ABBA

FOR MANY years now I have been a closet Abba fan. This was not always the case.

During the group’s active career, like most of my rock writer colleagues I regarded them somewhat disdainfully, deeming them perpetrators of lightweight commercial pop diametrically opposed to my favourites who tended to be muscular rock bands like The Who or rootsy groovers like Little Feat. This may have had something to do with the stigma of winning Eurovision though I do remember thinking at the time that ‘Waterloo’ was far better than most Eurovision winners. But my dad liked them and he liked Cliff Richard too, so they had to be naff.

All that changed one Saturday night towards the end of the ’80s, when I’d taken a weekend out to visit my then elderly widowed dad at his house in north Yorkshire. I’d been out for a few beers with an old friend earlier in the evening and when I got home dad had gone to bed. I didn’t feel like turning in so I poured myself a generous whisky, skinned up a spliff and smoked it in the back garden. Nicely adjusted, I went back indoors and checked the TV but there was nothing worth watching, so I rifled through his meagre record collection to see if there was anything that appealed. Not much, but his Abba hits album caught my eye so I put it on the turntable, plugged in some old cans that I’d left there and settled back to listen, fortissimo.

Well, it was a revelation. Here I was in the exact right frame of mind to listen to music and the music I was hearing sounded fantastic. I was gobsmacked. Until that moment, because I’d never listened to Abba properly, at volume with no distractions, I hadn’t realised quite how brilliantly produced their records were, quite how much attention to detail had been employed, or how much debt they owed to Spector; neither had I appreciated the quality of the girls’ voices, whether singly or together, the pitch perfect harmonies, and the obvious craft in their songwriting. I must have played dad’s Abba album five times before I went to bed that night, their songs ringing in my ears. Of course I knew that dope-enhanced listening pleasure could be ephemeral and realised in the morning that this might all have been a dream, but when I got back to London I bought a new Abba hits album and listened to it without any such contributory factors. Yes, they still sounded great.

Mindful that liking Abba was something many people kept to themselves, I did the same but I couldn’t help noticing in the ensuing years that several quite famous and cool rock stars were unafraid to profess their enthusiasm for the group. I bought Abba Gold when it first came out and as the ’90s progressed came to realise that half the word loved Abba too, and that their record sales put them high up in the all time best sellers list, maybe even third after The Beatles and Elvis.

In 1997 I had the idea to commission a decent biography on Abba with one proviso – it had to be written by a Swedish, preferably Stockholm-based, author whose command of English was well nigh perfect, and who could frame the book in the context of Swedish history and culture. I also figured that Abba’s perceived blandness as individuals was probably due to the fact that English wasn’t their first language – it’s difficult being profound in a foreign tongue – and thought that back home their interviews (in their native Swedish) were probably interesting and insightful, and that the true story about them and their relationships was far more complex and fascinating than previously documented. I was right, and although I say it myself Magnus Palm’s 500+-page book, Brights Lights Dark Shadows, has now become the definitive book on the group.

In editing the book, I came to learn much more about Abba, about Frida’s impoverished orphan past, about Agnetha’s aversion to fame, about the dues paid by Björn and Benny, about their extraordinary popularity in Australia, about their ill-fated business dealings – the millions that slipped through their fingers – and about their obsessive, alcoholic manager Stig Anderson who was largely responsible for this. I was also minded to check out much more of their music than simply Abba Gold, with rewarding results, especially the albums they recorded later in their career.

In 2000 I took my then eight-year-old daughter Olivia to see the Abba tribute act Björn Again at the Shepherds Bush Empire, close to where we lived off Uxbridge Road, and was mesmerised by the euphoric reaction of the audience. Granted it was the week before Christmas but I couldn’t help but notice that while at most concerts the audience tends to come in pairs, for Björn Again they came in parties of seven or eight or more, slightly tipsy but also good-humoured, and there were several groups of dressed-to-the-nines women, all determined to enjoy themselves to the max, mad for it as the Gallaghers used to say. Indeed, I am hard-pressed to recall many adult concerts where the atmosphere was so party-like from beginning to end. The previous Christmas I had taken my daughter to her first ever pop concert, The Spice Girls at Earls Court, which I considered distinctly underwhelming (and also on the short side). On the way home from the Björn Again show, as we walked together along Uxbridge Road, Olivia said me: “Daddy, I preferred the fake Abba to the real Spice Girls.” Too right, I thought, too right.

I’m now happily out of the closet on Abba and to prove it recently wrote the following introduction to the matching folio of printed sheet music to Abba Gold. I was proud to be asked.

