ABBA & Disco’s Influence

This event is entitled Disco’s Influence on European Dance Music. And we’re kind of going to be looking at that topic with a case study of ABBA. And we’re very pleased to have our dear colleague, James Wintle with us this evening who’s going to give this wonderful lecture for the first portion of the evening, and then we’re going to go right into ABBA the movie, which was released in 1977.


From the Library of Congress in Washington D.C
>> Nick Brown: Good evening ladies and Gentlemen. Welcome to the Library of Congress. My name is Nicholas Brown. I’m one of the producers of Bibliodiscotheque. Thanks so much for joining us.


>> James Wintle: Okay, so thank you, Nick, for a lovely introduction. Let me begin by saying that the title of this lecture is a bit misleading. I’m going to talk about ABBA, not really talking about Euro disco as a movement. As I got further into my research on this topic, I realized that ABBA was something as an anomaly as a European pop band. And there’s really too much to say about them even to fit into this short film intro, much less the entire Euro disco movement, which is vast and wide and so forth. So, here we are. Like most of you, I am not an ABBA scholar per se. I am an ABBA fan. My introduction to ABBA came through their radio hits of the late 70s and early 80s. I remember taking great delight in singing along with the syncopated background vocals of Super Trooper and Take a Chance on Me, which were my favorites. But it was only after I began studying music seriously at the University of Minnesota in the early 1990s where Scandinavian culture has always been de rigueur, that I really heard ABBA. Although by that point I was laser-focused on the study of classical music, I had a friend in school that was a big ABBA fan. And he also happened to be one of the most talented pianists in the music department. So his opinion carried some weight with me. As I started listening critically to their songs on his advice, I came to the realization that they were really good songs, like really good. The obvious care that had been taken to get everything in its right place and the little unexpected touches that were added to the production of each track, caused me to afford Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus the same consideration that I had previously reserved for more conventionally respected songwriters like Elton John and Bernie Taupin or Lennon and McCartney. This all happened around the time of a worldwide ABBA revival. Of course, in those days before the internet was fashionable, I was completely unaware of it. The greatest hits compilation ABBA Gold had been released in 1992 and was reigniting interest in the band in a big way. Without that larger context, it seemed like an odd coincidence that two Australian movies I had seen that year in 1994 had featured ABBA-heavy soundtracks. Muriel’s Wedding and Priscilla Queen of the Desert, were both hugely successful films and favorites among me and my friends. And they helped bring ABBA back into the minds of their audience. My big takeaway from this experience was gee, Australians must really love ABBA. And, oh how right I was. Many years later when I saw ABBA the Movie for the first time, I finally understood what I had then only surmised, that ABBA was huge in Australia. ABBA the Movie documents the band’s 1977 Australian tour and shows the ABBA mania that had taken hold in that country. It also includes some incredible performance footage woven into a rather weak storyline concerning a disc jockey trying to secure an interview with the band for his radio station. And the film has been remastered, but as Solomon said earlier, you can’t remaster an acting performance. But so it is. Before we get to the film, though, a little bit about the history of the band. ABBA, as most fans already know, functions as an acronym for the first names of the band members. How many people here speak Swedish? I just want to apologize to you first. I speak a little German but no Swedish, so if these come out weird, it’s just a part of life. I’m sorry ahead of time. Agnetha Faltskog, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, known as Frida. You may also, that’s the first letters of their names. That’s why it’s an acronym. You may also know that the group consisted of two married couples for most of its history. Agnetha and Bjorn, that is the blonde one and the one without the beard, were married from 1971 to 1980. And Benny and Frida, the sometimes redhead one and the one with the beard, who plays the piano, were married from 1978 to 1981. The relationships actually took quite a different trajectory as Benny and Frieda lived together beginning around 1971 and didn’t married until the height of the band’s career in 1978. While Agnetha and Bjorn married before the band had officially formed and then filed for divorce in 1978 while it was still going, both agreeing that the dissolution of their marriage should not affect their responsibilities in the band. Despite relationship difficulties, the wholesome image of the band was built around the two couples, and the songs that they sang were thought, by their fan base at least, to be a reflection of those relationships.

