Interview: John Tyrrell (Bjorn Again)

Bjorn Again are an outfit that I have just discovered are much more than meets the eye. An ABBA tribute/parody band who have been wowing worldwide audiences for over 20 years and are getting ready to entertain Australian audiences again beginning in July. I was able to learn a little more about the phenomena in this interview.

Hi John, welcome to Beauty and Lace and thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

How was Bjorn Again founded, and how did you get your start?

It all started mid 1988 when a friend, Rod Woolley, and I were brainstorming ideas for a live band entertainment concept. We were both gigging musos in various bands and were simply bored with what was out there on the Melbourne live circuit at the time – both original bands and concept/cover acts. We wanted to try to inject something funny into the mix. We had lots of whacky ideas but when Rod suggested an ABBA parody I immediately thought, as a ‘proud cool muso’, what a terrible idea – but when Rod explained if we did it right and got the right people and did it as a tribute/parody, it may just ‘capture the imagination’ of the public so to speak.

Why an ABBA tribute?

Rod and I were far from ABBA fans (but we are now!) but at the time we felt there were quite a few reasons why ABBA would be the perfect vehicle for a fun live band. ABBA were by far the biggest act of the 70’s – just look at the stats:
– over 25 top ten global hits that everyone could sing and dance to instantly
– 2 boys and 2 girls – a blonde and a brunette, one with a beard
– 2 female singers, a guitarist and a boppy keyboard player
– who was with who, were they married or divorced?
– they were Swedish – just think of what we could do with those accents!
– many people thought their songs were simple ‘daggy’ pop songs, with meaningless lyrics
– classic 70’s video clips, we all remember the daggy clips with daggy closeups, dancing costumes, dancing, plots etc
– the fabulous glittery sparkly costumes that defined the 70’s
– the ongoing debate about whether they were good or not
– the dilemma about whether you could admit you liked them or not!
ABBA folded around 1982. They had had their time and pop music had changed and moved on. So in 1988, 6 years after they had disbanded, we thought it was the prefect time to resurrect ABBA, but not just as a tribute but with a healthy dose of parody, based on the above factors.

Can you explain a little about the parody side of it?

Just getting up on stage in all the glittery costumes, tight jumpsuits and copious amounts of blue eye shadow is a parody in itself – it is just funny for some reason – but when you add all the daggy dance moves and speaking in ‘Swenglish’ it is a parody on steroids! Some of the banter between the 2 ‘couples’ and to the audience has been hilarious. Things like Frida chastising Benny for looking at a girl in the front row in a way she didn’t like, or Benny pretending to be ‘rock god’ when he really isn’t, or whining about how tight his pants are.
There are many examples but my favourite is what happened at The Reading festival in 1992. This is the UK’s biggest grunge festival and in 1992 the head act was Nirvana. They were in fact huge fans of BA and had threatened the concert promoter that if Bjorn Again weren’t added to the bill they wouldn’t turn up – but that is another story!
Anyway, the girls had left the stage half way through the show to do their main costume change. The boys quietly said to the 60,000 strong crowd, in ‘Swenglish’: ‘Gee Bjorn – the girls have left the stage what do you want to do? Well Benny I think it is time we broke the shackles from the girls and played some proper music for a change. Not this lovey dovey soppy stuff we always have to play. But will we get into trouble Bjorn? Oh it doesn’t matter – let’s be bold. Ok Reading – would you like some rock and roll!’ The crowd went nuts. The band launches into ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, with the members of Nirvana sidestage, and the whole crowd starts moshing, an awesome sight. When the girls return, they say “What has been going on here?” The guys say, “Nothing dear” and carry in with Money Money Money as if nothing had happened. It was brilliant parody at work.

Rod and I are the type of guys who want to make a statement about popular culture and social behavior, and we feel that in this case with our ABBA show, that parody is the best and most entertaining way to do this. By the way, we never set out to do this as a money-making venture, it was all about having a bit of fun. And as someone said to me recently: “That’s why Bjorn Again has been so successful. It had the right motivation”.


What has been your career highlight to date?

We have done over 7000 shows across 90 countries – so it is hard to pick! But some are playing at the IPL Cricket in Mumbia 2010 with Lionel Richie, playing Money Money Money to Bill Gates at a Microsoft function in LA, and playing on Swedish TV show a few years ago where Agnetha was the Special Guest and she danced to us playing ‘Dancing Queen’! Wow. But actually the band meeting Benny and Bjorn in Stockholm in 1992 has to be the highlight for me. They were very friendly but kept asking ‘You are all excellent performers, so why copy us – why don’t you write your own music?’ We said ‘ But it’s nowhere as good as your music!!!!’

If you had to pick a favourite venue to play, which would it be?

Again that is too hard to answer – The Royal Albert Hall, Wembley Stadium (when we supported The Spice Girls in ’98) and The Sydney Opera House come to mind – but if I had to say 1 gig it would be our annual run of shows at The Taronga Zoo Sydney Twilight Concerts – one look at the photo (attached) and you can see why.

