Take a Chance on Me: When ABBA Came to Poland
default, Swedish pop group Abba, wearing kimonos, 1976. Left to right: Bjorn Ulvaeus, Agnetha Faltskog, Frida Lyngstad and Benny Andersson, photo: RB / Redfern, center, #000000, abba-1976-gettyimages-182113864.jpg
The celebrated Swedish pop band ABBA performed in Poland only once – in 1976, when they gave a televised concert at Poland’s national television broadcaster TVP. Due to the uniqueness of this event and the band’s unending popularity, the recording of that show became a legendary piece of Polish show-business history.
Martians at the Warsaw airport
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MAMMA MIA! Julie Walters as Rosie, Meryl Streep as Donna, Christine Baranski as Tanya, photo: Mary Evans Picture Librar / Forum
The famous Swedish pop band ABBA really requires no introduction. As the creators of such timeless hits as Mamma Mia and Money, Money, Money, they became one of the biggest groups in the world in the 1970s and early 1980s, enchanting fans with their Europop sound. Despite having disbanded in 1982, they remain immensely popular, as evidenced, for example, by the huge success of the 2008 movie Mamma Mia, a musical romantic comedy based on ABBA songs. Thanks to this relentless fame, ABBA have been compared to the likes of the Beatles and Elvis Presley.
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In October 1976, just before the release of what is considered their most popular album, Arrival, the Swedish pop stars visited Poland. They came to Warsaw to give a TV concert at Poland’s national television broadcaster TVP. This now-legendary appearance was the only performance ABBA ever gave in the Land on the Vistula.
At the time, Poland was still under the communist regime, which would remain in power for more than a decade. That meant that the country was undemocratic and secluded from the West by the Iron Curtain. The appearance of major international music stars was a rarity. Sure, The Animals toured Poland in 1965 and The Rolling Stones played in Warsaw two years later, but these were uncommon events. So when the highly popular ABBA decided to come to Poland, this was a huge deal for local popular music fans, who were hungry for acts from outside the Eastern Bloc.
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Even though the group was still before its biggest successes, its coming to Poland was on the same scale as if the Martians had landed at the Warsaw airport.
From ‘ABBA w Polsce’ (ABBA in Poland) by Maciej Orański, trans. MK
Fortunately, ABBA’s only performance in Poland was recorded on camera by TV professionals. Today, the footage, which is said to be cherished by ABBA fans not only in Poland but also abroad, lets one relive this exceptional event.
Wagons of green peas
ABBA decided to come to Poland because they had a large local fanbase. Despite the Iron Curtain, the band’s music had reached Polish audiences through radio and TV, gaining much renown. The Polish fans wrote numerous letters to ABBA asking them to play in Poland, eventually convincing the band to come to Warsaw.
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The Swedish group opted to play on television, because they were keen to obtain footage with which they could promote their upcoming album Arrival. Interestingly, ABBA agreed to perform at TVP for free. In exchange, they asked for exclusive worldwide rights to the concert’s film version. TVP complied – retaining, however, rights to the footage in the Eastern Bloc. Also, Poland’s national broadcaster agreed to cover the band’s travel expenses and pay for the realisation of the programme. Quite funnily, this no-cash deal gave rise to a rumour that Poland under the communist regime – a country often troubled by shortages of money – paid for ABBA’s appearance with… green peas.
There were rumours about how much was paid and by whom. The word was that railway wagons filled with green peas were sent to Sweden as a barter exchange […]
Jacek Wójcicki in ‘ABBA w Polsce’ (ABBA in Poland) by Maciej Orański, trans. MK
Of course, in reality, no such exchange took place. What was agreed upon, though, was that ABBA would perform at TVP’s programme Studio 2. This was a very popular programme aired on Saturdays, which drew audiences with its Western content, for example, Monty Python's Flying Circus or The Muppet Show. The recording of ABBA’s performance was scheduled for 7th October – the programme wasn’t going to be live to allow for multiple takes of the band’s songs. It was decided that the filming process would last for about five hours. Also, the concert would be lip-synced. Apparently, the musicians weren’t sure if their distinct sound could be replicated at TVP.
