Liner notes, part 1

Published April 12, 2010


ABBA and the United States - never really jived, did they? "Success in the rest of the world, failure in America" has become one of the easy truths about ABBA's career. Although the allegation is not completely groundless, like most easy truths this one does not hold up very well to close scrutiny.

Certainly, compared to many other countries who seemed to send the music created by Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid "Frida" Lyngstad to the higher regions of the charts time and time again, the US statistics are somewhat less impressive. And there is no getting away from the fact that before MTV, unless you toured like crazy or frequently appeared on TV shows, you were bound to make less impact in America than your competitors.

It was not that ABBA did not have the opportunity to spend more time in the United States, but the group members simply were not prepared to "pay their dues" on the tour circuit in order to achieve more success. Observed Björn at the time: "In all the other countries we've performed in we've already been big as a record act. We'd all feel better if we could break the same way here. So far this system has worked in other countries, through television exposure and interviews."

It never really worked out that way for ABBA in the United States, although this does not mean that the group did not have any hits. In fact, keeping their comparatively low profile in mind, the success that they did have is even more impressive - no less than ten Top 20 US hits over the course of six years was certainly no mean feat for a Swedish group in the 1970s.

It is also interesting to note that 1979, the only year that ABBA did tour North America, was also the only year between 1974 and 1980 that the group did not have one single Top 15 hit. And its third biggest hit during that period, The Winner Takes It All, entered the charts in 1980 when no personal appearances at all were made in America. Perhaps the normal rules simply did not apply to ABBA.

In any event, their presence was certainly felt in the United States from the earliest days, well before the group as such existed. In the mid-1960s, Björn Ulvaeus' group the Hootenanny Singers released a couple of singles as well as an album on the United Artists label, calling themselves The Northern Lights. Around the same time, the Hep Stars, Benny Andersson's group, released three singles on Cameo, Dunhill and Chartmaker. Despite the hopeful name of the latter label, none of these releases made much of an impact.

The United States was also one of the very first territories outside Sweden to release an ABBA record. People Need Love/Merry-Go-Round, released in 1972, was the debut single by Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid (as they were called then), and was issued on Playboy Records in the US. Credited to "Björn & Benny with Svenska Flicka ['Swedish Girl']" it would be wrong to say that the song became a major hit, but it certainly did not sink without a trace, showing up just outside the Top 100 on some charts. One other not very successful Playboy single followed in 1973 - Rock'n'Roll Band/Another Town, Another Train - although the Ring Ring album from which it was taken was not released at all in the United States.

It was not until the group had finally changed its name to ABBA and signed with Atlantic Records in 1974 that the major hits started coming. Earlier in the year, the group Blue Swede had become the first Swedish act to top the US charts with a version of the 1968 B.J. Thomas hit Hooked On A Feeling. Maybe this success made the American record executives a little more open to other Swedish groups, for less than four weeks after ABBA had won the Eurovision Song Contest with Waterloo, ABBA manager Stig Anderson inked the deal with Atlantic.

Certainly, the song itself - 2 minutes and 46 seconds of irresistible catchiness - and the major success it had achieved all over Europe also had something to do with Atlantic's eagerness to sign the Swedish foursome. Waterloo became ABBA's first single on their new US label, eventually reaching #6, and Atlantic General Manager Jerry Greenberg was impressed: "Few bands have made it this quickly in the USA."

On this collection, released to celebrate the 25th anniversary of ABBA's international breakthrough with their Eurovision Song Contest victory on April 6, 1974, Waterloo appears in a 1998 recording by English girl group Bananarama. Incidentally, the group is primarily known in the US for another cover, the US #1 hit version of Shocking Blue's Venus in 1986. Bananarama's interpretation of Waterloo was recorded for the camp UK TV show Eurotrash, a kind of comic magazine program featuring bizarre and lightweight stories from around Europe. In this particular episode, titled A Song For Eurotrash, various artists were invited to perform new versions of old Eurovision Song Contest entries.

The original Bananarama line-up of Sarah Dallin, Keren Woodward and Siobhan Fahey (who left the group in 1988) did a one-off reunion for this techno-glam take on ABBA's first international hit. A proper contest as such was also held, all in parody of the "original" show, and it was hardly surprising that Waterloo became the winner - it must be the most well-known song ever to enter the Eurovision Song Contest.

Back in early 1974, however, ABBA actually had another contender for their Eurovision Song Contest entry. The song Hasta Mañana was believed to be more suitable, since it adhered more closely to the Eurovision format of a dramatic ballad, focusing on one single female vocal lead. This was indeed a true description of the winners the previous four years. Ultimately, it was decided that Waterloo was the better choice precisely because it broke with that tradition, and also because it featured a joint Frida/Agnetha lead vocal, meaning that the focus would be on the entire group.

