In a long, single-storey building on the waterfront in Stockholm, the man responsible for co-writing songs that, collectively, have sold more than 370m copies around the world is sitting at his grand piano, tickling the ivories. He is trying to explain the difference between a bad song and a great one.
A familiar theme starts up and the words that have formed instinctively on my lips spill from my mouth. “If you’re all alone/When the pretty birds have flown/Honey, I’m still free/Take a chance on me.” “That,” says Benny Andersson, “is the good one.” Without looking down at the keys, the 62-year-old alters the melody after the chorus’s first two phrases, in the process discarding the second section’s repetition — a crucial component in the appeal of so much of Abba’s music — and heading off into something altogether more mundane. “And that,” he concludes, “is the dead one. It means nothing to me. Now, if I play the first one, it speaks to me. We hear something that we feel familiar with, yet it’s not quite what we expected it to be.”
That sense of familiarity, of melodies that seem somehow preordained (and pre-existent) yet novel, is at the core of the songs Andersson wrote with Björn Ulvaeus, which propelled Abba to superstardom in the 1970s. Now, 27 years after the group last recorded together, Andersson is set to return to the singles charts with a new song co-written with Ulvaeus and performed — with Anni-Frid/Agnetha-like precision — by the Swedish singer Helen Sjöholm.
To hear Benny Andersson Band’s Story of a Heart on the radio is to be spun back in time to the days when Abba ruled the No 1 spot. The single has the same communicative clarity, and the same conversational quality, that made songs such as Dancing Queen, SOS and The Winner Takes It All so immediately resonant.
The album of the same name that marks Andersson’s first major-label release in this country for almost three decades contains tracks inspired by musical theatre and the Swedish folk-music tradition (in which Andersson first learnt the ropes), a mix that makes you return to the Abba canon with renewed curiosity.
In doing so, you become aware just how multifaceted the old songs are, how much they strain at the leash the pop charts placed on their writers. Super Trouper may, in its sonic architecture, be identifiably a song from 1980; but on a deeper level, its structure is hymnal, its female harmonies are redolent more of church choirs than disco glitter balls.
“We were a pop band,” Andersson says, “and we made pop music — well, as good as we could. But a song such as Thank You for the Music does not belong to a pop group, or Money, Money, Money, for that matter.” Following a musical idea, of whichever genre, was never, he says, done with an end result in mind. It was, rather, all about graft and instinct. Surely the two things are incompatible? “But inspiration is overrated,” Andersson responds with a chuckle.
“This is more like a real job. The inspirational part is when something pops up that I really like. And that keeps on rolling, for a day or two. But then it’s another three months on the treadmill. I have done a lot of things, sure, but not actually that many hours of music — maybe a total of 13, 14 hours, in 40 years. There are 700,000 zillion possibilities from just 12 notes.
“Writing a song that means nothing is easy. I mean, technically speaking, I could probably write five songs a day. But I have to hear myself playing something that I haven’t heard before, and that I can spot, with my body almost, rather than with my brain. There’s a communication there, between me and myself, if that makes sense. That’s when inspiration enters the picture. Because it can take for ever to come up with those four bars, eight bars — music that consists of more than just notes, if you see what I mean; that speaks to me. And from that, I can work. I know that I have maybe two days, if I’m lucky maybe three, of flow, where anything can happen. But it can take me months to find those eight bars.”
One such instance of this process — the slow gestation, the lightning striking — was The Winner Takes It All, a song seen by many as the definitive Abba single: heartbreak, isolation, anguished lyrics, swelling crescendos, sudden lulls, a catch in the throat, doomed romance. Not to mention the greatest snare-drum entry in the history of pop. “It’s the simplest song,” Andersson says. “It has two phrases — that’s it. And they just go round and round.
Now it also has, around those two phrases, this counterpoint thing going on” — he plays the descending theme that opens the song, runs beneath the chorus and, modulated, responds to the verse’s vocal melody — “and without a doubt, without that, it would not have been a song. Music is not only melody; music is everything you hear, everything you put together. But without the core of a strong and preferably original melody, it doesn’t matter what you dress it with, it has nothing to lean on.” For ages, there were only the two phrases, the latter (the chorus) with each line following immediately after the one before.
“And then one day,” Andersson continues, playing the song again, “we were out in the country, and I suddenly played the chorus like this, pausing each time for the phrase to gather itself, and all of a sudden it was a song. Björn and I played around with it for hours, just feeling that there was something in it that was talking to us. Then we recorded it, but still without the counterpoint, and it still was no good. It was only when, finally, I played this other part that it really made sense.”
Leaning on a piano and involuntarily singing along while one of the most talented songwriters of all time guides you through his songs is an experience — humbling and bordering on the surreal — that is a real struggle to get your head around. These are songs, after all, that people the world over are word-perfect in, identify with and cherish. Their beloved status helps explain the colossal success of the stage and film versions of Mamma Mia!. Yet the man who co-wrote them has no hint of grandness about him, no trace of hauteur.
The building we meet in — homely rather than lavish, filled with knick-knacks, paintings and flowers but, tellingly, no Abba memorabilia — houses Andersson’s studio and the offices in which he oversees the still pressing affairs of the band he and Ulvaeus formed in 1972. He comes here most days, he says. “And every day is joyful, spending a couple of hours at the piano, following what’s going on around the world with Mamma Mia!, and I have a hotel, and race horses. So I have things to take care of, a lot of administration, a lot of questions coming in.
“I thought, we all thought, in 1982, we all said to each other, ‘Let’s call this…’, well, not call it a day, but Björn and I said, ‘We want to write this musical with Tim [Rice], it’s going to take us maybe two years, so we’ll just take a break while we do that.’ And we were all fine with that. And it took about three or four years, from starting writing Chess until it opened in 1986. Then we all said, ‘Well, why continue with Abba?’ I thought, ‘That’s it for me; Abba is over.’ And it was. And I’ve been able to stay away from it” — he laughs drily— “for a long time, up until Mamma Mia! started. I don’t mind it, though.”
I ask him if, when he attends performances of the Mamma Mia! musical, he can still be ambushed by the songs, still be swept back to the time they were written. “The thing is,” he replies, “I don’t connect to the music as such. When I go to see a performance, there is no bit of me that’s saying, ‘Wow, that’s a part of me in there.’ Never. It could be anyone’s music.” Surely it gets to him in some way? “Sometimes I’ll get moved by, say, The Winner Takes It All. Sometimes. There’s a resonance to it, about what it was originally; maybe also some sort of, not sadness, but a nostalgic feeling, of, you know, ‘All right, we weren’t that bad; we were quite good, we did good stuff.’ ”
Is he really as sanguine about it all, the success, the fame, the hits, as he seems? “I feel,” he answers, “that everything that has happened to me, Abba, my band now, Mamma Mia!, all that, it’s a lot of work, but plenty of people do a lot of work. And this isn’t like working in a coal mine or driving a bus. But it is work. And the reason it works well for me is because I’m lucky enough to have this talent to tell the bad stuff from the good. Now, that’s not my doing, is it? But I know that I have that. And that’s luck.” He pauses. “Is that something to boast about — that you’re lucky?” Benny Andersson: quite good, he says; he did good stuff. Someone tell the man.
The album Story of a Heart is released on July 6 on Polydor; Benny Andersson Band play a free concert on Hampstead Heath, NW3, on July 4