Liner notes, part 1

Published May 08, 2014

Really Doing Something

The Making Of The ABBA Album


What would you do if you were a Swedish band who had just won the Eurovision Song Contest, a victory that resulted in the first truly global hit single to emanate from your country – in itself an achievement that you and your manager had been working towards for several years? After the promotional duties in the aftermath of this success had been taken care of, you would probably clear all decks, cancel all prior engagements and, fired-up by the excitement generated by your new-found international fame, immediately start working on follow-up songs in the hope of producing more hits that could capture the world’s imagination.

Well, not so if you were ABBA. After their triumph with ‘Waterloo’ in Brighton, England on April 6, 1974, they did cancel a proposed summer tour of Sweden, but this was not necessarily so that they could write and record new songs for ABBA. In the month of July, Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad continued work on her second solo album, to be released on ABBA’s record label Polar Music; Agnetha Fältskog, who was “on loan” from another record company, began recording her fifth solo LP for that label; and Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson busied themselves with production work for other Polar Music acts – including an album for the Hootenanny Singers, the folk band Björn was in before ABBA and, believe it or not, of which he was still a member. For a month or so it was almost as if ABBA didn’t quite exist, as if they were still a loose amalgamation, the “side project” they had been when they first started recording together in 1972.

What a contrast, then, when their third album, simply entitled ABBA, finally reached record shops in April 1975. For here emerged a fully-formed pop group, confident about what they were doing, masters of the recording studio, exuding a joy of discovery, and, arguably, offering the world their first true pop classics with ‘SOS’ and ‘Mamma Mia’ – songs that would help seal their status as hit-makers on a par with the best of the then-current competition. With the exception of a handful of tracks, and perhaps the odd lyric here and there, the album is still fondly remembered by Björn and Benny as a bridge between the “trying to make sense of who we are” atmosphere of their first two albums (Ring Ring and Waterloo) and the following year’s virtually flawless Arrival LP. “If I’d heard the ABBA album for the first time back then, as someone outside the group listening to it, I would have thought that it was really great,” says Björn. Or in Benny’s more laconic words, “It’s starting to get good.” Many reviewers at the time agreed: a Swedish newspaper claimed that “there are no weak songs” on the album, while one American writer stated that “Bjorn and Benny are shaping up as major innovators in modern pop songwriting and production”. Another U.S.-based critic went all in, declaring that “the LP contains some of the best music I’ve heard this year”.

With solo album work put on hold, and Polar Music production chores put to the side, recording sessions for ABBA’s third album began on August 22, 1974. The place for these first sessions, and, indeed, the bulk of the recordings for the album, was a location that can only be described as fairly modest for a group that were breaking all previous sales records in their home-country. Musician, arranger and producer Bruno Glenmark was the husband of singer Ann-Louise Hanson, one of Sweden’s most popular artists at the time. In the early Seventies, the couple also formed the popular Glenmarks vocal quartet together with Bruno’s nephew and niece, Anders and Karin Glenmark. Around the same time Bruno had the idea of building his own recording studio. “I was interested in sounds and we built a studio that would fit into our home at the time, which was quite a large house in the Stockholm suburb of Stocksund,” he recalls. The basement of the house, which up until then housed a laundry room and the children’s play-room, was converted into a professional, albeit small, recording studio that was named GlenStudio. “At first we mostly recorded our own stuff, but then I bought a 16-track tape recorder [state-of-the-art at the time] and thought that perhaps we should employ a sound engineer.” As fate would have it, Bruno found out that an engineer named Michael B. Tretow, who had been employed at Stockholm’s Metronome Studio for seven years, was starting to get restless, feeling that it was maybe time to move on. When Bruno offered him a job at GlenStudio, he accepted.

By this time, in 1974, Michael Tretow had become such an integral and important part of the ABBA recordings that it was unthinkable for the group not to continue working with him. Consequently, wherever he went, ABBA went too, and thus it was that this small space – about 45 square metres (less than 500 square feet) in total for control room and studio floor – would see the birth of hit singles such as ‘SOS’ and later also the basic backing track for the ultimate ABBA classic, ‘Dancing Queen’. “We did have good equipment, nice speakers and all that; sound-wise it worked really well,” says Bruno Glenmark. “Much of this was thanks to Michael, who in my opinion is a genius. If you have good ears and know what you’re doing, you can achieve the results that Michael did.”

