Abba

Abba

 Agnetha Faltskog – circa 1981

“What’s the name of the game? / Does it mean anything to you?” – ‘The Name Of The Game’ (Stig Anderson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson)

Pop group or canned herring?  That’s the unusual question confronting Swedish consumers in July 1973.  Stig Anderson is the manager of four personalities in the Swedish pop music scene: Agnetha Ulvaeus; her husband, Bjorn Ulvaeus; Benny Andersson; and Benny’s fiancée, Anni-Frid Lyngstad.  The quartet has a hit on the Swedish charts with ‘People Need Love’ in June 1972.  This single is credited to Bjorn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid.  That’s too long a name to really be workable.  If they are going to continue to work together, they need a different designation.  With the assistance of the newspaper ‘Goteborgs – Tidningen’, Stig Anderson runs a competition asking readers to submit an alternative appellation.  Suggestions received include Flower Power; Black Devils; Golden Diamonds; and Baba.  However, the most popular, with an overwhelming eighty per cent of the vote, is Abba, an acronym formed from the first initials of Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny and Anni-Frid.  The only problem is that the largest brand of canned herring in Sweden is also called ‘Abba’.  Stig gains permission from the fish folks to use the name on the proviso that the group does not discredit the company.  Suffice to say the canned herring manufacturers could not have dreamt of better publicity.

Before forming Abba, the four members each has a pre-existing career in the Swedish music scene.

Agnetha Faltskog (pronounced Ag-N’YAY-tah FOLTS-korg) is born on 5 April 1950 in Jonkopping, Sweden.  She begins her singing career when she joins ‘a Swedish dance band’ when she is 15.  Nicknamed ‘Neta’ by her parents, she quickly displays great ability as both a songwriter and a singer.  Agnetha authors her own first hit ‘Jag Var Sa Kar’ (‘I Was So In Love’) which reaches No. 3 on the Swedish charts on 28 January 1968.  Agnetha’s voice betrays a ‘slight Smaland accent’ because of the region from which she hails.  In other words, to a Swedish audience she sounds like a bit of a country girl.  Agnetha records pleasant, middle-of-the-road, sweet and wholesome pop songs, becoming ‘the most popular singer in the country’ by 1969.

Bjorn Ulvaeus (pronounced B’YAWN ool-VAY-us) is born on 25 April 1945 in Gothenburg, Sweden.  He first comes to attention with the West Bay Singers who score a hit in 1963 with a version of an old Swedish ballad ‘Jag Vantar Vid Min Mila’ (‘I’m Waiting By My Pile Of Coal’).  The name The West Bay Singers is derived from an English translation of Vastervik, the home town of the group.  Since their music is basically traditional acoustic folk songs, on 27 February 1964 they change their name to The Hootenanny Singers to better reflect their style.  On 5 June 1966 a bus carrying The Hootenanny Singers meets at a crossroads a bus carrying another Swedish group, The Hep Stars.  The latter includes keyboardist Benny Andersson.  He and Bjorn get together after the concert and ‘get on instantly.’  Benny later says, “I don’t have a brother, but Bjorn is my brother.  Nothing will alter the fact that we are best friends.”  It is not long before the duo start ‘strumming their guitars, playing Beatles songs together.’  Bjorn speaks of their admiration for the British group and the influence they exert: “Before The Beatles, neither of us had written anything.”  ‘Several weeks later’, Bjorn and Benny have their first co-composition, ‘Isn’t It Easy To Say’, which appears on ‘Hep Stars’ (1966) – with Bjorn guesting on guitar.

Benny Andersson is born Guran Bror Benny Andersson on 16 December 1946 in Stockholm, Sweden.  He begins playing the accordion when he is 6 but “I soon realised that the piano was going to be my instrument.”  When he is still a teenager, Benny learns he is going to become a father.  His unmarried girlfriend, Christina Gronvall, gives birth to their son, Peter, on 20 August 1963.  Subsequently, Christina becomes Benny’s fiancée and they have a daughter, Helen, on 25 June 1965.  Benny and Christina split up, without ever marrying, in 1966.  After the birth of his son, but before the birth of his daughter, Benny joins The Hep Stars in October 1964.  He is not a founding member; he replaces their original keyboardist.  The Hep Stars are a pop group, with a large following of teenage fans.  They are ‘national idols.’  Benny Andersson writes his first hit for the group, ‘Sunny Girl’, in 1966.  In December 1967 the ‘Hep Stars scandal’ scuppers the group’s fortunes.  They are hit with a bill for unpaid taxes and disband in disillusion in May 1969 with big debts to pay off.

