Liner notes, part 2

Published May 06, 2011


Two more songs were needed to complete the album, and in early March Björn and Benny went out to their beloved song writing cabin – on the island of Viggsö in the Stockholm archipelago – to try to find those elusive tunes. Perhaps still surfing on the enthusiasm and excitement generated by the Bahamas trip – or simply having their creative juices flowing thanks to an impending album deadline – the trip produced the songs they were looking for. By the end of the month, ‘As Good As New’ and ‘I Have A Dream’ had both been written, recorded and mixed – and the two tracks couldn’t have been more different. The former married a hard-hitting disco beat and funky guitar riffs, courtesy of Janne Schaffer, with a minuet-style baroque string arrangement, topping it all off with an amazing, desperately pleading lead vocal by Agnetha.

‘I Have A Dream’, meanwhile, celebrated ABBA’s roots in and fondness for European “schlager” music, the melodious, non-generation-specific tunes that surrounded them as they grew up in the Fifties and Sixties. Björn later remembered being at home, working on the lyrics for ‘I Have A Dream’, and phoning Benny up after they were completed. “He and Frida were having a party, and he told me to come on over. When I got there, we ran the song through on the piano in front of the other guests, and after a while they were all singing along, because it was so easy to learn.” The “party-choir” anticipated the children’s choir from the International School Of Stockholm, which would end up singing in the chorus on the completed recording. And, of course, when ABBA went on tour later in 1979, a different children’s choir was featured in each and every town where they performed.

The rush of creativity meant that half of ABBA’s sixth album had been written and recorded within the span of two months, and by the end of April the LP, entitled Voulez-Vous, was finally ready for release. Virtually simultaneously, the group issued a kick-off single in the shape of ‘Does Your Mother Know’, featuring a solo lead by Björn for the first and last time on an ABBA single A-side. He would later express regrets over being the lead singer on this recording, but the theme of the lyrics being what they were there could have been little choice. “I had read a newspaper article about relationships between men and young girls […] most likely about predatory older men using younger women,” Björn explained recently. “I had the idea of reversing the situation and creating a song about a man who, instead of trying to pick up a girl, turns round and says, ‘Oh, what are you doing out tonight, does your mother know that you’re out?’”

The dance beat of this particular recording, and, indeed, of several other songs on the album – such as ‘If It Wasn’t For The Nights’, ‘Kisses Of Fire’, ‘As Good As New’ and the title track – combined with the mood of the times, suggested a disco concept for the packaging and general presentation of the album and its songs. The videos for ‘Does Your Mother Know’ and ‘Voulez-Vous’ were both filmed in a disco environment, and the cover, featuring a high-society, evening-dressed ABBA (an image sported by many disco groups, for instance Chic) photographed at Stockholm’s very “in” Alexandra’s disco, strengthened the impression.

Although he and Frida in particular were frequent night-clubbers at the time, Benny was never much of a dancer himself, preferring to hang out in the bar. “Frida loved to dance and could spend half an hour without a break on the dance floor,” recalls ABBA sound engineer, DJ and entertainment business jack-of-all-trades Claes af Geijerstam. “She particularly enjoyed it if ABBA’s choreographer Graham Tainton was on the floor. I also loved dancing and danced a lot with Frida. She’d come and pull at you and Benny was mainly relieved that he didn’t have to go!” Agnetha and Björn, parents of small children, were not seen in the clubs as often as the other half of ABBA. But, as Claes remembers, when they did go out Agnetha in particular would be seen shaking her booty, while Björn was less interested. “Agnetha would find others to dance with on the floor, where there were lots of clubland friends who were always there. In those days you’d dance with everybody, not like today when you dance with just one partner.”

Today, Benny is ambivalent towards the group’s attempts at presenting themselves as a disco band and finding a comfortable place in that era. It’s startling to learn that the co-writer of dance-floor fillers such as ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Voulez-Vous’ and ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’ – recorded in the aftermath of the Voulez-Vous album – never felt a hundred per cent at home in the genre. “Of course, there were good songs at the time, which were played at the discos”, he admits. “Songs like that are not so easy to do, although we got it right with ‘Voulez-Vous’.”

