ABBA: The Interview

Here a full transcript of the interview conducted with Bjorn Ulvaeus for a MOJO feature published in 1999 to mark the opening of Mamma Mia!. The musical based around songs written by Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson for ABBA was, who knew?, about to make their work more popular, and more lucrative, than it had ever been, even in ABBA’s heyday.

Ulvaeus was warm, relaxed, happy to talk for longer than had been arranged and seemed genuinely surprised and delighted that people were taking an interest in his work again. He noted that since he’d been coming to London for rehearsals, people were starting to recognise him in the street and approaching him, star-struck, something which never happened at home in Sweden.

When the controversial (among regular readers) MOJO cover story was published, it was somewhat irrelevant in the enormous hubbub that surrounded Mamma Mia! My promised ticket to the show never materialised. I have never seen it or the movie. I still think ABBA are great. The feature is also available to read at Rock’s Backpages.***

I ASSUME you’ve gone through all kinds of sea-changes of emotion about ABBA over the years. What sort of state are you in now?

Amazement. When we broke up in 1981 I thought that ABBA was something completely past, behind me now, we were going forward – writing Chess and so forth – and ABBA would vanish. Now I know it was stupid and naive thinking that, but I did. The fact that ABBA’s music has survived this well is immensely flattering.

Did you wish it to be completely over because the ending was traumatic?

No, it wasn’t like that. We just didn’t have that much fun in the studio any more, the energy was running out. There was no bitterness or anything. It’s just that, at that time, none of could imagine that it would endure, but logically it would wouldn’t it? Anything that had such an impact on a decade is bound to crop up every now and then, even if only as an example of what happened in the ’70s.

But the only way to explain something like the way ABBA Gold keeps selling is that there is a new audience. It’s not the old fans buying it again. I refuse to believe that.

How do people react to you personally now?

The big difference is I’m very often treated with something like reverence, which I don’t like, that’s kind of a new thing that’s come in the last two years. But, I suppose, a lot of people started off with ABBA who are now musicians themselves, so…

How did it begin?

Benny and I were working together on a fairly regular basis toward the end of the ’60s, writing and producing for other people and I had a feeble attempt at a solo career. I went to do a television show and that’s where I met Agnetha, and I fell in love. Months later, Benny met Frida at a concert and the same thing happened. Benny and I went on holidays together, spent a lot of time together, never thinking about forming a group or anything, it was absolutely not in our minds. But the girls were singers so we would help them with backing vocals and stuff and when we did our records they would help us. And we did that for quite a long time. Then we thought, ‘This sounds really good, there’s something special here.’ I remember one song, ‘Hello Old Man’ which was a big hit for Benny and me – the girls did the backing vocals and completely took over, because they were the better singers. Then this idea came at the beginning of the ’70s, “Why don’t we do something that we’ve all dreamed about. Wrote a pop song in English and record that?” Benny and I were tired of the Swedish circuit and writing songs for other artists. So we wrote a song called ‘People Need Love’ and recorded it and that was a minor hit.

How did you hook up with Stig Andersen?

The Hootenanny Singers [Bjorn’s first band] was an amateur group in our little town and we entered some kind of competition that went through radio and we were spotted by Stig and his partner Bengt and Stig came in his sports car down to our little town and we were the first act signed to his label, Polar. We didn’t know whether it was a good deal that we’d been offered, whether we should go with him or someone else. Who could we ask? The only person we could think of was the lady who ran the local record shop. We went in waving our contract… ‘Do you think that this is any good?’

When I married Agnetha the same day his partner Bengt took his own life. Stig asked if I’d like to become his partner. I said yes, but I would like to do it together with Benny. So I came in 50/50.

What was the Swedish pop industry like in the ’60s?

It was a copy. After the Beatles in 1963, all these pop groups popped up. The Hep Stars, Benny’s band, was one of them. But all that ebbed away towards the end of the 60s. For us to survive we had to write Swedish songs. The Hootenanny Singers were a folk-pop band. Benny came with us on the last tour in 1967 and then that was out the window.

How did you and Benny meet?