Although Abba is a Swedish group, not all the members are born in Sweden.  The exception is Anni-Frid Lyngstad (surname pronounced LING-shtard), who is born on 15 November 1945 in Narvik, Norway.  This country and neighbouring Sweden are collectively referred to as Scandinavia – as in they are the countries on the Scandinavian Peninsula (historically and linguistically, the term also applies to Denmark and Iceland).  Anni-Frid is born to Norwegian lass Synni Lyngstad.  Anni-Frid’s father is a soldier (with a wife back home) from the German army force that was still occupying Norway in the closing days of World War Two.  Synni raises the child alone until, after falling ‘seriously ill’, 21 year old Synni Lyngstad dies in September 1947.  Little Anni-Frid is raised by her grandmother.  She is said to have been brought up in Toshalla, Sweden.  Anni-Frid pursues a career as a singer.  A stint with Bengt Sandlund’s orchestra finds her falling in love with that group’s bass player, Ragnar Fredriksson.  On 26 January 1963, Anni-Frid gives birth to Hans, her son by Ragnar.  In 1964 Anni-Frid marries Ragnar Fredriksson.  Also in 1964, Ragnar, Anni-Frid and two other musicians form The Anni-Frid Four.  Ragnar and Anni-Frid have a daughter, Lise Lotte, on 25 February 1967.  In 1969 Anni-Frid makes the difficult decision to split with her husband and children to move to Stockholm and purse her singing career.  In these early days, Anni-Frid is the least successful of the four future members of Abba. “I must have some sort of record in failing to get into the charts,” she sighs.  The problem may be that her work is ‘a bit too “jazzy” and not “poppy” enough.’

(Note: Agnetha is sometimes referred to as ‘Anna’ in English-speaking countries because of their difficulty in pronouncing her name.  However, she officially remains Agnetha and none of her colleagues call her Anna, so here the name Agnetha will be used.  In contrast, Anni-Frid’s first solo album in 1971 [pre-Abba] is credited to ‘Frida’ and she is commonly called Frida in Sweden and by her compatriots.  Accordingly, from this point on, she is usually referred to here as Frida.)

In 1969 Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson meet Stig Anderson (no relation).  Stig used to write English lyrics for Swedish songs and Swedish lyrics for English songs.  Bjorn and Benny co-write songs for other artists in Stig Anderson’s Polar Music stable.  He takes on Bjorn and Benny as clients in their own right and becomes their manager.

Benny Andersson meets Anni-Frid Lyngstad on 1 February 1969 at a bar when he is still with The Hep Stars and she is a solo act.  They meet again later in 1969 at Melodifestivalen, the Swedish heats for the Eurovision Song Contest.  Benny and Frida fall in love, move in together and become engaged.  “The best thing that ever happened to me was Benny, not Abba,” Frida says.

Bjorn Ulvaeus meets Agnetha Faltskog on 4 May 1969 when she and The Hootenanny Singers are both involved in the same Swedish television documentary.  Bjorn and Agnetha marry on 6 July 1971 and go on to have two children together: Linda (born 23 February 1973) and Peter (born 4 December 1977).

In autumn 1970 Bjorn and Benny, as a duo, release the album ‘Lycka’ (‘Happiness’) (1970).  Their respective girlfriends, Agnetha and Frida, provide backing vocals.  “For the first time, we realised that the girls’ voices sounded perfect together,” Bjorn notes.  The single from their album, ‘Hej Gamle Man’ (‘Hello Old Man’), is No. 1 in Sweden for five weeks in November – December 1970.

On 1 November 1970 the four give their first concert together at the Tragarn in Gothenburg.

In 1971 Frida enters the Eurovision Song Contest as a solo act but is unsuccessful.

June 1972 sees the release of the single ‘People Need Love’ credited to Bjorn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid.

In March 1973 Inger Brundin, a friend of Frida’s, fills in for Agnetha during a European tour.  Agnetha is taking time off to care for her newborn daughter, Linda.

July 1973 is when the quartet adopts the name of Abba.  The line-up is: Agnetha Ulvaeus (vocals), Frida Lyngstad (vocals), Bjorn Ulvaeus (guitar, vocals) and Benny Andersson (keyboards, occasional accordion or guitar).

