A reunion? Don’t talk to Abba about a reunion. Except, of course, that it’s hard not to. Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus are aware of the protocol. “Don’t worry, I know you have to ask,” says Andersson, a baby-faced 64, when he sees me edging towards the question. The last time I edged uneasily towards the question, in May 2002, Ulvaeus said flatly: “There’s no amount of money in the world that could persuade me to do that.”
Since then they’ve regularly been politely rebutting requests to re-form , not only from fans who weren’t born when Abba imploded, but from promoters who, according to Ulvaeus, offered “crazy” sums for a farewell tour — in one case $1 billion (£600 million). Every time the thought of “the looks on the faces in the audience as they realised we had grown old” meant that Abba had long faced their Waterloo.
Eight years later there’s no reason to believe that Ulvaeus and his songwriting foil of four decades might react any differently. And yet, for one extraordinary moment at the end of our encounter, a realisation stirs into life that there may be a way to turn the longed-for reunion into a reality.
However, obliging as they are when it comes to talking about their pop star years, that’s not the reason they are here. Andersson and Ulvaeus are in London overseeing rehearsals for the UK premiere of their most ambitious project. Abba fans might want to take a raincheck on Kristina when it comes to the Albert Hall next month. On the face of it, Vilhelm Moberg’s 2,000-page epic about Swedish emigrants in the 19th century isn’t the most obvious of contenders for musical theatre treatment. Nevertheless, in 1995, when Kristina opened in Malmö, Swedish reviewers greeted it with a fervour that eclipsed anything that Andersson and Ulvaeus had achieved with Abba.
Quite what British audiences will make of it is another matter. “We’ve cut the play down from three hours to two,” Ulvaeus says. “And I approached Herbert Kretzmer, who did Les Misérables, to translate the lyrics into English.”
Kretzmer obliged — although even he couldn’t do justice to one of the few gags in the original version, a bilingual joke predicated on the similarity of the word “speed” and the Swedish term for breaking wind. “It’s probably for the best,” says Ulvaeus, his 65-year-old frame a slip of what it was when he squeezed into that satin jump suit on the night of Abba’s Eurovision triumph. “We wouldn’t dream of making a fart joke at the Albert Hall.”
Be that as it may, newly retitled highlights such as Burial at Sea, I Am Reconciled to My Fate and Miscarriage confirm that Mamma Mia 2 is very much not on the cards. To Andersson it’s a chance to show a British audience what he and Ulvaeus have been up to. “One reason we never cared about breaking America,” he says, “is that the English people treated us like their own.” Ulvaeus adds, though, that “it did make us spoilt. With Top of the Pops you could reach all of Britain. But in America you reached a tiny audience doing silly TV shows we didn’t want to do anyway.”
I suggest that some members of the group showed their reluctance a little more readily than others. Anyone who persists in believing that blondes have more fun might care to read Agnetha Fältskog’s 1997 autobiography As I Am. “No one who has experienced facing a screaming, boiling, hysterical crowd,” she wrote, “could avoid feeling shivers up and down their spine. It’s a thin line between ecstatic celebration and menace.”
Was it really that bad? As her ex-husband and father to her two children, you’d think Ulvaeus would know, but he sounds unsure. “She didn’t seem unhappy at the time. It’s strange the way that history sometimes becomes rewritten and it becomes the truth.”
He’s not just talking about Fältskog here. Such revisionism, he feels, also extends to the place Abba hold in the collective memory. “It’s not just people wanting to hear the songs. It has more to do with people wanting to be in some kind of mood that is fictitious. A mood of ‘the Seventies’ that Abba represents but is not rooted in reality. For instance, we never thought in our wildest dreams that we would be gay icons.”
I put it to him that Fältskog might have had something to do with the whole gay icons thing. “But why?” Ulvaeus counters. “She’s a very heterosexual woman. I know.”
That’s not how it works, I tell him. “How does it work, then?” he asks. Well, it all goes back to her not looking happy. You could tell that she was suffering inside, but she carried on in the name of showbiz. Ulvaeus remains unsure: “Hmm. It could be the outfits and the Eurovision.”
At times, Ulvaeus’s perspective on Abba’s legacy is so unknowing that it’s a struggle not to leap across the coffee table, where his fishcakes have just been delivered, and hug him. How could he and Andersson have written Hi-NRG hymns to physical desire such as Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight) and Lay All Your Love on Me and not think it might play out well with their gay fanbase? “We didn’t realise it. We were just releasing another song, that’s all."
Play Abba’s albums in chronological order and the effect is something akin to having your emotional dimmer switch turned slowly down. With the bulk of 1980’s Super Trouper album written after Ulvaeus and Fältskog’s divorce, the group’s music changed to mirror their personal situations. The Winner Takes it All was written in a red wine-abetted stupor of self-pity. “Usually it’s not a good idea to write when you’re drunk,” Ulvaeus says, “but it all came out on that one. By the time I wrote ‘The gods may throw their dice’ the bottle was empty.”
