The Visitors Deluxe Edition - liner notes, part 1

Published March 30, 2013

The final phase

The making of The Visitors

“I think it sort of never started, never ended, you know.” In one of ABBA’s final interviews, this was how Benny Andersson summed up the indefinite beginnings and unclear denouement of the group’s journey through the pop landscape of the Seventies and early Eighties. Of course, in October 1982, when the interview was conducted, he didn’t know that the group had already made their final recordings together. But subsequent events would prove him right: just as Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Frida had once gravitated towards each other as a recording entity, suddenly finding themselves the four components of a world-famous pop band, now they would gradually move into other areas, change their individual priorities, slowly drift away from the group nucleus, and finally, after a few years, realise that they were no longer members of ABBA. This Deluxe Edition of their last completed studio album, The Visitors, offers an overview of the final phase of ABBA recordings: the actual album along with additional single sides and assorted tracks, bringing the story to a close with the group’s last recording sessions.

The Visitors, first released in Sweden on November 30, 1981, was ABBA at their most mature and accomplished, the collective message of its nine tracks being that the group were now in full command of their craft. But with the Cold War as the underlying theme not only of the title track but also of ‘Soldiers’, the difficulties of maintaining functioning relationships with loved ones explored in ‘When All Is Said And Done’, ‘One Of Us’ and ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’, and an air of overt ambition and melancholy introspection colouring ‘I Let The Music Speak’ and ‘Like An Angel Passing Through My Room’, respectively, only ‘Head Over Heels’ and ‘Two For The Price Of One’ offered anything in the shape of the tongue-in-cheek lightness that was once such a pervasive feature on ABBA’s albums. In retrospect, Benny feels that maybe the group had become a tad too serious. “I don’t know what happened,” he says today, “but speaking for myself I think it may have had something to do with a growing desire to do something more substantial – moving into the theatre world, for example.” Björn’s feelings about the album are more unequivocally positive. “As I recall, we were really pleased and felt that we had taken another step forward. I’m still very proud of it.”

Work on ABBA’s eighth studio LP began in February 1981, when Björn and Benny started writing songs for the new album, their first such session since the release of the Super Trouper album the previous November. By March 16, they had three new songs and were prepared to start recording them at ABBA’s own Polar Music Studio in Stockholm. At least two of the new songs had strong personal resonance for some members of the group. In August 1980, Björn and Agnetha’s daughter, Linda, had started school. One day, as Björn watched her going away to school, turning around and waving, he was hit by the realisation that Linda was growing up, taking the first small steps towards independence. He began thinking of how he had “let precious time go by”, missing out on “wonderful adventures” together with his young daughter; thoughts that resulted in the lyrics for the ballad ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’. It was almost self-evident that Linda’s mother, Agnetha, would handle the lead vocals on the song. “It felt very ... ‘true’ to do,” she admitted when the album was released. “Although they are more or less Björn’s thoughts, they are mine too I suppose.”

Another highly personal song from this first recording period was ‘When All Is Said And Done’. On February 12, the world had received the startling news that ABBA’s remaining married couple, Frida and Benny, had decided to end their marriage. Coming two years after Agnetha and Björn’s divorce announcement, it shattered irrevocably whatever was left of ABBA’s image as two happy couples united in their love of creating music, although Frida and Benny both maintained that the split wouldn’t affect the group as a recording entity. Heartbreak, and the consequences of two lovers going their separate ways, had been a recurring theme since ABBA’s earliest recordings, but now the members’ real-life experiences provided painful starting-points for their “split-up” songs. None more so, perhaps, than ‘When All Is Said And Done’, for which the end of Frida and Benny’s relationship formed the basis of Björn’s lyrics.

But similar to the Super Trouper album’s ‘The Winner Takes It All’ (ostensibly dealing with his own split from Agnetha) Björn stresses that most of his words are fiction. “The starting-point was their divorce, but it wasn’t like I had interviewed them or knew the exact reason why they divorced,” he says. “It’s just that it was something that had happened to people close to me, something that triggered the lyrics. It was the finality of it all: ‘when all is said and done’. The lyrics looked at a period in time, an era, and put a full stop to it. Because that’s really what they did. Neither for them, nor for me and Agnetha, was there ever a question of perhaps getting back together again – this was the end.” While Benny says he never related to the lyrics on a personal level, only acknowledging that the split-up may have formed the basis for Björn’s concept, Frida identified more strongly with the words, relishing the opportunity to confront her own feelings in song and infusing her lead vocal with equal parts passionate determination and mournful regret. “All my sadness was captured in that song,” she later revealed.

