I considered starting this feature/interview with the line, ‘Ring, ring, I stare at the phone on the wall’ as a build-up to tracking down Carl Magnus Palm, seen as the world’s leading historian for a certain legendary pop quartet from his home nation. But I don’t think I’ve properly encountered a telephone attached that way since the days my Mum would take herself off to the hall, perching at the bottom of the stairs while chatting to friends and family.
However, while technology, fashions, interior design decor and lay-outs change, ABBA remain a force to be reckoned with, half a century after their first English language recordings.
As for Carl Magnus, he has a new book about this Swedish phenomenon on its way, charting afresh the journey of a band that has clearly shaped his life, ABBA at 50 following the journey of that group formed in Stockholm in 1972 by Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad from humble post-war Scandinavian beginnings to global superstardom.
It’s a band that needs no introduction, but I’ll offer one anyway, ABBA emerging victorious from the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Waterloo’, quickly catapulted to fame, capturing hearts across the world over the next few years with their melodic, ever-so-catchy pop songs.
One of the most commercially successful acts in the history of pop music, they topped charts worldwide from that breakthrough year until – initially – 1982, their nine UK No.1s – among 20 top-10 singles – including classic hits such as ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Mamma Mia’, ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, ‘The Winner Takes It all’, ‘Super Trouper’ and ‘Take a Chance on Me’.
Although ABBA never officially announced their break-up, their final public performance together came in December 1982 on Saturday night BBC TV show The Late, Late Breakfast Show, a satellite broadcast live from Stockholm, just a few weeks after a ‘read between the lines’ personal appearance with Noel Edmonds on that same show. But as it turned out, the story was far from over.
A decade on, the ABBA Gold greatest hits compilation became a global bestseller, then in 1999 their music was adapted into successful musical Mamma Mia! A feelgood jukebox rom-com film of the same name followed in 2008, its sequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, premiering a decade later.
Then, last November, after a 40-year hiatus, the band released their 10th studio album, Voyage, simultaneously announcing an accompanying ‘virtual concert residency’ – featuring their digital avatars, dubbed ‘ABBAtars’. Depicting the group as they appeared in 1977 in a motion-capture hologram show held in the ABBA Arena, a purpose-built venue within East London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, their 22-song set each night included two singles from their comeback LP and plenty of old hits.
And now, my interviewee, ABBA aficionado Carl Magnus, also the author of 2001’s Bright Lights Dark Shadows: The Real Story of ABBA (the first comprehensive biography of the band) and 2017’s ABBA: The Complete Recording Sessions (a revised and expanded version of the writer’s 1994 tome), is about to deliver a full-colour follow-up, neatly illustrated with 200 images, ABBA at 50 examining the group’s enduring legacy and much-loved musical repertoire, the fashions, and the toll commercial success took upon the private lives of their two married couples.
I caught up with Carl Magnus, who has also co-produced a number of television programmes about the band, contributed to his beloved home city’s ABBA The Museum, and worked as a consultant to Polar Music in their ABBA reissues project, earlier this week, and he suggested life was pretty good on the other side of the North Sea.
“It’s a nice, fairly warm day in Stockholm – not too hot, not too cold, so I’m not complaining.”
Was it another great moment having that finished book, ABBA at 50, in your hands?
“That’s always a thrill, you know, when you have a new book out, and it’s, ‘Oh, wow, it actually exists!’ Because it gets a bit … what’s the word I’m looking for? Abstract. When you work on a book … until it becomes a book.”
His English, I should add, is fantastic, putting us insular Brits to shame. Meanwhile, I tell him I can’t believe it’s five years since we last spoke, marking the publication of ABBA: The Complete Recording Sessions. And it’s been an extremely hectic 60-plus months since, no doubt. Has he managed to keep healthy amid the pandemic and all that’s thrown our way?
“As far as I know … and for me – and I guess it’s the same for you, at least to an extent – I’ve been working from home for 30 years, so things just continued as they always had, largely.”
I’m guessing ABBA at 50 has kept you busy for a fair bit of that time.
