01 May 2016

Archie Does ABBA (Part Two)


The Pop Culture Cantina presents
Yet Another Cartoons + Castanets Production!
Archie in Berlin
Vamping the 1920s and Getting Back to
by DC Hampton Jacobs


Pop Art Images of Archie Comics characters
drawn by Stuffed Animal
Cartoon Cameo Appearances by
Björn and Frida of ABBA
with Garth Brooks, Sheila E, Sutton Foster, Mick Jagger, John Legend, Yo Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis, Audra McDonald, Paul Sabu, Trisha Yearwood
and Nero the Dog
featuring the music of
Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus
Additional Lyrics by Stig Anderson


In 1967, Archie Comics put the characters Archie, Jughead and Reggie together in a band called The Archies.  They were originally a parody of The Monkees (who were conceived as a parody of The Beatles)!  One year later, a New York studio group borrowed their name for recording purposes.  By the time these real-life Archies stopped recording in 1972, they'd amassed several best-sellers.  First among them was "Sugar, Sugar", a massive international best-seller; the song has since become a Pop/Rock standard.  The Pop Culture Cantina credits its imaginary version of the band with the same string of Top Forty hits.


Our version of The Archies has evolved into a superstar group in the mold of Fleetwood Mac! Archie and Veronica are married, as are Jughead and Betty.  Reggie left the group in 2013 to form a Tejano act with his Mexican girlfriend; his replacement, Trevor Smith, is the brother of Val Smith, lead singer of Josie + The Pussy Cats.  Between the years 2002 and 2013, The Archies scored one Platinum album after another; but their latest LP, a tribute to Jazz singer Ella Mae Morse, was a resounding flop!  Veronica, their producer, and Big Nipsy Freund, their manager, are on the hunt for a musical project that will put them back on top.


In the late summer of 2014, that project comes knocking at their door.  Famed Swedish composer, producer and ABBA founding member Björn Ulvaeus has a project in mind: Dude wants to record Heavy Metal versions of his iconic Pop hits!  Björn has his eye on HM's newest icon, Kevin Keller; but Roni convinces him to let Kevin and The Archies do the project together.  Naturally, she produces both acts. Archie, Veronica, Betty, Jughead, Trevor and Kevin fly to Germany in August; at Berlin's famous Hansa Tonstudio, they begin cutting their ABBA tribute album. Mick Jagger, Wynton Marsalis, John Legend and numerous other celebrities drop in on the recording sessions, with some contributing their musical talents. With arranger Justin Strickland, the band sets about re-inventing the ABBA sound and revealing an edgier side of itself. Playbacks leave them elated: Who knew The Archies could rock harder than Metallica? But not so fast! Maybe Björn Ulvaeus doesn't like what he hears.


Betty and Jughead's duet vocals on "Knowing Me, Knowing You" are nothing less than superb. Definitely a highlight of the album! On "Voulez-Vous", Jughead and Trevor Smith duet over an exciting dance track dominated by Sheila E's percolating percussion.

By 2014, it was widely acknowledged that Betty and Juggy Jones were The Archies' most gifted singers.  They seldom sang together, though.  Arranger Justin Strickland wanted to change that: At Stricks' request, the couple performed his arrangement of "Knowing Me, Knowing You" as a duet. Much to everyone's surprise, the tracking sessions were difficult!  Husband and wife were visibly uncomfortable with each other.  Things got so tense, at one point Betty snapped: "Don't stand so f*cking close to me!"  No one but The Joneses understood what the problem was: That the lyrics of Benny and Bjorn's famous break-up ballad described exactly how their marriage was crumbling! Knowing me, knowing you/There is nothing we can do/We just have to face it/This time, we're through.*  The words were excruciatingly painful for them to sing.  Even so, Betty and Juggy's duet was magnificent; after the final take was captured, the control room crew burst into applause!


Almost from the minute their plane touched down at Tegel Airport, there was speculation about The Archies playing a concert in Berlin. Popular demand for a show started building, and it grew stronger every day. "Tough t*tty," sniffed Veronica. "What, do they think we're on tour?  We're not doing any charity shows right now, either." However, the requests for a live appearance became so numerous, Archie finally said: "We've got to do something for these German fans!" What he had in mind was a surprise free concert:  He and The Archies' manager, Big Nipsy, put their heads together and set one up.


