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.


Early-to-mid-October

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.


Conclusion

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.