ABBA: A GOLDEN LEGACY

Abba Gold is one of the best-selling albums in the history of popular music, the jewel in the crown of Abba’s diamond-encrusted catalogue. Originally released in 1992, it brings together 19 of the group’s classic hits and is one of those rare collections that returns to the best-selling lists on a regular basis as new fans discover Abba, most recently as a result of the smash hit musical Mamma Mia! and the accompanying film that was released in 2008.

Time does not diminish Abba. While the four individuals that made up the group long ago decided to cease collective endeavour, the music they made together transcends eras and fashion, and has now become a solid gold template for new generations that seek to create pop music at its highest level. ‘Dancing Queen’ is probably the greatest party anthem ever recorded, while ‘The Winner Takes It All’ is regularly cited as the supreme melodic statement about broken relationships.

These two songs were released during Abba’s golden era, which extended from the mid-’70s to early ’80s, but it had taken the four musicians more than a decade to reach this level of finesse. In their home country of Sweden, the individual members of the group had embarked on separate careers during the ’60s, coming together in 1972 under the patronage of Polar Music, a Stockholm-based record label and music publishing company run by Swedish impresario Stig Anderson.

Until this time guitarist Björn Ulvaeus was part of the folk group The Hootenanny Singers, while keyboard player Benny Andersson was a member of the pop group The Hep Stars. Both were among Sweden’s top acts at the time, and when Björn first met Benny in June 1966 there developed a close friendship that would eventually grow into an outstanding songwriting partnership. By the end of the decade, The Hep Stars had split up and The Hootenanny Singers were more or less a studio act at Polar Music. In the summer of 1971, Stig Anderson offered Björn the job of house producer, and Björn insisted that Benny be hired as well.

Two years earlier, in 1969, Björn and Benny both happened to strike up romantic relationships with singers. Benny met and fell for Norwegian-born Anni-Frid Lyngstad, also known as Frida, while a romance blossomed between Björn and Agnetha Fältskog. Both girls were former dance band singers who had launched solo careers. By the spring of 1970, both couples were engaged.

There was a good deal of experimenting in the studio before Abba was born. Björn and Benny recorded together and wrote songs for others, while Frida and Agnetha continued their domestic solo careers with mixed fortunes as well as performing back up duties in the studio. Björn and Benny’s real ambition was to record English-language songs that would reach beyond Sweden, and in this regard Stig Anderson, whose ambition was matched only by his diligence, was unusually supportive.

Björn and Benny were well aware of their own shortcomings as singers and couldn’t help noticing that the local hits became a bit bigger whenever they invited their fiancées to contribute backing vocals. After a minor hit in Japan with the English-language ‘She’s My Kind Of Girl’, Björn and Benny felt sufficiently encouraged to record more English pop songs to which Frida and Agnetha were asked to contribute. Finally, on the 1972 song ‘People Need Love’, the girls shared the lead vocals equally with the men, and the result was the very first Abba single, although the quartet was credited as Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid.

Thus it was that six years after Björn and Benny first started working together they and their romantic partners finally decided to become permanent members of a group with the acronym-inspired name of Abba, which would be managed by Stig Anderson. Even so, it wasn’t until the end of 1975, 18 months after their breakthrough with ‘Waterloo’, that the group finally became the musical priority for the individual members.

‘Waterloo’ alerted the world at large to Abba, winning the 1974 Eurovision song contest, held that year in Brighton. In many respects, winning Eurovision was a poisoned chalice, since few hitherto unknown winners from continental Europe had enjoyed anything like sustained international careers in music. However, the song contained many elements that lifted it beyond the typical Eurovision winner – it was a full-tilt rocker, delivered in the style of classic girl-group pop and produced with a nod to Phil Spector’s magnificent Wall of Sound – and anyone with ears could tell that this group of Swedes had it in them to survive Eurovision’s reputation for creating one-hit wonders and consigning them to oblivion.

In the event global success was almost two years away, partly because it took them a while to overcome the stigma of Eurovision but also because Abba had decided not to rush things, but to work painstakingly on their songs and sound in the studio with engineer Michael Tretow until they were 100% satisfied with the result. In the long term this far-sighted strategy, this scrupulous attention to quality control, was as responsible as anything in ensuring that several decades after it was recorded Abba’s music would remain as popular as it does.

‘Waterloo’ reached number one in the UK charts and several other European countries in April 1974 but Abba had to wait until September of the following year before ‘SOS’ became their next big hit. In doing so it opened the floodgates. Between February 1977 and December 1981, the group enjoyed 17 top five hits in the UK alone, including eight number ones, all but one of which are included on Abba Gold. It was a chart run of dazzling proportions that in terms of quality and consistency over a similar period remains virtually unmatched.

