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Tour Spotlight: Bjorn Again founder John Tyrrell

Wednesday 31 July 2013

Tour Spotlight: Bjorn Again founder John Tyrrell

John Tyrrell speaks candidly on the band’s first ever gig at Melbourne’s Tote, how Nirvana exhausted their merch supply, performing for Vladimir Putin, why some bands have tried to get them thrown off festival bills and why we can thank Spinal Tap for Bjorn Again’s formation.

On authenticity…

We pay a lot of attention to detail, so Rod (Stephen) and I who started it we said if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it properly. We never envisioned that it would be like a worldwide touring concert act. We all had day jobs, it was just a bit of fun, I think Rod was more interested in the auditioning process (laughs) when all the hot girls turned up! It wasn’t very entrepreneurial at the start, we thought oh maybe we’ll get a couple of gigs and it’ll be a bit of a laugh, it wasn’t a money-making venture.

But having said that, we said if we’re going to do it all, let’s get all the costumes right, let’s nail this, let’s rehearse like mad to get the music right, the harmonies right, the vocals right, the instrumentation, let’s script it. You can’t just do it in a mocking way and do it haphazardly, because it wouldn’t have worked. For it to be funny, you’ve got to have a strong foundation for what you’re doing, the better you do it the funnier it is. We spent a lot of time getting all that right with a great group of people who had a sense of humour, and it was really like a bar and club type of band, it was never a sit down theatre type show.

As we’ve gone on and our audiences got older, it changed into a theatre show, we hadn’t done a theatre show in the first five years, it was all stand up, everyone just gets smashed and just enjoys it. It was people in their early twenties who had grown up with ABBA and were now going out to bars and clubs, it was sort of like an indie, alternative grungey act to start off with.

The way we’ve sustained it is quality and promotion, only dealing with the right promoters. Once it started taking off we decided to manage it as if it was a leading, touring international act. You can imagine TV and radio stations wanting us to do silly things, now I would just pretend we were U2 or Pearl Jam or something and say ‘no, we’re not doing that’ (laughs). Saying no gave us the longevity. People would say oh we’ve got this Swedish single let’s get Bjorn Again to perform on the side and I’d think ‘well ABBA wouldn’t have done that, so bugger off!’ From the management side we had great lawyers, accountants and a really good team, in the UK we were getting people who had worked with Queen and these sort of legendary bands. When people come to see it and think it’s just a couple of people chucking wigs on and off they go, it’s nothing like that.

On Bjorn Again’s first show at Melbourne’s Tote Hotel…

In the half an hour before going onstage we were absolutely cacking our daks. There were no tribute bands around then that I can even remember, there was the odd Elvis impersonator and maybe a Beatles band but that was it. We had a lot of stick leading up to it from the media. Up until then you had cover bands playing everything in the top 40 but because we got a lot of stick, we thought ‘hang on, there’s something to this.’ ABBA was such a contentious act in the ‘70s, whether you liked them, whether you thought they were just cheesy pop, so we got on the stage and they went absolutely nuts. We were more blown away by the audience reaction and we were mobbed afterwards. We did the Swedish accent and explained that Volvo sales were down and the King of Sweden called us to get the band back together (laughs).

On turning it up to eleven…

It was actually based on Spinal Tap. One day Rod said ‘what if we did an ABBA show but a Spinal Tap version?’ We weren’t actually ABBA fans, we went through ABBA in the ‘70s and could understand what was going on, and could relate to it so we were the perfect guys – we were blockheads really. Most ABBA bands are started by real ABBA fans and they can’t interpret it correctly I think, they’ll do all the B sides and the songs that they love, rather than Dancing Queen and Money Money Money. All the spiel and what we do in the show is really pantomime and it picks up on the Spinal Tap stuff. 

On winning over Nirvana…

In the middle of the show we do a costume change, so the girls go off and Benny and Bjorn and the bass player are left onstage. Bjorn says ‘that gives us some time to play some proper music’. We’re always trying to think of the absolute opposite of an ABBA song so in the early days we did Smells Like Teen Spirit. We’d do that and the whole crowd would be going nuts and moshing. Then the girls would come back and say ‘what’s been going on here?’ and Benny would say ‘nothing dear,’ and they’d play Money Money Money.

Years before the Reading Festival in ’92, Nirvana came to our show in Melbourne, and five minutes after setting up the merch girl came over to us and we said ‘what are you doing here?’ she said ‘these guys, these rockers bought all our merch!’ T-shirts, posters, stickers, pens. I said ‘who are they?’ she said ‘some band called Nirvana from Seattle’. Chris and Kurt became really big fans of Bjorn Again and when they were headlining Reading they rang the promoter and said ‘if you don’t add Bjorn Again to the bill we’re not setting up.’

One of the girls in Bjorn Again later found a photo that someone took of the room where Kurt committed suicide and there’s a Bjorn Again poster in there. That’s just spooky as hell.

