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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.

Yellow cocktail music

Paul WhitemanWith a handful of phrases in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald lets us know that he missed his vocation: he would have made a first-class jazz critic. Consider, for example, his description of the music played by the band during the first of Jay Gatsby’s parties at the mansion on Long Island Sound attended by Nick Carraway, the book’s narrator: “The moon had risen a little higher, and floating in the Sound was a triangle of silver scales, trembling a little to the stiff, tinny drip of the banjoes on the lawn.” Wow. How many opponents of trad jazz must have wished they’d come up with the lethal precision of that “stiff, tinny drip”?

Even better is this, a couple of pages earlier: “The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music…” Yellow cocktail music! Who could not read those words and imagine exactly the sound the author had in mind, or at least its effect?

In Carraway’s words, the orchestra hired to entertain Gatsby’s guests is “no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and high and low drums.” Not the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, then, but a more lavish ensemble very much along the lines of the outfit led in the early 1920s by Paul Whiteman, the pioneer of “symphonic jazz”.

The resemblance becomes even more marked when the orchestra leader announces: “Ladies and gentlemen, at the request of Mr Gatsby we are going to play for you Mr Vladmir Tostoff’s latest work, which attracted so much admiration at Carnegie Hall last May. If you read the papers you know there was a big sensation.” The piece, he continued, was known as “Vladmir Tostoff’s Jazz History of the World”.

If we are searching for a real-life inspiration for the fictitious Mr Tostoff, we might alight upon the figure Ferdy Grofé, a pianist and composer who met Whiteman in California in 1919 and worked closely with him until 1933. It was he who orchestrated George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, commissioned by Whiteman, for its concert debut at New York’s Aeolian Hall in 1924, with Gershwin himself at the piano. I still have my mother’s two-sided 12-inch 78 of their studio recording for the Victor label, released in the UK on His Master’s Voice; you can hear and see a later (and rather differently staged) performance here in an extract from the 1930 film King of Jazz.

Fitzgerald began work on Gatsby in 1922 — the year of Gershwin’s one-act opera Blue Monday, which inspired Whiteman to invite him to write a longer work — and made his final revisions in 1925, by which time “symphonic jazz” had become a part of the American music scene. Meanwhile there had been the premiere of Darius Milhaud’s much discussed La Création du Monde, another work which attempted to blend jazz and European classical music. (Milhaud, a French composer who had heard jazz during a visit to Harlem in 1922, later taught at Mills College in Oakland, California, where his pupils included Dave Brubeck and Burt Bacharach.) Grofé’s Mississippi Suite would come along in 1927, part of a phenomenon that withered in the face of critical disdain but provided a pre-echo of the Third Stream movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The Great Gatsby always reminds me of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue: no amount of mishandling can tarnish the essence of a work of 20th century art that comes as close to perfection as makes no difference. So I’m looking forward to Baz Luhrmann’s new film version, released in the UK later this month, with Leonardo di Caprio as Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan and Tobey Maguire as Carraway, and with music by Jay Z, Beyonce, Bryan Ferry and others. After all, Shakespeare survived Luhrmann’s marvellously inventive 1996 version of Romeo & Juliet, with its gun-toting gangbangers and a soundtrack that included Garbage, the Butthole Surfers and Radiohead.

Paul Whiteman, incidentally, earned the undying disrespect of purists who correctly believed he had no right to the absurd “King of Jazz” title (bestowed by a journalist in 1919 but eagerly seized upon as a marketing slogan), at least as long as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and other African American innovators were around. But an unbiased listen to some of his 1920s recordings reveals a man who hired good soloists — including the cornetists Red Nichols and Bix Beiderbecke and the saxophonists Jimmy Dorsey and Frank Trumbauer — and definitely had some sort of a feeling for jazz.

As for “Vladmir Tostoff’s Jazz History of the World”, wouldn’t it be fun if some modern composer with an understanding of the period took it upon himself to imagine the piece into actual life? I’d love to hear it, tinny banjoes and all.

* The photograph of Paul Whiteman’s Ambassador Hotel Orchestra was taken in Atlantic City in 1920; the leader is on the extreme left, a violin under his arm. It is included in the booklet to the CD Paul Whiteman ‘King of Jazz’ 1920-1927, released on the Timeless Historical label.