Liner notes, part 1

Published April 06, 2010

Superior pop

’Dancing Queen’, ‘Fernando’, ’Knowing Me, Knowing You’ and ’Money, Money, Money’ – these four tracks all belong at the top of the list of ABBA’s most popular and recognisable songs and would be essential features on any serious hits collection. It is certainly no coincidence that all four tracks were either included on the group’s Arrival album or recorded within the time-frame of its conception. For this was the album that caught ABBA at a truly magical time in their career, the point when everything around them was still fresh, new and exciting, and their audience was in the process of falling in love with them. And yet, when work began on this landmark album there was a slight feeling of touch-and-go surrounding ABBA’s possibilities of establishing a position as a pop music force to be reckoned with.

By the summer of 1975, ABBA had three albums and a slew of singles to their credit, leaving a mark on the international music scene that was completely unique for a Swedish act. Their most important companion in their endeavours to succeed outside Sweden was their dedicated manager, sometime lyricist and owner of the Polar Music record label, Stig Anderson. But despite this success, the group’s future as global hit-makers looked uncertain. The Nordic and Benelux countries and most of Central Europe were theirs, but in important pop markets such as Great Britain – where the group were really anxious to succeed – all the singles after the Eurovision-winning number one hit ‘Waterloo’ had failed to set the charts alight, and their albums were equally ignored. ABBA could do little else than soldier on, and by late July 1975 Björn and Benny were writing songs again. At this point, they were hoping that their fourth album would be ready for release the following spring.

As ABBA began recording sessions on August 4, 1975, they came to the studio armed with three new songs. At this point, only two of those songs were actually earmarked for the group. The first one, adorned with the working title ‘Boogaloo’, would eventually turn into perhaps the biggest and most famous ABBA hit of them all: ‘Dancing Queen’. As both titles suggest, the Andersson/Ulvaeus team were looking to create something that had a flavour of the emerging American dance music phenomenon known as disco. As inspiration for the rhythm track, they took a listen to George McCrae’s infectious 1974 US number one hit, ‘Rock Your Baby’; the elastic drumming on Dr. John’s 1972 album Gumbo provided a further influence. Add to this ABBA’s own Scandinavian musical genius and a worldwide number one smash and widely acknowledged pop classic was born.

When Benny brought a tape home after a late-night mixing session, containing just the unadorned backing track of ‘Dancing Queen’, Frida’s reaction must have given him a strong hint that they had something special on their hands. “I thought it was so enormously beautiful that I started to cry,” she later recalled. Björn was equally excited by what they had created at this stage, but because of the late hour Agnetha was asleep and he ended up at his sister’s house. “I played it to her over and over again. We couldn’t believe how good it sounded.” In her waking state, Agnetha certainly wasn’t unmoved by the power of the completed recording. “We knew immediately it was going to be massive,” she remembered.

The second song begun during these sessions was a rocker provisionally entitled ‘I Want You’, but it was abandoned almost immediately. The third track was not intended for ABBA at this point, but for Frida’s Swedish-language, Benny-produced solo album Frida ensam (“Frida Alone”). The album largely consisted of cover versions, but it was felt that the team of Andersson/Anderson/Ulvaeus should come up with at least one song for her. The result was a tune entitled ‘Fernando’. However, the backing track recorded in early August would be replaced by a remake a month later.

Work on ‘Dancing Queen’ would go on for a long period of time – in fact, there would be four months between the first backing tracking session and the last known recording date in December. During those months, ABBA worked on no other songs for the new album. The reason for this was certainly neither laziness nor procrastination, but simply a packed schedule of recording dates – solo projects as well as production work for other Polar recording artists – combined with a sudden upsurge in promotional activities for the group.

The last few months of 1975 saw an incredible series of events in Australia, wherein three ABBA singles occupied the number one spot on the chart for an amazing 14 weeks in a row. Apparently, it was this extraordinary success that made the hitherto ABBA-sceptic UK sit up and take notice. Strategic television appearances were secured and soon enough the group were successful in Great Britain again. Add to this a two-week visit to the United States and journeys to other ABBA-hungry countries across Europe, and there was really only time for the occasional fine-tuning of ‘Dancing Queen’. Well before the end of the year the group realised that the autumn of 1976 was a more realistic release date for the new album.

