ABBA: What’s squeaky-clean, exquisitely produced, Scandinavian and goes “Oompah”?

By Mick Farren - RAM 18 June 1976

They’d told us that Stockholm’s numero uno disco nightclub was a place called Alexandra’s.

Inside, it’s black glass, mirrors and those kind of Edwardian whorehouse lampshades that trendy interior decorators in Australia have been flogging for the past five years.

On the miniscule dance floor, a young muscular woman is performing something that resembles a cross between the frug and Canadian Air Force Advanced Physical Training Routine. Another strapping couple join her on the floor. They start into a soft core porn version of The Bump. At nearly $4.50 for a drink it’s not even possible to get drunk. The whole image of Sweden as a country of wall-to-wall Britt Eklands falls apart at the seams.

And who sent us into Alexandra’s, this feast of Scandinavian delights? None other than Björn Ulvaeus, one of the masterminds behind ABBA, the first Scandinavian pop ensemble ever to make a sizeabe dent in the international entertainment industry.

I guess the only way you could have failed to be exposed to ABBA’s particular brand of pop is to have spent the last twelve months in a sealed fallout shelter. Only someone totally insulated from radios, televisions and even pub juke-boxes could have missed them. Since their Eurovision Song Contest win in 1974 with a song called Waterloo, their music has poured forth in an unrelenting stream from just about every kind of electronic medium.

They’ve had hits (not one, but one after the other) in Britain, U.S.A., most of Europe, Hong Kong, the Philippines and especially, in Australia. In Australia they beat both Sinatra and Andy Williams in T.V. ratings with their telly special and they just about outsell the collective output of all other vinyl competitors. About the only market in the world that they haven’t solidly dented is Japan.

Anyone who comes so fast and hard out of left field and sells so many millions of records has to qualify as a phenomenon.

Must be a hype, huh?

But no. ABBA are not the product of some faceless business mogul with a marketing strategy and lots of money. Sure they’re a manufactured product, but the men behind them are Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, who happens to be in the group. Plus ABBA co-songwriter Stig Anderson, who is also boss of Polar Records, a record company that had previously catered solely for the Scandinavian market.

But now with ABBA, Benny ‘n’ Björn ‘n’ Stig are a world-wide success – a phenomenal manufactured product.

To a lot of people, ABBA aren’t funky, they have no soul and they’re bland to the point of making baby food seem raunchy. But it’s also a fact that a frightening amount of work goes into each one of their records.

Admittedly, to an ear that’s been weaned on rock and roll it’s hard to detect. For instance, I’d missed ABBA as audio pabulum and closed my mind whenever I heard Mamma Mia on a juke box in the pub – until a couple of my noble colleagues pointed out just how complex the ABBA backing tracks were.

They were right, too. It took quite a while to strip away the eager, healthy vocal sound, the-cute-to the-point-of-moronic lyrics and the continually bouncing Nordic boom-boom rhythm – a straight up and down unvaried backing beat with no fills or frills that hereafter will be referred to as Eurobeat. Once that’s done, you’re left with the real best of ABBA – a pop structure in the grand manner of The Beatles or Spector.

So grand, in fact, that it would be more than likely to go clean over the head of the average ABBA punter.

Most of the ABBA lovers I’ve come across seem to like them because of the clean white teeth image, the lovey-dovey, smiling harmony between the boys and the girls in the group. The way ABBA lyrics are sopped up and hummed back without a cringe for their overwhelming banality also gives rise to some concern.

Hardly any ABBA fan I’ve ever met, can put their finger on the group’s complex production and interweaving instrumental melody lines as a valid reason for liking the Scandinavian Scintillators.

In their home country of Sweden, ABBA’s habitat varies between a large, rather elegant house near the centre of Stockholm, and an island retreat outside the city. The house is where ABBA’s business is transacted; the country house is where they retire to at regular intervals to write, record and produce more songs.

The first part of the ABBA story came from Stig Anderson. Anderson has medium-length hair and the craggy features of a Hemingway character. He has been in the music industry since the early 1960s.

In 1971 his partner died and it was suggested that he hire Björn Ulvaeus as a producer. Björn brought in Benny Andersson and, as Björn and Benny, they created a couple of Swedish hits. Then, teaming up with the two girls they first made People Need Love and later on Ring, Ring (which was recently re-released and became a hit in Oz.) Even on first release, Ring Ring was a major hit in Northern Europe.

While Anderson talks, he is constantly interrupted by calls and secretaries. His office is all bright, clean, stripped pine efficiency. The only thing in the entire room that doesn’t fit with the squeaky clean image is a big, almost life size painting. It’s of a schoolgirl in gymslip, crisp white blouse and straw boater. Her blouse is unbuttoned and one breast is exposed. Her discreet and presumably masturbating hand has slipped under her skirt. The style is ultra realism. It’s the only sign of decadence in the whole ABBA operation.

Stig Anderson is a very definite part of the team that produces ABBA’s records. He writes some of the lyrics and generally lets Benny and Björn use him as a kind of sounding board. They try out new songs on him first and depending on his response they decide what’s commercial and what isn’t. There’s no denying that, so far, Stig has an uncanny feel for public taste.

