Sunday, 25 July 2010

Popshop, June 1977: Intimate portrait, Benny (from ABBA)

Benny Andersson, the jovial, bearded member of ABBA, was born on December 16, 1946 in one of the Stockholm suburbs. In school, he didn’t show much interest in anything, except music. When he was fifteen, he had had enough. Without taking his final exam, he said goodbye to school. At the time, he already knew his way with the accordion, but he soon changed to piano. For two years, he played with an anonymous group. Svenne Hedlund, singer of the – then very popular group in Sweden – Hep Stars, saw him playing once and when their keyboard player quit, Benny took the offered opportunity with both hands. The Hep Stars turned into the most famous rock group in Sweden, until ABBA entered the scene. In fact, the Hep Stars were more or less the Swedish answer to the Beatles, but of course they weren’t. Benny: “We played some kind of country and western music with a German beat, if you understand what I mean, and at the time we thought this was IT and luckily everybody in Sweden seemed to agree!”
In 1965, he wrote his first song for the Hep Stars, ‘No Response’, and it immediately became a hit. From that moment on, Benny was the steady hit composer of the group. The two most successful ones from the sixties were ‘Sunny Girl’ and ‘Wedding’. In the beginning, he was the only one in the group with short hair, but that wouldn’t last for long and soon he turned into the idol of the Swedish teenage girls. The Hep Stars became so popular that they decided to start their own music publishing company (Hep House) but it turned into a disaster.
Musically, they knew the ropes but they didn’t know anything about business and financial policy, especially Benny. During that time, Benny met Björn, who performed with the Hootenanny Singers, and they clicked immediately. They started to work together and their first song ‘Isn’t It Easy To Say’ was recorded for a Hep Stars album. A couple of years after this first meeting, Benny left the Hep Stars and together with Björn he founded Union Songs. Right away, the foundation was laid for what would later turn into ABBA.

