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Friday, 17 February 2017

What Made Australians The World's Most Feverish Abba Fans? 40th Anniversary 1st Installment

 

What made Australians the world's most feverish Abba fans?

In 1976, more of us watched an Abba-in-Australia TV special than had viewed the moon landing. A year later, the band's tour sparked a nationwide fan frenzy. What exactly fuelled our unparalleled infatuation with four Swedish songsters?

By Neil McMahon



"THEY'RE HERE TODAY" HEADLINE, THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH 

Forty years ago – on a Sunday night, February 27, 1977, just after 9pm – a Qantas plane landed at Sydney airport. And 40 years on, one of its celebrated passengers can effortlessly summon the moment.
 
"I remember being quite tired after a 20-plus-hours-long flight," says Anni-Frid Lyngstad, better known to the nation simply as Frida – or in the popular shorthand, "the darkhaired one". Neither Lyngstad nor her Abba band mates – Agnetha Fältskog, aka "the blonde one", and their respective partners at the time in life and in music, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus – had any idea what awaited them once they disembarked.
"We could never have imagined it … overwhelming," Lyngstad tells Good Weekend in a rare interview to mark the 40th anniversary of the Swedish band's extraordinary 1977 concert tour. Inside, thousands had been waiting for hours, most of them youngsters brought by parents who had learnt that it was easier to indulge their offspring's Abba obsession than to fight it.

Among the crowd was a nine-year-old Nicole Kidman, who would later recall the moment as a defining introduction to the relationship between celebrity and fan. "Being recognised is part of the territory," she said of accepting her own fame in an interview 30 years later, explaining: "I was a kid who waited to see Abba."
A kid who waited to see Abba. Whether you were at the airport that night or not, the sentiment was the same. Further afield from Mascot, fans awaited news of their idols' arrival with the same fevered expectation that had greeted the band's records and video clips over the previous 18 months of Abba-mania – a spree of success so pervasive that music industry folk still shake their heads in wonder. "We've never seen anything like it," says the tour's manager, Michael Chugg, who went on to become a major concert promoter.

Few households were spared. The daughter of the prime minister was 11 at the time. That places Phoebe Fraser bang in the sweet spot of that generation whose first musical memories were delivered and affirmed by Ian "Molly" Meldrum on Countdown, the ABC's Sunday-night church of pop worship. It was there that the Abba phenomenon was born, and where the listing of the top 10 songs made the group a weekly presence in homes nationwide.
That included The Lodge, and the Fraser family farm in western Victoria. Phoebe's father, Malcolm, was preparing for a visit from the Queen, but it was pop royalty that consumed the daydreams of his daughter: "Totally beside myself with excitement," she remembers.

You could find the same enthusiasm in Melbourne's eastern suburbs, where two sisters had taken their first lessons in stagecraft watching Abba clips. "Singing into a hairbrush, pretending to be them," recalls Dannii Minogue of the devotion she and sister Kylie had for the band.

In Oatley, in Sydney's south, the seeds of Deborah Cheetham's career as an opera singer were planted in her first – and lasting – musical obsession. "I was heartbroken," Cheetham says of that 1977 moment – knowing her heroes were mere miles away, yet she would not be able to see them in the flesh.

Tanya Plibersek, then eight years old, remembers the anticipation – and a similar frustration. "I never dreamed that I'd be allowed to go," says the deputy leader of the Labor Party, who remains a devoted fan.
Across the parliament, Christopher Pyne – also pure Gen-Abba, born in 1967 – says people wonder at his notorious fandom, but states what many of his vintage will recognise as the obvious: "Why wouldn't I be? I was a child when Abba were at their height."

Pyne is right. It would be more unusual if he were not a fan. In February 1977, Australia was a nation obsessed, under a spell cast by these unlikely musical invaders from the other end of the earth. Why was it so? No one pretends to completely understand what happened – and for a long time after, it seemed we were embarrassed by it. But today there is universal agreement on this at least: that something magical and unprecedented did happen during the two weeks of that tour.
The band felt it, too. "We love you," Lyngstad says today, referring to the band's devoted Australian fans. And my, my, did we love them back. Let us count the ways.

CAN YOU HEAR THE DRUMS, FERNANDO?

