Just current hits then, classics now

Published June 09, 2012

I meant to publish this about a year ago, at the time of the release of Super Trouper Deluxe Edition, but never got around to doing it. Better late than never...

As Super Trouper Deluxe Edition was about to hit the shops, I got to thinking about how The Winner Takes It All and Super Trouper would have been presented in Smash Hits back in the day. In case you're unfamiliar with this British magazine, it was founded in 1978 and, after a few years, had become the biggest and most powerful pop publication in Great Britain. They published the lyrics to current hits or likely-to-be-hits, along with stories on pop stars, glossy pictures, gossip and whatever else you would expect from such a magazine. I bought the very first issue and started subscribing in 1979, and didn't give it up until 1986.

My Smash Hits collection is still intact (almost), so I dug up the issues with the two ABBA singles in them, and I was a bit shocked to see the not-very-glamorous presentation of The Winner Takes It All. It's hard to fathom today that when it was first released, it was simply regarded as the new ABBA single and one of many songs competing for record-buyers' attention. It wasn't even afforded a page of its own, but had to share space with Sheena Easton's 9 To 5 (subsequently re-christened Morning Train so as to avoid confusion with Dolly Parton's 9 To 5 - but that's another story). Today, of course, The Winner Takes It All is widely regarded as one of the most important ABBA songs, but back then it was just another ditty whose words were to be transcribed and pasted across an ugly blue-tinted picture of the group.

By the time Super Trouper was a released as a single, the glamour-factor had increased by a couple of hundred per cent. Full colour! An entire page devoted to this song only! Wow! This seems more appropriate, somehow - at least with the benefit of hindsight.

 

Alternative ABBA

Published June 05, 2012

ABBA’s international impact being what it is, one shouldn’t be surprised when references to them and their music crop up here and there. But perhaps most of us wouldn’t quite expect to find an ABBA episode in a novel with “alternative” music as its main theme. But this is exactly what’s on offer in British author Tim Thornton’s book The Alternative Hero. Tim tells me the following extract, published here with his permission, is based on a real-life incident:

“A few years ago I walked past Björn Ulvaeus on Oxford Street. His appearance had become less blonde Swedish male pop star and more bearded, kindly uncle, but before I knew what I was doing I was running back up the other side of the road so that I could walk past him again. It’s a funny old thing. As I approached him for the second time I ran through various lines I could maybe say to him (‘Sorry to bother you, I’d just like to tell you that ABBA made my childhood slightly more bearable’; ‘Sorry, I thought you ought to know that ABBA: The Album kicks the shit out of Pet Sounds and Sergeant Pepper as a classic, flawless pop masterpiece’; ‘Sorry, but can I just say that “My Love My Life” is the song I want played at my funeral’ etc.) but wisely decided to merely saunter past, enjoying a few seconds of being metres away from a genius. Besides, what if he’d been having a bad day and had told me to piss off? I’d have probably hurled myself in front of a passing 73 bus.”

Tim also tells me that ABBA – The Album is his favourite ABBA album because of its “bizarre blend of claustrophobia and awesome poppiness which still sends shivers down my spine”. No surprise, then, that the main character in his novel declares at one point that ‘Hole In Your Soul’ is his favourite ABBA song of all time.

To learn more about the book, click here. Or simply use one of the ordering links to the right.

 

Benny, The Accordion And The Opera Singer

Published May 05, 2012


All die-hard ABBA fans know about the group's performance of Dancing Queen on the royal gala held the evening before the wedding between Sweden's king and queen in June 1976. But a little-known fact from that night is that Benny Andersson did another performance that night. Yes, when opera singer Kjerstin Dellert performed 'O, min Carl Gustaf' (a song written by Emil Norlander, who wrote and staged many revues in the early 1900s), she was accompanied on the accordion by none other than Benny.

I was reminded of this fact last night when I watched a documentary about Kjerstin Dellert, which featured a very short clip of the performance, in which Benny is visible for a second or two. You can watch it on SVT Play (the clip occurs at about 03:05; it's available until June 3, 2012).

