40 years ago a rogue bomb threat nearly derailed ABBA’s Aussie tour
Cameron Adams, National music writer, News Corp Australia Network.
FORTY years ago this week ABBA’s one and only Australian tour was almost derailed by a bomb threat in Perth.Michael Chugg, now one of Australia’s top promoters, was a freelance tour manager in 1977.
Paul Dainty, then an up and coming promoter, had secured ABBA for their first Australian tour, starting in March 1977.
Chugg, who worked on most Dainty shows in the ’70s, vividly recalls the Perth drama.
It was around 7pm on Thursday March 10, and took place during their first of two shows that evening at the Perth Entertainment Centre.
“A policeman came up to be backstage and said ‘We’ve got a problem, someone’s called and said they’ve put a bomb in the arena’,” Chugg recalls.
“I said to him ‘Come on man, that’s bullsh*t, you know someone’s just made that up’ but he said it didn’t matter and the show had to stop and the arena had to be cleared.”
It was up to Chugg to break the news to ABBA — mid show.
“I had to walk on stage and tap Benny (Andersson) on the shoulder and say ‘Excuse me, there’s a bomb scare and you’re going to have to stop playing and leave the stage’. And they did.”
Chugg was the next voice fans heard, telling them to leave the venue in sections.
“Everyone was out in three minutes. Of course 45 minutes later the copper comes back and said there was no bomb, so everyone came back in and the show went on. But ABBA were just wonderful, professional people. It was an amazing tour.”
The 1977 tour was the result of some serious groundwork by Dainty, who’d go on to tour everyone from Michael Jackson to George Michael, David Bowie to Prince, the Rolling Stones to Oprah Winfrey.
Dainty was friends with Thomas Johansson, then in charge of ABBA’s touring, now running the Nordic arm of touring goliath Live Nation.
“I went to Stockholm, met Stig Anderson, ABBA’s manager, and a few of the band members,” Dainty recalls. “I was very young, it was all very new. It took a bit of time, but we got the tour. And they were big outdoor shows. Looking back now, 40 years later, you realise what a coup it really was.”
ABBA were one of the many acts championed by Countdown and Molly Meldrum. It’s Countdown folklore how Meldrum saw a handful videos that the band had made to send around the world in lieu of travelling to promote their music — they were still seen as a novelty act after their Eurovision victory hit Waterloo.
Meldrum aired the Mamma Mia video on Countdown despite the band’s Australian record label not planning to release it as a single.
Countdown kept playing it, forcing Stig Anderson to intervene.
“The Australian label didn’t want us to play it, but every time we played it on Countdown the reaction was incredible,” Meldrum said. “Eventually they decided it’d only be released as a single in Australia. In Brashs and Myers people kept asking for this song Mamma Mia. So they released it and it was an instant No.1. ABBA and Stig were shocked, but they decided to release it in the rest of the world and the rest is history. And obviously it’d go on to be the name of their musical and film.”
In 1976 Meldrum went to Sweden to interview the band, not for Countdown, but Channel 7.
“I’d done a children’s show for Channel 7 before Countdown, and they agreed we could use some of the interview on Countdown,” Meldrum says. “I couldn’t quite understand their Swedish accents, but likewise they found it hard to understand me! I told them they had to come to Australia. I kept pressuring them.”
The band did come to Australia in 1976, but only as part of a deal sewn up by Reg Grundy for the Nine Network. They’d perform on a Bandstand ABBA special plus The Don Lane Show, Celebrity Squares and A Current Affair. Proving that network rivalries are nothing new, Channel 9 refused to let them appear on Countdown; the show that had broken them in Australia.
1977 Australian tour locked in, the band blocked out just over two weeks in their hectic schedule, flying into Australia on February 27 for promotion in Sydney ahead of the first show on March 3 at Sydney Showground.
Dainty said the financial deal wasn’t astronomical, despite them being arguably one of the biggest bands in the world at the time.
“The cost was pretty fair, it wasn’t life threatening. You were living in the age when it wasn’t all about touring, because bands were making tons of money from their records. In that era all those legendary acts were getting $5 or $8 for every album they sold, and they were selling 20 million — you do the math. That was probably more important than how much they’d make from touring.”