I was touring with The Hootenanny Singers one summer – 1964, I think – and he was touring with Hep Stars and we had 140 gigs over a period of three months and they had too, so we were bound to bump into each other, which we did, outside one of the gigs.. We stopped the cars, got out and said Hello, all the band members, you know, and ‘What are you doing tonight?’ As a matter of fact, the next day we, the three Hootenanny Singers, were going to start our military service, and so we were going to have a party in Lingkoping that night for our last day of freedom. So they said, Okay we’ll come and join you. Which they did, turned up about 2am and the party was still going on. It ended with me and Benny sitting in the park playing guitars at dawn – most probably playing Beatles songs. There was an immediate rapport, I was the musical engine for my group and he was for his, we had a lot of things in common. We stayed in touch and wrote songs off and on for the next few years.

What did Swedish military service entail?

It lasted a year. Well, I was supposed to do 18 months but I got out after a year. It was all, you know, in the woods shooting and running about with helmets…so stupid…We’d had success by then and so we could go touring and recording at the weekends.

When you first met Agnetha, what did you think of her as a singer?

Oh I think I fell in love with her before I met her because of her first record. [‘I Was So In Love’] It was wonderful and she wrote it herself. The other guys in the Hootenanny Singers will bear witness that I was crazy about that girl and then I met her and it happened.

How did you introduce yourself to her?

I didn’t have to, we knew who we were! We just said Hi! We talked a lot. We started dating immediately and it was just one of those love stories.

Tell me about the show the four of you put on when you first got together…Festfolket

(Pained) Oooh, that was the lowest ebb of my career, in fact for all four of us. At that time, the thing to do was cabaret in restaurants, that was the thing, singing other people’s songs with funny lyrics trying to be amusing. We did this restaurant in Gothenburg and one night there were three people in the audience… terrible, terrible.

Why? You were all famous…

Things hadn’t gone that well for a while, there was no attraction in the four of us at that point. Then we went to Stockholm to play in another restaurant and by then we had this song ‘Hello Old Man’ that became a hit and it helped tremendously, people started coming and that’s when we made the decision. “My god, this is what we have to do, we have to do our own material not sing bloody pastiche songs trying to be funny, we’re a pop group.” The intent had been to be a cabaret group to survive. And we hated every moment, so it was such a relief when ‘Hello Old Man’ was a hit and we could see where we should go.

So I’ve been there, seen all sides, which is good I think – having a career as a bit of a teenage idol, knowing what that’s like, then having that low ebb and then preparing for the big things with ABBA and being humble about it.

Was it always in the back of your mind to break out of Sweden?

Yes, that was the dream from early on. We had a hit in Japan in about 1972, a big hit, with ‘People Move On’ that was the first taste of what it could be, and it was a minor hit in Holland. But it was very, very difficult to get people in England and America to even listen to a group from Sweden, virtually impossible. So we decided one of the only avenues, the only way to break out, was Eurovision. In 1972 we entered with a song produced by Wayne Bickerton for someone else. Then, in 1973 Agnetha & Frida & Benny & Bjorn entered with a song called ‘Ring Ring’ in Swedish – though we had an English lyric written by Phil Cody and Neil Sedaka whom Stig [Anderson – their manager] had met Neil a couple of times.

Was there an outcry when you didn’t win?

Oh yes, it was in all the papers the next day: “Wrong Song Won!” Everybody thought so. Which was terrible for the winners. They’d had some expert jury, head of the musicians union, experts like that on the voting panel. The next year they made it a “people’s jury.”

How did you and Benny write at that stage?

Just acoustic guitar and a piano banging away all day.

Did you treat it as a 9-5 job?

Yes, all through those years we did that. Perhaps for two or three weeks we’d do the office-hours thing and then sometimes go off and write day and night in isolation somewhere. All those dreary hours paid in the early years paid off because we’d gotten rid of all the rubbish and you develop a trained ear, you know when something good comes along, “Yes! That’s good! Take it!” Which is an art in itself, and unless you’re very disciplined and put in a lot of hours it’s difficult to get the refined ear.

Were you writing with an eye on the British charts?

No no no. Just writing pop music, loving pop music, being glad to be able to do it.

How did Stig build up the relationships with other countries?

He was the biggest publisher in Scandinavia, he travelled everywhere buying songs and got a lot of contacts. Before we went to Brighton for Eurovision it was all set up.

Were you thinking mostly in terms of singles?

Definitely, on the first albums. Then we wrote albums and treated every song as a single. In most cases we wouldn’t even go into the studio unless the song had potential as a single. That’s why the albums are good, there aren’t many weak tracks on them. That’s what I think, anyway.

What was the immediate aftermath of Eurovision?

That was a wonderful feeling. We were very lucky that it happened in England, it was the best possible place for it to happen. We celebrated that night, and the day after we sat there brainstorming, “What do we do now the world is open?” A great feeling.