Now whenever the Foo Fighters are playing Dave gives us tickets. It’s funny, after one of the shows at Rod Laver some of the band were there and you can imagine in the Green Room there’s industry folk and hangers-on and the tour manager came out and said ‘John, come through’. I remember Gudinski giving me the look of hell. So we went in there and had a pizza, he’s almost like a stalker. He’s a big fan and in his book we’re on page 106 or 108. It’s such a strange thing. A couple of months after Kurt died we were playing in Seattle and we saw Dave and Chris come in, they made sure they got a message to our crew: ‘they just want to make sure you play Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ They hung out with us in the band room for a couple of hours. It was sort of eerie, they were visibly upset.

I remember Dave saying – this is when we were in New York – he said ‘is there any chance I can sit in for Dancing Queen?’ I said ‘no problems but I’ve got to sit in for Teen Spirit with Nirvana’. He said ‘oh, I don’t know if that’s gonna happen, I don’t know if that’s right.’ When he got married he wanted us to play at his wedding but we were in the middle of sold out tours. He’s the sweetest guy, he really is.

Once we surfaced and ABBA Gold came out in ’92 and there was this massive revival, the whole journalistic world were thinking ‘did we get ABBA wrong in the ‘70s?’ This whole analysis went on and all these famous people started coming out of the closet. Robert Plant came to a show, U2 got Bjorn Again onstage in the ‘90s and Bono said ‘we are not worthy’. Then Muriel’s Wedding came out and Priscilla and Mama Mia the musical – and then the movie, which is pretty terrible.

On ABBA’s nod of approval…

We’re the only entity that can use the ABBA songs in radio and TV ads, to the whole world it’s a blanket no, and for us it’s yes. They were offered a billion dollars to reform and do 100 shows in ’98, Benny came out and started to do some press and said ‘we’re never going to reform, see Bjorn Again it’s the next best thing.’ When we heard that on radio we were jumping around like nutters.

We’ve met them a couple of times. There’s an Australasian, American, and a UK Bjorn Again and when the UK group appeared on a TV show in Sweden a couple years ago and when the band got there they found out that Agnetha was a guest on the show. So when they played Dancing Queen she was dancing in front of the band. It’s just incredible.

In ’92 Benny said to us ‘we feel an ABBA revival was inevitable but Bjorn Again certainly initiated it.’ I don’t care what the industry or the media worldwide say, when it comes from him, I’ll take that. Wherever we go the ABBA record companies say the record sales go up or ABBA Gold goes back into the charts. When fans see Bjorn Again posters and TV ads for the tours, it just ignites it again. I’ll never say we help ABBA, we’re a very grounded outfit, we still think ‘is the bubble going to burst?’ we thought that after The Tote.

When we met Benny and Bjorn they said ‘there’s one thing we don’t get. Why don’t you write your own music?’ My business partner Rod, who’s the bass player said ‘but our music’s crap compared to yours.

On performing for Vladimir Putin…

Half our work is private, private corporate events, fundraisers, the odd wedding. We were told it was a corporate gig in Russia for a businessman. Usually we’re not told the kind of gig, I get told and it’s very secret between me and the booker. The band flew from London to Moscow, they weren’t told it was an eight hour drive in the snow so they were pretty grumpy when they got there. They went to this mansion with security everywhere, they’ve got this big club, which is part of this mansion. We have a technical rider but the crew noticed everything was brand new. The crew had to unload all this brand new gear and just after sound check they noticed they’d put a screen up 15 meters from the stage. They were told ‘they’re very private people and there will only be a small number of people and they’ll stand behind the see through, gauze screen. I think they counted six people behind the screen. Finished the show, didn’t meet them, got on the bus and someone from the client came back and said ‘thanks guys, client’s very happy. I just need to tell you that was Vladimir Putin.’ He said it would be denied by the Kremlin and denied by the government.

You start off with very humble beginnings at The Tote and you build to playing Russel Crowe’s wedding and playing Money Money Money to Bill Gates and a show for Rowan Atkinson and I think all the festival’s as well, it’s a spin out.

On breaking the festival market…

Some bands won’t play at festival’s if we’re on the bill. I could name some names but I’m not going to. I think they’re just pathetic people. There’s a couple of Australian band and a couple of overseas bands. I left messages with their manager because they were trying to get us off the bill. I said ‘you are pathetic, get a grip guys.’ 

I remember in the early ‘90s when Simply Red was huge, and they wanted us to support them and we actually said no. Mick Hucknell was actually a fan of the band and we said ‘no, we actually don’t want to be seen as a support band.’ We’ve probably done 100 countries and 7000 shows or something like that, and we’ve never done a dud show. We can play in India, or Russia or China and they all just love ABBA. We could play at the top of Mount Everest and there’d be ABBA fans there.


For full tour details head to the official website.