Interview: From Sheffield to showbiz legend




Steve Legg interviewed Mike Watson live and discovered how an ordinary lad from Sheffield ventured into show biz.

Mike Watson first arrived in Sweden in 1964 as part of the Hi-Grades, American singer Larry Finnegan’s backing group during his Sweden tour of that year. Subsequently, Watson became a member of various Swedish bands, most notably Lenne and the Lee Kings (who scored two Number Two hits in 1966 with Stop The Music and L.O.D.), and Lasse Samuelsson’s Dynamite Brass.

Mike started working as a session musician in 1969 and did his first known ABBA related session in July 1971 when he played bass on a Frida single, produced by Benny. Watson also contributed to People Need Love, the very first recording issued under the name Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid.

Although Rutger Gunnarsson was to be ABBA’s most frequently used bass player, Mike Watson played on notable tracks such as SOS, Mamma Mia, If It Wasn’t For The Nights, The Winner Takes It All, and Super Trouper. He is also the man dressed up as Napoleon on the cover of ABBA’s Waterloo album.

Mike Watson


Steve Legg (SL): Mike. What a career over 50 years, I believe, in the business. Are you living the dream?

Mike Watson (MW): Yeah, I started … I’ve been living the dream, yeah, that’s for sure. I’ve toured all over the world. In the last 10 years I’ve been with these Abba tributes and we’ve been … well, everywhere. China, America. This year, I’ve been in America doing five tours. So yeah, I’m pretty busy, still.

SL: Do you still enjoy traveling to gigs, driving, stopping at service stations, picking up a pork pie somewhere or the Swedish equivalent?

MW: Well, there’s a lot of waiting around. It’s waiting for the sound check and do the sound check. Then there’s waiting to do the show. But it’s the life I’ve chosen. And enjoying it.

SL: Yeah, well that’s good. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? So how did a Sheffield lad end up in Sweden in 1964? It doesn’t seem the most logical career path, perhaps.

MW: Well, I was with a group in London called The Hi-Grades and we came to Sweden to accompany on tour, an American singer, rock and roll singer. And we ended up staying here, two of the band, since 1965. Yeah, it’s been a long time.

SL: So, what made you stay? What is it about Sweden?

MW: I got the jobs, I got the gigs. And then I started playing with different bands in the ’60s and then around ’70 I started a … became a studio musician in Stockholm playing with all the Swedish groups or recordings. And then I started with Abba in 1973, 1972, recording with them. As a studio musician. I was in the studio maybe three or four days a week when I lived in Stockholm.

SL: So, what do you love most about Sweden? Are you a meatballs, hygge, Norrlands Guld fan?

MW: Yeah, yeah, Swedish meatballs. Yeah, great. Ikea, I Love Ikea.

SL: And of course, hygge. We know all about hygge these days in the UK. It’s candles, it’s twinkly lights, it’s snuggling down and getting cosy.

MW: Yeah, well there’s a lot of snow in Sweden, so I hope we get … I live on the west coast, down between Malmö and Gothenburg and we don’t really get a lot of much snow down there, but I hope there’ll be snow for Christmas. When you got all the Christmas lights … we’re very into the Christmas with the lights around the house. Love it.

SL: And how do you celebrate Christmas? Do you celebrate on Christmas Eve? Which I know is the Scandinavian tradition, roast duck and opening all your presents.

MW: Yeah, we do that and usually my kids come and all my grandchildren, my great grandchildren. So, the house is really full around Christmas and New Year.

SL: Oh, sounds beautiful. Were you musical as a kid, Mike?

MW: Well, my mother was in show business and that’s where I started in 1958, ’59. They were working for the American forces, entertaining in Germany, France, Spain, all over Europe. And she put me in the show when I was 11, 12 years old and that’s when I started playing guitar and doing an Elvis copy. And then they took in a drummer and another guitar player. And then in the end we were a group. We were called The Hi-Grades and that’s where I started playing. We were three guitars and I was playing bass on a guitar and then I bought a bass and that’s where I started playing bass.

SL: Why did you choose the bass?

MW: Well, we were three guitars. Somebody had to play bass.

SL: Simple as that.

MW: So, I started playing bass. Yeah, it was as simple as that.

SL: So how does someone become a session musician? You’ve obviously got to be really good. And I’m assuming right place at the right time, meeting the right people?

