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Abba: my part in their rise to world domination

Agnetha 1A new museum dedicated to Abba is opening this week in Stockholm, in the presence of 75 per cent of the group: Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. I have three things to say about this.

1.

Here’s a memory from one day in 1980, when a review copy of their new single, “The Winner Takes It All”, arrived at the Melody Maker office, then located in a Nissen hut just south of Blackfriars Bridge in London. This was long before Abba acquired any sort of hipster credibility, or even the respect due to people who make great pop records, but I’d loved “Dancing Queen”, “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and “The Name of the Game” and I wanted to hear this one. So I dashed towards the listening room and opened the door. Already in there was Ian Birch, one of the paper’s writers, sitting with a couple of people whose backs were towards me. I couldn’t see  who they were.

“Sorry, Ian,” I said, “but I really have to listen to this — it’s the new Abba single.” A look of horror crossed his face. The two people with him swung round in amazement. They were Phil Oakey and Joanne Catherall from the Human League, then at the very beginning of their journey to pop stardom. With Ian, they were doing something called Blind Date: a weekly feature in which a pop star was played a bunch of new records without being told what they were, and was invited to comment. I’d interrupted their seance, and they clearly thought they were in the presence of a madman. I couldn’t have seemed more utterly uncool had I said I wanted to listen to a klezmer remake of “We’ll Gather Lilacs”. I made my excuses and left.

2.

We all want to leave a footprint on history, and here is mine, as recorded in Bright Lights Dark Shadows: The Real Story of Abba, by Carl Magnus Palm, published by Omnibus Press in 2001. Palm tells the story of how Michael Tretow, then a young studio engineer, was working with Bjorn and Benny, and wanted to make their records sound better. No one in Sweden, however, understood the techniques used by American and British record producers. There was no literature available. Then, one day…

One of the more open-minded booksellers was located in central Stockholm, he writes. Michael would pop in every now and then to see if any interesting titles were available. One day in the autumn of 1972 he finally found the book he’d been dreaming about. It was called Out of His Head: The Sound of Phil Spector. The author was Richard Williams, the assistant editor of Britain’s Melody Maker magazine, and the volume had just recently been published. Michael didn’t hesitate, and headed straight for the cashier with this find before anyone else snapped it up.

Bjorn, Benny and Michael were all roughly the same age, and like most of their generation had discovered rock through Elvis Presley. They were also big fans of the records made by the producer Phil Spector in the early Sixties. His “wall of sound” had been the foundation for dozens of legendary recordings he had produced for several American girl groups, as well as artists like the Righteous Brothers and Ike and Tina Turner.

What Michael wanted to know was how Spector achieved that enormous sound. Although he was not entirely sure, he thought he had a hunch — and now Out of His Head revealed all the secrets. “Then He Kissed Me” by the Crystals used “a whole gang of guitars”, the book established. On the following pages, a section about the Ronettes’ classic “Be My Baby” went into even greater detail. “The orchestra, outrageously gigantic, had pianos and basses arrayed in ranks in the studio,” wrote Williams, “and everyone joining in to play the percussion which Spector had arranged with almost militaristic precision.”

Michael nodded to himself. “That explained why it sounded like five guitars,” he recalled. “It was because Spector really did use five guitars.” But having several guitarists, pianists, bassists and so on in the studio at the same time would have been far too expensive for comparatively low key Swedish productions. If a similar effect was to be achieved, they would have to do several overdubs of each of the instruments instead. Michael knew he simply had to try it sometime. 

The opportunity arrived soon enough, for the Metronome studio had been booked for Wednesday, January 10, 1973. That was when Bjorn and Benny were going to record “Ring Ring”, their new song for the Eurovision Song Contest. The night before the session, the three friends met at Michael’s place, discussing the best way of recording the song. Michael told them what he’d read about Phil Spector’s recording techniques. Wouldn’t that be a good thing to try on this new song, to record the backing track at least twice? Bjorn and Benny enthusiastically agreed.

And the rest is history, as Palm goes on to describe. “Ring Ring” gave them their breakthrough hit in several countries. It didn’t win the Eurovision Song Contest, but in terms of shaping their sound it served as a template for the one that did, “Waterloo”, and for the hits that followed.

