Monday, July 2, 2012

In Search of ABBA

In 1996 I went to Sweden in search of ABBA. This is my story.

My Love, My Life

Is it true you're going to Sweden to find ABBA? my boss asked me.

No, I said. I don't think they're lost. But I am going in search of ABBA.

The difference: I'm not Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. I didn't HAVE to "find" ABBA. It was enough for me to go to Stockholm and search for the very place in Old Town that ABBA had their picture taken some twenty years ago. The poster above has traveled with me, hanging in homes in major American cities, since it came folded in the book ABBA The Ultimate Pop Group by Marianne Lindvall, published in 1977. I wanted to know that I had been there.


I flew into Stockholm on March 29 and took a forty minute bus ride from the airport. Sweden reminded me of upstate New York except for the fact that all the highway signs seemed to be written in Pig Latin. (Everything seemed to end in an a.) My first order of business, after visiting the requisite palaces, museums, Skansen and WASA, was to scour the used compact disc stores for all the rare ABBA music I was not able to find in the United States. But what I learned was: if you want rare ABBA - don't go to Sweden! I found ABBA-The Tribute, Josefin Nillson's Shapes and The Ainbusk Singers Från När till fjärran but not one real ABBA record that I did not already own. The treasured haul I had hoped for never materialized but unbeknownst to me, it was right around the corner.

Suzy Hang-A-Round

Within walking distance of the last music store I went to was Polar Studios. I was there to take a picture of the building and the plaque above the doorbell that read POLAR STUDIOS. I turned the corner, saw the building and took a few pictures. When I walked up to the door to take a picture of the plaque, I realized that the front of the studio was actually mirrored glass. Those on the outside could not see in...BUT I SAW SHAPES MOVING INSIDE. After wiping the drool off my lower lip, I put my nose to the glass and watched the people inside. At this point, a woman came to the front door, opened it and asked me a question in Swedish. I'm sorry, I said. I don't speak Swedish.

Can I help you? she asked.

Oh, not really. I stammered. I'm an ABBA fan from the United States. I have a web page on the Internet devoted to them. I just wanted to stop by, take a picture of your door jamb and walk where I know they have walked. But thanks for asking.

I turned to walk away when she said, Would you like to come in and have a look around? Let me see if Agnetha is around.

She closed the door and left me, once again, with spittle pouring out of my mouth. Did she say Agnetha? I thought. Oh dear, I am getting a tour of Polar Studios from Agnetha. I am going to die, right here. Right now.

She came back to the door and said, Please come in. Annika has a few moments. OK, so I had misunderstood her accent. But Annika was good. I could deal with a tour of Polar Studios by Annika. So I learned to use my legs again, followed her to the reception desk and was introduced to Annika.

The first thing Annika showed me was a big wooden piano-looking, glockenspheel kind of thing. She said this was an instrument that Benny and Bjorn had invented that they had used on some of their records. That's when I asked the inevitable question, Are they here today?

No, she said. They aren't recording today. But we can look in the studio. Thomas Ledin is in there. Annika knew she didn't have to explain that Ledin had recorded some duets with Agnetha in the eighties. Today he was solo. Darn it.

After leaving the studio, someone walked by us wearing a Polar Studios t-shirt. I said to Annika, who at this point had become my best friend in the world, I must have one of those shirts. I have 1000 kroner on me right now. It's yours.

Oh, Michael. Don't be absurd. What size are you?

As big as they come.

She walked around her desk, handed me a t-shirt and said, Think of it as a gift from Benny and Bjorn. So I flew out of Polar Studios on gossamer wings and decided, even though it was 4:30 pm on the Friday before Easter, to take a bus to Mono Music. Who knows, maybe I would meet Gorel Hanser?

The bus trip took about an hour, from one end of Stockholm to the other. I got to the Mono Music building (picture below) at about 4:55 pm and saw this woman walking from a car to the front door of the building. I followed her inside the building and introduced myself.

Well, it's nice to meet you Michael. I am Gorel but I am running to get to the airport so I have no time to speak to you now, she said.

