In December 2008, I was proud to do an interview with the Argentinean couple Mary & Buddy McCluskey who translated the lyrics of several ABBA songs into Spanish. For the very first time, you will get to hear some anecdotes about the process of writing the Spanish lyrics and how it was to work with ABBA in the studio.
Buddy McCluskey: We started in the music business many years ago. At first, I had a vocal group called Los Mac Ke Mac’s. Then I worked as a musical director on TV and started to write lyrics with Mary. The first task was to translate the great musical Irma la Douce into Spanish. Then we started to work with different international artists such as Barry Manilow and Jermaine Jackson (Michael’s brother), to name a few. In Europe, we worked with well-known artists such as Bucks Fizz, ABBA and Tomas Ledin. In Latin America, we have worked with Roberto Carlos for 30 years, recording in New York or Rio de Janeiro.
We had heard something about ABBA, but they were not known in this part of the continent. I remember, one day I saw a big ABBA poster at the RCA offices in Brazil, and it shocked me a lot. In Brazil, the ABBA sales were doing ok. At that point, I thought for the first time that it would be great to contact them some day.
It was 1978 when Mary and I were in Miami for a convention, and we met Stig Anderson by chance. I was working at that time for CBS Records. Stig asked me, "Why do ABBA not sell in Latin America?" ABBA’s first records had been released, but they did not sell well.
I answered, "The point is that they have not recorded in Spanish."
Stig replied, "Well, we are Swedish people and have never recorded in Swedish - we just record in English."
We explained to him that Sweden had a population of eight million people while in the Spanish-speaking countries there were 200 million.
Stig thought about it for a while and said, "Ok, you are Roberto Carlos’s lyricists, so you could do the same for us."
We said, "Of course! When we find an interesting song to translate into Spanish, we are going to do it!"
We returned to Buenos Aires. I transferred from CBS to RCA Records. They had all the rights for Latin America. Suddenly a good song appeared, and we realized it had great potential for being sung in Spanish. It was Chiquitita that had been performed at the UNICEF gala. I called Stig Anderson in Sweden, and he said, "Ok, let’s do it!" At that time, January 1979, we were staying in Pinamar, a wonderful place in Argentina. It was there that we wrote Chiquitita by the beach. The next day we flew to Stockholm. At Polar Studios, we met Stig Anderson, Michael Tretow, Görel and, of course, ABBA. Finally, RCA Records released the single in Spanish-speaking countries, and it went to No.1. Columbia Records released it in the USA, and it also became a hit for Columbia Records Spain. After this success, we thought there should be a second single at least, perhaps even an LP.
Mary McCluskey: The recording sessions were very special. Agnetha and Frida did not speak Spanish at all. We had sent the lyrics to them earlier, and they had worked on the pronunciation with a journalist named Ana Martinez del Valle. When we arrived, Chiquitita had already been rehearsed but, before the recording started, we had to make some changes, and Buddy wrote a phonetic script for them. While Frida and Agnetha were in the studio, we were in the control room. Buddy put on his headphones to listen to the girls and check for any mistakes. Obviously, they did not know the language, and they did not know what they were singing and so, for example, during romantic parts we made some kind of hand gestures to let them know it was a romantic part. You know, the voice must accompany what you want to express. I wanted to make sure that what they were singing was understandable. Buddy and I took care of different aspects in the recording sessions to achieve good results.
At the beginning, what they were singing was not always intelligible, but we preferred not to interrupt the first rehearsal. We felt they had to be at ease with the lyrics. We did not want them to think it was too difficult or it could not be done. We had done the same with other artists. After that rehearsal, the girls knew themselves when something was wrong and said, "We’re going to repeat it." They listened to themselves and knew enough to realize their mistakes. In Agnetha and Frida’s case, the work was always great. They were very, very professional. We must say, it was a great pleasure to work with them, especially with the girls. They were never tired. Sometimes artists become tired, but it never happened with them.