Can you recall a moment when you felt a new level of ability begin? “Hey, the songs are much better than they were last month.”

For about a year after ‘Waterloo’ it was no good at all. We had a few flops. We released the wrong singles. That was a bad time but then when we wrote for the next album ‘SOS’ and ‘Mamma Mia’, I thought, “Yes, something is happening here.”

What did you look for in your songs at that point?

We never had any formula or anything like that. It was just a matter of writing until you come up with something you like. I suppose it’s what you’re brought up with, the input you have during your receptive years. We’d had everything from English and American rock music to Swedish folk, German schlager and Italian songs.

In the beginning lyrics were a sort of necessary evil for us, just something you had to have to sing, usually it was about looking out for a hookline and then building something around that. But by the third album, when my grasp of English had got much better because we’d travelled a lot, I began to think that it would be fun to say something as well, and that people would listen to what we sang.

Did you write a different kind of song from your Swedish songs?

Oh yeah, we wrote pop, that was the big difference, pop music not schlager or folk. ‘Hello Old Man’ was a cross between country and western and The Salvation Army.

How did the four of you get on at first? Was that an easy working relationship?

Oh yes, two couples who would go into the studio, go out afterwards together and go on holiday together. It was always great fun in the studio, usually because of [our engineer] Michael Tretow who was very funny. We laughed all the time. There was the most wonderful creative atmosphere in the studio.

Early on we’d book blocks of time, “On Tuesday we record from 10am-10pm and by then it has to be ready, mixed.” That was the very beginning. After Eurovision we spent more time in the studio. Still, it was very disciplined. It was only later, after we built our own studio in 1978, that we started to spend months on recording.

Did Arrival feel like a landmark album for you at the time?

No, I just remember it being very good, going really well, the writing and the recording. We had tremendous self-confidence at that time, we were pop, no one could touch us.

What was it like when ABBA first began to tour?

We only had two major tours. I don’t think we toured more than six months in total. I didn’t like touring. We felt it was bad for creativity, reproducing the songs, screaming fans, dinner, parties, the same thing every night, every country and then after that you wake up and travel to the next city, when the most important thing you could be doing was writing new songs. Which is why we turned down lots of offers to tour. We did the right thing, I’m sure, because so many bands dry up when they’re touring too much.

Any embarrassing moments on stage?

Oh yes, the most embarrassing moment on stage in Melbourne. I was talking to Benny on stage, [bantering] back and forth and this word came, I don’t know from where, but I called him a bastard. I meant to say “You silly man” or something and I said “bastard” and I could hear (shocked intake of breath) from 15,000 people. That was my worst moment on stage.

How did worldwide fame affect you personally?

I was used to being recognised, being asked for autographs, even screaming girls running after me, so we were not impressed by much of that. That kept our feet on the ground, all four of us. It’s a dangerous world out there for a world-famous pop group. But for us, two married couples, there were no drugs, no groupies, nothing like that.

Did being in the spotlight with one another 24 hours a day take it’s toll on the relationships?

No, I think the other way around. Imagine if you’re out travelling a lot and you have a wife at home, it’s worse then, so neither of the divorces had anything to do with being too close too much, it was other things.

Agnetha wasn’t pleased about leaving the family.

No, we’d take the kids with us if we could.

I’ve heard that the Swedish press were hostile towards you when you became famous, was that true?

I guess in the beginning, yes, but gradually they changed. There was this Progressive, political rock movement happening on the far left and a lot of the critics were impressed by that and so ABBA was a sort of antichrist to that. They weren’t progressive at all, of course, we were progressive!

There was a time when [the press] thought we were a hit factory: ‘It’s easy for them, it’s nothing’ which was irritating because as we put down so much work and heart into everything we did and then a critic would call us a bloody hit factory I didn’t like that. It was also odd when the press said that being married couples was a gimmick, that somehow we’d done it for publicity.

You were the international face of Sweden at the time. That must have felt very strange.

I didn’t think of it that way, we recorded and did our promotion and were intensely focused upon that, so I never looked upon us as the face of Sweden or ambassadors or anything, we were just a bloody good pop group, that’s what we were.

We were much less troubled in Sweden. We really went back to a rather normal family life, which was good for keeping your sanity. I imagine how it would be for an English group at that time – very different, they’d have had to barricade themselves behind walls, like The Beatles did. But we could walk the streets of Stockholm any day, no problem, even if everyone knew who we were. It was only the odd foreigner or someone from the countryside who came up and asked for autographs.