Björn and Benny also produced Dellert's recording of the song, which became a hit in Sweden, reaching number two on the vote-based Svensktoppen radio chart.

For Old Time's Sake, Man!

Published March 30, 2012


If you were born in the Sixties, like I was, it’s a good chance that you'll remember the song ‘Hello, This Is Joannie’, which was a hit in 1978. And if you’re an Elvis fan, like I am, you might be familiar with songs such as ‘I Gotta Know’, which was the B-side of ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ but also a hit in its own right, and ‘The Next Step Is Love’, a classic song recorded in 1970. And if you’re a fan of John Waters, which I am, you may be familiar with the movie Pecker, which featured a 1960 hit entitled ‘Happy-Go-Lucky-Me’ on its soundtrack.

So, what has all this got to do with ABBA? Well, all the above songs were written and/or recorded by American singer Paul Evans, and are just a random selection of his many accomplishments. And what, exactly, does he have to do with ABBA? Well, as regular readers of this blog will be aware, I’ve run a little series of “pre-ABBA songs by Andersson & Ulvaeus recorded by prominent international artists”. First there was Lonnie Donegan’s recording of ‘I Lost My Heart On The 5.42’, and then there was Andy Williams’ version of ‘If We Only Had The Time’. To tell you the truth, though, I had sort of given up on stumbling across any more such examples.

However, a couple of weeks ago I was going through some old cuttings when I was reminded of a statement made by Björn and Benny in a 1972 interview. They talked about their 1970 hit ‘Hej gamle man!’ (“Hey, Old Man!”) and mentioned that it had been recorded by “some country guy” in America. Well, did you think I was going to be satisfied with that tiny morsel of information? Of course not! I contacted a friend at Universal Music Publishing who informed me that the “country guy” in question was Paul Evans, that the English lyrics were written by Evans in collaboration with Paul Parnes, that their version was entitled ‘For Old Time’s Sake’, and that the song was released as the B-side of Paul Evans' single ‘Think Summer’ on Laurie Records in 1971.

I quickly realised that the song wasn’t available on CD, but fortunately I found a copy of the single on eBay. But what was the back story of the song? Contrary to the present-day situation, Swedish pop songs were not high currency in the international music business in the early Seventies, so I was curious how the recording came about. Of course, knowing that Stig Anderson made every effort to have Andersson/Ulvaeus songs published and recorded by foreign artists, I had a hunch how it may have come about. Paul Evans himself was kind enough to fill in the blanks. “[Music publisher] Stanley Mills (September Music) got the American rights from Stig at a MIDEM convention and asked Paul Parnes and I to write the English lyric,” Evans wrote in an e-mail. “I recorded the song for Laurie Records. Of course, at the time I had no idea who Benny and Björn were (or were going to be).”

Naturally, as the B-side of a single that was not a hit (as far as I’ve been able to ascertain), the song probably didn’t make much of an impression at the time. The British release of the single on the London label in 1971 also failed to chart. But now, more than four decades later, ‘For Old Time’s Sake’ has one definite claim to historical fame: as far as I can tell, it’s the earliest recording of an Andersson/Ulvaeus song by an American or British artist – it might even be the earliest non-Scandinavian recording for all I know. Please feel free to correct me if some cover version of ‘Isn’t It Easy To Say’ or ‘A Flower In My Garden’ has slipped my mind!

Click here to listen to Paul Evans’ recording of ‘For Old Time’s Sake’. It’s a bit different to the original in that it cuts the number of verses in half: instead of two verses before each chorus, Evans and Parnes obviously felt one was quite enough, and placed all their bets on the catchy chorus (except towards the end of the song, where there are indeed two verses before the last chorus).

“I know that Stanley wouldn't have taken the song nor would Paul Parnes and I have agreed to write the lyrics if we didn't love it,” Paul Evans concludes. “I guess we were all good talent spotters.”

Click here to visit the official Paul Evans site.

 

People Need ABBA

Published March 28, 2012

Let me start with two clichés: Has it really been 40 years? And: if so, how old does that make me? Much as I would love to think otherwise, the brutal truth is that it really is true: on Thursday, March 29, 2012, it’s exactly 40 years since ABBA started recording their very first single: ‘People Need Love’. I was seven years old when the single was released (so now you can do the maths and figure out exactly how old I am), and vividly remember the first time I heard it.

