Yesterday a man of my acquaintance of wealth and taste sent me a file of unusual photographs, as he is prone to do from time to time, and among them was this one, captioned: “At 5:00 pm on September 3, 1967 Sweden changed from driving on the left side to driving on the right. This was the result.”
In fact the picture was taken much earlier in the day, on Kungsgatan, one of the main streets in central Stockholm. They got the date right though and by a curious coincidence it was the same day that Anni-Frid Lyngstad, the future singer with Abba, competed in the finals of a singing competition in Stockholm arranged in conjunction with the EMI record label. And not only that – the new driving regulations introduced that day led indirectly to Frida’s début TV appearance. I know this because it’s mentioned in Carl Magnus Palm’s Abba biography Bright Lights Dark Shadows, and it always struck me as being one of those weird arcane details that fascinate those of us with an eye for strange pop trivia.
According to Magnus’ book, the new traffic regulations came into force at 5am that Sunday morning, contradicting what it states in the caption. Either way, Frida left her villa in Eskilstuna, about 110 km west of Stockholm, at 6am to begin her journey to Sweden’s capital, and she remembered that late summer morning vividly. “The roads were empty, it was just me and a girlfriend in an old Volvo. I was pretty nervous: it was a two-hour car drive to Stockholm, driving on the right side of the road for the first time, and then taking part in finals where I was supposed to sing well enough to win the contest.”
Frida came through the semi-finals in the morning and in the afternoon finals sang ‘En ledig dag’ (‘A Day Off’, a cover of the fairly obscure song ‘Weekend In Portofino’). It was a cool, uptempo bossa nova number, in line with her repertoire at the time. She had discovered the song a few months earlier when it was a minor radio hit.
The finals, starting at 1pm, took place on the Solliden stage at the Skansen park. Frida was nervous: her belief in herself, shaky at the best of times, was under severe strain in this high-profile situation. The compere, popular television personality Lasse Holmqvist, picked up on her nerves and tried to comfort her. “In the south of Sweden, where I come from, we don’t have long-legged girls like you,” he told Frida. This silly remark somehow gave her the extra boost of confidence she needed.
Frida went on stage in a dark, elegant two-piece outfit, her brown hair swept up according to the fashion of the day, and delivered a stellar performance of the song, complete with improvised virtuoso parts in her highest register. The jury was impressed, and before long the verdict was announced: Frida was the winner. “It must have been the tension of that whole day that made everything work out so well,” she said later.
Frida in 1967
At 7pm it was time for the awards ceremony. Standing on stage after receiving her prize – a transistor radio – she was happy but exhausted. Any reflections on what would happen now, except that there was a slight possibility of a record contract, had to wait until tomorrow. Holmqvist casually asked her, “So, what are you going to do tonight?” “I’m going home to Eskilstuna to get some sleep,” she replied. Holmqvist smiled. “No, you’re not. You’re going to appear on television!”
In an attempt to keep people off the roads on the day the traffic changed from left to right, a special edition of the most popular television show in Sweden at the time, Hylands Hörna (Hyland’s Corner, a Swedish mix of The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show) was aired. The tantalising title of this extra broadcast was H-trafik rapport: Ikväll (R-traffic Report: Tonight). In all secrecy, the arrangers of the talent contest had agreed with Swedish television that the winner would début live on the show that very same night.
A surprised Frida was whisked away to the studio by car. It was a dream come true: winning a talent contest was all well and good, but she knew that a television appearance was all-important if she was to get ahead in her career. Minutes later she was being interviewed by host Lennart Hyland in front of an audience of millions. At the time, Sweden still had only one television channel and Hyland’s show was watched by virtually every family with a TV set.
The confrontation between the patronising, self-absorbed Hyland and the nervous and highly-strung Frida didn’t run smoothly. She conveyed a mix of shyness and distrust, and many of her replies to his questions were surprisingly ambiguous. She claimed she wasn’t very experienced in talent contests, when in fact she was doing them all the time. When Hyland, referring to her long career as a dance-band vocalist, remarked that she was “a professional young lady”, only the physical pat on the head was missing. Frida rolled her eyes up and didn’t say anything.
“And what do you do for a living,” asked Hyland. Her determination to succeed as a homemaker shone through in an answer that sounded almost pre-rehearsed: “I’m married with two children – that’s my profession.” It was a popular reply that was met with spontaneous applause. But when asked what she would do with her children if this contest win should lead to a greater career, she fell silent for a few seconds. The reply was almost whispered: “I can’t answer that question.” It was as if the conflict was raging within her at that very moment.
Frida’s television début gave the impression of a determined woman with a mind of her own who wasn’t going to let Hyland have his way with her. This might have been a good policy for her self-esteem, but it probably didn’t help her much in winning the hearts of the audience. Nor was her performance of the winning song especially successful in that respect.
Although it was clear she was firmly in charge of her voice, there was that knowing sophistication and tendency to hold back, which didn’t do her any favours in communicating with the majority of viewers. But her delivery was exact, in tune and collected, striking a chord with the more discerning professionals in the music business.