“The Abba sound is the girls – they are the ones you hear,” admits Benny Andersson.  “We could have met with two office girls who couldn’t sing at all and then there wouldn’t have been any Abba, I’m sure,” adds Bjorn Ulvaeus.  Frida explains, “Technically, Agnetha is a soprano and I’m a mezzo-soprano.  So I have the deeper voice and she has a higher-pitched voice.”  Most of Abba’s songs are sung by the two girls in harmony, though there are some tracks where one or the other is clearly the lead vocalist.  Just as Bjorn and Benny share an almost fraternal bond, their partners are also quite close.  “Articles have speculated that Frida and I hated each other from the start, which is, in fact, pure nonsense,” insists Agnetha.  “We always supported each other,” she asserts.  Frida concurs, saying, “I cannot remember even an aggressive moment between us.”

The four members of Abba are ‘healthy, wholesome, lissom and attractive all.’  While acknowledging that, just as the girls’ vocals are the central motif of their group’s sound, so too are the girls’ appearances central to the act’s image.  It’s a matter of personal preference which of the two is the more attractive.  Notably, while they might draw the eye of male fans, they engender no resentment from female fans.  On the contrary, little girls want to look like Agnetha and Frida.  If one of them is the band’s sex symbol, it is probably Agnetha.  “As far as I know, she was never really trying to be sexy, she just was,” observes Bjorn.  He also says, “She’s got a really romantic voice and the sexiest bottom in Sweden.”  Agnetha later fumes, “The interest in my bottom in Australia and Britain is ridiculous.  I didn’t realise that we were filming my backside so much.”  She either ignores or forgets her husband’s role in advancing the subject.

Virtually all of Abba’s material is co-written and co-produced by Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson.  Though Agnetha wrote songs in her early solo career, in Abba it is a task left to the boys.  Manager Stig Anderson co-writes some tracks, perhaps calling upon his experience in English-Swedish translation since Abba chooses to work in English to enhance their international potential.  This approach of not working in their native language also perhaps explains some clumsiness in the lyrics at times.  It appears that Bjorn is more responsible for the words and Benny for the music.  “If Benny doesn’t like a lyric that I have written, we don’t use it,” claims Bjorn.  “And it’s the same when we write the melodies.”  He further expands on the songwriting process by saying, “Ninety per cent of the songs [are] recorded with backing tracks, and the mood has been there before the lyrics have been added.”

The best of Abba’s songs are pop songs.  Bjorn and Benny’s early interest in The Beatles is reflected in their shared connection to pop as a genre.  It is not ‘just’ pop music to them.  Theirs is an ineffable ability to create consummate pop.  Abba’s songs can be enjoyed by an extremely wide audience and remain lodged in the brain long after the music stops.  However there are some things that distinguish them from English-speaking acts.  Bjorn explains, “There was a definite musical tradition that we shared in Sweden, where we grew up with German, Italian and Swedish as well as Anglo-Saxon music, which no English or American pop musician would be exposed to.”  On another occasion, he points out, “Our musical roots are European.  We like French and Italian songs…In the United States, pop music is heavily influenced by the blues, soul and gospel – which isn’t in Abba’s heritage.”

When it comes to production, Bjorn and Benny serve up a clinically clean final product.  There is nothing out of place, nothing rough or slapdash, it is all polished and gleaming.  This heavily manicured style is also part of ‘the Abba sound.’

Although there are four members in Abba, they are not a functional band.  The girls just sing and maybe provide a little percussion with a tambourine or maracas.  While Bjorn plays guitar and Benny pounds the piano, that is not enough to fill out the sound.  The main musicians who complete Abba on stage and in the studio are: guitars – Janne Schaffer (1972), Lasse Wellander (1976-1981), Finn Sjoberg (1977), Mats Ronander (1979-1981); keyboards – Anders Elias (1977-1981), Wojciech Ernest (1977); bass – Mike Watson (1972), Rutger Gunnarsson (1972-1981); drums – Ola Brunkert (1972-1981); percussion – Malando Gassama (1977), Ake Sunqvist (1979-1981); saxophone/flute – Lars O. Carlsson (1977); and backing vocals – Lena Andersson (1977), Lena-Marie Gardenas (1977), Maritea Horn (1977), Tomas Ledin (1979-1981), Birgitta Wollgard (1979), Liza Ohman (1979-1981), Lena Ericsson (1981).