The first week of October, word spread like wildfire across Berlin: The band would make an unannounced weekend appearance at a biergarten! The venue turned out to be Golgotha, located in Viktoria Park. When The Archies arrived, an enormous crowd was waiting for them.  "Holy scheisse!" Kevin Keller exclaimed. "Did we fall up at a German Woodstock or something?" A deafening roar of approval went up as the band took the stage. With Roni and Kelly singing most of the leads, they tried out their new Abba repertoire: "Waterloo," "Mamma Mia", "S-O-S" and "Dancing Queen". From the very first verse (My, my!/At Waterloo/Napoleon did surrender*), the crowd was on its feet, jumping and screaming!  The Archies also performed "Jet Airliner", "Let's Get It On Today", "Glitter And Gold" and "People Got To Be Free" (a showcase for Blue-Eyed Soul, AKA Jughead and Kevin Keller singing as a duo). Then they did a German translation of The Beatles' "Drive My Car" which drove the audience wild! Their grand finale was, of course, "Sugar, Sugar."  Berliners would be raving about this show for years to come; and there'd be a second surprise concert before the group left town.

There's no truth to the rumor that The Archies recorded ABBA's "King Kong Song", "Happy Hawaii" or "Bang-A-Boomerang"! Those titles were not even under consideration.  However, the band did attempt to record "So Long", one of ABBA's early European hits.

While recording in Berlin, The Archies also took part in a TV special: A German version of the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. This was the video project mentioned earlier.  On Christmas Eve, the Star-Deutsch cable network televised the lavish production live. Sutton Foster, star of the original Broadway show, reprised her career-making role of Millie. Multiple Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald appeared as Muzzy, her future mother-in-law. Veronica, Betty and Kevin had small speaking parts, and they appreciated Audra's help with German pronunciation; a native of Berlin, she was fluent in the language.  Also in the cast was a certain Princess Reuss von Plauen: Frida from ABBA! Fabulous Frida had a cameo role as a glamorous wedding guest. The Archies were thrilled to meet her and honored to learn that she was a fan. "We all loved 'Sugar, Sugar'," she revealed. "It was so close to our music style, Agnetha and I actually mistook it for one of Benny and Björn's songs!" Frida gave her blessing to their ABBA tribute, but had a warning to share: "Working with Björn can be very demanding!"  Archie laughed:  "Ain't it the truth?  We already know what you mean."


In "Thoroughly Modern Millie", The Archies portrayed a Dixieland band. One of their performances in the show was the "Millie" theme song, written by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen for the 1967 film version.  During their ABBA album sessions, the group cut a Spanish version which will stay unreleased for many years; eventually, the Trevor Smith-led novelty surfaces on a 2096 Vox Benelux compilation. More about that later!  The "remixed" costumes The Archies wore on camera (vintage 1920s fashions rendered in 1970s Day-Glo colors) did double duty: They also appeared in photos taken for their album sleeve. Those prints, processed in an approximation of two-strip Technicolor, will cause a sensation a century from now: Millions of teenagers will cop the band's faux-twenties look, sporting "bobbed" hair, cloche hats, pleated miniskirts, saddle shoes and calf-hugging plus-fours.

Toni Topaz flies into Berlin to cut a special guest lead vocal on The Archies' remake of "Waterloo." Babe is sensational! Veronica and Betty each take a verse of "Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)". Roni's soprano and Betty's alto voice don't blend terribly well, so Kevin Keller sings with them on the choruses; his golden tenor is the magic ingredient that makes the track soar!

Playbacks generated a lot of excitement: "We sound like a gang of kick-ass bikers!" Betty giggled. "But there's a sweetness in there, too.  Somehow, the combination works." Arch winced at the mention of sweetness, but Roni couldn't have been more pleased.  "The world is going to hear ABBA's music in a whole new way," she predicted, "and they're going eat it up!  Our voices are just what Benny and Björn's songs needed to bring them up to date."  Actually, the opposite was true! Coming off a massive commercial failure (the aforementioned Jazz album Jump Back, Honey!), the group needed a surefire hit record to bounce back with. Archie's musical tastes notwithstanding, the ABBA project seemed like a godsend. Unfortunately, the sessions were fraught with conflict from day one.  When Björn Ulvaeus and Veronica Lodge-Andrews clashed, it was nothing less than a case of irresistible force meeting immovable object!


