On Twitter just now, I resolved to post a blog about my experiences with Abba, – how I met them, etc. All this nostalgia was triggered by my noting on Twitter that I always remembered word Aber (pronounced “Abba” and meaning “but”) in German by imagining Agnetha’s butt. That was my word association. This triggered a string of Tweets in which it emerged that I had once produced Frida (for a Cameron Mackintosh musical called “Abbacadabra”, and that more recently, Agnetha had done one of my songs “Sometimes When I’m Dreaming”. Several Abba memories come to mind so I thought I’d set aside my workload for today and clear my brains out (yuk, what a nasty idea) by writing a blog about Abba and me. Then I remembered that there is a section in my unfinished autobiography, explaining how I met them, so I’ll start with that.Here it is:
(Excerpt from autobiography)
The task of following up “The Wombling Song” with its rather jolly-but-nonsensical lyrics and French horn “jazz” intro was a massive challenge. Why would radio stations play a second Womble song when they hadn’t played the first? (Except for Tony Blackburn, bless him). Did the World need another Womble Song? I didn’t care what the World needed, I needed another! So I sat in my garage of my three up, two down semi-detached house in Surbiton, and analysed what it had been that had made the first one a hit. Well, it was a simple song with “whimsical” good-natured lyrics. It was not unmusical, – it had an instrumental intro which was quite complicated. After a day’s grafting, I emerged from the garage with “Remember You’re A Womble”. The simplest three chord chorus, – just “Remember You’re A Womble” repeated several times on the three chord trick often used in pop songs, – was almost a rip-off of something by Gene Vincent or Carl Perkins or anyone else who had written three chord pop songs in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. To balance this simplicity with musicality and memorability I added an intro for two violins in counterpoint that might have been (but wasn’t) taken from a Vivaldi piece, or, if you looked at it differently, an Irish jig. We went in and recorded it with Chris Spedding on guitars and Clem Cattini on drums. Jack Rothstein played the first fiddle.
I managed to get it featured as the “entertainment” during the judging break at that year’s Eurovision Song Contest, which happened to be hosted in Brighton that year by the BBC. We made a film of all of us Wombles pratting about in Rottingdean, the village just outside Brighton, – and I had to go onto the programme “live” as Orinoco to wave and give a rose to presenter Katie Boyle. For the film, the BBC used my vocal from the record but replaced the music backing track with an absolutely awful orchestral arrangement of the song, played “live” to a click track and conducted by Ronnie Aldridge, the BBC’s Music Director. Artistically, it spoiled the whole thing for me, but still made it available to an audience of millions of people – enough to make the record a huge hit. It went to number three in the charts. Backstage at the Eurovision Song Contest, there had been a couple of girls who looked WELL worth talking to. I sidled up to them (not in my Womble costume – maybe I’d have had better luck with it on) – only to discover that their husbands were part of their group. I spent the day getting to know them all, and wishing them luck. I even stayed backstage while the votes came in, watching their faces and sharing a drink as they won. (Maybe it would have been even more fun if we’d had a drink each). It was Abba, and “Waterloo” obviously wiped the board, both as a Eurovision song and as the launch pad for their incredible career. I stayed in touch with them and often ran into them backstage at various European TV shows we all performed on by coincidence. Because they were on CBS, as we were, I experienced their career growing alongside mine, saw each single go out, enjoyed their success second hand, and was often around the CBS offices when Abba strategy decisions were being made.
(end of excerpt)
As I don’t really want to spend all day writing this I’ll paraphrase a little.
Being fellow CBS artists, Abba and The Wombles or myself as a solo artist would often meet up backstage or cross each other’s paths in hotel lobbies. To be greated loudly by Agnetha across the lobby of a ringy hotel foyer “Hi, Mike! How ARE you?” was such a thrill, almost electric, -and then the whole group coming over to shake hands and hug. And yet, looking back, it hardly ever happened. I’m writing it as if it was a weekly experience!
