As a host of stars including Kylie Minogue and Elaine Paige celebrate the music of Abba in London’s Hyde Park this weekend for a Radio 2 tribute show, former band member Benny Andersson talks to Matthew Hemley about the Abba phenomenon and his plans to revive his musical Chess on Broadway
Somewhat surprisingly, Benny Andersson – the man whose writing partnership with fellow Abba band mate Bjorn Ulvaeus has spawned some of pop music’s most memorable tunes, not to mention one of the biggest musical theatre hits in recent history – is rather critical of his own work.
Critical and more than a little bit surprised about the resonance his music still has today.
Speaking about his Abba songs, he says there were a “couple of good” tracks (despite the fact that the band’s chart successes are spread across two greatest hits CDs), while Chess, his first effort writing for the theatre, had a handful of scenes that were “quite nice” and which make him proud, he says.
And he describes the fact that Dancing Queen has become a staple song at most wedding discos up and down the country as “amazing”, before pondering why us Brits have such a love for it. It’s as if no one is more surprised than Andersson that his music is as popular as it is and is still being discovered by people 30 years after Abba first hit the scene, thanks largely to the success of Mamma Mia!.
The fact is, Andersson is just a little humbled by the success – and more than a little gobsmacked by the quality of talent who are turning out to perform his work as part of BBC Radio 2’s forthcoming celebration of the music of Abba in Hyde Park.
The gig will feature a line-up including Lulu, Jamie Cullum, Kylie Minogue, Elaine Paige and the Feeling. Andersson is surprised that some of these artists are even aware of his catalogue of work. But no one seems to make him more giddy with excitement than Chaka Khan, who will be performing The Winner Takes It All at the event on Sunday.
“When I heard Chaka Khan was going to sing, I was like, wow,” he admits. “I listened to her in the seventies and thought she was so great – an icon. That she is familiar with what we have done and wants to participate, is kind of great.”
In fact, Andersson says the whole idea of Radio 2 hosting a tribute to the genius of Abba is “sort of flattering”. And he is looking forward to hearing how the artists involved decide to interpret his and Ulvaeus’ work, saying he is not precious about acts putting their own stamp on his music.
“It’s like, once we have done it – and we did it the way we thought it should be – then it’s up for grabs,” he says. “I look forward to hearing this bunch of people, as I have no idea what the arrangements will be on some of the songs. I don’t know what Jamie will do or Chaka and I look forward to that.”
He adds: “Why would they try to sound like we did? There is no point. I look forward to hearing how they interpret things and how they perform. That is the nice thing about this event.”
Andersson first met Ulvaeus in 1966, when both were performing in two separate Swedish groups. They began writing together and a few years later met Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, who were to become their wives and fellow Abba members.
All four began working musically together, initially by contributing songs or music to each other’s own individual careers, before the foursome finally formed a cabaret act in 1970 and then going on to release a song in 1972, called People Need Love. At this time, they were called Bjorn, Benny, Agnetha and Anni-Frid, but this had changed to Abba by the time they performed Waterloo as part of the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974, which put them on the map.
And even though the costumes they wore may have given the impression they were a little bit of a gimmick, Andersson insists that Abba were “sincere”, which he says explains their success.
“We were sincere about what we were doing,” he says. “It didn’t look like that because we had such funny clothes and we were part of the seventies pop culture, but when it came to writing the stuff, it was totally sincere. If not, there is no point being in this business at all. You don’t want to emulate what other people are doing. The thing is to try and express something that comes from you.”
He adds: “It sounds pretentious and I don’t mean to sound that.”
But did people take them seriously?
“I don’t know if they did,” he admits, “and I don’t really care. The important thing is that you know you are not doing it with just your left hand. That you are giving 100% and trying to maximise what you can do during the process.”
With all the hits that Abba produced, Andersson says he is not able to pick out one as a favourite, but he seems particularly proud of Dancing Queen and Knowing Me, Knowing You, which he says were both good songs and good recordings.
The earlier Abba albums, he admits, saw the band put under timing pressures, with the group having to record 12 songs to meet an album release date, with access to a recording studio only one day a week. This changed, he says, when the band had their own studio. But with their own studio came a new kind of pressure.
“Once we had our own studio, there was no excuse for what we did,” he says. “But even then some songs should have been avoided, perhaps. But it does not matter. It comes with the territory. And they can’t all be equally good.”
Having written together for more than a decade, Andersson and Ulvaeus decided to turn their hand to musical theatre in the early eighties, for artistic reasons.
“We had spent ten, 15 years writing songs, three to four minutes in length and we felt we needed a challenge to see if we could take it further,” he explains. “We talked about it for a long time and Tim Rice heard we were interested, and came to see us in Stockholm with a couple of ideas for musical theatre shows.”
The one that the pair went for was Chess, but instead of writing music directly for the stage in the first instance, the writers decided it would be best to put songs together for an album – so they would know what they “were doing musically”.
A theatrical production opened shortly after, premiering in London in 1986, where it ran for three years.
However, a Broadway version a couple of years later only survived a few weeks. Andersson says the show was good, but claims it suffered at the hands of a “murdering review” in the New York Times. Not that it has stopped him hoping for a success with the show in the States. He reveals that there are talks to do another production of Chess on Broadway and also says he would like to see it back in London too.
The pair are also preparing next month for a concert version of their musical Kristina, inspired by Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants, which first opened in Sweden in 1995.
Andersson says he would like to bring this show to London too, but for now, however, while neither of his musical theatre efforts are playing in the West End, his work is more than adequately doing big business in the form of Mamma Mia!, the West End show which uses Abba’s music, weaved around a story by Catherine Johnson.
Initial attempts by Judy Craymer, the show’s producer, to persuade Andersson and Ulvaeus to allow their music to be included in a show were knocked back and it was not until Johnson’s script was presented to them that a green light was given.
“Thank god for Catherine Johnson,” Andersson says. “Without her, this would not have happened. Her story is so neatly done, so intelligent. We saw an initial script and she worked on it, but basically the first one we saw is very close to the one you now see on stage and in the film.”
Andersson has high praise, too, for Meryl Streep’s performance of Donna in the film version, claiming she is “amazingly good – a true singer”. He says it is quite “amazing” that the film and theatre production have become such big hits. “We thought it might run for a little while in a small theatre,” he says. “But no one had in mind it would be the success it eventually became.”
Today, Andersson is still writing music with Ulvaeus, but most of his time is spent penning music for his own group, a 16-piece band called the Benny Andersson Orkester.
Andersson comes into his studio every day, where he says he spends a “couple of hours” at his grand piano, trying to see if “something comes out”.
“I want to hear myself playing something I have not heard before,” he says. “It’s just a matter of realising what is good stuff and what is bad stuff. I know one thing and that is, if I don’t work at it, nothing happens. It’s not like you sit down and whistle a tune and say, there it is. It is very disciplined work on my part.”
Andersson also reveals that he would like to work with Ulvaeus on another musical, but says this is only “vague talk” at the moment. And he is absolutely clear that there is no way Abba will be reforming in the future.
When asked what Abba would sound like if they were starting out today, he says: “We would have to bring the keys down a bit as everyone is getting older. But that is a hypothetical question. Because it’s not going to happen. Sorry.”
Benny Andersson will be performing with the Orsa Fiddlers at Thank You for the Music – A Celebration of the Music of Abba, which takes place at Hyde Park on Sunday, September 13 at 6.30pm.