ABBA Exhibition

On Sat 6 April 1974, a slightly ludicrous-looking Swedish band stepped onstage at Brighton Dome. In front of a huge international television audience, they performed a song which blended baroque pop, European folk traditions and references to an Anglo-French battle – and the face of modern music was changed forever. ABBA were never the most orthodox of acts, but they’ve become the most famous winners ever of the Eurovision song Contest.

ABBA Swedish Pop Group Winners of the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest Universal Pictorial Press Photo PPH 272585 05.04.1974

Now, 50 years later, Brighton Museums celebrates this extraordinary moment in music history with an extraordinary exhibition. Running until Sun 4 Aug, ABBA: One Week In Brighton draws together photographs, film, memories, and memorabilia, to relive the excitement of the week that catapulted the band to fame. The exhibition shares personal stories, from the backstage crew and people in the audience, to autograph hunters who rushed to the stage door to meet the Swedish superstars.

ABBA in front of Brighton Dome's Corn Exchange2_credit_Argus_Photographic_Archive

During that week in 1974, Brighton was burning with Eurovision fever, flags from different countries lined the streets, contestants were photographed exploring the town, and excitement was building. ABBA’s eye-catching outfits ensured that people noticed them even before they stepped on stage. Waterloo, their winning song, became the band’s international breakthrough (despite the UK judges giving them ‘nul points’). The exhibition allows us to hear from the international journalists who enjoyed Brighton’s pubs so much they missed the show, the man blamed for cutting off Terry Wogan’s electricity supply, and the taxi driver ABBA treated to a private performance of the winning song. 

Other exhibits include the drumkit which sounded the first beats of Waterloo, the spangly costume which toured the world with the singer inspired to perform by watching the contest on TV as a child, a feather plucked from presenter Katie Boyle’s evening gown, and an autographed viewer score sheet pulled from the pages of the Evening Argus. Plus local musician Bobby Ward’s encounter with ABBA at the Grand Hotel after party.

Visitors will be encouraged to share memories of when the Eurovision circus came to town, explore their own favourite ABBA moments, and try on some glam fashions.

As Brighton Museum gets ready to celebrate this historic musical event, We spoke to the exhibition’s curator, Jody East, about that night’s impact…

Nowadays we know what each nation’s song will sound like for weeks in advance, but this obviously wasn’t the case in 1974. Do you think the audience were prepared for ABBA’s performance or realise the impact they would subsequently have on contemporary music?

It’s really interesting. Most people I have spoken to have said ABBA immediately stood out and it was obvious ABBA were going to win. They were described as ‘outrageously dressed’, with ‘amazing vocals’ and ‘completely different to anything we’d seen before’. The Eurovision songs were played on radios in the lead up to the contest though, so they weren’t a complete surprise. We have a clip from BBC Radio Brighton in the exhibition where Björn from ABBA and Olivia Newton John were interviewed in the week leading up to the contest and their songs were played on air. But I don’t think people were prepared for the performance, combined with the outfits, and the whole ‘ABBA’ effect on the night. 

What was the best aspect of putting this exhibition together?

It has been such a joyful exhibition to put together. The best aspect has definitely been meeting all the people in Brighton & Hove who worked on the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974, or who were at the contest. Even though it was 50 years ago, the ephemera people have in their personal collections is just amazing, from signed programmes, to copies of the Radio Times, to BBC schedules and letters, to a feather from Katie Boyle’s dress! And then hearing their stories and memories that go with each and every object. It has also shown how much of a community Brighton & Hove is. Again, even though it was 50 years ago, people have recognised each other. We have a brilliant story of William Sansom, who’s dad was a policeman on the Dome stage door and got him a ticket. So many other people who feature in the exhibition remember policeman Bill Sansom, he was known as the Kemptown Bobby, and was a really popular local figure. It’s been wonderful to share that with William, his son. 

Did anything unusual reveal itself in your research?

It was fascinating visiting the BBC Written Archives and reading through the correspondence between BBC and European Broadcasting Union executives. There is a trail of correspondence about the last-minute change in the voting procedure, when the BBC realised it would take over an hour to broadcast all the votes based on the new process, so they made a decision to switch it back, which they then had to explain to European Broadcasting Union managers! 

There is a memo showing which countries were allocated which Brighton hotel, and the cost that the BBC had secured for the stays. Interestingly, Sweden were allocated Bedford Towers hotel, yet most memories (and even ABBA themselves) recall them staying (and certainly partying) in the Grand Hotel. Perhaps there was a last-minute switch? 

Eurovision_Brighton Dome Concert Hall_setup_credit_Frederick_Wackett

Why was Brighton Dome selected to host Eurovision that year? We’re more used to seeing the event broadcast from capital cities.

Looking through correspondence at the BBC Written Archives, there is a note from the BBC explaining that they have had ‘considerable difficulty in finding an appropriate venue at the right date’. Officially, the BBC said they wanted somewhere easily accessible from London but that offered a different experience to the capital city. 

What kind of contributions did you get from people who were there that night?

Such an interesting mix. Lots of memories from people who worked on the event in some way. A Seeboard engineer, who spent the week with a power metre checking the technicians didn’t overload the Dome’s electrical system; Police officers who were supporting the security effort (but obviously had a lot of fun too); a local furniture shop owner who lent his drum kit for the ABBA performance! 

What’s your personal favourite from the items on display?

That’s a tough one. Collectively, all the items brought together help tell this unique story of Eurovision in Brighton. But if I have to choose, can I choose two? I love the behind-the-scenes stories – so I think a photo of Seeboard Engineer, Chris English, standing behind cameras at the Dome, checking the electric supply. And the drum kit! Just such an iconic object, used on stage by ABBA’s drummer, Ola but lent by local drummer Larry Wilton. 

ABBA in front of Brighton Dome's Corn Exchange2_credit_Argus_Photographic_Archive

Are there any other events taking place on the Royal Estate to coincide with this anniversary?

Yes! On the anniversary itself, Sat 6 April, you can come and drop in to an afternoon of fun at the museum. We’ll have live music from one of the previous members of Bjorn Again, a chance to dress up in ABBA costumes and 70s gear and have your photo taken, lots of craft activities such as making ABBA inspired accessories. Also on 6 April, our friends at Brighton Dome have Gold, an evening of ABBA and Eurovision classics, sung by Brighton Gay Men’s Chorus and hosted by Eurovision winners and participants.

Brighton Museums presents ABBA: One Week In Brighton until Sun 4 Aug.

For more info visit www.brightonmuseums.org.uk 

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