❉ Carl Magnus Palm on ‘ABBA – The Complete Recording Sessions’.
Carl Magnus Palm’s ABBA – The Complete Recording Sessions, the only comprehensive day-by-day diary of ABBA’s creative endeavours, is a ground-breaking book detailing how the Swedish band wrote and recorded their music.
When first published in 1994, the book was the first to reveal the stories behind ABBA’s well-known hits, as well as album tracks, single B-sides, and unreleased recordings (many of which are unheard by the general public to this day). The book, for which ABBA’s Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Frida gave original interviews, quickly became a fan favourite and has been out of print since the late 1990s.
In March 2017, a completely revised and expanded edition of ABBA – The Complete Recording Sessions was published, chock-full of new and updated information about the prefab four. This new edition features more details on exactly how ABBA wrote and recorded classic hits such as Waterloo, Mamma Mia, Dancing Queen, Knowing Me, Knowing You and The Winner Takes It All, as well as all the other great music they created during their decade together.
Carl Magnus Palm has researched and written about ABBA for 25 years. He has published a number of books about the group, including the acclaimed biography Bright Lights Dark Shadows – The Real Story Of ABBA. Palm is a long-time consultant for ABBA’s record company Polar Music International in putting together CD and DVD releases.
Can you tell us a little about where your love of Abba began?
I heard and liked their first single, People Need Love, as a seven-year-old in 1972, but wasn’t much of an ABBA fan for the remainder of their career, although a kind of turning-point was when The Winner Takes It All was released in 1980. That’s when I truly realised how great they were.
How did that admiration evolve into a dedication in cataloguing their recorded works?
As a Beatles fan I had read Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, which I loved. I felt that I wanted to do something similar. ABBA was an obvious choice and a great challenge: very little of substance had been written about them at that time (the early 1990s), and whatever people felt about their music, everyone agreed that they recordings were expertly executed. Obviously there was a story there to be told.
Your book Bright Lights Dark Shadows – The Real Story Of ABBA was first published in 2001. What was it like, putting together the first full-scale biography of the team?
That book took a little over a year to write, working seven days a week, so it was quite intense. But I loved doing all that research and interviewing people who hadn’t really talked at length about their association with ABBA before, and so on. Some of those people are no longer with us, so I’m glad I got their stories in time. Bright Lights Dark Shadows was quite well-received, as I recall, got some really good reviews, and it’s now become the main source for documentary makers, etc., which is very gratifying of course.
The ABBA revival of the 1990s saw the group finally receive critical acclaim for their contribution to music on similar terms with the Beatles or the Beach Boys. To what do you attribute this sudden change in ABBA’s standing after many years of being commercially successful yet critically reviled?
I think there were several factors. For one thing, by the 1990s this idea that rock/pop music should aspire to change the world was pretty much dead, and so what was left was the music itself, which made it easier to admit appreciation of ABBA. Plus, of course, the media people setting the tone at that time would have been people around the age of 30, who had grown up with ABBA and felt it easier to embrace them publicly than journalists etc. of the 1970s had done.
I think Erasure’s ABBA-esque EP certainly helped, as it was obviously done with so much genuine affection and love for the group; probably an eye-opener for some. As for the movies, I believe Muriel’s Wedding was especially significant, as it showed how important ABBA’s music really was for people: it helped reinforce their status as a group with an emotional impact on their fans, as opposed to just a here-today-gone-tomorrow phenomenon.
When you came to compile the first edition of The Complete Recording Sessions, did you receive much input from the members of ABBA?
This all happened just as the ABBA revival was kicking off, so I think Björn and Benny were a little bewildered and surprised that anyone wanted to do an indepth study of music they had thought belonged to the past, which was great for me, as they agreed to several hours of interviews. Today, this would be much harder, because there are so many people who want them to do this, that and the other. I also interviewed Frida, while Agnetha answered questions in writing.
What’s the status of Abba’s recorded archives at Polar and Universal? For years their material was licensed out to numerous labels worldwide; when you researched the first volume of your book, what was the state of the vaults?
