In the week Lucie Jones flies the flag for the UK in Kiev at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest finals, it seemed apt to feature a recent interview with a Swede whose early memories of the competition centred around his own nation’s first and most treasured victory in 1974.
You may struggle naming more than a few of the 50-plus overseas winners so far, but you’ll no doubt remember the year ABBA were triumphant with Waterloo in Brighton.
Carl Magnus Palm, my interviewee today, was still in short trousers when Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad recorded their first ABBA album, Ring Ring. Was there a copy of that LP around his house in the suburbs of Stockholm back then?
“No. I sort of liked ABBA in the very beginning though, and got the Ring Ring single for my eighth birthday. In fact, I was a pop music fan from two or three, loving The Beatles and everything about them. I think one of my sisters bought the third album, (1975’s ABBA, including SOS and second No.1 Mamma Mia). But that was about the only album we had until I started buying them … when they were about to break up!”
Do you remember the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest well? And was that a late night in the Palm household?
“I do, and it was! I remember being so happy Sweden had won. It was a really big thing for us. I liked Waterloo and liked ABBA, but didn’t need to own those records. They were played everywhere and my friends had them.”
Sweden clearly got behind the band very early, and they were already well-known at home by then, weren’t they?
“They were. All four were famous … although maybe Frida a little less so.”
Four decades on, it just so happens that Carl Magnus has published the latest of a series of book about the band, having researched and written about ABBA for 25 years, including acclaimed biography Bright Lights Dark Shadows – The Real Story Of ABBA.
He’s also a long-time consultant for the band’s record company Polar Music International, helping compile CD and DVD releases, and has co-produced three TV documentaries about the band. Furthermore, Carl Magnus has helped out with research and captions at ABBA The Museum in Stockholm. But his latest publication is the perfect place to start this story, his updated, expanded version of the original 1994 book, ABBA – The Complete Recording Sessions, featuring more details on exactly how the group wrote and recorded all those classic hits.
The first edition, published when ABBA were still some way off from being Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductees, was based on original research and interviews with all four members as well as key personnel who worked with them in the recording studio. But since then, further information about the music has emerged, the author spending many more hours researching and recording memories of musicians and engineers, either never before interviewed or rarely quizzed on their part in the group’s journey.
The result is a weighty tome to say the least, ‘rewritten from the ground up’, as he puts it, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus having also authorised him to listen to a number of previously-unreleased tracks, now in digital format.
“When I first worked on this book all the archive tapes were still analogue, making the task more complicated. Today, they’ve all been transferred to a digital format, allowing for much easier access to unreleased recordings and alternate mixes of classic hits.
“Accordingly, this new edition reveals hitherto unknown insights into how ABBA worked and reworked their music, editing out large chunks of the recordings to make them more immediately captivating, changing lyrics and arrangements, removing entire verses, sometimes letting a melody fragment travel through a number of tunes until it ﬁnally found its natural home.”
The latest edition also tells how the four-piece approached their work and what they feel about the songs, along with the author’s in-depth essays about the process – from the writing of the tunes to the mixing and beyond.
Before quizzing Carl Magnus further, I felt I should explain to him my own complicated relationship with ABBA. Born a couple of years after my Skype interviewee, in 1967, I first equated the group with my little sister (five years older than me, but I am the youngest of five) and her more questionable taste in music (sorry, Tracy). As the early ’70s gave rise to the mid-’70s, the late ’70s and the early ’80s, I stood apart from all that. It seemed one of the least cool options available throughout that whole period, and accordingly I kept my distance. I was in denial, you could say.
It took a couple of factors to win me over and admit the band’s pull, one of those being Blancmange’s 1984 cover of The Day Before You Came, the other Elvis Costello playing Knowing Me Knowing You at Glastonbury Festival in 1987. Finally, I felt I could reappraise the band and admit – at least to myself – what a great band they were. There for starters were two great songs that deserved kudos. What’s more, the afore-mentioned Declan McManus had kind of half-inched elements of Dancing Queen for Oliver’s Army.