The first months of the new year didn’t provide many more opportunities for further song writing or recording. Certainly, the most spectacular event during this period was the March 1976 visit to Australia: ABBA were subject to a hysterical reception on a level that they had never experienced anywhere before, with a television special entitled The Best Of ABBA breaking all previous audience records. Somewhere in the midst of all this international attention, it was also suggested that Frida’s ‘Fernando’ may have hit potential beyond Swedish borders. An English-language ABBA version – wherein Björn re-imagined the Swedish “love story” lyrics for the wistful reflections of two Mexican revolutionaries – was recorded and then released as a single in March 1976. The expectations of success proved to be spot-on: ‘Fernando’ promptly became ABBA’s biggest hit yet.

It wasn’t until the end of March that ABBA could finally close the doors on the world and concentrate on creating music, rather than respond to the attention their earlier creations had caused. On March 23, Björn and Benny were back in the studio, kicking off sessions for the new album. They could hardly have asked for a more promising start, as the first song recorded has come to be recognised as one of their ultimate masterworks: ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’. This song, often held up as one of ABBA’s classic “divorce songs”, was actually written and recorded long before either of the couples had split up. Which doesn’t detract from the fact that this was perhaps ABBA’s very first “adult” song, where the heartbreak depicted in the lyrics was clearly the result of a broken down marriage. Topped with a typically empathic lead vocal from Frida, and resting on one of those superlative Andersson/Ulvaeus productions, it’s easy to agree with Benny’s retrospective assessment of ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ as “one of our five best recordings”.

Before the end of April, ABBA had completed the backing tracks for two further songs: ‘That’s Me’ and the first version of the song that ultimately became ‘Why Did It Have To Be Me’. Those who persist in the wide-spread but incorrect assumption that ABBA’s albums were Motown-style collections of a handful of hits and then a lot of “filler” (uninspired songs or cover versions dashed off in a few hours simply to put an album together quickly, for which the Detroit-based record company was notorious in the Sixties) should take special note of the story behind the latter title. The song actually started out as a demo entitled ‘Why Did It Have To Be Me’, much along the lines of the completed recording. However, when the first backing track was recorded on April 26, there was an idea of turning the tune into some kind of “Hawaiian” number. Such an interpretation was indeed recorded, complete with steel guitar and the sound of crashing waves. Entitled ‘Happy Hawaii’, it featured Agnetha and Frida on lead throughout the entire song.

However, the group soon got cold feet about this recording, feeling that it failed to realise the potential of the tune. A more country-styled backing track was then attempted, but it too was discarded. Finally, towards the very end of the album sessions, in late August, they returned to the Fats Domino-style rock’n’roll feel of the original demo, rewrote parts of the tune, recorded a new backing track, turned the song into a dialogue between Björn and ABBA’s female half, and ended up with the version of ‘Why Did It You Have To Be Me’ that can be heard on the Arrival album. So whatever one’s opinion of the aesthetics of ABBA’s album tracks, there certainly wasn’t any “filler” philosophy behind the often long and painstaking work to get each and every recording exactly right.

The month of May saw the completion of one of the album’s absolute highlights. ‘Money, Money, Money’ was another example of how Björn and Benny tried to move away from the original demo concept – lyricist Björn “felt that there were enough ‘money’ songs around” and penned a lyric entitled ‘Gypsy Girl’ – but eventually found that their original instincts had been accurate. The dramatic, aspirational lyrics about not having but wanting, and the song’s equally dramatic, cabaret-like structure, made it a self-evident showcase for Frida, who no doubt invested her interpretation with emotions derived from her own “pauper to pop star” life’s story.

At this stage, with four songs completed for the album, preparatory work was begun for a project that was to run parallel with recording sessions for Arrival. Television producer Leonard Eek had wanted to make a programme about ABBA for a long time. Although one would have thought it self-evident that Sweden’s only television company at the time, Sveriges Radio (”Swedish Radio”, the Swedish equivalent of Great Britain’s BBC, operating both radio and television broadcasting), would want to make a programme about Sweden’s most popular recording artists, this was not so. Swedes in general loved ABBA, but many highbrow critics and influential left-wing cultural commentators were united in their disdain for what was perceived as the group’s crassly commercial, shallow pop. ABBA were labelled as “aloof” and “unreal”, as their attention to detail in their recorded work and their showbizzy predilection for dressing up in glittery, colourful costumes was in such stark opposition to the “everybody can play” philosophy that guided the jeans-and-work-shirts players within the so-called Music Movement. It didn’t help that the highly temperamental Stig Anderson was constantly engaged in a war of words with ABBA’s detractors. In the cultural climate of the times, this suspicious or outright hostile view of the group was prevalent most everywhere that such matters were considered – not least at Sveriges Radio.

