This is the first half of the introduction to the matching folio of printed sheet music to Abba Gold that I was asked to write in 2008, slightly amended for the blog. Part 2 tomorrow.
Abba Gold is among the best-selling albums in the history of popular music, up there with Thriller and Dark Side Of The Moon, the jewel in the crown of Abba’s diamond-encrusted catalogue. Originally released in 1992, it brings together 19 of the group’s classic hits and is one of those rare collections that returns to the best-selling lists on a regular basis as new fans discover Abba, in recent years the result of the smash hit musical Mamma Mia! and the accompanying film that was released in 2008.
Time does not diminish Abba. While the four individuals that made up the group long ago ceased collective endeavour, the music they made together transcends eras and fashion, and has now become a solid gold template for new generations that seek to create pop music at its highest level. ‘Dancing Queen’ is probably the greatest party anthem ever recorded, while ‘The Winner Takes It All’ is regularly cited as the supreme melodic statement about broken relationships.
These two songs were released during Abba’s golden era, which extended from the mid-seventies to early eighties, but it had taken the four musicians more than a decade to reach this level of finesse. In their home country of Sweden, the individual members of the group had embarked on separate careers during the sixties, coming together in 1972 under the patronage of Polar Music, a Stockholm-based record label and music publishing company run by Swedish impresario Stig Anderson.
Until this time guitarist Björn Ulvaeus was part of the folk group The Hootenanny Singers, while keyboard player Benny Andersson was a member of the pop group The Hep Stars. Both were among Sweden’s top acts at the time, and when Björn first met Benny in June 1966 there developed a close friendship that would eventually grow into an outstanding songwriting partnership. By the end of the decade, The Hep Stars had split up and The Hootenanny Singers were more or less a studio act at Polar Music. In the summer of 1971, Stig Anderson offered Björn the job of house producer, and Björn insisted that Benny be hired as well.
Two years earlier, in 1969, Björn and Benny both happened to strike up romantic relationships with singers. Benny met and fell for Norwegian-born Anni-Frid Lyngstad, also known as Frida, while a romance blossomed between Björn and Agnetha (pronounced Ann-yetta) Fältskog. Both girls were former dance band singers who had launched solo careers. By the spring of 1970, both couples were engaged.
There was a good deal of experimenting in the studio before Abba was born. Björn and Benny recorded together and wrote songs for others, while Frida and Agnetha continued their domestic solo careers with mixed fortunes as well as performing back-up duties in the studio. Björn and Benny’s real ambition was to record English-language songs that would reach beyond Sweden, and in this regard Stig Anderson, whose ambition was matched only by his diligence, was unusually supportive.
Björn and Benny were well aware of their own shortcomings as singers and couldn’t help noticing that the local hits became a bit bigger whenever they invited their fiancées to contribute backing vocals. After a minor hit in Japan with the English-language ‘She’s My Kind Of Girl’, Björn and Benny felt sufficiently encouraged to record more English pop songs to which Frida and Agnetha were asked to contribute. Finally, on the 1972 song ’People Need Love’, the girls shared the lead vocals equally with the men, and the result was the very first Abba single, although the quartet was credited as Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid.
Thus it was that six years after Björn and Benny first started working together they and their romantic partners finally decided to become permanent members of a group with the acronym-inspired name of Abba, which would be managed by Stig Anderson. Even so, it wasn’t until the end of 1975, 18 months after their breakthrough with ‘Waterloo’, that the group finally became the musical priority for the individual members.
‘Waterloo’ alerted the world at large to Abba, winning the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, held that year in Brighton. In many respects, winning Eurovision was a poisoned chalice, since few hitherto unknown winners from continental Europe had enjoyed anything like sustained international careers in music. However, the song contained many elements that lifted it beyond the typical Eurovision winner – it was a full-tilt rocker, delivered in the style of classic girl-group pop and produced with a nod to Phil Spector’s magnificent Wall of Sound – and anyone with ears could tell that this group of Swedes had it in them to survive Eurovision’s reputation for creating one-hit wonders and consigning them to oblivion.
In the event global success was almost two years away, partly because it took them a while to overcome the stigma of Eurovision but also because Abba had decided not to rush things, but to work painstakingly on their songs and sound in the studio with engineer Michael Tretow until they were 100% satisfied with the result. In the long term this far-sighted strategy, this scrupulous attention to quality control, was as responsible as anything in ensuring that several decades after it was recorded Abba’s music would remain as popular as it does.
‘Waterloo’ reached number one in the UK charts and several other European countries in April 1974 but Abba had to wait until September of the following year before ‘SOS’ became their next big hit. In doing so it opened the floodgates. Between February 1977 and December 1981, the group enjoyed 17 top five hits in the UK alone, including eight number ones, all but one of which are included on Abba Gold. It was a chart run of dazzling proportions that in terms of quality and consistency over a similar period remains virtually unmatched.