He co-wrote the tunes that turned a quartet of Scandinavian super-troupers into a global phenomenon.But Benny Andersson is bemused by the endless appeal of Abba. Boosted by the stage and screen versions of the musical Mamma Mia!, the Swedish group are, arguably, bigger now than they were in their stack-heeled Seventies’ heyday. They have sold 380million albums around the world and seen songs like The Winner Takes It All and Dancing Queen embraced enthusiastically by a new generation.
But, as he sits by a grand piano in his small studio on the Stockholm waterfront, the 62-year-old grandfather of five admits to being nonplussed by the ongoing popularity of a group who won Eurovision in 1974 and last recorded together in 1982.
‘It’s truly amazing, and I don’t know why it has happened,’ he says. ‘I suppose there might be a little quality in one or two of the songs, but I don’t understand how we have kept on being successful to such an extent. ‘I’m obviously happy about it, but I honestly don’t get it.’ Benny, a bearded, casually dressed character with a wry sense of humour, is being modest, of course.
Along with his co-writer Bjorn Ulvaeus and vocalists Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Faltskog, he helped to set a benchmark for catchy yet innovative pop music, one that hasn’t been bettered in 30 years.As a musician, he has moved on, and his latest album, out this week, is a collection of traditional Swedish folk songs and big band numbers.
But, even as he talks about the present, it is hard to avoid returning to his former band’s impressive and growing legacy.
‘Critics used to say that Abba were formulaic or that our songs were rubbish,’ he says. ‘We never had time for those comments, though. We were sincere and devoted to what we did. ‘One of the most important things is that we weren’t an Anglo-Saxon group.
‘The girls were Swedish and they didn’t sing in perfect English. That gave us a foreign, exotic flavour.
‘Of course, we wore silly outfits, the pictures were corny, and some people still focus on that. But Abba wasn’t a big intellectual thing. We were a pop group.’ The group’s formative years were not so auspicious, however. ‘We started out as a cabaret act, singing other people’s songs,’ says Benny. ‘It wasn’t good. It was disgustingly awful. ‘But, in the middle of each show, we did our own songs, which we thought were good. We felt we were on the right track, so we entered Eurovision to attract fans from outside Sweden.’
The renewed interest in Abba can be traced back to 1992. That was the year Erasure topped the UK charts with a tribute EP, Abba-esque, and comedian Steve Coogan launched his Abba-loving alter- ego, Alan Partridge.It was also the year that Universal released Abba Gold – a hits album that has sold nearly five million copies in Britain. But it was last year’s movie adaptation of Mamma Mia! that really put the Swedes back on the map. Andersson was reluctant to get involved, but he relented and agreed to oversee the soundtrack. ‘I wasn’t too keen on the idea of the film at first,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want anyone messing around with the songs, because I’m proud of what we achieved. ‘Then, I decided it would be best if I did get involved. I wanted the soundtrack to remain as close as possible to our original arrangements. That involved lots of work, but it was also a lot of fun.’
Re-recording the Abba standards with Hollywood stars Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard was a novel experience. ‘It was a challenge to work with people who had never sang like that before,’ he says. ‘But Meryl is an excellent singer, and Pierce has great vocal timbre. Stellan told me he could not sing but he still threw himself into it. They were all professional. They made it work. ‘Meryl wouldn’t have done it unless she knew she could pull it off. She sang the songs hundreds of times before we recorded them and came to Stockholm to do her vocals.’
Benny is now channelling his energies into the 16-piece band that plays on his new album, Story Of A Heart. The group – known as Benny Andersson’s Orkester in Sweden and as The Benny Andersson Band here – have been a midsummer touring outfit for two decades. Specialising in an eclectic mixture of folk, waltzes, Fifties’ standards and straight-ahead pop, they are a Scandinavian version of Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club. For Benny, who plays accordion, the group offers an opportunity to reconnect with his musical roots.
‘I was given my first accordion when I was six,’ he says. ‘My grandfather taught me how to play traditional Swedish folk tunes, most of which are based around the accordion and fiddle.’ Amid its Nordic jigs and reels, however, Story Of A Heart also features two new songs – sung in English by Swedish star Helen Sjoholm and co-written by Benny and Bjorn Ulvaeus – that could easily be long-lost Abba hits: the title track, plus country-soul number You Are My Man.
‘With Story Of A Heart, we treated the track the way we used to treat an Abba song,’ says Benny. ‘Back then, we’d spend weeks agonising over every last detail in the studio. ‘The other songs were all done live, with no overdubs. With this band, I’m trying to get away from all the fancy stuff that you usually do in a studio. We just play.’
As for Abba, there have been stories that the band are being lined up to take on the O2 shows originally planned for Michael Jackson. But Benny is adamant that they will not be tempted by any lucrative reunion offers. However, the four band members are on good terms and – despite the divorces of Benny and Anni-Frid and Bjorn and Agnetha – they still meet up.
They have performed onstage just once since the Eighties. That was in 1999, when they sang at a friend’s 50th birthday. ‘We were going to sing a traditional-Swedish birthday song, but I still thought it would be useful if the four of us got together to rehearse a few songs earlier in the day,’ says Benny. ‘So we went into the bathroom of the Museum Of Modern Art in Stockholm, me with my accordion, Bjorn with his guitar. It was the first time we’d all been together for 20 years.
‘The fact that we were married to the girls never caused tension, even when the marriages ended. The group didn’t finish because of personal issues. Bjorn and I just wanted to do other things. ‘We’d need a good reason to reform and I just don’t see one. We could never recreate the old days. As Robert Plant said about Led Zeppelin, you turn into your own covers band.
‘I’d rather be remembered for the way we were 30 years ago.’