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!

Rare ABBA track just released on CD

Published November 23, 2011

Broadway Cares, an organization founded to "mobilize the unique abilities within the entertainment industry to mitigate the suffering of individuals affected by HIV/AIDS", have just released their 13th annual collection of Christmas recordings as performed by the casts of various Broadway shows, entitled Carols For A Cure - Volume 13. Naturally, the cast of Mamma Mia! has chipped in, this year with a performance of 'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing'.

What's of particular interest to the ABBA fan, however, is that the Mamma Mia! cast performance is preceded by ABBA's brief rendition of the Swedish Christmas song 'Nu är det jul igen', as originally broadcast on the West German radio show Mal Sondock's Hitparade in 1981.

This marks the first legal CD release of this ABBA recording, so why not buy a copy of the CD and satisfy your ABBA-cravings while at the same time supporting a good cause. You know you want to!

Is ABBA a super group?

Published September 24, 2011

In yesterday’s Expressen (Swedish newspaper), journalist Anders Nunstedt writes about so-called super groups – constellations of well-known artists who get together in a new band – and why these so seldom produce any great music. Nunstedt argues that there are few examples of successful super groups, and states that ABBA wouldn’t qualify “because most of the members were relatively unknown before their career picked up speed”. I’m not sure what he means by “relatively unknown”, but it is a fact that in Sweden the four members were anything but unknown when ABBA were formed. Certainly, on an international level – despite the odd hit enjoyed here and there on the planet by Björn and Benny – you could never say the members were household names. But in Sweden I believe the fact that four well-known artists got together was part of how they were marketed and presented in the media. It is no coincidence that for their first year together they were known as Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid. Their names were supposed to signal: “hey, these four singers who you know and love have got together – isn’t that exciting?”

Still, it’s hard to think of ABBA as a super group. I believe this is mainly because the term is mainly associated with rock and pop acts such as Blind Faith (Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker and Ric Grech) or Crosby, Stills & Nash. At the time of their formation, the four ABBA members were primarily associated with schlager and easy listening. For instance, if Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, Perry Como and Bing Crosby had formed a musical constellation, we probably wouldn’t have used the term super group to describe them, even though formally that’s exactly what they would have been. In the case of ABBA, the group weren't so much a continuation of the individual members’ late Sixties and early Seventies work, as a reinvention and construction of a new musical language that had little to do with what they’d done previously. It’s hard to equate the singers who recorded the jolly ‘Det kan ingen doktor hjälpa’ in 1971 with the sophisticated studio wizards who created ‘Dancing Queen’ a few years later.

So, no, I wouldn’t say that ABBA were a super group. But not because the members were supposedly “relatively unknown” in their pre-ABBA careers.


A few more words on Bright Lights Dark Shadows - the audio book

Published September 14, 2011

The distribution of the audio book edition of Bright Lights Dark Shadows - The Real Story Of ABBA is getting ever wider. Recently, I've added a number of new ordering links for the CD, mp3 and download versions of the book. I've also posted a couple of audio extracts from the book, exclusive to this site, so that you can get a feel for the listening experience.

Don't miss the audio edition of Bright Lights Dark Shadows

Published September 01, 2011

August 17 finally saw the publication of the audio book version of my biography Bright Lights Dark Shadows - The Real Story Of ABBA. As yet the book is only available in Australia and New Zealand, but will eventually be distributed elsewhere.

Clocking in at a whopping 26 hours and 10 minutes, this version of the book is perfect for those long car rides or as a welcome distraction when you're stuck in rush-hour traffic. Wouldn't you rather be thinking about the details of Agnetha's childhood, the music Björn and Benny wrote for a soft-porn movie, or Frida's meeting with her long-lost father, than how late you're going to be for work? Of course you would!

As an audio book virgin, I'm quite looking forward to listening this version myself. It will be interesting to hear a specific voice interpret the words I have written.

Click here for more information on the audio book.

Super Trouper - what came first: the album title or the song title?

Published May 31, 2011

Although I’ve written about it a fair number of times, I’ve always been puzzled by the story of Super Trouper: the album sleeve concept, the album title and the song. And why was a promo clip made for the album track 'Happy New Year' when it was never released as a worldwide single (at the time)? I’ve always felt that there was something contradictory about what came first, how things were put together and in what order – something that didn’t quite add up. Depending on who you’re asking, and at what point in time you’re asking them, the details tend to vary. Perhaps some parts of the story have been embellished after the fact as well. On the occasion of the recent release of Super Trouper Deluxe Edition, I thought I’d try to present what I today believe is the true sequence of events, regardless of what you may have read in some of my books.

All events take place in 1980.

