ABBA: The Story

THEY HAD a dream.
It was November 1970, and the greatest pop group of the decade was about to get off to a very inauspicious start.

Björn, Agnetha, Benny and Frida had each spent the ’60s as major stars in Sweden, notching up dozens of hits between them – solo, in duos or as band members. Two happy, attractive, successful, recently-engaged couples who spent a great deal of time together, it seemed only natural that they should pool their talents. Perhaps that way they could escape the confines of the Swedish pop business.

So here they were, opening in a new show at Tradgar’s, a swanky restaurant in the seaside town of Gothenburg. They were calling themselves Festfolket – the Party People – and the show was a light confection of skits and comic songs, some sure-fire covers and a sprinkling of their own hits. This was the start of a new chapter in their lives.

It was a disaster. On the first night, they walked on to find just a few embarrassed couples seated at the tables. By the end of the week, the act outnumbered the audience when exactly three people turned up to see them.

Björn Ulvaeus squirms at the memory. “It was the lowest ebb of my career. Of all our careers. Terrible, terrible.”

Yet, within a few years, the former festfolk would be the biggest pop act in the world. When, in 1977, they were booked to play two shows at London’s Royal Albert Hall (capacity 5,500), the box office would receive a staggering 3,500,000 applications for tickets.

The dream had come true.

MUSIC PUBLISHER Stig Anderson first heard of The West Bay Singers in 1963. They were a young, clean-cut, amateur folk outfit, something like The Kingston Trio. Folk groups were big news in Sweden at the time; most of them performed in English but Anderson had spotted a gap in the market for a group which sang in its native tongue. He figured that was just what he needed to launch Polar, the new label he was planning with partner Bengt Bernhag. The West Bay Singers sang mainly in English too, but an all-Swedish demo they’d recorded for a radio talent contest prompted Stig to jump into his sports car and drive to the small town of Vastervik, on the east coast of Sweden, to meet them.

The quartet’s linchpin was Björn Christian Ulvaeus, a blond, sprite-faced 18 year old, who’d been playing the guitar since he was 11, and now fronted their blend of American classics, traditional Swedish airs, German schlager and Italian ballads. Stig urged the boys to switch to an all-Swedish repertoire, and change their name to The Hootenanny Singers. If they were willing to do that, they had a deal with Polar.

“We didn’t know whether it was a good deal that we’d been offered, but who could we ask? ” recalls Björn today, chuckling at his naiveté. “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?'” Despite her suggestion that they try another label in Stockholm, the boys signed with Polar and won the talent contest. The song became their first single, and first hit, ‘Jag Väntar Vid Min Milla’, which, apparently, translates as I’m Waiting By The Charcoal Kiln. The Hootenanny Singers turned professional in the spring of 1964 – once they’d all finished school – and commenced two years of constant recording and touring.

By this time, the aftershocks of the beat boom had reached Scandinavia. The Beatles and their acolytes were inspiring the inevitable wave of mop-headed Swedes. Like, for example, The Hep Stars, an aspiring beat group who, late in 1964, needed a new organist and found 18 year old Guron Bror Benny Andersson. He was a moon-faced, gifted musician who could get a tune out of a cheese roll; he wore his fair hair in a marvellously medieval, Byrds-styled thatch and, though unmarried, was already the father of one child with another on the way. He was in.

A TV appearance performing a song called ‘Cadillac’ made the new Hep Stars line-up famous overnight, and soon Benny was composing original songs to complement their covers of ‘Summertime Blues’, ‘Bird Dog’ and ‘Farmer John’. By 1966, The Hep Stars had become Sweden’s own Beatles when, one morning on their way to a gig, they ran into The Hootenanny Singers, who’d evolved into a slightly hipper trio themselves, and were currently enjoying a hit with an electric-Dylan-styled single ‘Baby, These Are The Rules’.

“We had 140 gigs over a period of three months and they had too, so we were bound to bump into each other,” recalls Björn. “The next day, the three of us in The Hootenanny Singers were going to start our military service, so we were having a party for our last night of freedom after our show in Lingkoping.” The Hep Stars promised to join them and arrived after their own gig at around 2am. An immediate rapport developed between Björn and Benny. “I was the musical engine for my group and he was for his. We had a lot of things in common,” says Björn. “It ended up with me and him sitting in the park in Lingkoping in the early morning, playing our guitars. Beatles songs probably.”

Later that day, The Hootenanny Singers began a year “in the woods, shooting and running about with helmets on”. But they were able to perform and record at weekends and Björn kept in contact with his new friend. They started to collaborate on the occasional song and appear together too – Björn depping when the Hep Stars’ guitarist went AWOL and Benny augmenting the Hootenanny Singers.

Björn began to tire of his exclusively folksy diet and, in 1968, Stig Anderson encouraged him to embark upon a solo career. While promoting his first single, ‘Raring’ (Darling) on a local TV show, Björn ran across a rising star he’d taken a shine to earlier.

“I think I fell in love with Agnetha before I met her, ” he says, “because of her first record. ‘Jag Var Så Kär’ [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.” The two young celebrities began dating immediately.

BORN IN 1950, Agnetha Asa Fältskog was a country girl, raised near a picturesque town called Jönköping, in the south of Sweden on the shore of Lake Vattern. She developed a passion for music at the age of five when she became obsessed with a neighbour’s piano. She reckons she composed her first song, a nursery rhyme called ‘Two Little Trolls’, shortly afterwards. When she was seven her parents gave her a piano of her own and she began taking lessons. By 14 she was playing Bach fugues on the church harpsichord and knew jazz, pop and folk songs, which she’d sing with The Cambers, a little vocal trio she formed with two school friends.

Apart from her facility for music and languages, she was an average student and left school at 15 to work as a switchboard operator in a car showroom. While there, she heard that a local dance band, The Bernt Enghardt Orchestra was looking for a singer. She asked for an audition and got the job when another singer – also called Agnetha – dropped out just before a gig. Bernt was impressed by her compositions and the band began to feature them among their set of standards.