Indeed, when ‘Voulez-Vous’ (the song) had been completed and mixed, Benny and Björn ran down to the Atlantic nightclub in central Stockholm, a favourite hangout at the time. “They came down with a test pressing, like you did in those days, and asked me if I would play it, so that they could test the reactions on the dance floor,” recalls Atlantic DJ Niklas Strömstedt, later a performing artist in his own right as well as the lyricist for the Swedish version of the Mamma Mia! musical. “’Voulez-Vous’ worked really well, no question about that. I think I played it once or twice; Björn and Benny were very pleased with the reaction.”

Still, today Benny insists that “the album sleeve is a little desperate; we’re holding that neon tube or whatever it is. That wasn’t quite right. But I guess the art director was simply trying to move with the times.” He also points out that with Fifties- and Sixties-style songs such as ‘I Have A Dream’, ‘Chiquitita’ and ‘Angeleyes’, Voulez-Vous can hardly be called an all-out disco album. And certainly, when even old Broadway stars such as Ethel Merman were hoping to achieve success by adding a thumping bass-drum beat and swirling disco strings to their music, there was reason for caution at the development of a genre that had started out as simply the latest chapter in the proud history of American soul and dance music. “I have to say, I was just a little reluctant to us doing disco songs, simply because everybody else was doing it. My feeling was, ‘Wouldn’t it be more fun to do something that everybody else isn’t doing?’ Although you want to be aware what others are up to, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you want to be a copycat. I’ve always resisted that.”

His song writer and producer partner is more unreservedly enthusiastic about the era. “We were influenced by everything we heard, everything that was around us, such as The Bee Gees, Donna Summer, Chic and whoever else. There was plenty of good disco music,” says Björn, who also found the violent “Disco sucks!” backlash from rock fans incomprehensible. “One certainly shouldn’t look down on that music, it’s really ridiculous. If you consider how many good songs came out of disco, there’s no reason to listen to that kind of talk.”

For Björn, the Voulez-Vous album also represented a further step in his ambitions to develop as a lyricist, trying to draw from personal experience and move away from his earlier lyrics-as-words-to-carry-a-tune approach. Certainly, the sense of urgency and sometimes even desperation that marked both music and lyrics on much of the album revealed new shades of ABBA to the world. A reporter who suggested that the group’s lyrics had “a habit of being one degree above drivel” was told off in no uncertain terms. “That might be true of the earlier albums, but if you listen to them on this album they are very personal, almost all of them. People refuse to believe that they are. People – or that is, the critics – have made up their mind that ABBA is this shit commercial group. For instance, I would like you to read the lyrics to yourself and then come back to me and say they are not personal, because they are.” Agnetha agreed, even going so far as suggesting that Voulez-Vous had benefitted from her and Björn’s marital split. ”A lot of things happen on a purely emotional level onstage, in the studio and strictly privately, and it shines through on the records,” she said.

For all the ambivalence and uncertainty surrounding the making of Voulez-Vous, upon release any doubts about ABBA’s future as a commercial entity could be safely swept aside. The album and its attendant single releases shot to the top of the charts everywhere, with the group’s fans responding to both the “old-style” songs and the finger-on-the-pulse disco adventures. At the end of the day, Voulez-Vous simply offered up another generous helping of the versatility and variation that had become ABBA’s trademark.


NOTES ON THE CD BONUS TRACKS

‘Summer Night City’ was the first single to be released from the Voulez-Vous sessions. The  familiar version is readily available on many other CDs, but the full-length version of the song – originally intended for Voulez-Vous, but first released on the 1994 box set Thank You For The Music – has been included on this Deluxe Edition.

Also included as bonus selections are a couple of single-only sides: ‘Lovelight’, recorded during the Voulez-Vous sessions but released exclusively as the B-side of ‘Chiquitita’; ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’, recorded in August 1979 and released as a single to accompany ABBA’s September–November tour of North America and Europe (the song was also included as a token new track on the simultaneously released Greatest Hits Vol. 2 album); and finally the Extended Remix of ‘Voulez-Vous’, released in the United States as a promo-only 12-inch single for club DJs and not released commercially until The Definitive Collection double-CD in 2001.

