Despite the fact that they were the biggest band of the 1970s, for many years ABBA struggled to be taken seriously. Many commentators found it all too easy to concentrate on factors such as elaborate costumes and mildly comedic occasional Swedish-sounding pronunciation rather than their huge international success and the sophisticated melodic structure of their songs. Nowadays we live in fairer times and ABBA are rightly respected by everyone from Ronan Keating to Elvis Costello. We join them in paying tribute to the Swedish supergroup.
All four members of ABBA were major players in Swedish music of the 1960s - celebrities in their own right long before they won the Eurovision Song Contest.
Björn Kristian Ulvaeus (the one who sang on some of the songs and didn't have a beard - until the 1990s) was born on 25 April, 1945. Like Benny, he achieved fame in Sweden at an early age by joining a rock 'n' roll band. Originally called The West Bay Singers, they were discovered by music publisher Stig Anderson - a man who would play an essential role in ABBA's future success. The West Bay Singers evolved into The Hootenanny Singers and challenged The Hep Stars for the title of Sweden's best band. As Björn grew more confident as a songwriter, he began to write songs for himself, and eventually paired up with Benny Andersson.
Göran Bror Benny Andersson (the one with the beard who played the piano) was born on 16 December, 1946 in Stockholm. He was just six years old when he first began playing the accordion at the encouragement of his father and grandfather, who were also musicians. By the age of 18, Benny had switched to piano and become a member of The Hep Stars, a hybrid folk-rock act described by many as 'The Swedish Beatles': they were, after all, the country's number one band of the 1960s. Like John Lennon, who he greatly admired, Benny's career was hurt by his break-up from his long-time partner and mother to his two children, Christina Gronvall. And, again like the Beatles, poor investments and financial troubles put a strain on the band, leading to its eventual collapse by the end of the decade.
Though Benny had been the source of the Hep Stars' biggest hits, songwriting was something he often struggled with, preferring collaboration to solo work. In 1966, he met a songwriter from a rival band - Björn Ulvaeus of the Hootenanny Singers - and the pair worked on a song together - 'Isn't It Easy to Say'. But it wasn't until 1969 that Benny finally abandoned The Hep Stars and began writing with Björn full time, both for themselves and as writers-for-hire as Lennon and McCartney had done. Eventually, their collaborations brought them to bring in two rising stars on vocals - Frida and Agnetha.
Born in Ballangen, Norway, on 15 November, 1945, Anni-Frid Synni Lyngstad (the dark-haired one) was orphaned at an early age. When she was just 18 months old, her father, Arthur - a German soldier - had been reported missing believed dead when his ship was sunk1. When her mother died soon after, young Frida was taken in by her grandmother. She grew up in Torshälla, just outside of the town of Eskilstuna. She made her stage debut at a Red Cross event in 1956 and joined her first band two years later at just 13.
She met her first husband, Ragnar Fredriksson, in 1961. Together they had two children: Hans, born in 1963 and Lise-Lotte, born in 1967. The year of her daughter's birth also coincided with a huge life-change for Frida as she signed a record contract with EMI after winning a talent contest in Stockholm. It also signalled the end of her marriage to Fredriksson.
Though she wasn't the huge recording smash she'd hoped to be, she still made a name for herself as a cabaret artist, and it was during one cabaret show in 1970 that she began working with her boyfriend, a former folk musician called Benny Andersson, along with his friend Björn Ulvaeus and his fiancée, Agnetha Fältskog.
On 5 April, 1950, the final piece of the ABBA jigsaw was born - Agnetha Åse Fältskog (the blonde one with, so it was claimed, 'the sexiest bum in the world'). Like the others, she achieved success in her own right long before ABBA's formation. At just 17, as a member of a band called Bernt Enghardts, she scored her first number one in the Swedish charts - 'Jag var så Kär' ('I Was So In Love'). She continued to record a number of hits in the late 1960s and as an individual, she was arguably the most famous of the four ABBA members prior to the formation of the band.
Agnetha and Björn began their relationship in 1969 and eventually married in 1971, by which time they'd already formed an act that went under the rather cumbersome name of 'Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid'. We should all be very grateful that someone thought to make it a little snappier by taking the band-members' initials to form ABBA.
