Liner notes, part 1

Published July 18, 2015

The First Step

The Making Of The Ring Ring Album

On March 26, 1973, a brand new album, recorded by a brand new group, reached Swedish record retailers. A week later it entered the combined singles and albums chart used in Sweden at the time at number 18, eventually reaching a peak position of number 2, achieving sales figures that very few album acts could muster in Sweden at the time. Yet, today the album has been overshadowed by the even greater success achieved by the group later in their career, to the point that many people are barely aware it exists.

This Deluxe Edition of ABBA’s debut album, Ring Ring – for this is the album referred to in the previous paragraph – seeks to redress this balance. Few would argue that the songs contained herein represent ABBA at their peak, but that doesn’t mean that Ring Ring deserves to be ignored: the strong tunes are, as always, present and correct, and for sheer energy and a feeling of joy at creating pop music together, the album cannot be faulted. Ring Ring is also a vital clue for those who want to understand how this group formed and then evolved into the hit machine that created classics such as ‘Dancing Queen’ just a couple of years later. The Deluxe Edition expands on that concept, offering, through its generous selection of bonus tracks, an overview of how Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Frida slowly but surely found their way into a group that would become one of the biggest pop bands of all-time, and showing how their careers ran on several parallel tracks during the first few years of the Seventies. Indeed, it was only when the Ring Ring album and its attendant singles had been released and become such big hits that the four friends decided to make their collaboration permanent.

When the first recording for the album was made, in March 1972, ABBA as a group didn’t exist. This was the situation: Björn Ulvaeus was still a member of folk group the Hootenanny Singers, who, despite the odd tour, mostly existed as a studio group. His “day job” was as a producer at the record company Polar Music, owned by future ABBA manager Stig Anderson, who had discovered Björn and the Hootenanny Singers almost a decade earlier. Benny Andersson had left pop band the Hep Stars in 1969, and since then intensified his working relationship with Björn: writing songs together; recording as the duo Björn Ulvaeus & Benny Andersson (sometimes billed simply as Björn & Benny); and, like Björn, working as a producer at Polar Music. Agnetha Fältskog had just started her fifth year as a recording artist for the Cupol label, with several hits to her credit. Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad, meanwhile, had found most of her success in cabaret, but had also been recording for EMI since 1967.

On the face of it, with all these various commitments and loyalties, it was hardly a given that these four artists should get together and form a group. But with Björn being romantically involved with Agnetha, and Benny and Frida being a couple, it was the natural step. Their first attempt at a collaboration was the cabaret show Festfolk (a punning title, having the double meaning “engaged couples” and “party people”), which opened in November 1970 – and which, it has to be said, was not a success. Somewhat putting a damper on any further plans at working together as a group, they all went back to their separate careers, although they still collaborated regularly through producing, singing backing vocals and writing songs for the records they each released.

At this time, the Björn and Benny duo was mainly achieving success with Swedish schlager (European light-pop), but what they really dreamed about was making it with English-language pop music for an international market. Inspired by the British/American group Blue Mink, who traded male and female lead vocals during the verses and came together on the chorus on many of their hits, they decided to try this same concept together with Agnetha and Frida. Armed with a song entitled ’People Need Love’, a sing-a-long-friendly tune of the kind very much in vogue at the time, on Wednesday, March 29, 1972, Björn, Benny, Agnetha and Frida entered the Metronome Studio in Stockholm. After a long day’s hard work, the very first ABBA song had been born. They all sensed that they had something with true hit potential on their hands, perhaps Björn and Benny especially. Despite whatever success the duo had previously experienced, Benny would later remember thinking that ‘People Need Love’ was their “first really good record”.

