Sunday, 25 November 2012
Joker, April 1977: ABBA intimate: "We are slaves to our career"
Harry Edington, a British reporter, and his friend and colleague Peter Himmelstrand from Sweden have observed the group when they were taking their first steps on the international scene. They are the ones who really know how everything started and what's going on behind the scenes. Here's the truth about ABBA.
Anni-Frid, the girl with the German father.
The young Norwegian girl had lost all of her friends. Others pointed at her with their fingers or spit on the street before her. Her misdoing? She had fallen in love with a German officer and was expecting his baby. This happened in 1945 in Narvik in northern Norway. The German occupants were hated and feared by the native population. But when Synni Lyngstad, an innocent 19-year-old, met this Alfred Haase, he seemed different from all the others. At the end of the war Alfred was commanded back to Germany. Before he left he promised Synni to come back and marry her. But he never came back.
Her child, a daughter, was born on 15 November 1945 and named Anni-Frid after her grandmother. It was the coldest winter in Europe since years. But even the ice was warmer than the feelings of the inhabitants of Narvik towards Synni and her daughter. For two years, the mother and daughter waited for their loved one and father. Anni-Frid's grandmother had to witness how her daughter withered away in her loneliness. Synni died when she was only 21. The grandmother realised that little Anni-Frid with the abusive name 'German child' was facing a difficult childhood in Narvik. She left Norway and moved to the Swedish town Torshälla, where Anni-Frid grew up. She called her grandmother 'mamma' and she still does today. Anni-Frid: "I've tried to find my father. It was impossible. It is believed that his ship went down in Denmark. Otherwise, he definitely would have returned. It was good that I still had my grandmother. She was always very sweet to me and she encouraged me in everything that I did. On long, cold winter evenings she taught me old folk songs from our home country. She also encouraged me to start singing."
When she was 10, Anni-Frid found herself on stage for the first time. Three years later, she lied to an organizer that she was already 16 and this way she got a job as a singer in a restaurant. Her first band was called 'The Anni-Frid Four'. She was especially fond of the bass player and band leader, Ragnar Frederiksson, who was also a furniture salesman on the side. Things happened as expected: the both of them fell in love, got engaged and started living together.
When she was 16, she gave birth to a son: Hans, they got married and then came the second child: Lise-Lotte. Anni-Frid had to choose between her family and her career. Her career took precedence. Anni-Frid: "Although I had the smiling image of a happy singer, behind the mask I was very unhappy. Unfortunately I have to say today that people who really should have known better were very rude to me. They said that I didn't care about the children. They couldn't have been more wrong. Ragnar was there for them and they could not have been raised better." It was the painful decision between a marriage falling apart and the start of a career that introduced Anni-Frid as a regular visitor of the Swedish bestseller charts, although critics thought that her music was only appealing to a small part of the audience. A performance on the popular Swedish TV show 'Hyland's Corner' guaranteed her increasing popularity and helped her to become one of Sweden's first female singers.
Whenever someone wants to ask the friendly, bearded and somewhat chubby Benny Andersson about his education, he has a smile and a reply ready: "I have a driver's licence." It's a polite description of his barely succcessful schooldays. The only subject that he liked more or less was English.
He was born in a suburb of Stockholm on 16 December 1946. Benny got through his schooldays with a drowsy indifference, something that is still apparent today when he has to occupy himself with something that he isn't interested in at all. He left school when he was 15 without any exams or certificate and he concentrated completely on his music.
Benny: "My grandfather and father were exactly like me. They tried every, and I mean every, instrument that they could find." Two years after he had left school Benny was still trying to find out which part of the business world could be of use to him. The time in between was filled with thinking about his future and occasional performances with a band.
One day, the group had to go out of town for a guest appearance, which was unusual. Usually, no one wanted them. Svenne Hedlund, singer of the group Hep Stars, helped out with his truck. Svenne: "Benny is a good musician. When our organ player quit, Benny joined us. He turned up wearing a neck tie, a couple of months later he had long hair and looked like us." The Hep Stars turned into a top group.
A big distress for Benny: "We couldn't show our faces in any restaurant anymore, we were harassed everywhere." Along with their increasing popularity, their income increased as well, but Benny never seemed to be interested in money. The Hep Stars started taking care of their own releases and business matters, to market their songs. But their company 'Hep House' went bankrupt. The biggest flop that ever happened to Benny.
Another problem was waiting for Benny: in the summer of 1966 he broke his four-year-long engagement to Christina Grönvall. A pretty, red-haired girl that he had met in school. They lived together and had two children: Peter and Helena. This romance was kept top secret from the group's fans. A couple of months after the long impending break up, Christina confronted Benny in an interview: "Tell everyone about me and the children. The family that doesn't have a place in his glittering world as a pop idol. The only contact of the children with their father is through the records of the Hep Stars. I once joined them on tour, but I always had to travel separately. And during the show I was hidden away."