This is why when Bjorn wrote The Winner Takes it All after their split had happened, which is so beautifully sung by Agnetha, the press labeled it sometimes a cruel act of revenge, while Bjorn claimed that the specifics of the song had no basis in reality saying in an interview that there are no winners in divorce. Before ABBA officially formed around 1972, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus were in two very popular Swedish pop groups. Benny in The Hep Stars and Bjorn in the Hootenanny Singers. The Hootenanny Singers were managed by Stig Anderson, who would also manage ABBA and was instrumental in their international success. Before ABBA broke through the international market, Stig Anderson had the same ambition for the Hootenanny Singers. In 1964, their single, Gabrielle, a Swedish version of a Russian song by Arkady Ostrovsky, and they picked a Russian song because this was still during Soviet times and they didn’t have to pay any sort of copywrite to the Russian authors. They could just use the song because it was considered public domain outside of the Soviet Union. Had reached number five in the Swedish charts, and Stig’s eye for success abroad led him to have the group rerecord the song in Finnish, German, Dutch, Italian and English, which is a trick that he then used to promote ABBA songs around the world. Here is the English version. The fact that we’re not going to watch the Hootenanny Singers, the movie, after we watch these videos, should tell you about the success of Stig’s [inaudible]. But here is that song. Oh, there are little commercials before these, so I’ll just mute those. Unless anybody needs a new phone or the champagne of beers.

Yeah, [inaudible] harmonica playing.

It might just be my imagination, but I think that Bjorn, second from your right, is sort of emoting more than everyone else. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I just want to see it that way. Yeah, he’s the star. But if he’s not the star yet.

Okay, we don’t need another harmonica solo to get the idea. Alright. Yeah, not big Blues Traveler fans, these guys, I guess. Okay, so The Hep Stars, to go on with what Benny was doing around this time, The Hep Stars was actually one of the most successful pop bands of the 1960s. However, they were often criticized by their peers, even though they were hugely popular in Sweden. They were criticized for performing only covers. And this changed around 1965 when their keyboard player, Benny Andersson, began to compose songs for the group. His third song, Wedding, was released as a single in May of 1966 and was the first to really prominently feature his organ playing. Despite the rather pessimistic lyrics, he did play the song a few years later at the wedding of his friends, Bjorn and Agnetha. He played the organ at their wedding and played the Mendelssohn’s March when they came in and his Hep Stars song Wedding when they left apparently. And so this is The Hep Stars with Wedding. And we’re going to listen to none of that. But Disney Fairytale Wedding sounds so nice. Oh my gosh.

There’s Benny, pre-beard obviously.

Lip-syncing the song gives you time to flourish, you know.

Alright, so a bit of The Hep Stars. I’m, the more I listen to The Hep Stars, the more I like them, honestly. It’s really catchy stuff. Really fun. And apparently, these guys were quite the bunch of party animals. So, obviously, yeah. They were quite popular in their day, definitely. I need to work on that haircut though. So as luck would have it, in June of 1966, the guys in The Hep Stars and the guys in The Hootenanny Singers crossed paths at a party, and Bjorn and Benny hit it off immediately. A few weeks later they met again and wrote their first song together called It Isn’t Easy to Say. Later that year when The Hep Stars guitarist was unable to make it for a gig, Benny suggested to the other guys that Bjorn sit in with the band. And he did this actually on a number of occasions then in the last 60s. And I read an interview with Bjorn where he was saying that being on stage with The Hep Stars was the first time he really felt like a pop star, and it was one of the great memories of his life really. Even, you know, after all the ABBA stuff, that being on with The Hep Stars was really great. I can imagine because, I mean, the haircuts alone. So as Bjorn moved away from the folk style of the Hootenanny Singers and closer to Benny’s pop sensibility, the partnership between the two musicians strengthened. With the help of Stig Anderson and Bengt Bernhag, the men behind Polar Music, the label that would garner international success with ABBA, the two would learn the ropes of the music business and hone their songwriting skills. Stig Anderson would also contribute lyrics to many of ABBA’s earliest songs, while Benny and Bjorn were still working on their English. And I actually read an early interview with the two guys, I think it was in Melody Maker, and they’re talking to the interviewer, and the interviewer says something about the fact that their lyrics are kind of weird for English lyrics. And they start asking him advice. Like, well what do you think we should do? Do you think we should do it like this? Do you think we should do it like that? Like they were so interested in learning and absorbing information. And you really get a sense of that when you read about these early days that both Bjorn and Benny were just like sponges for information. And anyone they met, they wanted to learn as much as they could from. And I think that’s part of what added to the success of the band is that they had these two guys that were really just eager, eager, eager to know as much as they possibly could know. And being with the guys at Polar Music, I think, added a lot to that for them. So meanwhile, away from the pop world, Anni-Frid Lyngstad was singing jazz standards with a group called the Gunnar Sandevarn Orchestra, which in reality was a jazz trio consisting of pianist Gunnar Sandevarn, Frida and her then husband Ragnar Fredriksson on drums. And later, she formed her own group called the Anni-Frid Four, which she really enjoyed sort of being in charge of things with that.

