Liner notes, part 2

Published April 07, 2010

On August 15, the backing track for the second major hit from the album was recorded. A looser, somewhat rockier version of ‘Take A Chance On Me’ had actually been committed to tape almost two weeks earlier (an excerpt can be heard in the ‘ABBA Undeleted’ medley included in the box sets Thank You For The Music and The Complete Studio Recordings), but on this day a more tightened-up track was committed to tape. For the lyric writing, Björn proved his theory that in pop music the sound of the words must always take precedence over any other considerations. He was out on a jogging round, thinking about the new song, and got a rhythmic phrase of “t-k-ch, t-k-ch” going over and over in his head. He quickly realised that hidden within the sounds of that phrase were the words “take a chance”. With “on me” added he had the title for the new song, and from that starting point the rest of the lyrics were formed. With its hammering galloping rhythms, ‘Take A Chance On Me’ was one of the very catchiest ABBA tunes, and also one of the last to remind us of ABBA’s roots in relentlessly straightforward europop. The twangy country-style guitars playing in the middle sections were a stronger indication of the American sounds that guided them at this point in time, resulting in a track that Björn recently said was “almost like a German march crossed with country music”.

With all the backing tracks finally nailed it seemed that ABBA would be able to finish the album in time for an autumn release. However, the hectic pace of the past few months had come at a price. “It’s like I’ve been constantly worried for the past six months,” Björn reflected in a rare mid-August interview. Agnetha added: “We work so hard in the studio. I think that’s the reason. Everything has just been piling up for us.” The optimistic predictions that the new album would be completed in October – as originally planned – received a severe setback when Agnetha, who had been putting in innumerable hours on the vocal overdubs for both the album and the film, almost suffered a miscarriage. Fortunately, the doctors managed to stabilise her. However, for four weeks in September her doctor advised her not to sing at all since this could induce the birth. It was absolutely vital she took it easy and remained sitting or lying down, limiting her physical activities to the absolute minimum.

But Agnetha didn’t follow the advice completely. With the deadline for the movie soundtrack rapidly approaching, she felt she had no choice but to be present in the studio, although for a period her contributions were limited to the morning hours. To facilitate her work, a deck chair was brought in so that she wouldn’t have to stand up while she was singing, but could lie back in repose. “Of course, this was a very trying period for me,” she later recalled. It certainly looked as if it would be impossible to have the new album out before the end of the year – there was also a problem with finding enough studio time – and in mid-September ABBA admitted defeat, announcing that February 1978 would be the release date. Unsurprisingly, somewhere along the way the plans for a second disc of live music had also been ditched.

However, ABBA fans would still be rewarded with some brand new music in the shape of a single. For a while it looked as if the choice would fall upon the rocky and very direct ‘Hole In Your Soul’, but ultimately the more challenging ‘The Name Of The Game’ was selected. For a week in September, ABBA (minus Agnetha) and their invaluable engineer Michael B. Tretow booked themselves into the convenient studio-cum-living-quarters Bohus Studio in the town of Kungälv. With its location on Sweden’s west coast, part of the studio’s attraction was to keep the group away from the distractions in Stockholm so that they could concentrate fully on their work. The week was mainly spent adding finishing touches to the movie soundtrack, but also mixing the new single. Reportedly, they all worked around the clock to get these important tasks finished.

On Monday, October 17, Polar Music released ‘The Name Of The Game’ in Sweden. The tune marked a significant step away from ABBA’s earlier, ultra-catchy songs, as Frida acknowledged the previous Friday, when the single received its world premiere on the radio programme Skivspegeln (“The Record Mirror”). “Perhaps its style is a little softer than what we’ve done previously,” she improvised by way of an explanation. “It’s a bit more unusual than our earlier material … There’s some form of development.”

One might imagine there was some trepidation about the reception of ‘The Name Of The Game’, with Benny calling it “a little more complex in its structure”. Compared with some of the singles released during the past few years, its success was indeed a little less overwhelming in certain parts of the world. In Australia, where ABBA had enjoyed six number one hits and where their presence earlier in the year was a matter of national concern, the single took three months to struggle to a number six position on the chart. But although ‘The Name Of The Game’ wasn’t a hit of the virtually unattainable proportions of ‘Dancing Queen’ or ‘Fernando’, it did top the UK charts for a highly impressive four weeks and peaked just a notch or two below the summit in many other countries. The new single proved that while ABBA were trying to explore new musical territory, they had also succeeded in remaining popular and accessible.