What sense did you get of the world’s image of you then?

The input we had was from pop magazines from all over the world that were sent to us, the main input was the telexes and faxes of chart positions. There’s a world out there and we’re number one in it, that was a great feeling every time that happened.

I gather you recorded ‘Dancing Queen’ a year before it came out.

We’d written ‘Fernando’ and ‘Dancing Queen’ at the same time and recorded them roughly at the same time and realised that we had two singles, one greater than the other, which one will come first? ‘Fernando’ was released first, between albums, and ‘Dancing Queen’ came with the album later on. We consciously modelled ourselves on the Beatles in that respect. It was the intention to every time surprise people and come up with something new. A step forward each time.

Would you discard a lot of songs?

No. Benny has made a calculation and he says that over the period that we were active we wrote 12 songs a year. And we recorded everything, so there’s nothing more in the can unreleased. A lot of groups record 30 songs to get 11, but we worked very hard at the writing stage and then they’d be recorded.

When did Stig stop writing with you?

He used to come up with titles, he was very good at that, and a very prolific lyricist in Swedish. In the beginning he’d come up with titles like ‘SOS’ and ‘Mamma Mia’ and I’d write the lyric around the title, that was only the first three years or so and then he had other things to do, became a tycoon.

How would you describe Benny?

We’re both quite calm actually. Different but not so different. He has a lot of patience. The technique we used was to wear each other out. When someone had something they liked very much and the other wasn’t sure the technique was to bring it up again and again and again… “No I still don’t like that fucking thing” …and again… in the end it would result in either being discarded or “yeah maybe you’re right.” I seem to remember that Benny didn’t like the verse to ‘Take A Chance’ very much, that first bit, “We could go dancing, we could go walking “

Agnetha used to write her own material. Was she ever frustrated by the set-up where you and Benny wrote everything?

We asked her, ‘Please write’. I don’t know if she was a bit intimidated, but that’s sad that she didn’t write, because she could have. She just didn’t want to.

What did each person bring to the ABBA mix?

The beautiful thing was that Frida was a mezzo and Agnetha a high soprano, so the blend was wonderful. When they sang in unison there was this quality to the sound where the two voices became another, fascinating voice, with a sound that I’d not heard before – or since. That’s what they contributed, and looking good, not the least.

When you’d written a song did you say, “Ah, this one’s an Agnetha song, or this would suit Frida…”?

No, it was much more , “Frida’s had three songs on this album, I’ve only had two, it’s my turn.” It was like that, it had to be fair and even.

How did Agnetha and Frida contrast temperamentally?

Frida is more temperamental. Agnetha much calmer, more shy where Frida would be outgoing. Typically, Frida loved touring whereas Agnetha hated it. They were very different in many ways.

As the songs matured did that coincide with the change in your relationships?

I think I wrote ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’ before the divorce. In many ways, Agnetha and my divorce was an amicable one, we just grew apart and decided let’s split up. Benny and Frida’s was a little more difficult. It was not a happy time but still very creative. Even if 90% of the lyrics were fiction there are still feelings in songs like ‘Winner Takes It All’ and ‘Day Before You Came’ they have something from that time in them.

When you were together so much, how did you find time to grow apart?

By growing up. We were so young when we got together and the years go by and things happen. You develop different interests, so even if you are close to each other every day you can still grow apart.

Were you quarrelling a lot?

Quite a lot, definitely.

What about yourself and Benny? Did that relationship come under any strain at that time?

Not during that time, no. The only strain there has ever been between us was when I decided to move to England in 1984. We had finished the Chess album and I had always wanted to live in England and the timing was perfect. I planned to go back and forth to write with Benny and I knew we’d be here any way because of the show. I lived here for 6 years and Benny didn’t like that, the fact that I’d moved. But now we’re back to normal again.

Tell me about ‘The Winner Takes It All’. It seemed odd that Agnetha was singing this emotional song that her ex-husband had given her to sing.

Yes, yes.

What was her reaction when you gave her the song?

Actually, I sang a demo of it myself which a lot of people liked and said, you have to sing that. But I saw the sensible thing of course, it had to go to Agnetha. I remember coming to the studio with it and everyone said, Oh this is great, wonderful It was strange hearing her singing it. It was more like an actress doing something when she sang it, but deeply moving.. Afterwards there were a few tears as well.

