In focus: ABBA – The Album – pushing boundaries

December 2007 marked the 30th Anniversary of the release of ABBA – The Album. ABBA’s fifth long-player found the group on an exploratory journey, with music and lyrics that were both more personal and more ambitious. To celebrate the release of a Deluxe Edition of ABBA – The Album, featuring bonus tracks and a DVD of previously unreleased TV material, we told the story of how the album came to be.

Trapped by fame
Agnetha on stage, performing The Girl With The Golden Hair during ABBA’s 1977 tour.Stretching and expanding – those were the key words that guided ABBA in 1977, the year that saw them opening new doors and widening the scope of what they could do in musical terms. They set the tone with a truly ambitious tour of Europe and Australia, the group’s first major outing as a live act. In the midst of the hysteria and “Abbamania” that was depicted in director Lasse Hallström’s ABBA – The Movie – filmed during the Australian leg of the tour – the group also premiered four brand new songs in the shape of the mini-musical The Girl With The Golden Hair. The mini-musical was based on a simple plot about a girl with a talent for singing, who leaves her home town, becomes a star and then finds herself trapped by fame. As if to hint that the plot held a grain of truth for some of the group, in the musical Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad both played the girl, dressing up in identical wigs and costumes to emphasise that they were one and the same character.

Eagle received a limited single release in a few countries, such as Austria.The four songs included in the musical were ‘Thank You For The Music’, ‘I Wonder (Departure)’, ‘I’m A Marionette’ and ‘Get On The Carousel’. When the tour ended in March 1977, ABBA already knew that most of those songs would be included on their next album. The exception was ‘Get On The Carousel’: very much a stage number, with a somewhat repetitive structure, and therefore not considered a suitable song for inclusion on the album. But although they had these tried and tested songs at hand when sessions started on May 31, 1977, none of the mini-musical songs was the first to be recorded. Instead, the group directed their attention towards a brand new tune, provisionally entitled ‘A Bit Of Myself’. After ABBA manager and sometime lyricist Stig Anderson had mulled it over, the song was adorned with its final title: ‘The Name Of The Game’.

Blending into each other’s vocal spectra
The Swedish sleeve for The Name Of The Game, the first single to be released from the album sessions.This very first recording, which eventually became the first single from the album sessions, showed how ABBA were determined to further broaden their perspective. A slow bass-and-synthesizer riff, combined with a delightfully lazy drum pattern, formed the compelling rhythm track of ‘The Name Of The Game’, upon which layers of guitars, keyboards and heavenly vocal harmonies were stacked. The many different melody parts of the songs were somehow magically tied together and made to interact with one another, helped along in no small way by Agnetha and Frida’s lead vocals, where they would trade parts one minute and blend into each other’s vocal spectra the next.

The next song to be recorded was ‘Eagle’, the opening track on the completed album. Originally working-titled ‘High, High’, this majestic, soaring song was perhaps the closest ABBA would ever come to a guitar duel, with Janne Schaffer’s swirling improvisations contrasting against Lasse Wellander’s pre-written melody. The lyrics for ‘Eagle’ were no less unusual, for Björn had found inspiration in Richard Bach’s mega-successful 1970 novel Jonathan Livingston Seagull and its “sense of freedom and euphoria”, as he later recalled.

For the third song to be recorded, ABBA finally turned their attention to one of the mini-musical songs. But the ragtime-flavoured version of ‘Thank You For The Music’, recorded on June 2, was not what ended up on the album. A more flowing interpretation, committed to tape in July, is the familiar recording that can be heard on the album. However, the first attempt – known as the Doris Day Version because of Agnetha’s vocal inspiration from the American superstar – is a bonus track on the Deluxe Edition of ABBA – The Album.