Could we hear the drums? How could we not? You couldn't avoid them. It is a landmark in our pop music history that in 1976, one song sat at the top of the national music charts for 14 straight weeks, an achievement that, then and now, elevates Abba above all musical comers for the longest run at the top. (Fernando pipped the Beatles' 1968 run of 13 weeks with Hey Jude, and the Swedes' record stands to this day.)
Fernando summons memories of Sunday nights, and family times, and the soundtrack to young lives. Christopher Pyne recalls: "It was a Sunday night tradition in our family, because I've got four brothers and sisters who are all older than me, and we all used to watch Countdown together. Watching Abba on TV sitting around the campfire for the Fernando clip … which was every single week, I'd think, 'When is this going to end?' As it turned out, it went for 14 weeks."
Growing up in Melbourne, the comedian and broadcaster Libbi Gorr shared that experience. "Fernando, on top of the charts forever, forever, forever, forever. I can hear the opening pan flute of Fernando still and I get a little shiver."
In Tanya Plibersek's household, Sunday evening was sacrosanct. "I had two older brothers … we all went to church on Sunday morning, the three of us, and my parents would go to church Sunday night so we could stay home and watch Countdown."
Two years before, in 1975, the year Abba conquered Australia, the country was in a rather anxious mood. This was post-Vietnam, an Australia adjusting to the political, social and cultural upheavals of the previous decade, and in the midst of the late-term turmoil of the Whitlam government.
In such times, a band singing the often cheesy lyrics that marked Abba's early hits – "Bang a boom-a-boomerang, love is a tune you hum-dehum-hum" – was going to be either madly out of place or strangely perfect for a population in need of uncomplicated musical smiles.
Abba, whose kooky costumes alone could drive the nation to distraction, delivered the latter in spades – we were happy to embrace them. A mid-1976 advertisement from the band's local record company, RCA, bellowed the sales figures: The Best of Abba album – 400,000 copies sold in 10 weeks; the eponymous Abba album – 360,000 sold in 20 weeks; the single Fernando – 200,000 copies in nine weeks.
When TV producer Reg Grundy brought them out for a promotional visit in 1976, the resulting TV special drew higher ratings than the 1969 moon landing and was repeated multiple times for an insatiable public.
Annie Wright, doing publicity for RCA at the time, had initially found resistance at radio stations, where musical taste-makers couldn't see the potential. "They were a hard sell. The major rock stations did not want to play them," Wright says. "And then it became this runaway train, you couldn't stop it. Molly was the key because of Countdown. Anything that appeared on Countdown, you knew it was going to be a hit." The numbers tell part of the story. The political calendar adds another layer to the legend.
Set Abba's chart success side-by-side with the momentous news events of the period and you'll note a certain synchronicity. The band's unprecedented chart run began with its first No. 1, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, which dawdled in the charts for three months before hitting the top on October 13, 1975 – the same week Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser cut off Gough Whitlam's money supply in the Senate. It stayed on top for three weeks, to be replaced by Mamma Mia, which kicked off its 10-week run in the No. 1 spot in early November.
The nation was roiled by the dismissal of the Whitlam government on November 11 – and the inexplicable soundtrack to that turbulent time was the chirpy, irresistible tune with the now iconic film clip, featuring the indelible image of the two female singers posing and pivoting at right angles in tight close-up. As Meldrum recalls: "I realised that people were mimicking the video – it became almost a cult thing. And then came Fernando, and I thought that would be a hit, too. Beautiful melody."
Meldrum was right, again. From October 1975 until late December 1976, spanning the difficult first year of the Fraser government, Australia seemed intent on doing little else but buying Abba records. Across a 63-week stretch, the Swedes topped the charts for an astounding 42 weeks: I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do for three weeks; Mamma Mia for 10; SOS for one; Fernando for 14; Dancing Queen for eight; and Money, Money, Money for six. In April 1976, they had five singles in the top 10.
Then came February and March of 1977, and that tour, and the fortnight the country went more than a little bit mad.

YOU CAN DANCE, YOU CAN JIVE, HAVING THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE

