ABBA Photographic Reunion

There’s a fair bit in the papers today about ABBA’s “photographic reunion” when they appeared together overnight in Stockholm. Being ABC Local Radio’s resident “ABBA Expert”, I was asked to come on the radio in NSW and chat about this. You can listen to the audio below, or read my interview preparation notes below.

What’s the significance of this appearance?

It’s the first time they’ve appeared in public (all four of them) since the premiere in Stockholm of “Mamma Mia” in 2008. For the last thirty five years, all four members of ABBA have appeared in public together, but very rarely all four of them together. I was at the opening of Stockholm’s ABBA Museum in 2013, when Bjorn, Benny and Frida attended the opening. Agnetha wasn’t there, and the reason given was that she had already made plans to be in the UK to promote her latest album. Benny and Frida appeared together when ABBA were inducted in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame.  Frida and Agnetha appeared together when they received a Swedish music award.  There’s a video clip on Youtube of them on stage together, and it’s quite lovely to see Frida holding tightly to Agnetha (given all of the newspaper reports about Agnetha’s anxiety appearing in public).  My favourite moment from that appearance was when the presenter asked Agnetha and Frida what they talk about when they come together after such a long time. Agnetha replies, “mostly tonight it was about money!!”. And the reaction from Frida is hilarious – she can’t quite believe Agnetha was so honest.

So it’s not a sign the feud between them is over?

Was there ever a feud? I don’t know there’s any evidence of a feud. I think they just moved on with their lives. After a decade or so together, including as married couples, and then with divorces, they simply moved on. Agnetha is the one mostly commonly described as being reclusive. Her ex-husband Bjorn has reflected on that, saying he thought she would have been happy raising a family. He said she liked to sing and record, but touring wasn’t something she enjoyed. I think there’s probably evidence the Australian tour, in particular, freaked her out a little bit. There was also a particularly scary flight in 1979 in America, and after that I think she didn’t think it was worth it any more. I also think the idea of a feud comes from the fact there were divorces, and I also think this might be evidence of a bit of deep sexism. The idea there can’t be room for two fairly strong women in the same pop group without “cats fights” and so on. I think a key thing to remember is all four members of the group are now in their mid 60s to early 70s. For them, this whole thing was such a long-time ago.

So what is this new Mamma Mia franchise?

After the musical and the movie, comes a new incarnation of Mamma Mia. Basically, it’s theatre restaurant. It’s currently in Swedish, but they’ll be performing it in English during Eurovision this year, which is being held in Stockholm. By the way, last year’s winner, Mans Zelmerlow actually appeared this week at the Australian Open in Melbourne.

What are they all doing now?

Frida has been living in Zermatt, Switzerland for about thirty-five years. Occasionally she records duets, mostly for charity. She’s a Princess (she married a Swedish/German prince, who later passed away). And now she’s in a relationship with Henry Smith, one of the heirs of W.H. Smith. She has both a son and a grandson who are musicians. 

Agnetha has been living on the outskirts of Stockholm for the last forty years. Her daughter, son in law, and grandchildren live with her. She’s had a few relationships, including one rather disastrous relationship with a fan who became a bit of a stalker. She recorded and released a new album a couple of years ago, appeared on television a bit, as well as stage events like Stockholm Pride.

Bjorn continues to live in Stockholm. He’s become a fairly outspoken figure on atheism in Sweden, as well as the move for a cashless society.

Benny continues to perform music regularly. You see him on Swedish TV two or three times a year. His children and grandchildren have mostly followed a musical career also.

Giant Dwarf Conversations Mixing Desk

Friday Night

“You know what’s wrong with the media?”, I said to my friend (and fellow media worker) when we met for dinner last night. “They’ve got no idea. I just went into the pub across the road and the barmaid said to me she was so happy Oscar Pistorius had been found guilty. ‘He thought he was fuckin OJ’, she said. And yet it wasn’t half way through the Channel 9 News, after stories about other stuff I can’t remember, and no one was paying any attention, until that story about Pistorius came on.”, I told her.

Over the course of an hour or so, we continued to dissect what was “wrong” with the media. It was fun, as we enjoyed our meal at Sydney’s legendary “Abduls”. For about $20 two people can eat a very tasty offering. It was a lovely get together ahead of a great night of story-telling by some wonderful people at Sydney’s Giant Dwarf.