I do remember one particular night when we had been on the same bill on a German TV show, and there was a kind of tented banquet afterwards where we all sat together. I started showing off how many schnapps glasses I could pile up in a tower (I was quite good at it) without them falling over. You had to drink the schnapps and then add the glass to the tower. After that, we all (the four of them and I) went out to find a club where we could dance. It was a funny little German town out in the middle of nowhere, and the only “nightclub” in town was just closing. Realising it was Abba, the guy agreed to stay open, so we had our own private drinking and dancing club for an hour or so! The guys were chatting away happily and I got on the dance floor with the girls. I’m not a great dancer, but I was quite pissed so, hey. Great memory.
I don’t think “Dancing Queen” had come out by then, but whenever I hear that song I think of that night!
Years later, after the split of Abba, Tim Rice and I started to write a musical called Chess (him as lyricist, me as composer). It was his idea. We had several meetings and one song of mine which he liked and wanted to rewrite, lyrically to make fit the topic. Then I went away on a boat, around the world for 2 years! Tim visited us in Antigua, for a holiday, and we did a bit more thinking about Chess.
However when I got back to the UK, Tim had hooked up with Bjorn and Benny, and had written the musical. I can’t remember whether I ever got a “Dear Mike” phone call, and I didn’t feel hard done by. I hadn’t exactly been available! Also, their score and lyrics were superb. If I had written it with him, the World would have been deprived of “One Night In Bangkok”, “I Know Him So Well” , “Anthem” and such a fantastic score, one of the best, in my opinion. Benny Anderson is the best melodist writing songs and musicals bar nobody in our generation. Well, maybe me. (Only kidding). Shortly after that, Tim and I wrote “A Winter’s Tale” – which became a big hit for David Essex, and we have remained the best of friends to this day.
One day, in the early eighties, when Chess was still being created, Bjorn, Benny and their arranger, Anders visited me at my London home. They knew I was into big orchestrations, (Snark etc) and Anders was keen to know a few things that I could help him with regarding how to cram all those notes for a symphony orchestra onto normal score paper – when writing for triple woodwinds and full brass and strings. It happened that they also needed a studio and I was able to get them some time at CTS Studios in Wembley. I remember popping into the sessions briefly. Anders had done some great arrangements!
A little later, I launched my “Hunting Of The Snark” concert version with the LSO at the Barbican. In the audience were Cameron Mackintosh, Tim Rice, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson. They weren’t just there to support me – which was part of it, – but also to check out how a concert version of a musical might work. They obviously thought it worked, because shortly after that, they toured Europe with the LSO in exactly the same format I had used that night at the Barbican, in order to promote the album of “Chess”. (Cameron wasn’t involved in that, he was busy with Les Mis and Phantom).
Bjorn joined The Society Of Distinguished Songwriters,(SODS)a social organisation for songwriters of which I am proud to be a member. Bjorn hardly ever comes to meetings to drink champagne and have dinner but always pays his subs, so in a sense is the perfect SOD.
Some years later, Judy Cramer (who had been Tim Rice’s assistant in the Chess days, and who was also a huge Abba fan) asked me to help her put together a TV series based on Abba tunes. We even got so far as having a meeting with Maureen Lipman as one of the stars. Maureen was a little unsure, because she felt she wasn’t as good a singer as she was an actor. Anyway – ultimately, Judy couldn’t get the money together and it all fell through. Another happy accident, – because she turned her attention instead to the Musical “Mamma Mia” – and then look what happened!
I’m going to draw this to a close now, because we’ll all fall asleep (me writing it and you reading it) – but suffice to say that although I am not close friends with any Abba members, I do call myself a friend; although I haven’t seen the girls for years.
I was truly delighted to know that Agnetha had recorded my song so beautifully.
Thankyou, Agnetha for (liking and interpreting) The Music. I’m sorry I made a joke about your bum.
All the best to all.