Benny was amazed that this story caused so much turmoil. He was also disappointed that strange people wanted to get into his private life. By the way, today he still has the same opinion. He has learned from his experience with Christina. But he often thinks about his children yearningly.
Björn Ulvaeus was born in the last days of the war on 25 April 1945 on the west coast of Göteborg. When he was 11 his family moved to the east coast town Vastervik - a name that means something like west bay. He got acquainted with guitars, boating and the raw folk music, that was flooding the world around this time.
When he was 17, Björn got together with three of his friends and he said to them that he wanted to start a Dixieland group. The aim was to get public performances in order to increase their pocket money. Today he says: "It wasn't a serious venture, although I gave that impression to some people. I was just bragging when I talked to the boys about jazz and things like that. I didn't know much about it and so our music was more like American folk music in the style of the Kingston Trio." One day, Björn's mother brought home a form to enter the talent competition 'Opportunity Knocks'. The group's name had to be entered as well and since there wasn't any name yet, mother Ulvaeus came up with The West Bay Singers. Björn: "I was astounded when I found out that she had entered us into that competition. At first I wanted to withdraw, but then I thought, why would I?"
A preview of the programme indicated that The West Bay Singers would sing songs in Swedish and English. This was read by Bengt Bernhag, a well-known talent scout. He was a trouper in the music business with a real instinct for up-and-coming talents. He liked the group and especially the simple and honest presentation and he recommended them to the boss of his company, a single-minded and energetic music publisher called Stig Anderson. He asked Björn for a demo tape. Björn: "That was an exciting day for us all." The first thing that Stig Anderson did for the group was change their name. That's how they turned into The Hootenanny Singers. Their first record was perfect: 'I'm Waiting At The Charcoal Kiln', a sad song about the people who were working in the forests. It became a big success.
Stig: "I noticed that there were opportunities for this group. They looked good and the blonde, handsome Björn was the centre of attention on stage. None of us had expected to become so successful this fast."
Stig's trust and Bengt's fatherly advice persuaded Björn how to pursue his future. And the conditions couldn't have been better for him. Bengt was a skilled music technician and he taught him everything that he knew. Bengt always treated Björn as his son. Without this connection, Björn would probably never have turned into a superstar. One of Björn's friends: "Stig was always a business man, and Björn was exactly right for him. Björn is someone who can analyze accurately and meticulously. When you look at him while he is working you can almost hear his brains working as a precision machine. Because he attacks everything with his intellect, he has to force himself on stage to smile at his fans sometimes."
Agnetha, who often fears to get in front of a microphone.
Agnetha Fältskog, born on 5 April 1950 in Jönköping (Sweden), is the daughter of an enterprising father, who produced shows for domestic use at the local cultural centre. Agnetha: "I will never forget my first official performance. In the middle of a show for elderly people, my pants went down and the audience burst into laughter. I was six years old at the time." When she was 15, she got her own piano. Reason enough for the musical offspring to try out her own melodies. She also wrote her own lyrics to these melodies, starting with a first draw about two dwarfs. At 15, Agnetha was a singer in a dance band. Two years later, she joined another band - that's how her voice turned up on the desk of producer Little Gerhard of the record company CBS, whose cousin worked as the second singer in the same band. He asked Agnetha to send him an entire tape.
Her favourite song around this time was 'I Was So In Love', a song about a girl mourning about her lost love. She was that girl. She wrote the song because she was so unhappy when her romance with Björn Lillia came to an end. "I was sitting at the piano and tried to forget. The melody was ready within half an hour. I didn't feel any better but I had a great song." The producer had the same opinion. Agnetha said goodbye to her family and went on a train to Stockholm to record the song.
"It was the most exciting moment of my life. My heart was beating in my throat. I had to force myself to get inside the studio. On stage I still have that same feeling sometimes. Then I heard that the musicians were practising my melody. Suddenly I was floating on a cloud." Within a week the record was at number one.
Little Gerhard: "Agnetha was very critical from the start - when it came to her job as well." Her straightforward way of dealing with problems made the transition from the country to the city very difficult. Behind her self-confidence, a considerable amount of shyness was hidden. She said things that she didn't mean to say like that and often came across as being impolite. A friend says: "I'm convinced that she sometimes didn't realize what she was doing and that the words simply came out because she felt insecure. But when she talked to people privately, she was sweet, polite and honest. I understand that she is still driving reporters crazy these days. They don't get anything more out of her than a simple 'yes' or 'no'. I believe that she understands that it's better to say nothing at all than to make a blunder all the time."
But nothing could stop Agnetha's career. She started to perform in TV shows and went on tour in the inevitable folk parks. A German record company tried to get her under contract. She refused, but still her popularity in Germany was increasing - for a short period of time she was engaged to the German lyricist Dietrich Zimmermann. The critics followed all of her moves. Her song 'Gypsy Friend' was called racialistic and heavily criticized. Agnetha: "It's a pity that people see it like that. I just wrote a song, that's all."