Ellen Fanning, who I’ve LOVED for years, told an amazing story of an elderly aunt who, despite her prim, proper and “organised” demeanour, turned out to be a massive horder. Her aunt was one of those people who never threw anything out. And so when she died, Ellen and her sister were tasked with emptying out an apartment where things were stacked to the ceiling, and where there was literally no room to move. I think Ellen may have said she and her sister had to order eighteen of those large “skips” to deal with their aunts posessions. “Just bring one in the morning and one in the afternoon until we say stop” was the line I remember most from Ellen’s discussion at the end of year story-telling night for ABC Radio’s Conversations with Richard Fidler.

I also remember fondly Ignatious Jones’ story of his time with Jimmy and The Boys, Kate McClymont’s re-telling of her Andrew Olle Lecture, and Richard Fidler himself talking about great moments in heckling.

In particular, I remember Richard’s story about being with the Doug Anthony All-stars, and being heckled by a group of young university students. Though Richard didn’t name the university, I was actually in the crowd for that particular event. I can’t remember if it was 92 or 93, but it was Charles Sturt University in Wagga, and I was at their gig on a “first date” with a guy called Robert. Richard told the story of being heckled by a bunch of “aggies” (Agricultural Students) who were calling DAAS a bunch of poofters. “Are there any other poofters in the audience”, I remember Tim Ferguson saying. Without hesitation, Robert and I yelled out “yeah”.  I also remember vividly the heckling DAAS endured from a bunch of clearly fairly drunk students in the front row. In what was a beautiful moment of responding, I remember Tim or Paul cracking open a beer, and spraying it in the faces of the front row students. The students opened their mouths and “drank it in”.

So yeah, a wonderfully memorable night in 92/93 and last night at Giant Dwarf.

After a couple of after-show wines, we said good-bye.

And as I made my way home last night, I couldn’t help but notice the “gourmet” toffee apple shop on Cleveland Street, Surry Hills was still operating. Despite the closures of a number of restaurants and other shops in our area, the shop continues with a front window full of toffee apples. I’m guessing it’s because there’s no other competition in the market :)

Marty McCarthy and Bridget Brennan

Olle Scholars

“OMG, I was in a meeting the other week, and I realised I was one of the ‘older people’ in the room”, I told a colleague earlier tonight. “I was no longer ‘the bright young thing’. I was now the ‘older senior advisor'”, I added. “The same thing is happening in my family”, I told him. One day you’re “on your way up” and wondering where you’re next career move will be; the next day you’re thinking “retirement and superannuation”. One day you’re looking to older family members for advice, the next day younger family members are looking to you for advice. How did this happen?

I went to the Andrew Olle Media Lecture tonight, and was, once again (to my privilege) seated with the recipient(s) of the Andrew Olle Scolarship. It’s an internal ABC thing, where journalists “on the way up” are granted a one year scholarship to pursue their career dreams which may include periods working on programs like Four Corners, or even in a foreign bureau. Previous recipients have included people like Nick McKenzie, Brigid Glanville, Conor Duffy, James Glenday, and many people other you now hear on the radio, see on your television, or read in your newspaper. I feel privileged to have been on a number of panels who have chosen the recipients.

Tonight, this year’s co-recipients, Marty McCarthy and Bridget Brennan (pictured), along with last year’s recipient Elise Worthington, sat on our table. They’re all seriously impressive young people who will, undoubtedly, go on to fame and success either on your radio/tv/online, or behind the scenes. They’re all super-intelligent, and they’re on the way up, so keep your ears/eyes out for them.

On the eve of my fif… fiff….fiftieth birthday, and almost twenty years since Andrew Olle died (weeks away), it’s great to know there are lots of journalists coming up through the ranks who are passionate and engaged, and for whom journalism is not simply a case of “filling the whiteboard” (as we often say in media circles) with “somebody else’s PR fluff”.

Tonight’s Andrew Olle Media Lecture was given by Helen McCabe, current editor of “The Australian Women’s Weekly”. In her speech, she took aim at the NSW legislation which prevents media reports which identify children who have been abused or even killed. She said in her speech…

As Caroline Overington said in a 2009 speech: “When a child dies in NSW, you can’t name the parents. You can’t name the siblings. You can’t use any photographs. You can’t give away the address. You can’t say anything that would identify the child, even if the child is dead.” So if Luke Batty had died in NSW, we could not publish his name or photograph. We could not name Rosie Batty. All the important work she has done over the past 12 months would have been done anonymously or, as is more likely, wouldn’t have been done at all. Look, I don’t have the answers. And I am all for protecting children who are already victims, but the NSW laws, in particular, are crazy. Pixelated faces and redacted names are significant barriers to storytelling.