Although perhaps GlenStudio wasn’t the ideal recording facility space-wise – “you could fit in four or five musicians on the studio floor, but no more,” says Benny – the homely atmosphere made up for some of the studio’s shortcomings. While many of their contemporaries in Los Angeles and New York City were caught up in more rock star-like, cocaine-fuelled recording sessions, ABBA found themselves in thrall to an altogether different “drug”. “Ann-Louise’s mother used to stay with us a lot and she was baking buns all the time,” recalls Bruno Glenmark, “so every day when ABBA came to the studio, almost the first thing they said was: ‘Are there any buns?!’ I don’t think most other studios would provide freshly baked buns.” Even to this day, Björn, who’d resolved to lose some weight after hardly fitting into his Eurovision stage costume earlier in the year, vividly recalls the temptations of Mrs Hanson’s baking efforts. “They were irresistible – and this at a time when I was struggling to keep an appropriate ‘pop idol weight’!”

GlenStudio offered the additional advantage of being available to book for extended periods. At Stockholm’s top recording facility, Metronome Studio, where the entire Waterloo album was recorded, various record companies had one day each week allotted to them, in which they were supposed to finish off whatever recordings they needed to get done. This was perhaps fine in the days of pre-written arrangements, when a comparatively large number of masters could be completed in one day of recording. But for a modern rock or pop group, who used the recording studio as a laboratory, painstakingly working out the styles, arrangements and moods for their songs, adding and subtracting overdubs, sometimes scrapping completed recordings and starting all over again, the limited access to Metronome was a less than ideal situation. “We tried to nag at the other record companies to get more days,” says Benny. “We’d phone them all and ask, ‘Do you really need your Tuesday, can’t we have it instead?’ And sometimes that worked out, so on average we did have more than one day per week at Metronome.”

The situation wouldn’t be fully resolved until ABBA built their own Polar Music Studio, which opened in 1978 and in which the group’s final three albums were recorded. But in the meantime, facilities such as GlenStudio were more readily available for continuous recording periods than Metronome. It was especially fortunate now that ABBA were becoming ever-more ambitious, requiring more time to work out their recordings. However, the extended sessions were not always popular with some members of the Glenmark household. “The studio was right below our bedrooms,” remembers Bruno Glenmark, ”and if Björn, Benny and Michael had a great idea for something, they simply wouldn’t quit. So it happened that the kids came into our room late at night and complained: ‘Mummy, can’t they stop playing!’”

The first three backing tracks recorded for the new album, on August 22 and 23, gave a good view of the group’s ambition to offer a sense of variation on their long-players. There was the up-tempo glam rock of ‘So Long’, the clavinet-driven funk attempt of ‘Man In The Middle’, and finally the pure pop of ‘SOS’. Even on these first recordings, Michael Tretow’s “mad professor” personality and willingness to explore new sounds was in full swing, as Bruno Glenmark remembers. “We had an indoor swimming pool in our house, and one day Michael went into the pool room and made a clap with his hands: ‘Oh, what an echo!’ It didn’t take long before he’d drawn cords into the pool and put a speaker in one end and a microphone in the other, so that he could make use of that echo when he recorded.” The effect was put to good use on ‘So Long’, where Janne Schaffer’s guitar-playing was treated to the pool room acoustics. According to Bruno Glenmark, it was also Michael’s idea that Bruno should overdub a trumpet riff on the song. “He said, ‘We gotta have a trumpet at the end!’ That’s the way they worked: they tried things out and if they found that they didn’t like it, they could just erase it.”

By mid-September five new tunes were ready to be recorded, although out of those only two would make it onto the album. Clearly, ABBA had taken the game up a notch or two. Recordings that would previously have made it through the quality control, simply because an LP was expected to be completed within a certain time-frame and within a certain budget, were now put on the shelf, and the recording schedule was extended so that the finished album would be as strong as it could possibly be at that moment in time. So while the September recordings ‘Hey, Hey Helen’ and ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’ were included on the album, tracks entitled ‘Rikky Rock’n’Roller’ and ‘Terra del Fuego’ were put on the shelf indefinitely, along with an early version of ‘Bang-A-Boomerang’.