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Passengers singing SOS
On 7th October 1976, around noon, a passenger plane of the Polish airline LOT carrying the Swedish musicians from Stockholm landed in Warsaw. But there were only three of the four ABBA members on board: Frida, Bjorn and Benny.
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The fourth member, Agnetha, didn’t like to fly together with her husband Bjorn, because she was afraid that in case of an accident, their daughter Linda could be left parentless. Therefore, she came to Warsaw a day earlier. During her extra day in the Polish capital, she took part in the filming of the Polish music video for ABBA’s song SOS, which would become part of the Studio 2 programme. In the video, you can see Agnetha singing SOS in the area of Warsaw’s Three Crosses Square while the three other ABBA members sing the song on board of the plane to Poland (apart from the musicians, the aircraft carried also a Studio 2 film crew and journalists).
Here’s how the programme’s director, Tomasz Dembiński, recalls this episode:
Filming ‘SOS’ on board of the plane was a good idea but also a bit of a trick. We had more material and less to record at the studio – after all, we were running on a very tight schedule.
From ‘ABBA w Polsce’ (ABBA in Poland) by Maciej Orański, trans. MK
The programme would eventually start with footage from the band’s flight to Warsaw and the aforementioned music video.
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After Frida, Bjorn and Benny landed in Warsaw (Agnetha was there to greet them at the airport), the band went for a while to their lodging, the Forum hotel – today’s Novotel. From there they came straight to the TVP studios in Woronicza Street, where they arrived around 16:00.
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At TVP, an audience composed of the broadcaster’s workers, their families and their friends (about a hundred people) was already waiting for ABBA. Also waiting for the band was the stylish stage scenery designed by the professional scenographer Teresa Rużyłło as well as Wiesław Olko, a fresh graduate of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts.
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The scenery’s centrepiece was a lofty stairway inspired by the mobile stairs used for boarding and leaving an aircraft. Through its air-travel associations, the stairway referenced the title of the album Arrival, which ABBA was going to promote at TVP. The stairs were over six metres high and rather steep. Also, in order to give them an exceptional, scenic look, they were covered with plastic film. But the plastic not only made them look special, it also made them quite slippery. At first, the musicians were reluctant to go on the stairway; it seemed dangerous to them. Only after Dembiński rehearsed walking down the stairway with the band did they agree to perform on it.
The scenery also consisted of two black, three-dimensional signs saying ‘ABBA’ and ‘Studio 2’, as well as of mannequins and large, translucent plastic pillows. The general colour scheme was black, which nicely contrasted with the white costumes worn by the musicians. At this point, it might be worth adding that ABBA’s iconic white overalls were premiered during the Polish concert.
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The scenery, which is said to have been praised by the band, is considered one of the strongest points of the programme – aside from the performance of the Swedish stars themselves, of course. The renowned Polish cinematographer Andrzej Myszkowski was responsible for the tasteful camerawork, whereas Jan Tyszler was in charge of the atmospheric lighting.
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The programme ABBA w Studio 2 (ABBA at Studio 2) is available on YouTube as a four-part video titled ‘ABBA in Poland’. Unfortunately, the picture quality of this content isn’t very high. Nevertheless, the video lets you familiarise yourself with ABBA’s only appearance in Poland.
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The Studio 2 performance includes mostly songs from Arrival, which was officially released on 11th October 1976 – four days after the Polish concert. The show begins with ABBA slowly descending from the aforementioned stairway to the accompaniment of the smash hit Dancing Queen. About halfway through the song, they reach the stage at ground level. Next, they perform My Love, My Life, and at this point, you can get a better look at the audience who seem to be really enjoying themselves.
During the next tune, When I Kissed the Teacher, the excited audience starts to dance to the music. Afterward come Knowing Me, Knowing You and Fernando. In the next song, Tiger, Agnetha and Frida start throwing the plastic pillows around the studio, and the audience joins in on this. The two singers continue to play with the spectators like this throughout the tune. You can see that everyone is having lots of fun.
