Liner notes, part 1

Published April 07, 2010


A Form Of Development


As career trajectories for top-level pop groups go, certain aspects of the ABBA story could almost serve as a textbook example. “The first tentative steps”, “the breakthrough”, “the temporary setback” and then “the whirlwind conquering of a global audience” had all been checked off the list between the first single, ‘People Need Love’, in 1972 and their fourth album, Arrival, in 1976. Next up, ABBA inevitably had to face the conundrum of “maintaining our identity as a group, while at the same time moving forward with our music”. No longer could they be sustained by the amazement that a group from Sweden could be something more than a one- or two-hit wonder in a world dominated by American and British music. After artistic and commercial triumphs such as ‘SOS’, ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, they were regarded as a force to be reckoned with, just like any other international hit act on the scene. But with the accolades and the success came higher expectations. “We feel that we have to come up with something different,” said Björn Ulvaeus shortly before the recording of their fifth album started. “So many people have been talking about, ‘the forthcoming album must be sort of equivalent to [The Beatles’] Sgt. Pepper album’, and it puts a lot of pressure on us, sure.”

These musical ambitions meant that ABBA didn’t have the time to sell themselves as hard as previous years, and, with the success they had achieved, nor did they really need to. After the constant series of song writing, recording sessions – for themselves as well as others – incessant interviews and travels hither and thither to promote their latest records, it was clear by the time Arrival was released in October 1976 that the following year would have to be different. In fact, whereas ABBA’s journey to the top had, by necessity, sometimes been marked by a “take-it-as-it-comes” approach, the activities for the whole of 1977 were mapped out before the year had even started. From January to mid-March they would tour Europe and Australia, at which point the bulk of an “in concert” movie would be filmed as well. After a few weeks’ relaxation, the rest of the year would be devoted to writing and recording their next album. Notably, there were no promotional activities in the calendar – no quick trips to appear on television, no interviews. Nothing except concentration on their own work.

So, what did the upcoming year have in store for ABBA in musical terms? The answer, eventually provided by their fifth album, was that they would stretch and expand their music in several different directions. This was evident even by the first few songs written for the album, composed while the Arrival album was still hot off the presses. At the time, ABBA were planning their spectacular tour of Europe and Australia – to take place between January 28 and March 12 – and wanted to offer some brand new tunes amid the string of hits, perhaps even venture outside the borders of pop music. This tied perfectly together with a dream long-harboured by ABBA’s song writing team of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus: to one day write a musical. And so in late 1976 the pair dreamed up the “mini-musical” The Girl With The Golden Hair for the tour.

The mini-musical was based on a simple plot about a girl with a talent for singing, who leaves her home town, becomes a star and then finds herself trapped by fame. As if to hint that the plot held a grain of truth for some of the group, in the musical Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad both played the girl, dressing up in identical wigs and costumes to emphasise that they were one and the same character. The 25-minute extravaganza, which closed the show before the encores, was narrated by British actor Francis Matthews. Four songs were included in the musical: ‘Thank You For The Music’, ‘I Wonder (Departure)’, ‘I’m A Marionette’ and ‘Get On The Carousel’. The latter two, detailing the famous person’s inevitable feeling of losing control of his or her situation, were used to great effect in director Lasse Hallström’s ABBA – The Movie, which depicted the very real madness, mayhem and excitement of the Australian leg of the tour.

Today, however, Benny questions the wisdom of unleashing an extended piece of musical drama on a pop concert audience. “I suspect the whole thing was probably quite weird for the audiences: they just wanted to see ABBA,” he states in the 2006 book Mamma Mia! How Can I Resist You?, adding that “it was not a good choice for a tour.” Such doubts aside, Andersson and Ulvaeus are still particularly fond of the highly melodic ‘Thank You For The Music’, which has emerged as one of ABBA’s most recognisable songs.

