Liner notes, part 2

Published April 14, 2010

The prominent feature of roller-skates in ABBA In Concert - another such scene in the introductory collage was shot in Venice Beach, California; yet another features juggling lighting operator Patrick Woodroffe - is explained by the time-frame in which the film was made. In 1979, the western world was at the height of disco culture, which brought with it a big boom for "roller-skates, roller-skates!" as Chic sang in their disco classic 'Good Times', a then-recent US number one. "It was the kind of scenes I needed, it was the times," notes Urban Lasson. Indeed, disco itself put its mark on ABBA's musical output in 1979: many of the tracks on the Voulez-Vous album, and certainly the single, 'Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)', released in conjunction with the tour.

In October, ABBA began the European part of their trek. On the whole, the shows in Europe constituted a more obviously triumphant experience than the North American tour, and perhaps none more so than the concluding concerts in Great Britain and Ireland. Even if they had not been filmed, ABBA's shows at London's Wembley Arena in 1979 must certainly rank as one of the most astounding examples of their popularity: between November 5 and 10, the group performed six sell-out concerts before an audience total of 45,000 people. At the time, few other artists would even have been close to selling out Wembley six nights in a row. "Today there are quite a few who could do it, but not back then," confirms Thomas Johansson. "These days, pop music has an audience potential of four generations, but in the 1970s it was still only a matter of one and a half generations." While other bands may have a more illustrious touring history - with innumerable accounts of sex, drugs and general bad behaviour - it seemed ABBA were content simply with being a quietly massive touring act, out-performing many of their more notorious colleagues.

So, what did the four Swedes offer audiences who attended their concerts that autumn? Visually, the show was largely the creation of Rune Söderqvist, ABBA's album sleeve designer. He had also been the man behind the stage set for ABBA's previous tour, in 1977. For the present outing he collaborated closely with costume designer Owe Sandström, responsible for many of the extravagantly colourful outfits for which ABBA are so affectionately remembered today.

Söderqvist and Sandström came up with a colour scheme in white, blue and purple, which was meant to reflect the "chilly" Nordic origins of ABBA - as Rune Söderqvist recalled, "the fact that we came from 'the top of the world'". The backdrops took the shape of icebergs, underlining the "north pole" theme. "We used the last three colours of the rainbow - blue, indigo and violet - as the starting point for our designs", Owe Sandström remembered. Framed by the effects provided by lighting designer Jimmy Barnett, Rune's stage presentation would shift between glowingly warm and starkly bright, as Agnetha and Frida moved across the stage in Owe's body-hugging spandex outfits.

The show itself was a two-hour extravaganza of hits and familiar album tracks, naturally with a heavy slant towards Voulez-Vous, ABBA's most recent album. But a couple of previously unheard tunes were also introduced, such as the new single, 'Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)'. Among the other special features was Agnetha's self-penned solo ballad, 'I'm Still Alive', which remains unreleased to this day. More familiar is the anthemic 'The Way Old Friends Do', which later appeared as the closing track on ABBA's Super Trouper album.

As ABBA arrived at Wembley Arena, they were reunited with the film team from Swedish television. The North American part of the tour had ended with a return visit to Canada, but Urban Lasson and his associates left the entourage a few days earlier, as ABBA concluded the US part of the trek. The director explains the philosophy that guided him as he planned and executed the concert part of the film: "I was really interested in filming ABBA live in concert. My approach was basically the same as when I was working with other musicians, whether they were world-famous or not. I thought, 'If Björn and Benny are writing these fantastic songs for Agnetha and Frida, with great arrangements and performed with the aid of terrific musicians, why not try to show it as it really appears for the audience?' I wanted to let it be truly alive and to make it cinematically organic, not necessarily placing the edits on the first beat of each bar, but trying to displace the whole thing. For example, the edit might come a few seconds before the beat, capturing the attack and the performer's feeling of 'this is it!'"

