The year 2014 marks ABBA’s 40th Anniversary. But their journey towards an international breakthrough was long and tangled. The first part of that journey was described in a previous piece about People Need Love (available in the In Focus archive). In this feature we take a look at the year leading up to ABBA’s Brighton triumph.
Trying for an album
The summer 1972 success of ’People Need Love’, the first Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid single, was something of a wake-up call for Stig Anderson, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. Stig was the owner of the Polar Music record label, where the duo act Björn & Benny released their records and where they were also employed as house producers. The threesome had long been trying to reach outside Swedish borders with their music, but for the past few years Björn and Benny had mainly been occupied with ”schlager” – easily digestible hits aimed at the kitchen transistor radios in Swedish homes. In reality, they wanted to make modern pop music, but at the moment it seemed their greatest success came with the milder material, the songs mum and dad could hum along to as well.
The change happened when they decided to try their luck with ’People Need Love’, for the first time using the superior vocal talents of their female companions, Agnetha and Frida, to full effect. Although they were far from convinced that this loose group concept would lead to any long-term success, Stig, Benny and Björn saw a certain potential and decided that the two couples should record an LP. However, the album wasn’t necessarily the main priority for any of the involved, and, to some extent, it turned out to be a grab bag collection of revamped tracks originally recorded for other purposes. It was understandable, for Björn and Benny already had their hands full writing songs and producing albums for other artists on the Polar Music label.
On September 26, 1972, the first recording session was held where it was clearly stated on the session sheet that the tracks were intended for an album by the group Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid. As it turned out, the backing track recorded that day, for a song adorned with the working title ’Contemplation’, was probably never used. The group did some work on one of those ”old” songs, not originally intended for the group. ’Rock’n’Roll Band’, which had been recorded for a B-side to a Björn & Benny single issued in Japan, received a fuzz guitar overdub and some additional re-jigging for the group album.
Adventure in Japan
The first recording session for a completely new song intended for the album didn’t take place until October 17, when the backing track for ’He Is Your Brother’ was completed. This song, which repeated the message of harmony between people conveyed in ’People Need Love’, was issued as a single a few weeks later. It became a hit in Sweden, at least on the radio chart Tio i topp (”The Top Ten”). Although this success probably further strengthened the feeling that there was real potential in the group concept, Björn, Benny, Agnetha and Frida still didn’t really consider the group their primary concern. Indeed, all four members were busy with several different projects during the autumn of 1972.
Björn and Benny had their production chores, and they were also writing songs for the movie Ture Sventon – privatdetektiv (”Ture Sventon – Private Investigator”). One of the songs from this project, ’Jag är blott en man’ (”I Am Just A Man”) – originally performed by Swedish actor Jarl Kulle – was given English lyrics and a new vocal overdub for inclusion on the group album as ’I Am Just A Girl’. As the duo Björn & Benny, the two songwriters were releasing a single entitled ’Love Has Its Ways’ (featuring ’Rock’n’Roll Band’ on the B-side) in Japan only. Frida and Agnetha, meanwhile, were enjoying hits with the songs ’Man vill ju leva lite dessemellan’ (”You’ve Got To Live A Little Every Now And Then”) and ’Så glad som dina ögon’ (”As Happy As Your Eyes”), respectively. Small wonder that Björn would later characterise their collective attitude to the group at this time as ”a hobby”.
However, they did perform at least one public group activity. Björn and Benny’s success in Japan earlier in the year led to an invitation to perform at the Yamaha World Popular Song Contest in Tokyo in November. The song they performed at this function was entitled ’Santa Rosa’. It had been recorded by the duo alone, but was released in Sweden as the B-side to the ’He Is Your Brother’ single. It was not the best song they had ever written, and the decision to perform it in the contest was actually made by their Japanese record company. Still, it did mean that the two couples were able to go to Japan, for although they don’t appear on the record, Agnetha and Frida were asked to perform backing vocals in the festival. But despite the female contribution, the Swedish entry was in fact awarded no prize whatsoever.
Bell song exploration
The group already had their mind on another contest, one they really believed could be their ticket to the international arena. While the group were in Tokyo, at home in Sweden it was announced that the songwriting team of Benny Andersson, Stig Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus had been invited to submit a song to the selection for the 1973 Eurovision Song Contest. During the holiday season at the end of the year, Björn and Benny headed out to their songwriting cottage at the island of Viggsö in the Stockholm archipelago. After hours and days of hard work, they came up with an upbeat song, a tune that seemed to hark back to the spirit of pop music as it used to be a decade earlier. They gave the song the working title ’Klocklåt’ (‘Bell Song’). Stig Anderson’s job was to write the lyrics, and he felt Benny and Björn’s new concoction was right on the mark. ”We wanted to do something poppy, something that reflected the popular music tastes of today,” he recalled. ”We wanted to get rid of all the pomp and circumstances surrounding the Eurovision Song Contest: the dinner-jackets and the evening dresses.”
When Stig was finished with his end of the job, the song had been adorned with the title ’Ring Ring’. To ensure that the lyrics sounded exactly right to an international audience, Stig even asked American pop star and songwriter Neil Sedaka – whom he knew through music publishing contacts – to pen the words for the English version, together with his songwriting partner Phil Cody. On January 10, 1973, the song was recorded at Metronome Studio in Stockholm. The studio engineer was Michael B. Tretow, who had become a valuable collaborator for Björn and Benny over the past few years. On this recording he made a contribution that must certainly be considered his most important so far. Michael had recently read a book about American record producer Phil Spector, who was famous for his ”wall of sound”. The book – entitled Out Of His Head, written by Richard Williams – revealed all the secrets on exactly how the Spector sound was achieved. Just like Michael suspected, it was simply a matter of several musicians playing the same instruments – three pianos, five guitars, and so on – in the same recording studio at the same time.
Michael was excited by this prospect, but realised that it would probably be much too expensive for most Swedish record labels. But he came up with a solution: why not simply record the backing track for the song twice? Then you would get that big, almost orchestral sound he was after. He also figured that if you changed the speed on the tape recorder just slightly between the overdubs, in fact making the instruments just slightly out of tune, it would increase the effect of a big sound. He told Björn and Benny about his theories. Fortunately, they were just as excited as he was by this idea. And no one was disappointed with the result: ’Ring Ring’ was a record that rumbled and thundered; it sounded like nothing that had ever come out of a Swedish recording studio.
Top three triumph
Disappointingly, however, when Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid performed ’Ring Ring’ in the Swedish selection on February 10, they only finished third. There was to be no Eurovison Song Contest for them that year. This disheartening outcome for a song they believed so much in was soon balanced in the extreme, when the group issued ’Ring Ring’ on two singles – Swedish and English versions – and then finally completed and released their first LP, Ring Ring, on March 26. Among the more notable tracks included on the album were ’Love Isn’t Easy (But It Sure Is Hard Enough)’, later issued as a single in Scandinavia, and ’Disillusion,’ written by Agnetha (featuring lyrics by Björn) – the only Fältskog tune ever to be featured on an ABBA disc. All three Ring Ring releases were major hits, shooting to the top of the combined singles and album sales chart that Sweden used at the time, occupying the top three positions. The song that could easily have turned into an ambitious failure, was in fact the pop music triumph of the year.
This was the point when the Björn, Benny, Agnetha and Frida finally realised that their group should definitely be regarded as more than a hobby – they had something really good going for them, that much was obvious, and they must definitely go on working together. Their success was solidified in the summer of 1973, when they went out on an extensive tour of Sweden’s folkparks. As the tour concluded in September, they started thinking about recording a new album. And they also began preparing themselves for the following year’s Eurovision Song Contest…