I didn't even expect to meet you, I said. But here is my card. It has my web page address. Check it out if you have the time. And tell Benny and Bjorn about it too. Thank you so much.

She left. I left. (I have yet to receive an email from Gorel. Gorel, are you out there?

Move On

I spent my last day in Stockholm in Old Town looking for the infamous place where ABBA had taken that fateful poster picture. I spent hours walking around asking people to take my picture in front of fountains, buildings and squares, knowing in my heart that none of these was the square that I wanted. I had one hour and one picture left and started to walk to the train station. As I was leaving Old Town I passed this woman with two children. As I had the one picture left I asked her if she could take it. She said, Absolutely and retraced her steps to get a bigger background. I smiled and left for the train station, disappointed but realizing that Old Town would always be in my heart, if not on my film.
I rode to Malmo to wait for the ferry to Copenhagen. One of the ABBAnatic places I saw was the State Theater which, at the time, was in between its engagements of Kristina Från Duvemala. I took some pictures of the theater to live vicariously through the Kodak moment.

Hasta Mañana

I arrived in Scheidam the evening before the Day of the ABBA convention, the 12th of April, 1996. I wanted to get myself settled and get a good night's sleep before the pomp and circumstance. Now Scheidam has some lovely parts (canals, windmills, architecture) but on a Friday night there's bupkus in terms of evening entertainment. I spent the night sitting in front of a statue in a lovely little park and going back to the hotel to watch Streets Of Gold starring Klaus Maria Brandeaur. Thankfully, it was not dubbed from its original English. As the sound of bones breaking and blood gushing lulled me to sleep, I thought It's okay. Tomorrow is the real reason I came to Scheidam.

The Visitors

I awoke bright and early and had myself a hearty, hotel breakfast. Thankfully too as this was, it turned out, the only food I had until dinner. With camera in hand, I left the hotel. I turned the corner at 10:30 am and saw about 100 ABBAnatics. Muriel was even there. (Actually it was a four foot cardboard cut-out promotional piece from Muriel's Wedding but I can dream can't I.)

We congregated around the entrance, chatting among ourselves until 11:00 am, when the doors finally opened. As a non-member of the ABBF fan club I paid 7.50 guilders and, as everyone did, received an ABBF fan club 10th anniversary cloth bag in which I was able to drop all my ABBA goodies.

There was an immediate scramble to get to the sale tables first. I was specifically looking for bootleg recordings so I made my first round just looking for the treasures. I found exactly what I had hoped to find: ABBA 1970-1982 and Dancing Queens, both 50 guilders (about $33 dollars US). Not a bad price since later in the day I saw both cds for 70 guilders and upwards. Much of the merchandise, not including the ABBF fan club and the couple selling Made In Sweden for 25 guilders, was very over-priced. I guess those of us who made it there are what one would call a captive audience.

After my purchases I was able to relax and take a stroll around. I first visited the ABBA Museum, in which I was NOT allowed to take pictures. It was quite entertaining. I saw the four ABBA dolls, gold records presented to Gorel Hanser for sales of ABBA Gold, rare LPs, newspaper clippings, an ABBA belt and the infamous ABBA soap and perfume. In addition, they had Agnetha's, Benny's and Bjorn's blue satin tuxedo jackets on display. I could not believe it when I saw Benny's tails. I had coveted them from afar for many years and now, to see them in person, I realized that, in fact, it would never fit me. He seems so much bigger on a dust jacket.

After the museum I did some more shopping. I picked up a t-shirt and some pictures. I also saw a multitude of t-shirts that fellow ABBAnatics had made themselves, from silk-screened pictures of Frida and Agnetha to a hand-painted shirt that said Take A Chance On ABBA. There is so little out there for the average ABBAnatic, it is nice to see how resourceful we have become.

Throughout this time I met and spoke with many people, some of which I had met through the internet and my ABBAnatic page. Anita and Helga, the women who run the fan club and organized the day; Jeffrey de Hart, American correspondent of the ABBF fan club; Tamara Bakker, who bought and sent me my first bootleg; Bart from Amsterdam whom I never got to tell about Egbert and Egberta; Richard and Lester who came in from England and stayed at The Windmill Hotel also; Kevin Fletcher and his lovely wife, a guy from North Carolina, a girl from Holland, a guy from Belgium, a singer from France. It was an endless parade.