I remember I wrote that lyric very quickly, which was rare with me. I was drunk – I’d been drinking Scotch – and it came in one hour. And that never works, writing when you’re drunk, you think it’s wonderful but it looks terrible the next day, but that one worked.

What I used to do was take the backing tracks home and I would just play one over and over. Sooner or later the tune would tell me what it was about.

Were you living on your own at that time?

No, I had met my wife Lena. I was a bachelor for one week. Agnetha and I split up at Christmas and on New Year’s Eve at a party at Benny’s house I met Lena.

Was there ever a moment where you thought, I can’t get her to sing this; where you felt you’d uncovered something too raw?

No. As I said before, even if the roots are somewhere deep inside, from something that has happened to you, it’s still 90% fiction. I was writing from images most of the time. I had this image of a man walking through an empty house with all the furniture removed for the last time as the symbol of divorce and just describing what I see.

Do you have any favourite ABBA songs that weren’t singles?

Yeah, a song that’s the emotional highlight, along with ‘Winner Takes It All’ in Mamma Mia! [the stage musical], is called ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’, an image of my 7 year old daughter walking to school on her own for the first time, [giving me] that feeling, “I’ve lost her now, I didn’t take enough care of the time until now.” Every parent knows that feeling, even if you were with them every waking hour you’d still feel that you were missing something.

Tell me about The Visitors.

We had tried so many different styles and things, we were going towards a darker period I think. You can see from the album sleeve. All apart on the sleeve for the first time. That album was about darkness and loneliness. ‘The Visitors’ was a fantasy about how I thought it would be to be a dissident in the Soviet Union and hear the knock on the door and they’d take you away. Not very pop, but it’s a powerful image.

Why do you think singles like ‘Day Before You Came’ and ‘Head Over Heels’ flopped?

With the exception of ‘Day Before You Came’, the energy was running out at that time, that’s the feeling we had at the time, and we had talked about that before, because a group has a life span when its really creative and really good and we’d said towards the end of that a group should split up – or maybe take a break and do other things and perhaps come together again with greater motivation than we had. ‘The Day Before You Came’ was too different and ahead of its time for the ABBA fans.

Did you react to pop in the outside world or did you always just work in your own sphere and not worry about what was going on outside?

We would have our ears to the ground all the time, knowing exactly what was happening all the time, but perhaps towards the end of that 8 year period we didn’t have that any more, we weren’t so interested and therefore not focused enough on being mainstream pop. New things were taking over the role that we’d had.

How did the four of you work together on The Visitors , did the divorces make it frosty in the studio at all?

I guess it could be frosty sometimes. It was harder to say, Please do that again. [Without someone saying] “No, I don’t want to!” I think all four of us could see that the potential in the group was still there so why should we let our private lives ruin something that’s still good.

Did you intend to come back together?

Yes, at first, but then as I said earlier I soon felt, “It’s passed. Let’s forget about it now.”

Didn’t the subject of a reunion ever come up? Did Stig try to get you back together again?

No, somehow the moment never arrived. I don’t know why. I don’t think any of us ever said, “Let’s get together again.”

You fell out with Stig, didn’t you?

He wanted to go his way and we didn’t want to be part of what he was doing. At one point he was turning what was a creative pop group into a conglomerate, buying bicycle factories and things like that, there was a time when all the press wrote about us was money, at least in Sweden, it was like the music was “Oh it’s so easy for them to do that, but this is so much more interesting, how much money they make and how many factories they buy.” So we went our separate ways. Benny and I desperately wanted to get out and we sold our shares in Polar to Stig just before I moved to England in 1984. Later Stig sold out to Polygram without asking us.

What are you most proud of from that whole period.

I’m proud of it all. I know all the kicks we had while writing ‘Mamma Mia’, ‘Winner Takes It All’, ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’, ‘Dancing Queen’ and so on

There have been rumours of an ABBA reunion for a Millennium Eve party.

There are these tales going around all the time. I won’t be there, and neither will the others. It’s not going to happen.

Can you foresee a time when the four of you might perform together again?

No I can’t. It would have to be something extraordinary.

The millennium’s not extraordinary enough?

No. It would have to be something else.

How do the four of you get on now? Do you speak to each other still?

Oh yes. Frida lives in Majorca and Switzerland, but she comes to Sweden every now and then and visits our office and says hello. And I have two kids with Agnetha, so I see her every now and then …but not very often. Benny and I? Well, we haven’t found anyone better to work with…

© Jim Irvinunpublished, May 1999

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