In focus: Arrival – the making of a classic pop album


October 2021 mark the 45th Anniversary of one of ABBA’s best-loved and most classic albums. Arrival, first issued in Sweden on October 11, 1976, features some of the group’s most famous songs, such as ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’.

A promising kick-off

In the summer of 1975, when recording sessions began for what was to become ABBA’s Arrival album, the group already had three albums and a slew of singles to their credit. Aided by their dedicated manager, sometime lyricist and owner of the Polar Music record label, Stig Anderson, they had left a mark on the international music scene that was completely unique for a Swedish act. But although large parts of mainland Europe had fallen under their spell, in important pop markets such as Great Britain – where the group were really anxious to succeed – all the singles after the number one hit ‘Waterloo’ had failed to set the charts alight, and their albums were equally ignored. ABBA knew that all they could do was to keep on working, cross their fingers and hope that eventually they would be given another break. As work on their fourth LP kicked off on August 4 and 5, 1975, they hoped the album would be ready for release the following spring.

Hindsight will tell us that the group had an exceptionally good start, for these initial sessions produced two of ABBA’s biggest-ever hits, ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Fernando’. Indeed, just the unadorned backing track of ‘Dancing Queen’ evoked a strong reaction in certain ABBA members. Listening to a tape brought home by Benny after a late night mixing session, the melodic beauty and infectious rhythms at the core of the recording brought Frida to tears. Björn was equally excited by what they had created, but because of the late hour Agnetha was asleep and he ended up at his sister’s house. “I played it to her over and over again. We couldn’t believe how good it sounded.”

Eventually released as the first single from the album, in August 1976, ‘Dancing Queen’ swiftly became a worldwide number one smash and today is widely acknowledged as an all-time pop classic. ‘Fernando’, meanwhile, was not intended for ABBA at this early stage, but for Frida’s Swedish-language solo album Frida ensam (“Frida Alone”). (Read more about ‘Dancing Queen’ in the In Focus piece dedicated to that song, and about ‘Fernando’ and the Frida album in the In Focus piece entitled The Frida Solo Albums).

Marching back to the studio

Apart from intermittent sessions for ‘Dancing Queen’ until December 1975, ABBA worked on no other songs for the new album. The reason for this was certainly not laziness, but simply a packed schedule of recording dates – for solo projects as well as production work for other Polar recording artists – combined with a sudden upsurge in promotional activities. The group spent two weeks in the United States, and also journeyed to other ABBA-hungry countries across Europe. This included Great Britain, where ‘SOS’ had finally brought the group back into the Top Ten; from then on, the UK would remain as one of ABBA’s most consistently loyal markets. Well before the end of the year, all these demands on their attention made ABBA realise that the autumn of 1976 was a more realistic release date for the new album.

However, the first few months of the new year provided further distractions from song writing and recording. Certainly, the most spectacular event during this period was the March 1976 visit to Australia. ABBA had become immensely popular “down under” and were subject to a hysterical reception on a level that they had never experienced anywhere before. The international success was made even bigger through the release of ABBA’s English-language version of ‘Fernando’, their biggest hit up to that point.

It wasn’t until March 23 that ABBA could finally close the doors on the world and concentrate on creating music, rather than respond to the attention their earlier creations had caused. If the ‘Dancing Queen’/’Fernando’ sessions had been encouraging, this second recording period had an equally promising start, as the very first song recorded has come to be recognised as one of ABBA’s ultimate masterworks: ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’. This song, often held up as one of the group’s classic “divorce songs”, was actually written and recorded long before either of the couples had split up. Topped with a typically empathic lead vocal from Frida, and resting on one of those superlative Andersson/Ulvaeus productions, few would disagree with Benny’s retrospective assessment of ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ as “one of our five best recordings”.

Before the end of April, a further two songs had been completed: ‘That’s Me’ and ‘Happy Hawaii’. However, the latter title, featuring joint lead vocals by Agnetha and Frida, would ultimately be bumped off the album, and then re-written and recorded to become the Fats Domino-flavoured ‘Why Did It Have To Be Me’, a dialogue between Björn and ABBA’s female half. May saw the completion of yet another album highlight, the cabaret number ‘Money, Money, Money’. At one point entitled ‘Gypsy Girl’, the song was adorned by yet another dramatic lead by Frida.