So there it is. I didn’t make this up. And I’m sorry, but I’ve been dying to tell someone about it. You know: 310 million albums and singles, all those sold-out concerts, 42 million tickets for Mamma Mia!, an official museum in Stockholm — it might never have happened.

3.

Agnetha Faltskog won’t be at the opening the museum because she’s out of the country, promoting her new solo album. It’s her first since 2004, when she released My Colouring Book, consisting of cover versions of songs that meant a lot to her, particularly when she was a young girl. I liked it straight away for its wistfulness and its authenticity: this really does sound like a woman of a certain age recalling the important feelings of her youth and honouring the records that reflected her adolescent emotions. All her versions are excellent, and some are exceptional, beginning with the title track, which she first heard in Dusty Springfield’s version. On Jackie De Shannon’s “When You Walk in the Room” she outdoes every previous version, including those by the composer, the Searchers and Bruce Springsteen (who performed it at Hammersmith Odeon in 1975). “What Now My Love” has the epic quality of a Spector classic, but with modern textures. It was brave of her to accept the challenge of reinterpreting the Shangri-Las’ “Past, Present and Future”, and she does justice to a masterpiece. Over the years My Colouring Book has become nothing less than one of my favourite pop albums.

* The photograph of Agnetha Faltskog is taken from the cover of My Colouring Book, and is by Jimmy Backius.

* It’s been pointed out to me that the incident at the Melody Maker can’t have taken place in 1979, as I originally wrote, since “The Winner Takes It All” was released in 1980. So I’ve made the correction. I’m delighted that the blog is attracting such eagle-eyed readers as @marcellocarlin.

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19 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Tickell #

    Glen Matlock was an Abba fan: he cites them, along with the Small Faces’ ‘Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am’, as the inspiration for ‘Pretty Vacant’. So much for being thrown out of the Sex Pistols for liking the Beatles! That was Malcolm McLaren spin – the bassist’s crime was in fact liking Abba.

    May 6, 2013
  2. The Human League women may not have been big Abba fans, but Phil Oakey certainly was. He repeatedly sang Abba’s praises in interviews around the time of Dare. And, yes, Agnetha’s My Colouring Book is a beautiful record. As well as the songs already mentioned, her versions of Sometimes When I’m Dreaming are Fly Me To The Moon are sublime.

    May 7, 2013
  3. Phil Shaw #

    What was striking to me about Agnetha’s version of ‘When You Walk In the Room’ was the backing music, which seemed quite clearly to be trying to capture a sort of E Street Band sound. I liked her treatment of the song — it’s a bit like ‘Walk Away Renee’ in that it seems hard to do a duff cover of it — though not as much as Jackie DeShannon’s original or indeed The Searchers’ version. I felt she hadn’t quite grasped the desperation of the lyric; having powerful, overwhelming feelings for someone (“trumpets sound I hear thunder boom”) but being powerless to do anything about it (“I only have the nerve to stare”). Interesting stuff, nonetheless, and I’m now going to listen to her take on the Shangri-La’s, which you’ve recommended twice, Richard, so it must be pretty decent. As for Abba, I’m a ‘Day Before You Came’ man…..

    May 7, 2013
  4. I don’t think the League would have been too upset with your Abbamania, Richard, since their ‘Blue’ songs were aimed at Abba fans.

    May 7, 2013
  5. Stuart Batsford #

    Dear Richard,
    On one of the more surreal and thrilling events in my life, I found myself at the home of Phil Spector.

    How I found myself there is not important or interesting, but it’s a date (22nd August 1986) that is indelible in my memory.

    I won’t bore you with the funny/scary/touching/ridiculous events that unfolded that evening, but I will share something with you: on every coffee table in Phil’s lounge/living room area, was a copy of ‘Out Of His Head’. I think I counted five.

    The legend grows!

    Best,
    Stuart

    May 7, 2013
  6. I’ll never forget that moment of first seeing Abba, blowing away the rest of the competition with “Waterloo” in the Eurovision Song Contest. There was no doubt they would win. And no surprise they went on to great things. No-one who likes pop music can dislike Abba. Well done for playing your part in their ascent!

    May 7, 2013
  7. Richard, a friend of mine wondered just recently if you were aware of your influence on ‘Ring Ring’ – and now we know you are! This was actually one of the bits in Bright Lights… that I most enjoyed writing. And quite apart from its influence on ABBA, your Phil Spector book was and is a great read.

