ABBA at 50 in Hungarian – an interview with Carl Magnus Palm

ABBA at 50 in Hungarian – an interview with Carl Magnus Palm


In August 2023 the Hungarian publishing house Helikon published an essential book which can appeal to all Hungarian ABBA fans. This is ABBA’, the Hungarian edition of ‘ABBA at 50’. It was written by the Swedish freelance author, Carl Magnus Palm who is known as the ultimate ABBA historian in the world. He stepped into the limelight with ABBA – The Complete Recording Sessions’ in 1994 and strengthened its reputation with the highly successful Bright Lights Dark Shadows – The Real Story of ABBA’ in 2001. Since then, he has been involved in other projects, like writing liner notes for ABBA CDs and vinyl, authored and co-authored more books. In the last few years, he released the reworked and expanded version of ABBA – The Complete Recording Sessions’which was self-published in 2017. His latest bonanza, ‘ABBA at 50’ hit the shops in 2002.

–  ‘ABBA at 50’ is your second book that has been translated into Hungarian. How are you feeling that it will be released very soon here?

 Oh, I think it’s great. I know there’s a big love for ABBA in Hungary and when I write books, they’re usually only available in English and Swedish sometimes. So, I think it’s great that my books are read in other languages. Hungarian is not maybe like a big world language like English, so I think it’s great that it can be read by Hungarian fans as well.

–  Why do you think ABBA was a successful musical act?

–   It’s hard to answer because we could talk about this for hours. In my opinion, they arrive at the right time with the right thing, with the right image and they had luck. But essentially, their music is the essence of their popularity, those songs they did are well crafted. In ABBA’s case, the strong melodies also appeal to people, and it’s a human need. I think people have always been attracted by strong melodies. Something you can hum along to. You know there were simple tunes that you forget the next day, but in ABBA’s case, something sticks in your soul. What is more, ABBA’s image was very clean and very non-threatening, and there’s a big audience out there for that kind of image. 

–  Many books have been written about ABBA and here is yours which will be out in Hungary soon. Could you tell me more about this one? 

–  It’s not that kind of book like ‘Bright Lights Dark Shadows’ or ‘The Complete Recording Sessions’. ‘ABBA at 50’ can be suitable for the general audience. It was even fun to put together, more fun than I had expected, because I didn’t feel that heavy responsibility to get all the details included in the story. The aimed readership for this one would be a person who likes ABBA a lot, curious about ABBA. On the other hand, the aimed reader is such a person who doesn’t want to know every small detail but still wants the full story with plenty of pictures. In my opinion, they want to feel when they’ve finished the book that “Oh, I’ve now learned a lot about ABBA”.

–  Was it hard to decide which details should be omitted?

–  Yes, that was a challenge to create a story which is shorter and still not skip anything important. Besides this, I wanted to be entertaining in the text as well. I didn’t have this big weight on my shoulders to include everything I know about ABBA. As for ‘ABBA at 50’, I think I was able to be bit freer in my language and tell the story differently. There are so many great pictures in the book from their entire career and lives, much more than in my other ABBA books. I hope that the Hungarian readers will like the way how I retold the story of the Swedish Fab Four.

–  What are your methods and techniques in writing?

–  Well, I could say that I write from 9:00 to 5:00. Even I sometimes start very early in the morning because I’m the type of person who gets up very early and writes until late afternoon! I try to be very disciplined. I’m a freelance writer and I write mostly books. Therefore, I must motivate myself to get things going. You know, taking a break can be advantageous. Sometimes I get away from the computer for a while and then I return with a fresh perspective, and it can influence work very intensively.

–  What sources did you use for ‘ABBA at 50’?

–  I’ve interviewed people because there were always others involved in their stories many times. So, I had all those interviews to go back and I’m a big fan of old newspaper clippings and things like that. Sometimes it happens that I interview this person to get the correct story. But you know, if it’s a long time ago, they don’t remember. That is why, it’s very important to go back to the newspaper clippings and the documents of the time because there could be a press release, a notation in someone’s diary or something like that I could use. I appreciate and try to use every source I can find. I mean old radio programmes, old TV programmes and anything that contains a bit of useful information to me.