However unlike some international acts, ABBA did not bring a stripped-down version of their show to Australia to save on costs.
“It was mammoth,” Chugg said. “It was really the first of the big stadium tours that would follow. They had the latest sound system with them, all this amazing lighting, this incredible inflatable roof that went over the stage, they had hydraulics on the stage so everything could go up and down. It was the beginning of what concerts have become now. And they were so organised. They got off the plane in Sydney and the whole crew were all in white suits with the Ansett logo on them. They had doctors, masseurs, hairdressers. All the stuff you have in tours now, but it was brand new back then. They also had a lot of merchandise, which wasn’t such a big thing back then, but they had all kinds of stuff for sale.”
That all came at a price — $9.
“That was quite expensive at the time,” Chugg says. “I remember we did an AC/DC tour in 1975 and people were bitching because the tickets were $3.50. So $9 for a concert in 1977 was a lot of money.”
Once the old-school paper tickets were snapped up Dainty couldn’t add more days to the schedule, so the band agreed to play two shows in one day in Melbourne and (twice) in Perth.
“Can you imagine a big band now doing two full shows in one day?” Dainty said.
The week leading up to the first Sydney show saw the state drenched in torrential rain. A major problem at an outdoor show.
“When you’re setting up chairs in the rain it’s not great,” Chugg said.
The rain kept coming. And coming.
“We debated whether to call the show off,” Dainty recalled. “It was pouring with rain but it actually made for a magical night. It adds a bit of drama. It wasn’t ideal but we got through it.”
One casualty — Frida Lyngstad slipped over on the wet stage.
“We’d used 100 white towels from the Sebel Town House to keep the stage dry, they never forgave me,” Chugg said. “Frida tripped over but they kept going.”
By the time the band got to their next stop, Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl on March 5, there were as many people outside listening as inside with tickets.
That afternoon, a Saturday on the Moomba weekend, ABBA had agreed to a public appearance on the balcony at Melbourne Town Hall. Crowd estimates sit at over 20,000.
“That came up after we’d sold out all the tickets in Melbourne and we got a call saying they wanted to give ABBA the keys to the city of Melbourne,” Dainty said.
“It was one of those photos that went around the world. They were really good with connecting with fans. Even at airports, they’d walk over to fans, even if they were behind a fence, before they got in the car. They were a bit like the royal family like that! They’d go up and down talking to people where they could.”
A decade before the Town Hall appearance a young Ian Meldrum had been at the venue when the Beatles also met the masses via the balcony.
“With the Beatles I’d been down in the crowd screaming ‘I love you Paul! I love you John’,” Meldrum said. “With ABBA I was on the balcony with them, that was a real thrill. I remember the crowd singing Mamma Mia to them.”
Chugg said the Town Hall appearance involved a police escort to get the band from Melbourne’s Old Motor Inn in North Melbourne — the fancy hotel of the era.
“It was like a military operation,” Chugg said. “Our security guys were terrified it was all going to go wrong. But people were just happy to see them. It was actually much bigger than when the Beatles did it. The whole tour was bigger than the Beatles, they were playing much bigger venues. And we’d seen nothing like it since Beatlemania. It really was insane everywhere they went. It was the first time a pop/rock act had really captured everyone’s imagination, in every age and every demographic.”
Luke Rogers was 12 when ABBA toured Melbourne, and went to the Town Hall with two school friends.
“A camera crew was filming us, they got us to chant ‘We love ABBA’,” Rogers said. “I assumed I might be on the news, nine months later I saw myself in ABBA the Movie.”
Indeed, part of the 100 plus entourage on the Australian tour was a film crew making ABBA the Movie, featuring live footage, mostly filmed in Perth, the only indoor leg of the tour which also took in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, but not Brisbane.
Director Lasse Hallström would later admit he wrote the storyline on the plane to Australia, based around a journalist trying to interview the band on the Australian tour.
Unfortunately that journalist was played by the now disgraced Robert Hughes, who’d later find fame in Hey Dad and infamy and jail time for sexual offences against children.
“That means you don’t see the movie on TV in Australia anymore,” Rogers said.
