Sunday 25 November 2012

Joker, April 1977: ABBA intimate: "We are slaves to our career"

ABBA, the pop miracle of the seventies. A lot has been said already about this group - a lot of nonsense too. The rise of these four Swedes, that has outstripped the Beatles already today, has nurtured rumours often enough. In the glare of the spotlights, no one wanted to believe that doubt, fears, affection, sometimes even hatred has played a part in this fantastic career.
Harry Edington, a British reporter, and his friend and colleague Peter Himmelstrand from Sweden have observed the group when they were taking their first steps on the international scene. They are the ones who really know how everything started and what's going on behind the scenes. Here's the truth about ABBA.

Anni-Frid, the girl with the German father.
The young Norwegian girl had lost all of her friends. Others pointed at her with their fingers or spit on the street before her. Her misdoing? She had fallen in love with a German officer and was expecting his baby. This happened in 1945 in Narvik in northern Norway. The German occupants were hated and feared by the native population. But when Synni Lyngstad, an innocent 19-year-old, met this Alfred Haase, he seemed different from all the others. At the end of the war Alfred was commanded back to Germany. Before he left he promised Synni to come back and marry her. But he never came back.
Her child, a daughter, was born on 15 November 1945 and named Anni-Frid after her grandmother. It was the coldest winter in Europe since years. But even the ice was warmer than the feelings of the inhabitants of Narvik towards Synni and her daughter. For two years, the mother and daughter waited for their loved one and father. Anni-Frid's grandmother had to witness how her daughter withered away in her loneliness. Synni died when she was only 21. The grandmother realised that little Anni-Frid with the abusive name 'German child' was facing a difficult childhood in Narvik. She left Norway and moved to the Swedish town Torshälla, where Anni-Frid grew up. She called her grandmother 'mamma' and she still does today. Anni-Frid: "I've tried to find my father. It was impossible. It is believed that his ship went down in Denmark. Otherwise, he definitely would have returned. It was good that I still had my grandmother. She was always very sweet to me and she encouraged me in everything that I did. On long, cold winter evenings she taught me old folk songs from our home country. She also encouraged me to start singing."
When she was 10, Anni-Frid found herself on stage for the first time. Three years later, she lied to an organizer that she was already 16 and this way she got a job as a singer in a restaurant. Her first band was called 'The Anni-Frid Four'. She was especially fond of the bass player and band leader, Ragnar Frederiksson, who was also a furniture salesman on the side. Things happened as expected: the both of them fell in love, got engaged and started living together.
When she was 16, she gave birth to a son: Hans, they got married and then came the second child: Lise-Lotte. Anni-Frid had to choose between her family and her career. Her career took precedence. Anni-Frid: "Although I had the smiling image of a happy singer, behind the mask I was very unhappy. Unfortunately I have to say today that people who really should have known better were very rude to me. They said that I didn't care about the children. They couldn't have been more wrong. Ragnar was there for them and they could not have been raised better." It was the painful decision between a marriage falling apart and the start of a career that introduced Anni-Frid as a regular visitor of the Swedish bestseller charts, although critics thought that her music was only appealing to a small part of the audience. A performance on the popular Swedish TV show 'Hyland's Corner' guaranteed her increasing popularity and helped her to become one of Sweden's first female singers.

Benny, who is often craving for his children.
Whenever someone wants to ask the friendly, bearded and somewhat chubby Benny Andersson about his education, he has a smile and a reply ready: "I have a driver's licence." It's a polite description of his barely succcessful schooldays. The only subject that he liked more or less was English.
He was born in a suburb of Stockholm on 16 December 1946. Benny got through his schooldays with a drowsy indifference, something that is still apparent today when he has to occupy himself with something that he isn't interested in at all. He left school when he was 15 without any exams or certificate and he concentrated completely on his music.
Benny: "My grandfather and father were exactly like me. They tried every, and I mean every, instrument that they could find." Two years after he had left school Benny was still trying to find out which part of the business world could be of use to him. The time in between was filled with thinking about his future and occasional performances with a band.
One day, the group had to go out of town for a guest appearance, which was unusual. Usually, no one wanted them. Svenne Hedlund, singer of the group Hep Stars, helped out with his truck. Svenne: "Benny is a good musician. When our organ player quit, Benny joined us. He turned up wearing a neck tie, a couple of months later he had long hair and looked like us." The Hep Stars turned into a top group.
A big distress for Benny: "We couldn't show our faces in any restaurant anymore, we were harassed everywhere." Along with their increasing popularity, their income increased as well, but Benny never seemed to be interested in money. The Hep Stars started taking care of their own releases and business matters, to market their songs. But their company 'Hep House' went bankrupt. The biggest flop that ever happened to Benny.
Another problem was waiting for Benny: in the summer of 1966 he broke his four-year-long engagement to Christina Grönvall. A pretty, red-haired girl that he had met in school. They lived together and had two children: Peter and Helena. This romance was kept top secret from the group's fans. A couple of months after the long impending break up, Christina confronted Benny in an interview: "Tell everyone about me and the children. The family that doesn't have a place in his glittering world as a pop idol. The only contact of the children with their father is through the records of the Hep Stars. I once joined them on tour, but I always had to travel separately. And during the show I was hidden away."
Benny was amazed that this story caused so much turmoil. He was also disappointed that strange people wanted to get into his private life. By the way, today he still has the same opinion. He has learned from his experience with Christina. But he often thinks about his children yearningly.

