Liner notes, part 1

Published May 06, 2011

A Matter Of Blood, Sweat And Tears

The Making Of Voulez-Vous

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. When studying the track list of compilation albums such as ABBA Gold, or perusing chart statistics, it is easy to conclude that once ABBA had achieved their international breakthrough, it was all plain sailing. The group were seemingly guaranteed a hit whenever they released a new single, with the record-buying public eagerly awaiting every new song. The reality, however, is that audiences are often quite fickle. For instance, in 1962, as Elvis Presley enjoyed his 16th US number one, did anyone foresee that only a couple of years later he would be lucky to get into the Top 20? Or did 1960s hit-makers supreme John Lennon and Paul McCartney expect that their string of chart-toppers with The Beatles would be followed by a more unstable chart-curve as they went solo?

ABBA were certainly aware how quickly today’s in-crowd could turn into tomorrow’s has-beens. “We didn’t know any better than anybody else what would happen the next time we released a single,” says Björn, who always knew that ABBA were a pop group and to be credible as such you had to be exactly where the pop audience wanted you to be at any given moment. As he recalls, it was a somewhat startling experience when ABBA’s first single from the Voulez-Vous album sessions, ‘Summer Night City’, was released in September 1978. The Bee Gees-inspired song “only” reached number five on the UK chart, where the past three years had seen a virtually unbroken sequence of number one hits for the group. Nor did the single fare as well as ABBA singles usually did in most other countries, not even being released in the United States. “It might be that we felt, ‘We’ve peaked and perhaps they don’t like us as much as they used to’. We probably thought that it could be the start of the decline that inevitably happens to all acts.”

Although not exactly a flop single, the fate of ‘Summer Night City’ was somehow symbolic for the slight sense of unease and contradictory considerations that often marked the sessions for the Voulez-Vous album. Although Björn and Benny were fond of the song, they never felt they got the recording quite right. It was mixed and re-mixed several times, heavy compression added and subtracted, and even a dramatic 45-second piano-strings-and-vocals introduction edited out of the recording, all in an attempt to make the recording more captivating and exciting. “It never turned out as good as it should have been,” says Björn. “There’s something missing, although the song is still around today, so of course it’s got something. But the recording is not the ultimate one.” Although it was said at the time that the full-length version of ‘Summer Night City’ would be included on the upcoming album, in the end it was left off Voulez-Vous.

The fact of the matter is that there might not have been any Voulez-Vous album at all. ABBA’s 1977 tour of Europe and Australia had featured the mini-musical The Girl With The Golden Hair, and three of the songs had then been included on the group’s most recent long-player, ABBA – The Album. Björn and Benny’s appetites had been seriously whetted. Shortly after the album’s release in December 1977, Polar Music announced that the following year would be set aside for writing a full-length musical. “I think that just the slightest feeling had started to emerge: ’Shouldn’t we try to develop this into something more than doing pop songs?’” explains Benny today. “I felt strongly that I wanted to expand our working methods in some way, and try to do something more substantial, not just three-minute songs.”

Although the plans for a musical were put aside for the time being, this feeling on the part of ABBA’s song writers and producers may go some way towards explaining why the Voulez-Vous sessions became so difficult for them. Indeed, work on the new album began quite ominously, on March 13, 1978, with the recording of an instrumental tune adorned with the working title ‘Dr. Claus von Hamlet’. As it turned out, the tune was not to be included on Voulez-Vous, and was just one of many recordings that were scrapped during the first nine months of album sessions.

In the last week of April, sessions continued with two songs that would be released at the time, although the first of them, ‘Lovelight’, would merely be a single B-side. The second, entitled ‘Lovers (Live A Little Longer)’, was the first completed recording that would actually be included on the Voulez-Vous album. Supported by a slightly funky backing, Frida delivered a seductive lead vocal perfectly suited to Björn’s lyrics, which were inspired by a magazine feature. The headline of the article was Lovers Live Longer, the story being that “some physician had made [the] discovery ... that love’s a longevity factor,” as Björn phrased it in his lyrics.

These first few songs were all recorded in various studios in the Stockholm area. But on May 18, a long-time project and dream finally came true, with the opening of the group’s very own Polar Music Studio in central Stockholm. This custom-built, ultra-modern facility was one of the best of its kind in Europe. But although one would have thought that this new, pleasurable working environment should spark the group’s creativity, the remainder of 1978 just exposed Benny and Björn’s difficulties in coming up with songs they felt truly satisfied with.