It wasn’t long before my singles collection included those singles and others such as Take A Chance On Me, Mamma Mia and SOS. And who could deny the pull of the more stirring, heart-tugging songs like One of Us and The Winner Takes It All? Besides, aside from the boys’ beards, who couldn’t love those girls? I even went back to that Arrival album I dismissed in my formative days, hearing the title track in a different light, feeling a little nostalgic for a different era.
By the mid-90s I was even experiencing the delights of Aussie tribute act Bjorn Again live, and recorded a telephone answering machine message over the top of Ring Ring, my questionable Swedish accent (more akin to the chef from The Muppets, probably) telling callers Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn, Frida, myself and my long-suffering better half couldn’t come to the phone but … Well, you get the idea. Call it my Abba Coming Out if you like.
But enough about me. Back to Carl Magnus. How did a lad only born in 1965 get to become recognised as an international authority on a band that broke through before he’d even hit double figures?
“Well, there’s a long story there. It wasn’t until the late ‘80s that I really started getting into them. Then in the early ‘90s I read Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, being a Beatles nut, and thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be great to write a book like that’. I wondered who I could write a book about and the obvious choice was ABBA, being Swedish. And because they were never cool, they weren’t the kind of group music journalists would take as their No.1 choice to write an in-depth study about.
“I thought, ‘Here’s the challenge’. Even those who didn’t like ABBA’s music feel you cannot fault the craftsmanship. That turned into the first edition of The Complete Recording Sessions, the result of me thinking something good might come out of all this. But I never expected to be in the position I am now – the world’s foremost ABBA historian.”
I read somewhere that Hunter Davies’ The Beatles: The Authorised Biography was also a big influence on your choice of career.
“That was very much my thing. At a young age I don’t think I had every album, but there was always that neighbour who had the Rubber Soul album, wondering if I could borrow that and tape it. As a child you don’t have unlimited resources.”
On his first visit to London in 1979, Carl Magnus even visited the Smash Hits offices, meeting the journalist Ian Cranna, who he says looked after him that day. Did he expect to see stars walking in and out of the building?
“Not really. I was with my Dad, who encouraged me to go there. He said, let’s go to their office and see if we can meet someone. He encouraged me to talk to someone in my limited English, which was okay for a 14-year-old but maybe not perfect.”
Carl Magnus was always something of an Anglophile as well as a pop fan, going on to study English and cinema studies at university in Stockholm. But writing wasn’t always the day-job.
“I was wondering what I was going to do with my life, working in a video rental store, then temping. Then this came along, thinking let’s try and do something I really want to, without considering whether it’s possible to do it. I was living on welfare for a while, with practically no writing experience professionally. But by the late ‘90s it had all started coming together, getting this and that ABBA assignment. I was also doing translation work and subtitling for TV, translating every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, for instance, a claim to fame with sci-fi fans!”
While chiefly known for his work on ABBA, it was a book on Swedish singer and actress Monica Zetterlund that kick-started his writing career, in collaboration with his friend Thomas Winberg. I tell Carl Magnus how I sought out a couple of her appearances in preparation for this interview, and could understand the attraction, not least her stage presence and air of dynamism.
“Absolutely! A very compelling performer and a really great singer, really good at interpretation – thinking of the lyrics, not just blurting out the words.”
Between his 1994 first-edition ABBA book and its 2017 revised version, I make it seven more books on the same subject. And then there was Cadillac Madness – The Incredible Story of The Hep Stars, profiling Benny Andersson’s breakthrough band.
Having heard so much of the early catalogue of a certain Benny Andersson, do you think he shone out straight away? He seemed to be an innovative musician from day one.
“Yes, he was, and the amazing turning point in his life was only the second song he wrote, called Sunny Girl.”
That was the song that made me ask that question. It reminded me of the late ‘60s era Bee Gees.
“Right. I know what you mean – that kind of baroque feel. Well, that song became a massive hit in this country, and was No.1 for five or six weeks. A big success and their biggest at that that point.
“Benny tells this story of sitting alone in this dressing room, before a Hep Stars concert, in some Swedish town, coming to terms with having this No.1 song. Apparently not only was he able to play the keyboards but he was actually able to write songs that communicate with people and go into people’s hearts.
