BOOTLEG FILES 404: “Dick Cavett Meets ABBA” (1981 television special made for Swedish TV).
LAST SEEN: The production can be found in a multi-installment YouTube posting.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: The entire program has never been made available in the U.S.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: One of ABBA’s most elusive productions.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Parts of it have been included in an official ABBA DVD release, but the full-length production remains out of circulation.
When I first learned that a television special called “Dick Cavett Meets ABBA” existed, my reaction was: “What a terrible idea!” Really, can anyone think of a worst mismatch than the erudite talk show host and the bouncy Swedish pop stars?
It appears that other people shared my emotions. Although Cavett has been a staple of U.S. television since the 1960s and ABBA enjoyed a huge degree of popularity among Americans, this one-shot special was not seen in the U.S. after its was produced in 1981. When you watch “Dick Cavett Meets ABBA,” you easily understand what went wrong.
By 1981, ABBA had been together for slightly more than a decade. Internal strife had been fraying the group’s cohesion for some time, and the February 1981 divorce of Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad made matters worse.
In March 1981, the group began recording on what would become their final studio album. A month later, for no clear reason, the group decided to participate in a television special that would consist of an English-language interview and a mini-concert. Sweden’s SVT and Germany’s ZDF agreed to co-produce the show, but a struggle erupted on where the show was going to be shot – the Germans were originally going to host the production, but Swedish television wound up with their local heroes.
Then, another problem arose. ABBA initially wanted Dick Clark to interview them, but the “American Bandstand” icon demanded a fee that was outside of their budget. Bjorn Ulvaeus later recalled how they came up with their second choice.
“We thought long and hard and wanted to find someone who could make our 10th anniversary a memorable one,” he said. “We wanted someone who was fun and the thought came up: Dick Cavett. He is very skilled and humorous. We wanted a mix of singing and interviews.”
Cavett was no stranger to interviewing singers – some of his most memorable TV chats involved John Lennon, George Harrison and Janis Joplin. However, Cavett’s forte was not music. He was at his best harvesting nostalgic anecdotes from old-time Hollywood stars and trading dry quips with acid-tongued literary icons – top 40 music was not something that one expected from a Cavett talk show, unless the performers were uncommon raconteurs of the Lennon-Harrison-Joplin ilk.
For his part, Cavett was uncertain about this endeavor. While the ABBA group members may have known about his program, most Europeans never heard of him. And as a former stand-up comic, he was understandably nervous about dropping one-liners and receiving a stony silent response. Thus, Cavett put a demand in his contract that the audience consisted solely of English-speaking Swedes.
Cavett flew to Stockholm and recorded the interview with ABBA on April 27, 1981. From the opening, the program got off on the wrong foot. Cavett noted the presence of the ABBA quartet by joking, “These are the only members of the group who could show up today.” He followed up by quipping, “We’ve known each other for well over three hours.” The confused audience greeted both comments with the faintest of acknowledgment.
From there, things went from bad to worse. Cavett tried to encapsulate the ABBA phenomenon by claiming people had “not seen anything like it in the history of the music world.” (Uh, hello…Elvis? The Beatles?) The ABBA members appeared to be increasingly uncomfortable in their exchange with Cavett, and the conversation proceeded in fits and starts. ABBA’s men tried to lighten the mood – Bennie joked that beard hid a double chin, while Bjorn claimed that their songs were composed in a small cottage with an out-of-tune piano – while Anni-Frid and Agnetha Faltskog looked visibly uncomfortable.
Cavett’s questioning grew more amateurish – at one point, he asked ABBA if they lost friendships because they were so “ludicrously successful.” After what seemed like an endlessly awkward pause, they politely said they did not. He quizzed Anni-Frid on whether she had been to New Orleans during the period when she pursued jazz singing, and she quietly said she did not.
Cavett then became utterly absurd by calling attention his footwear – for some reason, he needed to borrow boots before airtime and required tape to hold them around his legs. He also handed out sheet music to the quartet and asked them to sing the old-time tune “Don’t Fence Me In” in both English and Swedish. When he bragged that he would bet ten dollars that no one could correctly identify the song’s composer, Bjorn sheepishly named Cole Porter. Cavett reacted with shock, but his wallet stayed in his pocket.
To make amends for this disastrous chat, ABBA then left Cavett and offered a serving of their music. During the production, ABBA recorded nine songs. Sadly, the group seemed enervated and distracted during their numbers – for those who recalled the vivacity of ABBA during their peak years, this dull mini-concert is quite a letdown.
“Dick Cavett Meets ABBA” premiered on SVT in September 1981, and it played in other European countries in the fall of that year. However, different versions of the special were broadcast across the continent, and no version included all nine of the tunes. In the U.S., Cavett was hosting a late night talk show on PBS, but the network did not secure the rights to the special. The other U.S. networks also passed on it; the program would surface later on MTV, years after ABBA dissolved.
To date, “Dick Cavett Meets ABBA” has never been released in any U.S. home entertainment format. An unauthorized DVD featuring the nine songs without the Cavett talk was released in 2007, and that can still be found on Amazon.com. Five of the songs from the special – “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”, “Super Trouper,” “Two For The Price of One,” “Slipping Through My Fingers” and “On & On & On” – were included on the DVD of the official “ABBA – The Complete Studio Recordings” boxed set.
But for those who are really curious, “Dick Cavett Meets ABBA” can be found online in its entirety, albeit in multi-installment postings. However, only the most dedicated ABBA fans could tolerate the clumsy interview and the so-so live performances without calling out “S.O.S.”
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