By the time they recorded their last song together, The Day Before You Came, “we were really in the dark”, Andersson says. Abba’s swansong seems to harbour a pop mystery as enduring as the identity of the subject of Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain. What happened after this guy “came”? Ulvaeus smiles enigmatically, but he’s not saying. “You’ve spotted it, haven’t you? The music is hinting at it. You can tell in that song that we were straining towards musical theatre.
“We got Agnetha to act the part of the person in that song. In retrospect, it might have been too much of a change for a lot of Abba fans. The energy had gone.”
For the remainder of the 1980s, Ulvaeus felt that “our music had fallen so out [of fashion] that people looked down on it”. In the early 1990s, when tribute bands such as Björn Again popped up, they merely compounded the uneasy feeling in Ulvaeus’s mind that people were laughing at Abba. “I heard that they spoke with a Swedish accent between the songs, which made me pissed off. But then I spoke to people who went to the shows. They said that it’s a happy feeling and that people are enjoying themselves immensely.”
Years later, of course, we know that irony is merely the first step on the way to critical and commercial rehabilitation. It isn’t irony that has sold 28 million copies of Abba Gold and — thanks to Mamma Mia!’s passage from Broadway to Hollywood — that finally broken them in America.
When Brian Higgins — the producer-writer behind Girls Aloud — set up his Xenomania hit factory, he said that “SOS was the benchmark song we aspired to reach melodically”. “Funnily enough,” Ulvaeus says, “that was also the song that Pete Townshend mentioned when he came up to me in a restaurant one time. He said he thought it was the best pop song ever written.”
If challenged to do so, could Andersson and Ulvaeus sit down and write a song like that now? “I’m not sure,” Ulvaeus says. “Look at the hookline of Poker Face by Lady Gaga. That could have been written in the Seventies, but the way the song is put together is different. Do I like it? I love it.”
“I haven’t heard it,” Andersson says.
“Oh, it’s fantastic!” Ulvaeus says. “You’re the only one.”
In 2010, our sense of what a great pop song should be tallies more with the qualities found in Abba’s music than any other group. If someone doesn’t “get” Abba they seem to be rooted in a less enlightened era. A few years ago, I suggested to Roger Waters that Pink Floyd’s Animals bore certain thematic similarities to Abba’s final album The Visitors. Taking umbrage at the notion, Waters sniffed: “From the first ‘my’ on Waterloo I was an ex-listener.”
“Well, he missed a lot of the good stuff,” Andersson says. “At least he knows it starts with ‘my’ — that’s something. Dark Side of the Moon is not bad. They made some wonderful records.” Ulvaeus seems rather more put out by Waters’s comment. “It’s a bit pretentious, isn’t it? That attitude of: ‘I wouldn’t stoop so low.’ ”
Over at Earls Court, a mile from here, the presence of Abba World confirms that the imperious former Floyd frontman finds himself in a shrinking minority. Such is the love for Abba that thousands of fans a week are paying £21 each to see an exhibition that, among the karaoke opportunities and replica Arrival helicopter, seems to revel in the defiantly workaday environs — the re-creation of their manager’s office springs to mind — that spawned deathless pop such as Dancing Queen and Take a Chance on Me. “It was a chance to clear out some stuff from the attic,” Andersson says. “Have I been to see it? No. I lived it the first time.”
No point then in asking if he would want to live it again. Probably not. But footage of Fältskog at Abba World, talking with surprising affection about her contribution to the group’s biggest hits, is fresh in my mind. Reunions can take all sorts of different forms. A lucrative world tour might be out of the question, but what about something more low-key? I float the idea of an intimate, one-off performance for invited guests and families, perhaps with a small orchestra, focusing on some of the more “mature” material from the later albums. The whole thing could be filmed and the rights licensed out to TV stations around the world.
Alluding to Super Trouper’s final song The Way Old Friends Do, Ulvaeus’s first response is seemingly in jest: “We could sing The Way Old Folks Do!” Andersson, by contrast, seems deeper in thought. “Yeah, why not?” he nods. As if working through the logistics, he adds: “I don’t know if the girls sing anything any more. I know Frida [Anni-Frid Lyngstad] was [recently] in the studio.”
And on her most recent solo album, five years ago, Fältskog was in fine voice. “If you can sing, you can sing,” he concurs. Then, a little later, “It’s not a bad idea, actually.”
Alas, though, as the door to a reunion appears to open ever so slightly, so does another one. Andersson and Ulvaeus have to rush back to the Albert Hall, where rehearsals are under way. In two weeks, Kristina has its premiere. And then what? Like the song goes: “If you change your mind…”
Thanks to Martin Thompson, who also found the companion article linked to below.