On a January evening in 1977 the Swedish supergroup nervously took to the stage in Norway for the opening night of their first world tour. Garth Pearce was in the audience...
ABBA knew they had everything to lose. Since forming in 1972, the Swedish band had released hit singles and won the Eurovision Song Contest with their catchy single Waterloo in 1974, but they had never done a major tour. Now was the moment of truth. Could they deliver on stage, far from the safety of the recording studio?
On 28 January 1977, I was sitting six rows back in Oslo’s Ekeberghallen conference hall – which looked like a forbidding airport hangar – to be given an insider’s view of their first concert. I was working for the Daily Express. It seems incredible now, but I was one of the few entertainment journalists during the cynical 1970s to write glowingly of the group’s feelgood talents. They were regularly mocked by a music press that considered itself too sharp and sassy for the likes of ABBA.
One Swedish headline on that very week announced: ‘They write garbage’. No wonder the ABBA mastermind and manager, Stig Anderson – who had written the lyrics for Waterloo – did not want their first gig to be in their native Sweden, which he considered too close to home.
I met singers and co-writers Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (the two Bs in ABBA) at Oslo’s Grand Hotel before the concert. They were so racked with nerves they had almost called the whole thing off. At this stage Bjorn was 31 and was married to Agnetha, 26, with a three-year-old daughter, Linda. Benny, 30, and Anni-Frid, 31, known as Frida, lived together.
ABBA had been quite happy to carry on being a studio band, pushing out hit records – it was easier, they were not exposed. But Anderson insisted that the show went ahead, come what may.
It had been planned for a year; they had rehearsed, endlessly, with a 12-strong team of instrumentalists and backing vocalists. Anderson reminded the band of his four rules for success: ‘Work very hard, do your best, don’t forget anything – and don’t take life too seriously.’
Ekeberghallen was packed to its 5,300 capacity – and was full of strikingly good-looking young women dressed just like Agnetha (who seemed to accrue the most publicity). Norway’s Crown Prince Harald and Princess Sonja had also arrived to give the royal stamp of approval.
Behind the scenes, though, the band slumped into silence. There was an atmosphere of utter dread. It was minus nine degrees outside and felt even colder in the dressing room.
The lights went out and there was a rolling drum beat thundering like a locomotive fast gathering speed in the darkness. ABBA took their places on a pitch-black stage, as if they were walking to an execution. Suddenly, dazzling lights and instant sound, everything in glistening white: full-length cloaks, long leather boots, micro skirts for the two girls and skin-tight clothing for all.
The first song was Tiger, with Agnetha and Anni-Frid (the As in ABBA) clawing their hands towards the audience. Then, That’s Me, followed by Waterloo.
Benny had once told me that he would reject any song that he and Bjorn had written unless it gave him shivers down the back of his spine. And that certainly happened for me with the fourth song, SOS, which Agnetha started singing under a single spotlight.
At that moment, the entire show seemed to slip up a gear and remained there throughout. Anni-Frid gave a heartfelt rendition of Fernando with a starlit-sky effect behind her.
The girls, so much a visual part of ABBA’s success on TV, played out their stage roles superbly. Excitable schoolgirls for When I Kissed the Teacher; cynical women about town for Knowing Me, Knowing You, which was to be released as a single the following month. The song already sounded a winner at the first time of hearing.
Their biggest number-one hits at that point, such as Dancing Queen and Money, Money, Money, had been written in private, plotted and arranged in a studio, and never before put to the test before a live audience.
So was the whole show fabulous? After a tense start, yes. Bjorn confided to me later, ‘Fortunately, the girls’ nerves held enough on the night for us to start enjoying appearing in front of a live audience.’
That first tour played to packed audiences across Europe – Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium – before going on to Australia. On Valentine’s Day they performed in London at the Royal Albert Hall. Stig Anderson told me later they could have sold out the Albert Hall ten times over.