“I got the assignment early last year, I think, so I put that together. It didn’t really entail too much original research …”
Because you’ve done that groundwork for 30 or so years, no doubt.
“Yeah, I have, I mean it’s mostly just a matter of typing it out and finding the right tone for that book. It was a bit of a challenge, because I’m used to writing these really detailed books, but I only had 45,000 words, because that’s what they asked for … although I extended it to 50,000.
“But it was a nice challenge. It was good, because I could just concentrate on finding the right tone for it – a different tone from what I’m usually writing, being a bit more free. I really enjoyed that … a lot more than I thought I would.”
And not only is it now 50 years of ABBA, but soon you’ll be able to mark half a century of your own journey – your Voyage, I guess – with the band, in effect from that day as an eight-year-old you picked up your first ABBA single, ‘Ring Ring’.
“Well, yes, next year. I was born in ’65, so that was in the spring of ‘73.”
At this point I fell foul of shoddy internet research, telling Carl Magnus I was surprised to learn ‘Ring Ring’ was a minor UK hit before ‘Waterloo’. But he soon put me right, telling me that while it was first released in ’73 – the title track of their debut LP – it didn’t chart until just after their Eurovision success, subtly telling me, ‘That’s both right and wrong – ha!’
“That single was released in the UK in October 1973, but didn’t enter the chart at the time. Then ‘Waterloo’ was a big hit and a remix of ‘Ring Ring’ was released in the UK, and that was the one that went to No.32.”
Of course, most of us will always equate the proper arrival of the band with a certain event at The Dome in Brighton on April 6, 1974.
“Exactly! I mean, the group’s real 50th anniversary – when they started recording together English language pop songs – is this year, because it was 1972. But the big 50th anniversary is going to be in 2024. obviously, because of ‘Waterloo’.”
That first English language single was June 1972’s ‘People Need Love’, a top-20 hit in Sweden if nowhere else, at which stage they were recording as Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid. And it turned out to be the first of eight singles that appeared on debut LP, Ring Ring, which received a limited release in late March 1973.
And while that long player failed to make any real ground outside Scandinavia, their fortunes would change in Brighton barely a year later … big time. And all these years on, the hits keep coming, the Voyage LP No.1 more or less everywhere late last year, save for North America, it seems. And even there its No.2 placing in the US and in Canada proved a best-ever album performance. The global love for Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid clearly continues.
“It does. I remember 30 years ago when people said to me, when I was working on my first book, ‘You better hurry up, before the ABBA revival dies down.’ Ha! They’re like The Beatles now, in the sense that they’re part of the culture … it’s a reference point, it’s everything else, you know. You don’t have to compare it on any other level, but in that sense, people are always interested.”
Regarding Voyage, the sixth ABBA studio album to top the UK charts and their 10th chart-topping LP in this country altogether, last time we spoke you told me you had access to exclusive material that few had before, with official permission, when writing ABBA: The Complete Recording Sessions. Did you also have early access to the recordings on Voyage?
“I didn’t. I haven’t really been involved in Voyage in any way. I’ve only got information through the media, like, everybody else.”
It seems apt that Voyage came out – and straight in at the top of the charts – 40 years to the month after The Visitors seemed to signal the end of the story. And I’m guessing that even five years ago that probably would have surprised you, a new LP landing.
“Oh, absolutely. I never thought this would happen. Anytime people, everywhere, if I was interviewed about ABBA – and people inevitably asked if I thought there was going to be a reunion – at one point I would say, ‘There’s no chance whatsoever.’ But then I changed it to, ‘You should never say never, but it seems very unlikely.’
“Deep inside, I never thought they were going to do that, because the motivation didn’t seem to be there. But then the ABBA Arena and ABBAtars show came along, and all of a sudden they had a platform for it … or an outlet, I should say.”
Last time we spoke, we mentioned your 25 years of research as it was then, to add to that earlier love for the band, leading to the updated ABBA: The Complete Recording Sessions. Time clearly flies.
“It does. Yeah. It’s insane!”
