ABBA On Record - I'm working on it

Published April 23, 2020

It's been a while since you heard from me on the subject of my forthcoming book,  ABBA On Record - Packaged Promoted Reviewed, so here's a report from CMP headquarters.

The main message is: I'm working on it, and everything's going really well. I try to avoid the dreaded C-word that's on everybody's lips these days, but I can report that the current, depressing state of the planet doesn't affect my work very much. I've been working from home for the best part of three decades, so I just go on as before. In a way, isolation is my natural state of being.

For me, writing books isn't only about imparting whatever knowledge I may have amassed through research, but also about the excitement of my own discoveries. It's often only when I pull all my research together on a certain subject - say, the release of the 'SOS' single, to take a random example - that the full story reveals itself to me. It's such a buzz, and suddenly the almost-mechanical hoarding of information becomes meaningful. It's happening a lot when I'm working on this book, so I'm confident that you will feel the same buzz when you read the finished work.

I'm keeping safe and staying healthy. I've always been a walk-a-holic, and these days, since I avoid public transport altogether, my walks are even longer, which can only be a good thing. I help an elderly lady in my building with the shopping, which feels good: at least I'm doing something for the show (ABBA fans will understand the reference). But otherwise it's work as usual.

The delay of the book - I naïvely had originally expected to publish in the spring of 2020 - has turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It would have been disappointing not to be able to do some kind of event when ABBA On Record is published, and I do hope that will be possible when the book is finished in 2021.

In the meantime, thanks again to everyone who has pre-ordered the book so far. Your excitement and faith in the project is what now enables me to concentrate fully on writing the book.

If you want to learn more about the book and perhaps support the project, please visit abbaonrecord.com.

 

Blue Mink - their influence on ABBA

Published March 26, 2020

Back in 1993, when I interviewed Björn Ulvaeus for the very first time, we discussed the origins of the first ABBA song, 'People Need Love', recorded in March 1972. Björn seemed to remember that there was a specific influence behind the song. "Weren't there these duos around then, a guy and a girl, who sang these types of songs?" he said. I couldn't immediately think of any such duos, but Björn held on to the thought. "I believe it was something that was recorded in England that inspired us," he continued. "This thing with guys and girls - or guy and girl, probably. I believe there were a number of such constellations around then, that had one or two hits."

Since neither Björn nor I could think of a specific act, I dropped it for the time being. But a while later, I interviewed session guitarist Janne Schaffer about his ABBA work. "'People Need Love' - there was actually an idea behind it," Janne suddenly said, without being prompted by me. "There was an English group called Blue Mink. There were a few ideas borrowed from them."

When I met up with Björn again, I told him what Janne had said, and he confirmed that Blue Mink was indeed the group he had been thinking of. Bingo!

By then I had researched Blue Mink a bit and discovered that by the time 'People Need Love' was recorded, 'The Banner Man' was their most recent hit - in the summer of 1971 it spent 14 weeks on the UK singles chart, peaking at #3 - although it had done nothing in Sweden. I suggested that this might have been the record that inspired them, but Björn didn't think that this was it specifically.

And, as I wrote in ABBA - The Complete Recording Sessions, "it could have been one of several [Blue Mink songs], since the group’s hits were often based on the trading of lines between lead singers Roger Cook and Madeline Bell, much like the male-female alternating vocals heard on ‘People Need Love’. The theme of the lyrics – basically about reaching out to your fellow man – was also mirrored in many Blue Mink hits."

How many of you have actually heard Blue Mink? (Strictly speaking they weren't a duo and they weren't all British, since some of their members were American.) They were one of those middle of the road bands that I suspect weren't highly regarded by the cognoscenti at the time, but nevertheless had an audience.

Consisting of A-list session musicians, they were probably a lot better than you'd expect them to be. This was brought home to me recently as I happened to hear 'The Banner Man' for the first time in many years. The bassist in Blue Mink was Herbie Flowers, whose main claim to fame is perhaps his contribution to Lou Reed's 'Walk On The Wild Side'. But listen to his incredible playing in 'The Banner Man', from circa 01:40 onwards. Any self-respecting band would be proud to have someone play like that on their recordings.

