Sheer hell in Stockholm. By Phil McNeill

Well, you can’t say we didn’t try. Phil McNeill was convinced there were fascinating depths beneath the cool white surface of ABBA. He went to Stockholm to learn their innermost thoughts on sex, politics and the music business. He got gallons of coffee. A Big Mac and an indescribable yearning for Anni-Frid Lyngstad. How we all laughed.

Looking back, sadder and wiser, it seems laughable the way we flew in so naïve and optimistic. This was going to be it. ABBA-The AlbumABBA-The Movie…and now ABBA-The Interview!

First off I’d been to see ABBA-The Movie.

That should have warned me. You haven’t seen it yet? Don’t bother. Nothing is revealed. That’s the entire plot in a nutshell.

The story line follows the efforts of this terrible Australian journalist to track down the fab-four for the ultimate in-depth interview during their mega-successful tour Down Under.

He’s thwarted at every turn, his futile efforts interspliced with bland footage of the actual ABBAs on the actual stage, rubbing the irony in with witty songs like I’m A Marionette.

You get to see ABBA offstage for about 20 seconds in total.

Beneath the bland exterior lurks…whay? The bland interior? The most Machiavellian manipulators of the pre-Stigwood era of pop music? Four ideal Swedish socialists hearts of gold? Your guess is as good as that of the punter sitting next to you.

But wait! Right at the end, fulfilment beckons. This dreadful hack in the movie actually manages to consummate the union at the 11th hour. He gets his interview – but we don’t get to hear it.

It should have warned me, but it just dulled my senses and deadened my resolve.

Like a philosophy student who drops a trip by accident the day before his finals, and can’t unscramble his Socrates from his Arthur Lees, I panicked and buried my head in the textbooks.

By the time we got to Stockholm I’d cracked it.

It was Peyton Place under a midnight sun.

Did you know that ABBA have six kids between them? Two apiece. Agnetha (28, the blonde one) has two by Björn (33), who has two by Agnetha. Benny (31, bearded) has two by his first fiancée, Christina, and Frida (32), who lives with Benny, has two by her ex-husband Ragnar. Benny’s first hit song was called Wedding a somewhat ironic coincidence as both his kids and one of Frida’s are illegitimate.

Talking of which, did you know that Anni-Frid Lyngstad’s own mother was unmarried – a Norwegian teenager who feel for a German officer during the occupation?

Or that Benny Andersson was a 1960s teen idol whose career collapsed at its peak into a morass of unpaid taxes, disastrous movie projects, bankruptcy, and public revelations about his girlfriend and children in the popular press?

Great material, right? And if that fell through, or to while away the hours of mutual sussing-out, till the band trusted me enough to pour out their innermost feelings on love, life, ecology and abortion, well, there was always the music to fall back on.

Did you know its been eight months since ABBA last released a single in Britain – eight months in which, at a conservative estimate. The Bee Gees have managed to write, arrange and produce at least two out of every three No.1 singles and albums throughout the known world?

Thursday dawns irritatingly early. I call Polar Records shortly after nine o’clock, and to my surprise the working day is already working. Can this be the key? Evidenty bereft of the commuter struggle that starts every day in London on a sour note, the Swedish businessperson has a head start.

The morning drags by with the group going over a chord sequence Björn and Benny have cobbled together out on their private island. Over and over. Every bar is analysed, and slowly the bare bones disappear and the arrangement takes on flesh and colour, the rhythm section whacking out a jolly marching beat across which the guitarist fires a riff I swear they’ve stolen from The Eagles.

Eventually they get as hungry as us, and generously offer to come and have a hamburger in the front office and talk for a while. My head, battered stupid by about three hours of that one riff over and over and over again, nods excitedly. My gratitude is pitiful to behold.

I start off by trying to tell Benny the sort of genuine in-depth whammer-jammer I’d like to get going. You don’t seem to have done many big interviews, I observe, keeping my estimate on the conservative side.

“No, not really,” he agrees. “That’s true. It is a rather difficult situation for us, because there are a lot of people asking – but when we’re on holiday, and when we’re working we’re working.” The press is important, but work is more important.