Björn, who forgot to smile on stage.
Björn Ulvaeus was born in the last days of the war on 25 April 1945 on the west coast of Göteborg. When he was 11 his family moved to the east coast town Vastervik - a name that means something like west bay. He got acquainted with guitars, boating and the raw folk music, that was flooding the world around this time.
When he was 17, Björn got together with three of his friends and he said to them that he wanted to start a Dixieland group. The aim was to get public performances in order to increase their pocket money. Today he says: "It wasn't a serious venture, although I gave that impression to some people. I was just bragging when I talked to the boys about jazz and things like that. I didn't know much about it and so our music was more like American folk music in the style of the Kingston Trio." One day, Björn's mother brought home a form to enter the talent competition 'Opportunity Knocks'. The group's name had to be entered as well and since there wasn't any name yet, mother Ulvaeus came up with The West Bay Singers. Björn: "I was astounded when I found out that she had entered us into that competition. At first I wanted to withdraw, but then I thought, why would I?"
A preview of the programme indicated that The West Bay Singers would sing songs in Swedish and English. This was read by Bengt Bernhag, a well-known talent scout. He was a trouper in the music business with a real instinct for up-and-coming talents. He liked the group and especially the simple and honest presentation and he recommended them to the boss of his company, a single-minded and energetic music publisher called Stig Anderson. He asked Björn for a demo tape. Björn: "That was an exciting day for us all." The first thing that Stig Anderson did for the group was change their name. That's how they turned into The Hootenanny Singers. Their first record was perfect: 'I'm Waiting At The Charcoal Kiln', a sad song about the people who were working in the forests. It became a big success.
Stig: "I noticed that there were opportunities for this group. They looked good and the blonde, handsome Björn was the centre of attention on stage. None of us had expected to become so successful this fast."
Stig's trust and Bengt's fatherly advice persuaded Björn how to pursue his future. And the conditions couldn't have been better for him. Bengt was a skilled music technician and he taught him everything that he knew. Bengt always treated Björn as his son. Without this connection, Björn would probably never have turned into a superstar. One of Björn's friends: "Stig was always a business man, and Björn was exactly right for him. Björn is someone who can analyze accurately and meticulously. When you look at him while he is working you can almost hear his brains working as a precision machine. Because he attacks everything with his intellect, he has to force himself on stage to smile at his fans sometimes."

Agnetha, who often fears to get in front of a microphone.
Agnetha Fältskog, born on 5 April 1950 in Jönköping (Sweden), is the daughter of an enterprising father, who produced shows for domestic use at the local cultural centre. Agnetha: "I will never forget my first official performance. In the middle of a show for elderly people, my pants went down and the audience burst into laughter. I was six years old at the time." When she was 15, she got her own piano. Reason enough for the musical offspring to try out her own melodies. She also wrote her own lyrics to these melodies, starting with a first draw about two dwarfs. At 15, Agnetha was a singer in a dance band. Two years later, she joined another band - that's how her voice turned up on the desk of producer Little Gerhard of the record company CBS, whose cousin worked as the second singer in the same band. He asked Agnetha to send him an entire tape.
Her favourite song around this time was 'I Was So In Love', a song about a girl mourning about her lost love.  She was that girl. She wrote the song because she was so unhappy when her romance with Björn Lillia came to an end. "I was sitting at the piano and tried to forget. The melody was ready within half an hour. I didn't feel any better but I had a great song." The producer had the same opinion. Agnetha said goodbye to her family and went on a train to Stockholm to record the song.
"It was the most exciting moment of my life. My heart was beating in my throat. I had to force myself to get inside the studio. On stage I still have that same feeling sometimes. Then I heard that the musicians were practising my melody. Suddenly I was floating on a cloud." Within a week the record was at number one.
Little Gerhard: "Agnetha was very critical from the start - when it came to her job as well." Her straightforward way of dealing with problems made the transition from the country to the city very difficult. Behind her self-confidence, a considerable amount of shyness was hidden. She said things that she didn't mean to say like that and often came across as being impolite. A friend says: "I'm convinced that she sometimes didn't  realize what she was doing and that the words simply came out because she felt insecure. But when she talked to people privately, she was sweet, polite and honest. I understand that she is still driving reporters crazy these days. They don't get anything more out of her than a simple 'yes' or 'no'. I believe that she understands that it's better to say nothing at all than to make a blunder all the time."
But nothing could stop Agnetha's career. She started to perform in TV shows and went on tour in the inevitable folk parks. A German record company tried to get her under contract. She refused, but still her popularity in Germany was increasing - for a short period of time she was engaged to the German lyricist Dietrich Zimmermann. The critics followed all of her moves. Her song 'Gypsy Friend' was called racialistic and heavily criticized. Agnetha: "It's a pity that people see it like that. I just wrote a song, that's all."