In the summer of 1972, my family rented a house on the island of Åland, which is situated between Sweden and Finland. It was close enough to Sweden that you could listen to Swedish radio there, and I was eager to tune in to the radio chart show, Tio i topp (The Top Ten). An immensely popular show broadcast on Saturday afternoons, it existed between 1961 and 1974 and featured a chart based on votes, consisting primarily of English-language rock and pop music.

If you loved pop music, which I did, you didn’t want to miss that show. So that Saturday afternoon in July 1972 would have been my first encounter with ABBA. I do remember being excited about the tune and really liking it, in that absolutely unneurotic and unrestricted way you do as a child, not worrying if it was “cool” but just responding to the melody, the production and the energetic performance. However, I didn’t become a major fan of the group at the time. My first ABBA single was the English version of ‘Ring Ring’ in 1973, and then I didn’t buy an ABBA record again until ‘The Winner Takes It All’. But it seemed ABBA were doing fine without my support.

And now, here we are, exactly 40 years after the story began, still listening to ABBA’s music. Not, however, so much to ‘People Need Love’, if we’re talking about the general public. The song is not on ABBA Gold and didn’t even make it onto More Gold – none of these compilations feature any tracks from the Ring Ring album (ABBA’s first), except for the title track – so today, it’s not as readily available to the casual fan. It’s somehow a pity that this song has become so obscure, although I can see why: it does seem to belong in the very early Seventies, and doesn’t bear many traces of what was to come in terms of more sophisticated ABBA recordings such as ‘Dancing Queen’ or ‘The Winner Takes It All’. Still, I have a large space in my heart for these slightly naïve, but charming and zestful early ABBA recordings. So here’s to ‘People Need Love’ and ABBA’s 40th Anniversary!

If you want to know more about how the song came to be, click here to read my In Focus essay about ‘People Need Love’, originally published on The Official ABBA Site in 2003. The site is currently down for maintenance, so I’m offering the text here as a no-frills pdf file.

 

Just like this or just like that?

Published March 14, 2012


Airborne pigs were recently spotted in the vicinity of central Stockholm. Who’d ever thought that we’d see any further releases of previously unavailable ABBA recordings? But with the upcoming The Visitors Deluxe Edition, this is exactly what’s happened. Benny Andersson took some demos and discarded attempts at recording the album’s closing track, ‘Like An Angel Passing Through My Room’, and strung them together in a 9-minute medley entitled ‘From A Twinkling Star To A Passing Angel (demos)’. Naturally, ABBA fans were thrilled with this news, but many also wondered: If ABBA can authorise the release of a bunch of demos, why won’t they release the holy grail of all unreleased ABBA tracks, ‘Just Like That’? It was recorded in 1982, during the aborted sessions for what was projected as ABBA’s ninth studio album, and so it would have been a perfect fit among the other bonus tracks on The Visitors Deluxe Edition, most of which cover ABBA’s final recording period.

The answer to that question is simply: It doesn’t work like that. On this very site, you will find listed a number of reasons why ‘Just Like That’ hasn’t been released, to which can be added the fact that Björn and Benny regard the recording as unfinished. “Unfinished?”, I hear you cry. “But it’s mixed and completed!” Yes, it is indeed mixed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it would ever have been released in this state back in the early 1980s. There are many instances where ABBA recorded a track, mixed it – and then decided that it wasn’t finished, went back to add and subtract instrumental and vocal parts, edited out sections of the recording, and then created a brand new mix.

But for all these various reasons, it all boils down to Björn and Benny’s feelings about ‘Just Like That’, and they simply don’t want to release it. There’s no use in arming yourself with “logical” arguments why they should release this, that or the other, along the lines of “if they’ve done this, surely they can do that!” Again, it doesn’t work like that. They are artists, and as such they can only judge by their own gut feelings whether something should be released or not – just like they’ve always done. I’m sure they would agree that, in retrospect, sometimes they’ve made the wrong decision, but that’s also their prerogative: it’s their music and so their feelings about it will guide their decisions at any given time.