Abba were the biggest band of the 1970s - the decade of the single. As such, they're known for 'Dancing Queen' et al. However, their albums contain all the classics and more, so here is a quick run-through of each.
Ring Ring (1973)
Prior to their launch onto the international stage at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974, ABBA had already released one album, entitled Ring Ring. Drawing quite heavily upon the traditions of Swedish folk music, Ring Ring is perhaps the least 'ABBA-esque' of their eight original albums. Few of the tracks have entered the public consciousness as they did with their later work, however 'Another Town, Another Train', 'He Is Your Brother' and 'Nina, Pretty Ballerina' do stand the test of time. And of course, the title track is one of the most famous of all of ABBA's early tunes.
Written in the couple of months immediately prior to the Eurovision, Waterloo sees ABBA develop their sound into something more closely approximating the style we would come to know and love. The title track is of course their victorious Eurovision foot-stomper, and 'King Kong Song' continues the rock tradition. However, most of the songs on Waterloo are dreamy ballads, most notably 'Hasta Manana', 'Dance (While The Music Still Goes On)', and the charming 'Honey Honey'.
This third self-titled album saw ABBA's recognisable sound coalesce. Tracks included such barnstormers as 'Mamma Mia', 'SOS', 'Rock Me' and 'So Long'. An occasional quirky tune, such as 'I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do' (immortalised in the Australian movie classic Muriel's Wedding) sits comfortably alongside lyrically bonkers 'Bang-A-Boomerang', which informs us that 'Love is a tune you hum-de-hum-hum.' One of ABBA's strongest albums.
Packed to the gills with hit after hit, Arrival boasts not only the greatest pop song of all time ('Dancing Queen', obviously!) but also other classics such as 'Knowing Me, Knowing You', 'Money, Money, Money', 'Tiger' and 'That's Me'. Although originally not included on the album, 'Fernando' was also recorded during these sessions and released as a single only. Subsequent CD reissues of Arrival have returned 'Fernando' to its rightful place, alongside 'Dancing Queen' and the truly insane 'Dum Dum Diddle', the first pop song to make the word 'smilin' rhyme with 'violin'. Perhaps that goes to prove that even ABBA occasionally had an 'off' day...
ABBA - The Album (1977)
Tied closely to the simultaneous cinema release of 'ABBA - The Movie', ABBA - The Album marks a definite progression by the band away from simply writing good pop songs, towards a larger, more mature sound. 'The Name of the Game' is a leading contender for their best song ever, and the soaring 'Eagle' sounds more like prog-rock than Euro-pop. Chart hits weren't missing though - 'Take A Chance On Me' remains one of ABBA's most likeable songs. The final three tracks on ABBA - The Album came from Benny and Björn's first attempt at writing a musical, 'The Girl With The Golden Hair'. Amongst the three songs was one of ABBA's most iconic tunes, 'Thank You For The Music' - although ironically it was never a major chart hit itself.
At the very end of the 70s, disco music was sweeping the world - and ABBA got caught up in the craze, too. Voulez-Vous is unashamedly their most dancefloor-friendly album, with songs such as 'Does Your Mother Know', 'Angeleyes' and the title track 'Voulez-Vous' packing out the discos across the world. Singles also recorded at this time and stuck onto later reissues of the album included two other ABBA dance classics - 'Summer Night City' and 'Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)'. There were some quieter other tracks too though, including 'Chiquitita' and ABBA's other syrupy anthem, 'I Have A Dream'.
Super Trouper (1980)
Björn and Agnetha's divorce in 1979 had a major impact on the type of songs recorded by ABBA. Nowhere is this clearer than in the heartbreakingly sad 'The Winner Takes It All', acknowledged by fans and Agnetha herself as perhaps ABBA's greatest song. Melancholy is touched upon still further in the poignant 'Happy New Year', 'Our Last Summer' and 'When All Is Said And Done', yet this contrasts wonderfully with the dancey floor-filler 'Lay All Your Love On Me', comedic parody of the Stockholm club scene 'On And On And On' and the title track 'Super Trouper', which foretells the imminent implosion of the band.
