EXCLUSIVE: EUROPE’S POP VETERAN SITS BACK AND WATCHES HIS CHILDREN WATCH HIM ON TV
Mal Peachey on a legend that will not be Björn again
WHEN BJÖRN Ulvaeus’s youngest children see their father on the television, their reaction is one of sheer disbelief.
“It’s our Dad!” they cry. “How can he be on MTV? It’s impossible. He shouldn’t be there.”
Of course, they weren’t around the last time that Björn dominated our radios and TV screens.
He was, you might recall, the cleanshaven, cheeky, blond guitarist in ABBA, the quartet of wholesome Swedish married folk who took the pop world by storm. After winning the Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Waterloo’ in 1974, ABBA became superstars. In 11 years together there were nine No 1 singles, eight No 1 albums and more than 175 million records sold. It is estimated they made £50 million from their songwriting talents and a further £250 million from records, films and concerts.
But that was all a long time ago and Björn is almost as nonplussed as his children by all the hype, nostalgia and adulation surrounding the recent spate of ABBA awareness.
HE GAZES thoughtfully across the lawn of Stockholm’s top restaurant. “We sold a lot of records,” he says. “When the Seventies become nostalgia, along with it comes ABBA.
“I feel very far away from it still. I realise that millions of records are sold out there, and it has something to do with me, but not as much as it used to.
“It was another time, I was another person.” He shrugs. “I think it’s also very, very flattering that our music is still around.”
Björn smiles. A lot. Then he has plenty of reason to. ABBA Gold, a 19-track compilation of all the group’s greatest hits has sold 4% million copies world-wide. Tomorrow Polydor records release More ABBA Gold, a 19-track compilation of a few ABBA hits, but more B-sides and oddities, expected to sell around 2½ million copies.
Today Björn looks healthy and happy. At 48, he sports a beard and looks rather like you remember his song-writing partner of 30 years, Benny Andersson.
Again resident in Sweden after six years as an inhabitant of Henley-on-Thames, Ulvaeus is, as usual, writing music with Benny. They have recently finished writing and producing the debut release of 23-year-old Swedish singer Jennifer Neilsen.
They are “about a third” of the way to finishing a musical, The Emigrant (their Tim Rice collaboration Chess played in London for four years, on Broadway for 18 months), and write songs every day.
None of the other members of the band — Björn’s former wife Agnetha, Benny, or his ex, Annifrid, will discuss their past.
They were, he says, just four people who were in love, doing what they wanted. They were, it seemed to many, too good to be true. At the height of their fame, people claimed that ABBA were a fabrication; that they weren’t even married. “That’s fantastic, isn’t it?” he asks, genuinely shocked. They were, of course.
“I CAN TELL you exactly how it happened. I did a television programme and met Agnetha. We fell in love and just months after that Benny met Frida. Since we were friends and dating, we got together, obviously. We brought the guitars sometimes and we’d play songs. It had nice sound to it.”
The price of their fame, however, was almost too high to pay. There were threats to kidnap Björn and Agnetha’s infant daughter, Linda. “When that sort of thing becomes a reality it’s awful. You can say, ‘Oh, it wouldn’t happen to me, it happens to Italians’. Suddenly it dawns on you that there might be some crazy bastard out there.”
He narrows his gaze. “The kids are the dearest things you have and it’s awful. My guess is that’s partly why Agnetha wanted out of the whole thing.”
By the end of the Seventies both ABBA couples were divorced.
“In Agnetha and my case, we had just slowly grown apart and when the decision came, neither of us had any doubts.
“It was amicable,” he smiles. “We were both in an equal financial position so that was never any trouble. It was all very civilised and no reason why we should stop working together.”
After their divorces, Björn and Benny found themselves writing about personal issues.
“Some songs written after that are part personal, part fictional,” he ventures. “‘The Winner Takes It All’, for example.” But didn’t you say that in your divorce, you were both winners? “No no, both losers. That’s why I say it’s only half personal. You are always a loser after a divorce, especially when you have children.”
He pauses. Suddenly, for a second, the smile is gone.
“I have a constant bad conscience. I should have done more for them, I’ve lost this, I’ve lost that. That affects you a lot.”
REGAINING THE smile, he adds: “I’ve, always been there for them. I haven’t bought them a lot of presents to make up for it. Not yet.” He laughs loudly. “Linda doesn’t want a Porsche, but she wants more horses than she has. My daughter is a keen horsewoman.” His voice trails off as if suddenly realising. “Woman… now.”
But they are all friends. “Oh yes, certainly, we have a very, very close relationship, so does Christian, my son of 15. But what I’m saying is that you have actually missed out and that’s bound to happen.”
Since remarrying he hasn’t missed out on any of his younger children’s upbringing, of course. But Emma, 11, and Anna, seven, share their neighbours’ indifference about his past successes.
In Stockholm, apparently none of ABBA get too much attention. “You walk the streets of Stockholm and people aren’t surprised to see you. It used to be like that in the heyday as well. It was more difficult to walk the streets of London than Stockholm. We were a little exotic, I suppose.”
Ah yes, the ABBA look. Not something that he is very proud of.
“Looking back, have you ever seen anything so awful as the stage clothes we had?” he asks, almost seriously.
“Be honest, I’m sure you agree. We used to fly into London to have our platform shoes made, and every time they had to have bigger heels.” He laughs loudly. “It was so ugly.” He shudders at the memory.
Of course, it was not only the ABBA look and sound which stood them apart from their contemporaries. There was never a hint of scandal about them. They were never part of the coke ‘n’ roll scene which they dominated commercially.
“For natural reasons,” Björn explains, “one of them being that we lived in Sweden. And we were married to the girls, we had children.
“No one would go out and buy coke and offer it to us, it just didn’t happen. It sounds so boring,” he laughs.
Will the world see the ABBA Revival tour sometime soon? “It’s not very likely. I think we keep away from the spotlight very well, and we all want it that way.”
Once again Björn laughs, for the last time. His wife Lena and two bilingual daughters are waiting for him to take them to the funfair. Where people might glance at one of Sweden’s biggest exports — bigger than Volvo, even — but won’t hassle him.
He doesn’t have to be Björn again. Why should he? •
WHERE THEY WENT
ABBA split finally in 1982, barely a year after each couple divorced.
• AGNETHA Faltskog — Björn’s wife, the Blonde One — now 43, released three moderately successful solo LPs. She is now a “housewife’ in a mansion outside Stockholm.
• ANNIFRID Lyngstad — Frida in the ABBA days — recorded a solo album produced by Phil Collins. She is now 48 and a grandmother and lives with a millionaire count.
• BENNY Andersson, Björn’s songwriting partner, split with Frida in 1981. He rejoined Björn to write songs for Tim Rice’s musical Chess, although his passion remains ornithology.
© Mal Peachey, Mail On Sunday, 23 May 1993