographers and reporters jostled each other to get as close as possible to ABBA and even the security staff from our national airport was willing to let possible hijackers get away to take a picture of ABBA. That’s how hundreds of professional and amateur reporters with their cameras at the ready or their note-pads at arm’s reach were waiting for the singing quartet. One officer didn’t even feel embarrassed to take a picture of the group with his carbine on his back. And from the moment that ABBA arrived, everything was going according to plan. Months in advance, record company Polydor had already gone to great lengths to make sure that everything would go according to plan, and now that the moment had arrived, as little as possible should be left to chance.
When the group started to move a while later, the herd of fans, representatives from the press and curious people followed ABBA hot on their heels. The customs office was being passed effortlessly. ABBA didn’t have to hand over anything and the other bystanders quietly walked under the fences so that they wouldn’t lose sight of ABBA for one second. That’s how it goes, when you are famous or when you are able to follow in the wake of the stars. Their arrival at Schiphol was hardly over when the group was taken to The Hague in a shiny limousine, where the rest of the ‘festivities’ was waiting for them. Rehearsing at Mies, grabbing a bite to eat, talking to journalists, a dress rehearsal at Mies, a press conference and their performance at Mies.
They get to bed late at night and the next day they are on their way to the airport again, because in France the same kind of programme is waiting for them. That’s how things are when you are Europe’s number one group. Stuck between promotion and publicity. Dream and reality. Hits and luxury.

“Actually I think outings like these are disgusting,” guitarist Björn says to Viva in one of many five-minute-interviews, that I’m going to have with the foursome this day. “I’m not keen on this publicity campaign at all, but it goes with this business. I’d rather be at home with my children and compose new music in all peace and quiet. That’s what we do during eight months of the year. The remaining four months, we surrender to this circus. You have chosen a career like this and you have to bear the consequences. Your fans want to see you and apart from that, it benefits the sales figures.”
No one can deny that. Ever since ABBA paid a visit to our country at the end of November, the record sales – that hadn’t been insignificant anyway – increased to astronomic heights.
“All in all, things have gone insanely fast for us,” Björn says. “At one moment we were a national group with a couple of nice hits, and at another you are well-known all over Europe and all over the world.”

Just like there’s an important manager behind every major group, it’s no different with ABBA. And in almost exactly the same way as the late Brian Epstein ‘made’ the Beatles, Stig Anderson did the same for ABBA. He even came up with their name, when he was looking for a good name for the group on a rainy afternoon, because they would enter the Eurovision Song Contest. “And a good name makes up for half of the success,” Stig pondered. While playing with the initials of the quartet, the name ABBA entered his mind. Still, he took no risks. With the help of a public opinion poll, he inquired if the name ABBA would be sufficiently popular with the Swedish public. Nothing was left to chance. They had reasonable success with ‘People Need Love’ and the second single ‘Ring Ring’ became a hit in America.
The big breakthrough came when the group achieved the pole position with ‘Waterloo’ at the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton, which was the incentive for millions of Europeans to rush to the record stores the next day and clasp ABBA to their hearts. This success was followed by a period of relative silence. Although they did produce several nice hits, the definitive battle for world domination was settled in favour of the Swedes in 1976. All of Europe was able to witness how the group could not be pushed away from the number one spot with three of their hits in several charts for weeks on end, and even in America ABBA is starting to become the number one group more and more with every day that passes. And to emphasize this fact, after their performance at the Jaap Eden hall, ABBA will be off to the United States for three weeks to start up the publicity machine coast to coast over there. When this is settled, chances are that the sales figures of the Beatles will be beaten. “Only in Japan and China, people don’t seem to warm up to our music yet,” Benny says when I ask him about the worldwide success of the group.

And his manager Stig Anderson immediately adds to that: “We are popular with an audience that ranges from eight to eighty. That’s because we are making music that’s understandable for everybody. Apart from that, the group has the atmosphere of a happy family life. Björn and Agnetha are married and have a little daughter. Benny and Anni-Frid are engaged. People will never hear sensational stories about ABBA’s sex life, affairs with drugs or other excesses. Actually, ABBA is the answer to the dream image of many people. A decent group that makes nice music. Very clean, but especially decent. What else could you want?”
Stig Anderson knows what he’s talking about. Once he was a teacher, but he rapidly traded that job for a function as a freelance lyric writer and a music publisher. And in this respect, it’s nice to know that Anderson was the man responsible for the Ria Valk hit from 1961 ‘Houd Je Nog Van Mij, Rocking Billy?’ The same kind of hit sensibility that Anderson exposed at that time, is being displayed time and time again when he writes songs for ABBA with Björn and Benny and practically always he achieves a fantastic result with that.