We move downstairs to a basement office to meet the group themselves. A photo session is winding up. The two girls, Anni-Frid and Agnetha, drop into instant posed animation for the camera. In between they seem kind of bored.

As you probably know by now, Benny and Anni-Frid are engaged. Björn and Agnetha are married.

That’s right, folks, it’s a family act.

Björn Ulvaeus is thin and intelligent, he tends to do more of the talking. Benny Andersson is bearded and jovial. Anni-Frid and Agnetha have the aloofness of the professionally decorative. It quickly becomes clear that they do not play any great role in the creative side of the act. Shortly after the interview they leave the room.

The two men are open and friendly. They are neither idiots nor cynical pap-pushers who feed the public calculated doses of what they think they want. They obviously like the work they’re doing, take great pains with it and are anxious to extend their creativity as far as possible.

They are both products of the somewhat isolated Scandinavian pop scene. Björn played with a folk outfit called The Hootenanny Singers, while Benny was in a band called The Hep Stars who played “Hermans Hermits songs and that kind of thing.”

“You have to realise,” says Benny, “that, in Sweden, we don’t have the rock and roll background that there is in Britain or America. We listened to Chuck Berry and The Rolling Stones of course, but we didn’t quite grow up with them in the same way that you did.”

I ask them about Eurobeat. Why are they so obsessed by that jolly, unvaried, obnoxious boom-boom?

Benny volunteers: “This is the popular traditional music of Northern Europe. Our folk songs sound like that. The first instrument I ever had was an accordion. My parents bought it for me when I was about ten.”

Earlier, in Stig Anderson’s office he had played me a cut called Intermezzo No.1 from the album ABBA. It is an instrumental from the Rick Wakeman/Keith Emerson bag, except the Eurobeat bounces through it. It is impressively put together. A lot of work and technical skill obviously went into it, but the backing gets right up my nose. It also proves that Eurobeat is so deeply ingrained in the souls of these Swedes that they will probably never lose it.

The time comes when there’s no getting round the central unpleasant question: “How come you take so much trouble with the production of the music on your record and then stick those moronic lyrics over the top?”

I do my best to phrase it more politely, but it still comes out sounding mildly insulting.

To my surprise nobody is actually insulted. Benny shys away slightly. “We don’t want to write political songs. We don’t want to turn our records into speeches.”

I explain I didn’t mean politics, just imagery and content. Love songs can have a hell of a lot more depth than anything ABBA have ever attempted. I point at examples like Yesterday, California Dreamin’ and God Only Knows. Björn looks thoughtful:

“I’m glad you brought this up. It is possible that we’ve been concentrating too much on the music and neglecting the lyrics. You have to realise that it is very hard to create images in a foreign language.”

You always write in English?

“Yes. So few people speak Swedish.”

It wouldn’t be possible to do something part-English and part-Swedish, the way McCartney used French in Michelle?

“Anything’s possible. I think we are becoming far more fluent in English. Since we’ve been touring we find it much easier to express ideas.”

The interview changes into a discussion of lyrics. Both Benny and Björn seem anxious to learn all they can. It could simply be a case of flatter-the-journalist-so-he-writes-nice-things, but I do get the feeling that these guys who have suddenly started producing worldwide hits from what must be a musical backwater, want to soak up information like sponges.

The conversation moves on to morality. I ask: Don’t you feel that, with ABBA, you could almost be turning out a kind of palliative; jolly songs that create the illusion that things aren’t as bleak as they really are?

“Bleak?”

We are in the middle of a depression.

“We don’t plan in advance what we are going to do. We just go to our island and record whatever’s in our heads.”

Björn joins in: “We have not felt the effects of the depression too much in Sweden.”

I think about the people merrily knocking back their $4.50 drinks. Perhaps he’s right.

There’s one other thing I feel I ought to find out about. ABBA are a group who have been promoted to a large extent by the medium of television. What do they do when they play live? The way they’ll have to when they tour Oz later in the year.

“We don’t play a great many concerts. It’s a problem to reproduce what we do on record live. When we do play we have something like 17 people on the stage.

“We also don’t like to be committed to lengthy tours. It means we can’t go out to our island and record. This is the most important thing.”

Surely when you go to America to play concerts you’re going to be pushed into the Las Vegas circuit?

“We don’t want to become a Las Vegas act.”

That is very firm. I wonder how these earnest Swedes are going to deal with the American big league music Mafia.

But at the moment, don’t they feel the need to play regularly to a live audience?

“Not at the moment, but things are always changing.”

A bottle of Aquavit comes out and the interview winds down. I don’t really feel I’ve got the whole picture. I’m not sure I’d have it if I spent a whole week with ABBA. Finally Björn drives me back to the hotel. This, in itself, is pretty unusual for a pop star.

I think of the muscular young woman dancing the frug in the over-priced disco, where is where we came in. ABBA, (and young Sweden for that matter) appear serious, hard-working, painstaking and eager.

Is this enough to qualify for a world-wide phenomenon?

So far it is.

© 1976 RAM. Thanks to Samuel Inglles