Liner notes, part 2

Published May 08, 2014


In January, ABBA conducted the second leg of their tour of Europe: a much more rewarding venture, taking in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, countries where they were already established beyond any connections with Eurovision. A few days prior to the start date Björn and Benny produced a recording for their Polar Music label-mates, the popular husband-and-wife duo Svenne & Lotta (both of whom had been members of The Hep Stars, Benny’s pre-ABBA band). Together with Stig Anderson – ABBA’s manager and sometime lyricist – Björn and Benny had created a truly catchy song for the duo to perform in the Swedish selection of the 1975 Eurovision Song Contest: ‘Bang-A-Boomerang’, a hitherto discarded tune from the current album sessions, now with re-written verses. But when the duo performed it in the selection the following month they only finished third, thus lessening their chances of making an impact outside Scandinavia. In something of a surprise move ABBA took the song back, overdubbed their own vocals on the existing backing track, and included it on their own album. “We felt that Svenne & Lotta had had their chance with the song,” explains Björn. “They were meant to win the Swedish selection and get out in the world, and when that didn’t happen we thought, ‘This song is really strong – we’ll record our own version’.”

The final recording sessions for the new album took place at ABBA’s favourite studio, Metronome; fortunately, Michael Tretow’s contract with GlenStudio stipulated that he was allowed to work at other studios if he so chose. On February 21, the group laid down backing tracks for two new songs: ‘Tropical Loveland’ and ‘I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do’. The reggae-flavoured ‘Tropical Loveland’, featuring Frida on lead vocals, is a song that Benny describes as “pretty fun. There’s not very much reggae in it, if you ask me, just some influences. You can tell that we’re feeling our way around on this album: a bit of reggae on one track, a bit of semi-funk on another, and a bit of rock’n’roll on yet another.”

‘I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do’ was yet another stylistic shift, this time into the classic schlager style. “I recall very clearly when we wrote that,” says Björn. “We were out on Viggsö [ABBA’s holiday island] but not in the cottage where we used to write, but in Benny and Frida’s house, in the middle of winter. I remember how we trudged through the snow.” The German word schlager simply means “hit song”, but has come to typify a certain type of very melody-centred, often unashamedly saccharine European popular music. A schlager from the golden age of the genre would feature virtually no influences from American jazz or rhythm & blues, but be firmly rooted in the musical traditions of continental Europe. “In the late Fifties and early Sixties there were these mega-schlagers that the whole of northern Europe would go around humming,” explains Björn, ”and you don’t really get that today. That type of song isn’t written anymore.” In the case of ‘I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do’, there was a direct influence from orchestra leader Billy Vaughn and the saxophone sound on his ‘Sail Along Silv’ry Moon’, a very popular schlager from the late Fifties. But as Benny points out, ‘I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do’ was never intended as a tongue-in-cheek novelty number: ABBA’s love for this type of music was heartfelt and unwavering. “It didn’t feel like we were doing a pastiche; it was only about doing what you feel like doing.”

The biggest hit from the album was also the last track recorded for it, in March 1975. ‘Mamma Mia’, written in the library at Björn and Agnetha’s home, was nothing less than pure pop of the highest calibre. And for Benny, the song was a truly significant milestone in his quest for giving his and Björn’s creations the best possible framework in the studio. “That was the first eureka moment, at least for me. If you listen to it, you will hear that there’s no-one on it who’s just strumming along; it’s extremely tightly arranged: everybody’s playing exactly what they’re supposed to be playing. And that felt really good. Especially when we figured out how to make something special out of the chorus. Instead of adding layers, we removed the bass, the drums, and so on, from the mix. When we did that we thought, ‘Now we’ve really done something – this is good!’” With Agnetha and Frida singing together in glorious harmony, and enough things going on throughout its three and a half minutes to keep you interested, ‘Mamma Mia’ had “hit” written all over it. Or as Michael Tretow once phrased it, “It’s the whole idea of ABBA put together in one track”. Funny, then, that ABBA hadn’t made it a priority for single release.