When she was 17 Agnetha was contacted by an A&R man from Stockholm calling himself Little Gerhard. He’d been sent a tape of the Bernt Enghardt Orchestra by its leader, whose voice dominated the material, but he was most taken by Agnetha’s voice and particularly liked the song she was singing, her own composition, ‘Jag Var Så Kär’. He called her at home and invited her to record for Cupol records. At first she resisted, realising that Gerhard wasn’t interested in the whole band, but eventually she was persuaded to make the trip to Stockholm with her father and cut two of her own songs.

“I felt like an awkward country lass who’d come to the big city,” Agnetha wrote in her book, As I Am, “The nervousness was different to the way I’d later feel with ABBA, when it was because expectations were so high. On the stairs down to the studio I suddenly heard the backing to my song being played by Sven-Olof Waldorf’s orchestra. My heart missed a beat. What a blast!”

Modelled on the vocal style of her heroine, Connie Francis, Agnetha’s first singles were huge hits, topping the Swedish charts and outselling The Beatles there. A clean-cut, flaxen-haired teenager with a lake-clear voice, she epitomised Scandinavia’s first post-war generation, and the nation took to her wholesome, innocent appeal and her self-penned material. A hit album followed and, though still only 18, its success prompted her to leave home and move to Stockholm. Shortly afterwards, Cupol struck a deal with German label Hansa, who liked her image and suggested she might record some German-language singles with writer and producer Dieter Zimmerman. Agnetha visited him in Berlin and quickly fell in love. They became engaged, but their work went largely ignored by the German public. After a year in Berlin cutting a string of flop singles Agnetha grew increasingly frustrated at not being able to record her own songs. A split seemed inevitable and Agnetha flew back to Stockholm in May 1969 nursing bruised self-confidence and a broken heart.

A few months later, she was booked onto the TV gala where she met Björn Ulvaeus.

“I looked up to him,” she later recalled. “He was warm and tender, well-read, intelligent and at home with most things… He had a charming voice and was an artist, like me. I felt we were maritally compatible.”

FALLING IN love with a Nazi soldier was unwise in occupied Norway. The German army fiercely discouraged love-affairs with the locals and the locals punished their errant women with strict, unyielding ostracism. In the village of Bjorkasen, near the Norwegian port of Narvik, the teenaged Synni Lyngstad decided she could face becoming an outcast while she could take comfort in the love of Alfred Haasse, but when her young soldier – who’d been a baker in peacetime – was suddenly ordered back to Germany, she was devastated. When she subsequently realised she was pregnant, she knew that her life in the village would become unbearable. Alfred had sworn he’d return as soon as possible. But he never even got in touch.

Synni Lyngstad’s child, named Anni-Frid, was born in November 1945. Some months later, Synni’s mother, who’d been trying to trace Alfred, finally heard from a government source that a troop ship had sunk shortly after embarking from Narvik. It was likely that Alfred was among the missing. Synni was inconsolable with grief. Her sorrow turned into a grave, indeed fatal, illness. She died aged just 21.

Anni-Frid’s grandmother knew that the child would be miserable in the scandalised village, so she made plans to emigrate across the border to Sweden. She settled in a town called Eskilstuna and started a new life there as a seamstress. Anna-Frid grew into an outgoing girl who loved to sing. Encouraged by her devoted grandmother, at the age of 13 she was singing jazz in local restaurants with the Ewalk Ek swing band. By 16 she had quit school and become a seasoned pro, singing with the Bengt Sandlund Big Band. She soon fell for bass player Ragmar Frederiksson and left with him to form her own group, the Anni-Frid Four. By 18, Frida had married Ragmar and, by 21, she was the mother of two children, Hans and Lisa-Lotte.

But the lure of song was too strong. When a successful TV appearance in September 1967 won her a recording contract with EMI, Anni-Frid Frederiksson opted for life on a stage, appearing in cabaret and touring the Swedish “peoples parks”. Inevitably, her marriage collapsed. Frida left Ragmar and the children behind and moved to Stockholm to become a star.

She met the stoical Benny Andersson at the recording of a radio quiz show. They were engaged in the summer of 1969; their friends Agnetha and Björn announced their engagement a few months later. Benny and Björn, now officially split from their groups, had started operating as a duo, writing and recording an album called Lycka. Naturally they helped their fiancées careers too. But the Swedish public were beginning to lose interest in the stars of the ’60s, demand for the couples’ work began to tail off and it was in this climate that they accepted the disastrous booking at Trasgar’s in Gothenburg.

“MY COSTUME was so tight I couldn’t sit down in it. I cursed myself for not slimming down a bit before that thing.” Björn Ulvaeus is recalling the moment when ABBA knew they’d finally gone international. Their victory at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest was all the sweeter for their having been cheated of the chance to enter the previous year, for being Sweden’s first winners and for winning in a year when the contest was staged in Britain. But Björn’s moment of triumph was undermined by a security goon who wouldn’t believe that the blond bloke crammed into a satin trouser suit with silver stack-heeled boots and carrying a star-shaped guitar could possibly be a co-writer of the winning song. “This guard said, ‘You’re not a writer, you’ve misunderstood, you dumb Swede.’ So Benny and Stig went on stage and I was allowed on when the artists were.”

But one idiot bouncer couldn’t hold back the intense wave of optimism that flooded the ABBA camp. “There was a feeling something really big had happened,” Björn remembers. “The day after Eurovision we sat there brainstorming, ‘What do we do now the world is open?’ It was a great feeling. Then, the next day, we went straight to London to shoot Top Of the Pops.”

