Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Muziek Parade, January 1978: The ABBA Story, part 8

In the December issue of Muziek Parade we promised that we would pay some attention to Stig Anderson – the fifth ABBA – this month. That’s not going to happen. The article about Stig Anderson has to be postponed. The reason: as the first pop magazine in the Benelux, Muziek Parade has managed to lay its hands on the very latest colour pictures of ABBA. These colourful photographs have been selected by ABBA themselves and approved for publication. That’s why this month Muziek Parade is giving you not only ABBA on the cover, but on top of that four pages in colour. The photographs – taken by Barry Levine – are so beautiful and so unique, that we think that we’ve made the right decision to give precedence to this. Stig Anderson wholeheartedly agreed with our decision.

Part 7 of the Muziek Parade ABBA story was concluded in issue 244 with the publication about Stig Anderson’s working method. We told you that Stig Anderson is already at his desk at 6.30 in the morning, because then he is still able to make phone calls to - for instance - America and Australia. And we ended part 7 with the notification that ABBA records are being sold all over the world, except in China, North Korea and Vietnam. Okay, we refreshed your memory. Here is part 8.

Actually, it’s astonishing that ABBA is so successful all over the world. Artists like Rod Stewart and Elton John constantly appear in public, because they think they will fall from grace when they interrupt their constant publicity. ABBA only appears in promotional films and you will rarely see them at parties or receptions. ABBA doesn’t hate publicity, but ABBA likes their privacy. Agnetha says: “It has always been our strategy to try to achieve a maximum of record sales by making the right records and not by creating publicity. It would be wrong if people would only buy our records because we are on the front page of the newspaper every day.”
The ABBA strategy is clearly a healthy one. There’s no hurrying from one country to the other or from one party to the other, hoping to create some publicity. And behind this strategy is of course this fifth ABBA, Stig Anderson: “It’s a long term strategy. It’s nice to be on top of the charts for one or two years, but I believe in the gradual building of a career. ABBA has become this big very slowly. ABBA won’t disappear just like that. If it would go wrong – which I don’t expect – that will happen slowly as well.”
Björn: “This strategy of ours has many advantages. This calm and cool attitude is sometimes mistaken for arrogance, but that’s definitely not true. Our attitude has its advantages. I will explain what they are. In America, the people are crazy about us. Records are being sold like hot cakes. Our promotional films have contributed a lot to that. And in America, people want to see you when you have a big hit. And every European can’t wait to get there. ABBA is not like that. And these Americans just don’t understand that. They don’t understand why we don’t come over there faster than the speed of light to do a long tour. No, we have decided to maintain that cool attitude, until these Americans can’t cope with it any longer and come to us. Then you have a totally different state of negotiations. Then we can decide how many concerts we are willing to do, in how many weeks. We decide in which hotels we will stay. Well, that’s the advantage of this so called cool attitude. We don’t need a tour like that, but if we could do a tour on our own conditions, we would definitely do it. We owe it to the American fans.”
Stig Anderson mingles in the conversation again: “When we did our tour in England, people in the music industry thought we were crazy because we didn’t do any TV shows or commercials to announce where we would perform. We didn’t do that on purpose. This strategy of ‘we are doing it differently than others’ is working out really well. It has been proven. The tour was an enormous success. A lot of artists let themselves be used by television. It has to be the other way around. The artist has to use television. Television is a big monster that consumes creativity. An artist has to last longer than a couple of television shows that may or may not be directed badly. A lot of artists forget that. An artist is allowed to be picky. For instance, we have decided to appear on television in England twice a year at the most. Twice on Top Of The Pops, that’s more than enough. Apart from that, you shouldn’t forget about the danger of being overexposed. An artist has to be careful that he doesn’t appear on the television screen too much. People tend to get enough.”
And then, Stig tells about a problem he encountered in Australia: “After the Eurovision Song Contest, we did a fair amount of television shows in several countries. And what happened? The Australian broadcasting company sent a special employee all over the world to buy the tapes of these ABBA shows. All of a sudden, we were on television every week in Australia, without our approval. Something like that can destroy an artist. Now we’ve taken care of that. Whenever we perform for television, we make sure that there is an agreement in writing that our performance can only be broadcast once and that it can’t be used for export.”
And Stig about America: “Personally, I would love to go to America. It’s a fantastic country, with a big audience with great purchasing power. But we are not ready for it yet. And we are not happy with the terms under which we would have to work. I am sure that there are people in America that laugh at our attitude. They can’t understand that we don’t accept these offers. Apparently they don’t believe in an ABBA that can still be big in years to come or even bigger than they are now.”
And he continues: “Maybe we are wrong. It’s possible. In America they are saying that you can only get bigger if you do long tours. We have a different opinion. First, we want to get even bigger and stronger in America and when we have acquired our position, we will fly over there and then the reception will be as huge as the Beatles had in their heyday.”
That the Anderson strategy is the right one has been proven in Europe. ABBA’s record sales had first reached astronomic heights before ABBA – after a lot of begging and pleading – came to Holland, France, England and so on. And ABBA can afford to wait until this begging and pleading will come from America as well.