In a good place
Take A Chance On Me was the most popular song from the album; this single sleeve is from Portugal.After a break in June when additional scenes for ABBA – The Movie were filmed, ABBA didn’t return to the recording studio until July 18. On this day they began recording the soft-rock ballad ‘One Man, One Woman’, which stands out as one of ABBA’s most affecting album tracks, and thus far, the most impressive result of Björn’s ambitions to develop his lyric writing. Björn had taken to heart the criticism levelled at ABBA that their lyrics were often inconsequential, even if he felt that the words were primarily meant to be functional as part of a pop song. “It’s important that the words go well with the music. They must have the same sort of rhythm,” he determined in an interview shortly before recording for the album started. ”But I guess the content has suffered because of that. This is something we’re going to get into, which is an interesting new step. Now we want to say something with the words as well.” With ‘One Man, One Woman’, sung by Frida, he proved himself the master of depicting the everyday person’s struggle to keep a relationship together.

This sleeve was used when The Name Of The Game was released as a single in Italy.The recording of the new album continued with the re-make of ‘Thank You For The Music’, and then the two other mini-musical songs to be included on the album: Frida’s “leaving home for an uncertain music career” ballad ‘I Wonder (Departure)’ and the dramatic “trapped by fame” number ‘I’m A Marionette’. The rocky ‘Hole In Your Soul’ followed, a song that actually “rescued” a melody section from ‘Get On The Carousel’, the discarded closing number of The Girl With The Golden Hair. Before the month was over the backing track for ‘Take A Chance On Me’, perhaps the most well-known song from the album, had been recorded, along with the spiritual reflection on the meaning of life that was ‘Move On’. It seemed ABBA were in a good place if they wanted to have the album out before the end of the year.

A new phase ABBA
This sleeve was used when The Name Of The Game was released as a single in Italy.However, a number of set-backs followed. Agnetha, who was pregnant with her and Björn’s son Christian, was ordered by the doctors to take it easy and was unable to attend as many recording sessions as were needed. In the days before ABBA had access to their own Polar Music Studio, there was also a constant problem with getting enough studio time. This was one of the reasons that ABBA had chosen to record most of their new album at Marcus Music Studio in Solna outside Stockholm, because the studio could be block-booked for a long period of time. However, it seems not enough time had been booked, because by mid-September the group found themselves at a studio in the west coast of Sweden, mixing ‘The Name Of The Game’, chosen as the first single over ‘Hole In Your Soul’. What with Agnetha’s absence and the problems to find studio time, ABBA admitted defeat and announced that the release of the album was postponed to early 1978.

In November, however, it turned out that their defeat had been premature. The group managed to scrape together enough studio time and Agnetha had been able to attend more sessions than expected – she recorded some of her vocals lying back in repose in a deck chair. The album, which had been titled ABBA – The Album to tie in with ABBA – The Movie, could actually be released in Scandinavia and South Africa in December 1977. But the rest of the world needed more lead time, and therefore most countries would have to wait until the first few months of 1978 before the album reached record shops. However, record-buyers seemed to agree that it was well worth the wait, as the album shot up to the top of the charts.

ABBA – The Album – Deluxe Edition is a tribute to an extraordinary album. Through its expansion with six bonus tracks and the companion DVD of news reports and rare performances, it also broadens the picture of how ABBA and the world around them looked, felt and acted at the time of the album. For it was a new phase ABBA that appeared before the public on the LP; “pretty different from what we’ve done before”, as Frida put it at the time. ABBA – The Album offered a more solemn, serious group, exploring the popular music landscape through partly introspective adventures, lasting close to six minutes in some cases. “Artistically it feels as if the latest album is the summit of what we’re able to do right now,” Björn told a reporter. “[People] say that we’re not as easily accessible anymore, that you have to listen several times to ‘get into’ the music. We’re not making any simple hits now.”

NOTE: Read a more comprehensive essay about the making of ABBA – The Album in the booklet enclosed with ABBA – The Album – Deluxe Edition. To read more about the CD and DVD contents on the Deluxe Edition, go to the News section here at ABBA – The Official Site. You can also read more about the making of ‘The Name Of The Game’ in the essay “The Name Of The Game – into a new world” here at ABBA – The Official Site.

Sleeves courtesy of Wouter Timmers and Polar Music International

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