–  Your best-known projects are ABBA – The Complete Recording Sessions’ and Bright Lights Dark Shadows’. How did you start writing about ABBA?

–  ‘The Complete Recording Sessions’ was originally the very first book I wrote about ABBA. I was inspired by a similar book ‘The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions’, and I wanted to write something like that, but for a Swedish artist. I did a discography book about a Swedish singer, Monica Zetterlund. After that, I moved on to ABBA as the next project, because I liked them so much. I felt that was a challenge because there was nothing in-depth written about ABBA at that time. The earlier books were quite old and some of them only went up to 1976 or 1980. It was always said that they worked hard in the studio and their recordings were very professional. So, I thought that writing about these and their discography could be a valid thing, so this is how it started.

–  The ABBA members were involved in your work, weren’t they?

–  Yes, they were. I interviewed all the ABBA members for that project, and I had access to archives where you could trace the recording dates, old working titles and all sorts of stuff. Besides these, I could talk to many of the musicians who played on their albums. Also, I had the opportunity to listen to some unreleased music. There was me, Bjorn, Benny, and Michael B. Tretow, their sound engineer who listen to these tapes and it was like the tip of the iceberg. Some decades later almost everything was digitised, so I could hear these alternate mixes, scrapped versions of well-known songs, unfinished tracks and some unreleased material, too. I got to know so much more about ABBA. So that’s why I decided to do a new edition of this book which contains four times more information than the original one. My ambition with that book was really to tell the story of ABBA as a musical entity, what they did, how they thought about it, and their creative process and put that together in a massive volume so these interested people can read about these.

–  When the first edition of The Complete Recording Sessions’ came out, did you get feedback from ABBA members on the book?

–  Yes, I got feedback from the boys while I was working on it because they wanted to read the manuscript just to make sure that there wasn’t anything wrong in there or anything, you know, strange. They both said, “This is really great work, very good!”. They also wrote a foreword for that edition. Normally, they don’t say that much. On the other hand, Bjorn said some very nice things to a Swedish newspaper about the revised edition of ‘The Complete Recording Sessions’. But otherwise, they never say anything because they don’t want to. I think it’s because this is my book, an independent one, not an authorized one by them, but I’m sure they’ve appreciated some of the work I’ve done. 

–  This new edition has turned into a highly acclaimed ‘ABBA-Bible’ which is loved by many fans of the group. Now you are working on its sequel called ABBA on Record’.

–  I felt that was important to come up with another detailed book on ABBA. I have been working on ‘ABBA on Record’ for several years and this is like Part 2 of ‘The Complete Recording Sessions’ because it is about what happened to their music when it left the recording studio. So, it’s like how it was packaged, you know the stories behind the album sleeves and sometimes if there’s a story, there will be background information on the single sleeves as well. You will be able to read about how they were promoted by record companies in a few countries. I’ve concentrated on Scandinavia, the UK, the USA and Australia because otherwise, it would have been a 10-volume book or something like that. In addition to these, there will be reviews written by critics, chart positions and more info on how ABBA got their record contracts, the promo trips and how these affected them. Furthermore, the book will end with the appendices, in which the reader can get to know what was going on during studio sessions So, there will be alternate lyrics and things like that featured in this segment as well as a chapter about the Voyage album in a diary format. I made a great interview with Baille Walsh, who designed the album cover, and he had a lot to say about it.

–  How did you feel when they opened the vaults for you?

–  It was incredible to listen to a lot of unreleased material, alternative versions, scrapped songs and demos. It’s hard to put into words when on that special day, back in 1993, I was with Björn, Benny and Michael. We took these 24-track tapes and listened to songs that remained unheard since they recorded them, and they didn’t even really remember some of them. Rediscovering all that stuff that was just magic! It was one of the best days of my life! In addition to this, it was also amazing when some decades later I had the opportunity to hear the digitised alternative mixes from the Polar Music Archives. Sometimes the differences between these and the released tracks were small, sometimes much bigger, so it was fantastic to listen to these and write about them.

