Sunday 17 August 2014

Muziek Parade, 1978: The ABBA Story, part 10

Last month, Muziek Parade has made a little sidestep by making Stikkan Anderson as the 'fifth' ABBA the centre of attention. MP gave you an impression of 'a day in the life of Stig'.
A month before that, the story closed with the ongoing, partly unfair, criticism on the successful group from Stockholm. And that negative assault still continues today. For instance, the ABBA movie was critically reviewed in Sweden. The reporters were very inventive in pointing out the film's shortcomings.
Needless to say that everyone working at Polar Film were sour. Thankfully, the good press came from outside Sweden. Especially in Holland and Belgium the film was received with enthusiasm and it gave many ABBA fans the afternoon or evening of their lives.
Although it has become increasingly difficult for ABBA to acquire the number one position in the Netherlands, from a musical point of view friend and especially foe are in agreement that ABBA is getting better and better. And perhaps getting better is at the expense of a quick number one position.
For instance, an avid Queen fan entered the MP offices. Naturally, a discussion started about ABBA and Queen and this fan had to admit: "I've bought the last ABBA album. I think they are excellent now." Perhaps ABBA's music is getting more complex, but one thing is certain: ABBA is still growing musically and it isn't surprising that ABBA is now being compared to the Beatles more than ever. Björn and Benny are the McCartney/Lennon of the seventies. Even though ABBA's records are getting less accesible, take the time to listen to the records carefully. Pay attention to the arrangements, to the beautiful vocal harmonies and you will say: "Yes, that's exquisite." Now back to the story, part 10 already and... there are still at least five to come. Never before has a music magazine in Europe published such an extensive story about an artist or a group. Muziek Parade is proud of that. Thanks to the cooperation of ABBA themselves, of top photographers Barry Levine and Wolfgang Heilemann and not to forget Stockcolor International from charming Monaco, a top achievement like this has been possible. Thank you all. From the piles of mail that we received, MP has concluded that we've done something right.

The 'Arrival' album caused a sensation in the Swedish press. It was rumoured that Polar had decided that only orders exceeding 250 copies would be delivered to record stores. It was all nonsense of course but the damage had been done in the media. Stig Anderson: "Another joke, too ridiculous to even talk about. ABBA doesn't need to force their albums into record stores. Those records will sell like hotcakes anyway."
Things were especially difficult for ABBA in Sweden because they made so much money. A decidedly angry Agnetha says: "I really don't get why people have to moan about this. Everyone is doing well in Sweden and we are doing a little better, but we've worked very, very hard for it. People tend to forget that. And if we had to stop singing tomorrow, there won't be anybody writing: "Can we help ABBA in any way?". Indeed, ABBA's success didn't come easy. As Anni-Frid puts it: "I sometimes get the impression that people seem to think that we got our success on a silver platter." Nothing is further from the truth! A critic went even further by saying: "Shouldn't we warn people for ABBA and their success? The youngster adore ABBA, but the ABBA world is only glitter and plastic, that world doesn't exist." Stikkan is cool about this: "Every sensible human being knows that show business is a world of illusion. The word 'show' says it all. Everyone is able to see through that. If someone is dumb enough to not see through it, there are always magazines to point it out. Show business is a world of pretence. But it's a good thing that such a world of illusion still exists in these hard times. When you watch TV, you get mad of all the trouble. Isn't it wonderful to drift away every now and then with some good music. Because that's what ABBA makes: good music."
Björn concludes by saying: "We are making records for an audience as huge as possible. And not for a couple of critics who slate our records in the paper and then secretly take one of our albums home with them. But critics like this keep bothering us." Why doesn't ABBA leave Sweden and come live in Holland? Benny: "That would be a cowardly act. It would say: critics, we are running away from you. We would never do that. We will stay here and keep resisting unfair criticism."
How does the group feel about politics and taxes in Sweden? Aren't the taxes very high? Benny: "In Sweden, there is a general feeling that songs have to be socially engaged. Sweden is a free country, it's full of American conscientious objectors. That's fine, that we are ahead of everyone. But ABBA has a different opinion about music. We want to make people feel good. That's it. And that's hard enough already. Just let your Cornelis Vreeswijk walk the lead in demonstrations. We will not join in, at least not where our music is concerned. We keep our personal opinion to ourselves. When it comes to taxes: of course, they are very high in Sweden. Sweden has the highest tax rates, together with Holland. I obviously don't think that's very nice but it isn't really annoying either. There's still enough money left to lead a good life. I'm all for it that people like us - who make a lot of money - have to pay a lot of taxes. That's our duty and you could say that's our contribution to being socially engaged. None of us is even considering to leave Sweden because of the money. We don't want to be like Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart. These money-grubbers have moved safely to America, while the economy in England is shaky. It's exactly people like this that could make a positive contribution to their country."
No, money isn't the driving force with ABBA. Of every penny they earn, ABBA has to hand over 85 percent to the Swedish tax collector. ABBA's most important driving force is and remains: composing good music, recording these ideas in the right way and... making a huge audience happy with their music.

