In this second extract from Bright Lights Dark Shadows, Abba fly from Sydney to Melbourne where the elements are kinder to them but the fans are just as passionate. In many ways Abba’s arrival in the capital of Victoria mirrored The Beatles’ visit to the same city in June 1964.
On Saturday, March 5, Abba boarded their chartered Boeing 707 and flew to Melbourne to continue the tour. The airport reception was somewhat quieter than in Sydney – only about 100 fans greeted Abba this time, but it turned out to be the calm before the storm, for once they had reached the city a truly amazing welcome awaited them.
At 12.30pm Abba were scheduled to attend a Lord Mayor’s reception in the Melbourne Town Hall. The event had been announced in the media well in advance, which explained the absence of fans at the airport – they knew where the real fun was going to happen. When Abba arrived at the town hall in their Rolls Royces, an estimated 6,000 people stood cheering and screaming at them, many having waited for the group for several hours. “First, when you drive out from the airport and you see the street actually lined up all the way from the airport to the city, you don’t even believe your eyes,” recalled Frida. “And then you understand, ‘This is actually a reception for us, nobody else. It’s not the president coming’.”
The Abba entourage stepped out of their cars, entered the building and climbed the stairs to the balcony to greet the crowd. Excited radio reporters were covering the event live on the air, blow by blow: “Here they come now. I can see them! They’re inside. They’re just about to come on their way out. They’re coming out onto the balcony now … It should be in two to three seconds … And here they are!”
When Abba finally stepped out on the balcony, the crowd erupted. All the group had to do was to stand there and wave. During the five minutes they appeared on the balcony, the screaming never died down. The scenes outside Melbourne Town Hall constituted irrefutable proof that Abba’s popularity had exploded far beyond ordinary fame. In Australia, if not quite elsewhere in the world, it was clearly on a par with The Beatles during 1964, when they too had appeared, Popelike, on that same Melbourne Town Hall balcony to greet streets full of frenzied fans.
Afterwards, although the group was meant to stay and mingle with guests at the reception, they were too exhausted and were escorted back to their Rolls Royces. But when they got to the cars there were no drivers – the group wasn’t expected back for another 20 minutes. Hemmed in by watching crowds gripped by fever-pitch excitement that could bubble over into a riot at any moment, Abba had to wait in the cars for five very long minutes before the drivers returned. In the meantime, they were more or less forced to chat to the media and sign a few autographs.
In the evening, 14,500 people watched Abba’s performance at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl while a further 16,000 tried to listen outside the fenced-off concert area. The whole area was full to bursting several hours in advance. Two sections of fencing were knocked down by the crush of fans when the gates were opened. Those without tickets were climbing on cars or anything they could find to try to catch a glimpse of Abba. A teenage boy, who’d made his way up to the top of a tree to watch the concert, fell and had to be taken to hospital with suspected head and internal injuries. Otherwise, the audience was well-behaved: as ever when Abba played, the age span stretched from six to 60 – and beyond.
During one of the shows in Melbourne, this wholesome, family-friendly group actually managed to cause the kind of stir more associated with rebellious rock bands, if only for a second or two. Throughout the tour the group were criticised for their between-song banter, which appeared stilted and “rehearsed”. Infinitely small variations from night to night proved that it had in fact been pretty much pre-written, though proceedings were enlivened one evening in Melbourne when Björn made an unfortunate improvisation, jokingly calling Benny “you bastard”, an expression considered far too strong for Australian family audiences. More than two decades later, Björn still recalled the shocked roar of the audience and the embarrassment of his inadvertent faux pas: “I only meant to say, ‘You silly man’.”
Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser attended the first Melbourne show together with his wife, two daughters and a son. When Abba’s schedule didn’t allow for any trips to Canberra, Fraser had to bite the bullet and travel to meet up with the group himself, the political prestige of being photographed with such a popular act being just too good an opportunity to miss. Fraser was not especially popular with the general public at this stage of his tenure, however. When his entrance was announced at the Music Bowl, he was roundly booed by the audience.
In another eerie reflection of The Beatles in 1964, further evidence of the insanity of Abba’s popularity was afforded by the fate of their bed linen from the Old Melbourne Motor Inn. After they left, the hotel manager cut up the sheets Abba had slept on, stamped them with a special commemorative message and distributed them through the newspaper the Sunday Observer. Incredibly, the offer, presented under the somewhat tacky headline “Sleep with ABBA!”, was made public while the group were still staying at the hotel. No-one had taken the trouble to ask the group how they felt about it all – they were just confronted with the situation and had no say in the matter.