Although Kevin Keller's voice was heard on every song, he only sang lead on one: "Fernando". Björn wasn't pleased!  "Wasn't Kevin supposed to be the featured vocalist?" he fumed.  Veronica countered: "I've got a studio full of strong singers, including myself. Do you think I'm going to waste all that talent?" Dude had second thoughts about his Heavy Metal concept, too. He began pressuring Roni to make the tracks sound more like ABBA. She refused, and that's where the trouble really started: The two strong-willed musicians squared off and spat at each other like alley cats! Swedish profanity filled the air (with Roni's Scandinavian curses delivered in her familiar Kentucky twang).  Vexed almost to the point of violence, Björn stormed out of the session for "Ring Ring"! A worried Archie thought: "Uh-oh . . . now the sh*t's really going to hit the fan." And he wasn't wrong!

"Does Your Mother Know?" features Jughead and Trevor's unison singing over sizzling guitar tracks played by Archie and special guest Paul Sabu. Veronica steps up to the mike again for "Ring Ring". With Björn Ulvaeus attempting to direct her from the control room, she finds the record date nerve-wracking!


By the final tracking session, Polar Music had withdrawn its support (and funding) from the project. The Archies began cutting a single, a cover of the early ABBA rocker "So Long!"  Given the deteriorating situation, though, they no longer felt comfortable working at Hansa Tonstudio. The band returned to its home base in Mamaroneck, New York, where it planned to reconvene at Archie Sound Studios; but upon arrival, Arch and Roni found an injunction waiting for them.  Björn Ulvaeus had taken legal action to block the album's release! Predictably, Veronica was furious. Babe was itching to sue, but Archie talked her down: "Let it go, honeypot.  I understand how you feel; but right now, we don't want the kind of publicity a lawsuit would bring."


The Lodge-Andrews had good reason to avoid adverse publicity: The impending sale of their indie record label. While cutting the new album, they were quietly negotiating with billionaire Jason Blossom. The notorious merger king had been after Archie Records for years, but he found that Veronica drove a hella hard-ass bargain! Several times, Jason barged out of meetings with her vowing never to return; but they finally struck a deal in late November 2014. Perhaps unwisely, Roni, Arch and co-owner Alan Mayberry decided not to break the news in Berlin; instead, they waited until The Archies were back in the USA. All of the label's artists were summoned to a company meeting: In attendance were Josie + The Pussy Cats, Toni Topaz, The Archies and Kevin Keller.  Reggie Mantle and his new partner Olga San Quentín were absent, but they heard about the dust-up later that same day.

"The Name Of The Game" is Betty's big ballad showcase; Justin Strickland outdoes himself writing the Heavy Metal arrangement. The live recording of "Mamma Mia" features the group singing hearty unison vocals. The  Archies' rooftop concert was unauthorized, and Berlin's Landespolizei arrested them for disturbing the peace; even so, the arresting officers couldn't help praising the quality of their performance!


Not to put too fine a point on it, but the meeting was a hot mess! Most of the assembled knew Jason Blossom from high school, more than long enough to develop a deep dislike for him! Kelly snarled: "F*ck me if I ever go to work for that skinhead perv.  Dude used to squeeze my nuts in the shower!" Juggy summed up the general attitude: "JB is a stoned assh*le, and he was an assh*le long before he started gobbling up companies and firing people en masse. You think we'd agree to record for him? WTF are you smoking?" Archie and Veronica sat uncomfortably at the big conference table, watching while their artist roster and possibly several friendships went up in smoke!  Over the next year, all the artists signed with other labels.  The friendships survived, but not without repercussions: The Archies went on extended hiatus, a period that ended up lasting fifteen long years!


Archie had nothing but bitter memories about ABBA-Normality; somewhat unfairly, he considered it an album that nearly destroyed The Archies. Betty and Jughead didn't have fond memories of it, either, since they separated while it was being recorded. As for Kevin Keller and Trevor Smith, they never talked about it afterwards.  Veronica was the only one who ever mentioned it. She spoke wistfully of the aborted project, and in fact, she likened it to losing a child: "That was one of our musical miscarriages!  The first was Stoned Love, a neo-Soul album we cut for Don Kirshner in 1992.  Abba-Normality was the second."  Having paid for the recording sessions, Polar Music felt justified in taking possession of the tapes; Arch and Roni never made any attempt to reclaim them.  That album master is going to lay in the ABBA archives for nearly 100 years!