The madness started at Sydney airport, and it never let up. Frida Lyngstad remembers her realisation on that Sunday night that Abba were stepping into something the group had never experienced in its four years on the world stage: total devotion, sometimes scary devotion. "Stepping out of the aircraft to the cheering and applause, and all the boards with messages of love from the people, it was like an energy injection which literally never stopped during the whole tour," she says.
The arrival was marked by delirium and controversy. The airport crowd was so big and boisterous, authorities abandoned a planned meet-the-fans moment. The band posed for news photographers and then were gone. "It was surreal, really surreal," says Wright. "It was a mob scene, the hysteria of it all."
Ingmarie Halling, brought out from Sweden to be in charge of the band's wardrobe, saw the scene from behind. "It was crazy … it was like royalty or the Pope or something." The Sydney Morning Herald's front page the next day declared: "Pop Group's Fans Waited in Vain."
The moment stuck in Nicole Kidman's mind. Talking about the pros and cons of fame in a 2001 interview with the Baltimore Sun, she said: "I was at an airport as a kid when Abba came, and they just walked right past. It's nice to get out and shake people's hands and sign a few autographs. It doesn't cost you much."
(Kidman apparently bore no real grudge: when the movie Mamma Mia! won Best Musical at Britain's National Movie Awards in 2008, she presented the award to Björn Ulvaeus, who had considered Kidman for the lead role in the film before giving the gig to Meryl Streep.)
Of the four band members, Lyngstad loved touring and performing the most. In contrast, Agnetha Fältskog mostly hated it. At an overflowing press conference at Sydney's Sebel Townhouse the morning after Abba's arrival, Fältskog spoke of being on tour and waking up and not knowing what country she was in.
Years later, she said of the Australian tour: "There was fever, there was hysteria, there were ovations, there were sweaty, obsessed crowds. Sometimes it was awful. I felt as if they would get hold of me and I'd never get away again.
Fältskog even good-humouredly endured questions about her bottom, which the European media had christened the sexiest derrière in pop. Melbourne radio star Greg Evans, on the Abba trail for 3XY, raised the topic on behalf of the Australian media. "That was my contribution to the press conference," Evans recalls, along with Fältskog's sharp response: "How do I know?" she quipped. "I haven't seen it."
But it was Frida Lyngstad who sparked the biggest fuss of the Sydney visit, when the band's first concert at the Sydney Showgrounds on March 3 was almost abandoned in the face of a relentless storm. The arena turned to mud.
Michael Chugg, the tour manager running the show for promoter Paul Dainty, had to clear the Sebel Townhouse out of towels to wipe down the flooded stage. "It was very close to being cancelled," he says. "But they played in the rain, and the audience turned up in the rain, they just absolutely loved it."
The show must go on, and go on it did – even after Lyngstad took a dramatic tumble on the wet stage. "I was very lucky not to hurt myself," she recalls. "I think the unexpected fall worried the crew more – running out on stage trying to wipe the floor with masses of towels. Even our manager, Stikkan Anderson, was on his knees helping out."
You didn't need to be present to hear of Frida's fall. Julia Zemiro, now Australia's chief interpreter of the Eurovision Song Contest, was going to the second Sydney concert the next night. "Frida was in all the papers the next morning – all the black-and-white photos – having slipped over," she recalls. Zemiro says her favourite memory of her experience, as a nine-year-old, was "just the excitement of everybody loving them".
Director Stephan Elliott was 12 as he absorbed the event, primarily through the papers: "I remember the front page of the concert with all the rain … that was big news." Fast-forward 17 years and he'd tap into those memories when he created The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert which, along with the soundtrack of Muriel's Wedding, fuelled an Abba revival. 
That opening Sydney concert was the most famous of Abba's entire career, immortalised in Abba: The Movie. In Lyngstad's memory, "The rain eventually came to a stop, and from having fought a wet floor and beetles, and performing to a lot of umbrellas, we now connected with the people holding them, and the energy exchange between us on stage and the audience was absolutely amazing."

