Tuesday 25 June 2013

Mix, 1977: ABBA left the president of the United States out in the cold

ABBA could play in sold-out venues or make lucrative television shows every day. But they are not able to do this because of time constraints. But the fact that they never appear on television in their home country Sweden has a totally different, peculiar reason... This week the last part of Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid's breathtaking success adventure.

"In Sweden, we can hardly become more famous than we already are," manager Stig Anderson said after ABBA's phenomenal success in England: winning the Eurovision Song Contest. "That's why we have to explore the international market right now. But," he continues, "we are going to play it safe. We've received tempting offers from America, but for the time being we will restrict ourselves to Europe and Australia. It turns out that there's an extraordinary interest in our music in these territories. Where America is concerned: first our record sales will have to take off over there."
After a speedy visit to Hamburg, where ABBA performed in a television show, the famous quartet returned to Sweden to enjoy a couple of days of well-earned rest on their small island on the Stockholm coast, their beloved place of refuge where they can find new inspiration.
But their return to their home country was attended with several problems. All of Sweden wanted to see and hear the triumphant quartet and way before 'Brighton' a tour of the Swedish folk parks had been scheduled in the summer of 1974. But the offers that ABBA received from all parts of the world were so interesting that  Stig Anderson felt obliged from a business point of view to let the Swedish fans down. The national interests had to make way for the international opportunities and that's how ABBA made a victory march that summer past radio and television studios in England, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Luxemburg. Only the following year it was Sweden's turn.
The flood to the Swedish folk parks was enormous and to their astonishment the concerts were not only attended by teenagers. Fathers and mothers were enjoying what ABBA had to offer as well. The song 'Waterloo' was doing extremely well by then. In England, 'Waterloo' even reached number two in the charts. All experts agreed that the pop scene had never experienced such an enormous success since the Beatles. 'Waterloo' sold more than five million singles and three million albums.
"When you look at the international sales figures it really makes your head spin," Stig Anderson admits. "At this moment ABBA has sold more than forty million records. In Holland we have already surpassed the Beatles. In America 'Waterloo' is number seven in the charts and as soon as we have some time we will go over there to do a couple of television shows."
ABBA's tours only underligned their enormous popularity again. In Australia their television special was watched by 58 percent of all people who owned a television set. At the launch of their new album 'Arrival' in London, BBC DJ Simon Bates presented the group with no less than 32 platinum, gold and silver discs.
If they wanted to, they could perform somewhere in Europe in a sold-out venue every day of the year. But they were down-to-earth enough to not go down that road. They simply couldn't clear their schedule because at home, in the studio, they had to work hard on making new records and preparing new songs.
When the German president Walter Scheel invited them to do a concert on the occasion of the American president Gerald Ford's visit, they had to reply regretfully: "Sorry, but we really don't have the time."
ABBA was the first Western pop group that performed in Poland. The Polish teenagers, that had listened to their records via German broadcasts, put such pressure on the authorities that the performance could be arranged eventually. Foreign currencies were even made available to import ABBA records, and this had never happened before. Meanwhile, 800.000 ABBA records have been sold in Poland and even in Russia - again something unheard of - 25.000 records have been sold.
All in all, ABBA's records have made a bigger profit than the records by Elton John, Rod Stewart and the Bay City Rollers. And nobody is in doubt that ABBA will eventually equal the worldwide success of the Beatles.
And no one should think that this astounding success has come easily. ABBA is a very hard-working group, that operates in a strictly professional way.

Sweden, ABBA's home country is a peculiar chapter in the story. The fans have a high opinion of the group, that's beyond doubt, but anything that's even remotely 'official' doesn't want anything to do with ABBA. After their triumph in Brighton ABBA has been invited only once to appear on Swedish television. To have a little studio chat in a programme for the elderly!
"When we are asked why we never appear on Swedish television, I always reply that we are never asked," Björn said recently. "In 1975, we only performed once. And do you know why? Because the other group, that had been invited first, was unable to attend due to health problems!"
Indeed, in Sweden things are a little difficult. In this country, radio and television are controlled by the State. And the State thinks that all broadcasts should contain political messages and that in the world of pop music a song has to carry out the political ideals of the Swedish State as well. It hasn't been said in so many words officially, but it is clear that ABBA is blamed for its capitalistic sense.
They think that the group's professional conduct and their commercial way of making money don't correspond with the social values of the Swedish government. ABBA - that's where it boils down to - should actually propagandize the Swedish socialistic welfare state.
"That's baffling," Benny sighs. "The only thing we want to do is cheer up the people with the kind of music they like to listen to. Is a pop group really the appointed medium to convey a political message or propagandize social ideas? Come on. Anyway, I think we are doing enough already for the Swedish State. Do you know our tax system? 85 percent of our income goes straight to taxes."
Silver Bramstedt, a music critic at Dagens Nyheter wrote vigorously: "ABBA is looking at the people who buy their records from behind the glass of their helicopter. As if they want to emphasize how inaccesible they are."
Mia Gerdis from the same paper said: "I've seen them move but I don't believe they are really alive. Björn's music is nothing else but plastic." Her colleague Anders Klintevall didn't have anything good to say about ABBA either. "Their music is only good to dance to. It's just boom-boom-boom... always the same quadruple time. It sounds mechanical and it's outright annoying. They say that the audience simply wants to hear this. Well, I wonder how long that will last."