In the 2070s, a phenomenon called Archiemania will sweep the globe.  It will make The Archies every bit as legendary a group as ABBA!  The commercial potential of linking two legends isn't lost on executives at Vox Sound + Image.  In the year 2096, Vox (inheritors of the Archie Records catalog) will persuade the ABBA Organization to license three tracks from the unreleased album.  Spanish-language versions of "Waterloo", "Fernando" and "Knowing Me, Knowing You" appear on Archie Around The World, a Vox Benelux compilation of multi-lingual rarities.  When it cracks the Pan-European Top Ten, the popularity of those three tracks in particular will heighten interest in Abba-Normality.  Fans become obsessed with the album:  False rumors about an impending release will circulate for 18 years!  Finally, lawyers for the Vox and ABBA companies agree to terms, and a firm release date is set for Summer 2114.


Naturally, the ABBA Organization feels obliged to explain why it took a century to approve the album's release.  "Björn Ulvaeus did change his mind about Heavy Metal being a proper vehicle for ABBA's music," archivist Inga Fassbinder will confirm in a press release. "But even so, he let it be known that he loved how The Archies sang his hits. Björn thought Jughead and Betty were superb interpreters, as good or better than Kevin Keller.  He even liked Veronica's singing; he said it reminded him of Agnetha." Upon its belated marketing, ABBA-Normality will top charts in sixteen countries!  The album meets with near-universal acclaim and monster sales.

Accordingly, The Archies will rule the 2115 Grammy Awards: Record Of The Year ("Waterloo", Toni Topaz's vocal tour-de-force)! Album of The Year! Song of The Year ("The Name Of The Game") and Best Pop Vocal Performance By A Duo/Group ("Knowing Me, Knowing You").  Aside from a 2009 Grammy nomination for "Jet Airliner", these posthumous trophies will be the group's only recognition from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.  NARAS' negligence during their stellar career bordered on criminal; but sales figures are the best revenge! By the year 2120, Abba-Normality will have gone quadruple-Platinum.  Its success lands Archie and his bandmates in rarefied company: With The Beatles, Madonna, Michael Jackson and Elvis!  Needless to say, the Archies album that got away ends up being their biggest ever.

Per Björn Ulvaeus' wishes, Kevin Keller sings prominent harmony on every selection from ABBA-Normality. When he and Veronica sing together, they sound more like ABBA than ABBA! Kelly works his lead vocal magic on "Fernando", and Wynton Marsalis' incandescent trumpet solo complements his voice beautifully.


Ironically, the ABBA-Normality recording sessions have more surviving photo documentation than any other Archies studio date. The rare candids seen here will be found among the effects of the late Nickolas Freund. Big Nipsy was born in Berlin; elated to be back home, he celebrated by purchasing an expensive German Smartphone. The Archies' manager snapped photo after photo at the Hansa sessions as well as on the set of "Thoroughly Modern Millie". Either dude was an exceptional photographer, or that Smartphone was worth every Euro he paid for it!


Big Nipsy's snapshots will appear in a deluxe photo booklet bound into the sleeve of ABBA-Normality's vinyl version. Consider yourself lucky to see this one-time-only preview: The rest of the world won't see these pictures until the year 2114! By then, Archie Andrews and his musical mates will have been dead for over forty years.  Their phenomenal musical legacy will first be carried on by The New Archies and then by . . . ah, but that's a tale yet to be told.


*Excerpts from "Waterloo" and "Knowing Me, Knowing You", 
words and music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, additional lyrics by Stig Anderson.  © Copyright Universal Music Publishing Group/EMI Grove Park Music (ASCAP/BMI).  For the complete track listing of ABBA-Normality and other Archies albums both real and imaginary, visit Archie's Album Cover Gallery, Pages One, Two and Three.

This short story is dedicated to all of my fellow homeless artists.  We struggle to practice our craft against near-insurmountable odds. ABBA-Normality is a small example of what our unquenchable spirits are capable of. We are the only ones who really know what it means to "suffer for your art" . . . ist es nicht die warheit?  Jawohl.