While ‘The Name Of The Game’ was climbing the charts the world over, Polar Music made an unexpected announcement. Agnetha had been able to attend more vocal recording sessions than planned, plus there hade been more available studio time than expected. This meant that the final mixing session – for ‘I’m A Marionette’ and ‘One Man, One Woman’ – could take place on November 10; still late, but earlier than anyone had dared hope for. With the aid of every available pressing plant Polar could possibly find they would have the album out in Sweden about a month later. An exhausted Michael Tretow admitted that work on the album had been “stressful, especially towards the end. The pressure to have the record ready by Christmas was enormous.” However, with the exception of Scandinavia and South Africa, the rest of the world needed more lead time, and therefore most countries would have to wait until the first few months of 1978 before the album reached record shops.

And what about the title of the new long-player? Well, what with the close relationship between the upcoming feature film and the LP, at one point there was an idea that they should both be titled Thank You For The Music. Ultimately, however, a more “crass” but no less synergetic solution was chosen: ABBA – The Album for the LP, ABBA – The Movie for the film, and ABBA – The Folio for the accompanying sheet music book, kicking off a long series of “ABBA – The Whatever” albums, books, exhibitions, and so on, that continues to this day

On December 12, 1977 – eight days after Agnetha gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Christian – ABBA – The Album was finally released in
Sweden . It was a new phase ABBA that appeared before the public on the LP; “pretty different from what we’ve done before”, as Frida put it at the time. One could even say that a blueprint for many of Björn and Benny’s future musical inclinations was established on ABBA – The Album. Not only were there the three mini-musical songs – the first steps towards 1984’s Tim Rice collaboration Chess, and the Swedish-language 1995 musical Kristina från Duvemåla – but also a more solemn, serious ABBA, exploring the popular music landscape through partly introspective adventures, lasting close to six minutes in some cases. Only ‘Take A Chance On Me’ and ‘Hole In Your Soul’ reminded the listener of the snappy, catchy three-minute ‘ Waterloo’-style hits of yore.

Hindsight doubts about the mini-musical notwithstanding, at the time the group were certainly proud of what they had achieved. “Artistically it feels as if the latest album is the summit of what we’re able to do right now,” Björn told a reporter. “You see, we’ve been dealing with this album for half a year. Now that it’s finally finished, you experience the real kick: to play it to everyone you meet, everyone that visits you at home. And you listen carefully to what they think. Most of them have praised it. They say that we’re not as easily accessible anymore, that you have to listen several times to ‘get into’ the music. We’re not making any simple hits now.”

Between the releases of Arrival and ABBA – The Album, punk music had emerged as a vital new force, giving an increasingly bloated and smugly self-indulgent music business a well-needed kick in the butt. But although ABBA’s earlier glam-pop had been highly appreciated by leading punk names such as Joey Ramone, Joe Strummer of The Clash and The Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock – the latter even finding inspiration for his ‘Pretty Vacant’ guitar riff in ‘SOS’ – ABBA themselves were fairly oblivious to the charms of punk music. “That was like a stone crusher zooming by outside the window, nothing more,” Benny admitted later. “I just couldn’t get into it. Not even the energy of it, because there was an enormous energy. I think I was too old even then.”

Of course, Benny had already been a part of what some purists define as the true “punk” era, when his mid-Sixties band The Hep Stars issued some raw and highly energetic garage rock singles. But, as ABBA – The Album made clear, the thirty-year-old Benny’s heart was closer to the smooth and polished American sounds typified by albums such as Hotel California by The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, which, lest we forget, were what was actually bought and listened to by the public at large back in 1977. “I thought they were wonderful,” he acknowledged recently. “Rumours would be one of my top ten best albums of all time; I know I played it hundreds of times after it came out.”

Taking full advantage of the possibilities of the recording studio, and pouring as much music and sounds as possible into the vinyl grooves – that was what ABBA were about. It was an approach enthusiastically supported by Michael Tretow, who never had much time for the spontaneous imperfections of the live performance. “We like the studio work so much and have so much fun that if we didn’t have a deadline, I guess there would never be a finished album,” he said shortly before the release of ABBA – The Album. “The studio is the right place for performing music. On a record you bring together the absolutely best from an enormous amount of performances.”

And with ABBA – The Album the group felt they were one step closer to perfecting that particular art. In a December 1977 interview, they were barely able to conceal their excitement at the new shades added to their musical palette. “We’ve been able to develop, both as human beings and as artists. Now we’ve reached a platform that gives us a huge artistic freedom. We can do almost what we want. It’s an incredible privilege. It’s like a painter who’s been given much better brushes and colours to work with.”