The Eurovision Song Contest celebrated its 50th year of foisting remarkably denatured euro-pop on the euro-masses last night with a Celebration program live from Copenhagen, the centerpiece of which was a vote on the greatest Eurovision song of all time.
The finalists were:
“Nel blu, di pinto di blu (Volare)” – Domenico Modugno – Italy, 1958
“Poupée de cire, poupée de son” – France Gall – Luxemburg, 1965
“Congratulations” – Cliff Richard – UK, 1968
“Eres tu” – Mocedades – Spain, 1973
“Waterloo” – Abba – Sweden, 1974
“Save your kisses for me” – Brotherhood of Man – UK, 1976
“What’s another year” – Johnny Logan – Ireland, 1980
“Ein bisschen Frieden” – Nicole – Germany, 1982
“Hold me now” – Johnny Logan – Ireland, 1987
“Ne partez pas sans moi” – Céline Dion – Switzerland, 1988
“Diva” – Dana International – Israel, 1998
“Fly on the wings of love” – Olsen Brothers – Denmark, 2000
“Everyway that I can” – Sertab Erener – Turkey, 2003
“My Number One” – Helena Paparizou – Greece, 2005
With a mix of video footage of the original performances, live dancing and medleys, the “most memorable moments” of the Eurovision Song Contest were brought back to life.
That Abba’s “Waterloo” represents the gritty, rocking edge of this material is perhaps all one needs to know, but at least the voting — split between the public and the “national juries” of the 31 participating nations — recognized this and gave the Swedish superstars of the ’70s and ’80s the victory.
I had a great time talking with half of the ABBA brain trust, Benny Andersson, a few years ago.
The Swedish pop group ABBA was the world’s most successful in the ’70s –
selling tens of millions of records by combining lush group vocals and gorgeous
Euro-melodies with rock and disco rhythms. The group’s lyrics ranged from silly to touching, many reflecting the real-life romantic complications within the group, a la Fleetwood Mac: songwriter/producer/guitarist Bjorn Ulvaeus was married to and divorced from singer Agnetha Faltskog, and songwriter/producer/keyboardist Benny Andersson was married to and divorced from singer Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad during the life of the group.
ABBA was dismissed by many (especially in America) as Swedish cheese, but the group’s best songs (“Dancing Queen,” “Take a Chance On Me,” “Lay All Your Love On Me,” “SOS”) have aged well and stand alongside the Beach Boys and Phil Spector’s girl groups at the pinnacle of pop rock.
Born December 16, 1946, in Stockholm, Benny came from an accordion-slinging family and he picked up the squeeze box at age six. Piano and Elvis followed soon thereafter and by 13, Benny was in a rock ‘n’ roll band, the Hep Stars, which by the early ’60s was Sweden’s most popular, playing the latest hits from America, sung in English.
The group grew weary of covers, and out of desperation Benny wrote “No Response,” which rose to No. 2 and launched a songwriting career. Benny produced hits for the Fabulous Four and the DJs on the side. “I always enjoyed being in the studio once I found out the possibilities,” says Benny. “It’s a nice environment to be in.”
Bjorn, born April 25, 1945, in Gothenburg, played in a folk group, the Hootenanny Singers. Pop music circles being small in Sweden, Benny and Bjorn met and began writing and producing together by the late ’60s. On one project, they enlisted their girlfriends, Agnetha and Frida, Swedish singing stars in their own right, to help out on background vocals on what turned out to be a hit single “People Need Love.”
Benny admits that “the girls sounded 600 hundred percent better than we did,” and the seed of ABBA was planted. In 1974, the quartet (named “Bjorn, Benny, Anna and Frida” to capitalize on the their individual popularity in Scandinavia) entered the Eurovision Song Contest with the rousing “Waterloo,” and became the first Swedish group to win. Spurred by the show’s massive television audience, the song became an instant international hit. Having hit through Eurovision also carried a stigma, and it took the band about a year, and a name change, to be accepted as the real thing.
That acceptance came hardest in America. “We didn’t do well in America, did we?” says Benny. “Not compared to people who actually go there and do their interview stuff and work their asses off. We’ve done OK, a couple of platinum albums, but only one No. 1 single, ‘Dancing Queen.'” Success is relative, of course. ABBA did score 10 top 20 singles in America between 1974 and their breakup in 1982.
Benny took his production cues from America. “The biggest inspiration for me as a producer was definitely Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys,” he says. “There has always been a lot of vocals in American music. This is a tradition you had long before the Beach Boys. Wilson used vocals in a rhythmic way and added layer upon layer. Also Phil Spector, he’s another guy who makes as much sound as possible come out of the smallest speaker. We tried to do that with ABBA. The human voice is the finest instrument.”
Benny is most comfortable producing his own work. “If one guy writes a tune and another guy comes in to produce it, it takes a long talk to correspond the feelings between them. It’s a lot of responsibility, which is why I think it is nicer to stay with the song I write myself. I would never let anyone else produce what I write. It isn’t necessarily the best way to do it, but at least it comes out the way I wanted to do it at the time.”
Benny is proudest of “Dancing Queen” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” which
he says “are both good songs and well produced, although I have done
plenty of corny things as well.”
Benny has mixed feelings about the advance of technology in the studio. I just bought a Solid State Logic 9000 console and you touch a button and it does what you want. Now it’s easy to work yourself step-by-step forward, and in that respect I think it’s good. In the ’60s and ’70s, when you had to do a mixdown, there were three guys trying to concentrate on fifty different things. You’d always miss something.”
ABBA has lived on in recorded form through the ’90s, with two collections charting in the U.S. and eight (including two No. 1s) charting in the U.K. Agnetha and Frida had several solo hits in the ’80s, and Bjorn and Benny co-wrote the musical Chess with Tim Rice in 1984, which produced Murray Head’s punchy electro-pop ditty “One Night in Bangkok.”
Now, of course, there is Mamma Mia, the smash musical based upon 22 ABBA songs, which opened in London in 1999 and came to Broadway in 2001. The story takes place on a Greek island, where 20-year-old Sophie is to be married. Sophie is loved by her mother, Donna, but she is unsure who her father is. So, she looks into her mom’s diary, chooses three former lovers as likely candidates, and invites them to the wedding, thinking she will figure it out when she sees them – shenanigans ensue. Over 20 million have seen the show in six years. The ABBA magic has not abated.