When the Eurovision Song Contest took place in Stockholm in 1975, ABBA wasn't able to get any tickets. And when the fans requested if ABBA at least could hand over the prizes, that turned out to be impossible as well.
Buyers from television companies who come to Stockholm begging for ABBA footage are able to get films from the Swedish landscape or islands. There is nothing in stock about ABBA.
Björn, Benny, Anni-Frid and Agnetha remain unconcerned by all this teasing. Sometimes, when it all gets too much for them, they get on their boat that takes them to their small island, where they can swim, go fishing or simply lie in the sun.

There, far from all the noise and bitter criticism, new ideas are being born in the heavenly surroundings of their holiday cottage. Björn has his piano there and Benny his guitar. And furthermore, they have each other. And that's all they need to surprise the world time and time again with an unrelenting chartbuster.

Sunday 23 June 2013

Popshop, 1976: Guest in ABBA's headquarter

In one of the most quiet and remote streets of Stockholm, ABBA's headquarter is situated. Even our cab driver didn't even know that spot because he had to take a look at his city map first. The only cars that are parked there belong to ABBA's employees. Apart from that there's hardly any traffic. No wonder, because the narrow little street stops at some kind of city canal. These quiet surroundings make for a striking contrast with what's happening inside the town house, rebuilt into an office building: the invisible man behind the telex machine is typing away eagerly, the sound of ringing telephones is overwhelming the soft background music and the small army of secretaries is apparently having a competition at typing with ten fingers.
In short, ABBA's hit factory is working at full speed. A Swedish beauty is serving a cup of coffee and asks if we are able to wait for five more minutes because the management is in a meeting. Just like every Friday afternoon. And the management, that's Björn, Benny and ABBA manager Stig Anderson. The threesome that founded the company Polar Music.
"Every Thursday we discuss the proposals that we've received that week," Benny explains when we sit behind Stig's enormous desk a couple of minutes later. "We operate very democratically. If we disagree about certain issues, we are having a vote. And yes, with three people involved, the results of such a vote come in very quickly. To be honest, I'd rather be in the studio than in meetings like this. But the business side has to be taken care of as well. The things we discuss at such meetings? All sorts of things: which television programmes we are going to appear on and which not, the choice of songs for new records, the bookkeeping, internal affairs, actually all the problems that every business has to deal with..."
Until recently, the four ABBA members lived about thirty kilometres from Stockholm but because they come into the office every day, they've recently moved to the old part of the city.
"About two to three kilometres from here," says Björn. "You should come and drop by in a couple of months. Now it's still a mess. We haven't had time yet to put everything in the right place."
The spacious basements of the building were rebuilt into a music room. There's a piano and stereo equipment. "Björn and I mostly compose there," according to Benny. "Me at the piano and Björn with his guitar in his hands. We are planning to build a studio here as well, but we have to make some adjustments before that happens. And we use that stereo equipment very often too. Every day, one of our secretaries goes out to buy the newly released albums, and Björn and I listen through them, one by one. You are never that perfect that you can't learn anything new from other artists."
At least once every week all the studio musicians come together at that place too. "We are often called a golden duo," says Björn while he is pointing at Benny. "But to be honest, we have to admit that there are other people too who are responsible for ABBA's success. Like Michael B. Tretow, for instance, or co-producer. He has often come up with very original ideas. And we can't dismiss our team of studio musicians either. All of them are superb musicians, who work for us permanently. We are going to take them along too when we go on tour later on..."

Saturday 22 June 2013

Rocky, 1977: Partner switch with ABBA

The guy is called Ashley, he is an Australian DJ and lately a moviestar as well. His part gives him the opportunity to get very close to two Swedes who usually have a clean reputation: Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. Both ladies are the leading contributors to the Swedish major enterprise called ABBA. About this 'company', a movie is being made that will be screened next year in German cinemas and that will surely attract millions of viewers. Its title is plain and gripping: 'ABBA - The Movie'.
Its title is as plain as its story, that revolves around the Scandinavian success group. Robert Hughes, a professional reporter, is dreaming about an exclusive interview with ABBA. Hughes, played by Ashley, goes through all kinds of amusing experiences during his hunt for the group. Encounters between the screen hero and the ABBA members are taking place primarily in Hughes' bed: indeed, he is dreaming them up. That's how the movie runs along for ninety minutes, highlighted with plenty of music, a bit of drollery and of course a happy end.
The entertainment film will once more prove the incredible popularity of the Swedish hit group. The soft rockers are looking back on more than a dozen million sellers and their aim is to keep their ABBA enterprise this prosperous. Agnetha Fältskog, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson were forced to take a break this year to take care of a couple of personal obligations: Agnetha gave birth to her baby and Anni-Frid found her long-lost father.
This breathing space was a good opportunity for the quartet to think about the progress of their tumultuous career and come up with new hit supplies. The Swedish ABBA factory has an extreme shortage of staff.
That's how the business-minded Swedes are taking all the raisins out of the show cake and produce hit singles and albums that turn into gold even before they are released, and they are shooting a movie.
It's clear to ABBA that a successful world career can also be pure hell. "After all, we can't tear ourselves up and be in America, Germany, England, Japan, Scandinavia and everywhere where our songs become hits, at the same time," Björn Ulvaeus said in an interview. "ABBA is running like a freight train but we are running out of breath."
Apart from that, the phenomenon of the registered ABBA trademark is linked to vast amounts of money, so that the Swedish state would have to put up with a sensitive drawback in its balance of payments if ABBA's stream of foreign exchange would dry up one day. If the four world famous stars want to end up with any money at all from their success and not work exclusively for the tax office, they have to invest in new ventures. That's also the reason that there will be more products with the ABBA trademark in the future.
Because the four clean Swedes have long turned into an institution and little time is left for a 'human touch', the question is discussed ever more often if other musicians will be able to come into the name and success of ABBA...