As if to lighten the mood somewhat after these melancholy reflections based on the ABBA members’ personal experiences, the third track to be recorded was a semi-bizarre tale of a man who answers a personal columns ad, finding that he will get ‘Two For The Price Of One’ – a romantic relationship with a girl and her mother. Björn, who was the lead singer on the track, recalls that the lyrics were based on a true story; he had read an article about more or less the exact events as depicted in the song. Today he feels that it would have been better to switch genders, so that either Agnetha or Frida could have handled the lead vocals, thus making it a candidate for single release. Despite the hit status of the 1979 single ‘Does Your Mother Know’, featuring Björn, at this stage no singles would be released that didn’t put the spotlight on the superior vocal talents of the two girls.

By mid-April the first three tracks had been completed, and after a month away from the recording studio – during which the group recorded the television special Dick Cavett Meets ABBA (see ‘Notes on DVD selections’) – by May 18, Björn and Benny were back recording demos for new songs. A week later they laid down first the backing track for ‘I Am The Seeker’ (never completed by ABBA but recorded by British singer B.A. Robertson for the 1983 musical Abbacadabra) and then a demo entitled ‘Givin’ A Little Bit More’ (never progressing to a fully-fledged recording; an extract of the demo can be heard in the ABBA Undeleted medley included in the box sets Thank You For The Music and The Complete Studio Recordings).

Next up were the first attempts to record the ballad ‘Like An Angel Passing Through My Room’. It was a song that would travel through several incarnations before the group arrived at the final interpretation. Five months later, as the group got cold feet about the ballad versions recorded in May, they tried an approach closer to the Super Trouper album’s ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’ – a half-tempo melody sung on top of a full-tempo “disco” backing. But this version was also scrapped, precisely because it sounded too much like something ABBA had already recorded.

It wasn’t until November 8, just three weeks before the release of the album, that they landed on the final arrangement: a minimalist “duet” between Benny’s synthesizers and Frida’s wistful vocals, with the rhythm provided by the sound of a ticking clock (actually generated by the Minimoog synthesizer). Today, Benny feels that the song is one of the best he and Björn wrote during the ABBA years, but he’s uncertain whether the final version is the ultimate one. “Perhaps it was a bit laboured; we felt, ‘Damn it, this is a good song, we have to make something special out of it!’ And then it ends up with this very loud alarm-clock and Frida’s voice treated to sound like she’s singing in a cellar. In retrospect, if we’d kept our cool and just done it in a straightforward way – vocals and piano or guitar, perhaps some strings – it would have been better.” 

Especially for this Deluxe Edition of The Visitors, Benny has put together a nine-minute medley of alternate versions of the song, entitled ‘From A Twinkling Star To A Passing Angel’. This medley takes us from the very first demo, with vocals by Björn, to a run-through with Benny on electric piano and Frida on lead vocals, similar to the final version. In between are a demo recording by Frida and Benny (on grand piano) with alternate lyrics entitled ‘Another Morning Without You’; the full band “disco” attempt with the final lyrics in place; and a ballad interpretation, also with a full band backing, featuring Frida on lead vocals. “It was fun to put this thing together, just to show what the process can be like,” says Benny of the medley. “It’s an interesting observation on how you labour over things before you reach the final result, although that doesn’t necessarily mean that you make the right choice.”

In between the various versions of ‘Like An Angel Passing Through My Room’, ABBA completed several other recordings. In early September the backing tracks for a handful of new songs were recorded, the first of which was adorned with the somewhat literal working title ‘Tango’. The rhythmical basis for the song – eventually known as ‘Head Over Heels’, and featuring Agnetha on lead vocals – was indeed a tango, although with the overall arrangement and production this is more or less obscured to the listener. Björn’s lyrics, about a shopping-crazy and party-mad high-society woman rushing through life to the consternation of her exasperated husband, weren’t inspired by any one person in particular. “It was a general reflection on people who perhaps jump into things without thinking twice about it,” explains Björn. “I’m a bit of both myself: the kind of person who tends to think twice, although I sometimes jump into things. But perhaps I’m mostly cautious, because you never know where you might land if you make that jump.”

