When Joe Boyd Met ABBA

On Joe Boyd’s business card it probably says “Record/Film Producer” but that’s a bloody simple way of putting it. In truth, Boyd is a producer like the Vatican is a church. He started out touring artists like Muddy Waters, Coleman Hawkins and Stan Getz and, on the cusp of folk’s emergence into the rock arena, supervised Bob Dylan’s electric debut. He opened London’s “psychedelic ballroom,” UFO, in 1966 and, in the same era, produced Pink Floyd, Nick Drake, The Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention. In this excerpt from his 2010 Red Bull Music Academy lecture, he details how he missed out on a landmark publishing deal with the Swedish pop superstars ABBA.

Joe Boyd Lecture (London 2010) | Red Bull Music Academy

The Lovin’ Spoonful, which was a group back in the ’60s that had a bunch of hits, “Summer in the City,” “What a Day for a Daydream.” Lead singer John Sebastian and his wife, Laurie, separated at some point. She was a very smart, interesting woman who had big ears for a lot of things. I went over to visit her and I brought a tape of some rough mixes of the first Nick Drake record. We had some dinner and had some wine and then I played the Nick Drake tape and she went, “Wow! I love that, it’s great.”

The lead singer of the Hep Stars had a skiing accident and he was on crutches with his leg in a cast. He had to hobble up to the microphone.

She said it reminded her of somebody. She told the story of how she had gone on a tour of Scandinavia with the Lovin’ Spoonful and when they were in Sweden a journalist played them this record by a group called the Hep Stars called “Sunny Girl” that was a total rip-off of “Daydream.” So they heard the record and she said, “I like that record, that’s nice. It is kind of similar to ‘Daydream’ but it is cool.” He said, “Well, they are playing tonight in Stockholm.” So they went to the gig, and the lead singer of the Hep Stars had a skiing accident and he was on crutches with his leg in a cast. He had to hobble up to the microphone and he sang “Sunny Girl,” which he had written and she thought he was dreamy, he was beautiful, he was cute, she loved him. She got a whole bunch of records of the Hep Stars, and she gave me a copy. I still have it.

A year later, I was in Stockholm and I went to a record store and I see this record. “That’s the guy from the Hep Stars.” It was a duo record, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson was the lead singer of the Hep Stars. I buy the record and take it home to London and listen to the record and it’s good, really good songs, it is all in Swedish, kind of folky.

Another six months goes by, and Fairport Convention has become the most successful thing I was involved with. The Fairport Convention records were getting released all over Europe. I had the publishing rights, so I was trying to do sub-publishing deals in all the European territories. They had a bit of success in Scandinavia, so I thought I needed a sub-publisher in Scandinavia. I could never get out of my head that “Sunny Girl” by Benny Andersson and I thought, “These guys can really write and they can write in English,” so I looked up their publisher and I called him up and said, “I’m coming to Stockholm. Would you be interested in sub-publishing Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, etc.?” “Maybe. I've heard of them, I don't know too much.”

“Our girlfriends are in this music hall show here, we're going to see them.”

I went to see him in Stockholm, this beautiful autumn day, and we talked and I said, “You do a deal to publish Fairport Convention in Scandinavia and I’ll publish Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus in England. They should start writing songs in English because they're really good.” He said, “It’s kind of a nice idea. I tell you what, I am meeting them for a drink in an hour, do you want to come with me?” So we go to this bar in the middle of Stockholm, there’s Benny and Björn, we sit around and talk and we’re getting along well. They said, “Our girlfriends are in this music hall show here, we're going to stay and see them.” Stig Anderson, who was the publisher, says, “I'm off home, my wife has dinner waiting.”

So I stay with them and there was this old-fashioned Swedish music hall show with girls in top hats and highkicking with fishnet stockings and high heels. Benny, Björn and I sat and we watched the two girls, those very same girls, in this show and afterwards went over to somebody's house, a friend of theirs. We were there till 3 AM playing American rhythm and blues records. They just loved R&B. We were talking about R&B and I kept saying to them, “You guys must write in English, write in English.”

I got home back to London and two pieces of paper are on my desk. One was a letter from Stig Anderson. They were saying, “Let's do that deal, you publish Benny and Björn and I will publish Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson and Nick Drake in Scandinavia.” There was another message on my desk from Mo Ostin from Warner Brothers saying he was at the Dorchester Hotel. So I went to a meeting with him and he offered me a job working for Warner. I ended up selling my company to Chris Blackwell at Island and never doing the deal with Stig Anderson for the publishing rights to Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus.

By Joe Boyd on August 29, 2013

On a different note