How was your childhood like, is it true that you were a bad pupil?
“I don’t have any diploma. Actually I do. One! I have a driving licence! I passed that final exam! The only one. No, school has never interested me. The only subject that interested me was English. I absorbed that language as a sponge. And for the rest, I was only interested in music, although I couldn’t read a single note myself. Studying musical notes is not for me. Too difficult! And all that theory that goes with it! No thanks. But I have always played musical instruments, from my infancy onwards: accordion, harmonica, everything that I could get my hands on. My father and grandfather were both well grounded in music. They were just like me. They could handle any music instrument. I have a strong feeling that I have inherited that musicality. They were especially into folk music, the older and cornier, the better. I learned a lot of those old melodies from them, but now I’m happy that my music doesn’t suffer much from that anymore...”
There are a lot of rumours about a secret adolescent love, a mysterious girlfriend. What’s the deal?
“When I was sixteen, we are talking 1962, I met Christina Grönvall, a pretty, red-haired girl that was in my class. It was my big adolescent love, you know. Inexperienced but pure. We stayed together for four years. In Sweden, it’s customary that engaged couples live together for years before they get married. That’s what we did as well. Christina got two children, a boy (Peter) and a girl (Helena). For years, I refused to talk about this relationship because I thought, and I still do, that this is a private matter, that isn’t anybody’s business. There has been a lot of gossip about my past. My name has been slandered quite a few times. For instance, it was claimed that our romance should be kept a secret because in the sixties, it was lethal for the popularity of a pop idol if his fans would find out that he had a girlfriend and children. A couple of months after our divorce, Christina even provoked me via a Swedish magazine to tell the truth about what she called ‘a wife and children that didn’t have a place in the glittery world of a pop idol’. It must have been a severe blow to her, to blab that the only contact between me and the children were the Hep Stars records...”
Is it true that you never worry about anything, that you are lazy and that you never get mad?
“When I joined the Hep Stars, I was the newcomer, the rookie, but I didn’t care about that. I thought it was enough that I could join in, the rest left me cold. ‘We’ll see what happens’ is my device. The money didn’t interest me much either, especially at that time. The only thing I wanted to do was make music. I couldn’t – and I still can’t – care less about the rest. But I think that I was lucky. That I always had the opportunity to make music and then the money came with it. Lazy? What is lazy? I can spend hours at the piano, working, making music, composing. The others are asleep then or doing something else. They probably think ‘that Benny is crazy’ but is it really ‘working’? It’s different when pressure is put upon me, when I’m being asked to have a certain composition ready at a specific day, then I have the tendency to postpone everything. I rather think that I’m nonchalant. In the old days, with the Hep Stars, we were having more fun. It was more relaxed. When the Hep Stars started to believe in big business, it was all over. We lost our money faster than we had made it. We even invested in a movie picture, that would be filmed in Africa, but not an inch of celluloid was ever filmed. We flew to London in a private jet, to capture the English sound in a Soho studio. The record was never released! After my period with the Hep Stars, I was much wiser, but much poorer as well!”
How do you actually write these hits? What’s the secret? How do you manage when you are not able to read music notes?
“I still write songs like I used to do years ago. I just play around on the piano until I have found a couple of chords that I like. Then I try to turn them into a melody. Only then, I start to look for appropriate lyrics. I may be a Swede, but the English comes quickly and easily. After that, I make an appeal to someone who can put the notes on paper, because I still haven’t learned how to do that! When you work in pairs, for instance with Björn, it’s much easier. We inspire each other, we motivate each other, we push each other along. The lyrics are always the most difficult part. When the melody is finished, Björn and I try to find the words, initially they are only syllables. You should hear us on the job. But it’s better that you don’t. Outsiders would probably think that we’re insane. Luckily, the walls of our workplaces are soundproof. To get back to the subject of being lazy: ever since I was fifteen, I’ve been working at the most irregular hours. Most people think that we are just having some fun and improvising. But it isn’t always that much fun. After years and years of composing and playing, this night work is starting to take its toll.”
What’s your opinion about sex, the girls and... Anni-Frid?
“Where the first subject is concerned, you should ask a Swede! We seem to be raised like that, sex is a habit, a need, just like eating and drinking. In the old days, we used to be bothered by ‘groupies’ a lot more than now. We are not young anymore, that’s probably the reason, and apart from that the fans know more or less what the situation is with Anni-Frid and me and with Björn and Agnetha. In the sixties, I was – what you would call – a teenage idol for the girls. I thought that was wonderful. The only thing I didn’t like about it was that it caused restrictions for my second hobby: enjoying a good meal and restaurants. I just couldn’t go to a restaurant openly anymore, I had to disguise myself! After I had met Anni-Frid, we started living together from April 1, 1970 onwards. Since then, we’ve always been very happy together. We used to live in a small apartment in Vasastan near Stockholm and it was so small that we didn’t even have room for a piano. For the first time in my life, I was living somewhere without a piano. But love conquered all. And luckily I had a friend from whom I could borrow the church organ. I could make music for hours in that empty church.”
Why don’t you get married?
“If we had the guarantee that a marriage would make our relationship even better, then we would get married tomorrow. And we’ve been saying this for seven years. Perhaps it will actually happen one day. We simply don’t have the time! Character wise, we are actually quite different, but that makes it fun. Anni-Frid is the one who makes the plans and takes care of everything and I’m not bothered with anything. Whenever tensions arise between us or in the group, I sit down at the piano and start playing. That’s mostly soothing. I love classical music, especially Tchaikovsky, Rossini and baroque. Anni-Frid prefers jazz music. In a small apartment, this can cause arguments. But I think that I have won the battle. Whenever we have the time, Anni-Frid comes along with me to opera and ballet performances. During an American tour, Dinah Shore suggested that we got married right away on her show, in Las Vegas, just like that in front of the cameras. We managed to turn down the invitation politely...”
What’s your opinion about pop music critics?
“As long as they don’t tell any nonsense, I think they are alright. We had to digest a severe blow just before our Eurovision victory (Brighton, 1974). It even came from the Swedish pop journalist Christa Lundblad who wrote that ‘Waterloo’ was a succession of ‘borrowed’ fragments from 10CC, Foundations, Junior Walker and Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. Of course, I was aware of these styles. But to suggest that ‘Waterloo’ consisted of stolen material, that was stupendous nonsense. Luckily, that criticism didn’t make much impression on us at the time, because we knew that what we did was completely ours and totally original.”
How do you see ABBA’s future?
“After our British and Australian tour, we will work on our new album from April to October. It will be a matter of severe concentration. A new album, a step ahead: it’s the only way to survive. After that, we will probably go to South America and the United States for promotion and television performances. If our new album does well in the States, then we want to concentrate completely on conquering America during the course of 1978.”
What’s your opinion about the heavy tours?
“I think they are tiresome. From one plane into the other. From one hotel into the other. Luckily, there’s eating. For me, eating is the only fun part about touring.”
How about that island of yours? Does it really exist?
“A couple of years ago, we had already bought a small island near Stockholm, together with some other families. But we had to leave there, the news leaked, it got into the papers and soon the island was stormed by thousands of curious tourists that wanted to take pictures of us and the girls in their bathing suits. We’ve learned our lesson then. We have a new island now, it’s about a one hour drive by car or a speedy boat from Stockholm, but this time, a wall of silence was built around the island. It’s ideal for spring and summer, to take a rest and to work. It’s impossible in the winter: Swedish winters are too severe. Whenever we go to the island with our boat, it’s like a heavy door closes behind us. The hustle of the city disappears and the inspiration starts to flow. The island is our inspiration, the island is our muse. There are no telephones either. Wonderful. The only luxury article on the island is a piano... Buying that island has been a dream of mine for years. Don’t think that we are that rich, the island wasn’t even that expensive, it was the price of a house.”

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