Buddy McCluskey: To get good results with the Spanish pronunciation, we explained to them in the studio that the Spanish language is easier than Swedish or English. The Spanish language has five musical vowel sounds, which are "a-e-i-o-u", and they always sound the same. In other languages, the vowel sounds vary from one word to another. Once the girls had discovered this, it was easy for them - well, actually not so easy, but repeating the words time after time phonetically, it sounded closer and closer to Spanish.
Mary McCluskey: The pronunciation was very important for the recording, of course, but it was also important to make the lyrics easy so that they could pronounce them. We based our lyrics on the original text. We did not make anything up because we were not the poets ABBA were. We modified the odd phrase if something seemed too difficult to pronounce. We worked this way to create a rough draft of the song first. Then, two or three days later, we would go back to the song, the parts where some mistakes had appeared. At the beginning, some phrases were not so grammatically correct, but we quickly noticed what we had to improve on and what was working. We even modified the lyrics in the studio when we saw that Frida and Agnetha had difficulty singing some of the lines. Some lines were like tongue twisters for them, or sometimes there was a weird sound in a word. We then stopped the recording and tried to change or turn the phrase around without losing the meaning of the song. In that way, it worked for the girls; everything flowed and was understandable.
Buddy McCluskey: We decided the songs should be recorded in a ‘neutral’ Spanish, so it would be ok for Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, Argentina, Spain and other countries, avoiding for example certain Argentine or Mexican idioms. We also had to be careful with the titles of the songs. They had to be clear and catchy to the ear, taking into consideration the ones that sounded Spanish such as Chiquitita, Hasta Mañana or Fernando.
In September 1979, we realized we needed a new single for Christmas. We thought I Have A Dream would be perfect for the festive season, and it would be great if we could get ABBA to record it. We went to Stockholm with the lyrics. When we arrived at Polar Studios, people said to us that ABBA would not have the time to record it, that ABBA were moving into new homes amongst other things and that it would be impossible to do. Anyway, they told us we could wait in the office for a while. Next to me, there was a Swedish journalist. He asked us who we were and we started to have a conversation. I did not know it, but he was an important journalist from one of the best newspapers in Stockholm. I told him we were there because we wanted to record this song with ABBA. Finally, the people at Polar told us they would call us the next day, but there would not be a recording of I Have A Dream, maybe something else in the future. The following day, the headlines of the newspaper said, "Argentinean Stikkan in Stockholm to record a song with ABBA". The article went on to say, "They have them in a hotel, waiting, and ABBA do not want to record their song." It made the headlines for another two days and caused a stir.
On the third day, we got a call and were asked to go to the Polar Studios. When we arrived, Agnetha and Frida were there. We recorded the song, even faster than Chiquitita. When we were done, we told them that, on our return to Argentina, we would add a children’s choir from Buenos Aires that had already recorded the song. I gave them a tape but, to our surprise, they said, "It’s not necessary!" The door opened and 60 children from the choir of Stockholm’s International School came in with their teacher. They had been studying the Spanish version. During the whole 45 minutes of the recording, none of the children moved from their places. They did not even ask to go to the restroom. At the end of the recording, Agnetha and Frida brought in two boxes full of ABBA LPs as gifts for the children. All of a sudden, there was an uproar and everybody was running around trying to get their record.
We took the tape back with us to Argentina, and it was released in all Spanish-speaking countries. The promotion was very special in Argentina because the person in charge at Channel 13 decided to promote the Estoy Soñando clip for a whole month from the 7th December 1979 to the 7th January, playing it seven to ten times a day.
Mary McCluskey: In January 1980, we flew to Stockholm to record the LP with all the songs we had chosen and translated into Spanish during the Argentinean summer. Yes, the selection of the songs to be translated into Spanish was our idea. They said, "Ok, whatever you think is good for us." They were very respectful in that sense, something very rare in artists. They could have chosen what songs to translate, but they let us work freely. The order of the songs on the album was also our suggestion. Indeed, it was our own idea to record an LP with Spanish versions sung by ABBA. After Chiquitita and Estoy Soñando had been recorded in Spanish, Björn and Benny were more enthusiastic and satisfied with the results, and so was Stig Anderson.