Most of the tapes were there at the time, of course, but some were still at Polar Studios, which neither ABBA nor the record company owned anymore, although they should have been with the record company. Some of the versions and alternate mixes of songs, never released in Sweden, were not to be found in the archives, so later on, when I became more involved in compiling CD reissues and such, these tapes had to be called in from foreign record companies. Some of those mixes no longer exists as tapes, it seems, as some of the local licencees junked all their ABBA tapes when their licences expired. But apart from that, the archives were in pretty good shape.
This new edition of ABBA – The Complete Recording Sessions has been rewritten from the ground up. Can you tell our readers whether you have you expanded on the original edition, or if is this essentially a new book?
I used the original edition as a ”skeleton” and rewrote and expanded the stuff that was there originally, plus added lots of new stuff. So the information and interview quotes that were in the first book have been retained, but with three times as much text – if not more – this is a completely different reading experience. Seeing the book as a physical artefact, even I am a bit shocked at how much text there is there now!
All of the ABBA’s material has now been digitized. Did that make it easier to listen to more of the archive?
Yes, indeed. Almost all the mixes preserved in the archives are available on reference CDs, so you just pop one into a CD player and start listening. Costs nothing but time, whereas 25 years ago, everything was analogue, so you’d have to hire a recording studio to listen to the tapes, not to mention the worry of handling those tapes, so digitization has made all the difference in the world.
Did you come across anything that no one remembers or the fans have heard of before?
In terms of unreleased material, more so when the first edition was written, as I spent a day with Björn, Benny and ABBA sound engineer Michael Tretow listening to unreleased recordings at the time. However, there were one or two alternate takes of songs that I hadn’t heard before, not to mention the many alternate mixes where I could trace the evolution of a song as they tried out and discarded ideas in the process of arriving at the ultimate version.
What, if any, involvement have the four ABBA members had with the new book?
Not a lot, and I didn’t ask for much either. Björn answered a few questions via email, but Benny sat down with me twice to answer questions, and his input helped a lot.
Has revisiting the entirety of ABBA’s output caused you to re-evaluate your opinions or feelings about them as recording artists?
Yes, if anything my admiration has only grown. I can’t help but marvel at how much work they put into each and every song, not least at the mixing and editing stage: Deleting bits that were boring, adding new overdubs to make certain sections more exciting, and so on. The songs sound even better now than they did before, and in the case of some songs, such as ABBA – The Album’s Eagle, they’ve emerged as new favourites, whereas before that particular song wasn’t even in my Top 20.
There is now an Abba museum in Sweden. Were you involved in its curation?
A bit. I helped out with fact checking and wrote some of the original versions of the texts on display in the museum.
There’s a fan myth (based upon what appears to be a confusion in reporting) that their last album, post-Visitors, was to be Opus 10. From your comprehensive research, what’s your conclusion on when ABBA ceased to be a going concern as a recording outfit?
ABBA did their final recordings in August or maybe early September 1982. During that year they recorded six songs in total, and the Opus 10 album is indeed a myth. The last thing they did as ABBA was when they appeared via satellite on BBC TV’s The Late Late Breakfast Show in December 1982. After that, they never did anything as ABBA again.
Lastly, what do you consider their greatest song and album, and of their unreleased material, are there any that you would like to see the light of day?
My favourite song, if I have to choose one, is The Winner Takes It All. Only two melody lines repeated throughout it, yet through variations in the lyrics and in the arrangement you feel like something’s happening all through the song – that could be a definition of perfect pop, to keep it very simple, yet make it feel complex. Plus, Agnetha’s singing is incredible. My favourite album is Voulez-Vous: this is where I think ABBA arrived at the perfect balance between forceful, catchy pop and emotional maturity.
Thank you for your time!
❉ ‘ABBA – The Complete Recording Sessions’ by Carl Magnus Palm was published 31 March 2017. To order, please go to: http://www.abbatalk.com/tcrs/
❉ For more background information on the book, visit the author’s website.