And it only struck me this morning that we’ve also had Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again since we last spoke. The ABBA machine continues to function, and the industry around the band clearly continues to flourish.
“Yeah, it’s like ABBA has become, you know, a franchise. It can be a musical based on their melodies, and that musical can be a motion picture, and then you can take that musical and turn it into this dinner party concept, Mamma Mia: The Party. Now you have the ABBAtars. It’s interesting, and that’s the way it goes with these big acts, I guess.
“And ABBA seem to be more successful at doing it than anyone else. I mean, The Beatles, they have their albums, and they have the Love show in Las Vegas, but beyond that …”
Did you manage to get across to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park for any of the ABBAtar shows?
“Yes, I’ve been there. I saw the show three times when I was in London in May.”
Was that a big moment for you?
“Well, the problem when people ask me about this is that because of the nature of the work I do, people expect me to be super-excited about it. The other thing is that, because everybody else is so super-excited about it, and, ‘Ooh, it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. I was in seventh heaven!’, my more, shall we say, normal reaction makes it seems like I’m putting it down … but I’m not really.
“I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed sitting there. I enjoyed all three nights. I wasn’t bored for one second. I thought it was well put together as a show.”
You didn’t have to send a Carl Magnus Palmatar across to attend in your place then.
“Ha! No, I was there in person and I really, really enjoyed it. I thought it was good.”
With regard to listening to the back-catalogue, it’s great to wallow in nostalgia now and again, but I’m guessing that’s just a part of your life. We can’t just live on memories, great as they might be. Is there a part of you still discovering new music?
Who else do you listen to these days?
“If I’m being honest, I don’t listen to that much new music these days. I’m still discovering or rediscovering old acts from the from the ‘60s and ‘70s mainly. But of the bands that are around today, the ones that I’ve bought every album and everything are the Fleet Foxes. And I’m glad I’ve found a present band I can really get into and be excited about.”
And when you mention ‘60s bands, who’s floating your boat there at the moment? What’s the album you always have to reach for?
“Well, I’m a Beatles fan from childhood, so that’s what I listen to a lot. You’ve put me on the spot though!”
I’m afraid I have. If you had to name one Beatles album, which would you go for?
“That also varies, of course, but I usually come back to Revolver.”
That’s a very good answer. Personally, I’ll float between Revolver, Abbey Road, and maybe The White Album. So I’m with you there.
“I think it’s probably between the three of those for me as well.”
And what’s next? What are you writing at the moment, or working on?
“I’m working on a sort of companion volume to ABBA: The Complete Recording Sessions. And this companion volume has expanded to be very much a book in itself, and it’s taking much, much longer than I had hoped for. What it is, if I’m explaining it in simple terms, ABBA: The Complete Recording Sessions told the story of how ABBA wrote and recorded their music, while this book, which is called ABBA on Record, describes what happened to the music once it had left the recording studio.
“It’s very detailed stories about how the album sleeves were put together, it’s about chart success, it’s about how the record company people in the UK and the US primarily promoted or tried to promote their music. I interviewed people who used to work for CBS in the 1970s and who were involved with the ABBA catalogue, or putting together commercials, or running up to radio stations or whatever they had to do. There’s a lot about that, and it’s about chart positions, and I’ve gone through hundreds of album and single reviews from – primarily – the American and British music press, putting in extracts from that as well. So you can get a flavour of what people actually said about music at the time.”
It sounds better than the average internet search engine, that’s for sure.
“Ha! Yeah, and it’s actually turning out to be a really good book … even if I say so myself. I’m pretty pleased with how it’s turning out.”
Any idea of a release date?
“Well, sometime next year is what I’m shooting for.”
All part of the ongoing 50th anniversary celebrations then, I suppose.
“Yeah, for sure.”
For this website’s previous feature/interview with Carl Magnus Palm, from 2017, head here.
ABBA at 50 by Carl Magnus Palm, priced £30 in hardback, is available via Palazzo Editions on September 8. For more details and to pre-order, head to this Palazzo Editions website link and check out Carl Magnus’ website here.