Abba: a 40-year Scandi sensation

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Abba: a 40-year Scandi sensation

Posted on: March 8th, 2014 by tommyj

Click here to view original web page at www.telegraph.co.uk

Björn Ulvaeus: how Abba became a 40-year Scandi sensation

Björn Ulvaeus: how Abba became a 40-year Scandi sensation

Middle-aged men in black tie, and wives with ambitious up-dos and drop
earrings – Eurovision was event television and the studio audience dressed
accordingly – averted their gaze as one Björn Ulvaeus swaggered on to the
stage in silver knee-high boots and the tightest white trousers ever seen on
screen. He was accompanied by his wife, Agnetha Fältskog, and another
couple, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, swaying to the beat in
surreal velour jackets studded with diamonds and draped in chainmail.
Waterloo, a relentlessly upbeat number, received only polite applause; but
voting panels across Europe loved it, and by the evening’s end Sweden was
top of the leader board – and a band called Abba had gained an international
following.

Globetrotters: the band on tour in Japan in 1980 (IBLI/REX)

Halling, who became a close friend of the group after touring with them as a
wardrobe assistant through Europe, and to America and Japan in the
mid-Seventies, attributes the band’s success in part to their complete
indifference to what was in fashion.

“They never asked anyone else’s opinion or tried to copy, and this enabled
them to make a mark,” she says. Evidence of this is littered throughout her
book: a snap of Björn in white Lycra dungaree flares, for example, or a shot
of the band wrapped up together in silver foil. H & M eat your
heart out.

Björn has no shame in admitting that the show-stopping outfits worn that
chilly spring night in Brighton were part of a deliberate attempt to get the
band noticed by the British public.

Behind their beaming smiles and tousled mullets was a steely confidence in
their talent, coupled with a healthy cynicism about the music industry. All
four had enjoyed success in other bands or as soloists and had chart hits
with People Need Love, Nina Pretty Ballerina and Ring Ring since coming
together as Abba – an acronym of the first letters of the band members’
first names. “When we first went to Los Angeles I could easily see through
the b——- ,” Björn explains. “If I’d been 20 I might have believed all
that we were promised.”

Time out: the group enjoying a swim (IBL/REX)

Instead of moving abroad to pursue their career internationally as Abba-fever
took hold, they stayed put in Stockholm and worked even harder. For Benny
and Björn, songwriting was a 9-5 job. Every day they’d meet at an office
they’d rented or in Benny’s basement, while Frida and Agnetha, who’d become
a reluctant pin-up girl, stayed home with the children. “There would have
been so much temptation if we’d been in London or LA,” Björn says. “In
Stockholm everyone knew us so we weren’t a big deal. This meant we could
continue working in a very disciplined way.”

It helped that they were great friends, with young families which ruled out
too much partying. “We were four people each with very strong wills so, as
you can imagine, it got really tense sometimes,” Björn says. “But we have
democracy in Sweden and we managed to keep that in the group, too.”

They applied the same approach to their technicians, designers and musicians.
Halling remembers one occasion when Benny stopped a concert midway so the
crew could have a hot meal. The production company hadn’t thought to supply
one and he was furious. “They knew everyone’s names and made them feel
welcome,” she says. “It’s a very Swedish way of working; if someone doesn’t
feel like they belong they don’t do a good job.”

The fans adored them – their 1976 hit Fernando went to No 1 in at least 13
countries – but from the start music journalists had it in for them.
Halling’s book contains newspaper cuttings describing their music as
“cold-hearted cynicism” and “empty”. “In the Seventies it was politically
incorrect to listen to Abba, even in Sweden,” she says.

The band ignored the critics. They’d dealt with bad reviews before in their
individual careers. “In the beginning everything we did was c— ,” Björn
says. “But we knew from experience that there was nothing more important
than the song. And you quickly learn to ignore the criticism when you hear
reports from all over the globe that you are No 1.”

It was only on tour that Abba finally got a chance to behave, to some degree,
like the megastars they were. Halling’s personal photographs convey the
glamour of touring: the fans, the private jets, the concerts and the
sunbathing. Among the reservation forms, tickets and itineraries folded into
her book is a note from Frida, recalling more than 20,000 fans waiting at
Melbourne airport. “First, you couldn’t believe your eyes. Then you realise
this is actually for our sake and no one else’s; it’s not the president who
has arrived,” she writes.

Swedish style: the band perform in typically flamboyant outfits in 1975
(NBCUPHOTOBANK/REX FEATURES)

It never went to their heads. Apart from the two bottles of French dry
champagne, Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch and dry ice included on the
request list to the production company on their Australian tour, Abba’s
requirements were disappointingly mainstream: tea, coffee, milk, fresh
fruit. The truth was, Björn explains, that they’d have preferred not to
leave Sweden at all.

Benny complained that on tour there was no time for songwriting, while the
group had become so popular in countries like Australia and Japan that
Agnetha and Frida couldn’t leave the hotel except in disguise, spoiling any
sightseeing and eating out.

“We had a lot of fun on stage but that was just a few hours compared to
everything else,” writes Frida in the book. “Plus I missed the children all
the time and that didn’t help.” Björn agrees that being a parent was at odds
with touring as a band. “Agnetha and I had a baby daughter so it was always
difficult to decide whether to go.”

