Knowing Mia knowing you
The film of the musical ‘Mamma Mia’ looks set to be the smash hit of the summer. Craig McLean talks exclusively to the two men responsible for the music, Abba’s Björn and Benny.
Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus remember writing and recording ‘Mamma Mia’. Well, Andersson – the composer in the partnership – does. Ulvaeus, who came up with the lyrics, is less sure.
‘I don’t remember anything particularly with these songs because they were written in the very same way: office hours, ten till four, hammering away on guitar and piano until something came,’ says this 63-year-old, affable and, in his avuncular way, baffled. ‘So where people have memories that the first time they kissed their boyfriend was when they heard "Dancing Queen" for the first time, those kind of memories I don’t have.’
But Andersson, 61, who once said he learnt from the Beatles that every bit of a song had to be good, not just the chorus, has more nuanced memories.
‘We came to Metronome Studio in Stockholm, where we always were, and they had a lot of stuff in there – timpani, glockenspiel, different upright pianos, grand piano, marimba, vibraphone. And if you listen to "Mamma Mia", it’s very intricate, no one is playing rang-a-lang-a-lang-a. Everyone is knowing exactly what they’re doing. That was one of the first tracks when we started to do that. Everything is tightly arranged. Then the intro thing – pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-peep – came about because the marimba was standing there and I said, "Oh, what’s this?"
‘And we were mixing this thing and everyone was playing and we said, "We’re not there yet." So we said, "What if we take everything out in the chorus instead of going blast?" Just leave the piano and the marimba and the voices. And we did that and we said, "Wow." I can still feel this’ – this shaggy man shivers – ‘when I think about that. Those moments. Amazing moments. Didn’t mean much to anybody else but to us it really did.’
‘Didn’t mean much to anybody else’? Who’s he kidding?
It’s the morning after the premiere before, and the songwriting half of Abba are taking coffee and water in a hotel in London’s Covent Garden. Last night Leicester Square played host to the unveiling of Mamma Mia!, the film of the musical of the songs. Benny’n’Björn were there, as was (without anyone seemingly noticing) Anni-Frid Lyngstad (the brunette). Agnetha Fältskog (the blonde), who lives a private life these days, was not. And so were all the cast of the sun-kissed, feelgood Hollywood smash-in-waiting: Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan, Julie Walters. Andersson and Ulvaeus are executive producers on the film, their roles extending to re-recording their original music in Metronome, and having the cast supply their own vocals.
The theatrical production opened a few hundred yards away in Soho’s Prince Edward Theatre on 6 April 1999 – 25 years to the day after Abba won Eurovision with ‘Waterloo’. The show is still there now. Nine productions of Mamma Mia! are running in different countries – so that today, in theatres around the world, 17,000 people will witness the (very) simple story of a (gorgeous) girl who invites the three (hunky) men who might be her father to her (fairytale) wedding on a (mythical) Greek island. With 30 million satisfied punters, it is one of the most successful stage musicals ever.
Here, sitting on squishy sofas, are the men responsible. Yes, theatrical producer Judy Craymer had the original idea; Catherine Johnson wrote the book; Phyllida Lloyd directed the first run (and now the film). But Mamma Mia! is all about the songs. They power along the flimsy narrative. They fill the air, unite the boys and girls, ignite the dancing, encourage the singalongs, bring the silly smiles and the beautiful noise. Just like they’ve done since Abba’s brief but golden hit-making existence, from 1974 to 1982. Abba are back. Not that they ever went away.
Q. Phyllida Lloyd says Mamma Mia! ‘was the musical Benny and Björn didn’t realise they’d written’. Fair comment?
Andersson ‘That’s what you used to say.’
Ulvaeus ‘Someone said that and then I said it. That’s how these things happen.’
Q. Did you view the songs as mini-narratives?
Ulvaeus ‘That’s purely by chance. We never thought about that.’
Andersson ‘But remember when Tim Rice came to us in 1982,’ – this was to collaborate on the musical Chess – ‘he always said that the way you always wrote, you could get so much information into only two verses and a chorus. Like a story told within that framework. He said he was never any good at that – he had to do it over the whole musical. He was amazed by that.’
Q. Judy Craymer’s starting point, when she was trying in the early Nineties to conceptualise what a show based on Abba songs would be, was ‘The Winner Takes It All’ – a song that looks at a relationship gone wrong, which you based on your divorce from Agnetha. Were you comfortable writing about such personal difficulties and presenting them to the public?
Ulvaeus ‘Well, with "The Winner Takes It All", the basis is the experience of a divorce, but it’s fiction. ‘Cause one thing I can say is that there wasn’t a winner or a loser in our case. That’s fiction. A lot of people think it’s straight out of reality, but it’s not.’