Leonard Eek – by this time an employee at the company for 16 years, out of which a decade had been spent as a producer – did not agree with this attitude. He was a big ABBA fan and had enjoyed a good relationship with the group since his production of the well-received 1975 television special Made In Sweden – For Export, featuring the group and other popular Swedish artists. Now he felt that the time was right to make a one-hour programme devoted exclusively to ABBA, but he was up against formidable opposition. “Things being how they were in those days,” Eek recalls, “you couldn’t just submit a suggestion for a programme to your boss, but it had to be reviewed by an editorial committee. And the attitude was, ‘Why should we spend money on a group that already earns so much money?’ ‘But they are the best musical group Sweden has to offer at the moment.’ ‘Oh no, the best, that’s something else entirely!’”

Eventually, good sense prevailed and the project was given the seal of approval. Leonard Eek assembled a core production team consisting of himself, production assistant Kerstin Grünberger, and reporter Per Falkman. “Leonard called me up one day and said, “Listen, would you like to be a part of a really fun project?’” recalls Per Falkman, also a huge ABBA fan. “’You bet!’ – I couldn’t believe that he’d chosen me, I thought it was just fabulous.” Falkman began his career as a radio reporter in 1968, eventually progressing to television; at this point in time he was mainly known as one of the hosts of a popular early evening magazine.

The production team envisioned an ABBA special with a difference: a programme that was a little more in-depth, portraying the group and its individual members, and which, given the times, reflected some of the controversy surrounding them. “We wanted to show the best Sweden had to offer in popular music as a prime-time Friday night entertainment, but we also wanted to show that the members were in fact ordinary people; ‘they have no ulterior motives, but are hard-working professionals’. We wanted to give a broadened picture of the human beings behind the fame and ‘the stardom’.”

As part of these endeavours, Eek also hoped that he would be able to persuade ABBA to perform a couple of songs live in the television studio. Notwithstanding a few random appearances, such as the Swedish heats for the Eurovision Song Contest, ABBA had never truly played live on television, certainly not on their own terms. “Performing to playback in those days was viewed with disdain in Sweden, it was unheard of,” recalls Leonard Eek. “It was, ‘Are you crazy? We have an orchestra here!’ The artists would say, ‘Yes, but when we’re working in the recording studio, we’re able to listen and adjust, we can place everything exactly the way we want it’. The understanding for this approach was not the same as it is today.” For ABBA, it was far from self-evident that they would do a live performance in the programme. “They wanted to be certain that the outcome would be on the level where they wanted to be, and where they felt they had a right to demand to be. And rightly so; we all wanted the same thing.”

Filming for the television special – eventually entitled ABBA-dabba-dooo!! – began in June 1976. Meanwhile, the group continued working on the upcoming album, completing the opening track, ‘When I Kissed The Teacher’. It was perhaps the album’s most obvious nod to the innocent American girl group teen pop of the early Sixties, albeit filtered through ABBA’s Scandinavian sense of melody and Seventies hi-fi recording gloss. July 19 and 20 saw the backing track recording of the big-city-paranoia rocker ‘Tiger’, complete with heavy drumming as well as frenzied vocals from Agnetha and Frida, but also its complete antithesis on the album, the very light-poppy ‘Dum Dum Diddle’. When the song was written it had a heavier feel to it, but somewhere along the way the tune took flight into a more bright and sunny musical setting. The song’s lyricist, Björn, has expressed strong dissatisfaction with the final outcome, remembering how the words were written in a fit of desperation at five in the morning. Although Frida has also dismissed the song as “silly”, ABBA fans must protest: the title may very well signal something frivolous and inconsequential, but the song and the recording are just as catchy, well-produced and vocally superior as anything else on the album.