When the ABBA LP was released in April 1975, it was preceded by the second single from the album sessions, ‘I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do’. But notwithstanding the Top Ten success of this single in territories such as West Germany and The Netherlands, in Great Britain – the barometer of current pop trends – ABBA were largely viewed as Eurovision has-beens. “It’s too late, kids. Teach-In [that year’s Eurovision winners] are the champs now, and you’re not likely to do anything about it with this turgid mess,” wrote music weekly Melody Maker in their review of the single, before delivering the final blow: “It’s so bad it hurts. We can all do without it.” Although a promotions team at Epic Records (ABBA’s British record label) dressed up in wedding attire and drove around to radio stations, staging a fake wedding at each station as a publicity stunt, their efforts only just managed to push the single into the Top 40. Initially, prospects for the third single off the album, ‘SOS’, released in June, looked equally unpromising. Today, the song is widely regarded as one of ABBA’s very finest singles and a classic on its own terms, but at the time Melody Maker’s reviewer again saw it differently, writing that the single was “unlikely to help [ABBA’s] cause. It’s chirpy and inoffensive, but does nothing to induce the world to vacate their armchairs and actually unleash money on it.”

Meanwhile, however, on the other side of the planet, things were starting to stir. When director Lasse Hallström’s promo clips for four songs on the album – ‘Mamma Mia’, ‘SOS’, ‘Bang-A-Boomerang’ and ‘I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do’ – were shown on Australian television, ABBA quickly became a huge success “down under”. Since ‘I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do’ was the current single, this was the tune that first hit the top of the charts, but the song the Australians had really fallen for was ‘Mamma Mia’. The local record company, RCA, begged Polar to allow them to release it as a single, but at first their request fell on deaf ears. At that point in time, ABBA’s current single in the rest of the world was ‘SOS’, and Stig Anderson felt that this was the one Australia should go with as well. When he finally relented, the results couldn’t have been more rewarding. After ‘I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do’ had spent three weeks at number one, it was immediately followed by ‘Mamma Mia’, which occupied the top spot for an incredible 10 weeks, before giving way to ‘SOS’, which had hovered at number two for several weeks and now finally enjoyed one week at number one. Naturally, the ABBA LP was pulled along in the enthusiasm and spent 11 weeks at the top of the album charts.

With this overwhelming success, Stig was able to suggest to ABBA’s British record company, which had more or less given up on them, that if Australia were able to achieve that kind of success with the Swedish Eurovision casualties, perhaps a little faith was all that was required to make the same thing happen in Great Britain. With a new promotional push on behalf of Epic Records, and despite Melody Maker’s misgivings, ‘SOS’ reached number six on the singles chart, ABBA’s first British Top Ten hit in 18 months. ‘Mamma Mia’, which gained an international release in the wake of the Australian success, hit number one in the U.K. Since then, few countries have been as obsessed with ABBA as Great Britain, and the success of ‘SOS’ and ‘Mamma Mia’ established the group as credible hit-makers most everywhere else as well.

With ‘SOS’, where Agnetha conveyed the restrained primal scream of the lyrics with a vocal sadness that was hers alone, ABBA created perhaps their first true “heartbreak pop” classic, a genre in which they would excel throughout the rest of their career. The recording was also another example of the increased ambition on part of the group, the unwillingness to let go of a track until they knew they had done their very best. In this case, the characteristic synthesizer-and-guitar riffs heard throughout ‘SOS’, were a last-minute addition, late one night when they were about to mix the song. “It was incredibly inspiring to know that the whole of Europe would probably be interested in hearing what we would come up with,” remembers Benny. “We knew that if it was good enough, then it was only a matter of forging ahead.”

Today, it’s tempting to take ABBA’s string of hits and position as pop music legends for granted. But thinking back on their origins, and the resistance they encountered before ‘SOS’ and ‘Mamma Mia’ finally broke down the walls once and for all, puts their achievement in perspective. At one point in the Nineties, Björn was approached by The Who’s Pete Townshend, one of the most highly regarded song writers and performers to come out of the British pop scene of the Sixties. The writer of hits such as ‘My Generation’, ‘Substitute’ and ‘I Can See For Miles’, not to mention classic albums such as Tommy, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia, informed an astonished Björn that ‘SOS’ was quite simply the best pop song ever written. In a comment in Andrew Loog Oldham’s book 2Stoned, Townshend elaborated: “SOS is such a record. I’d die for one of those records. … [W]hen it comes on the radio every bone in my body shivers. I forget myself. It’s a spiritual experience.” Taking into consideration that Björn and Benny wrote their first song in a paper mill in a Swedish small town in 1966, at the height of The Who’s pop star fame, and at a point when it seemed unthinkable that a Swedish artist would enjoy much more than perhaps a one-off novelty hit in the lower regions of the British charts, it is still pretty remarkable that it ever happened: that Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Frida even dared dream of becoming an international hit act.