The industrious Stig comes back from yet another phone call: “I just had Norway on the phone, they asked if we wanted to come over. I had to say no again.” And then he says that 7.000 tickets for a concert in Oslo or 9.000 tickets for a concert in Gothenburg have been sold within a couple of hours. In Australia, the tickets were sold much faster than with the Stones concerts at the time. However, Björn, Benny, Anni-Frid and Agnetha won’t do a lot of travelling in the future. Not only are they very attached to Stockholm, to their families. But most of all, they want to stay close to home to keep working on compositions, arrangements and recordings.
And if they still have to get out there, it’s mostly for short trips. Back and forth in fourteen days, like earlier this year in Australia. ABBA can’t afford to be away from Stockholm for too long. They have responsibilities towards other Polar artists and they have to keep on writing new material. When the new album is released in February, there is a tiny chance that ABBA will take a couple of short trips to North and South America, just to promote the records. That’s going to be a trip of fourteen days at the most. TV interviews will be done and short performances in well-known programmes. Still, ABBA has cleared their schedule for two months in 1978. Why?
Stig Anderson: “If it turns out that we can do a couple of concerts on our own terms, I would like to do that in July and August. We have offers to stay in the States for months, but of course that’s not possible. July and August are suitable. Our own artists will be on holiday then, we will have very few commitments. It would be perfect. But again, it has to happen on our own terms.”
How do the other ABBA people feel about touring? Agnetha: “To be honest, I don’t like to perform outside Sweden. I have a very good reason for that. I can’t miss my children for such a long time. They are still young now. I want to be with them in this period of their life. Whenever we have to work abroad and I really can’t get out of it, I’m regularly crying in my hotel room when I think about the children. I’m a real mother, when it comes to that.” It is known that Agnetha and Björn’s phone bills are sky high whenever they are on tour. Several times every day, they are calling Stockholm. It doesn’t matter if they are in Brisbane or Singapore, these calls will be made and they don’t care about the costs. Björn may come across as being insensitive, but he is homesick just as much as Agnetha. To suppress this homesickness, Agnetha and Björn have the same flaw: they start eating, as much as they can. They stuff themselves with the most delicious food and when they get back to Sweden, they realize that they’ve become too fat. But eating is their reaction on being away from home.
It is known that Anni-Frid and Benny love delicious food as well. Especially fish, with a fruity wine. Agnetha says: “Anni-Frid and Benny can eat whatever they like. French fries with mayonnaise and other greasy food like that. But they don’t get fat. And that’s not fair.”
Whenever ABBA is on tour, they always stay at the Hilton hotel. In Germany, this was cause for the following occurance. The organizer asked “and where will the technicians and road managers stay?” Benny replied: “With us at the hotel, of course. These guys are at least as important as we are. They deserve the best treatment.” And they think that’s weird, in our adjacent country. An entertainer is an ‘artist’ over there, someone who lives far from his servants. Benny: “It surprised me that they still think like that in Germany. There is no difference in social position with us. We are working in a team and we are staying together as a team. If you don’t do that, you can’t perform to the best of your ability.”
In Australia, ABBA bought clothes for a TV show, amounting to 50.000 Dutch guilders. Very pretty exotic dresses and suits. All very exquisite. When the show had been filmed, and on top of that had been a great success, ABBA gave the clothes to their employees, who had been in charge of light and sound.