Many fans have also wondered: “Why is the demo medley released now? Is there something bigger in the works? Does this mean that we will get more unreleased music from ABBA?” In the case of the demo medley, the idea came up through informal discussions between Björn, Benny and the record company. There was no big plan or strategy behind it – it just happened because the stars were aligned and all concerned felt it would be fun and interesting. So, in short: Don’t expect any further releases from the ABBA vaults in the future. It could happen, but then again it might not happen at all.

In the meantime, yesterday evening a programme was broadcast on Swedish television, proving that Benny is not completely averse to sometimes revealing some of ABBA’s recording secrets. I’m not sure if you will be able to view this outside Sweden, but in the latest episode in a series entitled "Låtarna som förändrade musiken" (The Songs That Changed Music), Benny was interviewed about the origins of "Ring Ring" – and he also sat down at the mixing desk to isolate some of the tracks of the original 16-track tape to let us hear individual parts. Click here to view the programme.

 

Agnetha album cover star

Published February 24, 2012

I'm not sure if this has been noticed in the ABBA fan community, but Agnetha is one of many faces on the Sgt. Pepper-style sleeve for the latest album by Swedish rock band Eldkvarn (they performed Hasta Mañana on that ABBA tribute thing on Swedish TV ten years ago). Other faces with an ABBA connection include Benny's one-time song writing partner and Frida's duet and touring partner Lasse Berghagen; Frida's duet partner Mauro Scocco (of Ratata); and Ulf Lundell, for whom Agnetha contributed a harmony vocal on a 1978 recording.

The album is entitled De berömdas aveny (The Avenue Of The Famous) and was released in November last year.

Click here for a large picture of the sleeve.

Children Of The World

Published February 09, 2012

A few weeks ago I blogged about an obscure recording of a Björn & Benny song by skiffle legend Lonnie Donegan. Continuing on this theme, here is a little information about a 1980 recording of Andersson/Ulvaeus' 'If We Only Had The Time'.

If we only had the what?, I hear you ask. Well, in 1971 Björn & Benny released a single entitled 'Tänk om jorden vore ung' ("What If The World Were Young"), featuring backing vocals by Agnetha and Frida (and also featuring a rare solo vocal part by Benny). Björn later wrote English lyrics for the song, entitled 'If We Only Had The Time' and it was released by Polar Music recording act Svenne & Lotta on their 1976 album Letters.

Fast forward another four years and the song has somehow found its way into the hands of the people behind an American charity album issued by children's choir Children Of The World. The album features a number of guest vocalists, among them actor Hervé Villechaize whose contribution 'Why' has to be heard to be believed (why?, indeed). It was even released as a single - I'm assuming it didn't do much business, thus somewhat defeating the purpose of what was essentially a charity project.

Anyway, Andy Williams provided the lead vocals on 'If We Only Had The Time'. Similar to my curiosity about Lonnie Donegan's 'I Lost My Heart On The 5.42', I've wondered for a long time how Williams' version of the song sounded - as you can probably tell I have a fascination for pre-ABBA Andersson/Ulvaeus songs being performed by international stars. I don't believe the Children Of The World album was ever released on CD, but a few days ago Ebay came to the rescue with a vinyl copy. So here it is, in case you share my fascination and want to hear it. Not quite as radical a make-over as the Donegan recording (not very radical at all, in fact - the Children Of The World arrangement is clearly modelled on Svenne & Lotta's version), but somewhat interesting - perhaps...

 

Björn, Benny and Lonnie

Published January 16, 2012

In those dark post-teen-idol-years when Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson busied themselves with corny cabaret shows and dodgy sexploitation film soundtracks, they also wrote a number of songs that became notable hits for other Swedish artists. Among them was the 1971 recording 'Välkommen till världen' ("Welcome To The World") by singer Lill-Babs (featuring all four future ABBA members on backing vocals; this track is now available as a bonus selection on Ring Ring Deluxe Edition). It reached number 2 on the vote-based radio chart Svensktoppen, and number 12 on the sales chart.