After the Festfolket debacle, Benny and Björn had persevered and taken the show to Stockholm. In the meantime, Agnetha and Frida had encouraged them to release a song called ‘Hej Gamle Man’ [Hello Old Man] as a single. “It was a cross between country and western and The Salvation Army,” laughs Björn. “But people liked it and I remember thinking, ‘My god this is what we have to do, we have to do our own material, not sing bloody cabaret songs trying to be funny, we’re a pop group.’ We’d been [doing cabaret] to survive. And we hated every moment, so it was such a relief when that song was a hit, we could see where we should go.”

Certainly they were back in the public eye. When Björn and Agnetha married on July 7, 1971, thousands of fans turned out to wish them luck. In the consequent confusion a police horse trod on the bride’s foot, but otherwise the ceremony went off without incident and best man Benny played the wedding march and The Hep Stars 1966 hit, ‘Wedding’, on the church organ. Stig was there too, of course, but his Polar partner Bengt Bernhag failed to show up. It wasn’t until they’d begun their honeymoon that Björn and Agnetha heard that Bengt had committed suicide on the morning of the wedding. He had been dogged by chronic colitis for some years, it was thought that the discomfort and disruption of his life due to the illness had become too much for him.

Stig was understandably distraught. Bengt’s death would haunt him for many years. At first, he couldn’t imagine replacing his friend, but then he asked Björn to become his partner in Polar. Björn accepted on the condition that he could share the role – and his 50% stake in the company – with Benny.

SO BEGAN a period of great creativity and optimism for the two couples. Björn and Agnetha settled in the Stockholm suburb, Vallentuna and Benny and Frida soon followed. While producing and writing for Polar artists Ted Gardestad and Lena Andersson, Björn and Benny continued performing as a duo and even had a hit in Japan. Meanwhile, Frida and Agnetha pursued separate careers but would also sing on their partners’ recordings.

“Articles have postulated that Frida and I hated each other from the start which is, in fact, pure nonsense,” Agnetha declared in her book. “On the contrary, we saw a lot of each other out there in Vallentuna. The boys got on with writing and we stayed in, round at each other’s houses, singing and playing.” Gradually, Frida and Agnetha’s voices became more prominent on Björn & Benny’s records. A prime example was ‘People Need Love’, a jaunty tune in the vein of The New Seekers or Blue Mink, which, though credited to Björn & Benny in some countries, is now regarded as the first ABBA single. It stalled just outside the US Hot 100 when released there on the Playboy label and became a minor hit in Holland. In Sweden, for maximum star value, it was credited to Björn & Benny & Agnetha & Frida, and climbed to Number 2.

The success of ‘People Need Love’ revived their dreams of transcending the Swedish market. The only possible route out seemed to be via the Eurovision Song Contest. So, in 1973 Björn & Benny & Agnetha & Frida were duly entered into the home leg of the competition. Benny, Björn and Stig had came up with ‘Ring Ring’, a certain winner – punchy, catchy and complete with an English lyric by Stig’s old contacts Neil Sedaka and Phil Cody. The four stars gave an exuberant performance (Agnetha was heavily pregnant at the time, already a few days overdue, which added a little extra drama to the evening), but were thwarted by the judging panel of ‘music business experts’ who unanimously selected something else. There was an outcry in the Swedish press the following morning and the public went wild for the song. The charts in Sweden at that time comprised both albums and singles. One week in March 1973, the Swedish language version of ‘Ring Ring’ was at Number 1, the English version at Number 2 and the Ring Ring album at Number 3. Once their daughter Linda was born, Björn and Agnetha were quite relieved they hadn’t won.

However, cheated of his dream, Stig Anderson was determined they’d win Eurovision the following year. Legend has it he began planning their strategy for the 1974 contest the morning after losing the 1973 heat. Pop was a business to Stig, one that he knew well. He knew, for example, that many of pop’s practitioners were fools, and he wasn’t too starry-eyed about its consumers either. “People are not as stupid as you think, they are even more stupid,” he declared in a Swedish interview in 1972. He was also well aware that breaking a Swedish pop group around the world wouldn’t be easy, in fact, Polar’s distributors, Polydor, had just waived their rights to handle ABBA outside Sweden. So Stig figured that the best approach would be to use his publishing contacts in each country to generate local enthusiasm for the group, a much safer plan than signing one worldwide deal that might result in their records being overlooked or languishing unreleased in significant markets. An opinionated and truculent negotiator who refused to take ‘No’ for an answer – unless it was the answer he wanted – Stig liked to oversee every detail; dealing with people he already knew obviously made communication and control a great deal easier.

One of his British contacts was Paul Atkinson, the former guitarist with The Zombies, who had been published by Polar in Sweden (in fact, Björn and Benny had supported The Zombies at a gig in Stockholm). In the summer of 1973 Atkinson became an A&R man for Epic. Stig, by this time, had exhausted his British leads and been turned down by every other major label. He got in touch with Atkinson and sent him a copy of ‘Ring Ring’ by Björn & Benny & Agnetha & Frida.

“I joked with him, ‘Oh so I’m the last resort am I?'” recalls Atkinson, “but I really liked the tune. I played it all the time in the office to the point where I was driving everyone nuts. I rang Stig and told him I liked the song but that a lyric in Swedish was no good for the English market and he sent me the version with lyrics by Neil Sedaka and Phil Cody.”

Atkinson recommended the group to his boss, Dick Asher. “It was going to be my first signing and it became a bit of a joke around the building, that I wanted to sign this obscure Swedish group. Atkinson’s Folly they called it.”

Asher gave Atkinson the green light, but told him not to spend too much money and to do something about the awkward billing. Stig had begun to refer to the quartet by their initials and suggested that might make a better name overseas. Thus, ABBA signed to Epic (in Britain and America) for a £600 advance and a 10% royalty rate. ‘Ring Ring’ came out in Britain in October 1973 and flopped convincingly. America dropped its option.

Early in 1974, Atkinson took a call from an excited Stig. “I’ve got it this time, a certain hit!” They had just written ‘Waterloo’, and carefully crafted it for maximum Eurovision appeal. With a new ‘people’s panel’ judging the Swedish heat, it was certain to get into the contest. Stig was convinced that this was their best possible opportunity for international success and made sure that each country had the single ready to release in the week before the competition.