After an extended summer holiday, a brand new song finally emerged in August. ‘The King Has Lost His Crown’ was another of the highlights on the album, featuring a warm and intimate lead vocal by Frida, who has singled out this particular track as one of her favourites among ABBA’s less familiar songs. But for all the spark of brilliance that this song symbolised, it was simply a bright spot in a dark sea of recordings in various stages of completion that were deemed unsatisfactory and put on the shelf. To ‘Dr. Claus von Hamlet’ were added ‘Free As A Bumble Bee’, ‘Just A Notion’, ‘Dream World’, ‘Cryin’ Over You’, as well as a further attempt at ‘Dr. Claus von Hamlet’, entitled ‘Hamlet III’. (Note: Snippets of these unfinished songs 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.)

By the end of September it was becoming clear that the original intentions to have the album out before Christmas were unrealistic. “The prospects are not good. It’s worse than ever,” sighed Benny to a reporter, and then added prophetically, “We have no idea when we’ll be finished. […] You can’t commit yourself to a specific date. Because then the ’art’ would suffer. And that’s something we will never risk.”

The group’s female lead singers were certainly not oblivious to the higher demands they all placed on themselves. “One thing’s for certain – it gets tougher and tougher and takes longer and longer to make a new album”, said Frida. ”It’s really a matter of blood, sweat and tears when Björn and Benny are writing new material. It’s important that they be left alone for the time it will take.” Observed Agnetha, ”I can tell from the look in Björn’s eyes when he gets home how the day’s work has been. Many times the boys have been working for ten hours without coming up with one single note.”

By the end of October the creative curve was looking up again, with the recording of ‘If It Wasn’t For The Nights’ and ‘Angeleyes’, both of which were destined to be included on the album. ‘Angeleyes’ was not Björn and Benny’s favourite track on the album at the time; to them it didn’t sound like that 100 per cent contemporary band they wanted to be. “It’s ‘back to the Sixties’,” says Benny today, “and also the tune is in a strange key; it’s somehow both too low and too high. But I like it better now – it sounds like it was made ten years earlier, but that doesn’t matter today when a further 30 years have passed.”

‘If It Wasn’t For The Nights’ was another matter entirely. Without perhaps being an all-out disco track, the recording had the rhythmic flexibility and club music pulse Björn and Benny were looking for; it definitely sounded like the late Seventies. Not surprisingly, it was regarded as the strongest track they had come up with so far and was earmarked as the next ABBA single, to be released in early 1979. The group even went so far as to perform it on Japanese and British television, well before release.

‘If It Wasn’t For The Nights’ was a brilliant song, to be sure, but it also had a special emotional resonance for some of the group. After seven years of marriage, with all the ups and downs that any couple goes through, around the time the song was written and recorded Björn and Agnetha decided to go their separate ways. “Those lyrics were written during a period when I was feeling really depressed. I was down as hell,” Björn admitted at the time, without going into specifics. Today he agrees that his and Agnetha’s painful decision to split up probably had something to do with the lyrics’ theme of someone coping with a break-up during the daytime but being unable to face the night-time hours of solitude, with only the anguish and the regrets for company. “I’m sure it was something that hit me on a lonely night,” he says.

Had ‘If It Wasn’t For The Nights’ been released as a single it would have been part of a very special event, originating with The Bee Gees, their manager Robert Stigwood, and British television personality David Frost. The year of 1979 had been declared The Year Of The Child by the United Nations, and along with several other major artists, ABBA agreed to donate all current and future royalties of their next single to UNICEF. Moreover, the songs would be performed to the world at a televised gala, broadcast from the General Assembly Hall in the United Nations building in New York City in January 1979. Although some artists donated songs that had already been released, ABBA were among those who offered brand new songs and, in fact, would unveil their new single at the UNICEF gala.

As events unfolded, it turned out that ‘If It Wasn’t For The Nights’ wasn’t destined to be that single after all. On December 4, 1978, Björn and Benny began recording a song that started life as ‘In The Arms Of Rosalita’. But when that recording was near completion, the group got cold feet and decided to start all over again. On December 13 a completely new backing track was recorded, and the song finally ended up as ‘Chiquitita’. Being the pragmatic souls that they were, ABBA took a look at the album-bound songs they had managed to complete so far and concluded that ‘Chiquitita’ was the best of the bunch. So that was their next single, and, accordingly, the song that was to be performed at the UNICEF gala.

On January 9, 1979, ABBA found themselves on stage in the General Assembly Hall together with an array of other highly successful stars: The Bee Gees, Rod Stewart, Earth, Wind & Fire, Donna Summer, Olivia Newton-John, Andy Gibb, John Denver, Rita Coolidge and Kris Kristofferson. Memories of the gala are largely lost in the mists of time, although Benny says that “it was fun to be a part of it, together with so many of our heroes”. He also recalls meeting Robert Stigwood, who, perhaps stressed-out by the pressures of the event, “looked like he was going to explode any second!”