While Halling’s book, with its focus on tours, gives the impression that they
spent much of the decade abroad, in fact they toured for just five months,
turning instead to videos as a means of reaching audiences. As a result Abba
avoided over-saturating their fans: there were no unsold tours and their
10th album, The Visitors, their last, was the biggest seller of their
career.

It was when working on set for the artwork for The Visitors in an old artist’s
studio in Stockholm in 1981 that Halling noted a coolness had overtaken the
band. Their lyrics were deeper and darker, addressing topics such as failed
relationships and the loss of innocence – although still with the customary
catchy harmonies.

“They’d been so much in love,” she says. “But now I got a sense that what
happens to painters was happening to Abba: they’d worked in a certain manner
for a number of years and suddenly they were empty. The lust has gone.”

Platform soul: Agnetha on tour

Björn describes the change in mood as a “creative drain” that left them with
no choice but to try something else. “That’s how we all felt. We decided to
do other things for a while,” he says.

By 1981 both couples had divorced and Björn and Benny had remarried. Björn,
who has five grandchildren, has denied that their UK No 1 The Winner Takes
it All of the same year was about his divorce and insists that the end of
their relationships had nothing to do with the pressures of being in such a
successful band. “That was part of life, not Abba,” he says. “It’s what
happens to so many people who get married. It was never going to work.”

In the years following the split (although they never officially called it
that) they took advantage of the opportunities Abba had opened up, Benny and
Björn working on the musical Chess with Tim Rice in 1983 and Agnetha and
Frida relaunching solo careers. “We always had the thought in the back of
our minds that we’d get back together, but in the end we didn’t,” Björn
says.

It took longer for the girls to move on in their personal lives. Frida, who
now lives in Zermatt with her boyfriend Henry Smith, fifth Viscount
Hambleden, describes the break-up of the band as a wound that never healed.
“Abba was our everything: our mutual relationships, our partner
relationships, children, families, houses, moves and break-ups,” she says.

In 1992 she married Prince Heinrich Ruzzo Reuss, Count of Plauen, only to be
widowed in 1999. Her daughter Lise-Lotte from her first marriage to Ragnar
Fredriksson had died in a car accident in New York the previous year; she
has a son, Hans, but never had any children with Benny.

One of the precious items of memorabilia from Ingmarie Halling’s new book

Meanwhile, Agnetha claims there’s still not a day when she doesn’t think or
dream about Abba. After withdrawing from public life in the Nineties and
setting up home on a farm on the island of Ekerö in the Stockholm
archipelago, she was stalked for many years by Dutchman Gert van der Graaf,
with whom she’d had a brief romance. Recently she has come out of hiding,
and last year had a new album A, and appeared in a BBC documentary Agnetha:
Abba and After…

Enthusiasm for Abba waned during the Eighties; but the group was back in the
charts with Abba Gold, a collection of their greatest hits, in 1992 which
went straight to No 1 in the UK. In 1994 the film Muriel’s Wedding, whose
main character is obsessed with Abba, tapped into this latent enthusiasm for
the group but it was the musical Mamma Mia! that fuelled a new era of global
Abbamania when it was first performed in the West End in 1999. It’s the 10th
longest-running Broadway show and the highest-grossing musical of all time
and inspired the 2008 movie starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Amanda
Seyfried. At the Swedish premier on July 4 2008 the Abba foursome came
together publicly for the first time since the Eighties and the movie
soundtrack went to No 1 on the US Billboard charts, Abba’s first US
chart-topping album.

Halling, who runs the Abba Museum, in Stockholm, which opened in 2008, was
nervous about showing her book to the band. “If they hadn’t approved,
I wouldn’t have published it,” she says. “This is a small country and we
are friends.”

Along with photographs and anecdotes from Halling and the band, the book
contains envelopes stuffed with memorabilia: Abba fans will be all over it
while others will enjoy flicking through it. For Björn and the other band
members it released memories that had been long forgotten. “It’s a brilliant
idea because she remembers things that I don’t,” he says.

Still, it didn’t prompt any nostalgia for the Seventies. “It’s a strange thing
always seeing myself as a young man,” he says. “The more it happens, the
more abstract he becomes to me.”

That’s not to say he’s not proud of what Abba has achieved. He insists that
Abba is at the root of our current Scandinavian obsession. “Everyone tells
me that’s the case,” he says. “And, yes, I think it’s quite possible. Until
we had our success it was still unthinkable that anything from Sweden would
catch on. Now the music industry in Sweden is now the most successful per
capita with America and the UK. We opened the door.”

Surely, then, it’s time for an Abba comeback tour? Agnetha, has raised the
possibility a couple of times. Just think, Ikea could supply the stage, H & 
M the costumes and they’d make a fortune, just like the Rolling Stones did
at their comeback gig. “Yeah, and whoever is richest when he dies, wins,”
Björn says sarcastically. “No, it’s not going to happen.”

Abba factfile

Biggest-selling artists of all time after Elvis, The Beatles and Michael
Jackson

Dancing Queen and Fernando were Abba’s biggest singles, with Arrival being
their hit studio album.

380 million albums sold worldwide

14 Top 40 UK Singles

Abba Gold sold 28 million copies; the biggest-selling Abba album

Mamma Mia! is the highest grossing musical of all time

*Abba: The Treasures by Carl Magnus Palm and Ingmarie Halling (Carlton Books
RRP £30, from Mar 13) is available to pre-order from Telegraph Books at £26
+ £1.35 p&p. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk

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