Liner notes, part 1

Published April 28, 2012


Expanding the boundaries

The making of Super Trouper

On an October night in 1980, while autumn leaves were whirling around the dark streets of Stockholm, Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad found themselves in a film studio, posing underneath a large spotlight. The four ABBA members, all dressed in white, were surrounded not only by an array of circus performers and animals, but also by a further 70 friends and acquaintances dressed up in colourful costumes. With festive circus music playing in the loudspeakers and a number of photographers pointing their lenses in the group’s direction, it was the slightly surreal and somewhat unexpected culmination of a nine-month-long period during which the group had created their latest long-player: Super Trouper. The reason for this once-in-a-lifetime get-together was, of course, the creation of the sleeve for the album – the most elaborate and spectacular ever put together by ABBA and their designer, Rune Söderqvist. However, the conception of the music wrapped inside the sleeve began at a location that couldn’t have been farther removed from a chilly autumn night in Stockholm.

By January 1980, Benny and Björn had been spent several weeks at the piano and the guitar, working hard at coming up with songs for their seventh album, but without really getting anywhere. Clearly, they realised, something was needed to get the sparks of creativity flying again, something in the vein of the previous year’s song writing trip to the Bahamas, which had yielded beneficial results for the Voulez-Vous album. “We had places in Stockholm where we could write”, explains Benny today. “We had a room at the offices of our record company, Polar Music, which was sort of okay but not really. Or we could go to our song writing cabin on Viggsö [in the Stockholm archipelago]. So we thought, ‘Let’s go to the Bahamas and see if anything happens’.” Something did indeed happen, and Björn and Benny arrived back in Sweden with a handful of tunes for Voulez-Vous. However, a year later, when they found themselves in the same creative predicament, their travel plans did not include the Bahamas – partly because the house they had stayed in wasn’t particularly nice. Benny remembered a house that was much nicer.

 “Frida and I were on our way to Barbados on holiday in the summer of 1978 and on Heathrow Airport we met up with Paul and Linda McCartney. They said, ‘We’re also going to Barbados, come on over to our house’. So we went there a couple of times and had a few drinks.” When two giants of modern popular music get together one of course has to wonder if any music was made – are there, perhaps, any unheard Andersson/McCartney compositions floating around out there? Alas, no: the visits were purely social and there wasn’t as much as a jam session. But 18 months later Benny still remembered the house and decided to go there with his regular song writing partner. “The house was really nice. It was like a hotel where you were the only guest. There was staff who cooked and cleaned for you. I thought, ‘We should go there to break the stalemate and concentrate on writing songs for a week or so, in a nice environment’.”

On this Barbados visit it was Benny and Björn who played hosts to a fellow celebrity, when Monty Python and Fawlty Towers star John Cleese and his daughter came over to have dinner. On the plane from Sweden, Benny and Björn had discussed a loose idea for a musical, or at least a concept album, set on a New Year’s Eve; they felt it could possibly be a good framework: a group of people looking back, but also towards the future. Now, on the spur of the moment, they asked Cleese if he would be interested in writing the so-called book for such a musical. Alas, he wasn’t. But the idea itself remained and turned into the ballad ‘Happy New Year’, one of two tunes written during the Barbados visit; Benny thinks that the other may have been ‘On And On And On’. However, after around ten days of sunshine and good food Björn and Benny were feeling homesick, despite the cold winter that awaited them in Stockholm.

Although only a few songs came out of the Barbados visit itself, the trip may have had a favourable influence on the song writing couple’s creative juices, for when Björn and Benny started laying down backing tracks for the new album at Polar Music Studio on February 4, 1980, they came armed with no less than five songs. The first to be recorded was ‘Andante, Andante’, featuring a lead vocal by Frida, the latest instalment in the series of ABBA songs that paid tribute to the romantic European schlager music of the Fifties and Sixties. Next up were two numbers where Frida and Agnetha shared lead vocals: the synthesizer-driven ‘Elaine’ – ultimately destined to become a single B-side only – and then the medieval-flavoured ‘The Piper’, where Björn’s lyrics were influenced by Stephen King’s novel The Stand and the fear that a charismatic dictator in the mould of Adolf Hitler would once more come and “seduce everybody in the land”.