Both Björn and Benny remember that it felt a bit weird going to New York City and perform a song like ‘Chiquitita’ – a somewhat old-fashioned take on European and Latin American pop – in the midst of disco rock such as Rod Stewart’s ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy’. “I would have wanted something more contemporary to perform”, admits Björn. Benny agrees: “It was pretty strange, but we felt it was the best song we had and that’s why we chose it, however wrong it may have been”.

Although ‘If It Wasn’t For The Nights’ would probably have been a better fit on that New York night, from a hit-making perspective ABBA had certainly chosen the right song as their new single. Around the time of the ‘Chiquitita’ release, a week after the United Nations gala, Björn and Agnetha finally announced to the world that they were going to split. But although many observers speculated that this must mean the end of ABBA, in fact it didn’t seem to affect the group one bit. If anything, they claimed that they worked together better than ever. ”The tension that used to exist when we were working in the studio is gone,” Björn told a reporter. As if to prove his point, ‘Chiquitita’ became one of ABBA’s biggest-ever hits, earning UNICEF millions in royalties ever since.

Whatever the reasons for the creative uphill struggle, the fact remained that the past nine months had only produced completed tracks for half an album and ABBA had long since admitted defeat in their efforts to have it out before Christmas. Now it was January and, even disregarding product-hungry record companies around the world, Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Frida themselves were probably getting anxious to get the album finished. What to do? Well, the song writers reasoned, if you want to create contemporary music it probably helps to be surrounded by contemporary music. Buying records and playing them on your personal hi-fi system was all very well, but there was something to be said for the power of radio, where you could be surprised, excited and inspired by what happened to hit you as you turned the dial, hearing music that you didn’t even know existed. However, back in those days Sweden didn’t have anything resembling Top 40 radio, and definitely not a multitude of stations playing different kinds of music. Only a few shows were exclusively devoted to pop music, and, needless to say, there was no commercial radio.

At the end of January, Benny and Björn isolated themselves in a rented house in the Bahamas, hoping for inspiration. In this way they would have access to American radio, feel that they were a part of the international music business, and hopefully get inspired to break the creative stale-mate and come up with new songs. It worked. “We wrote, listened to the radio, and wrote some more,” explained Björn at the time. “It’s not that you take things from the radio, that’s not it, but you get a kick out of hearing something good.” In very short order they came up with two new songs, one of which seemed to call for a disco treatment. In the rush of excitement they decided to record the backing track for that song in America – the first and only time they would lay the groundwork for a recording in a studio outside Sweden. Geographically, Bahamas is not too far from Miami, where Criteria Studios are located; the studios most famous and successful clients at the time were The Bee Gees. And now that Björn and Benny had a disco-flavoured song on their hands, they naturally felt that they should travel to the heart of contemporary American music.

Musicians from the disco band Foxy – who’d just enjoyed a US R&B number one hit with the disco classic ‘Get Off’ – along with session guitarist George Terry, constituted the backing band on the sessions, which went on for two days. A host of highly qualified producers and engineers were present – including the legendary Tom Dowd, who’d worked with everyone from Aretha Franklin to Eric Clapton – along with ABBA’s own trusted engineer, Michael B. Tretow. Recording in Miami, with musicians other than their trusted gang of Stockholm-based friends, was an exciting experience, although Björn would also remember it as “a bit scary because we were not only working with unfamiliar musicians but also in unfamiliar surroundings”. The Miami experiment remained just that.

Upon the return to Stockholm in early February, the new song acquired lyrics and a proper title: ‘Voulez-Vous’. The dance beat of the recording gave Björn a clear idea of where to head with his words. “What I had in mind before I even had the title was a kind of nightclub scene, with a certain amount of sexual tension and eyes looking at each other,” he explained in the book Mamma Mia! How Can I Resist You? “I can see it now, exactly the kind of a room in a club, so I only had to describe that room and what might be happening and then add that final touch, ‘Voulez-Vous?’”

In Stockholm ABBA also recorded the upbeat ‘Kisses Of Fire’ (written in the Bahamas), which, like ‘Voulez-Vous’, was somewhat risqué in terms of lyric subject matter, at least when considering that much of ABBA’s audience consisted of pre-teen children. “I guess we have become a bit bolder,” Björn smiled at an interviewer who asked him if ABBA wouldn’t have been allowed to release such songs a few years earlier. “Three years ago I probably would have felt myself that ‘Kisses Of Fire’ was a bit too physical. I simply wouldn’t have written lyrics like that three years ago. But as the years go by you feel more liberated, acquire more confidence – dare to be yourself.” ‘Does Your Mother Know’ – no less risqué, with its cross-generational flirting theme – was written and recorded around the same time. The tune started out as something of a boogie rocker but was later tightened up for record release, with a distinctive synth bass providing much of its pulse; in fact, pushing it in the direction of the dance-floor.