The Abba logo, with the second B reversed so it looks like a mirror image, is the creation of Rune Soderqvist.

Abba makes extensive use of promotional film clips for their songs.  Nearly all these music videos are directed by Lasse Hallstrom.  He goes on to direct such movies as ‘The Cider House Rules’ (1999), ‘Chocolat’ (2000) and ‘The Shipping News’ (2001).

Desirous of becoming an international success, Abba decides the best way to achieve this is through the Eurovision Song Contest.  This annual event polarises music fans.  Some enjoy the gaudy and gauche spectacle, others grind their teeth and bemoan its lack of credibility as a launch platform for any recording artists of substance.  Bjorn Ulvaeus contends that “At that time, the Eurovision Song Contest was the one and only vehicle to reach outside Sweden.”  Abba strikes a hurdle immediately when the song they prepare is not even selected to represent Sweden in the 1973 contest.

The ‘failed’ song is ‘Ring Ring’ (UK no. 32, AUS no. 7).  Joining Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson in the songwriting credits for the song is not only manager Stig Anderson, but American pop star Neil Sedaka and his lyricist Phil Cody.  The latter two are asked to take a pass at the song to ensure its viability for an English-speaking audience.  This song has a hook big enough to land a whale, so the decision to reject it as Sweden’s representative at Eurovision is mystifying.  “I was sitting by the phone / I was waiting all alone,” begin the lyrics before moving on to a chorus heralded by a booming bass drum, “Please forgive and then forget / Or maybe darling better yet / Oh, ring, ring / Why don’t you give me a call?”  Bjorn later says, “Sometimes when you have a catchy hookline, you find the repetition of words is very effective.”  He further apologises that “In the beginning, they lyrics didn’t have much meaning for us.  They were just a few clichés put back to back to give the girls something to sing.”  Such a self-effacing attitude seems unnecessary when the result is as pop-tastic as ‘Ring Ring’.  The single also appears on the group’s debut album, ‘Ring Ring’ (1973) (AUS no. 10).

Undaunted, Abba goes back to the recording studio to draft another submission for the Eurovision Song Contest the following year.  Abba’s second album, ‘Waterloo’ (1974) (UK no. 28, US no. 145, AUS no. 18), is released in March.  ‘Honey Honey’ (US no. 27, AUS no. 30) sticks to the simple repetition of lyrics originated by ‘Ring Ring’.  ‘Hasta Manana’ (AUS no. 16) is a Spanish phrase manager Stig Anderson picked up while on holiday in Las Palmas in Spain.  As the lyrics say, it means, roughly, ‘until we meet again’ or ‘see you tomorrow’.  Agnetha is the main vocalist on ‘Hasta Manana’.  The pick of the bunch though is, easily, the title track, ‘Waterloo’ (UK no. 1, US no. 6, AUS no. 4).  With insistent guitars and clattering pianos, it corners like a sports car.  Stig Anderson again helps with the lyrics, neatly transforming the site of the defeat of the militarist French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, on 18 June 1815 into a love story.  “My, my at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender,” begin the lyrics as the female narrator finds that she too is “Finally facing my Waterloo” and surrendering to her feelings of love.  And “How could I ever refuse? / I feel like I win when I lose.”

Unlike ‘Ring, Ring’ in 1973, ‘Waterloo’ in 1974 succeeds in becoming Sweden’s entry for the Eurovision Song Contest.  Not only that, it wins the overall contest in the final held on 6 April 1974 at Brighton, England.  When performing the song, Bjorn Ulvaeus uses a custom-made guitar in the shape of a starburst.  The whole group is resplendent in brightly coloured satin, platform boots and other such outré attire.  “This was the glitter period in Europe, mid-‘70s,” Bjorn begins, before saying, “I am ashamed when I look at some of the costumes, but then again we had fun.”  Abba’s clothes are designed by Owe Sandstrom and Lars Wigenius.  From this ‘peak’, they will gradually be toned down over the rest of their career.

The ‘glam rock track’ ‘Waterloo’ is an international success thanks to the exposure of the Eurovision Song Contest, but Abba soon find that winning Eurovision is ‘as much a stigma as an honour.’  They practically have to start wooing the world record markets all over again.