MW: I was at the right place in the right time. There was a changeover in Sweden from like a stand-up bass to electric bass and there wasn’t a lot of electric bass players around pop. And then I learnt to read music and became a session musician. I don’t think it’s anything you train for, it’s just that you got the contacts and you just play.

SL: Mike, 1971, was a pretty key moment. You met Abba for the first time, is that right?

MW: Well, I met Björn and Benny around in the middle of the ’60s because I was in a Swedish pop band in ’66 and you’d meet them on tour, all the bands, playing a festival or something. So I met them already then, and that’s maybe why they used me later on, because I knew them.

SL: Did you have any idea they’d become global superstars back then?

MW: Never, never. I mean, you thought you were going to be a musician after, or I’ll do this for a few years and I’ll have to do something else. But I couldn’t do anything else. So I never thought it would last this long and that. I’ve been working since 1979 with different tribute bands all over the world.

SL: Wow. So you never had a plan B?

MW: Never, never. I’ve never had a real job.

SL: But I’ve got some comedian friends who do painting and decorating and all sorts of stuff when it’s quiet. But I love the fact you never had a plan B.

MW: Never also, and I’ve always had a lot of work, except for this big lockdown that came in 2020. I didn’t work for a year and a half. Everything has started up again now, so it’s back to normal, yeah. It really is. And I’m very fortunately able to still play. I mean, I’m 75 and I’m still on tour. It’s great. Love it.

SL: So I’m a huge Abba fan. What was it like sessioning with them? Are we talking an early start or getting together halfway through the day with coffee and pastries?

MW: Well, all the sessions started at ten o’clock in the morning and there would be a coffee for me because they started with the drums and getting the sound and then we’d start paying about 11 o’clock. A usual session would be Benny would sit at the piano. He’d run through the songs and we’d maybe write some chords down and we’d start messing around with the song. And we could play all day till five, six, seven o’clock in the evening just to get really the bass and the drums right, and then they’d do everything again later on.

So we never really saw the girls in the studio, Frida and Agnetha. They might come by to say hello to their husbands at that time, but we never saw them. For us, it was just working with Björn and Benny, and Björn would sit with an acoustic guitar and he would sing. Sometimes the lyrics were not really written yet. And that was a session and we might play all day and maybe the day after just to get the bass and drums right. But it was a lot of fun. We had a lot of fun. We were all young and enthusiastic.

SL: How would you describe the process? Collaborative, experimental, or anything else?

MW: Experimental because there was no music to read. Benny would sit at the piano and we’d play around with the songs. We might do it as a tango and there’d be another style. We’d play, try to find things, and then when the bass and drums were right, they’d say, “Okay, we’ll go from there.” And then the bass and drums were ready and then they would do all the dubbing over that.

SL: And you played bass on a number of very notable tracks, SOS, Mamma Mia, Super Trooper. Probably my favourite one, The Winner Takes it All, with a great bass line, if you don’t mind me saying so, Mike.

MW: That is my favourite song as well actually. I love that song. The lyrics are great. And I loved playing when we played with Abba. It’s always, that song’s absolutely my favourite, or, I should say, Abba-solutely.

SL: I see what you did there. And it’s a poignant song as well, isn’t it?

MW: Yeah. It’s a beautiful song. The lyrics came at the right time. They were splitting up, so it always hits you, the lyric, when we play it. Great song.

SL: Could you tell that was going to be a mega hit?

MW: Not when we actually played the song in the studio, because I never heard the song when it was finished until I got the LP, they sent the LP home to me, and we just heard without any, the girls singing on the song. There was a lot of experimenting going on. I remember doing, “I do, I do, I do,” and I thought, oh, I’ll do this bass line, and that was the first thing I did. Then they said, “No, no, we’ll do something else. Do something else.” And then at four o’clock in the afternoon, well, we tried lots of things. I did the same thing that I did at the beginning, and they said, “Yeah, that’s what we want.” Yeah.

Also, when you hear a song, you just know. We’re like, “That’s what you should play.” So a lot of experimenting going on.

SL: What heady, exciting times. And you’re very modest. You’ve not mentioned your modelling career either, have you, yet?

MW: Ooh, my modelling career. Yeah, well, you want to hear about that?

SL: Of course we do.