The Visitors (1981)
ABBA's final studio album went still further down the route of melancholic introspection, in the aftermath of Frida and Benny's divorce. The two singles released from The Visitors - 'One of Us' and 'Head Over Heels' - are perhaps the most upbeat of all of the tracks on the album. The electronica-influenced title track tells the unsettling story of Cold War rebels hiding from the secret police coming 'ever closer'; 'Two For The Price Of One' gives an all-new (and rather disturbing!) twist to the traditional story of boy-meets-girl, and 'Slipping Through My Fingers' gives Agnetha the chance to sing about the hopes and fears she has about her daughter's future. Bonus tracks included on later CD reissues includes the epic 'The Day Before You Came' and ABBA's last-ever single, the innuendo-laden (for those with a filthy mind!) 'Under Attack'.
Of course, ABBA weren't just musical pioneers - their fashion sense was unparallelled. Many of the following fashion highlights can be seen at the invaluable www.abbaannual.com.
1974: Following their 'Waterloo' Napoleonic costumes, Abba experiment with red and blue space-suits...though Frida favours an all-in-one snakeskin number.
1975 – For a photoshoot for 'SOS' – the entire band are scantily bound together in a sheet of silver foil that barely covers their private bits. Haircuts are page-boy bobs for all.
1976 – ABBA perform 'Fernando' in flared, velvet jumpsuits. The same year, 'Dancing Queen' is performed in both Renaissance outfits (ballgowns and powdered wigs for the ladies) for the Swedish royal family – and in kimonos in Warsaw.
1977 – On tour in Germany the girls sport long, flowing gold capes, gold thigh-high boots and skin-tight white body suits. The lads stick safely to shiny white flares.
1978 – Frida, a henna addict, is now showing off her burgundy corkscrew perm. The ABBA girls appear on The Mike Yarwood Christmas Show in London, wearing glittering pink and blue catsuits. Other stage favourites include satin bottom-skimming tunics with matching leggings, which give them the appearance of Santa's elves. Benny and Björn opt for opulent satin suits.
1979 – Touring Europe, with the release of 'Gimme Gimme Gimme' the whole band favour all-in-one spangly leotards, adorned with diagonal stripes. All four (windswept) hairdos look strikingly similar.
1980 – With the advent of the 80s come tiger-striped sheath dresses for the girls, and Hawaiian shirts for the boys. Stilettos replace the chunky platforms of yore.
1981 – Agnetha turns to the perm and frilly blouses make an entrance.
1982 – Frida chops her locks for a short, spiky hairstyle, not dissimilar to that sported by Toyah Willcox the same year. Agnetha's is now a longer 'Lady Di'-type layered cut. Shoulder pads loom large and the odd puff-ball skirt creeps in, along with 'Flashdance'-type headbands. The guys have ditched their laidback 1970s knits 'n' flared cords for a combination of smart black drainpipes and skinny ties.
After 'The Visitors'
Agnetha and Björn divorced in Christmas 1978, while Benny and Frida finally parted in 1983. Despite the hopes of their producer Stig Anderson to work on a new album (believed to have been given the provisional title Opus 10), none of the main players could muster the enthusiasm to continue. Though there was never an official split as far as the four band-members were concerned, by 1983, ABBA was no more.
Benny and Bjö continued to work together after the slow dissolution of ABBA. In 1983, together with lyricist Tim Rice, they unveiled a musical - Chess - which included songs they'd originally written for ABBA that had somehow never found their way onto their albums2. They appear to have caught the musical bug as in 1990 they chose to adapt the novels of Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg as a show called Kristina from Duvemål, which finally premiered in Sweden in 1995.
Benny has since returned to his folk roots with a number of solo albums as well as in collaboration with other Swedish folk musicians. Meanwhile, Björn has found other ways to keep himself busy with Mamma Mia (see below).
Frida had already released a solo album before they split; her Swedish solo album Frida ensam ('Frida Alone') came out in 1975. Her English-language 1982 release, Something's Going On was produced by Phil Collins (himself on the verge of a solo carer away from his band, Genesis) and a follow-up, Shine came in 1984. She's continued to work on sporadic recordings, such as a 2003 charity single, and she was reunited with Benny and Björn in 2004 for the fifth anniversary of the Mamma Mia musical in London.
Like Frida, Agnetha released a Swedish language solo album while still a member of ABBA, called Elva kvinnor i ett hus ('Eleven Women in One House'). Strangely, considering she's often considered the recluse of the four, she still managed to keep rather busy, post-ABBA.
