“When we were writing we thought they were pop songs. Something for the day, possibly for the month or something like that, I never thought they’d last.”
Happy New Year – Abba
Released on album Super Trouper, November 1980
Writers/Producers Benny Andersson & Bjørn Ulvaeus
*Not released as a single at the time – catalogue no’s are UK/US radio only promos
Unlike many of their 1970s chart competitors (Elton John, Slade, Wizzard, Boney M, even The Eagles) Abba never released a Christmas song, though as a less clichéd and well-worn alternative they did come up with something to greet the New Year. At this point in time, Abba were in fact coming towards the end of their recording career, with one final album in 1981 (The Visitors), though Super Trouper, the album on which this appeared, would be a dazzling success, 9 weeks at Number 1 in Britain and including 2 major worldwide hits, the title song, and perhaps the group’s best ever song ‘The Winner Takes It All’ together with ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’ and ‘Happy New Year’ which, although only released as a single in a handful of minor territories, received considerable radio play around the world at the appropriate time, and continues to be a seasonal favourite some 30 years later.
It transpires that ‘Happy New Year’ was part of another abandoned attempt to create something more substantial than a simple pop hit, perhaps a musical (like the previous Girl With The Golden Hair including ‘Thank You For The Music’ which appeared on the 1977 collection Abba- The Album) or maybe a concept album. This idea was cobbled together in January 1980 on a flight to Barbados where Benny and Bjørn were going for a songwriting session for the upcoming album – the basis of ‘Happy New Year’ was actually composed on the plane, and the idea was for a musical based around New Year’s Eve. Benny Andersson recalls: “We thought it would be a good framework: a few people in a room, looking back on what has been, thinking about the future, that sort of thing.” While in Barbados, they bumped into Monty Python/Fawlty Towers comedian John Cleese and invited him to write a story based on their idea, though Cleese wasn’t apparently particularly enthusiastic, and the idea was dropped. Still, Benny and Bjørn at least had a good new song, and wrote a few more in Barbados, the recording of which began upon their return to Stockholm in February. (They finally got around to a musical with assistance from Tim Rice on Chess in 1984)
According to the author of the best-selling biography Abba – Bright Lights, Dark Shadows (Omnibus Press, 2002), acknowledged Abba expert Carl Magnus Palm in his sleeve-notes to the expanded Super Trouper CD re-issue, “The lyrics for ‘Happy New Year’ hold one regret for Bjørn, however, and that is the mention of the year 1989, which he feels locks it to the last few decades of the previous century, rather than being a timeless song for every New Year. Bjørn says, ‘It was so unnecessary, but it shows you that our perspective was about six months into the future. That’s how long the songs were supposed to last’.” Bjørn has elsewhere admitted his surprise at the continued popularity of Abba’s songs into the new millennium remarking, “When we were writing we thought they were pop songs. Something for the day, possibly for the month or something like that, I never thought they’d last.” There may have been plans to release ‘Happy New Year’, with a lead-vocal by Agnetha, as a single since shortly before Super Trouper was released a music-video was made during album cover-shot sessions combined with a performance of the song at the apartment of director Lasse Hallström. (Title track ‘Super Trouper’ served as a single instead – though the album title had long since been settled, there was in fact no song of that title until October 1980 when Benny & Bjørn decided they still needed a hit single for the new album and custom-wrote the title song in the studio)
While the New Year’s Eve musical concept was abandoned, it seems to me that another Super Trouper song, the ‘Auld Lang Syne’ inspired ‘The Way Old Friends Do’ would have served very well under the same umbrella. That song had been especially composed in 1979 as a concert closer, and indeed it was a live version, recorded at Wembley Arena in November 1979, that appeared on the album. Following previous success in the South American Spanish-speaking market with a customized version of ‘Chiquitita’ (which shifted half a million copies in Argentina) and an entire album of Spanish re-makes entitled Gracias Por La Musica (put out in the spring of 1980), a Spanish-language version of ‘Happy New Year’ was also recorded (in September 1980) and added to South American editions of Super Trouper under the title ‘Felicidad’.
Several websites (including wikipedia) claim that ‘Happy New Year’ was begun in February 1980 under the dummy working title, ‘Daddy Don’t Get Drunk on Christmas Day’. While I’m aware that Benny & Bjørn often used dummy titles for works in progress I was a little sceptical of this ‘fact’, however Carl Magnus Palm confirms for me that it was indeed the working title for ‘Happy New Year’ adding, “I’m guessing it was just one of those jokey working titles they used from time to time, not necessarily having very much to do with the final lyrics.” (Detailed information on all of Abba’s recordings – including those never released – are available in Palm’s book ‘ABBA – The Complete Recording Sessions’ published in 1994, though currently out of print)
Finally, a pair of somewhat surprising little Abba bonus facts which I came across while researching this story: It seems their autumn 1979 single ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)’ was NOT released in Sweden, and only made the charts there due to the import of UK Epic-label copies. Most music fans will probably be unaware of the fact that Abba were decidedly non-PC in their home country during the period of their international fame and in fact they do not have one song in Sweden’s Top 100 best-selling singles of all time, which seems most remarkable.
Copyright © SongStories Tony Burton 2012/2014
Originally published by Tony Burton, Stavanger bibliotek og kulturhus.