Happy New Year – and Merry Christmas!
The song Happy New Year was probably the closest ABBA as a group ever came to a Christmas record. But over the years the individual members have made quite a few forays into the Christmas market. As we approach the end-of-the-year festivities, we take a look at Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Frida’s musical season celebrations over the years.
A vision now and then
In November 1980, two teenage girls were asked to review ABBA’s latest album, Super Trouper, on a Swedish radio show. The girls liked ‘On And On And On’ and ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’, but were critical of the track ‘Happy New Year’, which they felt was speculative and which they were certain had been included on the album to cash in on the upcoming Christmas and New Year season. Frida was asked to comment on their criticisms, and pointed out that the girls’ assumption was wrong. “It was written and recorded well before our summer holidays”, she said, “and at that time we had no idea when the album was going to be ready for release.” Frida wasn’t lying, for contrary to their reputation at the time, ABBA didn’t let perceived market demands dictate what kind of songs they would write and record. And ‘Happy New Year’ was indeed one of the first songs to be completed for the new album.
Written in Barbados in January 1980, ‘Happy New Year’ was originally intended for a musical about a New Year’s Eve, one of Björn and Benny’s many attempts to get started with a more ambitious piece of musical drama. They even pitched their idea to comedian John Cleese, of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers fame, hoping that he would want to write the book for their proposed musical. Cleese turned them down, however, and the songwriting team scrapped the project. It would be another three years before Björn and Benny finally started writing what was to become their first full-length musical, Chess (a collaboration with Tim Rice).
Back in 1980, however, they were still quite fond of the New Year’s Eve concept, and in February they began recording ‘Happy New Year’ for the upcoming album. It seems there were even plans on making the track a single at one point, for shortly before the November release of the Super Trouper album, a promo clip was made for ‘Happy New Year’. Festive scenes were filmed in conjunction with the making of the album sleeve, after which the ABBA members’ actual performance of the song was filmed in director Lasse Hallström’s apartment. These latter sequences underscored the song’s wistful reflections on what the future may hold, thereby providing a marked contrast to the party scenes.
Ultimately, however, ‘Happy New Year’ was not destined to be a single at the time. A Spanish version of the song, ‘Felicidad’, was issued in Spanish-language territories and reached the Top Five in Argentina, but for the rest of the world ‘Happy New Year’ would simply remain a popular tune each time December turns into January. Indeed, for many years, a performance of the song, especially made for Swedish Television, would be aired every New Year’s Eve in ABBA’s home country. It wasn’t until 1999 and the imminent millennium celebrations that ‘Happy New Year’ was finally released as a major single, reaching the Top 20 in some countries.
A thousand Christmas candles
Although ABBA never recorded a Christmas song as such, they often taped Christmas greetings, mostly for various radio and television stations. At least one such greeting was even released on record. In a December 1982 issue of the UK pop music magazine Smash Hits, a flexidisc was enclosed, featuring brief Christmas greetings from many of the biggest acts of the day. ABBA were part of the line-up, although Frida was absent from the recording. The Smash Hits flexidisc, entitled Happy Christmas From The Stars, seems to be the full extent of ABBA’s Christmas adventures on record.
For the individual members, however, the story is entirely different. Perhaps the most well-known and best-selling ABBA-related Christmas album is Nu tändas tusen juleljus (“Now A Thousand Christmas Candles Are Being Lit”), recorded by Agnetha with her and Björn’s seven-year-old daughter Linda in the autumn of 1980. However, the album was completed too close to Christmas, which meant that its release had to be postponed a year. On the album, mother and daughter – alone or together – sang their way through many of the most popular Swedish and international Christmas songs. The lushly orchestrated album was co-produced by Agnetha and ABBA engineer Michael B. Tretow, and reached an impressive number six on the Swedish album chart. Nu tändas tusen juleljus has been a popular album around Christmas every year since it was released. “The album was a big hit for mother and daughter and I still feel it sounds fresh,” ABBA manager Stig Anderson said in 1994.
Benny is the only other ABBA member to record an entire Yuletide album. In 1967, his pre-ABBA band, The Hep Stars, released an LP entitled Jul med Hep Stars (“Christmas With The Hep Stars”). This album contained a selection of the most familiar Christmas songs, but also a number of new pop songs, written especially for this album. Curiously, however, not one of them was composed by Benny, who by then had become quite a prolific songwriter. It has to be said that Jul med Hep Stars was quite a bizarre concoction: the tracks were interspersed with jokey babbling from the group members, recorded live at a party held in the recording studio (when Jul med Hep Stars was reissued on CD in 2001, all the chatter had been edited out). Despite this unusual approach the band’s faithful fans probably snapped up the LP in enough quantities to make it a moderate success. A single issued from the album, entitled ‘Christmas On My Mind’, was less fortunate, becoming the first single since The Hep Stars’ breakthrough not to show up on any charts whatsoever. This was unfair, for it was in fact a great recording, featuring especially cool Hammond organ work from Benny.
Although Björn and Frida never recorded entire Christmas albums, they did make contributions to the genre. In 1968, Björn’s group, the Hootenanny Singers, recorded a version of ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, made famous by Harry Belafonte in 1956. The Hootenanny Singers interpretation was included on their album Hootenanny Singers Fem år (“Five Years With The Hootenanny Singers”). Of course, a decade later ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ became a major hit for Boney M, one of ABBA’s main competitors for the top of the singles charts in the late 1970s.
Frida’s contribution to the Christmas market came in 1972, when Polar Music decided to release a Christmas album, featuring their major artists. The album was produced by Björn, Benny and Stig Anderson, and featured two further Christmas tracks from the Hootenanny Singers: ‘Nu tändas tusen juleljus’ (later the title track on the Agnetha and Linda album) and ‘Gå Sion, din konung att möta’, a Swedish version of the hymn ‘Be Glad In The Lord, And Rejoice’.
The undoubted highlight of the album, however, was Frida’s heartfelt interpretations of two of her favourite Christmas songs. ‘När det lider mot jul’ (“When Christmas Time Is Approaching”) and ‘Gläns över sjö och strand’ (“Shine Over Lake And Shore”) are indeed among the most beautiful songs in the Swedish Christmas canon. The album, När juldagsmorgon glimmar (“When Christmas Day Morning Glistens”), was released by Polar Music at the end of 1972. In 1994 this LP was combined with Agnetha and Linda’s album to make up one CD, entitled Julens musik (“The Music Of Christmas”).
One of the few times that all four group members presented themselves in a full-on Christmas context was in a 1972 feature for the Swedish magazine Vecko Revyn. At the time, the group was still known as Björn, Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid, and the photographs that accompanied the article featured the foursome dressed up in Christmas gear, preparing for the holidays and eating traditional food. But although this festive private situation never translated into the recording of a true Christmas song, as we have seen they certainly contributed greatly to this genre as individuals. And, of course, ABBA fans will always have ‘Happy New Year’.