How Molly Meldrum launched ABBA to stardom

A little Australian TV show propelled ABBA from Eurovision victory to worldwide domination – and Molly Meldrum was there.

I must admit I smiled to myself when I heard that ABBA had called their musical Mamma Mia. My mind raced back to 1975. I was sitting in my little Countdown office when a crew member named Tony Vuat ran in. “I think you should have a look at this clip,” he said.

A reel of clips had arrived from Sweden, featuring a batch of songs by a group called ABBA, including ‘Bang-A-Boomerang’, ‘Tropical Loveland’, ‘I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do’ and ‘Mamma Mia’. For some reason, Tony took a shine to ‘Mamma Mia’. After he played the song for me, I called ABBA’s record company, RCA. “Don’t bother playing that one on the show,” I was told. “We’re not going to release it as a single.”

But we did play ‘Mamma Mia’ on Countdown. And RCA still refused to release it. Then we played it again…and again, finally forcing RCA to release it as a single. And when it went to No 1 in Australia, RCA in Europe also decided to release it.

Agnetha later told me the group was surprised by the success of ‘Mamma Mia’ in Australia. “Honestly, I didn’t believe in that song,” she confessed.

Thirty years after my first encounter with ABBA, I flew to Japan to interview my old friend Madonna, who sampled ABBA’s ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’ for her hit ‘Hung Up’. Was she a big fan? “Oh, God yeah,” Madonna replied. “I love ABBA…they have such an amazing track record of amazing music.”

As always, Madonna was right. Pop music doesn’t get any better than ‘Mamma Mia’, ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Fernando’, ‘I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do’, ‘SOS’, ‘Ring Ring’, ‘Money, Money, Money’, ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ and ‘Take a Chance on Me’.

But ABBA were horrified when I compared them to The Beatles on Countdown in 1977. “We don’t want to be involved with comparisons to The Beatles,” Benny said, shaking his head. “They made us write songs. Without Lennon and McCartney, we wouldn’t have started.”

Of course, nothing will ever top The Beatles, but the 50s had Elvis, the 60s had The Fab Four and the 70s had ABBA. The Swede sensations united the whole family. As I said in 1976, “They have caught the imagination of toddlers, teenagers and grandmothers alike.”

Australia and ABBA has been one of music’s most enduring love affairs. Björn thought ABBA might be one hit wonders after winning Eurovision with ‘Waterloo’ in 1974. “But then Molly started playing our videos down in Australia and it seemed as though the rest of the world just woke up. ‘What is this? This Swedish group, they’re supposed to be dead by now!’”

ABBA had six No 1 singles in Australia in two years, with ‘Fernando’ spending an incredible 14 weeks on top. They were even bigger in Australia (16 top 10 hits) than Sweden (12 top 10 hits; three No 1s).

Just about every Australian home had a copy of the Arrival album – it went 18 times platinum, selling more than 1.2 million copies.

ABBA also made Countdown big news in the international music industry. Record companies all over the world started taking our little show seriously when they realised how big ABBA had become in Australia.

At the end of 1976, the ABC allowed me to go to Sweden to shoot an ABBA special for Channel 7. “He came to Stockholm to interview us as some kind of Crocodile Dundee,” Björn later joked.

I chatted to the band on an old fishing boat. Benny, Björn, Agnetha and Frida were all lovely people, with a great sense of humour, even if they struggled to understand my Aussie accent.

Molly: “Now for the million-dollar question for Australia…”

Benny: “What colour is an orange?”

Molly: “No, are you going to come back to Australia and are you going to tour?”

Benny: “Yes.”

Of course, ABBA came to Australia for their only concert tour here, 40 years ago. So many people, including Julia Zemiro, have told me it was their first concert.

One of my biggest thrills was standing on the balcony of the Melbourne Town Hall with ABBA when they were given the keys to the city – with about 20,000 fans singing ‘Mamma Mia’.

ABBA never returned to Australia, and by the start of the 80s, their chart reign was over. They made their last appearance in Countdown’s Top 10 on 15 February 1981 with ‘On and On and On’.

But their music will go on and on.

Björn kindly appeared on the ABC’s Countdown documentary, Do Yourself a Favour, in 2014. “We have so much to thank Molly, Countdown and Australia for,” he said.

And we also owe a debt of gratitude to ABBA. All I can say is…Thank You for the Music.

By Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum. Ledgend.

This piece was first published in ed#536.