In a way, it is appropriate that the group’s third album, ‘Abba’ (1975) (UK no. 13, US no. 174, AUS no. 1), is self-titled.  Just as many acts begin their careers with a self-titled disc, Abba restart their career with this set.  It also happens to be their best album.  The cover shows the quartet in the backseat of a posh car.  It is a 1952 Rolls-Royce belonging to financial genius Torsten Krueger.  ‘Abba’ is home to the Swedish hit-machine’s best song, ‘Mamma Mia’ (UK no. 1, US no. 32, AUS no. 1).  The title is Italian for ‘mother of mine’; an exclamation of dismay like ‘Oh my God!’  Clockwork keyboards and a lingering guitar figure introduce the song.  A well-constructed bridge from the verse to the chorus says “Just one look and I can hear a bell ring / One more look and I forget everything / Whoa-oh, Mamma Mia.”  This is pop music as a force of nature, unstoppable and impossible to resist.  ‘Mamma Ma’ avoids all the pitfalls of Abba’s weaker efforts and concentrates on their strengths: the vocal harmonies, the tight arrangement, the glossy instrumentation and, most of all, a powerful and memorable melody.  Manager Stig Anderson shares a songwriting credit for ‘S.O.S.’ (UK no. 6, US no. 15, AUS no. 1), a song almost as good as ‘Mamma Mia’.  A classic descending piano riff leads to the mournful verse “Where are those happy days, they seem so hard to find / I tried to reach for you, but you have closed your mind.”  The song swirls upward into the chorus like a plume of smoke.  What makes ‘S.O.S.’ work are its contrasts: the sad words and the glowing music, the verses and the chorus.  ‘I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do’ (UK no. 38, US no. 15, AUS no. 1) leans back on the formula for repetition but has an unexpected 1950s rock ‘n’ roll feel with its saxophones, bells and wandering piano.  Benny Andersson later says, “Swedish folk music and Elvis Presley are where my real musical roots lie” and this song comes closest to demonstrating the merger of those twin influences.  The full-bodied vocals lay it all down: “Love me or leave me / Make your choice but believe me / I love you / I do, I do, I do, I do, I do.”  The B-side of this single is another track from this album, ‘Rock Me’ (AUS no. 4).  This about as close as Abba get to a genuine flat-out rock song.  Again, it evokes the ‘50s with its honky-tonk piano, hand-claps and saxophone.  Bjorn Ulvaeus handles the lead vocal in his gruffest, most macho tone: “Rock me / Give me that feeling / Roll me / Rockin’ and reelin’, baby.”  The album is also host to ‘Bang-A-Boomerang’, which is an enthusiastic, loved-up hymn to affection being joyfully returned.

The one-off 1976 single ‘Fernando’ (UK no. 1, US no. 13, AUS no. 1) follows.  This track starts life as a Swedish language song for a solo album by Frida, but is co-opted by Abba because of its perceived commerciality.  Fittingly, Frida is the lead vocalist on the song.  The woodwind instruments and martial drums conjure up a Mexican backdrop.  Though it’s not very specific, it might be based on the Mexican Civil War of 1909-1913: “We were young and full of life and none of us prepared to die / And I’m not ashamed to say the roar of guns and cannons almost made me cry.”

On 18 June 1976 Abba play at the Swedish Opera House in a tribute to Sweden’s monarch, King Carl XVI Gustav who, on the following day, weds Silvia Sommerlath, making her Queen Silvia.  Abba previews a new song, ‘Dancing Queen’.  The song is not written for Queen Silvia, but it probably seemed fitting.

‘Dancing Queen’ is included on the fourth Abba album, ‘Arrival’ (1976) (UK no. 1, US no. 20, AUS no. 1), released in October.  ‘Dancing Queen’ (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 1) sees Abba absorbing disco music, the sound created expressly for dancing, even if the lyrics refer to “Where they play the rock music.”  A girl, “Young and sweet / Only seventeen”, is the subject of the song and the audience is urged to “See that girl / Watch that scene / Digging the dancing queen.”  Frida Lyngstad is certainly impressed with this piece: “It was so beautiful that I started to cry.  I mean, even without lyrics or voices on it, it was outstanding.”  Frida’s partner, Benny Andersson has good things to say about this song too: “I think it ranks as one of our five best recordings.”  Manager Stig Anderson helps write ‘Dancing Queen’ and also ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ (UK no. 1, US no. 14, AUS no. 9).  ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ is a much darker, more adult tale that sadly surveys the debris of a marital break-up: “Walking through an empty house / Tears in my eyes / Here is where the story ends / This is goodbye.”  Frida takes the lead vocal on ‘Money, Money, Money’ (UK no. 3, US no. 56, AUS no. 1) which features more lyrical repetition.  Her deepest, most husky tones are employed as she plays the part of a likeable gold-digger: “In my dreams I have a plan / If I got me a wealthy man.”  ‘Arrival’ is a ‘pop and disco influenced’ album.

