Saturday, 27 November 2010

Muziek Parade, November 1977: The ABBA Story, part 7

The demand for ABBA was growing and growing. Everyone wanted to see and hear the group. In England – where one is used to something – about 5.000 tickets were sold within six hours. An amazing record. The interest was so big that the telephone operators were in total panic. As a matter of speaking, the flames were blazing from the switchboard. During this period, ABBA did two extra concerts in Denmark, so that they wouldn’t disappoint thousands of people.
In Munich, the Bravo editors’ phones were broiling. The fans had heard that the plane that ABBA travelled with had crashed. Allegedly, three ABBA members had died and Anni-Frid was the only survivor. When this rumour was spreading like wild-fire over Europe, ABBA was already safely at home, recovering from all the strains.
Benny says: “Things like this happen. You never know how a story like that comes into being, but when it starts circulating, it seems unstoppable. I can remember that the Beatles were pronounced dead a couple of times too. I think these rumours are a shame. It serves nobody.”
ABBA is very popular in Eastern Europe as well. In Russia, all of their albums are in the charts. East Germany is allowed to import a limited amount of records, to be exact: 5 million. In 1976, the import allowance was completely used on ABBA records. A number like that is unmistakable proof of the group’s popularity behind the Iron Curtain. In 1975, the Polish Prime Minister paid a visit to Sweden. When he returned home, he brought along some ABBA records. He had them played on the radio, because for once this wasn’t a ‘product of imperialistic twerps’. In that same radio programme, the DJ mentioned the address of the ABBA fanclub in Sweden. Barely one week later, about ten thousand letters had arrived in the mail box of the fanclub secretary. And to think that the ABBA records weren’t even for sale yet at that moment.
Clever Stig went to the Polish Embassy with all those letters and made an ardent plea for the group, to do a couple of performances there.

In October 1976, the time had finally come; ABBA was allowed to come to Poland... a twenty-four hour visit! The Polish government had given permission to bring along 50 Western reporters and photographers. Under the condition that the group would travel in a Russian plane. Stig agreed, provided that the ABBA logo could be painted on the plane. Everyone went along. There were about 100 fans at the airport... the drive to the city turned into a true triumph. During these 24 hours, a TV special was filmed and a couple of interviews were done. The whole event had been organised by the ministry of tourism and turned out to be a great success. No less than 200.000 albums were sold in the following weeks.
Stikkan Anderson says: “The reception was very warm-hearted. You wouldn’t expect something like that. But we just don’t know enough about these countries. That’s why it’s a good thing that a Western group has obtained a foothold there. Now we will have the opportunity to get to know these people better and the people there are getting to know us. Since then, we’ve been to Hungary and Slovakia. And always with great success.”
At the special press conference in Warsaw, there were about 250 reporters from Eastern Europe. People from the Russian press agency Tass as well. Stikkan: “It just goes to show that music brings people together. A good song is better than conferences that go on for days. Or to put it better: a big tour with the best European artists is a sort of guarantee for a peaceful life in all European nations. For us it’s a shame that these countries don’t want to spend more money on imported goods, otherwise we could have sold much more than those 200.000 records.” Anderson thinks that about 1.000.000 copies could have been sold. Now, illegal pressings are being put on the market, and ABBA can’t do anything about it. Another problem for ABBA. When the group performs in Poland or Eastern Germany or other countries behind the Iron Curtain, it’s not possible to take along the money they have made. The money has to be spent in the country itself. ABBA has bought piles and piles of clothes, icons and other stuff, only to spend their earned money.