To this end, Lasson once again carefully mapped out a plan, detailing how best to achieve his goal. Six film photographers, placed in specific positions, were used for the filming. Two of them were even onstage, one being Jack Churchill, who had been a part of the film crew in America. Churchill was wearing - you guessed it - roller-skates in order to achieve some extra mobility in his attempts to capture close-up shots of what was happening in the show. Meanwhile, Urban Lasson was located in a temporary control room set up at Wembley Arena, directing the photographers as if it were a live video crew shoot. "I prepared cue cards for each photographer, instructing him what to do at the key moments in each song," he recalls. "We needed specific shots in order to show what's happening in certain songs, and sometimes we would want to do that by featuring different things that were going on, not just focusing on whoever was at the microphone. Because the natural tendency for the photographers would be to be point their cameras at the singers, which in most cases would be Agnetha or Frida, and that wouldn't tell you the whole story: there might be a musician in the background doing something that's really important for the 'backbone' of the performance."

Out of the six Wembley shows, only two were filmed. And since it was clear from the beginning that ABBA In Concert was going to have a running time of less than one hour, there was no need to film the entire concerts. Therefore, the songs we see in the programme are the only ones that were actually captured on film - with two exceptions. 'The Way Old Friends Do' was a part of the film when ABBA In Concert was broadcast in Japan and the United States, but was not included in any other versions. Rarely screened since then, 'The Way Old Friends Do' is a bonus track on this release of ABBA In Concert. The other number filmed but not featured in the programme was 'Thank You For The Music'. The song was not even edited at the time - partly, perhaps, because there was only a limited amount of footage available for this particular sequence - and the raw film has been tucked away in the SVT archives for more than two decades. However, with the aid of a little cinematic imagination, 'Thank You For The Music' has now been edited into a complete performance and is included as a bonus selection on this DVD.

Although critical reception of ABBA's live shows was always mixed, the wildly enthusiastic audiences clearly felt they got their money's worth. But ABBA themselves - perhaps with the exception of Frida - were often very disapproving of their own onstage performances, feeling that they could never truly recreate the glorious shimmer and tight perfection of their studio recordings. So between the enthusiasm of concertgoers and their own misgivings, how did ABBA actually measure up as a live act? Thomas Johansson has a firm opinion on the matter. "They were really great - of course they were. Although this was the end of the 1970s, the sound was virtually as good as today. Visually it was excellent, and they were great stage performers. One mustn't forget that they were experienced and had been doing thousands of gigs in their careers before ABBA. But they had such high demands on themselves that they were never really satisfied."

There was no denying, however, that the atmosphere at an ABBA show could sometimes be fairly different to the average 1970s rock act. In 'I Have A Dream', for instance, a local children's choir would walk on to sing along in the chorus. In the ABBA In Concert film, Urban Lasson has inserted a sequence of various choirs rehearsing with ABBA before the concert. "I think that the collage shows the warmth that surrounded this situation, in the way the guys were working with the choirs," he says. By the way, watch out for Agnetha and Björn's daughter, Linda, in the Wembley choir; the camera tilts down towards her as her proud mother watches her singing. (Note: The uninterrupted promo clip version of 'I Have A Dream' is a bonus selection on this DVD.)

The inclusion of children's choirs certainly rendered a "family" atmosphere to proceedings. Some critics found this aspect of ABBA's stage show hard to stomach; it was too far removed from what you would expect from contemporary rock acts such as Bruce Springsteen or Led Zeppelin, not to mention a punk band like The Clash. And yet, those very artists were all ABBA fans and made sure that they didn't miss out on the group's shows during the 1979 tour. "One of the nights at Wembley Arena, we had Joe Strummer of The Clash, Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues and Ian Dury in the audience," Thomas Johansson recalls. "I believe Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant was there as well at one of the gigs. That shows you the width of their audience, how big they were. And at the New York concert, Bruce Springsteen was there; that was the first time I met him. They all realised how hard it is to come up with good tunes and how damned great this was."