Such is Abba’s standing now that a motion picture is created to exploit their popularity.  ‘Abba – The Movie’ (1977) is released in December.  Naturally, it is directed by Lasse Halstrom, the man who directed most of their music videos.  There is some concert footage and a thin plot, but the most important part of the film is another batch of new songs and they appear on the associated ‘Abba – The Album’ (1977) (UK no. 1, US no. 14, AUS no. 4).  The hurdy gurdy keyboards of ‘Take A Chance On Me’ (UK no. 1, US no. 3, AUS no. 12) may make it this set’s strongest contender, despite a lyric betraying a fatally low level of self-esteem from its love besotted narrator: “If you change your mind, I’m the first in line / Honey, I’m still free, take a chance on me.”  Around the same level is ‘The Name Of The Game’ (UK no. 1, US no. 12, AUS no. 6), a track to which manager Stig Anderson contributes.  What makes it most interesting is the musical arrangement.  It is constantly goosed forward by an awkward half-step beat, lending the song an almost funky feel.  ‘Abba – The Album’ is also noteworthy for the inclusion of a mini-musical, the last three tracks – ‘Thank You For The Music’ (AUS no. 82) / ‘I Wonder (Departure)’ / ‘I’m A Marionette’ – making up the story of ‘The Girl With The Golden Hair’.

‘Summer Night City’ (UK no. 5, AUS no. 13), a one-off single released in September 1978, is another attempt at disco music.  “Everyone’s doing it,” Bjorn says, “It’s the pulse of the seventies.”  The problem for Abba is that disco grows out of rhythm and blues music, sounds pioneered by African-Americans.  As Bjorn acknowledges, blues, soul and gospel – primarily the creations of African-Americans – are not part of the heritage of the Scandinavian Abba.  For this reason, Abba’s disco songs sometimes sound a little askew.

On 6 October 1978, after an engagement of about nine years, Benny Andersson marries Frida Lyngstad.

On 9 January 1979 Abba participates in a charity concert at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.  ‘A Gift of Song – The Music for UNICEF Concert’ also features such other rock, pop and disco luminaries as Rod Stewart, Olivia Newton-John, The Bee Gees, Donna Summer, John Denver, Earth, Wind And Fire, and Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge.  Abba’s contribution is a song called ‘Chiquitita’ (UK no. 2, US no. 29, AUS no. 4) which sounds like a female cousin of ‘Fernando’.  It is a fruity mariachi number with acoustic guitars.  The songwriting royalties for this track are assigned to UNICEF so it’s a gift that keeps on giving.

On 16 January 1979 Agnetha and Bjorn Ulvaeus split up.  The divorce is not finalised until June 1980.  Bjorn claims that “Ours was what you might describe as a happy divorce in so far as we both agreed this was the best thing to do.  It was not like, you know, one of us had found someone else.”  As for Abba’s future, he says, “I think all four of us could see the potential in the group was still there, so why let our private lives ruin something that is still good?”  Agnetha is quieter about the split but, by her actions of continuing with Abba, it seems she concurs.  However, ‘a crack appears in the image of two happy couples united to create glorious pop music.’

‘Voulez Vous’ (1979) (UK no. 1, US no. 19, AUS no. 5), released in April, includes the previously released ‘Chiquitita’.  Bjorn Ulvaeus handles lead vocals on ‘Does Your Mother Know’ (UK no. 3, US no. 19, AUS no. 7) while the girls provide robotic backing vocals.  The song melds a guitar riff to a disco beat while, in the lyrics, Bjorn fends off adoring jailbait.  “I can’t take a chance on a chick like you / It’s something I couldn’t do…Girl, you’re only a child.”  The title track, ‘Voulez Vous’ (UK no. 3, US no. 80, AUS no. 74), is recorded at Criteria Studios in Miami, Florida, in the United States.  It’s the only Abba song not recorded in Stockholm, Sweden.  Its mixed-up nationality extends to the French title (meaning, roughly, ‘would you?’ or ‘do you?’) and a Turkish twist to its disco and synthesisers cocktail.  The band portray themselves as “masters of the game”, boasting “We’ve done it all before / And now we’re back to get some more.”  ‘I Have A Dream’ features Frida on lead vocals.