ABBA-The Movie, he insists, wasn’t intended as a genuine comment upon the group’s inaccessibility. The plot was director Lasse Hallström’s idea, and it was only tacked on at the last minute; originally the project was intended to yield a TV special, but it just grew…

The way it turned out, it’s like a joke on the audience, a tease, I point out. You sit there for 95 minutes and 25 songs, and nothing is revealed.

“I haven’t thought about it,” Benny replies. “I know that lots of people afterwards have said that there should have been more talking and things that they normally don’t see, but, uh…well, it didn’t come out that way.”

Are you thinking of following it up?

“No, not for the moment. Because we’re not actors. That’s why we’re not in the plot,” he chuckles. “It takes good actors to make a good movie, I think.”

Robert Stigwood, who would appear to unhampered by that last consideration, can sleep easy.

Talk turns to the Brothers Gibb, who seem to be well formed in the collective ABBA consciousness. After all, The Bee Gees have cleaned up worldwide this year the way ABBA swept the board, throughout Europe at least, during 1976 and 1977.

Stayin’ Alive,” Benny mentions. “I can hear that song… I never get tired of it.”

Do you think they’ve learnt your tricks?

“Our tricks?” he laughs. We don’t have any!”

(In fact, if anything, ABBA have learnt The Bee Gees’ tricks, Summer Night City, which I get to hear several hours later, sounds very like a Bee Gees song. As Benny says, it’s very different from previous ABBA performances: simultaneously lightweight yet powerful – minor-chorded, disco-orientated, and undoubtedly one to rank with Knowing Me, Knowing You and The Name Of The Game. Resistance will be futile, of course.)

As it happens, there are abundant parallels between ABBA and The Bee Gees, some coincidental, others quite significant.

* They are each central artists in a compact independent record company run by an experienced rockbiz entrepreneur who also manages the group. Far more than either the Stones or The Beatles, they owe much of their success to their respective managers.

* They are both studio groups who realise the futility of live performance in the mass-audience 1970s, and present themselves to the world via T.V., radio and movies. Neither receives or invites more than token press coverage. Both rely heavily on their backing musicians.

* Neither group can write a decent lyric to save its life.

* Both groups are bound together by family ties – something they also happen to share with Fleetwood Mac. More whimsically, both group’s names are derived from their initials.

* Personality: zero.

* Perhaps most importantly – at least, according to Björn Ulvaeus – is the fact that they’ve been through the business mill before. Discussing the traumatic ending to Benny’s previous career with The Hep Stars, he observes: “The big mistake seems to be, you start off young and move too fast, you’re very successful…It ends with people complaining about who’s singing too many solos, who’s writing too many songs, all that kind of stuff.

“I read an article about The Bee Gees in Playboy the other day. They had the same problem too, first time around. The second time, you just don’t repeat those mistakes.

“You always have to remember that what comes out on the record is the most important thing. 

The hamburgers arrive. Big Macs – Benny’s favorite food, fact fans. I mention punk rock.

“Is that still big in England?” asks Björn.

Yeah. It’s staggering a bit. Is it big in Sweden?

“No. I don’t think it’s anything. The whole thing’s stopped. It hasn’t really been big anywhere outside of England. Not really.”

It’s a very English thing.

“I like that,” says Benny. “Trying new things, whatever it is.”

Have you got many Sex Pistols records?

“No…I had one – the second one. I like that.”

“That’s the good thing about England,” adds Björn. “Always trying new things. People are also very open to it – much more so than the States.”

They have a way of ever so politely letting leading topics die. We can discuss superficial business matters, but the atmosphere is just not right for trying to discover what they actually feel and think.

Despondently, we resume position in the gallery. It’s the same old song. Over and over. But then – relief! Frida can make it. Probably.

To cut a long story short – an extremely long story – finally, late afternoon, she appears. She can only give us 20 minutes, mind you, but at least she’s there.

Anni-Frid Lyngstad, as a glance at any ABBA picture will indicate, actually has character – something the others all keep guarded to themselves beneath their professional, pleasant public images.