Sunday 18 November 2012

Popshop, 1978: ABBA's latest addition

Anna and Björn, the blonde half of the Swedish quartet ABBA, couldn't be happier. But then, they couldn't have imagined the birth of their little baby any better.
"The birth of Linda didn't go very easy," according to Björn. "That's why we weren't one hundred percent at ease. But this time there weren't any problems. You can tell when you are around Anna. It's like she has just returned from a long vacation. Did you know that we didn't realise that we had a little son until a couple of minutes after the delivery? That the ultimate wish had come true? We were so relieved that everything had went so smoothly!"

It's very busy in room 615 of the Danderyd Hospital in Stockholm. A small army of press people and fans are queuing at the door to congratulate the proud parents. The small baby (he doesn't have a name yet) doesn't care about all the attention and keeps on sleeping peacefully.
"It's an extremely calm baby," according to mother Anna. "Compared to our Linda, that is. He sleeps all day and he barely cries when he is hungry. Why we haven't decided on a name yet? Because we were convinced that it would be a girl! Most of the time we aren't that lucky with things like this, but this time we were..."

Sunday 4 November 2012

Joepie, 1979: A headquarter in the ambassadors district

There are four nameplates at the gates of the ABBA headoffice in Laerkstaden, the ambassadors district of Stockholm: Polar Music International, Sweden Music, Reuter & Reuter Foerlag and Sannes Trading. These are only four of ABBA's many companies. The group has invested a lot of money. In the headquarter, Stikkan Anderson, seated behind his far too spacious desk, is making all the decisions.

The various properties of the ABBA millionaires in a row. 1. The most capital villa is reserved for the married couple Stikkan Anderson. 2. The headquarter in the ambassadors district of Stockholm. From this location, Stikkan is reigning over the ABBA empire. 3. The villa on the island Lidingö where Agnetha is residing since her divorce. 4. Björn's new home, situated on the island Lidingö as well, that belongs to the fancy district of the Swedish capital. 5. Benny and Anni-Frid are living on the same island too, in this salmon coloured manor-house. 6. For 210 million, ABBA bought this former sports hall at Sankt Eriksgatan in Stockholm, where their state-of-the-art recording studios are now established. 7. The 'Commerce' warehouse in Skövde: supermarkets, boutiques, restaurants, a dry cleaner and a hairdresser. 8. Also in Skövde, they own this office building. The 'Handelsbanken' are the most important tenants. 9. ABBA is also the owner of the ICA-Norrhallen in the same region. 10. In Lidköping, they own this ultra modern shopping mall, called 'Särnmarkshuset'. 11. In this building, their art trading company 'AH Grafik' is located, although it doesn't make them much money yet. But these aren't the only properties of the five ABBAs, as you will read further on in this edition.

Proportionally, the ABBA company is the most profitable company in Sweden and apart from that it's growing faster than any other company. Three years in a row, Polar Music International has made a pure profit of 50 million Swedish Krona (23 million Dutch Guilders) and Anderson is looking for opportunities to expand their turn-over, and especially their profit.
Sannes Trading was one of those possibilities. That company was set up especially for trading activities with the Eastern countries. Stikkan blames it on bureaucracy that the trading isn't running that prosperously yet. As long as he doesn't succeed yet in selling 25 million copies of every ABBA album in Russia, he is setting his sights on other activities: investing in stocks, shares and real estate. He prefers to invest the ABBA money in companies that aren't too labour-intensive, with large profit possibilities.
Real estate is an excellent opportunity. In Skoevde in the south of Sweden, ABBA now owns three large buildings: two big shopping malls and a huge office building. Not far from that area, in Lidköping, ABBA is the owner of an ultra modern, indoor shopping mall with adjoining office building. The ABBA members themselves are living in majestic palaces too. These mansions are being administered by the ABBA empire as well. Fiscally, that's more profitable.

"Relatively speaking, we don't spend a lot of money on ourselves," Stikkan claims. If the ABBA members should decide to spend more money, they would have to pay even more taxes than the 85 percent that the Swedish tax collector is receiving now already. The tax situation in Sweden is unfavourable to huge, multi-million companies like ABBA's. Eluding these taxes would be simple by moving to a tax paradise, like tennis player Björn Borg did.
But according to Stikkan, ABBA isn't even thinking about eluding their taxes. The fear that ABBA's popularity would suffer is playing an important part there. But it seems even more important that the Swedish legislation forbids people living abroad to own a couple of companies and real estate in this country. That would mean that the whole empire would have to be dismantled and that's almost impossible.

But Anderson isn't coping very well with the tax situation. "Nobody wants to work in this country any longer because of these high taxes. And working extra hours is out of the question, because then you have to pay extra taxes. Of course, it's the socialists who make up legislation like that in this country." That's why Stikkan has voted conservatively in the latest Parliamentary elections, just like the other ABBA members. "Do you know what I think about making up legislation like that?" Dumb maybe? "Dumb? Dumb? That's putting it very mildly. It's complete insanity."