The business side of ABBA is taken care of nicely as well. Because ever since hits are being mass-produced, the millions are pouring into Sweden and this means that 85 percent is going to the tax collection office. A vast amount of money. Blonde Agnetha has once suggested to say goodbye to their home country for that reason, just like tennis player Björn Borg, racing driver Ronnie Petterson, director Ingmar Bergman and actors Max von Syndow and Liv Ullman have done. “But it’s such a wonderful country,” she says now. “I don’t believe that we would have become happier outside Sweden.”
But Stig Anderson had the answer to this ‘money problem’ as well. ABBA was accommodated in a company, called ‘AB’ and this company started to invest their millions in houses, real estate and shares. Björn, Benny, Anni-Frid and Agnetha each received a year salary amounting to 150.000 Dutch guilders and this way the rest of the money could stay out of the tax collection office’s hands.
Agnetha, when asked about ABBA’s big success: “We make the music that we like and luckily there are a lot of people who agree with us. Obviously, it’s some kind of fairytale land that we hold out, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Most people attach importance to a warm, cosy and homely existence. They like to look for security and they like to cuddle their children when they come home. We appeal to that image with our music. People are able to dream away with it. Apart from that, according to many people, Sweden is synonymous for sex and drugs. We want to rectify that image. I believe that we are representing Sweden as it really is. We are just as ordinary as the music that we are making. No one has to second guess it. We love music and that’s what we carry out.”
And indeed, anyone who has ever met the group would have to agree that they are friendly, very friendly. From the beginning of this turbulent day in Holland until the end, the quartet kept on smiling and answering the questions – sometimes asked a dozen times – politely. During the press conference, they were even hardly able to answer any question, but still they kept on smiling. Because while the lights of the photographers, the film people and the heat in the exquisite room of the fancy Bell Air hotel in The Hague were reaching boiling point, the foursome chatted entertainingly on a very small stage with everyone who wanted to ask a question. It was striking that all four of them gave practically identical answers, that all could come out of a fairytale book. Everything was sweet and beautiful, good and well-behaved. Benny stated that he didn’t want to reveal which political party got his vote at the last elections, although Björn hinted that he was happy with the victory of the conservatives. But apart from that, the answers were nice but they weren’t very revealing, such as “we are interested in politics” or “we are interested in a lot of things”.

In a perfect way, entertainment music is being executed. Benny: “We only want to make music. The rest is nonsense. Necessary, but nonsense. But it’s simply a fact that you have to open your mouth when you are having success.”
In any case, it’s clear that the whole commercial industry around the group is starting to take shape. During their stay in Holland, magazine Hitkrant grabbed this opportunity to launch itself through ABBA’s success and Polydor T-shirts appeared with the name ABBA on it. It seems that this is the time of tea cups, ties, posters, caps and stickers. Benny: “Success. Yes, it comes with the territory. We are not keen on it, but apparently we meet a certain demand.”

Performance – with an orchestra – in Amsterdam
ABBA is a name that rings like a bell. Simple and effective. Just as clever as the music and the lyrics of the joyous quartet from Sweden. ABBA stands for Agnetha (the blonde), Björn (her husband and the group’s guitarist), Benny (the pianist) and Anni-Frid (his fiancée, the brunette). Four letters that are shining as high in the hit heaven of the seventies as this used to be the case with the Beatles. On February 4, they will return to our country for one evening. At the Jaap Eden hall in Amsterdam, for the first time in a live performance, a crowd of four thousand people will be able to get acquainted with this phenomenon, that will perform all the hits from the past years, accompanied by a ten-piece orchestra. Blockbusters like ‘Waterloo’ (that gave the group their Eurovision victory), ‘Fernando’, ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Money, Money, Money’, to name but a few of their recent bestsellers.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant pics..... enjoyed reading article thanks for shareing!


Ellie said...

Cool article.. nice pictures and in depth, thank you for posting it!