Had the interview been set up the way I expected I’m sure something really interesting could have emerged. As it is, all we can do is huddle together and rapid-fire questions and answers at one another. What’s more, there is a far greater language barrier than with the two blokes.

Her parting words were; “If I could tell you in Swedish it would be much easier, I tell you, it’s so many things… it’s hard to point out – and I only have two minutes left to do it.

“I don’t think you are satisfied, but neither am I, because…you know, if I should do an interview I would like to sit down for a couple of hours and talk, y’know – that’s the only way.

“I know that this is going to be bad. I feel it but I can’t help it. I feel sorry for you, but maybe you can just take it away, all what I have said, and keep Benny and Björn. Because I don’t feel satisfied, and I don’t think you do either.”

They are not the words of the bland automaton she is generally believed to be. Even people who have studied ABBA quite closely advised me, before I left London: “Don’t talk to the girls. It’s a waste of time.”

I could have done with wasting a bit more time talking to Frida Lyngstad than I did.

White slacks, white blouse, no bra, a red ribbon threaded through her dyed red hair, she chain smokes throughout the interview.

There is a quote from Frida in ABBA’s ‘official biography’: “I carry around inside of me an inherent anguish which is very hard to get rid of. I thought it would be easier as I got older, but it’s the other way around, it just gets worse…” What did she mean by that?

“The older you get,” she says slowly, “the more experience you get of life. It’s hard to agree with everything that you are caught up with. It was much easier when you were young… That’s about what I mean.”

Both Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad cut solo albums in 1975, the year after ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest.

Agnetha’s album featured the original (Swedish) version of S.O.S., alongside 11 of her own songs. That’s right, her own songs.

Generally referred to as “sentimental”, they’re all in Swedish. Musically, it’s an album of competent pop, a couple of items from which wouldn’t be out of place on a Kate Bush set. It’s not much cop, but no way is it overshadowed by the dreck ABBA used to produce in their early days.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to ask her why she doesn’t write for ABBA, and whether she regrets it. Frida declined to comment on Agnetha’s behalf.

Her own solo album features the prototype Fernando (in Swedish) alongside Swedish versions of Wall Street Shuffle (really!), Life On Mars (the very same!), Wouldn’t It Be Nice and a clutch of other bizarrely varied songs, all treated in a manner not a million miles from boring.

It’s also got a ‘very rude’ picture on the cover.

Not that Frida believes she’s a sex symbol.

“I’m not,” she laughs. “No, I’m not at all. I think it’s Anna that is – because of her bottom. But I have never felt like that. Never!

“I don’t know if I’m sexy. They look upon lots of artists as sexy…Mick Jagger…a lot of them. I don’t know.”

In contrast to the frivolous, decorative image which she tacitly projects of herself, Frida is a serious person. She reads a lot – mainly female authors of late, Dorris Lessing, Patricia Highsmith… I should have asked her what she felt about the woman’s movement. Instead I asked if her own opinions accorded with the underlying conservative image of ABBA. A little fencing around then: What are your personal politics?

“Do I have to tell you?” She asks, as if I might force it out of her.

No – but no one knows ABBA really think. Do you believe it’s important to keep your personal opinions to yourself?

“I think it is in a way, yes. Because I am very hard to express myself when it comes to politics. Of course, I have a lot of ideas about it – and of course we have a lot of friends and we are discussing that a lot.

“If I could tell you in Swedish it would be much easier, I tell you.”

Which is where we came in.

Back in the studio, the band plays on. They show no signs of letting up, and anyway when they do stop for a break we will only be back to square one: strickly question and answer.

Also, Benny seems to have become less friendly towards us since Frida reported back to him on the course of our mini-interview.

Finally, we can’t stand it any more. I can feel my brain going squishy in its casing. I’m contracting a headache which will take several days to wear off. It’s the same old song…

Despondent and defeated, we depart.

Even as we’re chauffeured back across Stockholm, though, my spirits lift. ABBA: The Interview? What a joke, I know what I’ll call it! Yeah…

Sheer hell in Stockholm. Transcribed for ABBA World

It’s got a ring to it.

RAM (Australia) · 20 October 1978 (Page 27)

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