Forty years ago this week, in the middle of ABBA’s promotional trip to Australia, the brand new single ‘Fernando’ was released.
This was the first new music from ABBA since the phenomenal breakthrough with ‘Mamma Mia’ and the other singles from the ABBA album the year before. The single’s release was highly anticipated, especially coming with ABBA’s first visit to the country.
‘Fernando’ had its Australian television premiere not on a pop music show, but on the news program A Current Affair on Friday 5 March, when Lasse Hallström’s now famous film clip was shown as part of a report on that day’s press conference at the Sydney Hilton Hotel.
‘Fernando’ hit record shops and radio stations from Monday 8 March. On that day, in the singles chart ‘Ring Ring’ was at number 14 (on the way up), ‘SOS’ was at 16, and ‘Mamma Mia’ was at 29 (both on the way down); the ABBA album was at number 4 (on the way down), The Best Of ABBA at 12, Ring Ring at 40, and Waterloo at 76 (all three on the way up). ABBA had travelled to Melbourne to perform ‘Fernando’ and ‘SOS’ on The Don Lane Show.
‘Fernando’ entered the singles chart at number 75 the following week, on 15 March. Three weeks later, on 5 April, it reached number 1, where it stayed for the next 14 weeks. It replaced Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ at the top spot. ‘Fernando’ equalled the previous longest running number 1, The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’ in 1968 (Note: There was no standard national Australian chart until ARIA in 1983. Some charts quote different weeks at number 1 for both songs. These figures are from the generally accepted authoritative chart, the Kent Music Report).
‘Fernando’ was a highlight of the locally-made TV special The Best of ABBA, which was the prime reason for ABBA’s visit to Australia. In fact, both sides of the single were featured in the special, with Frida dedicated the B side ‘Tropical Loveland’ to Australia, “that is, when the cyclones aren’t blowing of course”. On both the Don Lane Show and The Best Of ABBA, Agnetha and Frida wore the same folk-style dresses they had worn in the film clip.
The screening of the special not only helped push ‘Fernando’ and The Best Of ABBA to number 1, but also several older singles and B sides into the chart, to the point where for two weeks (19 and 26 April) there were 5 ABBA singles in the top 40 (‘Fernando’, ‘Ring Ring’, ‘Rock Me’, ‘SOS’ and ‘Mamma Mia’; ‘Hasta Mañana’ would enter the chart on 10 May, by which time ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘SOS’ had left the top 40, but were still in the top 100), and for 12 weeks (26 April to 12 July) all four ABBA albums were in the top 40 albums.
During ‘Fernando”s run at number 1 there was some criticism that it had remained at the top for so long. Popular TV music show Countdown didn’t play the clip as the number 1 song every week, instead sometimes replacing it with another top 10 entry or predicted future chart hit.
One week when ‘Fernando’ was actually shown, that week’s guest host John Paul Young, whose ‘I Hate The Music’ had been stuck at number 2 for several weeks, donned a long blonde wig and emoted to camera when the show cut to him during the clip. That footage has never surfaced, but I’m sure I’ve seen footage from the same episode in recent documentaries on Countdown. If there is a starting point to the backlash over ABBA’s overexposure that led to the alarming drop in ABBA’s popularity after the 1977 tour, this would be it.
‘Fernando”s last week at number 1 was 5 July. The following week it was replaced by Sherbet’s ‘Howzat’, which led to many newspaper stories gloating that a local act had knocked the mighty ABBA off the top. But really, ‘Fernando’ couldn’t stay number 1 forever, so something was going to replace it eventually. ‘Fernando’ remained in the singles chart for a total of 40 weeks, until 13 December, its last placement at number 93.
RCA reported that ‘Fernando’ sold 400,000 copies during 1976. This was the highest selling single ever in Australia to that point, a record that would remain for a little over twenty years, until Elton John’s ‘Candle In the Wind 97’, which sold over 980,000 copies. Today in the age of cheap music downloads, sadly a few dozen songs have now outsold ‘Fernando’, but the population of the country has increased by over 70% since 1976.
‘Fernando’ entered the Australian vernacular, with the phrase “Can you hear the drums <insert name here>?” often quoted or used as a headline for instant recognition to this day.
Personally, ‘Fernando’ was the first newly released ABBA record I got that I had never heard. I’d missed that first TV screening of the clip (I was out at the roller skating rink), and it hadn’t had any radio airplay before the record hit the shops.
(Originally written for A.B.B.A : The Music Goes On And On And On)