Abba play their first concert on the North American continent on 15 September 1979 with a Canadian show in Vancouver, British Columbia.  The tour continues through Canada, the United States and Europe.

A new single is issued to fit in with the tour.  ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)’ (UK no. 3, AUS no. 8) is narrated by a girl who is bored with life.  “Won’t someone help me chase these shadows away?” she asks, and “Take me through the darkness to the break of the day.”  This disco party soundtrack pairs a whistling, twirling synthesiser riff with an under-bubbling bass-synth.

Abba’s seventh album, ‘Super Trouper’ (1980) (UK no. 1, US no. 17, AUS no. 5), is a ‘more synth-pop’ outing.  It’s almost impossible to listen to the lyrics and not suspect Bjorn and Agnetha’s divorce overshadows the themes.  This is probably most noticeable in ‘The Winner Takes It All’ (UK no. 1, US no. 8, AUS no. 7).  “I don’t want to talk / About things we’ve gone through / Though it’s hurting me / Now it’s history,” sings Agnetha.  Bjorn has his ex-wife sing sentiments like “Seeing me so tense / No self-confidence.”  Benny Andersson tries to justify it this way: “It’s becoming more important [in our songs] to integrate personal feelings.  Things happen to you, the older you get and maybe you wish to try to explain a little.”  Bjorn himself says, “We’ve matured and we want the words that Agnetha and Frida use to have meaning…Unhappy love affairs are more interesting and more dramatic.  ‘On And On And On’ (US no. 90, AUS no. 9) and the title track, ‘Super Trouper’ (UK no. 1, US no. 45, AUS no. 77), betray a certain grim determination to just keep going.  ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’ (UK no. 7) is icy synth-disco, urging “Don’t go wasting your emotion / Lay all your love on me.”

On 6 January 1981 Bjorn Ulvaeus remarries.  His second wife is Lena Kallersjo, a publicist. He has been romancing her since May 1979, four months after his split with Agnetha.  Bjorn and Lena go on to have two daughters, Emma (born 3 January 1982) and Anna (born 1986).

On 12 February 1981 headlines break the news that Benny Andersson and his wife, Frida, have filed for divorce.  The reason for the break-up is that Benny has a new girlfriend, Mona Norklit.  This lady works on a television news program.

Again there are reassurances that, despite this situation, Abba will continue.  Publicly, Frida declares that “Since our divorces, we are more mature, and our style progresses more quickly.”  Yet, in retrospect, she admits that, “Of course our split-ups left their mark on the atmosphere in the [recording] studio.”

‘The Visitors’ (1981) (UK no. 1, US no. 29, AUS no. 22) is released in November.  The single, ‘One Of Us’ (UK no. 3, AUS no. 4), is a Greek melodrama of half-paced disco.  “One of us is crying / One of us is lying,” say the forlorn lyrics.  “This was a very sad time personally,” Frida acknowledges.  Bjorn Ulvaeus articulates what can no longer be denied: “We felt that Abba was coming to an end during the recording of ‘The Visitors’ album.”

On 3 December 1981 Benny Andersson marries Mona Norklit.  They have a son, Ludwig (born 10 January 1982).

In May 1982 Abba reconvene with a view to recording a new album.  However the spirit is just not there.  Only two new songs are laid down and these are added to a collection of their earlier hits as ‘The Singles – The First Ten Years’ (1982) (UK no. 1, US no. 62, AUS no. 18).  One of the new songs, ‘Under Attack’ (UK no. 26, AUS no. 96), becomes the final single by Abba.

“Abba never officially broke up,” points out Bjorn Ulvaeus.  “In 1982, we just said we were going to have a rest and that was it.”  Their last group appearance is on 18 January 1986 for ‘Har Ar Ditt Liv’ (‘This Is Your Life’), a television tribute to their manager, Stig Anderson.  Abba never reunites.  “I think it’s so pathetic when bands who have broken up go on the road again,” sniffs Bjorn.

“We had a great time and we are all very pleased and proud of what we achieved, but everything has an end,” claims Agnetha Faltskog.  She releases some solo albums in the 1980s.  In 1990 she marries a surgeon, Tomas Sonnenfeld.  This ends in divorce in 1993.  Always the most troubled by reporters and the media, Agnetha withdraws from show business until 2013 when she issues a new solo album.

Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson collaborate on the musical ‘Chess’ in 1984.  British lyricist Tim Rice, best known for his work with Andrew Lloyd Webber on ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ in 1971, works with them on this project.  On their own, Bjorn and Benny craft a Swedish language musical, ‘Kristina Fran Duvemala’ (‘Kristina From Duvemala’) that premieres in 1995.  Though they have no personal involvement with it, a stage musical based on Abba’s songs, ‘Mamma Mia’, opens in London’s West End in April 1999 and the British show is so successful that it spawns international productions.  There is also a motion picture version of ‘Mamma Mia’ (2008) starring Meryl Streep.

Like her colleague, Agnetha, Frida Lyngstad cuts some solo albums in the 1980s.  After 1984 she retires from music to champion environmental issues.  In 1992 Frida marries a German royal, Prince Ruzzo Reuss, Count of Plauen.  This makes Frida Her Serene Highness Princess Anni-Frid Synni Reuss, Countess of Plauen.  Lise-Lotte, Frida’s 31 year old daughter by her first husband Ragnar Fredriksson, is killed in a car accident in 1998.  After a long illness, Prince Ruzzo dies from lymphoma in 1999.  In a manner that, once more mirrors Agnetha’s, Frida goes into seclusion, living in Switzerland.

So the story of Abba comes to a close.  Through pop music, Eurocentric excursions, disco, and synthesiser-dominated tunes, they covered a lot of ground.  The abiding centre of their tale is the love of two couples: Benny & Frida, Bjorn & Agnetha.  If the end of that love also meant the end of the group, it’s a rare instance of the harsh reality of life intruding on their fairytale existence.  Whatever the quartet’s difficulties, consumers would almost unanimously agree, Abba the pop group is a better choice than Abba the canned herring!  With a ‘catchy mix of pop, disco and glam rock [Abba appealed] to a worldwide audience.’  Abba were, simply, ‘the most commercially successful pop group of the 1970s.’

Sources:

  1. ‘Abba The Book’ by Jean-Marie Potiez (Aurum Press Ltd, 2000) p. 10, 11, 15, 16, 18, 21, 22, 24, 27, 28, 30, 35, 36, 40, 41, 45, 46, 47, 50, 53, 66, 76, 80, 82, 97, 98, 105, 111, 112, 114, 119, 125, 128, 130, 131, 133, 143, 147, 149, 158, 165, 177, 179, 182, 189, 192, 194, 201, 213, 226, 229, 232, 247, 253, 254, 257, 258
  2. ‘Abba Gold – Greatest Hits’ – Sleeve notes by Carl Magnus Palm (Polydor, 1999) p. 5,8,9,10
  3. ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 8
  4. ‘The Virgin Encyclopedia Of Eighties Music’ – Edited by Colin Larkin (Virgin Books, 1997) p, 196
  5. ‘The Australian Contemporary Dictionary’ – Edited by J.B. Foreman, M.A. (Collins Books, 1969) p. 432
  6. wikipedia.org as at 27 May 2013
  7. wiki.answers.com as at 3 July 2013
  8. ‘Agnetha Faltskog: Agnetha, Abba & After’ (U.K. television documentary, BBC) (23 June 2013)
  9. ‘Dagens Nyheter’ (Swedish newspaper) Bjorn Ulvaeus interview (23 September 1981) quoted in (1) above, p. 232
  10. ‘DVD & Video Guide 2007’ by Mick Martin, Marsha Porter (Ballantine Books, 2006) p. 205, 1017, 1594
  11. history.com as at 3 July 2013
  12. watchmojo.com – Abba video documentary (7 April 2013)
  13. wikia.com as at 3 July 2013
  14. ‘Abba – The Complete Recording Sessions’ by Carl Magnus Palm (Century 22, 1994) quoted in (1) above, p. 128, 221
  15. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 294, 302
  16. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 56
  17. ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 259
  18. Notable names database – nndb.com as at 24 June 2013
  19. Euromaxx – Abba: Frida Lyngstad at 65 years old – Looking back at her career (video documentary) (28 October 2012)
  20. allmusic.com, ‘Abba’ by Jason Ankeny as at 1 July 2013

Song lyrics copyright Union Songs A.B.

Last revised 19 November 2013

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