26.09.2020

ALEX FROM MONTREAL PERSONAL BLOG

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Abba were paralysed by nerves and critics loathed their ‘garbage’ songs at start of pop career

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  • Gareth Pearce
  • 21 Jun 2020, 23:37

IT’S time to say Thank You For The Music again – as Abba plan to release new songs more than 38 years since they were last in the studio together.

But it could all have been very different, because nerves nearly ended the band’s first major tour before it even began.

Abba are planning to release new songs more than 38 years since they were last in the studio together
Abba are planning to release new songs more than 38 years since they were last in the studio together

One music journalist was with members Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad backstage before that historic first live tour in 1977.

Here, he tells of the tension and torment as the pop legends took their first tentative steps towards conquering the world.

Abba walked out to their opening night of their first big tour as if to their own execution.

With nerves in the dressing room so shredded before the show, they almost called the whole thing off.

The band pictured together in 1974 after winning Eurovision in Brighton
The band pictured together in 1974 after winning Eurovision in BrightonCredit: AP:Associated Press

I was behind the scenes on that night in Oslo, Norway, on January 28, 1977, while writing about the Swedish band that had so surprised cynical music critics in Britain with their success.

But this was the first time all their hits — released after they won Eurovision with Waterloo in 1974 — were to be played live.

And the prospect filled the band with fear.

The venue, an exhibition hall called Ekeberghallen on the outskirts of the Norwegian capital, was packed to its 5,300 capacity.

The band just four days into their tour in Copenhagen in 1977
The band just four days into their tour in Copenhagen in 1977Credit: Getty – Contributor

Many of the crowd were strikingly good-looking girls dressed like blonde singer Agnetha — and there was real excitement in the air.

Norway’s Crown Prince Harald and Princess Sonja had been last to arrive, as if to give the show a stamp of royal approval.

A 12-strong team of backing vocalists and instrumentalists were already on stage.

But in the dressing room the atmosphere was one of sheer terror.

Abba's promotionl shots in the 70s weren't always the most conventional
Abba’s promotionl shots in the 70s weren’t always the most conventionalCredit: Camera Press

Both Bjorn and Benny — the two Bs in Abba and co-writers of their hit songs — were so nervous they were having difficulty holding their guitars.

I had been with the band beforehand in their hotel and travelled to the gig with them. I had witnessed the nerves.

But nothing had prepared me for the total silence in the dressing room and the faces which were close to tears.

It was minus nine degrees outside but it seemed colder in that room. There was a frozen atmosphere of dry mouths and utter dread.

The band reunited in 2016 in Stockholm for a Mamma Mia party
The band reunited in 2016 in Stockholm for a Mamma Mia party

Only their manager and mastermind, Stig Anderson, who had written the lyrics for their first hit, Waterloo — recently voted the greatest Eurovision song of all time — was looking calm.

I left them to take my seat six rows back in the hall, filled with the rumbling sounds of anticipation.

There was a long delay before the lights went out. Then came a rolling drum beat thundering like a locomotive gathering speed in the darkness.

Abba took their places on a pitch-black stage.

CLOAKS, LEATHER BOOTS & MICRO SKIRTS

Suddenly, there were dazzling lights and instant sound — everything in glistening white.

Full-length cloaks, long leather boots, micro skirts for the two girls and skin-tight clothing.

The first song was Tiger, with Agnetha and Anni-Frid (the As in Abba) clawing their hands towards the audience.

Then That’s Me, followed by Waterloo. Benny had told me he would reject any song they had written if it did not give him shivers down the back of his spine.

Nerves nearly ended the band’s first major tour
Nerves nearly ended the band’s first major tourCredit: Getty Images – Getty

I got shivers with the fourth song, SOS, with the haunting introduction by Agnetha singing under a single spotlight.

The entire show seemed to move up a gear, the audience was transfixed and the band relaxed — all that preparation had paid off.

The girls, so much a visual part of Abba’s success on television, played out their stage roles superbly.

They were excitable girls for When I Kissed The Teacher. And cynical women about town for Knowing Me, Knowing You, which was to be released as a single the following month.

Critics claimed the band's music was middle of the road and their lyrics naive
Critics claimed the band’s music was middle of the road and their lyrics naiveCredit: Getty – Contributor

It sounded a winner at the first time of hearing.