Although only a few countries ever released Hasta Mañana as a single A-side, it has remained one of the more enduring tracks from ABBA's second album, Waterloo, which was the first to be released in the United States. The track did garner airplay in the US and, perhaps partly because of this, it also appeared as a cover on the B-side of Debby Boone's You Light Up My Life single, which spent ten weeks at #1 on the Billboard chart in 1977 and sold over four million copies. Largely thanks to Ms Boone, it appears that Hasta Mañana is one of the songs that has earned its writers the most royalties in the United States.

The appeal of Hasta Mañana was certainly not lost on Sweden's Army of Lovers, known in the US primarily for their dance hit Crucified in 1991. The group's version of Hasta Mañana first appeared on the Swedish ABBA - The Tribute album in 1992. It has since been revealed that it actually was hard to find a sufficient number of Swedish artists who wanted to participate at the time, and it has been suggested that this may have been because ABBA were not considered "hip" enough - the project was instigated just before the big ABBA revival of the 1990s had started.

However, no such qualms worried Army of Lovers member Alexander Bard, who once stated: "I have a very nuanced opinion of ABBA - they are the best!" Extending Agnetha's short spoken-word part of the original recording to encompass all the verses in the song, Army of Lovers' playful version focuses on the overblown drama inherent in Hasta Mañana, all in the kitschy tongue-in-cheek tradition of the Army of Lovers' own hit singles.

The group's approach was underlined in their sleeve notes for ABBA - The Tribute: "Mom's lipstick, dad's overcoat, two scarves, a toy piano and four blow-driers. Never did Agnetha, Frida, Björn and Benny look more gorgeous than before our very own bedroom mirror. And never did the miming to their endless row of smash hits sound any better."

The follow-up single to Waterloo in many countries was Honey, Honey, including the United States where it was a Top 30 hit. The version on ABBA - A Tribute, The 25th Anniversary Celebration is an exclusive, previously unreleased 1991 recording by ABBA engineer Michael B. Tretow and his then 15-year-old daughter Sofia - a 1999 remix has been included on the vinyl edition of this compilation.

Michael B. Tretow played an important part in the studio during the ABBA years, his will to experiment with sounds and explore state-of-the-art technology being vital to the freshness that most of the group's recordings retain today. An intermittent solo recording artist since the late 60s - resulting in several major hits in Sweden - his work has mostly been in the novelty or outright comedy field. This approach has also rubbed off on his and Sofia's take on Honey, Honey, with references to no less than 13 ABBA songs being interspersed throughout the recording. See if you can identify them all!

Just as Honey, Honey was starting to climb up the Billboard singles chart in late September 1974, ABBA made their first promotional visit to the United States. Apart from several radio interviews and an appearance on The Mike Douglas Show, the Swedish consul-general had also arranged a meet-and-greet with the press for the group. Reportedly, this first three day visit was meant to be followed by a tour in February 1975. However, mainly because of the group's busy schedule, these plans failed to materialize.

ABBA's next US hit was SOS, which entered the charts in August 1975. It had been taken from the group's third album, the eponymous ABBA. A duet version by Peter Cetera and Ronna Reeves, taken from Cetera's 1995 album One Clear Voice, appears on this collection. An admirer of ABBA's music, Peter Cetera is also one of the select few producers apart from Björn and Benny who have had the privilege of producing original SOS lead vocalist Agnetha Fältskog. Her 1987 album I Stand Alone - Agnetha's last to date - was recorded in Los Angeles, with Cetera at the helm. The album also spawned the Fältskog/Cetera duet and Top 20 Adult Contemporary hit I Wasn't The One (Who Said Goodbye).

ABBA's own version of SOS eventually reached #15 on the Billboard chart, no doubt helped along a bit by the group's second visit to the United States in November 1975. This time, the schedule was decidedly more comprehensive than the previous year, encompassing two weeks and appearances on TV shows such as The Mike Douglas Show, The Merv Griffin Show, American Bandstand, Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, The Dinah Shore Show and Saturday Night Live.

The group was well pleased with its visit, and felt the atmosphere was a refreshing change from the begrudging writings by certain parts of the Swedish press. "They have an altogether different attitude towards music in the USA", said Björn. "There is much more respect for those who actually make it. They are very much aware of the tough competition."

When the November 1975 US visit took place, ABBA had long since started recording what was to become the group's biggest hit ever. However, it would take a full year from the first recording session in August 1975 before Dancing Queen appeared on single, and in the United States it was not released until November 1976. In terms of ABBA's North American success the song holds a special place, for it was to become their only #1 Billboard pop single, spending one week at the top in April 1977. This marked the start of a period of 18 months that proved to be the peak of ABBA's popularity in the United States.

