Liner notes, part 1

Published April 13, 2010


The breakthrough of new artists in the entertainment business may be achieved in several different ways. Touring - and live concerts in general - is still, at the start of the 21st Century, a powerful tool in creating a buzz around up-and-coming acts. In other cases, bands will owe a debt to radio stations that pick up on songs with hit potential, paving the way for greater glories. But ever since rock and pop became a major force in the international music landscape in the late 1950s, the power of television has been an equally important factor. Just ask the four members of ABBA.

Björn Ulvaeus' first group, the folk music act the Hootenanny Singers, made their television début in a Swedish talent contest in 1963, performing what turned out to be their first big hit. The Hep Stars, a rock band featuring organ player Benny Andersson, released four singles in the Spring of 1965. The records went largely unnoticed until a television appearance in the pop show Drop In sent them all to the top of the charts, turning the band into Sweden's number one pop group.

Anni-Frid "Frida" Lyngstad, meanwhile, won a talent contest in September 1967 and was whisked away to a television studio immediately afterwards. The result? A recording contract and national recognition. A few months later, in January 1968, Agnetha Fältskog performed her début single on a popular television show. Although the record had been available in the shops for a couple of months it was only now that the song became a hit, shooting to number one on the charts.

Of course, ABBA's own ultimate television experience happened in 1974, two years after they first started recording as a group and five years after they got together as two couples on a romantic level (Björn with Agnetha, Benny with Frida). The date was April 6, the place Brighton, England and the occasion the Eurovision Song Contest. ABBA performed their song, 'Waterloo', which not only won the contest, but went on to become their breakthrough hit on an international level. The Eurovision victory has remained as the single most well-known event in the history of the group.

'Waterloo' is also significant in that it was the first song for which ABBA made a film clip. "Film clips" or "promo clips" were the forerunners of what has been known as videos since the early 1980s. When MTV started in the USA in 1981, turning music videos into one of the most important tools in the marketing of popular music artists, ABBA had already been making film clips on a regular basis for seven years. This DVD collects, for the first time, all the group's official promo clips, produced and distributed by their record company Polar Music between 1974 and 1982.

The reason the group started producing these short films was simply that they wanted to minimise their travelling. It was especially complicated for them to go to countries such as Australia and New Zealand, which at the time would mean a 30-hour plane trip. The group and their manager, Stig Anderson, were well aware that one single television performance in the right show could mean easier and quicker exposure to more people than could be reached through even the most ambitious tour.

And now, with the promo clips, they could even cut down on their visits to European television studios. Long and gruelling tours - and extensive travelling in general - was something they all had more than their share of in their pre-ABBA careers. During their years together as a group, spending time with their families and putting all energy into crafting their songs felt more important.

At the time, making short films to promote current singles was a habit that had been going on for a decade or so in the industry: acts such as The Beatles, for instance, were fervent promo clip makers. However, by the mid-1970s it was still not the industry standard it would become a decade later. "We had a look at something called a 'promotion film' from a record company in America," recalled Björn. "It was one camera, one shot; very badly done. We said it must be possible to do a thing like this but much, much better."

The first clips that ABBA made were 'Waterloo' and 'Ring Ring', in the Summer of 1974. The director they hired for these début clips was a budding film maker called Lasse Hallström. He had a lot of experience in the "pop film" area, dating back to the 1960s when he used to produce clips for television featuring Swedish and international pop acts.

Hallström was used to operating on a minuscule budget, something that came in handy when the ABBA clips were made. The group's record company, Polar Music, didn't wish to spend too much money on these films - as, indeed, did very few record companies in the 1970s. It is to the director's credit that he usually managed to create some kind of visual excitement despite these less than favourable production circumstances. Hallström is responsible for the majority of the films included in this collection.

No promo clips were made for ABBA's first album, Ring Ring, released in 1973, and on the second album, Waterloo, only the title track was filmed. The clip of 'Ring Ring' that was produced at the same time featured a 1974 remix of this song as its soundtrack. The revamped version of 'Ring Ring' was issued as a single in the UK and Australia, but was only a moderate hit and has become quite a rarity since then. These days the remix is a little more accessible: it is currently available on both the double-CD The Definitive Collection and this DVD release of the same name.

The films for 'Waterloo' and 'Ring Ring' were both fairly straightforward performances of the songs, with very little in the way of effects or editing tricks. However, this was all changed in conjunction with the group's third album - released in 1975 and simply titled ABBA - when no less than four songs received the film clip treatment: 'Mamma Mia', 'SOS', 'Bang-A-Boomerang' and 'I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do'.

In a sense, these films - all of which were made in studios and outdoor locations in the chilly Stockholm Spring - are perhaps the four most important clips in the entire history of ABBA. It was here that Lasse Hallström came up with many of the visual characteristics that would come to define ABBA's video image. 'Mamma Mia' introduced the frequently used close-up shots of two members, one of whom was shown in profile, and these films where also where he started grouping the four individuals in different combinations of pairs, contrasting one against the other.