Mamma Mia had already topped the charts in 11 countries, without being performed live on stage.

The same was true of Fernando, released months earlier and sung superbly by Anni-Frid with a star-lit sky effect behind the band.

Their biggest number ones at that point — such as Dancing Queen and Money, Money, Money — had been written in private, plotted and arranged in a studio, and never put to the test before a live audience.

Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson attend the 20th anniversary performance of Mamma Mia! at the Novello Theatre in London in 2019
Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson attend the 20th anniversary performance of Mamma Mia! at the Novello Theatre in London in 2019Credit: Getty – Contributor

So was the whole show fabulous? After an incredibly tense start, yes, it was.

There was also a 25-minute show within a show called The Girl With The Golden Hair, which included Thank You For The Music and I’m A Marionette.

Contact with the audience came mostly from Bjorn, who according to manager Stig had transformed himself in recent times.

“He was a bohemian and wastrel when we first met,” he’d told me bluntly. “He could not keep track of anything, including himself.”

‘LET’S PULL OUT’

Bjorn was certainly having difficulty keeping track after the show, telling me: “Such were our nerves, I said, ‘If this is what touring means, let’s pull out and forget the whole thing’.

“Fortunately, the girls held it together enough for us to start enjoying appearing in front of a live audience.

“I realised then that we have become cut off by working only in the studios, writing and recording.”

At that point Bjorn was 31 and was married to Agnetha, 26, and they had three-year-old daughter Linda.

Agnetha Faltskog and Bjorn Ulvaeus of Abba with their daughter Linda in the late 1970s
Agnetha Faltskog and Bjorn Ulvaeus of Abba with their daughter Linda in the late 1970sCredit: Getty Images

They travelled separately by plane so there would be a surviving parent in the event of a crash.

Benny and Anni-Frid, known as Frida, lived together.

And the band had already sold 40million records in three years, driven by the shrewd Stig, then aged 45.

So why was I there at all?

Abba perform 'Waterloo' on Top of The Pops
Abba perform ‘Waterloo’ on Top of The PopsCredit: Getty – Contributor

It seems incredible now after 45 years of hits, endless tribute acts, the stage show Mamma Mia! and two hugely successful films, but at the time Abba were regarded scornfully by most entertainment journalists.

The fact that they had won Eurovision was treated as no big deal.

According to the critics, their music was middle of the road, the lyrics naive.

But I was a genuine fan, writing glowingly of their feel-good factor and memorable songs.

SOVIET UNION PAID IN BARRELS OF OIL

I had travelled with them the previous October to Warsaw in Poland — then a communist country — where they recorded a TV show, and I watched just how slickly they dealt with business. Stig would not accept payment from any communist country in anything other than American dollars.

Only three refused — China, North Korea and Vietnam — and he ruled out having anything to do with them.

The Soviet Union, however, was allowed to pay in barrels of oil, which were stored in Stockholm.

It was Stig, who died in 1997 aged 66, who first pushed the reluctant band into touring.

Anni-Frid and Agnetha at Saturday Night Live in New York in 1975
Anni-Frid and Agnetha at Saturday Night Live in New York in 1975Credit: Getty – Contributor

He was a calming influence, with four rules for success: “Work very hard, do your best, don’t forget anything . . . and don’t take life too seriously.”

The band members had preferred to record, avoiding the spotlight, which fitted in with the quiet, low-profile lifestyle they enjoyed.

Touring was also expensive in those days. Ticket prices were reasonable (between £10 and £15) and the concerts were used to promote hugely profitable records.

It was the opposite of today. Now, touring can earn fortunes — and records do not.

Abba are one of the best-selling music artists of all time selling an estimated total record sales of over 380 million
Abba are one of the best-selling music artists of all time selling an estimated total record sales of over 380 millionCredit: AFP – Getty

KEE TO SUCCESS

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So on their first big night in a live show, Abba knew they had everything to lose.

Even in their native Sweden, one newspaper headline that very week read: “They write garbage.”

But that first major tour played to packed audiences in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, West Germany, Holland and Belgium before ending on Valentine’s Day in London’s Royal Albert Hall.

They could have sold it out ten times over — and a legend was born.https://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.391.0_en.html#goog_36113204 Model in her sixties who attributes her youthful look to practising meditation enjoys a night out dancing to Abba

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