By Yanapon Musiket: With Mamma Mia! staging its last show last week after a successful run in Bangkok, the music of Abba must still be ringing loudly among those who were fortunate enough to attend.
It’s the kind of feel-good, timeless creations that are so pure and innocent to the point of being shelved among the classics. Abba’s founding member, Bjorn Ulvaeus, acknowledges that fact – in that his music legacy will always have an intricate link to his motherland.
”I am always very proud to hear that when you ask people what they know about Sweden, most of them would say Abba,” he said.
After living on low profile near the suburb of Stockholm, the musical genius was invited by CNN to feature in its series, My City, My Life, in which celebrities represent and express their personal bonds with their hometowns. The previous episodes by famous figures, included Iggy Pop (Miami), Nina Persson (Malmo), Guy Ritchie (London), Quincy Jones (Seattle) to Wolfgang Puck (Los Angeles).
My City, My Life will air tomorrow at 3:30pm on CNN. Follow bespectacled Ulvaeus, exploring his beloved homeland Stockholm, from the city’s picturesque Gamla Stan (Old Town) and the Ostermalmshallen Food Hall to the ship-styled Vasa, Scandinavia’s most visited museum and, most highlighted, the record studio where the first Abba record was made.
”First I was asking myself, ‘Should I do this or should I not?’ Then I thought, ‘I’m very proud of my city. I’d be very happy to show it to people around the world’, and so I said ‘Yes, I want to do it’. It is so much surrounded by water. It is part of an archipelago. And Stockholm itself is comprised of 14 islands, so that makes it spacey and airy,” he said.
”I like the view where every where is just sea water. That’s what I appreciate the most about Stockholm. The air is clean and the city itself is also clean. It’s not so densely populated, too. There are only around 1.3 million [people] and there is not as much queuing like in other big cities,” he added.
Happily resting on his laurel and showing the world his pride and joy Stockholm now, Ulvaeus’ achievements reach far and beyond the music and musical theatre worlds. The list of hits alone is staggering, and is adamant proof of how Ulvaeus and Abba have stormed up to the top of the planet, leaving their undying tunes there until today.
Possibly one of the most well-known and most loved music groups of all time, Abba formed in 1972 and the band’s palindromic name is derived from the acronym of the first letter of each members’ first name – Anni-Frid Lyngstad (Frida), Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Agnetha Faltskog.
”I grew up in the south of Sweden. I began to play the guitar with friends. We started our folk group, playing American folk songs. I had a chance to make music and write music. I had a couple of hit songs in Sweden during my early years as a musician. Then I met Benny Andersson, which we later of course, started Abba in the beginning of the ’70s,” recalled Ulvaeus, also a father of four.
Ulvaeus married his band member Faltskog. The marriage resulted in two children. In 1980, the famous couple divorced but both remained a member of Abba, until a year later, Ulvaeus married Lena Kallersjo and had two daughters.
Nine albums filled with numerous hits, including Waterloo, Dancing Queen, SOS and Mamma Mia! to name but a few, the band’s worldwide popularity is beyond phenomenal. Although it has been over 30 years since Abba’s songs were released, some of them _ both original versions and ones covered by artists from later generations _ maintain a groove and lyrics that are still relevant, even in today’s music scene.
”It’s strange isn’t it?” he said. ”Even when I hear our songs on the radio nowadays, they still sound fresh. I think it must have been the fact that we were so meticulous with the recording. We spent weeks in the studio. And I think you can still hear that today,” he added.
Bridging the gap between two generations of Abba fans, in 1998, the release of the album by a young Swedish pop group, A*Teens (or Abba Teens), formed as a tribute to its national artists, which was remarkably successful. Moreover, the emergence of this group helped to introduce younger peers to easily appreciate the classical pop songs by Abba, with a twist of contemporary sound arrangement.
”I thought it was a fun idea to have them keep our music alive again. Since Abba wasn’t around there was no chance for Abba to reunite,” he said.
The birth of Abba has indeed put Sweden on the world music map, and there have been an array of talented Swedish artists following in their footsteps and lauded internationally.
”I am so proud that we have a lot of great artists coming from Sweden. So far there have been many great younger artists, for example, Roxette, the Cardigans and Ace of Base, who have all made it big worldwide. There is also a Swedish composer Max martin, who produced great works for American pop stars such as Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys,” he said, adding that presently many Swedish artists are engaging in writing and making music, causing the music industry in Sweden to be, in his own words, ”very vibrant”.
Being a part of the making of pop music history, the former Abba star also noted his observation on the future of this music genre for which he was named among the other forerunners.
”It always comes back, you know. There were times when pop music was not that popular, but right now I think it’s coming back. Lady Gaga, for instance, is very much pop to me. It [pop music] has been around for a long time and it will always be here. There will always be someone who plays or writes true pop music. I think Madonna is someone who has always been true to pop music through the years.”
After 10 years, Abba unfortunately disbanded in 1982. Ulvaeus, however, teamed up with his fellow Abba member Andersson to pursue a career as composers for musical theatre. The duo worked together for their first musical titled, Chess, and later on to compose the world-famous Mamma Mia!.
”It’s quite a challenge to become a musical theatre composer. When I wrote pop songs, each one would be only three or four minutes long, and shouldn’t be longer. But the scope of musical theatre is very different. It could be eight or 15 minutes long, depending on the scene and how well the song would fit as part of the storytelling,” he said.
”Right now we are doing a project for the musical show, Kristina från Duvemåla, which has been translated from the Swedish novel, The Emigrants. The performance will be held at Carnegie Hall in New York during the end of this month.”
After all, it was Mamma Mia!, the musical theatre based on their chart-topping tracks in 1975, that enlivened the music of Abba until today. Last year, its popularity has led Mamma Mia into a film version, which was co-produced by Ulvaeus and Andersson. Ulvaeus also made a cameo in the film, appearing as a piano player during the song, Dancing Queen.
As a celebration of the film, it was marked as one of the most memorable moments for Abba fans when four members appeared together during the film premiere in Stockholm.
Not only considered among the Top 10 most favourite songs by US presidential candidate John McCain, Dancing Queen was also voted last year by Australian LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) website, www.SameSame.com.au, as ”the Gayest Song of All Time”. In addition, a gay cult film titled, The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, also featured a scene in which the actors performed Mamma Mia!. When asked Ulvaeus, his opinion on how Abba music has strongly influenced, not only pop culture but also gay culture.
”I think it’s great, even though I don’t understand exactly why. We are two ‘very’ heterosexual couples in Abba, but still we are gay icons. I guess it may have something to do with our very strange outfits that we wore in the very beginning,” he said, laughing.
At 64, Ulvaeus appears as a healthy-looking man and he sounds happy and lively, from his sense of humour during the talk, however, last year there has been a buzz about his suffering of memory loss that shocked fans worldwide. Within the brief scheduled interview with ‘Outlook’, Ulvaeus shared his side of the story regarding this sensitive issue.
”This has been blown out of proportion. I went to the radio show when I said I am lack of episodic memory. It was when you go back in the particular memory and trying to remember how it felt or what it smelt like, not long term memory loss,” he said.
We asked what his real impressions of Bangkok are since he penned One Night in Bangkok, after all.
”It was only last year when I visited Thailand for the first time. I went to Koh Yao Noi, an island between Phuket and Krabi and stayed at a wonderful little resort with its own island. Before that, I stopped by in Bangkok a few times, only to transfer to Australia, but did not really get to explore the city.
”But I am absolutely certain that I’ll visit Bangkok again one day!”