Also recorded during this initial batch of sessions was ‘Happy New Year’, Agnetha’s first lead vocal on the album. Björn’s lyrics dealt with the danger of having negative expectations on the future, his message being that it was absolutely necessary to project a positive vision instead. In the early Eighties, the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation were on many people’s minds, and it did indeed seem uncertain “what lies waiting down the line / in the end of Eighty-nine”, as the lyrics phrased it. What was waiting at the end of 1989 was in fact the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. However, as this is written, in 2011, there are new threats challenging the frail stability of planet Earth.

“We had a few years that felt like some kind of breathing space,” Björn reflects, “but now there are all kinds of conflicts again, climate issues and so on, and antagonism between other parts of the world.” But if he were to write the lyrics for ‘Happy New Year’ today, he says, the message of positive thinking would be kept intact. “However ominous things may look, what characterises mankind is that we move forward, no matter what: against all odds, we soldier on. And deep inside I think we’ll get through the current situation. I don’t think that mankind has had its time on Earth.” The lyrics for ‘Happy New Year’ hold one regret for Björn, however, and that is the mention of the year 1989, which he feels locks it to the last few decades of the previous century, rather than being a timeless song for every New Year. “It was so unnecessary, but it shows you that our perspective was about six months into the future. That’s how long the songs were supposed to last.”

This initial recording session period concluded with something of a rocker: ‘On And On And On’. ABBA were never a rock’n’roll band, and seldom tried to be, but Benny feels they got “fairly close” to a genuine rock vibe with ‘On And On And On’. The falsetto backing vocals, performed by Benny himself, were heavily inspired by The Beach Boys, whose creative genius, Brian Wilson, is one of his heroes in terms of record production; ‘On And On And On’ features strong echoes of the vocal arrangements on Beach Boys hits such as ‘Heroes And Villains’ and ‘Do It Again’. When The Beach Boys were in Sweden in 1980 they visited ABBA’s recording studio, and lead singer Mike Love was impressed enough by ‘On And On And On’ to record a version of it himself the following year. “I thought it was really fun that it came full circle,” Benny enthuses. “You record something that is so incredibly influenced by The Beach Boys, where the backing vocals are a tribute to their style, and then he comes here, hears it and decides to record it.”

With the five backing tracks completed – but no vocals as yet – March saw ABBA embarking on a concert tour of Japan. Not only was it their first live shows on Japanese soil, it was also their last-ever concerts in front of a paying audience. ABBA had never spent much time on the road anyway, preferring to devote themselves to their song writing and recording craft. “[The studio is] where I do my best work,” Agnetha determined at the time of the Super Trouper album release. “There are no limits; you just give your all. The studio has turned into a second home for me.”

In April 1980, the group added vocals and other overdubs to the backing tracks recorded in February, before taking a break from studio work. Towards the end of May, Benny and Björn found themselves in their Viggsö island cottage, writing new songs. Among the three tunes completed were ‘Our Last Summer’ and a song called ‘Burning My Bridges’. The latter of these was a country-flavoured tune that never progressed beyond the backing-track-and-demo-vocals stage; an extract of the song can be heard in the ‘ABBA Undeleted’ medley of outtakes, included in the box sets Thank You For The Music and The Complete Studio Recordings.

The wistful ballad ‘Our Last Summer’ was another matter entirely: a good example of how Björn’s lyric writing had moved beyond the pure functionality of early ABBA wordsmithery. The starting point for ‘Our Last Summer’ was a romance he had experienced in mid-Sixties France, when he was barely out of his teens. “There was a girl from my home town of Västervik who was working as an au pair in France one summer, and I went there to visit her”, he recalls. The lyrical mood he was after was “that kind of melancholy memory of ‘the last summer of innocence’,” which he certainly achieved. Today, the song is something of a centrepiece in the Mamma Mia! musical, where one of the themes is the contradictory feelings stirred up when confronting romances of the past in the stark reality of the present. On the Super Trouper album, Frida infused her lead vocal with the overtones of bittersweet nostalgia that has always been one of her strongest assets as a singer. And intriguingly, although she didn’t sing it herself, ‘Our Last Summer’ is in fact one of Agnetha’s all-time ABBA favourites.

 

During those final few song writing days out at Viggsö, Björn and Benny found there was just time to squeeze out one more tune. “We had been there for five days and we had a session [booked] with the musicians on Monday,” remembered Benny in the documentary Words And Music (featured on the DVD included in this Deluxe Edition package), “and we were sitting there on Sunday – the night between Saturday and Sunday – and all of a sudden it came up, from old ideas, from old small musical pieces we had.” The “it” Benny referred to was nothing less than the tune for ‘The Winner Takes It All’, a highlight not only on the Super Trouper album but in the entire ABBA canon.