Oh my God! I was there. It was incredible! My dad worked at TVP, and thanks to that, I got to see them live! […] Yeah, they were lip-syncing, but so what! I was a teenager, and I was simply… happy.
Iwona Mroczek in ‘ABBA w Polsce’ (ABBA in Poland) by Maciej Orański, trans. MK
For the final song of the afternoon, ABBA choose the amazing Money, Money, Money. The crowd at Studio 2 is the world’s first audience to hear this song! After Money, Money, Money is through, Bjorn announces from the stage:
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It’s been a tremendous experience for Benny to come here to Poland, and for the rest of us!
From ‘ABBA w Studio 2’
But that’s not all: the audience cheers ABBA into an encore of Fernando. As the band are performing this song, they go up the stairway. When then music stops, they wave goodbye to the crowd from the top and leave the studio via a platform there. With this, the programme ends.
The people are nice
After the recording of the programme, which lasted for about five hours, ABBA gave a press conference at the Forum hotel and later went to one of Warsaw’s nightclubs. The next day, they went on a short sightseeing tour of the capital, visiting the Old Town and the Palace of Culture and Science. During this tour, they posed for photographs and gave autographs to numerous fans.
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The harsh realities of the Eastern Bloc made a somewhat gloomy impression on Agnetha:
I knew that Poland was a poor country, but I didn’t know that it was that bad here. But the people are extremely nice, and it seems that they have low costs of living.
From ‘ABBA w Polsce’ (ABBA in Poland) by Maciej Orański, trans. MK
ABBA left Warsaw by plane later that day, at 15:30. Agnetha, who made exceptions to her rule of not flying together with Bjorn, was on board together with the other members.
Polish TV viewers had to wait until 13th November for TVP to air ABBA at Studio 2. Needless to say, the 46-minute programme caused a huge sensation in Poland. The story goes that on the day the programme premiered, the streets of Polish towns went empty – because so many people were watching the show in their homes.
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Even though there was a limited amount of time for the filming of ABBA at Studio 2 (and a modest budget), the programme turned out very fine. It compares well with other music TV shows made at the time in places like Germany, Sweden or England. The scenery, lighting and camerawork, although rather old-school from today’s perspective, were all done skilfully and professionally.
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Unfortunately, TVP didn’t fully capitalise on this potentially lucrative programme, which had the power to attract diverse audiences through showing one of the most popular bands of the day. Un-understandably, for a long time after its premiere, ABBA at Studio 2 wasn’t re-run; eventually, the programme became outdated. There seems to be no information about it being aired anywhere in the Eastern Bloc apart from Poland.
It appears that ABBA weren’t keen to disseminate the Polish programme either. It’s known that outside of the Eastern Bloc, ABBA at Studio 2 was aired by Australia’s Channel 10, but it’s hard to find other such examples. Also, ABBA never released the Polish concert on VHS or DVD. Apparently, the band was reluctant to promote the recording because the group’s manager, Stig Anderson, wasn’t satisfied with the quality of the sound.
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TVP also never released the programme on a video cassette or disc. But bootleg editions of ABBA at Sudio 2 can be purchased online. Interestingly, despite the limited access to the Polish concert, it appears to have gained the appreciation of ABBA fans across the world:
It’s worth adding that ‘ABBA at Studio 2’ is highly popular with ABBA fans the world over, especially in… the Netherlands, where each year during their worldwide get-together, songs from the programme, amongst other things, are displayed on huge video walls.
From ‘ABBAkadabra’ by Paweł Piotrowicz, Onet.pl, trans. MK
Of course, the 1976 concert is also well-remembered in Poland. When in the year 2000, TVP asked its viewers to vote for a programme they’d like to see a re-run of, the winner was ABBA at Studio 2 . Since ABBA’s appearance at TVP was the only time the celebrated Swedish band performed in Poland, the Studio 2 concert has become a legendary piece of Polish show-business history.
ABBA in Poland
ABBA at Studio 2
Poland under communism
Written by Marek Kępa, Jul 2020
Source: ‘ABBA w Polsce’ (ABBA in Poland) by Maciej Orański’s (Dom Wydawniczy Rebis, 2013)