Thank You For The Music - The Making Of A Box Set, part 3 (of 8)

Published September 17, 2011


On Friday, October 29, 1993, the day finally came when Björn, Benny, Michael Tretow and I got together at Michael’s studio to listen to a selection of the unreleased tapes. I, naïvely, thought that we were doing this for the benefit of my book, but Björn and Benny were obviously doing this partly at the request of the record company as well.

Since I was the one who had the firmest grasp of the what, where and when of ABBA’s recorded output, it was natural that I should choose the tapes. Michael and I met up at the PolyGram tape archives to bring back the tapes. Multitrack tapes are quite huge and come in big heavy boxes, and as I was bringing down tape after tape from the shelves Michael started looking a little pale. "Okay, that’s enough", he said, a scowling look on his face. I smiled pleasantly and said, "Erm, just one more", and continued bringing down all the tapes that were on my list.

For me, this was an opportunity of a lifetime, and one I wasn’t going to let go to waste: here was the chance to hear several of the unfamiliar recordings I had discovered in the archives. That said, I had no idea how many hours we would spend doing this, but my thinking was, "Let’s bring all of the really important tapes and then we’ll listen to as many as possible."

We drove back to Michael’s studio, and Björn and Benny arrived at virtually the same time. We all settled in the studio: Björn, Benny and Michael were mostly at the mixing desk or at the tape recorder, while I was sitting on a chair in the corner, taking notes and trying to keep out of everybody’s way.

I was mostly concentrated on listening to the music, since I didn’t know if I would ever get the chance to hear any of these songs again. Occasionally, I would make a comment or offer information if they were wondering about something. At one point, Michael was studying the track sheet which was in the box with the Summer Night City tape. "How odd, this is a Metronome Studio sheet," he remarked casually to Björn and Benny. "I thought we did that one at Polar Music Studios." Of course, I had to pipe up: "You started recording it at Metronome, but then you completed it at Polar." What a nerd!

My scribblings from the listening session with Björn, Benny and Michael.My notes for Just A Notion from the listening session on October 29, 1993. At the time I had no idea if these songs would ever be released - nor, indeed, if I would ever get to hear them again - so I tried to jot down keyword references that might help me remember what the songs sounded like and also to describe them in my book, ABBA - The Complete Recording Sessions. For Just A Notion, I tried to describe the tempo and general feel: "Boogie, Why Did It Have (slightly faster), Waterloo". Then some other keywords: "major key, Beach Boys, lots of harmony singing, Crystals/Ronettes [I was probably thinking of a Crystals track such as Da Doo Ron Ron], Duane Eddy [the twangy guitar riffs]". Then, of course, I also scribbled down a few lines from the lyrics.

Apart from a lunch break - we had pizzas delivered, if you must know - the six hours we spent together that day were completely devoted to the tapes. Michael’s initial hesitation at listening to so much music, quickly turned into enthusiasm: "This is great, let’s put on another tape!"

Björn and Benny, who had both dismissed virtually every unreleased track that I brought up in our conversations, were having second thoughts as to the "uselessness" of some of them. One example was Put On Your White Sombrero, which Björn had remembered as "a joke, more or less." When we played that tape, it turned out to be anything but a joke, at least in terms of the ambition of the recording.

I must admit that I do remember this recording in particular as a real revelation. We were just playing tape after tape, and often none of us would have the slightest idea what to expect. Michael pushed up the faders for all of the 24 tracks on the tape, so that we would hear what was on there. Most recordings were in a slightly unfinished state: still very exciting to listen to, but not complete productions. Put On Your White Sombrero was different. I will never forget the feeling when those angelic backing vocals from Agnetha and Frida came on. As I recall, there were big smiles all across the room.

I also remember when we listened to Free As A Bumble Bee, a backing track with Björn and Benny’s demo vocals, recorded early on in the Voulez-Vous sessions. Björn commented, "Hmm, this wasn’t bad at all. I wonder why we never finished that. Perhaps we felt it wasn’t in tune with the times."

Then there were other tracks, like the 1974 recording Terra del Fuego, which Björn and Benny found completely embarrassing. Before this tape listening session, I had asked Benny about the song, and he just said, "It wasn’t any good. It’s not something anyone would ever regret not hearing." With most of the songs we would play them at least twice: once just to hear what was on all the different tracks, and then a second time so that Michael could make a rough mix and transfer them to a DAT tape. But Terra del Fuego was too painful for some reason - I believe they felt it was too silly, or something - so we only got to hear that one once. Subject closed!

One added bonus of this tape listening day was the insight I got into the dynamics between Björn, Benny and Michael. It was easy to see what a thrill it must have been for them to work together back in the ABBA days, and how they could bounce their ideas and different personalities off each other to create a positive and constructive working atmosphere.

I still remember this day as one of my greatest experiences ever. One frequent misconception about people that concentrate on one single subject, trying to do as much in-depth research on it as possible, is that we lack distance, that we can’t see the trees for the forest or that we see things like recording dates and session details as having some worth in themselves. Admittedly, in the course of your work, sometimes you do immerse yourself a bit too much in the minutiae and the hard facts, and might, for a moment or two, lose track of the emotional connection that attracted you to the subject to begin with.

But, speaking for myself, at the end of the day it’s always about the music, and the reason for assembling all the facts - or, indeed, wanting to hear unreleased material - is ultimately not to satisfy a quest for filling blank spaces in the calendar or "completing the collection", but to get a better understanding of the creative process of people you admire. And if those people worked together for a limited period of time, in which they created a high number of acknowledged masterpieces, then it’s obviously an exciting prospect to get to hear the material that was junked along the way, to see if there are any hidden gems to be discovered.

This was certainly what I experienced on that October day back in 1993. I consider it a great privilege to have been granted access to this material, and to have been allowed to spend informal time in the company of talented people as they rediscovered some of their discarded past.

Part 4: The box set starts coming together


Thank You For The Music. Released October 31, 1994; catalogue number: Polydor 523 472-2. Revised version released August 13, 2008; catalogue number: Polar 060251743234. Four discs. 66 page booklet with essays and discographical notes.