Next up was the Frida-led ‘I Let The Music Speak’, one of Björn and Benny’s favourites from the album. With its different “movements” the tune has a mini-symphonic feel to it, taking ABBA into “a theatre universe,” as Benny phrases it. In his lyrics, Björn wasn’t only paying tribute to the emotional impact of music, but also writing “a song about itself. It’s about the method I used whenever I wrote lyrics, which was to let the music speak, and how it told me its story. So it sort of came full circle. And I still feel that music must speak. A song or a piece of music has its own inherent language and story. It’s in there somewhere, you just have to listen: ‘What is it telling me?’ The music and the lyrics will fit together in a special way if you can make that happen.” The song’s structure and dramatic mood also points to Björn and Benny’s post-ABBA future, when they would finally get to write the musicals they had dreamed of for so long.

By mid-October, Björn and Benny were back in the studio with a new song, ultimately entitled ‘Soldiers’ and featuring Agnetha on lead vocals. If the tango-rhythms of ‘Head Over Heels’ had required certain measures to ensure that it sounded like a modern pop song, the “waltz” tempo of ‘Soldiers’ offered an even greater challenge. But fortunately, session drummer Per Lindvall came up with an off-beat drum pattern that ensured that no-one would mistake ‘Soldiers’ for ‘The Blue Danube’. As for the lyrics, the tune gave Björn a strong feeling of “soldiers on the march”, although he stresses that his words are not meant to be an attack on ordinary foot soldiers. “I was talking about people that are soldiers mentally, those who actually cause wars and other atrocities – they are the people who ‘sing the songs that you and I don’t sing’. Dictators like Stalin: ice-cold, unimaginative, lacking in empathy, who just march forward and think they know what’s important and are never interested in any other points-of-view.” Written at the height of the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear annihilation was on many people’s minds, the song was indeed highly topical.

About a week after ‘Soldiers’, two new songs were brought to the studio. ‘One Of Us’, featuring an anguished Agnetha lead vocal, was ultimately picked as the first single from the album sessions. Perhaps as an indication of the somewhat introspective tone of the sessions so far, it took a long time before ABBA hit upon a suitable single candidate. In fact, it wasn’t until album sessions were well and truly over, in mid-November, that they were able to agree on ‘One Of Us’, which was then rush-released in tandem with the album, rather than as a foretaste. Incidentally, Björn remembers that although for him this was an obvious single, it was not the first choice for Benny and ABBA manager Stig Anderson. “We used to send a number of suitable single candidates to a handful of record company people around the world, whose judgment we trusted, and then we would often be guided by their opinions. When the results came back this time, everybody wanted ‘One Of Us’. ‘Okay, then – that will have to be our choice!’” Björn’s original instinct was proved correct when the single became ABBA’s final major worldwide hit.

The recording of ‘One Of Us’ was followed by the album’s title track: ‘The Visitors (Crackin’ Up)’. With its ominous-sounding opening, giving the song a sense of foreboding that was only confirmed by Frida’s edgy and uneasy lead vocal, it was perhaps the most radical departure from what the public had come to accept as “an ABBA record”. Certainly, the glittery group that once smiled their way through ‘Waterloo’ at the Eurovision Song Contest had moved on quite a bit since then. Björn’s lyrics dealt with the dangerous situation for dissidents in what was then the Soviet Union. He tried to imagine what it would be like to live in that kind of one-party state where the citizens had no real freedom of speech, nor even of thought. This triggered the mental image of an apartment in Moscow where secret underground meetings had been held, but where the inhabitant was now left alone. “I had a clear vision of that apartment, lots of bookcases on the walls ... Then suddenly the knock on the door, and that person realises: ‘Bloody hell – the time has come! They’ve found me out!’”

At the time, however, Björn, who had developed into a wordsmith whose lyrics were often open to many interpretations, was a bit reluctant to state outright what the song was about. In fact, it would take more than a decade before he revealed the truth. “It wasn’t because I was afraid that some Russian spy would show up,” he explains today, “it was because I felt it would be more interesting if I didn’t say exactly what it was all about. I always thought it was so boring with the political music movement we had here in Sweden in the Seventies, when everybody was so totally realistic and almost party-political. I wanted to retain a sense of mystery. Who were these ‘visitors’?”