I wonder what the young journalists of today will be grappling with in twenty years time?

“When we’re demented and in nursing homes, these will be the young people running the place”, I whispered in the ear of my similarly-aged colleague tonight :)

And best of all is I’ll get to hang out with these young, inspiring people a little more in the next few months because… because… drum roll… our table won the lucky door prize: dinner for us all at Aria.

Double happiness.

Country Music

John Williamson, Pixie Jenkins, Warren H. Williams, James O'Brien at ABC Studio, Tamworth
John Williamson, Pixie Jenkins, Warren H. Williams, James O’Brien at ABC Studio, Tamworth

In the last couple of months I’ve begun to reacquaint myself with my love of country music. It’s taken me back to the days of regular visits to the Tamworth Country Music Festival, which are now more than a decade ago, as my radio career has taken me in a different, more city-based direction.

Despite my inner-city reputation, I actually know a fair bit about country music, and I have lots of great “special experts” to draw upon to supplement the areas in which my knowledge is a little short. Having grown up in Lismore, I grew up with a lot of country music. Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynnn and the like were the soundtrack to my youth. And then having lived in a number of other country towns, I learned a lot more. I visited the Tamworth Country Musical Festival several times, as well as other festivals like Barmera and Gympie, and there was was even one year where I was a judge for Tamworth. For me, country music, the authentic stuff (I was never into anything cheesy) has been a strong part of “who I am”.

But having worked in “capital city radio” over the last decade, my attention has been drawn away from country music until recently when my attention has been brought back on a few levels. And so I’ve been listening to a lot of country music over the last few weeks, and revisiting some wonderful “old friends”.

It wasn’t intended. It was something which came out of the re-structure of the ABC announced back in November. As a result of the changes, the people looking after “ABC Country” were made redundant, which meant responsibility for keeping the station on air fell with me. Realistically, there’s not a lot of work required, as the station operates pretty much as an automated playlist station without presenters.

That said, it’s important for it to remain contemporary, which means adding in new songs, and it’s important that it should sound like a radio station, and not someone’s ipod!

So I took it on, and was determined to achieve a few things. First, we’ve changed the station identifications which I hope bring a little more “life” to the sound, especially as they feature “real people” who are country fans. Second, we increased the amount of Indigenous performers on the station to include some wonderful new performers like Dewayne Everett-Smith, as well as classic performers like Roger Knox and The Mills Sisters. Third, we’ve increased the amount of Australian content from around 25% to about 70% at the moment. Fourth, we’ve introduced a new category of music called “classic country” which pays respect to some of the great performers of the past. And I have a great team of “volunteers” (country music fans within the ABC) as well as paying for some people with expertise in the area to help with the transformation. Honestly though, it’s been for LESS than the smell of an oily rag :)

And for me it’s been a real passion project, mostly done “out of hours”. I genuinely love listening to the station, and I’ve re-developed my passion for country music. I love it.

And with that in mind, I thought I’d share a few of my favourites I’ve discovered in the last few months…

And in case you’re wondering, I’ve even managed to sneak in a couple of Swedish tracks in, aas part of the desire to play more than just country from Nashville, but to feature performers from other countries also.

Oh, and one of my all-time favourites is by a Canadian singer-songwriter, Fred Eaglesmith, who I developed a major singer/songwriter crush on about a decade ago. I’ve met him a few times, have interviewed him a few times, and have seen him perform live. His songs display both a wonderful sensitivity, as well as a great sense of humour. This song, “Alcohol & Pills” is my all time favourite by Fred: telling the story of amazingly talented people whose lives were lost to alc…

