Liner notes, part 1

Published April 14, 2010


"ABBA here and now - no fake." In 1980, that was the succinct manner in which director and producer Urban Lasson summed up his vision for the television film ABBA In Concert. At the time he had just completed the film, which, as the title implies, was a depiction of ABBA on stage during their most recent tour. By "no fake", Lasson added, he simply meant that there were no playback performances. For although a few notes here and there may have been polished and enhanced in the studio afterwards, ABBA In Concert was an essentially raw document of ABBA in live performance. Here and now, indeed.

The origin of the film was, of course, that ABBA were going on a concert tour of North America and Europe, starting in September 1979. Touring was not something ABBA did very often in their career, preferring to devote their time to perfecting their musical craft: writing really strong songs and then recording them in the best possible way. Compared to their top-level competition on the international rock music scene at the time, ABBA's resistance towards the tour circuit was slightly unusual. Most other acts saw touring as a necessary "duty": when an album was released you promoted it by going on an extensive tour, and that was that.

ABBA worked it otherwise. Although their combined time spent on concert tours outside Sweden up until this time amounted to little over a month in total, in most places this seemed to make very little difference in terms of their success. Their film clips (or videos, as we call them today), their personal appearances on various television shows, plus interviews in all kinds of media, seemed to be enough to draw attention to the fact that ABBA had a new record out, sending yet another catchy tune soaring up the charts. However, there was one important territory where things had turned out a bit differently for ABBA so far: the United States of America.

The group and their manager, Stig Anderson, had initially hoped to crack that market with their usual mix of promo clips and television performances. And certainly, the American public was quite aware of ABBA's existence. They had scored a number of hit singles, with the chart topping smash 'Dancing Queen' as their crowning achievement. Album sales, however, had remained a little slower for the group; although they had enjoyed two platinum albums so far, most of ABBA's LPs seldom stayed very long in the Top 20.

By 1979, two years had elapsed since ABBA's triumphant tour of Europe and Australia - itself vividly captured on celluloid in Lasse Hallström's feature film ABBA - The Movie - and it was high time to embark on a new concert tour. As usual, ABBA planned this venture in close collaboration with their trusted promoter and tour producer, Thomas Johansson of EMA Telstar. "We decided quite early on that we were going to tour again," he recalls, "and then we determined that we would play arenas in Europe and North America." The outing was continually postponed, as work on ABBA's album took much longer than expected. But finally, in April 1979, Voulez-Vous - their sixth LP - reached record shops and the group could begin preparing for a concert tour the following autumn.

The North American trek was scheduled to start in Canada. By way of contrast to their fortunes in the United States, in Canada ABBA had been embraced quite convincingly, achieving several Top Ten singles and albums. There was an eager audience waiting for the band, snapping up concert tickets in a flash. The US tour had to be planned more carefully, so that ABBA played in parts of the country where they had enjoyed strong record sales, the logic being that the record-buyers would be eager to see the band in concert. According to Thomas Johansson, for the most part it worked out as planned. In New York, for instance, ABBA were booked to play Radio City Music Hall, but the demand for tickets was so high that they could easily have sold out Madison Square Garden, a much bigger venue. However, for certain shows the figures were somewhat less impressive. "We couldn't figure it out then and I will never be able to figure out why we didn't sell out Minneapolis/St. Paul. It was the Swedish settlement area and we had sold a lot of records there."

The slight uncertainties of ABBA's reception in America created some apprehension on part of the group, who began rehearsals a full four months before the tour started. "We tour so infrequently that we need to have a little warm-up", said Benny. "Especially since we're going to the United States, where we've never been before … We need a little extra self-confidence as a stage act." After two surprise concerts in Sweden during the early stages of rehearsals - held at small clubs, just to try out the backing band - ABBA and their musicians were finally confident enough to embark on their tour of North America. On September 13, the first show of the tour took place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. After one more concert in Canada, the group arrived in Seattle for their very first show in the United States. And this was also where the filming for ABBA In Concert started.

The man behind the film was producer and director Urban Lasson, who was employed at Sveriges Television ("Swedish Television", SVT). SVT is the Swedish equivalent of Great Britain's BBC, and, through its two channels, was the only company broadcasting television programmes in Sweden at the time. With his rich and varied background in music and film, Lasson was eminently suitable for being in charge of the ABBA concert film. As a young student in the south of Sweden in the early 1960s, he ran his own record label, issuing records by local jazz bands. Meanwhile, he was also working as a sound engineer at a pirate radio station. Eventually, Lasson got into rock and pop music, setting up yet another record label, this one named Viking Records. Among his more interesting signings was a band called The Namelosers, whom he also managed and produced. Today the band has an international cult reputation as one of the finest exponents of Swedish garage rock in the 1960s.