Let’s get back to the press conference in Poland. Benny was asked if he knew any Polish musicians and he replied: “Yes, Chopin, I think he’s very good.”
The successful performance at the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton has made a lasting impression in the communistic countries. Stikkan Anderson: “We didn’t have any idea how many people had watched us there. They have the fondest memories. On the radio they are looking for frequencies, just to hear our records. That’s why Poland has been so good for us. The records were being played constantly and other communistic countries were listening along, with the well-known result that import allowances were being applied for our records. With the big disadvantage that our records are being copied there, and we don’t get a penny for them.”
Where records are concerned, what does ABBA’s future look like in these countries? Stikkan: “That’s hard to tell. I believe that we have a very strong reputation in Poland and we have already received requests to import our new, fifth album. They requested 800.000 copies and of course that would be fantastic. In Russia, things are getting less strict. Polydor Germany has sent about 25.000 albums to Russia. That can’t be enough for all those fans, not by a long shot. I think I will have to talk to the authorities myself. Maybe that will help.”
How does the group feel about touring? Stikkan: “Positive of course, but we don’t have much time to do concerts. Now we are working on the movie. This has taken up five months of our time and it still isn’t finished. Those five months are lost for concerts. Apart from that, the group has to write songs, and produce for others as well. The boys both have their families with its obligations. I think it’s a shame that reporters sometimes claim that ABBA doesn’t want to perform. That couldn’t be further from the truth. But there simply isn’t much time!”
In the beginning of this year, the group performed in England, Germany, Holland and Australia. A highly exhausting and... costly venture. That tour has cost ABBA a lot of money. But they don’t think that’s the most important thing.
To please the fans, Stig is having promotional films made that are being sent all over the world, for television promotion. This way, he stays in contact with the fans. And it also helps record sales.
Why are these concerts so costly for ABBA? Stig Anderson: “When the group is on tour, they don’t record anything. I can’t expect them to stop for recordings during a tour. And nothing is being written either, because they can’t put their minds to that, not mentioning the time problem. Furthermore, there are about 18 people on stage when ABBA performs. Pianists, guitarists, people to take care of the light, you name it. There is a backing choir. The whole venture is very expensive. And it has to be, because ABBA can’t afford to fail.”
Benny intervenes: “Sometimes I have the feeling that we don’t have enough true show numbers. With that I mean, not enough nice and fast rock songs. Maybe it’s because we don’t have a rock tradition like America and England. We are stuck in the Swedish musical tradition. It’s hard to escape that.” MP can hardly agree with that. ABBA is doing more than great on stage. Okay, there are a couple of slow songs in the show, but that doesn’t have to be a problem.
ABBA has said once that the group has been marked by the Eurovision Song Contest; what do they mean by that? Björn: “I think it has never happened before that a Eurovision winner has had more than one hit. Most of the time they came, they saw, had a temporary success and they disappeared again. With ‘Waterloo’, we had an incredible worldwide hit and – just like all the others – we would have vanished into oblivion if we wouldn’t have worked with all our strength on new songs, our presentation, on everything really... to remain in the limelight. Believe me, I am very proud of the fact that we have had more than one hit, for instance in England. That is really extraordinary for a group that doesn’t originate from America or England itself. We have developed so much as a group that nobody is actually thinking about Brighton anymore, where everything started.”

1976 has perhaps been ABBA’s biggest year. That Polish affair has played an important part in that. The TV special that was filmed there was broadcast all over the communistic countries, with all its convenient commercial consequences. In October of that year, ABBA was at number one in eleven countries! In England alone, ABBA had four consecutive number ones. The album ‘ABBA Greatest Hits’ was in the top 5 for no less than 6 months.
Perhaps, 1977 will become the year wherein ABBA exploited television in the right way. Not too many performances, not waiting at airports for hours, not staying at hotels. No, making smart and good promotional films that can reach the millions of fans as well. Those films are made under their own supervision too. They mutually decide about the script and they produce them themselves.
Stikkan Anderson: “ABBA works with tremendous discipline, the groups wants to get everything perfect. Nothing should be left to chance. The group comes to the office or the studio at nine o’clock and they keep working till five o’clock in the afternoon. There is a break for coffee or tea and they get time for lunch for one hour. I say: ‘get’. But of course I mean: ‘take’. I don’t have to chase them. They have more than enough sense of responsibility. Whenever they are recording and everything is running smoothly, the boys sometimes work till ten o’clock in the evening, but never later than that.”
Again, it is proven that all these nightly sessions with booze and so on are not necessary. A disciplined group that has made the right preparations can get the job done in less time than you may expect! Several top groups and artist in the Benelux can take an example by that.
The headquarter in Stockholm is being managed by Stikkan Anderson and two secretaries. He is also assisted by Görel Johnson, who can call herself ‘personal assistant’. “Whenever I’m away,” Stikkan says, “the business at the office has to continue. It would be ridiculous – if I would be in Australia – that no decisions would be made during my absence. That’s why I’m happy with Görel.”
Stikkan is also looking for possibilities to spread the group’s business interests. There is a record company, a music publishing company, a film company. That’s all settled. But the tax collectors office in Sweden isn’t very generous and usually ABBA would only have a couple of cents left from every Swedish krona. That’s why Stikkan is looking for interests in other companies. His oil transaction was sensational. There is also money invested in clothes stores and galleries. And not only in Sweden, but in other countries as well. Financially, ABBA can’t go to pieces anymore. In 1976, there was a turnover of 35 million Dutch guilders.