Hank Williams, he came up from Montgomery
With his heart full of broken country songs
Nashville, Tennessee, didn’t really understand him
‘Cause he did things differently
Then the way that they were done
But when he finally made it to the Grand Ole Opry
He made it stand still
He ended up on alcohol and pills
Elvis Presley, he came up from Jackson
With a brand new way of singing, Lord
And a brand new way of dancing
And even from the waist up, Lord
He gave the world a thrill
He ended up on alcohol and pills
Alcohol and pills
It’s a crying shame
You’d think they might have been happy with
The glory and the fame
But fame doesn’t take away the pain
It just pays the bills
And you wind up on alcohol and pills
Janis Joplin, she was wild and reckless
And then there was Gram Parsons
And then there was Jimi Hendrix
The story just goes on and on
And I guess it always will
They ended up on alcohol and pills
Alcohol and pills
It’s a crying shame
You’d think they might have been happy with
The glory and the fame
But fame doesn’t take away the pain
It just pays the bills
And you wind up on alcohol and pills
Sometimes somebody
Just doesn’t wake up one day
Sometimes it’s a heart attack
Sometimes they just don’t say
They pulled poor old Hank Williams
Out of a Cadillac Coupe de Ville
He ended up on alcohol and pills
Alcohol and pills
It’s a crying shame
You’d think they might have been happy with
The glory and fame
But fame doesn’t take away the pain
It just pays the bills
And you wind up on alcohol and pills
And you wind up on alcohol and pills

Half My Life

A few months ago, you might recall, I made a post here about my twenty-five years of continuous service with the ABC.

The official employment offer letter states it was twenty five years today that I was offered a job at the ABC. I’d previously been employed at the community radio station at Bourke in Western NSW. I’d applied for a few ABC jobs during the previous six months. When the call came through from Don Bensted offering me the position, I actually had to ask him “for which job”. In reality, it didn’t matter much to me, as I’d long wanted to work for ABC Radio. I have a vague memory of finishing work in Bourke on a Wednesday or a Thursday, driving overnight via Broken Hill, and of arriving in Renmark on a Thursday or Friday afternoon. I’m pretty sure I went to air the following Monday, though it’s possible I had a few days to settle in. Twenty five years later and I’m still working for the ABC. Along the way, I’ve been the Morning Presenter in Wagga Wagga, the Statewide Afternoon and Drive presenter in NSW, and have acted in other jobs in Darwin, Perth, Canberra and Lismore. Ten years ago I made the switch from on-air presenter to Manager which wasn’t as traumatic as I thought it might be ego-wise. In a lovely piece of symmetry, I’m currently back in Regional Radio, working as the National Manager of our regional stations. I’ve had many great opportunities over the last twenty five years, and I continue to love working for a really terrific organisation. Win.

Today I received a medal which commemorates this moment in time.

At today’s “ceremony” I told the story of how I’d once dated a guy at work. A few years later, having broken up with him, I caught up with him and he asked if I still worked for the ABC. When I told him I did, he said, in a very negative tone “I always knew you’d be a lifer”. I told those attending I didn’t see it as a negative, even though in this modern world, it’s generally regarded as odd that you should work for the same organisation for such a long time. I told everyone I’d had so many wonderful opportunities to do so many different things, to live in many different parts of the country, and genuinely love my current job and the people I work with. Receiving the medal was a very proud moment for me, and something I’ll really treasure for many years to come. “It’s my Matthew Mitcham moment”, I joked.

Interesting fact: the medal was designed by Andor Meszaros who also designed the Olympic Commemoration Medallion for the Melbourne Olympics in 1956.

I received some lovely comments on social media and via email.

Sweet! Congrats to a great fella!

It’s when I are that gold I know I should have stayed on for a few years. (It is good, right?) well done Jimmi

Wow. 25 years. Congratulations James. You going for 50?

Late to this but nonetheless congrats. on your award. Segue to a sporting achievement, to wit the marathon, Minister O’Brien.

Fantastic! Do you get 25 weeks bonus leave as well?

Congrats James. The medal looks good!

I know you’re in another meeting otherwise I’d call but congratulations on your 25 years. I can’t imagine making that kind of milestone. It’s a tribute to your commitment not just to the ABC but also to the medium. The passion shows. Congratulations and enjoy the celebration. Tea and cake I presume.

Welcome to the club x

Congratulations on the medal of service to the Abc. Simon showed me the photo! Thanks for staying with the abc and enriching the lives of your audiences in NSW and beyond. I remember listening to you on NSW regs whilst visiting Byron Bay one year! Thanks for your hard work and support through the years – it really is appreciated! I hope the accompanying champas was delish!!