New Björn interview: “Don’t ask me what my favourite ABBA song is!”

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Björn Ulvaeus

UK regional newspaper The Blackpool Gazette was granted an exclusive interview with Björn in conjunction with Mamma Mia! taking up residence in Blackpool in 2014.

Despite the publication repeatedly referring to Björn as Björn “Ulvares” and at one point Anni-Frid as “Anita”, it was still quite a scoop for Entertainment Writer Steve Canavan just as long as he didn’t ask Björn whether ABBA would reunite or what his favourite ABBA song is!

Part 1

Björn Ulvares [sic] knows a thing or too [sic] about creating a hit. As part of the song-writing hit machine that were ABBA he rode on a 1970s wave of spandex, catchy tunes and worldwide fame. But even he admits the success of his music’s offshoot Mamma Mia! took him and songwriting partner Benny Andersson by surprise.

Björn said: “It’s astonishing the success of the show – it’s incredible. It’s difficult to understand that more than 50 million have seen it around the globe.

“I could have never have guessed the phenomenal success… never.

“(When we started) we were looking for a small theatre in London, not even in the West End, but never thinking it would run more than a year if we were lucky.

“I never anticipated anything close to this.”

Björn is delighted the show is heading to Blackpool next summer – a place he regrets ABBA never played – although countless tributes acts have tried to make amends over the years.

In an exclusive interview, Björn told The Gazette: “I know it’s a big summer resort, I’ve read about it in the papers.

“We never played in Blackpool – but I wish we had. It sounds a good place!

“I think the music will be perfect for the resort because I know it is dubbed the Las Vegas of the North so it sounds great.

“People should get up and dance, that’s what Mamma Mia! does with you.”

The show’s arrival is a huge coup for the resort. Not since Cats 10 years ago has the town staged a West End hit and what a hit it is. They do say that on any given day there will be at least seven showings of Mamma Mia! somewhere on the planet. It’s performed in Russia, Venezuela, Brazil, pretty much everywhere you can think of. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the closest NASA satellite to Mars picked up images of a performance there too!

Björn, and his songwriting partner Benny, were closely involved at every stage with the creation of the musical, to ensure the ABBA songs they so loving and prolifically crafted over an 11-year period in the 1970s and early 80s were not tarnished by being linked with anything sub-standard.

So was Björn against it? “That’s not quite right,” he said.

“I was hesitant in the beginning because it was going to be a television show ages ago, towards the end of the 1980s.

“It was Judy Craymer, who is the producer of Mamma Mia! She was a TV producer and she came to me with an idea to have TV show loosely based on ABBA songs, a little story around them.

“I said if you can show me a good script, fine. But there was never a good script and that was the problem.

“I turned down one or two.
there was talk of it becoming a panto at one point but it was only when Judy introduced Catherine Johnson to me that we talked about a fully-fledged musical.

“Then when I met Catherine I thought if anyone can do it, she can.

“I thought to me it was an interesting experiment in the beginning. She had these songs, she couldn’t change the lyrics or the melodies and she would have to weave a story around it, a story that was strong enough to stand by itself because I always told her that I thought the story is more important than the song.

“She started working on it and I don’t know how many drafts later we were suddenly rehearsing at the Prince Edward in London.

“I was completely aware of our reputation being tarnished and during the whole process I was ready to pull the plug.

“If I had felt at any point that ‘no this isn’t good, this will tarnish the catalogue of songs, it isn’t good for the group’ then I would have pulled the plug. But that never happened.”

As the years go on, and as the phenomenal success of Mamma Mia! proves, ABBA’s popularity shows no signs of diminishing.

So what makes the music of Agnetha, Benny, Björn, Anni-Frid just so timeless with millions around the globe?

He added: “I have no idea why our songs are so popular – I’d be very interested to know.

“It is 40 years now since we won the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton and I still don’t know.

“I just know we wrote those songs from our heart and we recorded them as best we could. That’s what we did and all the rest is luck.

“How many millions around the globe liked what we were doing? That’s something you can never put your finger on why that is.”

Part 2

When it comes to trying to hazard a guess at how much money Björn Ulvares [sic] has made over the years, there is a tiny clue when he describes where he lives.