Having starred in Jesus Christ Superstar in the early 1970s, she returned to acting in 1983 with an appearance in the film Raskenstam, directed by Gunnar Hellström. She released three solo albums - Wrap Your Arms Around Me, Eyes Of A Woman and I Stand Alone. But while she'd usually enjoyed recording, Agnetha had grown to dislike touring and making public appearances and so by the 1980s she'd all but disappeared from the public eye, although this didn't prevent her from writing her autobiography, As I Am, and from selecting the tracks for a compilation album of her solo work, My Life, My Love, which was released in 1996.
In the summer of 2004, Agnetha became the first member of ABBA to have a top 40 hit in the UK singles charts since 19853, with a cover of 'If I Thought You'd Ever Change Your Mind', which had previously been recorded by Cilla Black. The single came from My Colouring Book, an album of Agnetha's favourite songs. Despite what some termed her 'comeback', Agnetha declined to join Frida, Benny and Björn at the 2004 reunion for the fifth anniversary of Mamma Mia in London.
Multi-million-dollar offers continue to be made to tempt the golden foursome back together, often with the caveat of all profits to be directed towards the charity (or charities) of their choice. But so far those offers have been declined. For the moment, we can merely thank them for the music they've already given us, and live in hope of more to come.
Mamma Mia - the ABBA Musical
Towards the end of the 1990s, a number of retro-fuelled stage productions began to appear in London's West End. Revivals of The Rocky Horror Show and Grease and the 1950s-themed musical Buddy were soon to find a new kid on the block in the form of Mamma Mia, a romantic adventure set on a Greek Island set to the music of Abba. Björn took an active role in the production, overseeing auditions and helping the musical director overcome the slight problem that had been caused by the fact that Benny and Björn had neglected to ever write down the arrangements for their songs.
Looking at the relationships of a mother and daughter on the eve of the daughter's wedding, the musical employs the generic themes of love and heartbreak present in some of the songs, as well as playing ironically and intentionally with others (the rather lateral introduction for 'Chiquitita' being a particularly witty highlight).
Since its launch in April 1999, Mamma Mia has been taken across the globe, from Japan and Australia to Broadway, New York. It's also seen off competition from similarly-themed productions based on the music of Madness and Rod Stewart, and inspired the likes of Queen to also have a go at reinventing their back catalogue.
A quick rummage around the Internet reveals the existence of more than thirty ABBA tribute acts dotted around the globe, though the actual figure is undoubtedly higher. While most are small-time circuit bands hailing from the UK, 'available to hire' and claiming to be 'The Best ABBA Tribute Band in the Country' or, somewhat implausibly, 'better than the originals', all enthusiastically court the memory of the platformed foursome (admittedly, some with less panache than the style police would rightly permit). Vexingly, many have no qualms elaborating on the original format; for example, Germany's ABBA Alive, formed in the mid-'90s, is made up of a bewildering seven fully-fledged members.
Björn Again are the most prominent of the pretenders4. Conceived in Melbourne, Australia at the end of the 1980s, the act fulfils criteria number one by sticking to just four members: Agnetha Falstart, Frida Longstokin, Benny Anderwear and Björn Volvo-us5. Their debut single 'A Little Respect' (a cover of the Erasure hit and a not-so-subtle attempt to recreate the success of Erasure's 'ABBA-esque' CD) reached number 25 in the UK Top 40, as well as charting in many other countries; indeed, before long the group were even name-checked in Trivial Pursuit. The two women originally fronting the outfit - Susie Webb and Zoe Nicholas - parted company with the others in the late 1990s, subsequently forming, wait for it, The Fabba Girls.
With ABBA still the soundtrack of choice at office Christmas parties, countless acts continue to leap aboard the glittery bandwagon, attempting new slants on the famous format; 'singalong' ABBA shows are a fast-growing phenomenon; you can attend an ABBA-themed dinner party; you can even see a performance from raunchy spin-offs such as The Super Troupers.
ABBA shaped the mould in terms of having two male and two female band members - a format that enjoyed huge popularity from the 1970s to the 1990s. Although British pop group Brotherhood of Man released their debut album in 1970, two years prior to ABBA's first long-player, it was not until 1976 that the act - who had more than a few stylistic similarities to ABBA in terms of songwriting and stage presence - achieved notable success when they won the Eurovision Song Contest. The accomplishment certainly owed credit to the public popularity of the Swedish quartet, who took the competition's crown two years previously. Five years down the line it was UK four-pieceBucks Fizz who stormed Eurovision with two men, two women, and their distinctly 1980s take on pop.