His instincts were spot on. ‘Waterloo’ was an instant hit all over the world. Curiously, back home in Sweden, people seemed a little cool about ABBA’s victory. “The Swedes showed no pride in ABBA’s exceptional success, ” recalls writer Brita Åhman, “Instead [the group] were strongly criticised and people poked fun at their costumes. Gold lamé and pearls didn’t pass muster any more. Hobnailed boots and Palestinian shawls were the height of fashion to many Swedish people. It would be a while before they acknowledged ABBA.”

Björn agrees. “I guess in the beginning that was true, but gradually they changed. There was a political progressive rock movement happening on the far left in Sweden at the time, and a lot of critics were impressed by that, so ABBA was a sort of antichrist to that Prog movement… They weren’t progressive, of course, we were progressive.”

THE FACT that ABBA scored any British hits at all after ‘Waterloo’ proves that we deemed them classier than the usual Eurovision flash-in-the-pans. Though ‘So Long’ and ‘I Do I Do I Do I Do I Do’ (“So bad it hurts”: Melody Maker) were deservedly modest hits – and Björn is convinced he and Benny lost the plot for a while immediately after ‘Waterloo’ – they were clearly the work of a band prepared to venture outside Eurovision’s Boom La La Bang On A String boundaries. And there was another factor. The Eurovision performance may have been preposterous – Owe Sandstrom’s glam-at-C&A costumes, orchestra leader Sven-Olof Waldorf dressed as Napoleon – but there was something deeply compelling about ABBA. The media leapt upon the fact that they were couples, a detail which invested ABBA with a delicious dynamic other pop groups lacked: “People in this band sleep with each other.” There was plenty of room for speculation about the relationships between the redhead and the blonde, the beardy one and the cheeky one. None of them resembled contemporary British performers, either; their look always just south of fashionable, ABBA were simultaneously exotic and bumpkinish. The British warmed to their unlikeliness and, fascinated, gave them a few more chances after Eurovision.

For a while – as ‘SOS’, ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Fernando’ began to smash to the top of charts everywhere – it felt formulaic: cracking tune, slightly dim lyric, globally-recognisable hook line. But Björn strongly refutes any suggestion of a formula. “I hated that. The press used to say, ‘Oh it’s easy for them, they’re just a hit factory.’ But we worked incredibly hard.”

Björn and Benny would usually meet in each others houses. They’d start at 10am and work through until 4 or 5pm, Benny at the piano, Björn with his guitar. Sometimes, as an album loomed, they’d go on holiday together and write intensely for a fortnight. “All those dreary hours early on paid off because we’d gotten rid of all the rubbish,” says Björn. “You develop a trained ear, and know when something good comes along and grab it. Which is an art in itself, and unless you’re very disciplined and put in the hours, it’s difficult to get that refined ear.

“Stig used to come up with titles. He was very good at that and a very prolific lyricist in Swedish. He’d come up with titles like ‘SOS’ and ‘Mamma Mia’ and I’d write the lyric around them.

“Both Benny and I are quite calm, actually. He has a lot of patience. When someone had something they liked very much which the other wasn’t sure about, the technique we used was to bring it up again, and again, and again… ‘No I still don’t like that fucking thing’… and again. Wear each other out. In the end it would either be discarded or it would be, ‘Yeah, maybe you’re right’. I seem to remember that Benny didn’t like the verse to ‘Take A Chance On Me’ very much, that first bit, ‘We could go dancing, we could go walking.’ but in the end he went with it.”

THE BEST ABBA songs would always be borne in on an undercurrent of melancholy. ‘SOS’ was one of the first examples of their trademark way with the simultaneously uplifting and plaintive pop single, and the first evidence that ABBA wouldn’t be forever trading in stuff as flimsy as ‘King Kong Song’ and ‘Bang-A-Boomerang’.

“In the beginning, lyrics were a sort of necessary evil,” Björn admits. “It was about looking out for a hook line and then building something around that, and it was only on that third album when my grasp of English got much better – because I read a lot and we’d travelled a lot – that I began to think that it could be fun to say something as well, that people would listen to what we were singing.”

‘SOS’s’ dark, descending piano intro and Agnetha’s pleading vocal immediately placed it a world away from the triumphal jollification of ‘Waterloo’. It was clearly a sophisticated production too, full of neat touches like Benny’s classical piano and synth flourishes, and the crunchy siren motif the guitar plays during the “When you’re gone” sections. It deserved to fare even better than its Number 6 chart peak but, if nothing else, it lay the ground for ABBA’s return to the top of the British charts, 18 months after ‘Waterloo’, with the irresistibly catchy ‘Mamma Mia’.

As the hits began to roll in, the ABBA sound shook off its generic Europop origins and became increasingly distinctive. Björn credits Frida and Agnetha with supplying the magic ingredient. “Frida is a mezzo and Agnetha is 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 I’d not heard before – or since. Which is why, you know, sometimes I’d hear music playing faintly at a distance and I’d know immediately it was ABBA, because of that unique vocal sound.”

Each new ABBA single seemed more elaborate than the last, glistening multi-tracked masterworks that had more in common with American records of the period than the meat-and-potatoes productions of contemporary British hits, such as those by Mud, Sweet or Sailor. When ‘Mamma Mia’ led the hit parade, only Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and, perhaps, Roxy Music’s ‘Both Ends Burning’ shared ABBA’s ambition, their modernistic Euro-sheen and slightly chilly perfection. By this time, ABBA were becoming used to long hours in the studio polishing their songs to a patent leather finish.

“Benny has made a calculation that over the period that ABBA was active we wrote only 12 songs a year,” states Björn. “And we recorded everything, so there’s nothing more in the can. A lot of groups record 30 songs to get 10, but we worked very hard at the writing stage and then they’d be recorded.