–  If we talk about these, do you see a chance for ABBA to come up with a series similar to ‘The Beatles Anthology’ in the future? 

–  I have to say, I don’t know, but that would be fantastic. I don’t know if there’s material for three double CDs, but certainly for one or two double CDs. However, I don’t have the impression that they’re planning anything like this, and I haven’t been involved in planning record releases or writing liner notes recently.

photo: Terese Wedelin

–  How do you see the ‘Voyage’ album and the concert show?

–  I think the album is much better than we had expected because it’s hard to go back and try to be what you were 40 years earlier. I think they did a really good job. They have nothing to be ashamed of. I think all tracks are good. ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ it’s my absolute favourite on the album. I also like ‘Ode to Freedom’ and ‘No Doubt About It’ very much! As for the ‘ABBA Voyage’ show, I thought it was also hugely entertaining. It’s a spectacular production and amazingly, they managed to pull it off. They did a really good job with that. It’s a magical feeling when you sit in this hall watching these people who are not real on a screen, but you’re sort of emotionally engaged with them all the time. Being surrounded by impressions of the lighting effects, a great live band and the loud music – it’s spectacular!

–  What are your favourite ABBA albums and ABBA songs?

–  My favourite ABBA album is ‘Voulez-Vous’ because it’s the crossroad between their earlier more poppy stuff like ‘Mamma Mia’, ‘SOS’ or ‘Dancing Queen’ and the more mature albums that happened later. I think I think they managed to combine excellent pop music with just the right hint of maturity. I also think it’s a very exciting album because there’s an air of desperation almost over it and it’s very compelling. It draws you in. As for my favourite song, if I must choose one, which is I mean it’s impossible because there are so many, but I usually say ‘The Winner Takes It All’ because it’s a masterclass in how to write the perfect pop song! A great pop song must be very simple and this one is simple because there are only two little lines repeated and the music follows well the lyrics and the changes in how Agnetha sings it. I firmly believe that it’s the very best thing she ever did.

–  Have you got a special story connected to the ABBA members which you want to share with us?

–  I think that the first one is the day I spent with Bjorn, Benny and Michael B. Tretow listening to the tapes I mentioned before. However, I have another, much funnier story. It happened in 2008 and was connected to the building of the recent Photographic Museum, which was supposed to be the ABBA Museum at that time, but the location was changed later. Some of us who were involved in putting things together for the museum were invited to this building. It was like a construction site because they were doing renovations, so nothing was finished. Among the guests, there were some ” ABBA photographers” and several musicians who had toured with ABBA. Then something happened that I had not expected. One ABBA member showed up, the one you least expected to show up because of her reputation as a recluse and it was Agnetha. I just said hello to her and that was it basically. But then we were taken on a tour around that building and we had to wear these helmets and these protective vests, the shiny orange ones. Agnetha joined us and put on these, too, and walked with the group just like one of us! It was a fun moment. The meeting ended in 10 minutes, but it turned out to be an extraordinary event!

–  When you were writing ‘Bright Lights Dark Shadows – The Real Story of ABBA’, did you think that it would become the most popular ABBA biography of all time?  

–  Yeah, well, I had a feeling that it would be quite popular in a way because it was the first time that anyone had tried to do a comprehensive ABBA biography from childhood to the present day. On the other hand, it was also unique with all the details and all the stories. So, I had a feeling you know, OK, the fans would probably like it. Of course, I didn’t know when I was writing it, but I felt that it will be great.  

–  What are you planning after ‘ABBA on Record’?

–  I have lots of different ABBA book projects in the pipeline and I want to write about the live ABBA concerts, for instance. From Festfolk in 1970 to the Dick Cavett Show in 1981. That’s one project I have in mind, and I have other ideas as well. You know, officially, I guess I should retire at 65. I’m 58 years old now, but I don’t think I’ll be doing that. I’ll be busy writing about books until I die.

–  If there were an opportunity to come to Hungary for a book signing session on a book week or something like that, could you accept the opportunity?

–  Yeah, sure! It would be fun!