Circa September

ABBA’s seventh studio album is nearing completion and discussions on a concept for an album sleeve begin. Among those involved in the discussions are designer Rune Söderqvist and ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus; perhaps others as well. As yet there is no title for the album, but it appears there is an idea to do a grand and extravagant sleeve. Ideas are thrown around and it seems one thought is to shoot the sleeve at a well-known location somewhere on the planet (one of Rune Söderqvist’s earlier ideas – probably for Voulez-Vous – had been to arrange a photo shoot in the North Pole). A suggestion that everyone seems to like is to shoot the sleeve photograph in London’s Piccadilly Circus. As a pun on the word “circus”, another idea is brought forward: to bring in a real live circus, with performers and animals, to the location. There may even have been an idea to name the album “Piccadilly Circus”, although memories differ on this point.

Late September

Tour producer Thomas Johansson contacts London-based promoter Harvey Goldsmith to enlist his help in making ABBA’s sleeve concept a reality. Together with Rune Söderqvist, Thomas Johansson travels to London to determine the logistics of the venture of shooting the sleeve at Piccadilly Circus. John Spalding, the London-based International Vice President of Polar Music International, accompanies Rune and Thomas to Savile Row Police Station to discuss the matter with the police as well as the Greater London Council. After a meeting lasting more than two hours, they are given the go-ahead to shoot the picture, but it has to be done at three o’clock in the morning in order not to disturb the traffic. And, crucially, ABBA will not be allowed to bring in any circus performers or animals, because of a regulation that stipulates that no such stunts are allowed "within a three mile radius of Charing Cross". This regulation pretty much kills the idea of shooting the sleeve in London.

Monday, September 29

When the Piccadilly Circus plans fall through, the decision is made to retain the circus idea but to stage the photo shoot in a controlled environment in Stockholm. To this end, Europa Film Studio is booked and two bona fide circus troupes are hired to surround ABBA in the sleeve picture. On this day, the call goes out to friends and acquaintances of the group and their associates to be “extras” in the picture. This is very short notice indeed, since the photo shoot is scheduled to take place just four days later.

Wednesday, October 1

Björn, Benny and engineer Michael B. Tretow are hard at work at Polar Music Studio, mixing tracks for the new album. Björn and Benny both feel that the album is lacking a song: they need something that is “a cut above the rest” and could work as a lead-off single (presumably, the decision has already been made that Put On Your White Sombrero – recorded the previous month – will not be included on the album). Because they are in a hurry to complete the album, they afford themselves a “luxury” that they seldom indulge in otherwise: they decide to try to write the new song right then and there in the studio, after the night’s mixing session is over.

Thursday, October 2

More mixing and then more composing work on the new song. Presumably, the tune is completed this night. But there are no final lyrics. At this stage, the working title is ‘Blinka lilla stjärna’  (“Twinkle, Little Star”).

Friday, October 3

The day is spent at Polar Music Studio, recording the backing track for the new song. In the evening, the spectacular photo shoot for the as yet untitled album takes place. Only one circus troupe is present – it turns out that the two different troupes are enemies – but with 70 extras in attendance there is still enough people to create the feeling of a crowd. With plenty of spotlights pointed at the group during the photo shoot, someone thinks of a particular brand of gigantic spotlight used during stadium concerts, named Super Trouper by the manufacturer. This thought develops into an idea that finally gives ABBA the album title they’ve been searching for: Super Trouper.

On the night, director Lasse Hallström is also present to film the circus scenes for use as inserts in an upcoming promo clip for an ABBA single. At this stage, no-one could have known if the song that Björn and Benny had recorded earlier in the day – still only a backing track – would actually work as a single, so in all likelihood these scenes are filmed for another song only. That song was ‘Happy New Year’, which had been earmarked as ABBA's next single since May (at the very least). In an interview in the July issue of the official ABBA Magazine Polar label manager Hans "Berka" Bergkvist said, "The only certain single release will be Happy New Year which will be out around October/November along with the album". So the promo clip was obviously made because ABBA thought ‘Happy New Year’ would be their next single.


With the album title in place, and a backing tracking completed for a brand new song, Björn sets to work on writing the lyrics for this new tune. He finds that the recently agreed-upon album title, Super Trouper, also fits as a phrase in the hook line of the new song. He decides to call the new song ‘Super Trouper’ and uses the spotlight as a vehicle to construct a story about a pop star on tour, longing to be in the arms of her lover. Frida and Agnetha record their vocals, and further overdubs are made to the recording.

Once the recording has been completed, it is clear to one and all that ‘Super Trouper’ will indeed be a perfect single. Thus, a promo clip is filmed for the track, although the decision is made to complete a clip for ‘Happy New Year’ as well – if nothing else, it is probably convenient to have a clip from an additional song on the album available for television screening around the world. Scenes from the album sleeve shoot on October 3 are used in both clips. In November, ‘Super Trouper’ (the single) and Super Trouper (the album) are released worldwide.


