UK Times Benny and Björn interview

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.

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33 Responses to “UK Times Benny and Björn interview”

  1. 26 Mar, 2010 at 7:37 AM #

    Great reunion idea, would be nice!

  2. Graeme Quinn 26 Mar, 2010 at 7:59 AM #

    thanks for this just read it, i hope frida is recording again

  3. JohnB 26 Mar, 2010 at 9:26 AM #

    Yet another Kristina interview that almost completely neglects to mention Kristina. :D

    Is it my imagination or have B&B become a little less self-effacing recently? Benny tells us that Roger Waters "missed a lot of good stuff" by not listening to ABBA and Bjorn is not shy about describing the same Waters as being pretentious.

  4. Jaakko 26 Mar, 2010 at 9:34 AM #

    A good interview… And the news of Frida recording again, super!

  5. Martin Bolton 26 Mar, 2010 at 10:22 AM #

    JohnB – you can’t expect B&B to be hawking Kristina – with only a few seats left to sell. Besides, it’s not really their style generally.

    It’s the purpose of these types of articles to just have the media outlet/journalist mention Kristina (which they did) to draw attention to it.

  6. Darren 26 Mar, 2010 at 10:29 AM #

    I just bought The Times,quite alot of ABBA in it today in two good large articles with pictures and a great interview.

    Kristina is nearly a sell out and a few extra seats are on sale such as in the choir area for £17.50.
    I’m just so happy that in 2010 ABBA grace the front page of The Times….compared to those awful mid 1980’s where not even bit of news appeared except in great fanzines .
    Nice to hear of Frida recording again but demos were recorded in 1997? and her solo tour never happened so will contain my excitement for now..
    Benny seems very happy nowadays…

  7. Sapphie 26 Mar, 2010 at 10:39 AM #

    What I can’t understand is why nobody seems to be mentioning the CD release, which is the important thing really in getting this delightful work out to the public.

    Maybe they want it to ‘catch on’ by itself and are afraid that if they over-hype it, people will think it is MM2 and be disappointed.

    I don’t know, there seems to have been scant marketing for the CD so far. Maybe we will have Elaine Paige or somebody devoting part of a show to playing some tracks nearer the time?

    Lee

  8. Ian Cole 26 Mar, 2010 at 11:08 AM #

    Sorry to sound cynical, but as a friend just pointed out to me every time that the Bs have something to promote (in this case the Kristina concert and the Carnegie Hall CD release it’s desinged to promote) they throw out the ABBA reunion chestnut, either a billion dollar offer or "never say never".

  9. Bryn 26 Mar, 2010 at 11:42 AM #

    I suspect the media will make much of this and Benny and Bjorn will have to play it down. But this was a very intellegent interview and they clearly did give the idea some thought. It is a good possibility and a very nice way of using their talents, but sadly one I don’t think we will ever see. Looking forward to Kristina with much excitement!

  10. TonyG 26 Mar, 2010 at 11:43 AM #

    There’s large picture of Abba on the front page of the print edition of
    of The Times today for anybody who hasn’t seen it. Benny knows what journalists want, i.e a story and is happy to give it to them if it suits him. Not a chance in hell of this ‘reunion’ thing ever happening IMHO. Shame about Roger’s comment, I’m also a pretty big Pink Floyd fan, but as I believe Dave Gilmour said, in his opinion music was never Roger’s strong suit.

  11. Gena 26 Mar, 2010 at 12:36 PM #

    OMG, Benny actually entertaining the idea. Dare I get too excited?!?! If this ever comes to pass, I will love Pete Paphides forever for putting forward the idea!

    Loved the whole interview. So nice to hear an interviewer who is really a fan and can dig into some more interesting questions.

  12. Kate 26 Mar, 2010 at 1:02 PM #

    So Expressen guys did not lie – Frida does record something! WOW!

  13. Ian 26 Mar, 2010 at 1:12 PM #

    Great interview though I really can’t see Agnetha agreeing to a one off performance.She is quite right that what they achieved was great and they are all proud of their achievements but that is in the past, she has a different life now completely.It’s us that want more but really perhaps it is best to remember the band for then and not now.

  14. StephenUK 26 Mar, 2010 at 1:36 PM #

    Crike I was going to post something about the reunion coming up again but from the postings it seem that most fans are now getting fed up of the continuing will they/wont they saga when we know its not going to happen (and ABBA reputation and legacy are a lot stronger for that).
    To echo a couple of other posts do your utmost to get a Times today – the online version does not do justify to seeing ABBA in full colour on a front page and then a page and half in the main paper and a colour cover and another two page of the interview inside their Arts review pull out section. The article also got a featured discussion on Sky TV news papers review last night with all three members of the panel saying how great it would be if it did happen.
    Do wonder how happy Frida is with Bjorn spilling the details of her being back in the studio given Frida’s non committal answers at the R&R hall of fame award?