With the mammoth undertaking of the tour over and done with, Benny and Björn started tentative song writing sessions in April 1977, although it appears not much was completed then. After a trip to Los Angeles in May, the two composers arrived home with fresh inspiration from the American soft-rock scene of the times and completed two songs in a very short time. By May 31, they were ready to enter the studio to start recording sessions for the new album. The bulk of the upcoming album would be recorded in Marcus Music Studio in Solna outside Stockholm, one reason being that this studio could be block-booked for the long periods of time needed to create and fine-tune ABBA’s musical confections.

On this initial day of recording, the first of the “US-inspired” songs was provisionally titled ‘A Bit Of Myself’. As so many times before, it was ABBA manager Stig Anderson who came to the rescue with a catchy title: ‘The Name Of The Game’. A slow bass-and-synthesizer riff, combined with a delightfully lazy drum pattern, formed the compelling rhythm track of the recording, upon which layers of guitars, keyboards and heavenly vocal harmonies were stacked. The many different melody parts of the songs were somehow magically tied together and made to interact with one another, helped along in no small way by Agnetha and Frida’s lead vocals, where they would trade parts one minute and blend into each other’s vocal spectra the next.

Although at the time it was said that ‘The Name Of The Game’ was directly inspired by the Californian music scene, today Björn feels differently. “I think the sound of ‘The Name Of The Game’ came much more out of the East coast than the West,” he says in the Mamma Mia! book. “I don’t know if I’m right, but in my mind I think of Boston (the group, not the place) and their big hit ‘More Than A Feeling’. It’s much more of a guitar song than most ABBA songs: it’s full of guitars, twelve-string guitars, all kinds of guitars.” And when the East Coast-based The Fugees sampled ‘The Name Of The Game’ for their 1997 track ‘Rumble In The Jungle’, the implication seemed to be that there was indeed something urban, asphalt-bound in its stride.

Guitars were also well to the fore in the next song to be recorded. Originally working-titled ‘High, High’, this majestic, soaring song was eventually titled ‘Eagle’. Perhaps the closest ABBA would ever come to a guitar duel – with Janne Schaffer’s swirling improvisations contrasting against Lasse Wellander’s pre-written melody – the song was a further step away from the ultra-catchy pop of ‘Waterloo’ and ‘Mamma Mia’. ‘Eagle’ was perhaps also ABBA’s first overtly ambitious song in terms of lyrics. Whereas earlier creations had mainly been efficient “love stories” or whimsical narratives – such as the Waterloo album’s ‘King Kong Song’ – with ‘Eagle’ Björn found inspiration in Richard Bach’s mega-successful 1970 novel Jonathan Livingston Seagull and its “sense of freedom and euphoria”, as he later recalled.

This new exploration of what wordsmithery may entail mirrored the group’s aspirations to expand musically. Björn had taken to heart the criticism levelled at ABBA that their lyrics were often inconsequential, even if he felt that the words were primarily meant to be functional as part of a pop song. “It’s important that the words go well with the music. They must have the same sort of rhythm,” he determined in an interview shortly before recording for the album started. ”But I guess the content has suffered because of that. This is something we’re going to get into, which is an interesting new step. Now we want to say something with the words as well.”

With the ‘Eagle’ backing track completed on June 1, the following day saw the first studio recording of one of the mini-musical songs. However, although much work went into this first, ragtime-flavoured version of ‘Thank You For The Music’ – where Agnetha found vocal inspiration from American Fifties superstar Doris Day – it would ultimately be shelved in favour of a re-recording the following month.

With three tracks in the can, ABBA took a temporary break from recording work to film additional scenes for ABBA – The Movie. Actor Robert Hughes, who portrayed the interview-hunting radio disc jockey Ashley Wallace in the film, had come to Stockholm to interact with ABBA in a couple of sequences. Two new songs were needed for those scenes, and out of the three available tracks, only ‘The Name Of The Game’ and ‘Eagle’ were suitable. ‘The Name Of The Game’ was used for a sequence where Ashley dreams that he’s spending quality time with ABBA, one of Lasse Hallström’s ideas being that Ashley would be a psychiatrist, visited by Agnetha. Therefore, upon Lasse’s request the lyrics were somewhat tailored to work for that scene – ergo lines such as “I’ve seen you twice in a short time” and “I was an impossible case” – although they were phrased loosely enough to allow for other interpretations. ‘Eagle’, meanwhile, was featured in the elevator scene towards the end of the film, when Ashley finally gets his interview. For the third available track, ‘Thank You For The Music’, ABBA alone were filmed in the recording studio.

