Björn Ulvaeus: thank you for the music
By Janice Turner:
Mamma Mia!’s record-breaking success has cemented Abba’s return to centre stage. Björn Ulvaeus reflects on the heady days of superstardom, the resulting emotional fallout and the life-affirming qualities of Swedish powerpop.
Twenty minutes into Mamma Mia! The Movie, I was on the brink of walking out, fidgeting with irritation at the hammy cast, forever squealing and jumping off things – jetties, roofs, beds – and the preposterous plot about who’d fathered some old hippy’s love child. But I stayed, and two hours later found myself outside the cinema in larky high spirits wondering when I might go again.
What curious magic does Mamma Mia! weave, that more than 30 million people have seen the stage show? And now the third most successful musical of all time has just leapfrogged Harry Potter to become the most successful British movie at the UK box office.
The key, of course, is the music of Abba, the disposable pop which, 30 years after it was written, still fills our iPods. Björn Ulvaeus, neat, bearded, with that polite, detached Scandinavian inscrutability, has long tried to figure out exactly what he and his partner Benny Andersson did to grant themselves pop immortality.
“Someone said there is champagne in the music – bubbles,” he says. “But Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream said the songs manage to combine a melancholic feeling with a euphoric feeling. That is interesting and true because the songs are very often in minor keys and the lyrics are very often sad, but still the sound is uplifting.”
As Abba lyricist, Ulvaeus is responsible for the ultimate break-up anthem, The Winner Takes it All – belted out on screen with raw power by Meryl Streep – besides that unintentionally hilarious line in Super Trouper: “I was sick and tired of everything/ When I called you last night from Glasgow.” But listening to Abba’s mightiest (and only American) number one, Dancing Queen, the fact the girl is “young and sweet, only 17” is shadowed by a tristesse in the melody, enjoining us to celebrate this moment because the girl will not be 17 for ever. Sort of “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” with synthesizers.
For Andersson and Ulvaeus, the “Abba sound” was their obsession. They created a “wall of noise”, with rich and intricate arrangements, overlayering the voices of the female singers (Ulvaeus’s wife, Agnetha, and Andersson’s, Anni-Frid) into multiple harmonies. They were studio perfectionists and innovators as much as Phil Spector or the Beach Boys but received none of their kudos. “We always had the latest high-tech stuff,” says Ulvaeus. “We’d hear a sound on a record. What is that? We had to have it.”
But this technical complexity sucked the fun out of performing. “It was great having the audience there, but we were reproducing exactly what we did in the studio. With groups like Led Zep and the Stones, when they’re on stage different things happen. But we had a big band and a set list of songs to play and there was no room for improvisation. It all had to go together in order to produce that Abba sound. We weren’t really a band of musicians, we were a vocal group with musicians. But above all we were writers and producers.”
It’s little wonder, then, that Abba hated touring. They virtually invented the music video to be broadcast on chart shows so they wouldn’t have to turn up in person. Indeed tour-phobia is the prime reason Ulvaeus, now 63, refused $1 billion in 2000 to reform the band. The frenzy of their 1977 tour, with screaming Australians besieging airports and mad crushes at concerts, was captured by Lasse Hallström in Abba: the Movie. For Agnetha and Anni-Frid, who were the faces – or in the former’s case the famously shapely bottom – of the group, the pressure was intense and intrusive. Moreover this was no normal band. Since the two couples were married, there was no escape from fellow band members after-hours and both had children – Frida had two from an earlier marriage and Björn and Agnetha had a daughter, Linda, and later a son, Christian – whom they either brought along or pined for.
At first, it was assumed their relationships were a gimmick “like one of these manufactured bands”, says Ulvaeus. “When, in fact, Abba was completely organic.” Indeed, Andersson met Ulvaeus in the Sixties, playing in rival groups on the Swedish circuit, became close friends – as they are to this day – and co-opted their fiancées, both minor solo artists, into a new band called Festfolk, meaning “engaged couples”. It seems almost extraneous to say that, renamed Abba after their first initials, they won Eurovision in 1974 with Waterloo, beginning a string of catchy but never cool hits until their marriages, and then the band itself, fell apart around 1982. Did working together somehow hasten the split? “Abba kept our marriages intact for much longer than if, say, the girls had been touring and we had been in bands with two other guys,” Ulvaeus insists.
While he and Agnetha were divorcing, he wrote The Winner Takes It All and wonders if the lyrics, “The winner takes it all/ The loser standing small/ Beside the victory/ That’s her destiny…” helped fuel her subsequent Garbo-esque mystique. “She sang it and people were thinking she was abandoned and lonely – oh poor Agnetha.”