    I posted a brief blog about your blog on my website: carlmagnuspalm.com.

    Best regards
    Carl Magnus Palm

    May 9, 2013
  8. Marco #

    A great and interesting blog! Tnx!

    May 9, 2013
  9. Paul S #

    Hi Richard. Thanks for this fascinating post. Because I am a pedantic guy, I should point out that ABBA’s sound engineer correct name is Michael Tretow.
    P.S.: Thanks for your book on Ayrton Senna and your contribution to the movie!

    May 10, 2013
  10. pistacios #

    I think your Sunday Times reivew of Abba’s 1977 show at Royal Abert Hall in London can also be considered as your part in their rise to world domination:

    “During the past months the unenlightened could have been forgiven for coming to believe that something called ABBA is simply a device with which the editors of British tabloid newspapers boost their circulations. Last night, with black-market tickets on sale at around ten times their value, this extraordinary Swedish group attempted to show exactly why they have become such a phenomenon of the pop charts (one in ten British families is said to own their albums; in Australia, the figure is in one in three).
    Without question, they lived up to their reputation for efficiency. Their hits were performed with a precision and an incorrigible cheerfulness which, combined with their futuristic white-and-gold costumes and the audience’s unaffected enthusiasm, made the event resemble nothing more than a space-age revival meeting.

    Their better songs, like “Mamma Mia”, “Dancing Queen”, “S.O.S.”, and the Eurovision winner “Waterloo”, are already pop classics. Operating in an evidently fruitful territory between Easy Listening and Hard Rock, the composers Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, are the masters of what might be called “consensus pop” and have an immaculate instinct for the irresistible hook-line.
    The arrangements, though, are their real secret: no one in the field can match their outstandingly imaginative deployment of pianos, synthesizers, and tuned percussion, derived from the innovations of Brian Wilson and Phil Spector.

    Away from the hits however, the formula can become wearisome, and during their half-hour cantata, “The Girl With The Golden Hair”, only the frequently felicitous arrangements for their 12-piece ensemble restrained one from an extended study of the hall’s architecture. The lead singing of Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Fältskog was as relentlessly effervescent as expected, and the pair was mainly responsible for leaving the technological panoply with a measure of humour and humanity. Leading a sing-along during “Fernando”, for instance, they turned the crusty Albert Hall into a fair facsimile of a Butlin’s holiday camp.
    The general enjoyment was thoroughly enhanced by their pattern between the songs, a wickedly accurate parody of those lamented favourites, Armand and Michaela Dennis.”

    May 11, 2013
    • Thanks. It was The Times, not the Sunday Times. And “patter”, not “pattern”, in the last sentence.

      May 11, 2013
  11. pistacios #

    Sorry, it should be “leavening” instead of “leaving ” as in “mainly responsible for LEAVENING the technological panoply”

    May 11, 2013
  12. pistacios #

    Can you tell us what do you think about Agnetha’s last album (you loved her last album obviously)? Does your “Brechtian Angle” still apply?

    -ABBA conquered the world because they understood the appeal of Swedish women singing in English with very slight accents (distance lends enchantment)-

    May 11, 2013
  13. Jed Bartlet #

    This is one of the few articles I’ve read about Abba which remembers how uncool they were at that time. Popular for sure, but not among people like me (I was a teenager) whose opinions really mattered. My father – old enough to have seen active service at the end of the Second World War – liked them, for God’s sake.

    And, as Pete Paphides says, the start of the journey to redemption was when the Human League – then the coolest band in the world – endorsed them. It’s not often acknowledged just how crucial the League were to Abba receiving critical acclaim, as if they cared.

    Phil Oakey tried to do the same for Fleetwood Mac, but that took a few years more.

    May 13, 2013
  14. pistacios #

    What exactly is critical acclaim? Favorable reviews in the media? Is it of any consequence that few journalists like what you do? Or dislike?
    Why would Abba, or any popular act for that matter, care whether they were “critically acclaimed” or not?

    May 14, 2013
  15. John Bernhardt #

    Yeah, I was a little confused why you didn’t invite the Human League folk to hear the ABBA record, since late ABBA and Human League are both synthesizer heavy music.

    November 18, 2015

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