 

ABBA: Song by Song - new book by Ian Cole

Published February 24, 2020

Similar to so many of my latter-day friendships, I first met Ian Cole online, more than two decades ago. This was 1998: he was a member of the mailing list ABBAMAIL, and I was a lurker. I soon noticed that the posts made by someone named Ian Cole were very much up my alley: factual and informative. I thought, "This is someone I should get in touch with". Which I did after unlurking myself. After we'd got to know each other, it quickly transpired that we were both Beatles fans and familiar with the work by writers such as Mark Lewisohn, the author of The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, which was the inspiration behind my own ABBA - The Complete Recording Sessions. Small wonder that Ian and I shared many of the same attitudes to ABBA and the group's universe.

From 1999 onwards, Ian has been the trusted proofreader of virtually everything I've written in the English language, whether it's about ABBA or one of my Swedish-to-English translation assignments about another subject entirely. Everyone should be fortunate enough to have someone onboard who can correct grammar slips, point to factual errors and - this is most important - deliver criticism in a constructive manner. It's often said that "so-and-so can't take criticism", but delivering criticism is also an art form, which Ian has mastered like few others. Over these more than two decades, he has become a close friend to the point that I was his witness at his and husband Ian's wedding a couple of years ago.

When Ian told me that he was going to write a song by song book on ABBA, as part of Fonthill Media's series of similar titles, I was delighted for several reasons. Firstly, I feel there aren't enough ABBA books written by people with in-depth knowledge of the group, and it was welcome for that very reason. Secondly, although there have been similar titles published about ABBA (my own long-out-of-print ABBA - The Complete Guide To Their Music, for instance), I knew that Ian, as someone who has thought about ABBA's music since the mid-1970s, would not just say what everybody else has already said.

After so many years of tireless proofreading on his part, I was very happy to finally be able to offer him the same service with ABBA: Song by Song. And it was work I really enjoyed, for, having written so much about ABBA myself, I found it very refreshing to get someone else's perspective on the songs and the albums. Ian has brought up aspects that I'd never thought of myself, and pointed to facts which I maybe wasn't aware of. Most importantly, all of the observations in ABBA: Song by Song come from someone who actually knows a lot about ABBA, rather than a johnny-come-lately jumping to conclusions and presenting them as facts.

For me, there was an especially thrilling moment during Ian's work on the book. We were chatting online when he mentioned that a fan had pointed to an historical fact that may have had some bearing on the lyrics of a certain ABBA song. Having access to a Swedish online archive, I was able to quickly find evidence that yes, it's very likely that Björn was inspired by a particular set of circumstances when he wrote those lyrics. ABBA: Song by Song will be the first book where this theory is presented.

So, if you're an ABBA fan who likes to think about the group's music, or just someone who likes to have a handy, up-to-date and authoritative reference book about ABBA's recorded output, this book is most definitely for you.

ABBA: Song by Song will be published 6 March 2020. Ian has put together a page with handy pre-ordering links. It can be accessed here.

 

Is the melody sacred or not?

Published February 20, 2020

In a 1997 interview with the Bee Gees, discussing their songwriting methods, they claimed that once they'd written a melody they were happy with, they would not change it. In other words, they would not adjust it so as to accommodate the lyrics.

In a similar example, Carole Bayer-Sager has told the story of writing the lyrics for the mega-hit 'That's What Friends Are For'. Her opening line was "I never thought I'd feel this way", but this would mean that the first note of the melody, written by Burt Bacharach, would have to go. He was adamant that that first note must remain, which explains why the opening line ultimately turned out to be the somewhat odd "And I never thought I'd feel this way".

I always thought that Björn and Benny were similarly protective about their melodies, but listening to The Michael B. Tretow Tapes for my forthcoming book ABBA On Record, I've discovered that this was not always the case. For instance, you can often hear, when they're working out a backing track, that there was originally an additional note or two in the tune, which had to go when the lyrics were written.