“I own an island close to Stockholm,” says the man whose song-writing talents helped propel ABBA to fame.

“It’s quite handy because when I want a little time for myself, I press a button and a gate closes at the road leading on to the island. It’s all mine then.”

I hesitate to tell that soundbite because it gives the impression Björn, if I may be so bold as to call a music legend by his Christian name, is the big-headed, full-of-himself type. He isn’t, at least not if our half-hour chat on the phone is anything to go by.

Our interview comes as the news Mamma Mia!, the smash-hit musical featuring all of ABBA’s best songs, is coming to Blackpool Opera House for a summer season run in 2014. It’s a huge coup for the resort.

Yesterday, we reported how Björn has been bowled over by the success of the show and how much he felt it was perfect for Blackpool – being, as he said, the fun-loving “Vegas of the North”.

Björn, is 68 now, and admits his main kicks in life are spending time with his family (five children, four grand-children) and running. But he still tries to write new songs whenever possible, for music is in his blood.

He had already achieved a fair amount of fame in his native Sweden before Abba formed.

Back in the late 1960s he performed in a folk band. Then he met Benny Andersson at a music festival and pair began writing material. Then they met two pretty girls – Agnetha Fältskog and Anita [sic] Lyngstad. On the off-chance you’ve lived under a stone for the last four decades the rest, as they say, is history.

Björn said: “We weren’t writing songs for ourselves, not commercial success. You write like we did Benny and I with a piano and a guitar and you grab something which you think is good ‘this is a good melody line’ and that is the criteria – and then what comes after is a different story.

“ABBA was such a positive period I’ve no problems with just being remembered for that. I am really proud of what we achieved and the phenomenal success makes you humble. I look back with fondness.

“Sometimes I get tired of answering the question of whether we will reunite or not, or what my favourite ABBA song is. So don’t ask me that!

“Benny and I were very lucky to meet each other and we were lucky to meet the girls as well.

“It was fantastic the way Benny and I met and then we met two girls, purely on a social basis, just boy falls in love with girl and they just happened to be wonderful signers who just happened to be beautiful, one blonde, one red head, it is almost too good to be true – but there you are, that is the story. It isn’t fate, just coincidence.”

Of course, all good – even great – things come to an end. ABBA imploded after the The Visitors album in 1981.

Björn admits: “The divorces (Fältskog and Ulvaeus were a married couple, as were Lyngstad and Andersson) were difficult as any divorce is but we decided to work together after that and we actually did some of our best stuff after that. The Winner takes It All was recorded after we were divorced but the break up of the group came completely naturally.

“We had always known that eight or 10 years, most groups don’t have more time than that. If they stick together after that they go into a different phase, they just go on touring and people just want to hear their old songs. We didn’t want to do that. We felt the energy was running out and we didn’t have as much fun in the studio as we used to, so we decided to try something else for a while.

“So it wasn’t so much the marriage break-ups, it was just the natural lifespan of the band.

“Most bands really explode over eight or so years, they write their best stuff.

“Benny and I wrote Chess the musical with Tim Rice and the girls went their separate ways doing solo albums.

“We always thought we’d get back together in a couple of years time but of course that never happened. We are still on speaking terms with the girls, absolutely.”

Despite the break up, Bjorn and Benny are still doing what they have always done – writing songs together.

“Benny and I have worked together since 1966.

“We’ve had our fall outs but never anything really serious and we don’t see each other every day. We still work together. We have written a song that will open the Eurovision Song Contest.

“I still write songs when I can. I don’t write every day but every so often Benny calls and says he has something he wants me to listen to. He will come up with a little tune, I’ll listen, we’ll talk and I’ll go home and write a lyric for it. He lives close by.”

As for the success both during ABBA and the longevity of Mamma Mia!, he added: “It does overwhelm and it makes you really humble.

“But I find it quite impossible to grasp emotionally because they tell you these figures they tell you 379 million records sold but how do you really grasp that? I don’t think you do. It is just a huge figure.”

So how long will the world’s love affair with ABBA continue?

Björn adds: “I hope for another 40 years… that would be great!”

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