The single was released in May 1972, credited to Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid, a somewhat unwieldy name that mirrored the loose nature of the collaboration – in effect, Agnetha & Anni-Frid were just making a guest appearance on the latest Björn & Benny single. But after a slow start, a couple of months later it had become a sizeable hit – towards the end of the year it was even visible just outside the Top 100 in certain U.S. charts – and Björn, Benny and Stig Anderson decided that the quartet should record an entire album. However, it was just one of many projects on their hands: Björn and Benny had their hands full as Polar Music house producers, while Agnetha and Frida’s solo careers were still ongoing. But finally, on September 26, sessions were begun for the very first ABBA album. It was not an especially monumental start: an unused backing track was recorded, plus some overdubs were done on ‘Rock’n Roll Band’, originally conceived as the B-side of a Japan-only Björn & Benny single. When the song finally appeared on the ABBA album, it featured Agnetha and Frida’s vocals as well.

Three weeks later, on October 17, they were back in the studio, recording backing tracks for ‘Nina, Pretty Ballerina’ (ultimately unused; the final version was nailed two weeks later) and ‘He Is Your Brother’, which became the second Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid single. It repeated the formula of ‘People Need Love’ – the same hammering beat; boys and girls trading vocals; and a message of love and understanding for your fellow man – and upon release in November it hit number one on the popular vote-based radio chart Tio i topp (“The Top Ten”).

The tracks recorded for the album so far had been solid and well-made, but without many signs of experimentation or studio trickery. There were one or two exceptions: ‘People Need Love’ opened with a backwards piano chord, and in ‘Nina, Pretty Ballerina’ there’s a piano part in sixteenth notes so quick that it’s humanly impossible to play, an effect achieved by recording the piano at a slower tempo and speeding it up on replay. But the next recording to be made for the album would be the first true milestone in ABBA’s recording history. In November 1972, it was announced that the song writing team of Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Stig Anderson had been invited to submit an entry to the Swedish selection for the 1973 Eurovision Song Contest. Although most contemporary British pop stars would have scoffed at such an invitation, Eurovision being largely a forum for perky ditties and melodramatic ballads – certainly not happening pop or counter-culture rock – the three Swedes saw it as an invaluable opportunity to reach out across Swedish borders. In the early Seventies the international music business would largely ignore anything that didn’t originate in Great Britain, the United States or perhaps Australia. And the thought that an act from Sweden would be able to break through the barrier was laughable. A country of dumb blondes with sing-song accents – how could they possibly have anything to offer the global music industry?

Stig Anderson, never one to take no for an answer, concluded that the only way to reach out was to bypass the usual channels. If, for instance, the British music press didn’t want to write about them, and non-Scandinavian radio stations refused to play their records, the exposure in a television programme watched by several hundred million people would give them direct access to the audience. If the song and the performance were only strong enough, Stig reasoned, it wouldn’t even matter if they won the actual contest: the viewers would vote with their feet and go and buy the record.

In early January 1973, Björn, Benny and Stig found themselves on the island of Viggsö in the Stockholm archipelago. This island, where Stig had owned a summer house for a few years, would become important for ABBA not only as a holiday retreat, but as a place for Björn and Benny to withdraw when they needed peace and quiet to write songs. Björn and Agnetha had recently bought their chalet on the island, while Benny and Frida would follow suit a year later. Björn and Agnetha’s property included a small cottage with just enough room for a piano and two chairs, and in these cramped confines Björn and Benny would write many of ABBA’s best-known hits. “Viggsö. B+B+me. Write for Eurovision,” Stig noted laconically in his diary for the weekend of January 6 and 7. Of course, Björn and Benny worked out the melody by themselves; it was only with a finished tune that they involved Stig in the process so that he could write the lyrics and, above all, come up with a catchy title that would work in all languages. Armed with a tape recording of Björn and Benny playing and humming themselves through the song, Stig “started writing lyrics for Eurovision song Ring-Ring,” as he noted in his diary. “B+B took the boat home in the evening.”

Behind these brief diary entries lay the start of something big. Stig liked what Björn and Benny had come up with and felt that the song would be exactly right for the contest – not necessarily for winning it, but for making everyone sit up and take notice. ”We wanted to do something poppy, something that reflected the popular music tastes of today,” he recalled. ”We wanted to get rid of all the pomp and circumstances surrounding the Eurovision Song Contest: the dinner-jackets and the evening dresses.”

Liner notes, part 2