MW: I think Björn and Benny phoned me one morning and said, “Oh, tomorrow we’re going to do a photo session and we need a little guy to stand in the background.” That’s why they called me Little Mike, anyway. And we went to this old café outside of Stockholm. We were taking photos all day long. The photos became the album cover for the Waterloo album with the Abba in the front and I’m standing in the background with my back to the camera dressed as Napoleon. That was my modelling career. Very short.

SL: So Mike, this show, 6th of January, next year at the Brighton Centre. Have you performed in Brighton before?

MW: Yes. Last time was 1973. We worked with three brothers called The Brotherly Love. They were from Liverpool. I made a short trip back to England a few months, and then I was back in Sweden. But that was the last time, 1973.

SL: And of course the ABBA were there in 1974, winning the Eurovision Song Contest, weren’t they?

MW: Yeah. We should be coming in 1974, it would’ve been exactly 50 years. Yeah.

SL: So this show, Arrival From Sweden Show, what can we expect on the 6th of January in Brighton Centre?

MW: You’re going to expect ABBA because they’ve got all the clothes, the hits. All the hits in the show. And ABBA Arrival from Sweden, they’ve been going since 1995. Not with the same people all the time, of course, but they’ve done a hundred tours in America. They’ve been all over the world. But the show is like ABBA. It’s like seeing ABBA. They’ve got the costumes and there’s great musicians. Swedish musicians are very competent, so you’re going to enjoy it.

SL: Oh, do you know what, I can’t wait. And you’ve got the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra as well.

MW: Yeah, yeah. It’s great. They’ve done a lot of concerts for all over America, everywhere with the Philharmonic, so it’s going to be an extra thing. It’s going to be very big.

SL: Wow. What an amazing night for all ages. I can’t wait Mike. It’s been fascinating chatting to you. Highlights of your career, is there one big thing that you think, “Yeah, that was it”?

MW: Oh, well, probably ABBA is the big thing because it’s worldwide. I played with Elton John, Wilson Picket, Arthur Conley. There was a lot of artists coming over to Sweden in the 70’s for the radio TV show, and I was the bass player there, so I met a lot of artists coming over from England and America in those days.

SL: It’s been a blast Mike. Thank you so much. There’s only one way I can end this, and I’m sure people say to you many times, but thank you for the music.

MW: You’re welcome.


Arrival From Sweden The World’s Greatest ABBA Show With ABBA Original Musicians – Brighton Centre 6th January 2023

‘ARRIVAL From Sweden in the production The Music of ABBA’ comes to the Brighton Centre, featuring original ABBA Musicians and the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. The press, the audience and the ABBA-fan club all agree this is the closest you will ever come to see the real ABBA live on stage.

The 11-piece live band with ABBA original musicians including bass player Mike Watson who performed with ABBA in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest and on such notable tracks such as SOS, Mamma Mia and the Winner Takes It All, to name but a few, will take you on a musical journey performed by ARRIVAL from Sweden this world-renowned group, bringing the music of ABBA to life, together with Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra.

ARRIVAL From Sweden is the most successful ABBA show touring the world today. To date they have performed concerts and tours in over 70 countries. With 80 SOLD OUT tours in the USA since 2005 and playing over a thousand shows in America, ARRIVAL from Sweden has also performed with almost 100 symphony orchestras which all together has given them the reputation as the world’s greatest ABBA show.

Hits like Dancing Queen, Mamma Mia, Does Your Mother Know, The Winner Takes It All, Gimme, Gimme and many more are delivered with such accuracy that it’s hard to believe it’s not the real ABBA on Stage.

For a limited time (midnight on 30/11) fans can get £10 off a pair of tickets with the promo code ‘SORTED’

Tickets: ABBA Arrival from Sweden, Brighton | Fri, 6 Jan 2023, 18:30 | Ticketmaster UK

Steve Legg

Steve is a British speaker, author and founder of The Breakout Trust, a Christian mission organisation based in Littlehampton on the south coast of England. Since 1988 he has travelled the length and breadth of the UK and 30 countries overseas, covering a staggering 1.5 million miles on the road, using a crazy mix of comedy, trickery and mystery to communicate the Christian message to young and old. He has performed at top venues globally including NIA Birmingham, Wembley Arena and London’s Royal Albert Hall. Radio and TV appearances are in the hundreds. His passion is creative communication of the Christian faith through performances, books, DVD’s and other resources. The author of 17 books, these days when he’s not on the road, much of his time is spent on the groundbreaking men’s Christian lifestyle magazine, Sorted.

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