It is safe to say that the world is at ABBA’s feet. The Swedish quartet is at least as famous and strong as the well-known Swedish steel and the Swedish Volvo cars. But still, the Swedes won’t put ABBA on the same pedestal as other big Swedish traders. Because ABBA is a Swedish product. Together with the steel and the cars, ABBA is Sweden’s biggest export article.
Don’t ask us why, but ABBA still hasn’t been able to get the same recognition and esteem as they have received in other European countries. ABBA is looked upon as ‘just another little music group’ and ‘apparently, they are nice’. Stig Anderson is getting furious about that. Recently, the well-known director Ingmar Bergmann received the same treatment. He even got away from his country. Or some time ago, a well-known politician came from Sweden, named Dag Hammarskjold. This man has meant a great deal to Sweden, but he never got any recognition.
A rather famous producer once said: “Even if ABBA would become twice as big as the Beatles and the Stones together at their peak, the Swedes would still say: “Oh well, it’s just some Swedish group...”
The Swedes seem to be somewhat strange people. They play down their own quality and praise everything that comes from abroad. A strange kind of inferiority complex.
Even when Stikkan Anderson said on televison what ABBA had meant to the country, the next day the newspapers read: “much cry and little wool”. On top of that, they wrote that Anderson was only out to get publicity for himself and his group. Oh well, these Swedes can’t be convinced. There aren’t that many invitations for television performances either. After their big success in Brighton, ABBA received one invitation to appear on television. And that was even for a programme aimed at older people. When ABBA found out that they would have to work with an unfamiliar orchestra, Stig declined the invitation. Björn: “That was a very reasonable decision. And of course it was explained the wrong way. When you work with certain friends and musicians in the studio and on tour, you want to appear with them on television as well. And they didn’t understand that.”
However, ABBA did appear on the Swedish screens once. This happened in January 1975. They had to replace another group, of which the singer had suddenly lost his voice. After that TV performance, the papers read: “In Sweden, we have the ABBA herrings and those herrings are dead. It appeared that ABBA can actually sing and play, but unfortunately I have to say that they didn’t make any lively impression on me.” Believe it or not, this could be read in Dagens Nyheter. The author was Mia Gerdis.

Another reporter wrote: “ABBA’s music is nice to dance to, but that’s all.” The man that produced this from his typewriter was called Anders Klintevall, again in Dagens Nyheter. And mister Mats Olsson wrote in Expressen: “Their music is nice and definitely professional, but the ABBA lyrics couldn’t be poorer. ABBA sounds like a mixture of 10CC and the Beach Boys that run into each other in a discotheque. The production is fine, but the technical side makes it sound cold.” Muziek Parade can’t understand why ABBA still wants to live and work in Sweden. The country is clearly anti-ABBA. Stikkan Anderson: “We love Sweden and perhaps all this resistance is an extra incentive to keep on producing good music. The more people are writing negative things about ABBA, the harder the boys get to work. The amazing thing is that these people from the press are not at all the voice of their readers. Their readers bought 500.000 copies of the ‘Arrival’ album within three weeks. That has never happened before in Sweden. That’s why we let these reporters do their talking. They won’t be able to destroy us.”
Björn: “Most of the time, this criticism is unfair. They forget about the fact that we have had to work very hard for years to get some recognition. It’s not a piece of cake to be this popular in so many countries. I really don’t get this criticism. Okay, they are allowed to say that we produce music without a real message. They are allowed to say that our lyrics are somewhat superficial. But we are not messengers. Our most important message is: bringing some joy into a world that’s filled with more than enough misery already. And we are successful at that. Our fans are happy people. Someone once wrote: “whenever I’m feeling down, I play your records, then I feel happy again.” A letter like that means a lot to me. It exudes warmth and it encourages us to keep following the direction that we chose.”
What is the most important reason for all this criticism according to ABBA? “I think it’s jealousy,” Benny says. “People sympathize with you as long as things are not looking up. As soon as you become successful, people get jealous and they start to make up all kinds of strange stories about you.”
Agnetha: “The people here can’t tolerate that we are making a lot of money. They seem to forget that we have to pay 80 percent to taxes. Anyhow, what’s wrong with making a lot of money? That’s rather nice, isn’t it. And it’s like Björn said earlier. People forget that we have had to work very hard to get where we are. For years, we only bought sandwiches because we didn’t have any money. And sometimes we didn’t even have the money to buy those sandwiches.”
Björn: “Let me say this to wind this up, because I really don’t like to talk about things like this. We are making music for everyone, not only for the few critical people working for these magazines. We wouldn’t be where we are now, if we would only make music for these journalists. Our audience thinks that our records are great. We want to keep it that way.” Benny: “ABBA wants to entertain the people, we are not messengers. We leave that to the politicians. We don’t force our opinion upon the people in our songs. They are man enough to make up their own mind about all kinds of things.”

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