Of the four she is certainly the most private, seldom leaving Sweden because she refuses to fly after Abba’s chartered plane hit a storm. But far from some bitter rift, they even celebrated last Christmas together. And at the Swedish premiere of Mamma Mia! The Movie, the quartet were seen together in public for the first time since they dissolved. “We were standing in the lobby, all four of us just talking and after a couple of minutes it felt like yesterday,” he says. “It seemed completely natural. They are both wonderful women, so it makes it easier.”
If you want to survive pop superstardom, it helps to be Swedish. Ulvaeus lives quietly now in Stockholm, reads, sees his children – three of whom live close by – and looks after his youngest grand-daughter, aged seven months. He seems serene and relaxed, his legacy assured. But even at the apex of Abba-mania, while British schoolboys debated whether they most fancied the blonde or brunette, Sweden left their biggest stars alone. “We could go to the local shops in Stockholm without being harassed. It was very much an ordinary life. Walking down the street, knowing everyone knows who you are, but no one turns their head,” Ulvaeus chuckles. “And if someone does, it’s a foreigner, a tourist.”
But the egalitarian conformity of Swedish society, a deep national distaste for flashing one’s cash around, created its own pressures. It was public knowledge, for example, how much Abba made. “It was in the papers constantly,” says Ulvaeus. “When they wrote about the Stones, they’d talk about the music or Keith Richards being drunk. But with us, half of it was about money. I got so fed up.” At the time the Swedish tax system was so punitive that Astrid Lindgren, author of children’s classic Pippi Longstocking, complained she was paying 102 per cent of her income.
After his divorce, Ulvaeus planned to be a playboy, but instead met Lena Källersjö, his second wife, within a week. With Abba over, he decided to move to England. “English people are so much more varied and exciting than Swedish people,” he said at the time. Fancying the life of a country squire, he and Källersjö bought a house with 16 acres in Henley-on-Thames, sent their two children to English private schools, and tried to keep sheep. “It wasn’t quite the idyll we thought. So many die. I ended up having a lamb lying on my chest to try to keep it alive one night because the mother had left it. But it died, sadly. After that I didn’t want sheep any more.”
His career was not in the best health either. He and Andersson had hoped that their musical, Chess, would lead to a Rice/Lloyd Webber-style theatrical career, but instead it tanked, closing on Broadway after three months. “That was a real low in my professional life, in the rest of my life too,” says Ulvaeus.
Throughout the Eighties, Abba were just a joke, a symbol of the naff, over-blown Seventies. It was the mid-Nineties before the fashion wheel rotated and Abba were the soundtrack of two films, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wedding. Both celebrated the songs’ camp drama, but at the same time a new generation of musicians started to appreciate the music itself.
Erasure released its album Abba-esque and Andersson and Ulvaeus were tickled when the Fugees asked to sample The Name of the Game on Rumble in the Jungle. “This funky rap group from America, they want a riff from the square Scandinavians? We thought, ‘That’s wonderful. They can have it!’” But by the time Madonna asked to use the twirling, twinkling refrain from Gimme Gimme Gimme in Hung Up they had grown canny and demanded half the royalties. Ulvaeus chuckles: “You bet we did!”
Now Abba have become a musical national treasure, beloved by all ages. “Young people download music indiscriminately. They aren’t concerned when it was made,” says Ulvaeus. “It’s simply, ‘I like that,’ or, ‘I don’t like that.’” So quality will out? “I like to think so.”
Mamma Mia! began 12 years ago when producer Judy Craymer suggested an Abba musical. Though all concerned are astonished at its success, they put it down to pure, unashamed escapism. Indeed, Meryl Streep took a bunch of friends to the Broadway production to cheer them up after 9/11 and was ecstatic to be offered the lead in the movie. “We hardly dared approach her at first,” says Ulvaeus. “We knew she could sing, but had no idea quite how well. She recorded The Winner Takes it All in one go. I bet Barbra Streisand or Céline Dion would have done it in pieces.”
He is generous, too, about Pierce Brosnan, much ridiculed for gargling through SOS: “He hits the notes without problem. He has a nice kind of folky Irish feel that Benny and I found attractive.”
Yet the powering force behind Mamma Mia!’s success is the women: unusually, the director, producer and writer of the show are all female, as are most of the cast and, of course, the fans who return to see it time after time. “You know, this is the one of the only films about women in their fifties,” remarks Ulvaeus. “I think writing for Agnetha and Anni-Frid I somehow must have developed an instinct for what women want.”
Mamma Mia! The Movie is available to own on Blu-ray and DVD from November 24.
The Mail features an interview with Phyllida Lloyd in which she picks her favourite moments of the Mamma Mia! shoot.