After my second shopping spree I went to check out the video room. Playing in the room was A Is For Agnetha, the special made for the release of Eyes Of A Woman and A Is For ABBA, the 1993 John Peel special. Both were quite entertaining, especially the video Agnetha made for I Won't Let You Go, one of my favorite solo numbers. I also saw Frida and The Real Group, Frida and Marie Fredricksson and Frida alone singing Saltwater. In addition, there were numerous ABBA live performances and the quartet of corny commercials the group made for the Australian electronics company, National.

Following the videos I took one more shopping stroll and bought something,which will most probably be one of my most useful pieces of ABBA memoribilia: an ABBA umbrella. Now I have one more reason to be happy when it rains. I then went back to the hotel to drop off my spoils and ready myself for the dinner and ABBA disco.

Dance (While The Music Still Goes)

The dinner was for members of the club only but, as I had traveled so far and Jeffrey is so persuasive, I was able to attend. As there were no open restaurants in the area I considered myself very lucky - although I had to throw away my vegan ways for the evening and eat the pork chops. The desert was an incredible simulation of chocolate pudding.

Around 7:00 pm, they started what I had been waiting for the most: the ABBA disco, one long night of dancing to just ABBA-related music. Until 11:00 pm, it was non-stop. I was a ball of sweat by the time everyone joined hands for the last song, The Way Old Friends Do.

The one problem though was the song choices. In four hours I heard Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight) three times but never heard Does Your Mother Know. The DJ played If It Wasn't For The Nights only after I requested it three times; yet when the first strains wafted through the speakers, the floor became wall-to-wall people. I heard Voulez Vous four times but never heard Fernando or I've Been Waiting For You. Granted these songs are slow numbers but I did hear Chiquitita. And there were couples who would've danced to these ballads anyway. Hell, I would've danced to these alone. I believe that the crowd there would have danced to anything by ABBA. So why play only disco ABBA (The Visitors and Lay All Your Love On Me)? I was a DJ in a nightclub for three years and annually held an ABBA night called ABBArama. As part of the evening I played ABBA: The Movie, ABBA videos and a night of ABBA-related music. As this was prior to the resurgence of ABBA in the public eye not more than twenty people ever showed up but, I never repeated a song. Hey Hey Helen was right beside Super Trouper; Bang-A-Boomerang back with The Name Of The Game. There is so much ABBA music to enjoy on a dance floor! So I say to Anita, Next year, I'll be the DJ. Although now I don't know: would I rather DJ or dance? AAhhh, I can do both. Just give me a call, Anita.

When All Is Said And Done

All in all, I did get my four hours of dancing in and ABBA Day was a resounding success. I met a lot of great people and had a lot of fun. And, if I might toot my own horn, my Polar Studios t-shirt made me the envy of everyone who saw it (You'll notice the gentleman above trying to rip it off my back!) So who's up for November 23 in Bristol? I'm checking airfares as you read.

So what is left? Oh, the irony of it all...

Head over Heels

...After all this you might think, Wait a minute. In Part 4: Move On, the guy said he never got the picture. So where did the one above come from? Well, when I wrote Part Four on the train to Malmo as far as I knew I never got the picture. When I arrived back in the United States I developed my film and upon looking at the pictures I was flabbergasted to see that the last picture of me in Old Town taken by the wonderful woman with the two children was actually taken in the very spot that ABBA had stood almost twenty years earlier. And I never knew it! (FYI, I'm standing in Björn's spot.)

So remember be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. Wait...that isn't the right moral for this allegorical story. I'll go think of another one and tell you later.

This piece was originally published in 1996 as a rondelay where each click of a (relatively new thing called the) hyperlink resulted in the display of a new section. It has been updated for this 2012 publication.

I'm also the proprietor of Shhhh! The Official ABBA Bootleg Page, an archive of detailed information regarding more than twenty ABBA bootleg collections and hundreds of tracks.