Agnetha has been the object of Swedish criticism as well. In 1975 she released a solo album called 'Eleven Women In A House'. On that album there were some lyrics about feminism. In her way she is fighting for a better place for all females in today's society. That record - her latest solo single - was panned because people were doubting Agnetha's sincerity.
Agnetha wasn't spared in any way. They wrote: "In the old days, Agnetha had a gap between her teeth that made her lisp a little bit. That gap has now disappeared, apparently she had it fixed. She can now laugh abundantly and she thinks she's prettier now." An outraged Agnetha: "Why do people have to write such things? Since I was eleven, I haven't had anything done to my teeth."

Here's another thing! In 1975 the Eurovision Song Contest was held in Stockholm because ABBA had triumphed the year before. Stikkan asked for a couple of extra tickets for the group but Swedish television replied: "There are no Polar artists in the show, that's why we can't supply extra tickets." Likewise, when foreign television broadcasters ask for footage, the steady answer is: "There is no footage of ABBA available. Would you like something else?" And of course the reply is: "No, we only want to buy ABBA footage."
There are people who claim that ABBA doesn't fit in with the social-democratic regime in Sweden. They don't like groups like ABBA. It's all too whimsical, too agreeable and not socially engaged. And Swedish TV has that same attitude. After huge pressure from Stig, Swedish TV had to produce a special with ABBA because Stikkan could actually prove that it would sell worldwide.

However, a highlight in ABBA's career does come from Sweden. In 1976, king Carl Gustav married a 'simple' girl: Silvia Sommerlath. In honour of their wedding, that got the whole country excited, a gala was being held at the Stockholm Opera House. ABBA performed in the big finale, dressed up in French baroque outfits they sang 'Dancing Queen'. "It was our tribute to Silvia, who would be the first queen after the war. The royal couple was overwhelmed. There was even a wonderful television broadcast. But of course there was again criticism aimed at those commercial ABBA people," according to Stikkan.
Stikkan Anderson: "In that same year we recorded another hour-long TV show. We wanted to sing live to show everyone that we weren't afraid of criticism. That programme was called 'The ABBA Story'. But not much did come of those live performances, because the TV sound isn't suitable yet for live performances. You have to understand that an ABBA song takes nights and days of hard work in the studio, where first class equipment is available. You can't recreate this sound just like that. That's why we decided to use a backing track and sing live to that. And it turned out really well. There were people who said that we sounded rather thin and that was justified. In the studio we overdub our vocals, which makes for a full sound. On TV, you can't overdub anything, that's why it sounds thinner. But we'd rather have a thin sound than mime, because ABBA actually isn't that good at miming. They hate it because it's dreary."

In Sweden, where the 'ombudsman' is a dreaded figure, it was decided by that same 'man' not to broadcast the top ten charts anymore because "the listener is being urged to only buy those top ten records". Complete nonsense, but in Sweden things like that are possible. In response ABBA has written an open letter to all the newspapers wherein the headman of the programme Stig Ulin was encouraged to take action against such a brutal decision. Nothing happened and in Sweden there are still no programmes such as Top Thirty, Top Forty or Euro Parade.

Finally something about a boycot in England. Precisely in the place where ABBA won Eurovision, Radio Brighton decided to put 'Waterloo' on their boycot list. Station manager Bob Gunnel said: "That song can be number one one hundred thousand times but that doesn't mean that I have to like the record or that I have to play it. I believe that our listeners don't like the record, that's why I don't play it." And that's how Radio Brighton has never played 'Waterloo'. We are living in a strange world, where other people are telling us what we can and what we can't listen to.