“For the first albums we were just writing singles, later on we were making albums but treating every song as a single. In most cases we wouldn’t even go into the studio unless the song had potential as a single. We consciously modelled ourselves on The Beatles in that respect. Our intention was that every single would be a surprise, a step forward each time.”

Benny was also very enthusiastic about the benefits of new technology. “He had synthesisers before anyone else,” notes ABBA’s faithful engineer Michael B. Tretow, “whenever a new one came out Benny had to have one. Those tracks were very detailed, every space was occupied in the musical picture. They wanted every colour on every record.”

“Each song took between a week and a fortnight to record,” says Björn, “When we had enough, that was the album. It was always great fun in the studio, usually because of Michael, who was very funny, and we laughed all the time. It was the most wonderful, creative atmosphere.”

“The only thing I can complain about is that I never had lunch,” says Tretow. “I was hungry for ten years. When there were red skies passing before my eyes and I’d be almost fainting they’d finally say, Okay let’s break for something to eat!”

RIGHT UP to this point, ABBA was still seen in Sweden as a home-grown supergroup whose members did other things as well. Agnetha (or Anna, as she was known in Britain for many years) was still signed to Cupol-CBS as a solo artist and Frida was contracted to EMI. Presumably, the solo careers had been kept active as an insurance against the demise of ABBA, but after ‘Mamma Mia’, the respective labels were anxious to cash in and pressed for new albums by the two stars. Agnetha’s (Elav Kvinnor I Elt Hus) featured a Swedish version of ‘SOS’. Frida Ensam [Frida Alone included a Swedish version of the next ABBA single ‘Fernando’. Stig Anderson felt that the solo work was beginning to encroach too much upon the group’s activities. He arranged to buy both Agnetha and Frida out of their contracts and signed them exclusively to Polar.

The release of ABBA’s own version of ‘Fernando’ coincided with ABBA’s Greatest Hits. It might have seemed a little early in the career for such a collection, but a handy digest of the band’s best moments to date was, apparently, exactly what the public craved. Greatest Hits found its way into 3 million British homes. The plush gatefold sleeve depicted ABBA in an autumnal setting, seated on a park bench, Benny and Frida locked in a passionate clinch while Björn and Agnetha curiously ignore each other, she looking faintly distressed, he reading a magazine. It was a masterful piece of marketing, making ABBA appear approachable yet glamorous, sexy but vulnerable, confident yet troubled. Elsewhere in Europe the album came in a bizarre fantasy cartoon cover depicting Benny as half pianist, half lizard-dog, Frida as a kind of gothic harpy with green-tongued mouths for breasts, Björn happily twanging away on a mutant baby elephant and Agnetha clad in bellbottoms festooned with dozens of miniature legs.

With their records topping charts in countries they’d not even visited, touring seemed a little pointless, especially when Björn and Benny could be using the time to write and record new material. Frida’s enthusiasm for stage work had not diminished since she’d sung in swing bands, in fact she was totally liberated by being in front of an audience and was always happy to meet her fans, but Agnetha was developing a distaste for public appearances and, with daughter Linda still only a toddler, became increasingly reluctant to disturb her maternal routine for the sake of a few gigs. But, eventually, ABBA couldn’t put it off any longer so, as ‘Dancing Queen’ was released in August 1976, ABBA’s first world tour was announced for the beginning of the following year.

For many, ‘Dancing Queen’ remains ABBA’s masterpiece, a perfect pop confection – compelling, uplifting, timeless. Written and recorded at the same time as ‘Fernando’, it was held over for almost a year because everyone was aware that it was a trump card. Engineer Michael B. Tretow remembers how they captured the groove. “I often brought records to the studio and said, That’s a great way to do the drum part or this intro or that sound. I remember we were really confident about ‘Dancing Queen’ but at the beginning of the tape, before the first take, I copied a [few bars] of ‘Rock Your Baby’ as an example of the feel or the swing [we wanted], because we’re Swedish and that’s quite different to being American or English, we weren’t brought up with this music, this wasn’t natural to us.”

ABBA HAD become Sweden’s most famous export. Stig noted in an interview that they now sold records everywhere except China, North Korea and Vietnam. ‘Dancing Queen’ had topped the charts in at least 10 countries including the US. Even Bolivia fell in love with ABBA and nicknamed them “the gentle Swedes”. Björn denies ever feeling as if they were ambassadors for their country. He could walk through Stockholm and only be bothered by the odd tourist; meanwhile, thanks mainly to Lasse Hallstrom’s evocative videos to their singles, Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anna-Frid were four of the most famous faces on the planet. “The main input we had from [outside Sweden],” says Björn, “was pop magazines that were sent to us, and the telexes of chart positions. ‘There’s a world out there and we’re Number 1 in it!’ That was a great feeling. We had tremendous self confidence at that time, we were pop, no one could touch us.”

Such self-confidence manifested itself succinctly in the group’s fourth album, Arrival. Rune Sodeqvist’s cover concept was terse and modern, Ola Lager’s photograph depicting ABBA as serious, affluent and international, touching down at dusk in a sleek, Bond-styled helicopter. It also marked the debut of the famous ABBA trademark with the reversed B.

For the first time people began to talk of ABBA, the machine, a slick operation with world domination on its mind. There were rumours that Stig had arranged a deal with the Soviet Union’s state pop label Melodia whereby, to avoid handling a currency as shaky as the rouble, royalties would be paid out in some other commodity, such as barrels of oil or potatoes. (This was later strenuously denied in interviews: “It was probably meat,” laughed Benny, “or vodka.”) Perhaps prompted by the single ‘Money Money Money’, features on Polar’s business acumen began to appear in financial pages around the world.

“We didn’t want to be part of what Stig was doing,” says Björn today. “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, ‘Oh it’s so easy for them to do that bloody music, but this is so much more interesting, how much money they make and how many factories they buy’.” They grew tired of fielding questions about whether they were thinking of leaving Sweden to avoid the massive 85% income tax.