Then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser requested an audience with ABBA, which required him coming to Melbourne.
“I took him backstage to introduce him to the band,” Dainty recalled. “There was no political angle, it was just that tour was on such a big level that that kind of thing happened.”
“I had to throw Malcolm Fraser and his family out of the dressing room,” Chugg added. “We were trying to get the band on stage.”
Rogers went to the second Melbourne show, which took place at 2.30pm on Sunday March 6 (with another at 8.30pm that night).
“It was the only afternoon show ABBA ever played,” Rogers said.
“I don’t remember a whole lot of the concert. I remember it being very loud. But I’m so glad I went to that concert. If I hadn’t gone to an ABBA concert I’d still be in therapy because they mean so much to me.”
1977 was a pivotal year for ABBA, with both couples still loved up on their Australian tour.
“The timeline suggests Bjorn (Ulvaeus) and Agnetha (Faltskog)’s second child was conceived some time during the Australian tour,” Rogers said.
“It was a real peak of their career. They were incredibly happy. By 1977 they were already incredibly successful but the fame aspect really exploded on that tour. I don’t think they realised just how huge they were until that tour. But they had to squeeze a lot into a short amount of time in Australia as Agnetha didn’t want to be away from her daughter Linda, who was four at the time.”
The set-list for most of the Australian concerts was identical, although Bjorn’s lead vocal on Rock Me was dropped at some Melbourne shows after he came down with food poisoning.
The band played most of their biggest hits — Waterloo, SOS, Money Money Money, I Do I Do I Do I Do I Do, Knowing Me Knowing You, Mamma Mia, Fernando, So Long and Dancing Queen.
There were key tracks from the album Arrival (which had sold over a million copies in Australia the year before) When I Kissed the Teacher, Dum Dum Diddle, That’s Me and Why Did It Have to Be Me.
However the band also included a mini-musical, The Girl With the Golden Hair, based around Thank You For The Music — an ABBA classic now but unknown at the time and still months away from being released when aired on the Australian tour.
“It was a bold thing to do,” Rogers said. “When they did the songs Frida and Agnetha (Faltskog) dressed in wigs. They included a song called Get on the Carousel which was used in ABBA the Movie but never got released. They used a part of that song in Hole In Your Soul which would be on the next album, ABBA the Album.”
That album arrived at the end of 1977, at the same time as ABBA the Movie.
However despite being filmed in Australia, the movie wasn’t a blockbuster, the album also struggled to match previous glories, peaking at No.4.
“By the time of those 1977 concerts Australia had been immersed in ABBA to such an extraordinary proportion it had totally reached saturation point,” Rogers said. “They were over exposed, they were absolutely everywhere. People were fed up with them. After they left that 1977 tour it was like the country collectively sighed with relief. Australia had had enough of them. Arrival sold 1.2 million here, I think ABBA the Album sold 250,000. There was no comparison. Abba the Movie barely made a ripple in Australia, but through Europe and the UK the album and the film were enormous.”
There was talk of a possible 1979 tour of Australia, after a Japanese tour, but it never happened.
“There was no way they could have filled the same kind of venues they did in 1977,” Rogers said. “By that time Agnetha and Bjorn were divorced and Benny and Frida were having problems. Things had changed.”
It was a mammoth tour, with around 150,000 tickets sold, but ironically the band never particularly liked touring.
“They were happier in the studio,” Meldrum said. “It was almost like they did those tours just to keep the public happy.”
The band famously knocked back what would have been a billion dollar offer for a select number of live shows.
“They don’t need to tour, there isn’t the desire and they probably feel they’ve got the memories and it wouldn’t quite be the same,” Dainty said.
Dainty still keeps in touch with the band — he was one of the producers of the Mamma Mia stage show and worked with Ulvaeus on bringing the ABBAWORLD exhibition to Australia.
For Melbourne, he’s seen the vindication of ABBA being belatedly hailed genius pop songwriters.
“Even now people come up to me and admit they never thought it was cool to say they liked ABBA,” Meldrum said. “For some people they were almost a guilty pleasure. But those songs will last forever. They truly are some of the best pop songs in the world.”
|ABBAWORLD Melbourne 2010|