THE WINNER TAKES IT ALL

There Is at least one Australian who claims to have no memory of Abba's 1977 tour. William Heseltine, the Australian-born private secretary to Queen Elizabeth II, was in charge of Her Majesty's Silver Jubilee celebrations, and the anniversary of her 25th year on the throne included a coast-to-coast royal tour of Australia in March of that year. What Heseltine remembers is the warnings, 16 months after the governor-general, John Kerr, sacked the Whitlam government, that the Queen could expect a raucous reception. "Quite sensible people were writing to me saying we must prepare for demonstrations," says Heseltine, now retired and living in Western Australia.
The demonstrations didn't happen. Perhaps we were too distracted by the Abba tour, though Heseltine says the coincidence of the royal tour and the Swedish invasion doesn't ring any bells all these years later. "No memory of that at all," he says, which is perhaps as it should be. He, and the Queen, had enough on their plates.
But the archives tell us that the timing of the monarch's visit and the Abba tour weren't far from the minds of political leaders, the media and the public. Amid media chatter that the band might be persuaded to add a Canberra stop to its calendar to meet the Queen and Prince Philip, one cartoon of the day has the Duke of Edinburgh asking prime minister Fraser: "The wife wants to know if you can fix it for a couple of tickets to Abba."
In Queensland, the Bjelke-Petersen government had sent the group a telegram pleading with them to add a Brisbane concert to the itinerary. Abba didn't make it to Brisbane, or to Canberra. Instead, Canberra – in the form of the PM and his family – went to Abba.
The band's arrival in Melbourne was celebrated with a civic reception on the balcony of Melbourne Town Hall. In the crowd on Swanston Street was Julie Craik, who had never seen anything like the hysteria of that Saturday afternoon. "It was just a mass of people everywhere. The crowd – everybody – was trying to get closer, and people started screaming."
Richard Norton, travelling with the band as a bodyguard and personal trainer, was on the portico. "It was just like the Beatles," he says. "Nobody who was up there could look out and not be just blown away by the response."
Frida Lyngstad places this among the tour's most stunning moments. "The streets were totally jammed with people and our limousine was having difficulties getting through the crowds," she says. "The moment on the town hall balcony was very heartfelt and I was moved to tears by the fantastic welcome from all the people in the street looking up on us where we stood. We felt like royalty at that moment, waving to them all down there."
To come was a series of shows at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, where Malcolm Fraser managed to squeeze in a moment for the ages. The Queen was arriving in Canberra the next day, but this was a photo opportunity not to be missed. Fraser's wife, Tamie, says, "It was a nice show and we met them all afterwards, as prime ministers do. And as we walked into the concert, the kids said, 'Oh, Dad, not as many boos as usual.' "
For Phoebe Fraser, the evening "was probably the first really fun thing we'd done with Dad, with all the politics stuff, so it was massively exciting. Then, when we got to meet them, it was like, 'Oh my god.' It was a dream come true. I didn't know it was going to happen, and of course I was 11, so I just stood there thinking, 'Wow,' and not really knowing what to say. I felt quite awkward that they'd just done this huge concert and the last thing they'd be wanting to do is talk to us and be nice to us, and wondering what were we doing there. And they were all so charming."
Lyngstad can put the Fraser family's minds at rest: a meeting with the leader of the nation and his clan was not a chore. "I remember them to be a very sweet family," she says. "And, of course, we were very honoured by them taking the trouble to come to our concert, and telling us they loved our music and the show."
And looking back, it seems only fitting. To that point, Abba had unwittingly provided the soundtrack to Malcolm Fraser's permanently contentious prime ministership. It was perhaps only right that he took the time to say thank you for the music.

SO LONG, SEE YOU HONEY

After Melbourne, the circus moved west. There was one big football-stadium show in Adelaide, and five gigs in Perth, where the tour ended on a dramatic note – a bomb scare forced the band from the stage at one show – and then on a melancholy one. After 11 concerts, across four cities, crammed into 13 crazy days, Abba left Australia – never to return.
The moment of its greatest triumph marked the beginning of the end for our blazing love affair with a band whose music had commanded unprecedented national affection. The signal that it was over came towards the end of 1977.
There was an election campaign: Fraser versus Whitlam once more. And where were the Swedes? Limping into the top 10 with their new single, The Name of the Game. It didn't even crack the top five – unheard for Abba. Fraser won; Whitlam retired; the country moved on.
It would be nearly 20 years before we made our peace with the breakup. Appropriately, it was two Australian movies – Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel's Wedding – that returned Abba to the national consciousness in the mid- 1990s. By then, we were ready to admit what we'd known all along – that we bloody well loved them, and it didn't need to make sense.
Forty years on, Lyngstad speaks for all the band when she says, "I've always had a soft spot for our fans in Australia and their wonderful support … It obviously does not matter from where you are in the world, if people love your music, it travels borders and captures hearts. It has a life of its own. We are immensely grateful."
Now we're old and grey, we can safely say that the feeling is mutual.

HOW WE LOVED THEM: FAMOUS AUSTRALIANS REMINISCE

TANYA PLIBERSEK, FEDERAL LABOR MP  "I had an Abba poster on my bedroom door. Agnetha was my favourite, along with every other girl I knew."
CHRISTOPHER PYNE, FEDERAL LIBERAL MP "To be a political figure you have to pretend your favourite band is AC/DC or INXS … but when people want to dance at a wedding, they put on Waterloo or Dancing Queen."
DANNII MINOGUE, SINGER, ACTOR "It feels like their music has played a big role in shaping what we love about pop and what inspires us musically."
JOHN PAUL YOUNG, SINGER "If anything, it was flattering to be No. 2 behind them. They owned three-quarters of the charts."
JULIA ZEMIRO, TV HOST "When you see footage and photos of the era and you see everyone go crazy, I'm struck by how innocent Australia was: an innocent, kind of wide-eyed lot."
LIBBI GORR, COMEDIAN "Even now when friends come over, the other women and I are still prone to do the Mamma Mia clip. We'll face each other and turn around and give ourselves whiplash."
IAN "MOLLY" MELDRUM, COUNTDOWN HOST "When it was No. 1 for the 12th week I said, 'We're not going to show Fernando this week.' The switchboard exploded! Needless to say, the next week we played Fernando."

http://www.theage.com.au/good-weekend/what-made-australians-the-worlds-most-feverish-abba-fans-20170215-gue00r.html 



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