There was plenty of comment about how lavish the world tour was too. It was a huge, theatrical production with a dozen musicians, lots of costume changes and elaborate lighting, coming in at over £9,000 a day. The show began in darkness with the sound of the ABBA chopper coming to land before a spotlight picked out the group in the white outfits from the cover of Arrival. They proceeded to play most of the album, the best of the hits and three selections from a mooted musical, The Girl With The Golden Hair. There was also a suggestion of ABBA’s cabaret beginnings in the toe-curling banter between songs – “Crass, glib and contrived”: Tony Parsons, NME.

The single which coincided with the British dates (in Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and London) was one of their very finest, ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’. Their fifth Number 1, it even won the respect of the punk-obsessed weeklies, with SoundsRecord Mirror and even the NME admiring its charms. For once it was not a slice of unalloyed optimism either; “No more carefree laughter, silence ever after” wasn’t exactly a standard pop opening gambit. ABBA, it seemed, didn’t inhabit an entirely roseate world after all. Björn says now that he doesn’t recall the lyric being triggered by events in his life. “Even if the roots are somewhere deep inside, from something that has happened to you, it’s still 90% fiction. I was just working from images. I saw a man walking through an empty house for the last time, as a symbol of divorce. I just described what I saw. I hadn’t been through that myself then.”

It was a fine lyric, though, and further evidence that ABBA had matured beyond the catch-all qualities of their early records. There had never been a pop act with their exact kind of appeal before – adult, everyday, a tangible sort of glamour that struck a universal chord. When they added heartbreak to the mix they became uniquely potent, with a quality that perhaps appealed to European sensibilities in the way the best country music touches Americans. For some reason, although they sold plenty of records in the US, they never managed to twang the public nerve there the way they did elsewhere. Australia, for example, went utterly mad for them. At one point it was calculated that every second Oz household owned an ABBA record, and with nothing like Eurovision to kick-start their interest, Australians seemed simply drawn to the songs. ‘Mamma Mia’ had been the flashpoint, by the time the tour was announced, ABBA were the nation’s favourites, boasting five singles simultaneously in the Australian Top 10.

ABBA’s arrival in Sydney was greeted with Beatlemaniac fervour. The tabloid press went into overdrive: the group were accused of being actors sent in place of the real singers, there was scurrilous speculation about Swedish four-in-bed romps and, of course, there was much excitement about the throwaway remark by a Swedish reviewer that Agnetha possessed the best bum in the world, resulting in hundreds of tumescent column inches. The group were rather bemused by the stratospheric level of prurience. “Don’t they have bottoms in Australia?” Agnetha was heard to remark when that subject came up for the thousandth time.

Attempts to relax in the crazed atmosphere were made futile by the arrival of Lasse Hallstrom’s crew to shoot footage for a documentary. When he saw the mayhem that was unfolding, Hallstrom suggested that maybe the movie would be better as a Hard Day’s Night-styled comedy of fame. Attempting to squeeze a story line into the shooting schedule made things even crazier.

Before the first show in Sydney, at an open-air stadium, torrential rain soaked the crowd and flooded the stage. Obviously there were worries about possible electrocution but, as it turned out, the only casualty was Frida, who slipped in a puddle during ‘The Girl With The Golden Hair’, bruised her coccyx and lost her wig. Björn recalls that the most embarrassing onstage moment of his career occurred when he inadvertently called Benny a ‘bastard’. 20,000 Australians drew in their breath, he says, shocked at those nice ABBA chaps bad-mouthing each other. “I only meant to say ‘You silly man’. “

THE TWO couples had, by this time, moved to the affluent Stockholm suburb of Lidingö. Björn and Benny continued to write together but Agnetha and Frida were less sociable. Agnetha spent much of her free time with daughter Linda, Frida started taking singing and dancing lessons and visiting a gym three times a week and was heard to remark that “Ninety-nine percent of my time is spent on my career and the other one per cent on partying.”

But her life was changed unimaginably when a German journalist, reporting on the ABBA phenomenon, heard from a woman named Andrea Buchinger who’d read his account of Frida’s birth. She claimed that Frida’s father, Alfred Haasse, was her uncle, and alive and well. He had not drowned, as Frida and her grandmother had always believed, but had returned safely to the town of Karlsruhe and reunited with the wife he’d had there all along. He’d had no idea that he’d fathered a child in Norway.

At first Frida was suspicious of the claim, and arranged for detectives to check out the woman’s story. When it turned out to be accurate, she arranged to meet her unexpected father, a prosperous German patriarch complete with white hair and a beard. Frida and the Haasse family remained in touch.

Agnetha, meanwhile, wished to extend her family too. Christmas 1977 was judged the most convenient lull in ABBA’s hectic schedule for the birth of a new baby, so the conception was pencilled in for the month after the Australian shows. Mission apparently accomplished successfully, Björn joined Benny in the studio to finish work on the next album.

If there had been serious plans to extend The Girl With The Golden Hair into a full-length rock opera they were abandoned in favour of a straightforward album of only nine songs to accompany the forthcoming semi-documentary. There was a filler or two and a couple of songs that seemed to be nodding towards Björn and Benny’s newfound passion for The Eagles and Chicago, but there were also two solid ABBA classics to be, ‘Take A Chance On Me’ and the masterful ‘Name Of The Game’ with its beautiful, prowling bassline supplied by ABBA regular Rutger Gunnarsson.

ABBA – The Album was a plush concoction, perhaps a little too plush, a little hollow, and if some of the old magic seemed absent it may have been because, as Agnetha’s pregnancy approached full term, some of her vocal parts were simulated by Frida. The accompanying ABBA – The Movie, which followed the dreary misfortunes of an Australian journalist attempting to interview the band, was less inspiring still. Nevertheless, it managed to become the seventh highest grossing film in the year Star WarsGrease and Saturday Night Fever were released. Seen today, however, The Movie is fascinating, a curious collision between Scandinavian aesthetics and ’70s Australia, it’s like finding footage of a bygone civilisation, a vanished form of entertainment, a lost recipe for pleasure.