Furthermore, these clips were crucial in helping ABBA achieve their extraordinary breakthrough in Australia. The country had just introduced colour television when the films for 'I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do' and 'Mamma Mia' were shown on the popular television show Countdown in August 1975. This exposure led to a frenzied interest in the group and a consecutive 14-week run at number one in the singles chart for those two songs plus 'SOS'. This success proved most convincingly that sending film clips to far-off countries was a very effective way to make an impression without having to spend time on long and tiresome trips.

It is also interesting to note that the four clips were not necessarily made to promote individual singles, but the entire ABBA album. Admittedly, the songs had been chosen for their hit potential, but the four clips were actually distributed as one complete film, screened in its entirety under the name 4 x ABBA on Swedish television. Furthermore, 'Mamma Mia' and 'Bang-A-Boomerang' were not even intended to be singles - it was only the overwhelming response to the 'Mamma Mia' clip in Australia that eventually led to the song's release in 7-inch format. 'Bang-A-Boomerang', meanwhile, remained an album track in most countries. It is in their original shape and running order - with the song titles printed directly on the film and with a closing "credit" featuring the four band members' names - that the four clips appear on this DVD.

With the hit success of their 1975 singles, primarily 'SOS' and 'Mamma Mia', ABBA firmly established themselves as a worldwide pop phenomenon, and they built on this success with their first single of 1976: 'Fernando'. Accompanied by yet another Hallström-directed film clip, this song alone spent 14 weeks at the top of the Australian charts. Ironically, the director himself doesn't believe he got things quite right with the 'Fernando' clip, feeling that it's much too static. Despite Hallström's reservations, both song and film were popular and quite frequently screened on television.

ABBA's next single was 'Dancing Queen', where the dance rhythms of the song inspired a clip set in a discotheque environment. Shooting took place at the very "in" Alexandra's night club in Stockholm. 'Dancing Queen' was the first single from ABBA's fourth album, Arrival, released in October 1976, and went on to become the most popular and fondly remembered of all ABBA songs.

The follow-up to this smash hit was 'Money, Money, Money'. By way of contrast to 'Fernando', this clip is actually Lasse Hallström's favourite of his work with ABBA. "It was consistent with the lyrics and the music," he remarked many years later. "I loved editing my films to fit the music, to emphasize the rhythm and the idea of the music, to provide musical support and not just tell a story."

The third single from Arrival was 'Knowing Me, Knowing You', released in February 1977 and accompanied by a clip filmed in wintry Stockholm. 'Knowing Me, Knowing You' exposed a prominent feature in ABBA's clips, also leaving its mark on the earlier 'SOS', namely the acting out of desolation and regret over love gone wrong. No doubt these visuals helped underscore the sadness that was fighting for space with the affirmative, joyous sounds that essentially constituted the dominating factor in ABBA's music.

The group's records were released by a myriad of different record labels over the world, and sometimes the requirements of a specific market meant that some territories chose different single releases than the group themselves. One such instance was the Arrival track 'That's Me'. In most places, this was simply the B-side of 'Dancing Queen', but in Japan it was felt that this should be a single all of its own. A promo film was hastily put together in the Summer of 1977 - featuring newly filmed scenes of Agnetha and Frida miming to the song, edited together with bits from older clips - and dispatched to Japan. The single rose to number five on the Japanese charts, but the film remained largely forgotten until it was released on the home video compilation More ABBA Gold in 1993.

After a tour of Europe and Australia in early 1977, the first single from the group's fifth LP, ABBA - The Album, was 'The Name Of The Game'. Released in October, the clip featured the group playing the Ludo-like board game Fia at Björn and Agnetha's home. No sooner had this song left the charts than it was followed by 'Take A Chance On Me'. The single was accompanied by a playful film, itself heavily parodied by synth duo Erasure in the video for their 1992 cover version of the song.

In April 1978, ABBA produced films for a further three selections from The Album: 'Eagle', 'Thank You For The Music' - both of which received limited release as singles - and the album track 'One Man, One Woman'. It was the first time the group appeared in promo clips made directly on video tape, giving them a strong "televisual" feel.

By this time, ABBA had already started work on their next album, Voulez-Vous. The first song to be released from those sessions was the energetic 'Summer Night City', where the clip showed Stockholm at its most beautiful and inviting: warm Summer nights when the sun almost never sets. Incidentally, the briefly glimpsed scenes with Agnetha and Frida riding on a boat were actually filmed on Benny's own, recently purchased motor boat.

The next single from the Voulez-Vous sessions was 'Chiquitita', released in January 1979. For this song, Lasse Hallström never made a film clip. Instead a straightforward performance of the song, hastily taped in conjunction with the making of a television special in Switzerland, was used as the official promo clip - look out for the "intruder" that accidentally walks into the frame towards the end of the clip! Mercifully, for the next two singles, Hallström was in charge again. At the Europa Film studios just outside Stockholm, the director re-created a discotheque environment to reflect the dance beats of 'Does Your Mother Know' and 'Voulez-Vous'.

The Definitive Collection DVD liner notes, part 2

 

The Definitive Collection. Released July 15, 2002. Catalogue number: Polar 017 445-9. Out of print.

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