Today is the 38th anniversary of the biggest concert that Abba ever performed, at the Sydney showground in 1977. The coverage of the group’s 1977 mayhem-filled Australian tour and this extraordinary show is my favourite chapter in Carl Magnus Palm’s Abba biography Bright Lights And Dark Shadows, so to commemorate the show, here is the relevant extract, in two parts.
All the planning and preparation, the excitement and the chaos, reached a climax on Thursday, March 3, the date of Abba’s first live performance on Australian soil. Alas, the Gods were against them and their first concert at the Sydney Showground, in front of more than 20,000 people, was engulfed in disaster, heaving rains having reduced the grounds to a virtual quagmire. There was even concern that the venue would be destroyed after being tramped down by a mass audience
The weather also upset Abba’s rehearsal schedule, their early arrival in Australia having been partly motivated by the need to rehearse with the new crew, including the string section. The persistent rain, however, left them with no opportunity to do so. “We hardly had time for a sound check, so we were just praying to God that everything would work,” said Benny. “It was a bit [stressful].” RCA Promotions Manager Annie Wright, who travelled with Abba during the tour, remembers frantically ringing up TV news shows to get regular updates on the weather, praying that the rain was going to stop.
The seats weren’t numbered, and fans anxious to get a good seat for Abba’s Australian début had been queuing for 24 hours. Despite the constant rain, the atmosphere was electric as the hours ticked away before Abba’s arrival on stage. Fans were playing transistor radios, and every third song played seemed to be by Abba, which added greatly to the anticipation. When the gates finally opened at 4.30 p.m. there was a mad rush for the best seats – followed by another wet four-hour wait.
The group and their close associates were astonished that the crowd could wait so patiently in such dreadful conditions. “Can you believe that?” an agitated Stig Anderson asked a radio reporter. “We never saw that in our lives! … How can people love them that madly? How can they be here not only for two hours, because that’s the concert, but for, three, four, five and six – and more?”
Backstage, Stig had other matters on his mind beyond the fans’ discomfort. As the rain poured relentlessly down, Abba were forced to consider cancelling the show. What everyone anticipated would be an explosive meeting between the band and their ecstatic fans was in danger of turning into a damp squib. Tour promoter Paul Dainty had never produced anything on this scale before and to this day remembers the feeling of desperation. “All the build-up, all the hype, the mania surrounding the merchandising sales, at every level – every publication, every magazine, every newspaper, every TV broadcast, every news broadcast: Abba, Abba, Abba. And then we come to the reason they’re here, the show, and they couldn’t do the show? You didn’t even want to think about it.”
But think about it they had to do. The stage was drenched, making the floor exceptionally slippery, and there was also the danger of electrocution. “They were at risk, being a lightning storm with all that equipment, and everyone was panicked,” recalls Annie Wright. But Abba’s itinerary was too cramped to allow for any rescheduling – the concert had to go ahead. Besides, to cancel would have meant too many logistical and financial problems, not to mention disappointing this immensely loyal and fervent audience. Still, some backstage observers were amazed at the turn of events. “It was extraordinary that they went on under those circumstances,” says Annie Wright.
Shortly after the scheduled starting time of 8.30pm, the show finally commenced. Abba’s very first live concert in the country that had taken them to their hearts more than any other began with the long thunderous drum, bass and guitar intro to ‘Tiger’. When the group rushed out on the stage, it was as if every single person in that audience of more than 20,000 joined together in one deafening shriek of ecstasy. “We have probably never received such a rapturous reception anywhere,” Agnetha recalled. “It seemed the ovation would never end.”
Stagehands were constantly running across the stage, trying in vain to mop the floor, and throwing out towels. “Even Stig was crawling around on all fours on the floor, mopping up the water,” recalls Michael Tretow, who watched the diligent efforts of the Polar Music Managing Director on a monitor in the mobile studio bus.
The group members also had to do their utmost to keep the stage and themselves free from water – Frida cleverly incorporated her towel in the routine when she and Björn performed ‘Why Did It Have To Be Me’. The only serious mishap occurred in the third song, ‘Waterloo’, when Frida slipped and fell over, bruising her hip and injuring two fingers. Although she was in pain there was nothing else to do but to pick herself up, smile and keep up a brave front: the show must go on.
Frida slips on the stage.
“We were terrified,” said Björn afterwards. “We could have been electrocuted … But we were determined to play because the people had waited for hours in the rain.” Somewhat inadvisedly, Björn jocularly promised the audience that as a thank you, Abba would shake the hands of everybody attending the concert backstage afterwards. When the crowd cheered with delight he had to tell them that it was a joke, to the great disappointment of many a naïvely innocent fan.
As Abba performed their hits, the chaos continued. Those in the front rows stood on their chairs to get a better view, blocking the view for those behind. All the umbrellas exacerbated the sight-lines problem. A young man selling drinks slipped on the steps and had to be taken to hospital with back injuries. Lasse Hallström thought the dramatic qualities of the event would enhance his movie, and rubbed his hands together in glee. “We will get some fantastic scenes from that rain disaster concert,” he said after shooting was completed. He had yet to discover that the rain had leaked into the film canisters, destroying much of the footage from this first concert. In the film, the opening number from the Sydney premiere had to be spliced together with sequences from at least one other concert.
