OBITUARY : Stig Anderson
Monday 15 September 1997
He was the driving force behind Abba, the Swedish/Scandinavian (one member, Frida, is Norwegian) pop group who dominated the charts through much of the Seventies. His business acumen and occasional lyrical contributions helped turn the 1974 Eurovision winners into a worldwide phenomenon and a record-breaking act, scoring nine No 1 singles, eight No 1 albums, and 18 consecutive Top Ten singles in the British charts.
Born in 1931 in Hova, a small town 200 miles south-west of Stockholm, Stikkan Anderson had once nursed ambitions to be a pop star himself. After leaving school at 13, he went to night classes and became a primary school teacher. But, bitten by the rock 'n' roll bug, he also appeared as Stig Anderson & His Mashed Creampuffs. However, his real forte was lyric-writing, often in haphazard, simplistic English. He wrote his first song at 16 for a girl who had refused to dance with him and embarrassed her by performing it in public.
Of the 2,000 songs he claims to have penned, the most memorable are the hilarious "The Girls Who Know Are Found In The Country and Rockin' Billy", a 1960 hit for Lill-Babs in Scandinavia and Holland. He used his royalties wisely to finish his schooling and graduated from the National Training College of Teachers in Stockholm.
Having had his first taste of international success, Anderson set up the pompously named Sweden Music company to publish his songs. Three years later, he joined forces with Bengt Bernhag, an imaginative promotion man and studio engineer, to form Polar Music. They discovered the West Bay Singers, featuring one Bjorn Ulvaeus, at a Swedish Radio competition. Wanting to cash in on the popularity of skiffle and folk music, they renamed the band the Hootenanny Singers and had them cut a Swedish version of Tom Jones's "Green Green Grass Of Home".
By 1966, Ulvaeus was keen to strike on his own. He met Benny Andersson who played keyboards with the Hep Stars, then almost as famous in their homeland as the Beatles. When both their groups floundered in 1969, Stig asked the duo to write songs for his other acts and also their own album. Together, the three composed the jolly "Lycka" ("Happiness") and, on the subsequent long-player of the same name included a track called "Hej Gamle Man" ("Hey, Old Man"). This was the first time Benny Andersson, Anni-Frid Lyngstad (known as Frida), Bjorn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Faltskog appeared together on record. By then, they'd become two couples but still pursued separate musical careers.
Following the suicide of his partner Bernhag after years of health problems, Anderson wanted Ulvaeus to join him in the Polar organisation but Ulvaeus held out for his friend Benny Andersson to become a partner too.
Anderson was determined to come up with a winning entry for the Eurovision Song Contest. In 1972, "Better To Have Loved", the writers' first attempt, for the Swedish singer Lena Andersson, came third. The following year, having had a couple of hits with "People Need Love" and "He Is Your Brother", Bjorn, Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid thought they were on to a winner with "Ring Ring" but they lost. Complaints flooded in and it was decided that in 1974, the Swedish entry would be decided by a phone-in.
On Anderson's advice, the quartet shortened their name to Abba, using the initials of their first names (they also had to ask the permission of the largest fish-canning factory in Sweden which shared the same name). They couldn't decide whether to enter "Hasta Manana" or "Waterloo" but plumped for the latter because, according to Ulvaeus, "it was more fun to perform". Once again, it was Stig Anderson who had set things in motion and suggested the name Waterloo.
This time, Abba were duly selected to represent Sweden, worked on the choreography, the look, and convinced Sven-Olof Waldoff, the orchestra's conductor, to wear a Napoleonic hat. On 6 April 1974, in Brighton, they trounced all comers (including Olivia Newton John's "Long Live Love") and victory was theirs.
The rest is music history. Abba's heady blend of catchy melodies and sexual chemistry proved irresistible. With Anderson providing lyrical input and a global vision, the group overcame the one-hit wonder curse which so often afflicts Eurovision winners. Their singalong, bouncy yet easy-on-the-ear singles, dominated the charts from 1975 to 1982. "S0S", "Mamma Mia", "Fernando", "Dancing Queen", "Knowing Me Knowing You", "The Name Of The Game", "Summer Night City" blared out of every juke-box.
Abba got bigger, pioneered pop videos, launched a thousand parodies, toured the world. Abba The Movie, released in 1978, even showed Anderson playing himself (he also co-produced the film with Reg Grundy, the Australian who later launched Neighbours). He was enjoying every minute, cutting deals and looking after what had become the second most profitable corporation in Sweden, with average profits of pounds 5m a year in the late Seventies - not far behind Volvo.
After the film, Anderson had less time to contribute lyrics but remained a sounding-board for Ulvaeus and Andersson who assumed full creative control on later classics like "Angel Eyes", "I Have A Dream", "The Winner Takes It All", "Super Trouper" and "One Of Us". By then, the they were documenting the break-up of both their relationships in songs.
Ninety eighty-one saw the group pay respect to their mentor on his fiftieth birthday with a limited edition 12in single pressed on red vinyl (200 copies) enfitled "Salute To Stig". But behind the scenes, matters were coming to a head. Anderson had set up various companies to help reduce Abba's tax burden. The four members had always refused to become tax-exiles and were paying Sweden's highest rate tax - 85 per cent. Anderson was also selling Abba records behind the Iron Curtain. Payment was often in kind, and soon, through Pol Oi1, he was dealing in oil as well as records. Following a sudden drop in the average price of a barrel, the whole house of cards collapsed and an investigafion into Abba's affairs was launched.
Apart from Frida who had sold all her shares in 1982, the rest of the band very nearly went to jail and had to settle out of court with their Inland Revenue. Anderson became persona non grata with his former proteges who, justifiably, held him responsible for the whole fiasco, and sued him for unpaid royalties. It was a messy end to one of the greatest music business partnerships of all time.
However, by the late Eighties, the nostalgia cycle had spun so fast that everybody from Elvis Costello to U2 via Erasure and the Lemonheads was performing Abba songs. The Australian "tribute" band Bjorn Again were also doing fine business on the college and cabaret circuit. To maximise income for Polar Music, Stig Anderson had always set up separate deals with various record companies in different countries (including a surprising early deal with Hugh Heffner's Playboy records in the US). In late 1989, he decided to cash in his chips and sell off the whole company to Polygram for an undisclosed amount. The way was thus cleared for a host of lucrative compilations (Abba Gold, 1992, has to date sold over 11 million copies), a lavish box-set (Thank You For The Music, 1994) and the reissue of the whole catalogue.
In 1989 Anderson set up the Polar Music Pize, given through the Royal Swedish Academy of Music to one pop and one classical musician every year. Dizzy Gillespie, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen have thus been honoured alongside the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski and the choir director Eric Ericson.
Two years ago, the pop producer Tony Calder and Rolling Stones Sixties impresario Andrew Oldham collaborated with Anderson on Abba, The Name of the Game, a book which documents some of the goings-on behind one of pop's major success stories. In 1976, when asked the secret of his and Abba's success, Stig Anderson gave a simple reply: "Always work very hard. Do your best. Don't forget anything. And don't take life too seriously."
Stikkan ("Stig") Anderson, lyric writer, music publisher and manager: born Hova, Sweden 25 January 1931; married (two sons, one daughter); died 12 September 1997.
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