Abba’s Benny Andersson has made an album of Swedish traditional music and is to perform with his band on London’s Hampstead Heath.
While Britain holds its midsummer musical celebration in the muddy fields of Glastonbury, a far more genteel ritual takes place in Sweden’s capital city. Under cloudless skies, families with picnic baskets take the ferry across to Stockholm’s pretty open-air museum, Skansen, and a wooden dance floor that looks out over the water. As they lounge on rugs sipping wine and nibbling rye bread, the most famous bearded musician in the world takes to the stage.
Introducing a sprawling 16-piece band is Benny Andersson, formerly of Abba. When the fiddles and accordions strike up their first song, couples lead each other onto the dance floor and for the next four hours, as the extraordinary band rolls through everything from jigs to polkas, East European brass bangers to swinging rock n’roll, show tunes to waltzes, the couples tenderly spin around. Caressing his accordion, Andersson looks as though he has never been happier.
Britain is about to have have the chance to savour what Andersson calls "the Swedish Buena Vista Social Club". With a new single, Story of My Heart, featuring lyrics by Abba bandmate Bjorn Ulvaeus, receiving rave reviews, and an English-language compilation of some of their most popular songs about to be released, the Benny Andersson Band are coming over for a one-off performance on London’s Hampstead Heath this Saturday.
"Every town in Sweden used to a have a Volkpark with a stage and a dance floor where in the summer bands would play and people would bring their own booze and dance," says Andersson when we meet in the hotel he owns in Stockholm. "In the Eighties that started to decline, so in 2000 we started to play in Skansen to try and recreate the feeling of those big bands from the forties and the fifties."
With his perma-wry smile, Andersson looked avuncular even in Abba’s heyday, so despite his still shoulder length hair and beard turning grey, you barely notice he is 62. Nor does he seem to have ever been away. The relentless success of Abba – 380 million records sold; Abba Gold still in the charts after 13 years; Mama Mia an international smash on stage and on screen – has kept the band rudely alive despite their splitting up over 25 years ago and resolutely refusing to reform.
But away from the global Abba machine, Andersson has quietly been using his success to return to the music of his youth. A few years after Abba disbanded, he made a record of traditional Swedish music, featuring fiddles and him on accordion, the instrument that his father and grandfather played. The record, to his shock, was a hit. "I was so surprised. Success in the music world is all about pop. This music was in obscurity."
As Andersson branched out into other old-time musical styles, the band grew, collecting some of Sweden’s most famous musicians, and putting out more successful records including one song, You Are My Man, that has been in the Swedish charts for five years.
"We don’t play live very often because there are so many of us and everyone had other musical careers. But there has never been a band like this before. I can write anything and this band can play it."
On the surface, the Swedish Buena Vista are a far cry from Andersson’s previous band. Abba perfected the template for modern pop, with their intriguing girl-boy dynamics, flamboyant outfits, dance routines, videos, intoxicating melodies, state-of-the-art production, and songs that expressed the ecstasy and sadness of being human – love and war, dancing and crying – with a catchy sing-a-long chorus. The loose collective of the Benny Andersson Band couldn’t be less glamorous or pop if it tried.
Yet listening to their music, you can catch the undeniable strains of the musical DNA that made Abba so unique. The songs, particularly the ones that Ulvaeus has written lyrics for like Story of My Heart and Stars, could be classic late-period Abba swooning epics. But even the folk and brass numbers stir up a warm familiarity,
"In Abba, we were often trying to do something different from straight pop, to smuggle other styles in. Maybe that is what made Abba so different. If you go to Tibet or Argentina there will be a poster or an Abba song on the jukebox. It is quite amazing. I think one of the ingredients that made us stand out was that we came from here and that was a little different from the rest of the world."
As well as not treating any music as off-limits, perhaps the key to Andersson’s success is that – unlike so many of his Sixties contemporaries – he has always seemed unfazed by not being perceived as cool. In their heyday, as well as being on the sharp end of hostile music critics and sneering punks, Abba were attacked at home by Swedish political radicals:
"Those were the days of Vietnam and the left-wing protests and this group called the Progg movement said everything should have a meaning to make the world a better place. At the time, we didn’t care that they attacked us. Even before we won the Eurovision we felt that we could be really successful and we were. Maybe we should have cared more about the world rather than ourselves. But then we wouldn’t be where we are now. And I am grateful that the music is still around."
Andersson is also remarkably, as he describes himself, "undamaged" by such extreme fame. "To have talent is just luck. But you have to take care of your talent by working. I try to write music every day. I am not an artist. I don’t have that drive or ego to perform. I just want to write music that other people want to listen to. I want to have a conversation through the music and for it to be as good and meaningful as it can be."
While anyone expecting an Abba tribute this weekend might be disappointed, Andersson can still powerfully touch an audience, and the sight of couples waltzing around in rapt delight on Parliament Hill should bring some much-needed, old-fashioned romance to jaded Londoners. "All the energy we have on stage comes from the audience. We are not performing, we are playing for them. And to play music with other people is the most wonderful feeling in the world."