As is the case with all groups that enjoy such spectacular success, all four members of Abba contributed crucial elements to the whole. Björn Ulvaeus was a natural leader and pragmatic decision maker, and also a keen lyricist, while Benny Andersson was a naturally gifted composer of pop melodies, schooled on the accordion as a child by his father and grandfather. Anni-Frid Lyngstad was a superb mid-range singer who brought a wealth of experience, both musical and personal, to bear in her interpretations. Blonde Agnetha Fältskog’s higher register was crystal clear and, although she was perceived as the group’s sex symbol, she often sang her leads with an air of wistful pathos that found empathy with women everywhere. This trace of melancholy that permeates much of Abba’s work, even in songs that appear on the surface to be quite cheerful, is among their most distinctive – and unique – traits.

Although Stig Anderson is generally credited as being the fifth member of Abba, an equally worthy candidate is engineer Michael Tretow who, being a bit of an electronic boffin, accepted the challenge that Björn and Benny offered him and in doing so discovered Abba’s ‘third’ voice. This was the sound of Frida and Agnetha singing together, layer upon layer of overdubbed backing vocals creating the rich, all-enveloping choral landscape that became another of Abba’s distinctive trademarks. Coupled with exemplary musicianship from the best Swedish session players available, the result was pop perfection.

Just as it does today, Abba’s music transcended fashion at the time it was released. In the UK and Europe punk was all the rage during Abba’s glory years while in America new wave and disco were battling it out with mainstream rock delivered by men with beards in faded jeans and check shirts. The bright, often garish, clothing that Abba chose to wear was idiosyncratic to say the least, while their romantic pop, based largely on European melodic traditions, seemed out of phase with the times, though towards the end of their career they did produce some fine disco workouts.

Reluctant to tour until it proved impossible to refuse, Abba became pioneers of the video boom, astutely realising that producing short films of themselves singing their hits for distribution everywhere would preclude the need to perform hundreds of concerts throughout the world. In the end, of course, they succumbed, with predictable results – ticket riots, administrative chaos and general feelings of discontent and homesickness that placed an insurmountable strain on the relationships that held the group together.

Nevertheless, Abba’s fame was truly international. Shrewdly, they recorded several of their songs in Spanish and German as well as their native Swedish. ‘Dancing Queen’ was a US number one. In Australia their popularity was, and remains, second only to The Beatles. Huge crowds gathered at airports and outside hotels wherever they went on their memorable 1977 tour down under. Famously, that same year London’s Royal Albert Hall received a reported 3.5 million ticket applications for a total of 12,000 tickets available for two concerts.

The group survived the breakdown of Björn’s marriage to Agnetha and, since Björn was the group’s lyricist, it is generally assumed that Abba’s more heart-rending songs, tracks like ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’, ‘One Of Us’ and the peerless ‘Winner Takes It All’, were written from personal experience. Somehow, the shifting relationships within the group added another, distinctly poignant, string to their bow. By the time they last appeared together in December 1982, Benny’s marriage to Frida was also over.

Abba had run its course. Björn and Benny wanted to write musicals together; Frida, the only member of the group who enjoyed performing live, wanted a solo career; and Agnetha wanted nothing more than to be left alone to raise her children. But the music remained, heard at parties, at nostalgia festivals and, most notably, in discos frequented by the world’s gay communities. There emerged a plethora of tribute bands, memorably led by an Australian outfit called Björn Again whose shows became instant sell-outs. Pete Waterman of the ’80s chart-ruling team of Stock/Aitken/Waterman, singled out Lennon & McCartney, The Beach Boys, Motown and Abba as the ultimate role models for anyone who wanted to make hits, and when Waterman created the boy/girl group Steps in the late ’90s his homage to Abba was never more overt.

By now many of the hippest stars from the next generation – U2, R.E.M., even Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain – had all endorsed Abba. The icing on the cake was Mamma Mia!, the musical based on their songs which, having now been seen by over 30 million theatregoers worldwide, has become the most successful musical of all time. The movie version, directed by the musical’s original director, Phyllida Lloyd, and starring Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan, received its world premiere in June 2008.

The ongoing success of everything that Abba bequeathed to the world, the Gold album of songs that have become standards, the musical, the film, the tribute bands, and the pleasure they bring, is a triumph not just for the group or even its individual members. It is proof positive that the world’s greatest popular music, as is contained within these pages, remains and will forever remain universally loved by succeeding generations for as long as our planet survives, truly a golden legacy.

(With thanks to Carl Magnus Palm)

© Chris Charlesworth, 2008

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