As the show progressed, the rain only let up intermittently, and when it did the group was faced with another kind of problem. The white costumes and white-on-white stage, illuminated by 120,000 watts of overhead light, attracted thousands of flying bugs. Benny’s white piano was turning all black, covered by large insects, as was the floor. “It was pretty nasty,” recalled Agnetha. “We were doing ‘SOS’ when suddenly I saw this swarm coming towards us – black, huge things. I thought, ‘What on earth is that?’ They hit our faces and legs, and were all over us. Benny and I are just as scared of insects, and I saw him going all stiff at the piano.”
One of the bugs crawled down into Agnetha’s décolletage just as she was struggling with her solo parts on ‘SOS’. “I thought, ‘I have to get rid of this creature in some way’. I actually panicked a little. I turned my back to the audience, put my hand inside, got it out, and finished the song.” After completing ‘SOS’, there was a short break so that the bugs could be swept off stage.
As the showers began again, water flowed into the sound system, wreaking havoc with amplification equipment and blowing out speakers. Reportedly, the sound was dreadful during the first hour, with vocals disappearing intermittently. Yet despite these appalling conditions, it was as if the rain and the sound problems mattered not one iota for the majority of the audience that night: they simply adored Abba and loved the show unreservedly. Perhaps the adverse conditions and the determination on the part of both Abba and their audience to make it all work just made the concert that bit more special. Paul Dainty recalls the show as “magical. It was something amazing, just because it was raining and the people just got into it. They didn’t care.”
In hindsight there seems to be an accord among all those involved that the concert at the Sydney Showground on March 3, 1977, stands above all else as the emotional highpoint of Abba’s entire career, and in the years that have passed since that rain-soaked night Björn, Benny, Agnetha and Frida have all remained deeply touched by the loyalty of their Australian fans. “Imagine 25,000 people standing outdoors in the pouring rain, holding 25,000 umbrellas, and then, when you step out onto the stage pandemonium breaks loose!” said Björn. “It almost makes your heart burst. You wonder what you’ve done to deserve this. I can’t describe the feeling.” Says Lasse Hallström, “The cheer from that audience, in the rain, that was quite something. And that gave me goose-bumps when it happened.”
The event wasn’t without its share of nay-sayers, however. A few thousand rain-soaked fans elected to leave before the show was over, and several complaints were lodged, leading to the Minister for Consumer Affairs stating his department was investigating ways of protecting the public. Several journalists, as well as promoter Paul Dainty, pointed out that the real problem was that a city the size of Sydney didn’t have an indoor venue that could hold an audience on that scale. Abba’s concerts had already been split from the originally planned single performance for 40,000 people, into two 20,000 shows.*
Reviewers also had a few issues with the show, jumping on Agnetha’s tendencies towards singing off-key, a problem that would follow her for the remainder of Abba’s live career. The two women’s dance routines and overall stage movements led one critic to comment that “a good choreographer wouldn’t go astray”. One infamous headline after the first show read “Agnetha’s Bottom Tops Dull Show”. The comment referred to Agnetha’s habit of repeatedly turning her back to the audience, displaying her famous rear end. When the newspaper was held up in a scene in the movie, the word “dull” was conveniently blocked out by Benny’s thumb.
Frida was extolled as the life of the performance, while Agnetha, by her own admission, came across as more restrained. “You watch yourself [on film] with very critical eyes: ‘Why didn’t you do it like that instead? Why didn’t you move a little more there?’” she reflected a few years later. Agnetha was seemingly never able to feel truly comfortable on stage, and called her own appearance “unimaginative”. “One thing I particularly noticed in Australia was that it makes no difference whether there are 5,000 or 50,000 in the crowd: I was still just as stressed and nervous,” she noted in her memoirs.
The enormity of the 1977 tour only alienated her more. “It seems the greater your success the greater the audiences’ expectations and impatience, while at the same time you demand more and more of yourself. The machinery that surrounds you becomes incredibly complicated, with more and more people involved – people you never really get acquainted with or even learn to recognise.”
No-one could fault the musical tightness of Abba’s performance, however. There had been much speculation and rumours along the lines of the group being “manufactured” – the old theory that Frida and Agnetha were only miming was still alive and well. They were not a “real” rock group and, therefore, they wouldn’t be able to cut it live. But faced with the show as it actually was, even the most suspicious reviewers had to acknowledge the group’s musical prowess. Also, contrary to most of their attempts in the studio, on stage Abba really knew how to rock. Their live sound was vividly energetic and rumbling, with many extra, half-improvised piano riffs from Benny and on-the-spot vocal ad-libs courtesy of Frida. By the time Abba’s live recordings reached movie screens, television sets or record players, however, they had often been polished and corrected into sterility. The discrepancy between the loose feeling of the original performance jarred against their attempts to somehow “upgrade” it into a studio recording.