More recently, I realised something similar that I'd never thought of, regarding the Swedish and English versions of 'Waterloo'. In the Swedish version, the opening line is "Jo, jo, vid Waterloo Napoleon fick ge sig" and in the English it's "My, my, at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender". But there is actually one more syllable in "Napoleon did surrender" than in "Napoleon fick ge sig". If they'd wanted to protect the original melody, they could've written "Napoleon surrendered" instead, as that phrase had the correct number of syllables. However, it probably sounded better when the line ended with a vowel sound - "surrend-ah!" - so the melody was fiddled with just a bit. In other words, Björn and Benny weren't above changing things just slightly, if it would help the overall outcome.

The insights gained from The Michael B. Tretow Tapes are just one of the many revelations in ABBA On Record. You can support the project by pre-ordering your copy here: abbaonrecord.com

Your support matters!

 

Notes about ABBA On Record

Published February 13, 2020

I am just now working hard on my forthcoming book ABBA On Record - Packaged Promoted Reviewed (abbaonrecord.com), which will be published in 2021. As I'm writing, the format of the book is starting to take concrete shape, and since it's been a while since I said something more detailed about its contents, I thought now might be a good time.

As previously announced, the heart of the book is an annotated discography: using the Polar Music releases as the starting point, there will be commentary text about the way each release was packaged (backgrounds stories about the sleeves, and so on) and how it was promoted and what kind of success it achieved, primarily in Sweden/Scandinavia, the UK, the US and Australia. Each commentary text ends with the chart positions for the release in the territories mentioned, plus a selection of review excerpts (where available).

The commentary text will be factual, since that's the nature of the book, but I've also endeavoured to make it human and three-dimensional and to offer something new. For instance, through close study of vintage newspaper cuttings, and new interviews with the surviving main players, I've managed to put together a much more detailed story about how ABBA got their record contract in the United States. I found it fascinating, and I can't wait to share it with you.

Next Thursday, I shall reveal more details about the contents of the book.

If you want to support ABBA On Record by pre-ordering a copy (everyone who pre-orders will get their name printed in the book, plus their copy signed with a personal dedication), you can do so by clicking here. Your support matters!

 

Waterloo was first performed by ... Ajax?!

Published January 30, 2020

So you thought that ABBA were the original artists who performed 'Waterloo'? Wrong! Well, in a sense, at least.

ABBA performed 'Waterloo' in Melodifestivalen - the Swedish selection for the Eurovision Song Contest - on 9 February 1974. But in advance of that year's broadcast, all the entries were performed in the Swedish television magazine, Sveriges Magasin, which aired Monday–Friday between 6.30 and 7.30 pm. Two songs were performed in each programme by the vocal group Ajax (who would also serve as Melodifestivalen backing singers for artists that required them). On 30 January, they performed ‘Min kärlekssång till dig’ (“My Love Song For You”, Lasse Berghagen’s entry) and also ‘Waterloo’, marking the first time that the ABBA song was heard in public, albeit not performed by Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Frida.

The four members of Ajax were:

Karin Stigmark - in the mid-1960s, she released a number of singles and EPs in France under the name Karine, before returning to Sweden towards the end of the decade. She continued her recording career in Sweden, co-wrote songs for Melodifestivalen (including one in 1973), and was a member of the Swedish progressive super group Baltik, the other members being ABBA musicians such as Janne Schaffer, Mike Watson, Malando Gassama and Ola Brunkert, to name just a few.

Beverly Glenn Sundel - an American singer who came to Sweden in 1964, and eventually did session work (she sings on Agnetha's Elva kvinnor i ett hus album) before concentrating on jazz and gospel; she passed away in 2009.

Peter Lundblad - although never a major star, he emerged on the Swedish music scene in the 1970s, and a handful of songs he released in the 1980s have remained popular; he passed away in 2015.

Göran Wiklund - became a member of Ajax through his friendship with Peter Lundblad, later went on to a progressive band, and is still around today, mainly as a soul music singer.

Later in 1974 the budget album Svensktoppen 2 was released, where Ajax performed a number of recent hits, including Waterloo. This recording, then, should be fairly close to that first TV performance. I recently located a copy of the LP, and I've uploaded Ajax' version of 'Waterloo' here. (May not work on mobile phones.)

This is just one of a myriad of similar stories to be included in my forthcoming book ABBA On Record - Packaged Promoted Reviewed. Read more here.

 

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