“He was only 19 years old and decided then that if he could write one of those songs he could probably write more. That’s the moment he decided that whatever happens with The Hep Stars, however many years that goes on, he’s going to continue in music. That’s going to be his career.”
To date, Carl Magnus’ work has been published across Scandinavia and Europe, including Russia, plus the US, Australia, Japan and Brazil. Does he still get a thrill seeing those books on the shelves?
“I’m amazed when I count the languages some of these books have been published in.”
And what would his teenage self make of his consultancy position for Polar Music International/ Universal Music?
“It’s like a dream come true. I was always a pop music fan and that was always the biggest thing in my life. There was a dream to work with all that, but not really having the self-confidence to think I’d ever be able to do that. I’m not rich or anything … but I’m alive!”
You haven’t got your own Swedish island yet then?
“Not quite yet! But I’ve been able to make a living, pay the rent, eat food … So that’s great, and my teen incarnation would have been thrilled to bits.”
“Yeah, absolutely. I’m a huge fan of vintage disco for the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. I can’t get enough of it!”
And as well as his early Monica Zetterlund project, Carl Magnus has co-written the memoirs of Swedish singer and actress Siw Malmkwist.
“That was great. She’s a huge star in this country and everyone knows her, famous for 60 years or so, having started out very young. She came to my apartment to do the interviews, which was very bizarre. I was asking myself, ‘what is this famous person doing sitting on my couch? How did she end up here?’”
He’s clearly made an impact over the past 20 years or so, but how well does he feel he’s really got to know the often-enigmatic Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn and Frida en route?
“Well, Bjorn and Benny more so, but I think I know the girls fairly well, although I wouldn’t say I’m not their personal friend. I tend to leave them alone. It would be unhealthy to try to be anything else.”
I guess you have to strike something of a balance. You have to get that bit deeper as a biographer and sometimes can’t get too close to your subject.
“Exactly! You have to keep your integrity as a writer. That said, I must say Bjorn and Benny have always been very nice to me. They say no to requests sometimes but say yes so many times, especially when I did the first edition of this book. They were absolutely wonderful, opened so many doors and said you can come back as many times as you want until you feel you’re done with the interviews. And that’s when we’re done. That was like a dream! As you know, usually it’s the other way round – you get 10 minutes if you’re lucky.”
As for potential future developments of the ABBA story, there was no official split announcement in 1982, and no big moment when it became clear they were no longer recording together. Yet there’s been talk of late about the group reuniting to work on a new ‘digital entertainment experience’. Any further word there yet?
“I don’t think so. There have been no further announcements, and I know no more than that’s already been in the media. I’m not even sure they know! It all seems very vague.”
“Oh, my! I don’t know. I wrote in the press release ‘hundreds of hours’, but I’m wondering if it was more! It must be well over a thousand. It’s just insane. working seven days a week for two years, more or less.”
Have you a long-suffering family around you?
“I don’t. I have long-suffering friends though, and I’m looking forward to properly hanging out with them now.”
Finally, I put Carl Magnus on the spot and asked him what his favourite ABBA track and album was.
“If I had to choose one favourite track and return to it, it’s The Winner Takes It All, which I think is the perfect pop song. It really only has two melody lines, repeated throughout, but with changes through lyrics and arrangements, and the way Agnetha sings it … That’s her proudest moment, I think. It’s very simple yet they keep you interested. In my book that may well be the definition of great pop. It’s not hard to listen to that song and remember the tune, yet it never gets boring.
“And my favourite album is Voulez-Vous, not many people’s favourite, I know. It does have I Have a Dream on it, which is not my favourite track! Apart from that it’s a bit Abba Go Disco, although it’s not all-out disco. There’s a lot of tension on it, a lot of desperation, about people looking for a one-night stand, and so on. It’s a very exciting album, with ABBA at a kind of crossroads there, keeping some of that youthful pop exuberance yet also starting to be more mature, all that coinciding in a very fruitful way.”
And for a further slice of Eurovision, writewyattuk style, there’s this website’s feature/interview with Katrina Leskanich (of Katrina and the Wales fame) from late March, with a link right here.