The European part of the tour was concluded in Dublin, Ireland on November 15. ABBA returned to Stockholm, and so did the film crew. Television companies all over the world were eagerly awaiting the finished results of the production, and Urban Lasson and his team of editors got to grips with the material. When the film was finally ready for viewing by the ABBA members, they gave ABBA In Concert a unanimous thumbs up. "They never made an issue of our presence when we were filming them onstage," says Lasson, "nor did they have any demands on shots or sequences that they wanted edited out of the film. I would have been sympathetic if there had been any objections, but there was none of that; they just gave their support to what we had come up with." The director also remembers Stig Anderson sending him a bottle of Scotch whisky - Chivas Regal 12 Year Old, no less - as an extra token of the group's appreciation.

The film was completed shortly before ABBA embarked on a two-week tour of Japan in March 1980. This Japanese trek was largely an extension of the journey across North America and Europe, and ultimately turned out to be ABBA's final tour. ABBA In Concert was scheduled to receive its world premiere on Japanese television, on March 20, while ABBA were in the final stages of their visit. This broadcast meant that the film had to be converted to the NTSC television system used in Japan and the United States. "I remember going to Los Angeles, doing the conversion as soon as I arrived, then going straight to Tokyo to deliver the video tape," says Urban Lasson. "The Japanese were pleased about the stereo sound. That was really important over there."

Japan wasn't the only country to take a great interest in ABBA In Concert. In fact, even before the film had received its first broadcast, so many television companies around the world had bought the rights to air it, that its budget of 3 million kronor (approximately $700,000 at the time) had already been recouped. Many more countries followed, and the continued popularity over the years has made the programme one of SVT's greatest sales successes.

However, in 1980 it wasn't primarily the artistic merits of the film, nor its commercial triumphs, that were discussed in the Swedish media. Rather, most of the press coverage was devoted to the controversy of SVT's collaboration with a superficial pop group like ABBA. The deal between Polar Music International and Sveriges Television stipulated that they should share the profits for the programme equally, although SVT alone financed the actual film. This agreement was based on the argument that ABBA contributed their artistry and their stage show - without which there would be no film - and also sound engineer Michael B Tretow's 24-track recording of the music performed. The journalists' angle was that SVT was financing "one long commercial for ABBA", and sacrificing their integrity by allowing the group to have a say in what the final result looked like.

With the cultural climate that prevailed in Sweden at the time - where overtly political and/or more obscure artists tended to get an automatic seal of approval, and massively successful and easily digestible groups like ABBA were often reviled by influential commentators - it was almost inevitable that such a debate would arise. Urban Lasson, who often worked with Swedish, slightly left-of-centre performers, had his own perspective. "I was obviously well aware that ABBA were commercially successful and all that, but I thought that there might actually be a reason for their popularity: their songs and their performances. And so there might be a good reason to try to tell that story. For me it was all about the trust in ABBA and their musicians in creating a live event."

Although the perceived unholy matrimony between SVT and ABBA may have been controversial back in 1980, the passing of time has rendered such concerns largely irrelevant. Today, ABBA are regarded as one of the most enduring forces in modern popular music, and the 3 million kronor SVT invested back then pales into insignificance with the knowledge that, in 1999, the group was offered the incredible sum of $1 billion to do a reunion tour. "Ever since the group disbanded we've turned down on average about 150 offers a year for concerts, television specials, product endorsements and what have you," says Thomas Johansson. "It's all a part of the success their music is still enjoying today."

It is likely that ABBA will continue to refuse all suggestions of a reunion. In times when even the demise of key members will not stop bands from getting back together, ABBA will hold on to their status as "the group who never came back", as Björn Ulvaeus likes to phrase it. In the absence of the real thing, a multitude of tribute bands around the globe do their best to recreate the group's stage show, and their continued success in these endeavours proves that the demand is real and heartfelt. But ABBA In Concert will remain one of the precious few opportunities to experience the real thing - ABBA live, as they really were.

Carl Magnus Palm, 2004

with thanks to Ian Cole, Matthew Crocker and Aileen Schafer


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