  15. Darren 26 Mar, 2010 at 2:58 PM #

    I just read the full articles again as there are two in the paper but the editorial at the bottom of page 2 is worth buying the paper for alone.

  16. Tony 26 Mar, 2010 at 3:00 PM #

    Very enjoyable article. And of course: fingers-crossed for a recording from Frida :o) I wish she’d try a jazz album… like a Rodgers & Hart song book for example… even just with a bass, a sax and a piano… I can hear her now doing a marvelous version of R&H’s ‘Bewitched’. I think that’d be fantastic if she revisited jazz after all these years. But whatever she does do, I hope she chooses to release it… I love ‘The Sun Will Shine Again’, and it would be magic and bliss to hear her sing again :o)

    I like Björn’s idea of A, B, B and A performing ‘The Way Old Folks Do’ … perhaps they could sing it sitting on a park bench, wearing blankets and feeding pigeons, while singing the song with false-teeth ‘S’ sounds ;o)

  17. Craig Semple 26 Mar, 2010 at 4:13 PM #

    Just a thought (probably a bit of a mad one), but I don’t believe anyone has ever suggested the idea of Björn and Benny writing and recording a completely new song, with vocals by Agnetha and Frida, and then releasing it as a one-off (sort of ‘farewell’) single for charity. They wouldn’t have to perform the song in public, or even release it under the name ‘ABBA’ if they didn’t want to – just the very fact that a new song had been recorded by the four former members of the group, with a large percentage of the monies raised going to charity would be enough to attract plenty of attention.

  18. marco 26 Mar, 2010 at 6:22 PM #

    …There was also a small abba piece on the bbc this morning about the abba phenomenon …and could they get back together. They spoke to some australian guy,who he is I don’t know….but spoke about the idea that they maybe would do something more intimate. MY biggest thing Is was why couldn’t they have recorded one more album.. Yes i would have loved them to reunite one more time…but gave up on that. OHHH but the hope (a little bit!) that frida might release something….!!cheers y’alll

  19. gerry g 26 Mar, 2010 at 6:49 PM #

    great interview in the Times and well done Benny. Mention a possible reunion and instant worldwide headlines,anyone would think you had a musical to promote.we all know that this will never happen. The sad thing is is its a wonderful idea that is never going to happen,but still we live in hope that it just could.I read a message on here from another fan that all the members of ABBA were at Mono Music last week at the same time, now I’m getting excited at the possibility they were there to discuss a one off show….now I am being daft.

  20. Paul 26 Mar, 2010 at 8:27 PM #

    Maybe Benny said this just to see what reaction would come out of this. During the last few weeks, Benny, Bjorn and Frida have been asked this question over and over again, and they clearly said "No, there will be no reunion". So why should they suddenly change their minds? I think they are really having a great time seeing what this has caused. Alsmost every Belgian newspaper has an article on this reunion-thing (one newspaper even mentions it will be a reunion world-tour!), while almost nothing has been written about the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction nor about Kristina.
    But I must admit that, down deep inside, I hope our four heroes are seriously thinking about doing "something" together one more time, whatever it might be. And if in the coming hours/days there will be no official denial from Görel, maybe we might expect something… Let’s wait and see!

  21. Sapphie 26 Mar, 2010 at 8:45 PM #

    @Darren. Exactly.
    2010.
    The Times.
    Abba on the front cover.
    A whole page in the news section.
    2 pages in the Arts section.
    Most importantly – an editorial: ‘The prospect of a come back is irresistible … Then they will see just how much we have missed them.’
    Have to pinch myself. This is not real.

    Lee

  22. admin 26 Mar, 2010 at 8:48 PM #

    One reunion rumour surrounding a possible ABBA performance at the Swedish royal wedding of Crown Princess Victoria to Mr. Daniel Westling (June 19) and is raging on Facebook right now!

