How can we resist you?

27 01 2013


ᗅᗺᗷᗅ were loved worldwide, but it was Down Under where they first found fame, writes Neil McMahon

Stars in our eyes … Swedish pop supergroup Abba. Photo: Penny Stephens

Fittingly, Abba conquered us most completely while sitting around a campfire, where the likes of Lawson and Banjo long ago found Australians most comfortable absorbing the music and the myths that brought them together.

But neither of our national poets could have imagined this: the birth in 1976 of a fresh legend as foreign as could be to the land of the jolly swagman. Like Paterson’s morose sheep thief, Abba’s Fernando was a man once young and full of life, but there the similarities ended.

Neither the song nor the singers had any logical claim on Australian hearts. These were Swedes, singing about a Mexican, sitting around a shabby piece of studio fakery purporting to be a campfire – not a jolly jumbuck in sight.

But, my, how we loved them.

For 14 weeks in early 1976, Fernando drove the nation to distraction as it stayed atop the singles chart for so long that it was banned in Sunday church, otherwise known as Countdown, where high priest Ian ”Molly” Meldrum learned he’d made a big mistake in banishing the fireside film clip.

As Meldrum recalls in Bang a Boomerang, a new documentary exploring Australia’s love affair with the Swedish foursome, this was not a relationship to be trifled with.

”After the 10th, 11th week and it was still No.1, I made this rash decision that we can’t play it again … we’ll show it as No.1, but we’ll then show in full our prediction for what we think will be the next No.1,” Meldrum recalls in the program, airing January 30 on the ABC. ”And all hell broke loose. The ABC switchboard was jammed.

”People complaining, how dare we not play this song again.”

Meldrum was not the only music industry figure startled by the intensity of Australia’s affection for the Swedes, though by 1976 he’d had a while to get used to it.

As Bang a Boomerang tells it, it was Countdown’s hunger for video clips to fill its weekly airtime that played a critical role in Abba’s explosion as a musical force. The documentary aims to put on the historical record once and for all the truth: that while the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest may have been the band’s first big break, the true birth of Abba as global pop conquerors began in Australia.

It is a compelling case. As Meldrum says, it was only his badgering of RCA – the group’s local record company – that persuaded them to release the album track Mamma Mia as a single.

Thanks to its accompanying video clip – which established the trademark Abba visual style – the song went gangbusters.

”They had no option but to release it as a single,” Meldrum says.

Meldrum was a key player, but just as instrumental was RCA’s Australian PR rep, Annie Wright. She was in her early 20s then, and was the go-between for the dealings between Countdown and the faraway Swedes.

”I had no idea what lay before me,” Wright says. ”It was just an explosion. We knew they were perfect pop songs but no one could have predicted the extent of how Australia would embrace them. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before or since.”

Wright would become an Abba intimate – through 1975, when she delivered the video clips that won over the Countdown crowd; in 1976, when she was side-by-side with the group on a promotional tour; and then in 1977, the year of the band’s astonishing concert tour.

The 1976 trip should have been warning of what was to come: a Reg Grundy-funded TV special hosted by Daryl Somers drew higher ratings than the moon landing. But the ’77 tour stunned even industry veterans who thought they’d seen it all, Wright says.

”It was very surreal, for everyone, from [promoter] Paul Dainty, to the band themselves … Nothing has ever come close to the hysteria, the adoration. And most people never knew that Australia was where they broke.”

Bang a Boomerang sets the record straight on that score, and for those who played a part in that long-ago madness it is a welcome documentation of a time they will never forget.

For Annie Wright, who grew so close to the band they invited her to Sweden to holiday on their private island, the memories are many.

Among her favourites is the anxiety that preceded the group’s Sydney concert in March 1977, which was threatened by wet and wild weather.

But Wright had a direct line to god, or a reasonable facsimile: legendary weatherman Alan Wilkie.

”I was ringing him at Channel Nine every hour,” Wright says.

”I had a hotline – no mobiles in those days, no emails or faxes – I was calling him every day prior to the concert. He was great, and we were living on hope.

”But the show must go on. Paul Dainty had written on the tickets, ‘Come rain or shine’. I bet he regretted that.

”And they went on despite it being dangerous. Frida had a fall, they were mopping down the stage constantly. But the audience didn’t care. There was just this great love and it was mutual.

”They loved performing for Australians, they loved the reaction. It became a real family, Australians became their family.”

Nearly four decades later, the love affair continues – despite that 1977 tour being the first and last time the group performed here in concert.

There was a period of estrangement – the documentary shows just how deathly uncool Abba became for a time – but affections were re-established with fervour many years ago.

Wright is delighted the history of Abba has been preserved in documentary form.

”It made sense to tell a new generation where it began. I’m surprised even people of my generation don’t realise that it all started in Australia.”

Bang a Boomerang, ABC1 on Wednesday at 8.30pm

Sydney Morning Herald

Date January 28, 2013




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