A bona fide “completely unreleased track” from the vaults, first unveiled to record-buyers on the Thank You For The Music box set, is ‘Dream World’, a fully produced and mixed but ultimately rejected recording from the Voulez-Vous sessions. “We thought it was quite fun but the verses are a bit daft, a bit square, and it has no real chorus,” says Benny today. Outside admirers of ABBA’s music may hear it differently: a spectacular circus-like intro, high-energy vocals from Agnetha and Frida, a supremely catchy tune from start to finish – in other words, classic ABBA. But also an example of the riches the group could afford to throw away in the quest for an even better tune. Only the middle-eight would survive, being transferred to a brand new song, ‘Does Your Mother Know’, a few months later. “That’s the only good bit in ‘Dream World’ as far as I’m concerned”, says Benny, “and that bit in itself actually works best if you play it as a ragtime tune!”


NOTES ON THE DVD SELECTIONS

This DVD features a generous helping of Voulez-Vous-era television appearances from the archives, none of which have been released commercially before.

ABBA IN SWITZERLAND

The television special ABBA In Switzerland was filmed in Leysin, Switzerland in mid-February 1979. ABBA took a quick break from finishing work on the Voulez-Vous album to headline this BBC-produced television extravaganza. Along with some familiar hits, the special featured no less than five songs from the upcoming album: in addition to the already released ‘Chiquitita’, there were ‘Lovers (Live A Little Longer)’, ‘The King Has Lost His Crown’, ‘Kisses Of Fire’ and ‘Does Your Mother Know’. The last two of these featured preliminary, alternate mixes – most noticeable in the somewhat rockier interpretation of ‘Does Your Mother Know’. To preserve the “live” atmosphere of this television special, all songs are presented here as originally broadcast. These excerpts from ABBA In Switzerland feature only the group’s contributions to the television special, and not those of their guest artists.


CHIQUITITA AT UNICEF

On January 9, 1979, ABBA premiered their upcoming single ‘Chiquitita’ in a programme entitled Music for UNICEF – A Gift Of Song Concert, introduced by comedienne Gilda Radner. For details about the broadcast, see main essay above.


I HAVE A DREAM – EXTENDED PROMO

In conjunction with ABBA’s tour of Europe in 1979, their November concerts at London’s Wembley Arena were filmed for the television special ABBA In Concert. Before the special had been put together, however, ‘I Have A Dream’ was rush-released as a Christmas single. Wembley footage of the song was used as a promo clip, which can be viewed on the DVD ABBA Gold. However, there was also a version of the clip featuring an encore, which has only rarely been seen since ABBA’s heyday. It is released commercially here for the first time.


IF IT WASN’T FOR THE NIGHTS

Since it was the most likely choice for their next single, ‘If It Wasn’t For The Nights’ was performed on a couple of television programmes in the final few months of 1978. One such performance was on a Japanese television special – available on the DVD ABBA In Japan – and the other on this BBC programme, entitled The Mike Yarwood Christmas Show and broadcast on December 25, 1978. Because of Musicians Union rules, ABBA were required to record an entirely new backing track on location in London for their playback performance. However, in this case they cheated a little, instead creating a unique mix of the track recorded in Stockholm, minus strings and horns. On this DVD, the performance is featured with this rare and never-heard-again mix.


CHIQUITITA – ALTERNATE PROMO

In February 1979, when ABBA recorded their ABBA In Switzerland television special (see above), they also videotaped a promo clip for their current single, ‘Chiquitita’. This familiar clip can be viewed on DVD releases such as ABBA Gold and The Definitive Collection. However, while in Switzerland they also filmed an alternate clip of the song, which was introduced by Dame Edna in the BBC’s Christmas Snowtime Special, broadcast on December 22, 1979. Rarely screened since then, this unique clip of ‘Chiquitita’ is commercially released here for the first time.


BJÖRN & BENNY INTERVIEW

On 10 November 1979, Björn and Benny appeared live on the BBC television children’s programme Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, being interviewed by host Noel Edmonds and taking calls from viewers. The appearance took place in the midst of ABBA’s six-day residence at London’s Wembley Arena.


GREATEST HITS VOL. 2 – TELEVISION COMMERCIALS

These two commercials for the Greatest Hits Vol. 2 album, released in October 1979, were made for the British market.