Q. When you finally agreed, in 1997, to let your songs be used for Mamma Mia!, your ground rules were that nothing could be changed. But in the film, in the sequence involving ‘Does Your Mother Know’ (a lady of a certain age warns off a lustful young buck), you’ve reversed the gender.
Ulvaeus ‘I did that on the record with some hypothetical young girl, but that was easy to swap.’
Andersson ‘The sound at the beginning of that song … it was the first time where we used the GX1, you know, the dream machine, the big Yamaha, the last analogue synthesiser that cost a fortune. Stevie Wonder had one. John Paul Jones had one. And I had one. It was expensive, even for us, I thought it was over the top – maybe something like £25,000 then. It’s quite much for a synthesiser. But with only that sound, I think it totally paid itself back.’
Ulvaeus ‘And it had that wonderful soft string sound too.’
Andersson Yeah, that’s right. That was given to me by him, John…’
Q. John Paul Jones? Abba had Led Zeppelin’s strings program?
Andersson ‘Yes. And I still use it all the time.’
All four members of Abba had busy music careers before they met their Waterloo. Anni-Frid Lyngstad was known as the ‘songbird of Eskilstuna’, her hometown, and recorded a bunch of singles for EMI. Agnetha Fältskog had a Swedish No. 1 aged 17 and released the first of five pre-Abba albums in 1968. Benny Andersson was in the Hep Stars, ‘the most famous rock group in Sweden’ in the mid-Sixties. Björn Ulvaeus was in the Hootenanny Singers, a folk combo who had a 1963 hit with ‘Jag Väntar Vid Min Mila’, an adaptation of an old Swedish poem about someone standing waiting for his loved one by a charcoal burner in the woods. (And no, I am not quoting lines from Spinal Tap or A Mighty Wind.)
‘Folk music is where I come from originally,’ says Ulvaeus. ‘The very first thing that introduced me to playing guitars at all was skiffle – my cousin had been in London the summer that skiffle was big.’
They first met in 1966. At least they think it was. When I ask them about this, these merry, crinkly Swedes, who look like they were dreamt up by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, have an entertaining back-and-forth. Was it just before they did their military service? Were all four members of the Hep Stars driving their cherished Ford Thunderbirds at the time? Was it the time Ulvaeus told Andersson how much he liked ‘Wedding’, one of three No. 1s enjoyed by the Hep Stars that year, ‘because it was so bloody catchy’? Either way, they started writing songs together and hooked up with Stig Anderson, who represented several international publishing companies in Sweden. He would become Abba’s manager.
Andersson ‘We thought we’d do it backwards: we asked Stig to send our songs out, see if we could get them recorded by other artists. No way. Nobody was interested. Then we thought, we should do that ourselves, record them ourselves, stupid as we were. So we did that. And on one of the tracks we asked my fiancé, Frida, and Björn’s wife, Agnetha, to help out on some backing vocals for a song called ‘Hej, Gamle Man’ [‘Hello, Old Man’], and we asked them to join us for that. And it sounded so good. So after that we did some cabaret stuff…’
Q. That was under the name Festfolket, which translates as the Engaged Couples or Party People. So this was an early incarnation of Abba?
Andersson ‘It was not good. We were trying to be a little funny.’
Ulvaeus ‘"Witty" lyrics!’
Q. Silly clothes?
Ulvaeus ‘Yes … Thank God there was no YouTube.’
Andersson ‘We had some unisex things! We didn’t like that. But we had to make a living. Then we said to Stig, "We want to do a pop record in English." And he was all for that. So we wrote a song called "People Need Love". And the girls sang and we did the backing vocals. And that became a hit, in 1972, in Scandinavia and a small hit in Germany and Holland too. We had a taste for it.’
Ulvaeus ‘Thank God we were not successful with our cabaret. That would have been absolutely disastrous! There wouldn’t have been an Abba then! No fucking way!’ In 1973 the newly formed Abba entered a competition to become Sweden’s entry in the Eurovision Song Contest. They came third with ‘Ring Ring’, its English lyrics shaped by Neil Sedaka and his writing partner.
Andersson ‘We were much more glam rock in ’73 – we were all sequins, all four of us.’
Ulvaeus ‘No, not Agnetha ’cause she was pregnant – our baby was born only a couple of weeks after the contest!’
Andersson ‘We didn’t win because they had this jury that consisted of … music people. Journalists. Experts.’