In 1969, Frida had moved on to working on the Swedish cabaret circuit with the pianist Charles Norman, and it was through him that she met Benny and Bjorn in a restaurant one night. The three musicians hit it off, and despite their musical differences, Benny, The Hep Star, and Frida the jazz singer began to fall in love. By 1971, the two were involved personally and musically. And Benny had convinced Frida to stop, convinced Frida to sing pop music instead of jazz and had produced her first solo album, which was called Frida, which included covers of a number of well-known pop and rock songs sung in Swedish, including my favorite David Bowie song. So I thought I’d play that for you after, oh, there is no commercial. Here we go.

Okay. So you get the idea there. Fantastic. Such a great singer. And she does not only Bowie on this album. She also does the Sounds of Silence, a real sort of wide array of American and British rock songs. And also, interestingly does a couple of songs from Jesus Christ Superstar. And that, which is also kind of weird because Agnetha then was in Jesus Christ Superstar in Stockholm. Weird sort of coincidence there. So, anyway, the fourth member of ABBA, and the most experienced musician of the bunch really, was Agnetha Faltskog. Agnetha began singing in public at the age of five and was composing songs by the age of ten. All of this is kind of surprising when you think about the fact that mostly all anybody ever talked about when she was in ABBA was her backside. But she was, in fact, the only member of ABBA that could read and write music. By 17, she had made her first professional recording of her own compositions. Remembering the session, Agnetha said, “It sounded exactly like I had hoped it would. Sven-Olof Waldorf captured it perfectly.” And there’s a great special, TV special thing, called ABBA meets Dick Cavett, something like that. It’s ABBA and Dick Cavett doing an interview, and there’s some performance in it. And she talks about this experience of in that interview as well. And talks about the thrill of hearing her own songs that she composed on the piano realized by a full orchestra and going into the studio as a teenager and hearing that actually happen. And what a moving experience it was. The conductor of the sessions, Sven-Olof Waldorf, would later work with ABBA writing the orchestral arrangements for most of their songs up to and including Dancing Queen in 1976 and famously conducted the orchestra at their breakthrough Eurovision performance of Waterloo in a Napoleon costume, which we will watch later. After recording her first album of her own songs and doing a bit more work, Agnetha soon had a number one hit on the Swedish charts with her song, [foreign language], which is probably not how you say that at all. But we’ll listen to it.