How has the show evolved over the decades?

Great question! In terms of ‘evolving’ – we have always kept working at mastering the songs as we have always felt that that is the most important thing – like a duty of care to properly reproduce these great songs, especially when everyone knows how these songs should sound! So getting the vocals and music bang on is paramount to us and we are always working at it. We listen to recordings and videos of our shows constantly and spot areas where we can improve – harmonies, musicianship, sounds etc. As the world’s No 1 ABBA show we feel a duty to do it as best as we can, and I think we do!

But we feel the show has changed in another way over the years. Bjorn Again started out in 1988 as a pub/club rock type act – as that was the type of people we were and who we wanted to appeal to. So we were almost always playing at stand up pub/club gigs like say Cold Chisel would do on tour and the punters would go hard.
But we soon realized that we actually had a bigger audience, perhaps the widest possible audience demographic of any band – young/old, male/female, gay/straight, i.e. to anyone, of any type, anywhere in the world! So we started playing theatres and concert halls, and playing at corporate events and conferences etc – and had to adapt the show to become more theatrical, with sets, different song arrangements, adding different musicians, and altering the parody style to suit. We can revert to any style show when the need arises.
When Mamma Mia the Movie came out in 2009, it created a new generation of very young fans. When ‘60 Minutes’ did a feature on us at the time, Liz Hayes could not believe that there were kids as young as 2 in the audience (State Theatre Sydney), with their older sisters, mums, aunts and grannies all at the same gig having the best time. She commented on how rare this is.
I often say that BA is the only band in the world who could play for a bunch of kindergarten kids and also on the main stage at Glastonbury!

Do you make many changes to the setlist, and how often?

Yes we do, according to the type of tour we do, what country we are playing in as hits change from country to country, and who the audience is. Remember that half our gigs are private corporate events and parties. We still have to play all the biggest hits so we can only change a few songs here or there or we’ll get lynched! And the die hard ABBA fans have always wanted the lesser known hits but that is not what we are about – we are more a parody than a tribute!

Why do you think your show appeals to such a diverse audience, over so many demographics and musical tastes?

It’s all down to the music! All the other factors like costumes, dancing, reminiscing etc has a significant bearing but are a distant second. The music has been written and produced in such a way that it has mass appeal. It just sounds great, is very catchy and appeals to all the senses. I just say it is very interesting music. Incredible vocals and layered harmonies, lots of different instruments and sounds but mainly guitars, piano and synths, which Benny pioneered, and a great fat drum and bass sound providing the foundation. Everything is in its place and it just sounds great.
Many have tried to analyse the reasons why ABBA music has had such great global appeal – but even Benny and Bjorn don’t know why and can’t explain it.

What can those who attend the upcoming Australian shows expect from the show?

Everyone knows that they will be treated to the one of the best tribute shows in the world playing music they know and love, and can sing and dance all night. Yes there will be some ‘surprises’ as all bands say when they have run out of ideas. But there is more to it with Bjorn Again.
What they won’t expect is that they will be hypnotised for 2 hours. They will be taken back to the times when everything was bright, colorful glittery and sparkly, upbeat and positive – and most of all fun. They will have no choice but to escape from everyday chores and woes. This is what the 70’s and ABBA was all about. After the show, when they come out of the trance, they will realize that they did things they thought they probably shouldn’t have done – i.e. dress up in white satin, platform shoes and tight slacks, in wigs and blue eye shadow. Should they have sung at the tops of their voices in public when they are normally banished to the shower. Maybe they shouldn’t have embraced the group of guys next to them or sung back to back with the complete strangers in row G. They will realize they had waved their arms in Fernando and had cried in The Winner Takes It All. Maybe they reflected on their own relationship during SOS “Where are those happy days they seem so hard to find”. Maybe the words of Knowing Me Knowing You touched a nerve. Maybe they over-joyously sung their hearts out in Dancing Queen. Maybe they pretend-dialled a phone in ‘Ring Ring’. Or maybe they were taken back to the days of Molly on Countdown when Fernando was No 1 for 16 weeks! Yes – I confess – I did go to an ABBA show – but gee – as in the words of Dancing Queen – I DID have the TIME OF MY LIFE.
What people don’t get is that a Bjorn Again show is as much about the audience as it is what the band do on stage or tell media what fans should expect from the show or tour. Those who have been to a BA show and keep coming back – get all this. They get that it has a broad range of appeal to many emotions.
Those who haven’t seen a BA show assume it is just a bunch of people dressing up putting on an ABBA show – well it is much deeper than that, and they are underestimating what it is all about. I say COME TO A BJORN AGAIN show and see why this band is the most successful cover band or tribute band ever, has toured the world to critical acclaim and is actually endorsed by the real ABBA:

“ABBA fans had better see Bjorn Again as they are the next best thing. ABBA will NEVER reform” – Benny Andersson, Capital Radio London 1999

Come see BJORN AGAIN and maybe you could be BORN AGAIN!

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