Agnetha and Frida being interviewed in between recording sessions for the Gracias Por La Musica album. The ladies talk about the pressure that comes along with being a part of ABBA. The article appeared in Dutch women’s magazine Viva in March 1980.
A lunch with ABBA-singers Anni-Frid and Agnetha, that’s the world scoop that Viva’s staff member John McFarlane had in Stockholm, much to his own astonishment. For several years, the two singers have not appeared at press conferences, let alone considered an interview. Sharp-minded due to made-up stories or drastically distorted statements, the ABBA-management decided that only Björn and Benny would appear facing the press army from now on. Even in America, that had to be conquered urgently by the Swedish foursome, the singers stayed away.
And now this lunch, together with a couple of technicians and an Argentine team of interpreters, called in for assistance with a Spanish album.
Anni-Frid: “Enjoy your lunch, we’ve heard that you are trustworthy. We’re sick and tired of all those made-up stories. Recently, I’ve even approached a Swedish editorial staff to ask them to finally stop harassing Agnetha with her divorce. We’re fed up with it all, we’re in need of peace and quiet, especially in a difficult time like this. Apart from that, I’ve had enough myself of stupid questions like ‘how do you apply your make-up, why do you have this haircut’, as if the exterior is the only thing that matters. They forget to see me as a woman who tries her utmost best on stage and who tries exactly to forget about all the private problems then. Let them ask us questions about the music and judge us on these qualities. We are not a machine, but four ordinary people who have got ahead by working very hard and in the meantime are bringing joy to other people.”
Up till now, they’ve always kept silent. Anni-Frid and Agnetha, the two ABBA-women, have always left the publicity to ‘the boys’. Viva still got the opportunity to have a conversation with them. That conversation didn’t pass off that hopeful for the numerous fans of the Swedish foursome. Because ABBA is starting to get tired of it. “The moments that I’m fed up with it are getting more frequent,” Anni-Frid says.
Just an ordinary working day in Stockholm. Outside, it’s cold and snow is being cleared. Inside, the atmosphere is getting to a boiling point. There, behind the sound-proof glass of the Polar Music recording studio, ABBA’s singers Anni-Frid and Agnetha are trying to record the audiotape of a Spanish album. This simply means: singing out of tune? Stop. Again. Wrong pronunciation? Stop. Again. Not starting simultaneously? Stop. Again. So there’s a lot of sighing, moaning and cursing going on. The humiliation of two world stars? For a moment they apparently sense it like that. Then they refuse to go on until all unwanted spectators have been removed. Behind the mixing console, the remaining technician Michael Tretow smiles: “Isn’t it wonderful to work with perfectionists like that.” But Anni-Frid later confesses: “Those are the moments that I get fed up with it. And to be honest, they’re getting more frequent...”
Is the end of the ABBA-era in sight? Isn’t it clear that these four Swedish artists will collapse under the burden of world fame as well? During the lunch, Anni-Frid’s often smiling face tightens at these questions. “Do you want an honest answer? The question is whether we will be able to quit. I think all four of us are still enjoying what we’re doing, but we do find it more and more difficult to be ABBA. We’ve been in the music business for fifteen years now. As ABBA, we’ve been on top for six years. And every time, we have to live up to that. Gradually, we have to watch out that we don’t start repeating ourselves. But it’s very difficult to get new ideas time and time again. We have to keep on developing and we can only do that when we have a clear aim. Well, that’s our problem. We’re not that youthful, glittery bunch, that we were six years ago anymore. Meanwhile, we’ve been through a lot. As women, we’ve matured, developed and especially got older as well. We look at life in a different way and then it becomes less fun to be ABBA. Because we actually have to switch off ourselves for that. Because we are the ‘property’ of so many millions.”
Agnetha mingles in the conversation: “Just think about Benny and Björn. They know that we are slaving away here, and they’d like to help out, but not without a reason they’re far away on Barbados. What they call relaxing, but actually thinking and talking about new ideas every second. Those two have to see to it that we don’t run dry. The existence of the group depends on their creativity. That responsibility for our repertoire never and nowhere leaves them alone. And we just have to wait and see whether there actually will be something new or we will see the well run dry tomorrow. There’s a tremendous pressure upon the both of them.”