‘Hey, Hey Helen’ was a mid-tempo rocker that, unusually for ABBA at the time, tried to address a topical issue, namely the rise in divorce rates and the conflict for the modern woman in balancing her needs for emancipation and liberation with the pain of breaking up a family. This was a time when Swedish cultural climate was strongly influenced by the left-wing Music Movement, or “proggers”, who were adamant that music must have a political message. ABBA, who wanted nothing more or less than to entertain an audience with straightforward pop music, were seen as the commercial antichrist and reviled for their unashamed pride in their success. It’s tempting to speculate that Björn as lyricist had taken the critique onboard and wanted to try to dip his toe in the water as regards topical song writing, but he emphatically denies that this was the case. “If there was any realism in the ‘Hey, Hey Helen’ lyrics, it may possibly have been that Agnetha and I were going through one of our rough periods,” he suggests. Another likely source of inspiration was the 1973 British television series Helen – A Woman Of Today, which aired in Sweden between January and April 1974. Starring Alison Fiske as Helen and Martin Shaw as her husband Frank, the series dealt with the exact same topic as Björn’s lyrics, namely a woman contemplating divorce from her husband – Björn’s lyrics even contain the line “a woman of today”. While he doesn’t remember the series today, he admits that it’s likely that he watched it and borrowed its theme for the lyrics.

The other “socially conscious” lyric on the album was ‘Man In The Middle’, on which Björn himself handled the lead vocals. The protagonist is a fat-cat type of person who’s “never second fiddle,” but “hard as a hammer / not the kind of boss / you double-cross”. For all his money and power, however, he’s really empty inside and realises that “he can’t buy an honest friend”. “By that time, I’d encountered a number of people like that in my life – both among my relatives and elsewhere,” says Björn. “But, as always, there’s just an embryo of something real, while the rest is fiction.” This kind of social commentary was not, at the end of the day, Björn’s cup of tea. “Many of our tunes were so emotional, and I thought it was a waste of a good song to put some kind of political slant on it. Songs like ‘Man In The Middle’ and ‘Hey, Hey Helen’ don’t grab you in the same way as something like ‘The Winner Takes It All’.”

By mid-October, a further two melodies were ready to be recorded. ‘Crazy World’ was ultimately destined to remain unreleased for two years (see “Notes on the CD bonus tracks” below), but the other, ‘Intermezzo no 1’, turned out to be ABBA’s one and only completely instrumental tune (the word-less title track of the Arrival album did feature vocal choirs).  A popular showcase for Benny on all subsequent ABBA tours, it sported the original working title ‘Bach-låten’ (“The Bach Tune”). “It’s one of those tunes that really don’t belong on a pop album,” reflects Benny. “There were a number of tracks like that over the years: ‘Thank You For The Music’, for instance. But we did them because it was fun.” Indeed, one could argue that those “aberrations” were one of the elements that made ABBA uniquely ABBA.

‘Intermezzo no 1’ and a number of other as yet unreleased songs from the current recording sessions were put to the test in front of audiences shortly after being recorded. Taking a break from the new album, in November 1974 ABBA embarked on their first tour of Europe. The autumn leg of the tour, which encompassed Denmark, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, was perhaps not as successful as they hoped for, with, reportedly, a tepid atmosphere at some of the shows – “I remember it as completely miserable,” Björn states bluntly. According to tour producer Thomas Johansson, it was ABBA’s European record labels who wanted ABBA to promote themselves through a concert tour. With only one major hit in ‘Waterloo’ to their credit, Björn feels “it was too early. We hadn’t built up enough credibility to sell out arenas and such.”

ABBA’s first single from the album sessions, released to coincide with the tour, did very little to strengthen that credibility. ‘So Long’ was a rocker in the same mould as ‘Waterloo’, which was why their British record company suggested this as a suitable A-side. Taking the advice of the Brits, ABBA went ahead with the single – as Björn admits, they probably weren’t completely against it themselves. “We thought we were some kind of glam rock group, like contemporary bands such as Slade, The Sweet, Mud and whoever else. We hadn’t found our identity yet – that’s for sure.” ‘So Long’ was one of ABBA’s least successful singles, barely charting in most territories. In Great Britain the song was nowhere to be seen in the Top 50, and in Sweden, where record-buyers usually sent everything ABBA issued to the top of the charts, the single didn’t chart until two months after release and peaked at a comparatively unimpressive number seven. The single B-side, the ballad ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’, featuring a characteristically sincere Agnetha lead vocal, was a much better song, but didn’t receive enough attention to help the single become a hit. Was ABBA’s international success story over before it had even started for real? Were they, in fact, nothing more than Eurovision one-hit-wonders?

Liner notes, part 2