  23. Paul 26 Mar, 2010 at 9:10 PM #

    My words are not yet cold, and look what I have found in Telegraph UK: ABBA: Reunion is never going to happen. Görel has alreay denied everything!
    Here is the link to the article:
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/music-news/7527687/ABBA-Reunion-is-never-going-to-happen.html

    Back to reality, folks :-(

  24. Martin Thompson 26 Mar, 2010 at 9:10 PM #

    Paul, that denial from Gorel has already been issued and Benny’s hands firmly slapped – see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/music-news/7527687/ABBA-Reunion-is-never-going-to-happen.html

  25. bronx 26 Mar, 2010 at 10:19 PM #

    Only just read all about this and did not see The Times at all today..where have I been? Call myself a fan!!! Ok, so the reunion has been dashed by Gorel, but why? I am sure that all of Abba are aware that it is not only they who have gotten older….we have as well. I would love to look and act like I did in my early 20’s and so on but I accept myself as I am now and I accept Abba as they are now. The idea of a lovely orchestra and beautiful setting and a gorgeous backing choir and then at the front of it all ABBA. Not a bad idea at all. The farewell we never had. Abba are still a force to be reckoned with, still so much interest (Abbaworld, hall of fame honour). So Gorel, why is this such a bad thing?
    Maybe it’s just promotion but why would the guys tease so? We are all ageing as I type (abba included) and time is not always going to be on our side.

  26. JohnB 27 Mar, 2010 at 8:59 AM #

    From Bjorn and Benny’s BBC interview on March 4th:

    "…ever share a stage with the girls again, will ABBA reform? Bjorn: No. Benny: Why do we have to say no to a question all the time? Bjorn: If we say yes but don’t mean it then there will be headlines tomorrow" :D

    Can Bjorn predict the future or what?
    :D

    I’m really surprised at "The Times" it is a respectable newspaper not a paper prone to making up celebrity stories like the Sun or Mirror. I read this article online and to me the comments about a reunion were so insignificatant as to not even cause me to mention them in my earlier comment. Yet for some reason the Times had a picture on the front page; saw fit to mention an ABBA reunion in its editorial; had a bigger article on page 4 and then the main long interview in the entertainment pages. I can only assume they really thought they had a scoop. Even funnier that it is the Telegraph that are now carrying Gorel’s announcement.

  27. Sapphie 27 Mar, 2010 at 9:47 AM #

    Maybe B&B were told this would be published on April 1st.

    "The way old FOLKS do" …

    Lee

  28. StephenUk 27 Mar, 2010 at 1:57 PM #

    When all is said and done (!) while the reunion was always a no goer I think anyone who saw ABBA staring out of the front page on Friday had their sprits lifted – as most papers had headlines rathers than pictures that day ABBA really stood out on the news racks (the back-lit head shots from the original ABBA movie poster also on some Easle 7" pictures sleeves and the 18 hits album was used but I think shown reversed as should they have been facing left?)
    It would have brought ABBA back into mind for any one who saw it and that can not be a bad thing. The article and pictures would have been a generous cover even in the 1970’s and to get it out of the blue was a real treat – sorry for people who had their hopes of a reunion raised then dashed but lets just rejoice that ABBA are back on the front pages in the papers after the limited coverage of ABBAworld launch. Now lets see if ABBA gold gets a lift from it!

  29. Michael Salkeld 27 Mar, 2010 at 2:16 PM #

    After the astonishing Benny Anderson Band concert on Hampstead heath I felt some sort of ABBA reunion wouldn?t be out of the question, if the Benny Anderson band can perform so rivetingly for three hours. And sing ABBA songs.

  30. StephenUK 27 Mar, 2010 at 9:22 PM #

    Wow this story has legs! was there a UK paper which didnt run the ABBA reunion story today? In some there was a main article and a columnist comment as well – lots of pictures of ABBA as well. Can any icthesite readers let us know if it has featured as a story outside the UK?

    Interesting point was that most feature writers did seem to go for leaving the ABBA memories as they were and actually not being for a reunion.

  31. bluewillow 28 Mar, 2010 at 12:07 PM #

    The reunion was definitely covered here in Western Australia. Page 3 of our state’s daily newspaper, with a small picture. I have also heard from the abba4ever forum of coverage in Europe.

  32. Richard 30 Mar, 2010 at 8:51 PM #

    I was working from home on Friday 26th with the TV on in the background, About 12.30 Loose Women was on and were very excited about this (although Linda Bellingham said she was never a fan), later they had Ulrika Johnson on who, when asked what she thought about the Abba ladies becoming involved in a reunion, said she would be surprised as "The blonde one, Agnetha, had been a recluse for years". I went out and bought the Times, fantastic cover photo, comment and interview inside.
    True or not (I suspect B&B were just so fed up with being asked this), isn’t it fantastic that it leads to worldwide coverage as mentioned above. Now you wouldn’t get that with your average 70’s or 80’s pop group reformation rumour. True talent and class always wins outright!

  33. BJ 13 Apr, 2010 at 10:38 AM #

    Fantastic !!
    How do I get to be one of the "invited guests"
    Perhaps I could represent Australia !
    A huge PLEASE if it happens Benny.

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