The second part of my intro to the sheet music for Abba Gold. If parts of this read a bit like the intro to Bright Lights Dark Shadows, that's because Carl Magnus Palm and I worked on both together. My thanks to him for this and for opening up the world of Abba to me by writing his book all those years ago.
As is the case with all groups that enjoy such spectacular success, all four members of Abba contributed crucial elements to the whole. Björn Ulvaeus was a natural leader and pragmatic decision maker, and also a keen, imaginative and slightly quirky lyricist, while Benny Andersson was a naturally gifted composer of pop melodies, schooled on the accordion as a child by his father and grandfather. Frida’s gift was also inherited, in her case from the family of the mother she never knew; a superb mid-range singer, Frida brought a wealth of experience, both professional and personal, to bear in her interpretations of Björn and Benny’s songs. Blonde Agnetha Fältskog’s higher register was crystal clear, verging on the operatic, and although she was perceived as the group’s sex symbol she often sang her lines with an air of wistful pathos that found empathy with forlorn women everywhere. This trace of cool, Ibsen-like Scandinavian melancholy that permeates much of Abba’s work, even in songs that appear on the surface to be quite cheerful, is among their most distinctive – and unique – traits.
Although Stig Anderson is generally credited as being the fifth member of Abba, an equally worthy candidate is engineer Michael Tretow who, being a bit of an electronic boffin, rose to the challenge that Björn and Benny offered him and in doing so discovered Abba’s ‘third’ voice. This was the inimitable sound of Frida and Agnetha singing together, layer upon layer of overdubbed backing vocals creating the rich, all-enveloping choral landscape that became another of Abba’s distinguishing attributes. Coupled with exemplary musicianship from Björn and Benny and the best Swedish session players available, the result was pop perfection.
Just as it does today, Abba’s music transcended fashion at the time it was released. In the UK and continental Europe punk was all the rage during Abba’s glory years while in America new wave and disco were battling it out with mainstream rock delivered by men with beards in faded jeans, check shirts and cowboy boots. The bright, often garish, clothing that Abba chose to wear was idiosyncratic to say the least, while their romantic pop, based largely on European melodic traditions, seemed out of phase with the times, though towards the end of their career they did produce some fine disco workouts.
Reluctant to tour until it proved impossible to refuse, Abba became pioneers of the video boom, astutely realising that producing short films of themselves singing their hits for distribution everywhere would preclude the need to perform hundreds of concerts throughout the world. In the end, of course, they succumbed, with predictable results – ticket riots, administrative chaos and general feelings of discontent and homesickness that placed an insurmountable strain on the relationships that held the group together.
Nevertheless, Abba’s fame was truly international. Shrewdly, they recorded many of their songs in Spanish and German as well as their native Swedish, with the result that their music reached countries where most other western pop has failed to penetrate. ‘Dancing Queen’ was a US number one. In Australia their popularity was, and remains, second only to The Beatles. Huge crowds gathered at airports and outside hotels wherever they went on their memorably chaotic 1977 tour down under. Famously, that same year London’s Royal Albert Hall received a reported 3.5 million ticket applications for a total of 12,000 tickets available for two concerts.
The group survived the breakdown of Björn’s marriage to Agnetha and, since Björn was the group’s lyricist, it is generally assumed that Abba’s more heart-rending songs, tracks like ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’, ‘One Of Us’ and the peerless ‘Winner Takes It All’, were written from personal experience. Somehow, the shifting relationships within the group added another, distinctly poignant, string to their bow. By the time they last appeared together in December 1982, Benny’s marriage to Frida was also over.
Abba had run its course. Björn and Benny wanted to write musicals together; Frida, the only member of the group who enjoyed performing live, wanted another shot at a solo career; and Agnetha wanted nothing more than to be left alone to raise her children. But the music remained, heard at parties, at nostalgia festivals and, most notably, in discos frequented by the world’s gay communities. There emerged a plethora of tribute bands, memorably led by an Australian outfit called Björn Again whose shows became instant sell-outs. Pete Waterman of the eighties chart-ruling team of Stock/Aitken/Waterman, singled out Lennon & McCartney, The Beach Boys, Motown and Abba as the ultimate role models for anyone who wanted to make hits, and when Waterman created the boy/girl group Steps in the late ‘90s his homage to Abba was never more overt.
By now many of the hippest stars from the next generation – U2, R.E.M., even Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain – had all endorsed Abba. The icing on the cake was Mamma Mia!, the musical based around their songs which, having now been seen by over 30 million theatregoers worldwide, has become the most successful musical of all time. The movie version, directed by the musical’s original director, Phyllida Lloyd, and starring Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan, received its world premiere in June 2008, and is now on the way to becoming the highest-grossing musical film ever in the UK.
The ongoing success of everything that Abba bequeathed to the world, the Gold album of songs that have now become standards, the musical, the film, the tribute bands, and the pleasure they bring, is a triumph not just for the group or even its individual members. It is proof positive that the world’s greatest popular music, as is contained within these pages, remains and will forever remain universally loved by succeeding generations for as long as our planet survives, truly a golden legacy.