ABBA manager Stig Anderson was a music publisher at heart and, with his network of international contacts, he never wasted an opportunity to promote the songs of Andersson & Ulvaeus to whomever was interested. I don't know exactly how the following happened but in 1973 a recording of 'Välkommen till världen' was made by British skiffle pioneer Lonnie Donegan. The story was reported in a Swedish newspaper in December 1973, where the reader also learned that Donegan's version was entitled 'I Lost My Heart On The 5.42'. Ever since I read the original newspaper report, when I was researching ABBA - The Complete Recording Sessions back in 1993, I've wondered how his version sounded: in the days before ABBA's international fame it was one of the few Andersson/Ulvaeus compositions to be recorded by anything even resembling an international top act (admittedly, by this time Donegan's glory days were well behind him).

In the late Nineties I was in touch with a British Donegan expert who shared the following information regarding 'I Lost My Heart On The 5.42': "Donegan recorded the song for his own music publishing company Tyler Music but it was only issued on his own TYLER RECORDS LP, catalogue number LDNH 123, for sale at his own concerts. The performance date for the song on the LP is 1975 but the sleeve gives no details about any of the recordings or personnel. It is probable that the LP was pressed in 1975 but the song may well have been recorded in 1973 per the newspaper article." Unfortunately, he was unable to help me with a recording of the track, and since the album was so obscure I've only made half-hearted attempts to locate it myself.

A few days ago I was going through some old files when I came across the song title again. I decided to google it to see if anything came up, and voilà! Some enterprising individual had actually posted it on Youtube (it's been available on CD and as a download since 2008; try the links to the right). It was really interesting to finally get to hear it. The original song, about welcoming a new-born baby into the world, has been transformed into some kind of saucy knees-up music-hall number. I guess it shows that you can make whatever you want out of a catchy tune. Anyway, I'm glad I finally got to hear it - it only took 19 years after I first learned about its existence!

P.S. After a little research I've found out that the lyricist for 'I Lost My Heart On The 5.42' was one Bill Owen. I'm assuming that this is him. According to his Wikipedia entry, he was most famous for his role in the long-running television series Last Of The Summer Wine, but he also dabbled in songwriting, even co-authoring an entire musical. He also wrote the UK Top 30 hit 'Marianne' for Cliff Richard. Who knew that his cv included a contribution to an Andersson/Ulvaeus composition?

 

ABBA by Micke book

Published January 10, 2012

When you're spending most of your time working on various ABBA projects, as I do, after a long day's hard work you tend not to think, "gee, let's relax by listening to ABBA or watching an ABBA DVD or reading an ABBA book or magazine." As a result, I often end up with a backlog of ABBA-related releases to catch up with.

Recently I devoted some time to catching up with my ABBA reading, among them the book ABBA by Micke, by long-time fan Micke Bayart. The core of the book is the many articles the fan club team wrote for the German fanzine ABBA Fan-Blatt between 1984 and 1988. These mostly consisted of meetings with various ABBA members at airports, television studios and the Polar Music offices. The book gives a good view of the diligence with which some fans have tracked down and then met their idols - there is no shortage of photos of Björn and Benny carrying shoulder bags at airports, outside hotels and at other venues.

Most interesting for me are the interviews with the ABBA members, originally printed in German in the fan magazine. These have now been transcribed in English in the book, and you do get some fascinating fact nuggets here and there. These were something of "wilderness" years for Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Frida, where they certainly achieved media attention for their various projects, but the coverage was less intense. And with many fan clubs closing down shortly after the group stopped working together, not to mention the official ABBA magazine, only loyal fans such as Micke bothered to keep track of the four Swedes. For instance, this book was the first time I read a public comment from Benny on the controversial ABBA Live album. Not of earth-shattering importance, perhaps, but truly interesting for those of us interested in "ABBA details".

I'm hoping the people behind other ABBA fanzines will follow in Micke's footsteps and compile their material in books. I'm sure there are many other long-lost stories out there that deserve to be made available to a larger audience. And in English, please!

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