The following year, it was different. In Brighton in 1974, Abba won Eurovision with ‘Waterloo’ and never looked back. Experts might not have liked them, but the innocence of hits such as ‘SOS’ and ‘Dancing Queen’ appealed to an international audience.
Ulvaeus ‘This was the "marketing": when we decided what was the single, we would go to the biggest TV show in Germany, and perform it on that show. That was the marketing! But we started making videos too. I remember vividly seeing something with Barry Manilow, "Mandy". It was him and a piano – it was not meant for TV consumption. But we thought, "Why don’t we make these little films into something TV stations would actually show?"’
Andersson ‘Lasse Hallström was directing them…’
Long before Hallström was a Hollywood director (of movies such as The Cider House Rules), he also made Abba: The Movie, which documented the group’s 1977 tour of Australia and the high point of global Abba-mania.
Andersson ‘Well, we went down there fairly late. All the stuff with Mamma Mia! was in ’75-ish. So when we came to Australia they had had so much Abba all around – Abba on pillows, Abba on soaps, Abba on everything. A little overexposure maybe. And when we got to Australia we felt that, boy, we shouldn’t have done this, because it was just like putting a needle into a balloon. That was our feeling. The concerts were fine. Audiences were great, as you can see in the film. But the feeling…’
Q. It was also the moment when the girls became pin-ups – much media comment attended Agnetha’s white jumpsuit-clad bottom, for example. Was that level of public adulation particularly hard for them?
Andersson ‘You’d have to ask them about that, but I think so. They did the hard work, once we were out of the writing.’
Abba became one of the biggest bands in the world – their career total album sales to date are somewhere north of 360 million. But by the early Eighties, the cracks were showing, personally and professionally. Both couples split. The touring became a grind. Andersson groans at the memories of the ‘hundreds’ of scheduled flights from Stockholm to different European cities. In December 1982, there came their last live performance: a studio rendition of ‘Happy New Year’, beamed from Stockholm to the set of Noel Edmonds’s The Late, Late Breakfast Show
The boys went off to write the ill-fated musical Chess with Tim Rice. The girls embarked on solo careers with varying degrees of success. But Abba and their deathless songs endured. By the late Eighties they were appropriated by the world of kitsch – Erasure’s Abba-esque EP amped up the cheesy side of these pop classics, Australian tribute act Björn Again made a wildly successful living (‘They’ve been going twice as long as we did!’ laughs Andersson.) The 1992 compilation Abba Gold was a huge seller. The Australian films Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert became hits on their strength of their Abba-packed soundtracks. And then, in 1999, came Mamma Mia!
Q. What do Agnetha and Frida think of the film and the musical?
Ulvaeus ‘They think it’s wonderful. I asked them. I called them before we really started in earnest with the show here in London. They both would have said no to the story of Abba. But as it is they’re OK with it.’
Q. What did you think of Madonna’s ‘Hung Up’ and its ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!’ sample?
Andersson ‘Well we had this wonderful letter from her. I framed it. Very sweet. Her assistant came over to Stockholm with a CD and we played it. And we thought the record was great. But also realising that without the ‘Gimme! Gimme!’ thing in it, it wouldn’t have been so great. So we said, "Well, fine, of course you can. But we just split the copyright, half-half."’
A couple of years ago the four were offered $1bn to reform, but they refused outright. ‘It is so silly when old bands go back on the road,’ Björn said at the time. ‘I would rather leave our fans with the image of us as we were. The best legacy is our records and videos.’
Q. Do you stand by that?
Ulvaeus ‘Absolutely. I feel that way. They were talking about 120 gigs or something, and television, and sponsors, and commercials. It would have taken 10 years out of my life. Eeuuurgh. It was easy to say no to it.’
Q. But with the whole Mamma Mia! phenomenon, and what looks like great success for the film, aren’t you tempted for maybe a few more shows?
Andersson ‘Never. It was all fresh, it was all new. But again, that was then. Why would we do it now? There would be no artistic reason.’
Q. Why do Abba’s songs endure?
Andersson ‘This question, it’s impossible to answer. I’ve been thinking about this a lot through the years. It’s kind of weird, isn’t it? I don’t get it. But I think one of the things is that we’re not Anglo-Saxons – we come from a different culture. Although we’re very tuned into what happens in England and America. I always was. That’s one element. And also, that we were a band delivering a song, and then another song, and then another song, over a long period of time, eight to nine years. That’s a long time, being consistent with songs that people liked. So the communication between who I am and who you are is working. And that’s pure luck. But we were really thorough when making these recordings. Some of the records still sound really good. If you play ‘Knowing Me’, ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Take a Chance’ … they could be done last week.’
Q. So it’s nothing to do with trends or genre or scene or credi