Okay. So you get the idea there. And actually, a lot of Agnetha’s early albums you can get on Spotify and that sort of thing. As you can hear, she was a big fan of pop singers of the 60s, like Connie Francis was her favorite. And that style of, Peggy Lee and these kinds of really emotional, you know, emotive singers. And that’s one of the things that she really brought to ABBA as well, the sort of sense of pathos and everything that she sang. Which you can hear in that as well. By 1969, Agnetha had met Bjorn, and the two hit it off while still pursuing separate careers. The next year Benny and Bjorn released an album of original compositions titled Lycka. It was primarily meant to function as a showcase for their compositions in hopes that other artists would like and record those songs. The album was produced by the duo with the help of their mentor Bengt Bernhag and engineered by Michael Tretow. And Michael then is an important figure in the history of ABBA. He would go on to be an important force in their success working from behind the console on practically all of their recordings. For the recording, Benny and Bjorn used Agnetha and Frida as background vocalists on a few tunes. The first track to feature all four members of ABBA on the same recording is Hej gamle man, which is Hey Old Man basically, is that it? Yeah. And we’ll not do that. Oh, YouTube Red. Okay.

I know this is telling a story. I hate to cut it off in the middle, but we must proceed. So, the four singers and songwriters and whatnot soon began to work together in earnest as a cabaret act on the Swedish nightclub circuit after a few difficult seasons touring under the name Festfolk, which included songs and skits. It was a like a full cabaret act where they did stuff, you know, in between songs, which they were apparently never really comfortable with. It included songs and skits, one of which was a duet for the men titled Angry Young Men Unite in which they dressed, oh no, well save your laugh. They dressed as children holding lollipops, wearing hats with propellers while demanding their rights at a daycare center. That was the song. So after doing that for a little while, the group was obviously discouraged, as we all would have been if we had to sit through it. Luckily, Hej gamle man was a hit, reaching number one on the Svensktoppen, which is the Swedish chart that clocks the sales of records in Swedish in Sweden. And the four continued working together. Eventually, they would record their first album as a group, which was called Ring Ring, under the moniker Bjorn Benny and Agnetha Frida. The album did well in Sweden, Norway and Austria, and the single, the song Ring Ring, was eventually rerecorded in Swedish, German, Spanish and English, became a hit and was included on the UK and US versions of their breakout album, Waterloo, in 1974. The song was also a hit in Australia during the height of ABBA-mania in that country, which you will see in one particularly funny scene in ABBA The Movie, including a bunch of school kids singing Ring Ring. You’ll know what I mean when you see it. As many of you know, Abba’s big break was the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, which they won with the song Waterloo. This was a blessing and a curse for the band since the contest was famous for producing one hit wonders. Shaking off the stigma attached to the contest was not easy, particularly in the UK. In a 1976 interview, this was two years later, with Melody Maker Benny said, “The thing is that England has been the most difficult market for us. I don’t know why. I think the problem was to get rid of the Eurovision reputation, and at last, we seem to have done that.” So it took a few years for him to feel that way. In 2005, on the other hand, the 50th anniversary of the Eurovision contest, Waterloo was voted the best song ever to win the contest. So there was some retribution there. This is a video of the television broadcast of their performance on the Eurovision Contest. And you will see at the beginning the announcer completely, I think he gets everyone’s name wrong. He might get Bjorn’s name right. But he gets almost everyone’s name wrong when he shows the group and says some kind of sexist things. It’s great, you know, it’s great 70s television.

A group of DJs spin records at a disco club in New York City, 1979. (Waring Abbott / Getty Images)

>> And we move now across into Sweden, the largest of the Scandinavian countries. And although we’re looking at streets, it’s a country full of mountains, lakes and forests. And, of course, it’s full of blonde Vikings. And this is one of the reasons why it’s good for pictures. These are the ABBA group, Bjorn, Frida.

>> James Wintle: Oh he got that one.

>> Anna, who’s just beside her with the long blonde hair. And Benny. If you can work that out, that is why they’re called ABBA.

>> James Wintle: Not any of those are right except Frida.

>> And Anna. They made their first record in 1972, and if all the judges were men, which they’re not, I’m sure this group would get a lot of votes. You’ll see why in a minute.

>> James Wintle: As I was saying.

>> Napoleon, no wonder their song is called Waterloo. This is Sven-Olof Walldoff, who has really entered into the spirit of it all, dressed as Napoleon. Winning war. Waterloo by ABBA for Sweden. Watch this one.