Subsequently, manager Stig Anderson underlines just how heavy that pressure is with a couple of statistics. Chain-smoking, he mentions: “Last year, we had a turnover of seventy million. That means a profit of thirty million Dutch guilders. We are still growing, mainly because we’ve invested successfully as well. They’re saying that ABBA is Sweden’s second biggest export product, but we also own Europe’s third largest art gallery, a bicycle factory and recently we’ve bought a company that rents offices and buildings. Then I haven’t even mentioned our own company, the ‘ABBA factory’ slash music publishing company. Then it’s not so weird that we keep our gold records tucked away in the basement. That’s yesterday’s news. It’s all about tomorrow. And the day after tomorrow.”
Agnetha: “For the time being, we will have to carry the consequences of the profession that we have chosen. That sense of responsibility keeps us going. The public doesn’t always realize that. They see us as four glamorous characters on stage: slick music, beautiful voices, sexy show. Many people think that we’re off in some kind of fairytale world afterwards until the next time. They forget about the travelling, the hours spent in the studio on recordings, rehearsing, getting to bed at three o’clock at night and getting up at seven, packing and unpacking of suitcases, being away from home for weeks. That’s just plain hard work. Of course we make enormous sums of money, but we’re living under an enormous pressure as well. Just like any other human being, I have these moments that I’m tired of it all. Then there are concerts where I feel I haven’t given myself completely and I blame myself for that. Then the others can talk all they want, but I can’t be convinced. At these times I’m so disappointed in myself that it makes me depressed. It always ends in terrible crying fits. At these moments I think: now it’s over, I won’t do it any longer.”
Anni-Frid: “The tours are the worst part, we’ve come to realize that again recently. Precisely on a tour like that, we have that pressure of the enormous responsibility. Because we’re ABBA, everything has to be perfect. It takes an enormous effort, mentally and physically. It’s easier to digest for men than it is for women. Just consider our periods on a tour like that. I think that’s the worst thing that can happen to me, because no matter what, I have to get up on stage, smiling and hip throwing. The pace that you’re living in is frightening. You’re completely charged and don’t get a chance to unwind. We hardly ever take the time for a quiet little drink afterwards. And in the back of your head you’re obviously concerned about what’s happening at home as well, the fear that something might happen to the children, no matter how well our houses are protected by alarm systems. Conclusion: after such a tour we’re completely exhausted and there are times when we say out loud: guys, shall we call it a day...?”
Hastily, she adds: “This doesn’t have anything to do with internal tensions. Of course, they occur, but they get solved very quickly as well. It’s much too time-consuming and costly for us to spend our time arguing. Perhaps we are just too professional for that, no matter what the press is writing about us.”
Disturbed internal relationships might eventually lead to the end. In advance, we had agreed with the twosome that we wouldn’t talk about the private matter of the failed marriage between Björn and Agnetha. But Graham Jackson, the group’s dance teacher, had told us beforehand: “Lately, Agnetha just isn’t doing that well, I don’t know if she will hang in there for much longer. Ever since the divorce, she doesn’t feel like it very much anymore. For a while, she has been very depressed. It’s taking me a lot of effort to get her self-confidence, that has taken a severe blow, back to the old level.”
When asked specifically about this, Anni-Frid seems much more optimistic: “Agnetha and I have been far too independent from a very young age to not be able to cope with difficult times. We also find a lot of support with each other. Of course, we’re both dependent of the people that we work with, but we would be able to manage as women on our own. Since her divorce, Agnetha lives alone with her children. Obviously, she doesn’t have to worry about a thing financially speaking. But that strong sense of responsibility that she has for us as a group, is playing a part in her private life as well. She is very strong, a true survivor. She will definitely not sit down in despair. As a matter of fact, that goes for all four of us, otherwise ABBA would have stopped existing a long time ago.”
When Agnetha hears these last words, she confesses: “I’ve always wanted to be a veterinarian. I’m crazy about animals. It’s now probably too late, although...?”
The distinct ABBA-sound originates from Michael B. Tretow’s ‘laboratory of sound’. He explains: “It was in 1970. While tuning a twelve-chorded guitar, I came up with the idea to copy that heavy, full sound of such a guitar on an old piano. It offered a majestic sound. I made a couple of recordings and continued ‘over-dubbing’ the piano, until I had the sound of fifty pianos at the same time. With Benny and Björn, we started experimenting with other instruments. Even today, the two boys come into the studio alone to record the backing track. Very often, Agnetha and Anni-Frid enter the studio without having any clue what Björn and Benny have produced. That’s due to the fact that we go into the studio immediately to experiment, when they suddenly come up with an idea. When a song has been put together, the girls come in to record the vocals after listening to it a couple of times. It may seem disorderly for such a professional group, but it works perfectly.”