“If anybody had told me at that time, at the paper mill, that ‘in the future this man will come up to you and say that’ – I couldn’t even have imagined such a thing,” says Björn. “What are the odds against that? How often does it happen?” Benny recalls how their confidence grew: “At the paper mill I didn’t think along those lines, but after a few years, when we had written a few songs, I thought, ‘There’s no reason why this shouldn’t be successful. We can write songs that are just as good as those of The Hollies, The Searchers, or whoever else.’ We both felt that way. It was a matter of youthful self-confidence.” Still, at least for Björn, it’s hard to fathom the contrast between ABBA’s unpromising beginnings, far removed from the geographical hot-spots of modern pop music, and their present-day status as a classic act. “It’s this thing about how reality is stranger than fiction, which is really true. Afterwards, it’s hard to see what an insane bloody story the ABBA story is. It did happen, but write our story as a piece of fiction and no-one would find it realistic.” For people like Bruno Glenmark, who watched songs like ‘SOS’ come to life in the cramped confines of his basement studio, the development is no less astonishing. “I remember a couple of decades ago when we were in Bali on holiday; a gang of us went into this small village, when all of a sudden they started playing these songs that we’d heard ABBA create in our studio. That was a pretty fantastic feeling – and their achievement gets even more fantastic with time.”


NOTES ON THE CD BONUS TRACKS

‘Crazy World’ was recorded during sessions for the ABBA LP, but didn’t make the final track list. During sessions for the Arrival album, the track was pulled out again, but didn’t make it onto that album either. Instead, it was released as the B-side of the ‘Money, Money, Money’ single in November 1976. ‘Medley: Pick A Bale Of Cotton – On Top Of Old Smokey – Midnight Special’ was recorded in May 1975, just a few weeks after the release of the ABBA album. It was originally released on a West German charity album entitled Stars im Zeichen eines guten Sterns (“Artists In The Sign Of A Good Star”), the proceeds of which went to the battle against cancer. All the artists on the album were asked to record copyright-free folk songs, and the so-called Folk Medley marks the only time that ABBA recorded songs not written by any of the members. The medley was later used as the B-side of the 1978 single ‘Summer Night City’. The final bonus track is the Spanish version of ‘Mamma Mia’. New vocals were added to the original backing track in January 1980 and the song was subsequently released on ABBA’s Spanish-language album Gracias Por La Música a few months later.


NOTES ON THE DVD BONUS SELECTIONS

This DVD features a generous helping of ABBA album-era television appearances from the archives, all of which are previously unreleased.

ABBA IN AUSTRALIA

As part of ABBA’s phenomenal rise to fame in Australia, in March 1976 the group travelled to Sydney to tape a television special entitled The Best Of ABBA. In the special they performed 11 songs, 6 of which were taken from the ABBA album. When broadcast on March 20, the television special famously achieved higher viewer ratings than the 1969 moon landing. It also sent several older ABBA singles – and even a few B-sides – into the Top 40 alongside the group’s current singles. Included on this DVD is the export version of the special, broadcast under the title ABBA In Australia on Swedish television on June 5, 1976, featuring ABBA out and about in Sydney in between songs (the domestic version only featured the studio-recorded song performances).

MADE IN SWEDEN – FOR EXPORT

This television special was Sweden’s 1975 entry in the Montreux Television Festival, featuring a number of popular Swedish artists. Although the programme didn’t win any prizes, it was well-received at the festival. Filmed in May 1975, the programme was first broadcast in Sweden on October 10, 1975, and featured ABBA performing ‘Mamma Mia’, ‘I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do’ and ‘So Long’.

SOS

As part of Epic Records’ renewed efforts to promote ABBA, on August 16, 1975, the group appeared on British television for the first time in eight months. The popular Seaside Special programme featured the group performing ‘SOS’, no doubt boosting interest in the group and their music. Both ‘SOS’ and ‘Mamma Mia’ (see below) feature unique re-recorded backing tracks and appear here as originally broadcast.

MAMMA MIA

On January 14, 1976, ABBA taped a performance of their current single, ‘Mamma Mia’, on the BBC’s legendary chart show Top Of The Pops. The programme was broadcast on January 15.

THE BEST OF ABBA AND GREATEST HITS TELEVISION COMMERCIALS

Although the ABBA album was successful in a few countries, its sales figures could not match those of a string of compilation LPs – collecting tracks from the group’s first three albums – that were released in various territories in late 1975 and early 1976. For example, the Australian collection The Best Of ABBA is still one of that country’s best-selling albums; included here is a commercial advertising this album along with the rest of ABBA’s Australian album discography. The Polar-compiled Greatest Hits, meanwhile, topped the charts in a number of countries and was Great Britain’s best-selling album of 1976; the commercial included here was made for the British market.