Cover Versions and Remixes
Perhaps payback for the Swedes re-appropriating The Beatles' 'Yellow Submarine', literally thousands of ABBA cover versions have surfaced over the space of almost three decades, covering both singles and whole albums. Famously, when Irish supergroup U2 recorded a live version of 'Dancing Queen' while gigging in Stockholm, Benny and Björn actually joined them onstage. Also on the rock theme, Swedish guitar virtuoso Yngwie Malmsteen included a commendable version of 'Gimme Gimme Gimme' on a compilation of his 1990s material; German speed metallers Helloween pumped out a cover of 'Lay All Your Love on Me' ('...they were a great band', recounts guitarist Michael Weikath); and countless 'classic rock' ensembles have churned out albums of ABBA covers in an attempt to cash in. Westlife topped the UK charts with their take on 'I Have a Dream', Sinead O'Connor sang ABBA's 'Chiquitita', and even top-selling French pianist Richard Clayderman dropped a long-player entitled 'The Best of ABBA'. Walk inland from the tip of the iceberg and you might just be unlucky enough to hear 'Panpipes Play ABBA', released back in 1999.
With electronic music dominating the charts from the 1980s onwards, it wasn't long before ABBA tracks came under the scalpel of dance remixers. Erasure's 'ABBA-Esque (The Remixes)', released on Mute Records in June, 1992, sold more than 400,000 copies and hit the UK number one slot with contemporary cuts of 'Voulez Vous', 'Lay All Your Love On Me', 'Take A Chance On Me' and 'SOS'. Less memorably, Dutch hardcore techno label Mokum released an EP of 'ABBA Gabba'6 in 1996, and Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers dropped their 'Non-Stop ABBA Party' in 2000.
One of ABBA's most famous celebrity fans is chatmeister Alan Partridge. His duet with a guest (played by Rebecca Front) on his chat show 'Knowing Me Knowing You' remains once of the most priceless televisual moments in history (especially when he broke unexpectedly into 'Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight).' He named his only son Fernando after the band's tribute to young love during the Mexican civil war. Still, it's not just fictional characters that find time to say kind words about the mighty Swedes.
I remember a BBC documentary a few years ago about fans of the band, which included many of my heroes. Ray Davies of the Kinks praised them to the skies and Elvis Costello happily admitted to borrowing their style (musical - not fashion sense, regrettably) for many of his earlier hits! (Which is actually pretty easy to detect if you think about it - think of the 'dah-dah dah-dah dah-dah' piano on 'Oliver's Army')
Elvis Costello is certainly a long-term ABBA fan. In 2001 he collaborated with the opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter on an album called 'For The Stars,' which contains a rather lovely cover of ABBA's 'Like An Angel Passing Through My Room', which features Benny Andersson on piano. What's more, Elvis has admitted that his biggest-ever British hit single owed a lot to the influence ABBA had on him and The Attractions' keyboard player Steve Nieve. In the sleevenotes to the reissued CD of his classic 1979 album 'Armed Forces', Elvis confesses: ''Oliver's Army' was to be relegated to a B-side until Steve volunteered to add the piano part that owed no small debt to ABBA's 'Dancing Queen'.
An even more unlikely ABBA fan of similar vintage was Glen Matlock of The Sex Pistols, who admitted that the intro to the Pistols' 'Pretty Vacant' was based on ABBA's 'SOS'!
I heard the riff on 'SOS' - one simple repeated octave pattern. All I did was take that pattern and alter it slightly.
And the story gets better. Not only was Glen Matlock an ABBA fan, but so was his replacement in the Pistols. Agnetha was confused - and no doubt a little frightened - when Sid Vicious acknowledged as much when he saw ABBA at an airport, staggering up ('...drunkenly', as she diplomatically put it) to get their autographs.
In August 2002 a show called 'ABBA - the tribute' included Barbara Hendricks and Dionne Warwick among its contributors.
Related BBC Links
Pop over to the BBC's UK Top of the Pops 2 site for the best in the hits of yesteryear....