Buddy McCluskey: We were mostly in the studio with the girls. They used the original tapes, and so Björn and Benny did not have to be there. I guess they added their voices to some of the songs, but that happened when we were not in Stockholm anymore. Of course, we had lunch or dinner with them, but I remember at that time they had their first ideas about Chess and traveled a lot, too. During the recording process, I remember something funny with the pronunciation when Agnetha and Frida had to sing "cosa" [thing] in some lyrics. They were singing and suddenly both of them burst out laughing. "What’s going on?" I asked because they just could not stop laughing. They explained that "cosa" sounded like roe deer in Swedish, with its horns, and so when they were singing a romantic song, a roe deer appeared in their heads, and they started cracking up.
I remember when we wrote the lyrics for Gracias Por La Música in Punta Ballena, Uruguay, close to the beach. Thank You For The Music, literally translated, is Gracias Por La Música, but it did not fit the beat. I was in doubt and called Björn to ask him what to do. Should we respect the music or the sense of the lyrics? In Spanish, the words just did not fit the music. He said, "What must be respected is the music." As a result, it was then translated into, "quiero dar las gracias a las canciones," [I want to thank the songs]. The whole chorus of the song was written by Mary. It was very important for the grammatical accent to work with the musical accent.
We chose Move On as Al Andar for Stig Anderson because of his contribution to music and as part of our acknowledgment to him. Some of the songs would sound simple, but they were very deep. Some others were rather complicated like Conociéndome Conociéndote with its chord. The song as a whole seemed to be ahead of its time, or Dame Dame Dame, a very nice song, great background and very disco.
When it came to Hasta Mañana, it was an old ABBA song, and they wondered whether to record it in Spanish or not. It was a very simple song but nice to be included. I remember we had a song to promote the LP on radio stations in Buenos Aires. Then a journalist from the province of Tucumán, in the north of the country, came to RCA for some promotion. I thought Hasta Mañana would be perfect for Tucumán. I remembered some years earlier, at 10 pm the TV channels in Argentina would show an advertisement, announcing that all babies had to go to bed. So this song could be used in a similar way for kids, saying hasta mañana [till tomorrow] at that time. We did not have a clip of the song sung by ABBA in Spanish, but we had a performance sung in English by the group. We edited it, using the Spanish vocals, and it was perfect. We gave this clip to the journalist to promote it on TV channels in his province. Suddenly one day, the RCA sales director in Buenos Aires told me, "It is incredible, Hasta Mañana is selling a lot in Tucumán! And, for sure, lots of copies of Gracias Por La Música have been sold thanks to Hasta Mañana rather than our official promo song in Buenos Aires." In any case, the Spanish album sold very well in non-Spanish speaking countries, too. In England, it sold well because of the collectors. In Japan, they sold 80,000 copies, and in Australia it also did well because there was a large ABBA market.
I know there were some rumors about a Spanish version of Waterloo, but we never tried to translate it. The song was a very old hit, but for Latin Americans Waterloo would not have meant much. It was not an important battle for us. We wrote Spanish lyrics for The Winner Takes It All, but it was never recorded. We also chose the last 4 songs to be recorded in Spanish, Felicidad, Andante Andante, No Hay A Quien Culpar and Se Me Está Escapando. After that, we worked with Tomas Ledin, an excellent artist, on Ya Nunca Más [Never Again]. That was in London, and then he took the tape to Stockholm where Agnetha recorded her part.
Mary McCluskey: I remember Stig Anderson as an exceptional person. We became very fond of him.
Buddy McCluskey: He was brilliant. He knew a lot about the business and how to manage ABBA.
Mary McCluskey: It was a great experience to work with ABBA. They were so huge around the world, but they lived in a very simple way. In Stockholm, we all went to restaurants together between the recording sessions, and nobody bothered them even though they knew perfectly well who they were. They lived a normal life just like any other citizen. We had long chats in their homes, and everything about them was admirable. They were very humble people, and they were great with us.
So we say, ABBA, Gracias Por La Música!
by Oscar Alejo Smirnov