Benny and Björn knew even at the writing stage that they had a truly great tune on their hands. But the first backing track – recorded on Monday, June 2, 1980, and featuring a metrical, four-on-the floor beat – didn’t quite nail it. After spending the following few days recording ‘Burning My Bridges’ and ‘Our Last Summer’, they made a new attempt on Friday, June 6. In the meantime, Benny had come up with the flowing, descending piano lines that occur throughout the song, loosening up its rhythms and giving it the right feel. The new backing track was exactly what they were looking for. There was even something French, chanson-like about the song, to the point that Björn recorded demo vocals in French. Inevitably, someone suggested that he should do the lead vocals on the final track. “It’s a good thing I didn’t,” he reflected later.

Throughout ABBA’s career, Björn would usually write the lyrics for a song only when the backing track had been recorded and the tune had acquired a certain ambience. Only then could he be certain what it would be “saying” to him. Bringing back a tape of the backing track for this latest recording to his house, he sat down, opened a bottle of whisky and started writing. Although he only had “a couple of big snifters”, he was surprised afterwards that the lyrics worked, since his experience of lyric-writing while under the influence of alcohol was usually not very positive. This time the words were pouring out of him and he would later remember the lyrics for ‘The Winner Takes It All’ as the quickest he had ever written.

Björn and Agnetha had recently gone through a divorce, but although much has been made of the song’s painful end-of-romance-theme – with ex-husband writing the lyrics and ex-wife ending up the lead vocalist – Björn has denied several times that the lyrics should be taken as a literal depiction of their divorce. For one thing, their marital split was not a matter of winners and losers. “I was in a happy new relationship, although of course the theme of a divorce or going separate ways was on my mind – the anguish surrounding that situation – but the rest is pure fiction.” He does agree, however, that there is a difference between a “divorce lyric” like the Arrival album’s ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, written several years before his and Agnetha’s break-up, and ‘The Winner Takes It All’, penned by someone who’d actually experienced a marital split. “’Knowing Me, Knowing You’ is an image of how it could be, a very strong image of someone walking around an empty apartment with lots of packing cases and stuff, and with plenty of memories in every room. That’s the image I got, and there was no [real-life] divorce at that time. ‘The Winner Takes It All’ is more of an inside thing: it’s not really an image, but simply about feelings.” Björn is not surprised that outside observers tend to draw the conclusion that the song is really about himself and Agnetha. “Of course not, that’s what I would think myself. Perhaps some people want it to be about us, and who am I to argue about that. I don’t mind if people jump to that conclusion. In some ways they are right – there is a grain of truth in that interpretation.”

When Björn brought the lyrics to the recording studio for the vocal overdubs, he found that Agnetha had nothing against exploring the emotions of a marital split in song. “On the contrary, when she got the lyrics that morning a tear or two welled up in her eyes. Because the words really affected her.” Agnetha herself would later remember ‘The Winner Takes It All’ as ”the best of all ABBA songs[.] The lyrics are deeply personal, and the music is unsurpassed. Singing it was like acting a part. I mustn’t let my feelings take over. It was quite a while afterwards before I realised that we’d made a small masterpiece.”

After Agnetha had added her vocal magic, ‘The Winner Takes It All’ had indeed turned into something more than just a pop song. It was one of those instances where the simplicity of the actual tune – combined with clever shifts in the arrangement, emotionally pure lyrics and an astounding vocal performance – managed to expand the boundaries of modern popular music. “There are almost no parts in it: it’s the verse-melody, twice, and then the chorus – that’s it”, says Benny, who remembers being so happy with the results of just the basic recording of the backing track and vocals, without the string overdubs, that he kept listening to a rough mix of it over and over again. “I think the simplicity of it is what appeals to me. That’s what I’m striving for to this day, to remove everything that doesn’t belong. And that’s quite hard, to still have some kind of substance, some kind of personality, where you’re still the ‘sender’ of something. It’s not especially difficult to write a simple tune, it’s much harder when you want that simple melody to have some content even when there are no lyrics.”

Released as a single in July 1980, the powerful emotions flowing out from ‘The Winner Takes It All’ caught the public’s imagination, returning ABBA to the UK number one spot for the first time in over two years and later becoming their final Top Ten hit in the US.