Tearjerkers and folk music adventures

As the warm summer of 1976 enveloped Stockholm, ABBA kept themselves busy with further writing and recording. June saw the recording of the album’s opening track and perhaps also the album’s most obvious nod to the innocent American girl group teen pop of the early Sixties: ‘When I Kissed The Teacher’. In July, the group nailed the big-city-paranoia rocker ‘Tiger’, complete with heavy drumming as well as frenzied vocals from Agnetha and Frida, but also its complete antithesis on the album, the very light-poppy ‘Dum Dum Diddle’. The song’s lyricist, Björn, has expressed strong dissatisfaction with the final outcome, remembering how the words were written in a fit of desperation at five in the morning, because he simply had to come up with something for the impending vocal overdub session. For fans who appreciate the group at their most poppy, however, ‘Dum Dum Diddle’ is just as catchy, well-produced and vocally superior as anything else on the album.

With the summer drawing to a close, ABBA had amassed quite a strong collection of tracks for their album. However, a further two or three tracks were needed before they would be able to sign off on their work. Thus, on August 20 they were back in the recording studio for an intense, almost month-long period of wrapping up the album. So far, while Frida had shone on leads for two songs, Agnetha had only been afforded a solo spot for a few lines on ‘When I Kissed The Teacher’, so it was high time that she was given a track of her own. The ballad ‘My Love, My Life’ was originally recorded as ‘Monsieur, Monsieur’, a slightly more uptempo number. The final version of the song was turned into one of Agnetha’s classic “woman abandoned” tearjerkers, with a backing vocal arrangement inspired by the whispery sounds on 10cc’s recent mega-hit ‘I’m Not In Love’.

The recording of the Björn-led version of ‘Why Did It Have To Be Me’ was then followed by the final track for the album. The strings-keyboards-and-wordless-vocals number, originally entitled ‘Ode To Dalecarlia’, was largely a result of Benny’s life-long love affair with Swedish folk music played on fiddles, which is especially prevalent in the Swedish county of Dalecarlia. However, when cover art designer Rune Söderqvist’s then common-law-wife suggested that ‘Arrival’ could be a good title for an album, the name of the tune was promptly changed to make it the title track. With this album-closer completed, Arrival was finally finished and ready for release.

In-depth at prime time

The Deluxe Edition release of Arrival, upon its 30th Anniversary in 2006, came with a spectacular DVD of television performances, interviews and clips from the Arrival era. The main feature on the DVD is the one-hour television special ABBA-dabba-dooo!!, made by producer Leonard Eek and reporter Per Falkman for Swedish television. The special was filmed and produced parallel with the making of the album, and so it was natural that it featured performances of no less than eight of the ten Arrival songs.

In the essay included in the Deluxe Edition of Arrival, Leonard Eek recalls the resistance he encountered when he suggested that an entire programme should be devoted exclusively to ABBA, for the first time in the group’s home country. At the time, ABBA were labelled as “aloof” and “unreal” in the sternly left-wing cultural climate that prevailed in Sweden at the time. Fortunately for posterity, Eek eventually got his way and was able to produce what still stands up as one of the best programmes ever made about ABBA. “We wanted to show the best Sweden had to offer in popular music as a prime-time Friday night entertainment,” remembers Eek in the essay, “but we also wanted to show that the members were in fact ordinary people; ‘they have no ulterior motives, but are hard-working professionals’. We wanted to give a broadened picture of the human beings behind the fame and ‘the stardom’.”

When production started, Leonard Eek particularly hoped that he would be able to persuade ABBA to perform a couple of songs live in the television studio. Notwithstanding a handful of occasions, such as the Swedish heats for the Eurovision Song Contest, ABBA had never truly performed live on television, certainly not on their own terms. “They wanted to be certain that the outcome would be on the level where they wanted to be, and where they felt they had a right to demand to be. And rightly so; we all wanted the same thing.” To Eek’s great delight, ABBA said yes, and their live performances of ‘Dum Dum Diddle’ and ‘Why Did It Have To Be Me’ were released on DVD for the first time.

In addition to all the songs, the ABBA-dabba-dooo!! special also shows, for example, Benny and Björn at work in the small song writing cottage on the Stockholm archipelago island of Viggsö – apparently the only such film in existence. There are also a number of interviews with the group, individually and collectively. Because of the long production period, an excellent rapport developed between Per Falkman and the group, to the extent that certain ABBA members feared they had been too openhearted. Said Agnetha at the press conference for the programme, “He [Falkman] has an ability to draw more things out of you than you’d want to tell. So we hope that some of it is edited out.”

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