The date was April 6, 1974 and Eurovision would never be the same. For the first time, competitors didn’t have to sing in their native language, so Swedish ABBA were able to perform Waterloo in English. Not only did it win Eurovision, it then shot to number one in the UK – and even got to number six in the American charts. More smash hits followed –SOS, Mamma Mia and Money, Money, Money. ABBA became a world-wide supergroup, their success on a par with The Beatles. Björn Ulvaeus (lyrics) And Benny Andersson (melodies) had been writing together since 1966.
Agnetha Fältskog – who married Bjorn in 1971, had been a moderately successful performer as had Anni-Frid Lyngstad, who was already divorced with two children when she got together with Benny in 1969. The boys had even written Eurovision songs before. But it was Waterloo, with the group now renamed ABBA after their initials, that put them on the world map. It was instantly memorable, made you want to dance – and the group’s glamrock costumes made them unforgettable. Agnetha, especially, with her blonde hair, huge eyes and figure-hugging costumes was Britain’s fantasy of liberated Scandinavia come to life. Dads certainly enjoyed watching Top of the Pops!
But what ABBA definitely weren’t back then, were cool. Their songs were catchy and made you feel good – but did nothing for your street cred. Winning Eurovision wasn’t cool, nor were ABBA’s matching outfits and smiling faces. Even Agnetha’s bright blue eyeshadow (not very Biba!) reinforced the cheesy pop image. It made no difference to their success. ABBA fever grew and the hits piled up – Dancing Queen, Take a Chance on Me, Thank You for the Music – they even made a feature film, ABBA The Movie. They had taken centre stage. And yet... the strain was starting to show. Agnetha not only hated being seen as a pin-up, she also missed her two young children when they toured.
Anni-Frid’s personal life hit the headlines when it turned out that her real father was a Nazi who had met her mother during the occupation of Norway. Her family had fled to Sweden postwar to escape vilification. A reunion with her father did not go well. Shadows were falling across ABBA’s sunlit world. The clue was in the lyrics of Knowing Me, Knowing You, “there is nothing we can do”.
Agnetha and Bjorn announced their divorce in 1979 with Agnetha saying: “When you talk about everything and you still don’t get through to one another, it’s a
sign that there’s really nothing left between you.”
They continued to perform together for a while, even after Benny and Anni-Frid split in 1981. But the songs were often less upbeat – although the group always denied that their bitter The Winner Takes It All had anything to do with their personal situations.
In 1983, the band finally went their separate ways. Benny and Bjorn both soon remarried new partners and co-wrote the hit musical Chess with Tim Rice. Agnetha and Anni-Frid both recorded solo work, but Agnetha especially wanted to stay firmly out of the limelight.
And there it could have ended, except something interesting was happening to the band’s musical reputation in the early Nineties. The great names of rock started to acknowledge their debt to ABBA. Elvis Costello admitted he lifted riffs from Waterloo and Dancing Queen for his hit, Oliver’s Army. The Kinks’ Ray Davies said he was an ABBA fan. The Who’s Pete Townshend said that SOS and Knowing Me, Knowing You were two of the most perfect pop songs ever produced. Erasure made an EP of ABBA songs. ABBA were now cool.
Then in 1999, the musical Mama Mia, based around ABBA songs, became a surprise stage hit... Benny and Bjorn were involved in the production and when the film was made in 2008, each had a tiny cameo – Benny as a piano player and Bjorn as a Greek God! The film became the highest-grossing musical worldwide ever. And yes, there are talks of reuniting the stars for a sequel...
But the reunion we would all like to see most is the foursome back on stage to celebrate 40 years of ABBA superness. They had always declined before – and then Agnetha raised our hopes last year by saying they were thinking about it.
But ex-husband Bjorn has ruled it out saying: “Comeback? If any of us has opened the door a crack, I’m shutting it now!”
In the meantime we can dance, we can jive, having the time of our lives – even if it is just in our kitchen to the sounds of ABBA Gold.
Where are they now?
Anni-Frid… After the loss of her third husband, she now lives in Zermatt, Switzerland. She is a grandmother, a keen environmentalist, still makes music and has a British boyfriend, Henry Smith, Viscount Hambledon.
Agnetha… After a long silence she produced a successful solo album last year which included a duet with Gary Barlow. Despite this she says, “I don’t miss the fame and success of ABBA”.
Benny… Benny is a grandfather of five – two of his grandsons have their own band – and is a racehorse owner. He and Bjorn still work together on projects.
Bjorn… Also a grandfather, he lives on his own private Swedish island and was the driving force behind the ABBA museum that opened in Stockholm last year – Benny and Anni-Frid were at the opening, but not Agnetha.
Picture courtesy of Rex features