To mark the 40th anniversary of Abba winning the Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Waterloo’ in 1974, Omnibus Press has just published an updated and substantially revised edition of Carl Magnus Palm’s definitive Abba biography Bright Lights & Dark Shadows. Magnus, of course, is to Abba what Mark Lewisohn is to The Beatles though I didn’t know this when I commissioned the book way back in 2000, visiting Stockholm for the first and only time in my life to do so and making the mistake of hiring a cab to get from the airport to the city. It took over an hour and cost me almost all the kroners I’d brought with me. But I digress…
It may come as something of a shock to those who’ve been reading my posts, but a weakness for Abba is one of my guilty secrets. This was not always the case, however. During the group’s active career, like most of my rock writer colleagues I regarded them a bit disdainfully, considering them perpetrators of lightweight commercial pop diametrically opposed to my favourites who tended to be muscular rock bands like The Who, visionaries like David Bowie or rootsy groovers like Little Feat. This may have had something to do with the stigma of winning the ghastly Eurovision Song Contest though I do remember thinking at the time that ‘Waterloo’ was better than most Eurovision winners. But my dad liked them and he liked Cliff Richard too, so they had to be naff.
Then, in 1980, I found myself sitting in a parked car that belonged to Jake Riviera, Elvis Costello’s manager. The driver – not Jake – had nipped into an office and parked on a yellow line, and he asked me to stay in the car in case a warden came along. Now as you would expect Jake had a fantastic stereo system and I was listening to the radio when ‘Chiquitita’ came on, and I was struck by how good it sounded, not the song as such, just the recording, the crystal clear vocals and the state-of-the-art production. When the driver came back I kept this to myself lest he thought I was going soft in the head.
And then I forgot all about it. Indeed, I didn’t think much more about Abba until one Saturday night in the mid-eighties when I was on a weekend visit to my then elderly widowed father at his house in north Yorkshire. I’d been out for a few beers with an old friend earlier in the evening and when I got home dad had gone to bed. I didn’t feel like turning in so I poured myself a generous whisky and skinned up a spliff which I smoked in the back garden. Nicely adjusted, I came back inside and switched on the TV but there was nothing much on so I rifled through dad’s meagre record collection to see if there was anything that appealed. Not much, but an Abba hits album caught my eye so I put it on the turntable, plugged in some old cans that I’d left at the house and settled back to listen, fortissimo.
Well, it was a revelation, just like in Jake’s car only more so. I was gobsmacked. Until that moment, because I’d never listened to Abba properly before, at volume with no distractions, I hadn’t realised quite how brilliantly produced their records were, quite how much attention to detail had been employed, or the debt they owed to Phil Spector; neither had I appreciated the quality of the girls’ voices, whether singly or together, the pitch perfect harmonies, and the obvious craft that went into their songwriting. I must have played dad’s Abba album five times before I went to bed that night, their songs ringing in my ears. Of course I knew that dope-enhanced listening pleasure could be ephemeral and realised in the morning that this might all have been a dream, but when I got back to London I bought a new Abba hits album and listened to it without any such contributory factors. Yes, they still sounded great.
Mindful that liking Abba was something many people kept to themselves, I did the same but I couldn’t help noticing in the ensuing years that several quite famous and cool rock stars were unafraid to profess their enthusiasm for the group. (And bearing in mind my initiation to Abba, was it a coincidence that the tinkling piano on ‘Oliver’s Army’ had a hint of ‘Dancing Queen’ about it?) I bought Abba Gold when it first came out and as the nineties progressed came to realise that half the word loved Abba too, and that their record sales put them high up in the all-time best sellers list, maybe even third after The Beatles and Elvis.
Bearing this and their enduring, seemingly imperishable, popularity in mind, in 1999 I decided to commission a full-scale, objective and very detailed biography of Abba with one proviso – it had to be written by a Swedish, preferably Stockholm-based, author whose command of English was well-nigh perfect, and who could frame the book in the context of Swedish history and culture. I’d done my research and discovered that other Abba books, and there were plenty of them, lacked this important distinction; they were written by British writers from a British point of view and said very little beyond the basic, fairly well-known facts. I also figured that Abba’s perceived blandness as individuals was probably down to English not being their first language – it’s difficult being profound in a foreign tongue – and that back home their interviews (in their native Swedish) were probably interesting and insightful, and that the true story about them and their relationships to each other was far more complex and fascinating than previously documented. At that year's Frankfurt Book Fair I made inquiries among Swedish book publishers about a potential author and not long afterwards flew to Stockholm to meet with Magnus, and over dinner discovered I was correct in my assumptions about the group. Although I say it myself the book Magnus subsequently wrote for Omnibus Press, the one which he’s just revised and now runs to 600 pages, has now become the definitive book on the group.
In editing the book, I came to learn much more about Abba; about Frida’s journey from her impoverished, orphan past to becoming a real-life princess, about Agnetha’s profound aversion to fame, about the dues paid by Björn and Benny, about their success as individuals in Sweden before Abba and the group’s extraordinary Beatle-like popularity in Australia, about the marriages and divorces, about their ill-fated business dealings – the millions that slipped through their fingers – and about their obsessive, alcoholic manager Stig Anderson who was largely responsible for this. I was also minded to check out much more of their music than simply Abba Gold, with rewarding results, especially the albums they recorded later in their career.
In 2000 I took my then eight-year-old daughter Olivia to see the Abba tribute act Björn Again at the Shepherds Bush Empire, close to where we lived off Uxbridge Road, and was mesmerised by the euphoric reaction of the audience. Granted it was the week before Christmas but I couldn’t help but notice that while at most concerts the audience tends to come in pairs, for Björn Again they came in parties of seven or eight or more, slightly tipsy but also good-humoured, and there were several groups of dressed-to-the-nines women, all determined to enjoy themselves to the max, mad for it as the Gallaghers used to say. Indeed, I am hard-pressed to recall many adult concerts where the atmosphere was so party-like from beginning to end. The previous Christmas I had taken Olivia to her first ever pop concert, The Spice Girls at Earls Court, which I considered distinctly underwhelming and, since it was on the short side, bad value. On our way home from the Björn Again show, as we walked together along Uxbridge Road, Olivia held my hand and said to me: “Daddy, I preferred the fake Abba to the real Spice Girls.” Too right, I thought, a chip off the old block.
I’m now happily out of the closet on Abba and to prove it recently wrote the introduction to a matching folio of printed sheet music to Abba Gold. I was proud to be asked, and I’ll post it here – in two parts – tomorrow and the day after.