The hubbub surrounding the premiere of The Movie masked the first deep crack in ABBA’s perfect facade. Not long after the birth of Björn and Agnetha’s son, Christian, it became evident that the couple were no longer enjoying each other’s company. Perhaps it had been brewing for a while. Songwriters often attribute prescient qualities to their work, as if their creative selves recognise what’s going on before their conscious minds see the truth. So maybe ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’ had been Björn’s clue to himself that all was not well in his marriage. If so he claims he never spotted it. Maybe the world tour, the fierce heat of the spotlight, being shadowed by a camera crew, the demands of their public image and the ABBA machine’s thirst for perfection had ravaged their emotional stamina too. As their home life soured, the couple kept on a brave face throughout the year’s professional duties.

DISCO EXERTED a tremendous pull upon pop at the end of the ’70s. If you were a mainstream pop artist who omitted to make a disco record you were practically committing career suicide. ABBA had always declared themselves fans of black music, whenever asked about their favourite recordings they usually mentioned Stevie Wonder, Motown and soul. They were thrilled to be signed to Atlantic in the US and it occurred to them that the way to really break through in the States might be to record there and harness some of the groove that wasn’t endemic to Sweden. Stig initiated a giant $1m promotion with Atlantic in May 1978, dubbing it ABBA Month. While the group were in the country filming TV specials and conducting interviews, they decided to try some recording at Criteria Studios in Miami. Producers Tom Dowd, Ron and Howard Albert and Don Gehman were present for the two day session as the band Foxy cut a backing track for the song ‘Voulez Vous’, parts of which were used on the final version.

When they returned from America they continued work in their new, purpose-built Polar Studios, designed to replicate the feel of their favourite Swedish studio, Metronome. Technical teething problems helped spin the sessions out for months and they missed the deadline for a Christmas release date.

On October 6, Benny and Frida quietly ended their nine year engagement and married. Ironically, it was just as Agnetha and Björn prepared to announce the dissolution of their own marriage. Björn declines to elaborate on the reasons for the break-up. “In many ways our divorce was an amicable one,” he says, not for the first time, “we just grew apart and decided, let’s split up.”

However, in her book, As I Am, Agnetha hints that things weren’t that simple. “We always told the media that it was a ‘happy’ divorce, which of course was a front… Obviously we all know there are no such things as happy divorces, especially when there are children involved. On top of that ours was in the full glare of the media. But to this day I don’t regret splitting up. The reason behind our separation is one of those things I definitely don’t want to go into.”

How do you manage to grow apart when you spend so much time together?

“By growing up,” says Björn. “We were so young when we got together and the years go by and things happen, you develop different interests. Even if you are close-by every day you can still grow apart.”

Björn left the family home on Christmas Eve 1978.

“I was a bachelor for a week,” he says. At Benny and Frida’s New Year’s Eve party he met his future, and current wife, Lena Kallersjo.

RUMOURS OF a permanent rift in the group were bound to start up and they continued throughout 1979, after the UNICEF benefit where they unveiled ‘Chiquitita’; when Björn took the lead vocal on the faintly creepy single ‘Does Your Mother Know?’, when Agnetha sang the single-girl-on-the-prowl anthem, ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’. Surely, people assumed, ABBA, of all groups can’t possibly keep together after a divorce in the ranks. The North American tour at the end of the year was successful but stressful. Agnetha was, perhaps understandably, very edgy on the trip. She told interviewers that she resented being away from her children and developed a phobia about flying after a near-miss in a small plane during a freak storm. She insisted on travelling in different vehicles from Björn so that an accident wouldn’t orphan their children. Inland, the group went everywhere in separate limos.

One former Epic employee remembers that the atmosphere on tour was actually quite convivial, and that ABBA had a tendency to stay up until dawn carousing in hotel bars. It was seen as a point of honour and protocol not to go to bed before the stars turned in and the Swedes proved too resilient for many a hardened musician, roadie and publicist. Björn told passing reporters that this was probably their final tour but not “a farewell tour, like The Rolling Stones have done so many times.” The group intended, he said, like The Beatles before them, to become purely studio based, maybe popping out occasionally for a one-off gig or a TV special. The European leg of the tour climaxed with six nights at Wembley Arena. In March 1980 they fulfilled a long-promised series of dates in Japan. It was their last tour. In a short documentary of the visit, made by Japanese label Discomate, the changes in the group are explicit, Frida and Benny cuddling one another, Bjorn travelling with Lena, Agnetha listening to her Walkman.

Now that Stig was preoccupied with ABBA – The Conglomerate, it had fallen to Björn to write all of ABBA’s lyrics. Generally they would compose a tune and record most of the backing track before Björn would take a rough mix home and play it over and over until a lyrical idea occurred to him. Sometimes he’d have a dummy, nonsense lyric which would spark off ideas, other times he would just let the melody play until a subject suggested itself.

During work on the Super Trooper album, Bjorn arrived home one evening with a tape of their latest creation, opened a bottle of scotch and began to concentrate on Benny’s sweeping, dramatic piano lines offset by a pounding, discoey rhythm section.

The scotch began to take its effect.

“I was drunk and the whole lyric came to me in a rush of emotion in one hour. And that never works. You think it’s wonderful at the time but it looks terrible the next day, but that one worked.” Björn took the words into Polar the next day and recorded a demo of the song, now called ‘The Winner Takes It All’.