With the final scenes for the film completed, it would seem ABBA were in a fairly good place for their new album. However, in reality they only had a few months to finish the album if they were to synchronise its release with the premiere of the movie in December. There were also vague plans to put together a double-album, where the second disc was a live recording of songs from Australia, which would necessitate further work. And in June, the news broke that Agnetha was pregnant for the second time; she was already four months into her pregnancy, so there was a real risk that this would affect the recording schedule.

By early July, Benny and Björn were finally writing songs again. During the summers, the ABBA members were based on their holiday island of Viggsö in the Stockholm archipelago. As usual, the male half of the group found themselves spending a lot of time in their famous song writing cottage on the island. “We haven’t got over the threshold yet, but we have a few good ideas,” Björn told a reporter. “It’s always like this. Every summer we sit out here, labouring over songs when we should be having a holiday. But we keep postponing the song writing all the time, and this is our punishment.”

It wasn’t until July 18 that recording commenced for a new album track. But it confirmed that ABBA were on a roll, again adding new layers and subtle, hitherto untried interjections to their musical universe. The soft-rock ballad ‘One Man, One Woman’ stands out as one of ABBA’s most affecting album tracks, and thus far, the most impressive result of Björn’s ambitions to develop his lyric writing. Here he proved himself the master of depicting the everyday person’s struggle to keep a relationship together, summing up the conflict that coloured all of ABBA’s relationship-gone-wrong songs: “Can we make it work? Yes? No? Realistic conclusion: perhaps – if we try really hard.” ‘One Man, One Woman’ was an embellishment on the stark bleakness of the previous album’s ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, creating an almost painfully evocative of a couple struggling to have a life together. Benny has said that, along with ‘Thank You For The Music’, ‘One Man, One Woman’ is his favourite song from this album.

A few days later, a period of recording songs from The Girl With The Golden Hair was instigated, kicking off with the re-make of ‘Thank You For The Music’ on July 21. Ultimately, however, only three of the four songs from the mini-musical were recorded in the studio. The closing tune, ‘Get On The Carousel’, was very much a stage number, with a somewhat repetitive structure, and therefore not considered a suitable song for inclusion on the album. Nevertheless, a part of the melody was “rescued” and used to make up the bridge for an entirely new song. Recorded on August 3, this tune was provisionally titled ‘High On Your Love’, before it was turned into a tribute to the healing powers of rock’n’roll, entitled ‘Hole In Your Soul’. Incidentally, the “Jerry” referred to in the lyrics – “Jerry works at the office” – was apparently an in-joke reference to Jerry Greenberg, then-President of Atlantic Records, ABBA’s American record label.

The following day saw the backing track recording of a song with the working title ‘Yippee Yay’, which, over a period of more than two months, would go through a large number of different lyric ideas. After ‘Yippee Yay’ came ‘Big John’, where the idea was to emulate the dramatic low-register singing of Jimmy Dean’s 1961 hit ‘Big Bad John’. After that idea had been ditched the song turned into ‘Joanne’, followed by ‘Love For Me Is Love Forever’. For this latter idea, a complete set of lyrics were written, but it was still not exactly right. However, some of the lines were retained for the final version, a spiritual reflection on the meaning of life entitled ‘Move On’. The actual title was thought up by Stig Anderson, his very last contribution to a commercially released ABBA song. Some of the mood of that early ‘Big Bad John’ idea also survived in the shape of Björn’s deep-voiced spoken introduction to the song.