>> James Wintle: I really want that guitar.

Where’s the saxophone player? I don’t know.

A man and woman take center stage on the dance floor at the disco club 2001 Odyssey in Brooklyn, New York, in 1979. (Waring Abbott / Getty Images)

Alright, so to see this and then in ABBA The Movie to watch the difference between their level of performance ability from the three years ensuing, I mean it’s really like night and day. They sort of have some of the stuff down now, like doing the, you know, the turning and all that. But this is like amateur hour compared to what they were doing even just a few years later. But still, you know, fantastic, and oh my God, what a great song. So anyway, after this performance, ABBA went on to record seven more studio albums, although they were always primarily known as a singles band. Throughout their career they released 73 singles in various languages in various countries. And for those singles, 35 music videos were produced for the 73, out of 73 singles. Which is a pretty staggering number considering this was before MTV or YouTube or anything like that. Of those videos, 31 of them were directed by Lasse Hallstrom, who is also the person who directed ABBA The Movie. It all comes around. He went on to direct such critically acclaimed films as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. However, his early career was closely associated with ABBA. The videos were a key factor in promoting the band’s image, their individual personalities and especially the relationships between the members of the band, as seen in the video for Take a Chance on Me. This is a Hallstrom special.

That person doesn’t like this song at all. Have you ever used one of these Echo things? Very weird.

Echo, play ABBA.

Oh and cookies, oh Lord. It just goes on and on. Sorry about that. Okay, here we go.

Oh yeah.

Alright. So, then in the ABBA revival that came in the early 90s, one of the greatest bits of ABBA cover songs that came out was, in fact, Erasure who did a little take on that video.

Alright, so this obviously was not directed by Lasse Hallstrom, even though it is a classic of the greater world of ABBA. But let’s go ahead and get to the movie since we’re running a little short of time. As we watch ABBA the movie, there are a couple of things that you should probably know. Although Lasse Hallstrom was a regular member of ABBA’s circle by this time, and if you read about ABBA very much you’ll see that from their very earliest part of their career, they pretty much worked with the same people all the time, the same sound engineers, the same producers, the same record company. They had a very close-knit group. And Lasse Hallstrom was definitely a part of that. While this was going, while the movie was being filmed, the group was only aware that he was documenting their Australian tour. They were not aware that he had added a narrative element to the film involving the radio disc jockey following the band on tour. So when the disc jockey character shows up at a press conference asking them if they can all go someplace quiet to talk, and other kind of creepy stuff, the band has no idea that he is an actor who has been sent there to do that. They think he’s just a weirdo, like in real life. So all of that is happening with them basically unaware of what’s going on. The press conferences, interviews and performance footage is obviously real and not staged. The only bit that was filmed post-production are scenes of ABBA in their hotel room talking about the performances and stuff. And that was actually filmed in Stockholm, in a hotel in Stockholm, not in Australia. One other oddity is the inclusion of the song Get on the Carousel, which was never recorded by the group and only appears in this movie. It was part of a mini musical called The Girl with the Golden Hair. The four-song sequence had a loose storyline about a young girl who leaves her hometown to pursue stardom. The first song in the so-called mini musical, if I said the thing was called The Girl with the Golden Hair, is there an ABBA song you think is probably a part of that? Yeah, right, exactly, Thank You for the Music. It’s like the first line of Thank You for the Music. Is, yeah. So Thank You for the Music is the first song in the sequence in which Agnetha sings, I’ve been so lucky. I’m the girl with the golden hair. Followed by I Wonder (Departure) which is sung by Frida, and then I’m a Marionette, which receives and eccentric stage performance in the movie. And finally, Get on the Carousel. The first three songs were the last three songs on ABBA, The Album. But then the last one, Get on the Carousel, was thought to not quite be good enough to be on the album. And so it was only a part of this tour. And this was Benny and Bjorn’s first attempt at musical theater, which, of course, would be the focus of their later career. I’m sure there are chess fans in the room as I am. So now, let us enjoy the 1977 classic, ABBA, The Movie.

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