People encouraged him to record the lead vocal, but he knew Agnetha should be the one to sing it. “I remember coming to the studio with it and everyone saying, Oh this is great, wonderful. It was strange hearing her singing that, it was more like an actress doing something when she sang it, but deeply moving too. Afterwards there were tears.” It may seem odd at best, at worst callous, to write such a song and give it to your recently divorced wife to sing, but you have to admit it amounts to a stroke of pop genius. Björn denies that it was too raw for Agnetha to sing. “As I said before, even if the roots are somewhere deep inside, from something that has happened to you, it’s still 90% fiction. There were no winners in our divorce.” In the memorable video that accompanied the single, Agnetha looks genuinely crestfallen as the rest of ABBA laugh and converse around her while she confides in the camera. This is the adult, human, real aspect of ABBA that made them a truly unique act. They’d come a long way from ‘Waterloo’ in six years.

SUPER TROOPER meant yet another lavish launch at Christmas 1980, though Stig’s plans for a video night-shoot on London’s Piccadilly Circus were thwarted by the Metropolitan Police. Meanwhile, work on the next album was already well advanced, though it wasn’t going smoothly. A new 3M 32-track digital recorder was causing headaches and tempers were fraying between the performers. Benny suddenly announced he had fallen in love with Swedish TV presenter Mona Norklit, apparently he had pursued her after seeing her on screen. He hadn’t expected to fall in love it had just happened. He packed his bags and left the devastated Frida. ABBA were certainly getting the knack of putting their productivity under pressure. No more carefree laughter, indeed.

“It could be frosty [in the studio] sometimes,” admits Björn. “[After the divorces] it was getting harder to say, Please do that again [without hearing] ‘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?” Benny and Frida’s separation was made public in February 1981 not long after ABBA had collaborated on a special 12″ single to mark Stig Anderson’s 50th birthday.

When the album they’d been making finally appeared in December it was obvious that the old ABBA spark had dimmed. The Visitors was a gloomier, more downbeat prospect, no more so than on the cover where, sparsely illuminated – possibly by firelight – the four of them sit resolutely apart, looking very serious. The title song concerned Soviet dissidents hearing the dreaded knock of the KGB. Poptastic!

In the video for the brilliant single ‘One Of Us’, the ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’ theme is reversed with Agnetha seen moving into a new apartment, shelving battered copies of The Band’s Music From Big Pink and a book called The Divine Garbo. Elsewhere, Frida, not unexpectedly, looked suddenly careworn, her hair cut short and scraped back from her face, the ever-present twinkle missing from her eyes.

Though it was an expertly polished piece of work and a strong seller, The Visitors turned out to be ABBA’s swan song. ‘When The Day Before You Came’ and ‘Under Attack’, the excellent singles they’d earmarked for a double greatest hits collection, were coolly received (both struggled to make even the Top 30 in Britain) the offer to write a musical with Tim Rice seemed tempting and ABBA was put on hold. “The energy had run out,” asserts Björn. “That’s the feeling we had at the time.”

In 1984, Björn and Benny sold their interests in Polar, and their friendship was tested for the first time when Björn moved to London. Then, amazingly, with their work on Chess complete, there was suddenly talk of another ABBA album for 1986, to be called Opus 10. Frida declared a willingness to set aside her solo career if it went ahead, and at least two tracks were recorded. When the group reconvened for a Swedish edition of This Is Your Life dedicated to Stig Anderson, it looked as if they might stay together, but Opus 10 was quietly abandoned. (One track, ‘I’m A City’ turned up on More Gold in 1993). Chess finally opened (good tunes, lousy book, ran for years anyway) and Benny passed his time horse racing and compiling an album of Swedish birdsong.

Frida and Agnetha both recorded some modestly successful solo albums – the first with, respectively, Phil Collins and Mike Chapman. Agnetha also recorded some Swedish children’s songs with Linda and Christian. Gradually, their solo careers faded, hastened in Agnetha’s case by a coach crash near Bristol while on a promotional visit, which shocked her into a reclusive semi-retirement on the Swedish island of Ekerö. Her subsequent marriage to surgeon Thomas Sonnenfeld lasted only two years. She devotes much of her working life today to political campaigning on environmental issues. Frida married German architect-cum-prince Ruzzo Reuss, in 1992, and has also immersed herself in work for animal and environmental charities, she released a Swedish solo album, Djupa Andetag in 1996.

In 1990, as Björn and Benny began work on an epic Swedish musical, Kristina Från Duvemåla (which would take them nearly five years to complete), Stig Anderson announced he was selling Polar – and therefore ABBA – to Polydor. Even that long-standing relationship came to grief, ABBA and Stig fell out over accounting practices which cost the group millions in unpaid taxes. He subsequently suffered a stroke and remained in poor health until his death in 1993.

Every possible bond between them broken or strained, ABBA’s dream was over.

A FEW YEARS ago on a visit to London, Björn took his kids to see Grease and wondered if ABBA’s songs would work in a musical. With producer Judy Kramer and dramatist Catherine Johnson, he has created Mamma Mia!, a story about the lives and loves of a woman and her daughter told with the help of 27 ABBA classics. While attending rehearsals in Soho, he has been surprised by the number of people who have recognised him – soberly dressed, darker-haired and bearded – in the street. His publicist remarks that you can’t walk anywhere with Björn without someone running up and shouting “Genius!” or proffering a scrap of paper and a stunned expression, as if asking God for his autograph.

“When we broke up I thought that ABBA was something completely past, behind me. We were going forward, writing Chess and so forth and [I assumed] that ABBA would vanish. It was stupid and naive thinking that, I suppose, but I did. The fact it has survived like this is immensely flattering.”

There are rumours currently circulating that ABBA will come together one last time for a gala Millennium Eve performance.

Björn shakes his head. “I won’t be there, and neither will the others. It’s not going to happen.”

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

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

The millennium not big enough?

“No. It would have to be something else.”

How do they all get along now? Do they keep in touch?

“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 obviously I see her every now and then… not very often. And Benny and I, well we haven’t found anyone better to work with…”

(Paul Atkinson interviewed by Johnny Black.)

© Jim IrvinMOJO, May 1999

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