The inspiration for creating a circus scene on the album sleeve seems to have originated with the idea of shooting the sleeve in Piccadilly Circus. Super Trouper does not appear to have existed as a title until the night of the photo shoot for the album sleeve on October 3. The decision to make a promo clip for ‘Happy New Year’ was made before ‘Super Trouper’ (the song) existed.


The kind of liner notes I would like to read myself

Published May 06, 2011

Depending on which type of music consumer you are, the liner notes included with a CD reissue are either some boring essay which you have no time for, or something that adds real value to the product. I fall into the latter category: whenever I buy an album I love delving into the liner notes, reading the background stories on the songs included on the album as well as historical facts on the artist in question. And when I write liner notes myself, that’s what I want to offer the readers as well.

At the risk of stating the obvious, there is no universal agreement on exactly what a set of liner notes should be like. Back in the early vinyl days, they often consisted of some kind of hype about the artist, but could also feature, say, an interesting report from a recording session. With the CD age and the boom in the reissue market, the in-depth liner notes became a requirement, part of the raison d’être of the lavishly packaged box set as well as the re-release of the classic album.

Sometimes, of course, modern-day liner notes are actually not very in-depth at all. Some writers – or perhaps the record companies giving the assignment to the writers – seem to prefer to limit their essay to a few superficial notes on the artist, or a reflection upon the music and/or the era in which it was originally issued. I know that I’ve been disappointed a number of times, when I expected to learn about the making of a particular album and instead was confronted with the writings of someone who seemed to be in love more with his or her own prose than the music contained on the album. Admittedly, sometimes there have probably been space restrictions preventing the writer from sharing all the knowledge and insight he or she might possess – or time restrictions (“can you please write an essay for this album, we want it tomorrow morning”) leaving very little time for any kind of research. In those cases, I guess the only reasonable way out is to throw together a general appreciation of the album and hope for the best.

As someone who’s written a fair number of liner notes over the years, I’ve sometimes had to deal with the space restriction issue, but fortunately there has always been time to do the research. Quite simply, I try to write the kind of liner notes I would like to read myself. I’m sure there are ABBA fans who would prefer me to devote more space to gushing prose, praising the group and its individual members to the skies, but I have to admit I’m not very interested in that. I think it goes without saying that the music is great, and although I may add a superlative here and there I’m mainly writing for those who want to learn the background stories, as well as getting some insight into the feelings and opinions of those who actually wrote and recorded the music.

From the time we started putting together the Deluxe Editions of ABBA’s studio albums I’ve had a field day. With 28 pages in the booklet, this allows me to really stretch and tell a full story. Of course, I still end up wanting if not a further 28 pages at least a couple more, because there is somehow never enough room for all the facts, stories and reflections I want to include in the liner notes. However, it’s probably a good thing that there are some space restrictions, because I have certainly read some CD liner notes that just go on for too long and have too many details – indeed, I do believe I’ve been guilty of this indulgence myself on a few occasions. [Update, March 6, 2014: For the Deluxe Editions of Ring Ring and Waterloo, I've been restricted to a 20-page booket.]

The essays included with the Deluxe Editions for the Voulez-Vous and Super Trouper albums have benefitted greatly from the brand new interviews with ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, conducted especially for these projects. Sadly, however, the two women of ABBA don’t feel like they have anything to say about the albums, or perhaps simply have no desire to look back on the ABBA years in this context. I can sort of understand that – Björn and Benny wrote and produced the music, and therefore they will have more insights to share about its creation. But I think I speak for most ABBA fans when I say that it would be great if Agnetha and Frida took a greater part in the present-day re-telling of the ABBA years – not just in my liner notes, but in general.

As this is published, Super Trouper Deluxe Edition is just making its way into the record shops and online stores. Over the years I have recounted the ABBA story in writing so many times that it’s often hard to find anything new to say about it – the story is what it is, and I can’t change the course of history just to make the liner notes more interesting. However, I do always try to come up with a few new facts or comments, or try to find a slightly different angle on certain aspects of the story. Needless to say, for the Voulez-Vous and Super Trouper Deluxe Editions, Björn and Benny’s contributions have been a great help in these endeavours. [Update March 6, 2014: Björn and Benny were also interviewed for the liner notes included with Waterloo Deluxe Edition, ABBA Deluxe Edition and The Visitors Deluxe Edition.]

The liner notes for Voulez-Vous Deluxe Edition have just been added to the site, should you wish to read or re-read them. If you’re buying Super Trouper Deluxe Edition, I hope you’re going to have the time and inclination to read my essay for it – and if you do, I hope you will enjoy it.