ABBA In Japan - liner notes, part 1

Published September 15, 2011

This disc marks the first DVD release of ABBA’s one and only Japanese television special, simply entitled ABBA Special upon its first broadcast on December 16, 1978. It is presented here together with a fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary of the group’s visit to Japan. Taken together, these films should give a fairly comprehensive overview of ABBA’s first encounter with the Far East.

Although ABBA didn’t achieve their major breakthrough in Japan until the late Seventies, their connection to the country actually began before they even existed as a group. In 1970 the then-duo of Björn & Benny released their first single, ‘She’s My Kind Of Girl’, which sank like a stone in their native Sweden. However, two years later, through a series of lucky coincidences, the song became an unexpected hit in Japan. The boys’ manager, record label boss and sometime lyricist, Stig Anderson, was extremely diligent in his efforts to spread the music of his protégés in the world outside Scandinavia, grabbing every opportunity to make use of his vast network of international music business contacts. In this particular case, the opening appeared in the shape of a Japanese publisher who happened to hear ‘She’s My Kind Of Girl’ in the offices of a French publisher. This Japanese gentleman swiftly concluded that the slightly melancholy, somewhat oriental-sounding tone of the record would be perfect for his home-market.

Upon release in Japan in early 1972 ‘She’s My Kind Of Girl’ did indeed become a Top Ten hit, which may have helped kick-start the process that would eventually lead to the formation of ABBA. For it seems the unexpected success of the song – Björn & Benny’s first hit outside Scandinavia – encouraged them to try their hands at more English-language pop music. If they could have a hit in Japan, they reasoned, then why not in the rest of the world? And wouldn’t they stand an even better chance if they added the superior vocal talents of Agnetha and Frida to the equation? So it was that during a series of recording sessions in the spring of 1972, the very first ABBA single, ‘People Need Love’, was recorded.

However, ‘People Need Love’ was never released in Japan and, in fact, Björn & Benny’s fortunes in that part of the world dwindled fairly soon after their first whiff of success. Together with Agnetha and Frida they visited Japan for the first time in November 1972, to perform a song entitled ‘Santa Rosa’ in the Yamaha World Popular Song Contest. But they might as well have stayed home. The quartet was among the few acts not to receive any prize whatsoever, and the song wasn’t even issued as a single. In their native Sweden, however, the combination of the two men and the two women proved exceptionally fruitful and before long they had morphed into a permanent quartet. International success with ‘Waterloo’ soon followed and within a few years ABBA were one of the biggest acts in Europe.

But in Japan the collapse of Björn & Benny’s promising career proved to be ominous. Certainly, ABBA’s records were released in the Land of the Rising sun and the singles received healthy airplay, but in a market where non-Japanese acts traditionally had a harder time making a true impact, they were nowhere to be seen in the sales chart. The 1976 single ‘Dancing Queen’ became their first hit to show up in the Top 20, and then only barely so, peaking at number 19. Considering the overwhelming number one-success of that particular song in most other countries, ABBA ought to be doing much better in Japan, one of the world’s biggest record markets.

For Stig Anderson there was no such thing as “impossible” and he couldn’t accept that ABBA shouldn’t reach the stratospheric heights scaled in so many other territories. He later recalled: ”The Japanese had been telling us, ’Oh, the success you’re having in Europe and Australia is simply amazing, but really, you could never achieve anything like that in Japan’. I thought, ’You just wait and I’ll goddamn show you!’”

ABBA were never the kind of group that believed in extensive touring as the way to make an impact on their audience. Experience proved that strategic exposure on television would achieve the same results with much less effort: the Eurovision Song Contest win with ‘Waterloo’, the screening of the promo clips for ‘Mamma Mia’ ‘SOS’ and ‘I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do’ that gave ABBA an explosive breakthrough in Australia, and so on. Now, the year of 1978 was ear-marked as the time for the group’s first serious attempt to crack the Japanese market.

The first strike took place in July, which was declared “ABBA Month”. The group were heavily promoted in record shops, while a recent US television special made together with Olivia Newton-John and Andy Gibb was broadcast, along with an exclusive ABBA special made in Poland in 1976. Just in case anyone should fail to get the message, the group’s feature film ABBA – The Movie also received its Japanese premiere during the “ABBA Month”. This first effort achieved immediate results: no less than three ABBA albums (Arrival, ABBA – The Album and a local Greatest Hits double-LP) swiftly sailed into the Japanese Top 20.

Liner notes, part 2

 

ABBA In Japan

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