The Definitive Collection - the details

Published April 11, 2010


TELLING THE ABBA STORY CHRONOLOGICALLY

First off, a shocking announcement: I have never been a great fan of ABBA Gold in terms of listening experience. With some artists it doesn't really matter if you jumble the tracks chronologically, but with ABBA I prefer hearing the development: from the naïve excitement of Waterloo, over the finger-on-the-pulse popmeistership of Dancing Queen, to the maturity and heartbreak of The Winner Takes It All. You can't argue with the success of ABBA Gold, and that's not my point. It's just that the album doesn't satisfy my own listening preferences.

I always liked the 1982 double album ABBA - The Singles, which explored ABBA's hits chronologically - from Ring Ring to Under Attack - over four LP sides. An equivalent that made full use of the opportunities of the extended playing time a CD could offer was long overdue, and also a fairly obvious idea. During a meeting at the Sweden Music offices back in October 1998, various ideas for the upcoming 25th Anniversary of ABBA's Eurovision Song Contest victory were discussed. That was when I first presented this idea: a chronological collection of each and every ABBA single as planned and conceived by the group and their Swedish record company Polar Music, plus a few important hits that were only issued in other territories. The track listing I presented at the meeting, including the bonus tracks, was essentially what was released as The Definitive Collection three years later.


THE PROJECT IS KILLED - AND THEN REVIVED

After that meeting in 1998 I was given the go-ahead to start writing liner notes, but somewhere along the way the plans were changed and the double-CD was temporarily put on the backburner. A revamped version of ABBA Gold came in its place, along with a collection of CD singles entitled Singles Collection 1972*1982, both of which were released in the spring of 1999. Around the same time, the German double CD The Complete Singles Collection, utilising the double disc concept - albeit from a German angle - was released. However, this was a much simpler package than the one I had envisioned.

Flash forward to 2001. As we started planning the ABBA releases for that year, I had the chance to bring up the double-CD idea again. Marko Söderström at Universal Music liked my concept, and so did several other Universal representatives around the world. It was decided that the new compilation should be entitled The Definitive Collection. Niclas Håkansson at Ogilvy Design in Stockholm was given the task of designing the package.

For a while there was a debate whether the track listing should be chronological or not, but thankfully it was decided that this would work best: personally, I felt that this was a major part of the justification for the compilation. Another main point would be extensive liner notes - track by track annotation, and not just a biographical essay. The liner notes I eventually wrote ended up three times as long as the text in the ABBA Gold booklet.


TRACKING DOWN THE BONUS TRACKS

Locating and identifying the master tapes for the two bonus tracks turned out to be quite a headache. Knowing that it's virtually impossible to get the former ABBA members to agree on giving up any unreleased recordings, I thought fans might enjoy at least getting a few tracks that had hitherto been unavailable on CD. I also thought that the bonus tracks should have some connection to the "single collection" concept.

Accordingly, the first track I chose was the 1974 single remix of Ring Ring, issued as an A-side in the UK and Australia, and as a B-side in West Germany (not to be confused with the remix issued on the Waterloo album in North America). The second was the 1979 extended remix of Voulez-Vous, previously only released as a 12-inch promo in the United States.

After I put together my track listing in 1998, the Ring Ring remix was of course released in the box set of CD singles. However, that release was so hastily put together that no-one had the time to locate a master tape. Engineers Michael Tretow and Jon Astley ended up using a vinyl recording of the song, transferred to a CD bootleg! So if only the master tape could be found, now that we finally got around to doing the double CD, this would actually be the first time that the single remix of Ring Ring was released on CD mastered directly from the original tape.

The first tape I was able to locate was the Voulez-Vous remix. What I found was a tape containing two virtually identical remixes, one of which had the subtitle "with echo". Which didn't really mean much as far as I was concerned, since I couldn't detect any greater amount of echo in this mix. I played the two versions along with the original vinyl recording, which I only owned on a bootleg CD, comparing certain sections to try to identify the correct mix.

At first I thought I had cracked it: listening to the vinyl version, at 00:03 and 00:07 there were short bursts of electric guitar on the right channel in the mix. On version 1 these bursts appeared on the left channel, on version 2 they were on the right. My obvious conclusion was that version 2 was the correct mix.

However, just to be on the safe side I decided to listen to another bit in the recording. At circa 04:20, a passage starts where Agnetha and Frida are just singing, "Voulez-Vous, a-ha....a-ha...a-ha...". On the vinyl version the "a-has" sounded very dry, which they also did on version 1. But on version 2 there seemed to be more echo than on either the vinyl version or on version 1.

So how then to explain the electric guitar bursts in the left channel on version 1? My conclusion was that whoever transferred the vinyl to the bootleg CD got their channels mixed up (perhaps this mistake was made even when the vinyl release was prepared back in 1979; I wouldn't know because I've never had the opportunity to play the actual 12" single). This meant that version 1 was in fact the correct one. Jon Astley, who was to create the 24-bit master, took a listen to all three tracks and agreed with my conclusion. Phew - at least one problem solved!

Next up was locating a master for the Ring Ring single remix, which was released in places such as the UK, Australia and Germany. However, this version of Ring Ring was never issued in Sweden, which may be the reason that the Universal Music archives contained no master tape for that particular track. Incidentally, the same was true of several other of the versions unique to other territories, such as the German and French versions of certain ABBA recordings.

Our efforts to locate the Ring Ring remix didn't begin well. To start with, we were sent on the wrong track when someone confused this single remix with the US album remix, resulting in time being wasted on fruitless correspondence with Universal Music in the United States. Then, the people at Universal Music here in Stockholm were busy with a million different things anyway, and left it to me to dive head first into a territory I knew very little about: locating tapes in foreign archives and dealing with all the bureaucracy so that a tape could be released to us.

This proved to be more difficult than I had imagined: just finding the right people to talk to took some time. Then it turned out that Sony Music in the UK - their label, Epic, released ABBA's records in Great Britain in the 1970s - couldn't release their tape without the proper authorisation. And getting that authorisation would be quite a troublesome process. I then turned my attention to Polydor in Germany; since they were actually owned by Universal Music, I was hoping that process might be a little easier. They also needed the proper authorisation, but fortunately this was not so difficult to acquire. After what seemed like a zillion e-mails back and forth, Polydor were finally able to submit a digital copy of the the recording. Phew again!

So there you have it: a little insight into the daily work of an ABBA consultant! It's not all glamour, you know...


ONE OF THE TOP 500 ALBUMS OF ALL TIME

The Definitive Collection was finally released in November 2001. Two years later it received a great accolade, as it was voted into the Rolling Stone magazine poll of the Top 500 Albums of All Time. The Definitive Collection was placed at number 180 in the list. Not exactly the Top Ten, then, but since ABBA seldom if ever show up in any "all time classic albums" lists, their appearance here was quite a nice surprise.

 

The Definitive Collection. Released November 2, 2001. Catalogue number: Polar 549 974-2. Out of print.

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