On this compilation, two different vocal interpretations of Dancing Queen have been included, one of them recorded by none other than Frida, accompanied by Swedish a capella virtuosos The Real Group. This recording in fact marks the only time that a former ABBA member has revisited the group's repertoire in the studio since the final recording sessions in 1982. "Dancing Queen is my favorite ABBA song", Frida once remarked. "I remember that Benny came home with a tape of the backing track and played it for me. I thought it was so enormously beautiful that I started to cry."

The new version came about because Frida, a personal friend of Queen Silvia of Sweden, was one of the organizers of the gala performance in celebration of the Queen's 50th birthday in December 1993. Through her marriage with German Prince Ruzzo Reuss in 1992, Frida is today in fact a Princess in her own right. As a guest at fellow singer and actress Grynet Molvig's 50th birthday party one year earlier, Frida was impressed by The Real Group, who performed at the party.

In the spring of 1993, she contacted the group and asked if they would like to do a live version of Dancing Queen with her on the gala for the Queen. The Real Group gladly accepted the invitation, and set to work on the vocal arrangement. Group members Anders Edenroth and Peder Karlsson dissected the original arrangement of the song as it appeared on ABBA's version, in order to be able to vocally recreate as many of the parts as possible.

About a month before the performance, a studio recording of Dancing Queen was made during rehearsals for the concert, with Peder Karlsson acting as producer during the session. Peder remembers being mightily impressed by Frida's pitch-perfect singing, especially when she was to record a second identical vocal line as an overdub: "It was impossible for me to distinguish between the old and the new overdub. It really says something about how hard they must have worked with these endless vocal overdubs during the ABBA years. She did it almost like it was nothing."

The performance of Dancing Queen by Frida and The Real Group on Queen Silvia's 50th birthday gala on December 22, 1993 proved to be one of the most memorable moments during the evening. It was natural, then, that The Real Group chose to include the original preparatory recording on their 1994 album Varför får man inte bara vara som man är? ("How Come It Is So Hard To Be The Way You Are?"). A 1999 remix by Vinny Vero is available on the vinyl edition of this collection.

The other vocal version of Dancing Queen on ABBA - A Tribute, The 25th Anniversary Celebration is performed by CoCo Lee, who was only three years old when ABBA's original recording reached #1 on the singles chart. Although primarily a major star in Asian countries, with record-breaking sales during the 1990s, CoCo was born in Hong Kong but in fact grew up in the US. Her version was recorded for the 1996 album CoCo's Party.

Dancing Queen was, of course, the first single off ABBA's gold album Arrival, released in Sweden on October 11, 1976. The ABBA members themselves were not at home celebrating the release, however, but had left for their by now traditional fall promotional visit to the United States.

During the course of ten days, the usual hectic round of TV shows, radio interviews and press meetings were attended to, including appearances on The Dinah Shore Show, The Mike Douglas Show, Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, The Tony Orlando & Dawn Show and Midnight Special. When ABBA guested on The Dinah Shore Show, Ms Shore was shocked to find out that Frida and Benny had not had their wedding despite having lived together for the past six years, and asked them if they wanted to get married on her show. The happily engaged couple politely declined; they finally tied the knot almost exactly two years later, some seven years after the marriage of Björn and Agnetha in 1971.

Still, Dinah Shore was very complimentary about the group's appearance: "ABBA have got class like almost no other group", she said. "Already after their first appearance on my show in 1975 I received a lot of letters demanding to see ABBA again." Indeed, quite a few shows wanted to have ABBA as guests, but the group simply could not meet the great demand. Said Benny: "Everything is incredibly hectic and stressful, but above all it's great fun. We do nothing but work and sleep, we don't have the energy to do anything else."

One of the stand-out tracks on the Arrival album was Knowing Me, Knowing You, the first ABBA song to truly reflect that the members were no teenyboppers but actually four adults who were already familiar with the ups and downs of married life. Released as a single in 1977, it peaked at #7 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary Chart.

A previously unreleased recording of the song by Evan Dando of The Lemonheads has been included on this compilation. Stripped of the shiny veneer of multi-layered production values and affirmative vocals in ABBA's original version, Dando's intimate reading of the song brings out the essence of desolation and deep regret which was always at its core.

Featured in several of his acoustic solo concerts during 1993, this studio recording of Knowing Me, Knowing You was made the year before. It was originally slated for inclusion on an ABBA tribute album which was to consist of versions by alternative acts such as Teenage Fanclub and Redd Kross. However, this project failed to materialize, and we are proud to present for the first time this meeting between one of the most individual and controversial artists of the 1990s and the pop masters of the 1970s.

 

ABBA - A Tribute, The 25th Anniversary Celebration (Relativity 1733-2) was released in the US on March 30, 1999.

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