The absence of the fifth ABBA album is a disappointment for everyone. Allegedly, the album – that was announced a long time ago – won’t be released until February 1978. This has nothing to do with the movie or Agnetha’s (second) pregnancy. Benny and Björn don’t seem to be happy with certain tracks and since everything has to be perfect, the release date is postponed time and time again. Polydor – the record company – regrets this as well. They would have loved to have the record out in the middle of November, just in time for the St. Nicholas sales.
What is going on? Benny: “We are all working on the songs. But whenever one of us thinks a certain part isn’t very good, the entire song is scrapped. You haven’t seen our waste-paper basket. An awful lot is being thrown away. When a song has stood all the tests, it has to send shivers down my spine when I play it in the studio. Only then I know that we are working on something good. There’s a certain method for making records. It’s a combination of hard, very hard work, a good team spirit and a lot of instinct. As long as we are successful with this method, we are going to stick with it.”
Stikkan Anderson is the important arranger behind the ABBA songs. He is being called ‘the fifth ABBA’ just like Brian Epstein was called ‘the fifth Beatle’ at the time.
The American magazine Billboard pronounced him trendsetter of the year in 1974. Before him, Epstein acquired this title as well. After him, for instance Willem van Kooten or MP reporter Joost den Draayer were surprised with this honour.
Stikkan arrives at the office every day at 6.30. Baldersgatan 1. It’s a stately mansion in a fancy district in Stockholm. Baldersgatan became ABBA’s headquarter after the ‘Waterloo’ success. This building was bought with the ‘Waterloo’ profits. It’s in the midst of other Embassy buildings and this way Stig is assured of constant surveillance, because armed police officers are surveilling day and night in and around Baldersgatan. Why does he get up so early? Stikkan: “Then I feel fresh. The world is beautiful and... I’m still able to make phone calls to Australia. I have to consider all kinds of time differences. We are selling records all over the world, except China, North Korea and Vietnam. We have to do something about that.”
People who are close to Stig call him a ‘human dynamo’ who ‘can’t sit still for one second’ and who is ‘bubbling over with new ideas’ constantly.

Talk about a busy ABBA period... The four from Stockholm probably have the longest, the hottest, but definitely the busiest summer of their entire career behind them. Obviously, there’s the new single, that has finally seen the light of day after numerous recording sessions. Never before did the fans have to wait this long for a new release. Then they have worked very hard on the new album, that will be released in February 1978. The release date of the album has been postponed several times. Time and time again, Björn, Benny and Stig had different opinions about the creative sounds that should be captured in the record grooves.

Yes, and then there’s the movie. Producer Polar Film & Music Productions AB Svensk Film (SF) has finally made it. The movie is on its way. Director Lasse Hallström has been working with ABBA for six months and it seems that something wonderful is awaiting us. Lasse says: “Anni-Frid and Agnetha are born actresses. They have a wonderful feeling for the cameras, they know that they can keep certain actions small, because exaggerated and theatrical gestures don’t work well on film. Apart from that, the girls have something natural that’s so refreshing and that can be captured well on celluloid. I’ve had a wonderful time working with them.”

Five songs are being performed in the movie: ‘Eagle’, ‘I Wonder’, ‘Name Of The Game’, ‘I’m A Marionette’ and... ‘Thank You For The Music’. The movie is being released in the Benelux by City Film. These five tracks will also be released on the ABBA album in February. Simultaneously, another new single will be released by the group, that will hopefully do better than ‘Name Of The Game’.

Stig Anderson tells about the movie: “It’s a crazy story, but I don’t want to get into details yet. Anyhow, Lasse Hallström is still in the cutting room to give the movie its definite shape, so anything is still possible. But there are wonderful scenes in the movie, like picnics, beautiful images, we also have a couple of dark poker scenes. Some kind of nightclub atmosphere, that has turned out very nice thanks to the scenery. I want to tell something about the story. It’s about an Australian DJ named Robert Hughes. All the time, he is trying to get an exclusive conversation with ABBA and he just doesn’t succeed. Of course he gets his interview in the end. As the only reporter, he manages to hide on ABBA’s boat.” Afterwards, it turns out that this free rider is Robert Hughes from Australia. ABBA appreciates his little game and Robert gets his story.


Ivana said...

Michel, thank you for the long article and translation, it was a lot of work. Fantastic pictures too, but I really wish "I Wonder" had been included in The Movie.

What a pity, what a wasted opportunity to let the world hear one of the most beautiful ballads.. by Frida. Ehhh cruel world.

Michel said...

Thanks for commenting, Ivana. Yes, too bad that 'I Wonder' wasn't included in The Movie. It's a great live performance and I love the lyrics too. It may have been intended to be in The Movie but edited out at the last minute.

I don't understand that remark in the article about the next single hopefully doing better than 'The Name Of The Game'. They make it seem as if it was a flop in Holland, when in reality it reached number two which can hardly be called a failure.

Ronaldo said...

Still going strong Michel! Thanks!

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