Parallel with these adventures in music there was an interest in film, and Urban Lasson bought a 16 mm camera, adding "budding filmmaker" to his rapidly expanding CV. Throughout the 1960s he had his fingers in a multitude of pies within the area of art, theatre, film and music, all in the university town of Lund where he subsequently graduated with degrees in Arts and Political Science. At the end of the decade, Lasson's interest in the film medium landed him a job as a television producer at Sveriges Radio ("Swedish Radio"; at the time, radio and television broadcasting were both part of the same organisation). He began making films on a variety of subjects, primarily within the world of culture.

With his strong interest in music, it was fairly natural that programmes focusing on musicians transpired as one of Lasson's particular fortes. The various musical genres and performance contexts he had to deal with - not to mention the shifting artistic temperaments - constituted challenges that made him grow as a filmmaker. "I had the opportunity to work with all kinds of music, which gave me a lot of useful experience in working with different techniques. I was also prepared for situations with someone like Miles Davis, who'd often turn his back to the audience, which could create problems with both sound and picture. The way the cameras were staged to show how the music was made, and the communication within the band as they were conducted by Miles' looks and the gestures, created a fine moment of television."

His concert film of Miles Davis from the mid-1970s is but one of Urban Lasson's many noteworthy music-related productions for Sveriges Radio and SVT. He made films about artists such as B.B. King, Elton John, Duke Ellington, and jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, featuring documentations of live performances as well as intimate portraits of the artists. A 1976 film featuring a Roxy Music concert in Stockholm has been especially acclaimed - indeed, it was the Roxy Music film that indirectly led to his assignment to make ABBA In Concert.

The relationship between ABBA and Sveriges Television had always been a bit uneasy. Although the group had appeared on programmes every now and then, and an entire special (entitled Abba-dabba-doo!!) had been devoted to them back in 1976, it was nothing compared to their many television performances in countries such as West Germany and Great Britain. There was also a lot of resistance towards ABBA in certain quarters within the broadcasting corporation, where the group was perceived as having few artistic merits, their sole reason for existing being to "sell a product".

But by the late 1970s the climate was thawing a bit, and it became a little easier to have discussions about a major ABBA production for Sveriges Television. After all, there was a large audience out there who really wanted to see the group on their screens. And now that ABBA were going out on tour, there was the perfect opportunity to do a programme focusing on their music. Thus, it was decided that Sveriges Television and Polar Music would co-produce a film of an ABBA concert performance. This is where Urban Lasson enters the picture. "I was the one who suggested that ABBA should collaborate with SVT on a concert film and that they should work with Urban", recalls Thomas Johansson. "That film he did on Roxy Music was damned good. Urban was really great at doing films of live performances."

Once the decision had been made that the programme should be made, and who was going to be in charge of the production, Urban Lasson and his team began preparatory work. "We were trying out different types of film stock at a night club in Stockholm, to ensure that we got the sharpness and almost video-like clarity we required," remembers Lasson. "I had been investigating the possibility to do it on video instead of film. We were in touch with British companies that were pretty advanced, but they still hadn't figured out the technical aspects of post-production editing on video. That technique was just around the corner."

ABBA themselves weren't exactly twiddling their thumbs either, as Thomas Johansson recalls. "Benny and Frida in particular were heavily involved in the pre-production of this film. We had a lot of meetings at their home, deciding how to approach the project and so on. All of us - the four ABBA members, myself, Urban Lasson and SVT - put in a lot of hard work to ensure that it turned out well." ABBA's commitment to the project included opening the doors to the tour rehearsals on a couple of hot August afternoons, allowing Lasson to capture their performance on video. "We needed to find out if there were any new songs in the show, or if the familiar songs differed from the recorded versions. In other words: 'What happens in the music and in their show?'"

A month later, North American audiences were beginning to find out for themselves what was happening in ABBA's stage show. On September 17, 1979, as ABBA arrived in Seattle for their third concert on the tour - and their first in the United States - the film team joined the entourage to start shooting the American part of the programme. Only one film photographer, American Jack Churchill, plus assistant Björn Blixt, accompanied Urban Lasson to the United States. Churchill had been the main cinematographer on ABBA - The Movie and was hired to work on the present project at the specific request of the ABBA team.

The material filmed during the US tour was always planned to be featured in a collage style introduction of images and impressions from ABBA's meeting with the great continent. As Lasson explains, although the concerts at Wembley Arena alone would have justified making the film, ABBA agreed to extend the concept. "I was interested in making use of the fact that they were visiting the USA, because if you go there you inevitably have to relate to so-called Americana. I wanted to feature the different places ABBA went to, showing something that related to touring those cities, and combining the visuals with soundscaping. This wasn't always so easily accomplished, with the limited time and small team we had."

Aside from showing ABBA's meeting with the United States, the director also felt that the collage should depict the preparations before the concert and convey a sense of life on the road, a sense of movement. This meant a great deal of planning on his part in ensuring that he got certain specific scenes and sounds that he wanted. "My requirements had to be entered into their tour schedule. And if you wanted access to them in various places it couldn't be a matter of stealing a moment here and there, we had to make sure that there was enough time to create a relaxed situation." As anybody who's ever been on the road will testify, the pressure of touring can be hard enough without a film team tagging along. "There are always practical problems when you're trying to make a film of a concert tour," confirms Thomas Johansson. "In this case, we had a television crew that had to be around, doing their stuff, needing to get in here and there."

Much of the time Urban Lasson's team were pretty self-sufficient, however, as when they were capturing the very first shots for the film: an aerial view of Seattle from the city's famous Space Needle tower. But many sequences required much more involvement from the group, most of them being completely pre-arranged by Lasson. One of the more memorable events was captured at the hotel in Washington* and featured the group decorating a cake shaped like a map of the United States, marking the tour stops with cocktail cherries. "I thought, 'Let's make a big cake which could help us describe the geography of touring, and the sense of expectation that goes with it, making it pleasurable in some way'. Then I combined that with sounds that indicated the movement from one place to another: the sound of a squealing train, blending into Frida's delighted scream as John Spalding [long-time business associate of Stig Anderson and financial controller on the tour] has his face shoved into the cake."

Another scene requested by Lasson showed the group having breakfast at a coffee shop in New York. Here, the director sought to complete the sense of a daily rhythm, but also wanted to show the whole group together, trying to find out how they interacted at that point in time, setting it all in a typically American breakfast situation. "The breakfast scene is preceded by the song 'Eagle', which is all about flying, and naturally we see the group and their entourage in the plane, while below you have the trucks with all the equipment driving across the country. Rather than just showing the trucks driving by, you have this helicopter shot that exposes the enormity of it all, the wide open spaces of America, and then this shot turns sideways, showing the truck driving off towards all the possibilities. This is followed by hotel doors being locked, taps being turned off, and so on. Then it's morning, we are at the coffee shop, and everything starts all over again. So it all adds up to this sense of transfer, and certain key events surrounding life on the road, specifically in the USA."

In addition to poor John Spalding's unfortunate encounter with the cake, many other key people who worked with ABBA can be glimpsed in the opening segment. Standing to the right in the picture during the cake incident is Thomas Johansson. In the sequence where Benny is talking about the touring life, saying, "We have good guys working with us - and girls," there are shots of Stig Anderson, Polar Music Vice President Görel Johnsen and tour manager Bosse Norling.

The organic flow of the introductory collage is concluded at Wembley Arena, where Lasson transports the viewer via the sound of a car in the USA, blending into a jet engine and then ending in the hum of a blow-dryer, as Benny has his hair done backstage before the show. "We wanted it to be a vivid document," the director points out, "with the introduction outlining the US tour and the fantastic thing about the group approaching the USA, and also showing different people in different places and their excitement about seeing ABBA. So the US collage and the concert should be regarded as one entity. It's not two separate sections, the flow is meant to be there all through the film."

This philosophy is emphasized by the fact that songs from the Wembley Arena concert have been interspersed throughout the introduction - indeed, the film starts with a London performance of 'Waterloo'. On the same token, a few sequences from the US are used as illustrations in the concert part of the film, such as the night-time scenes from Las Vegas during the 'Summer Night City' instrumental intro, or the roller-skating scenes on the streets of New York as ABBA are performing 'Knowing Me, Knowing You'. Incidentally, this sequence features a brief cameo by Urban Lasson himself; he is the man with his back to the camera, talking to a girl.

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*NOTE:
In the liner notes as printed in the booklet for ABBA In Concert, this event is incorrectly given as having taken place at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

ABBA In Concert liner notes, part 2

 

ABBA In Concert. Released March 29, 2004. Catalogue number: Polar 065 646-9.

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