Benny opens up in an interview given to ‘Vi’ magazine in Sweden.
This article has been translated into English from the original Kristina Lindström Swedish interview. With photographs by Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin.
Many thanks to Kaarin Goodburn for the scans of the magazine.
We have talked for hours on the red velvet couch, when he suddenly stops.
“I really dislike this!”
Quite friendly and sincere. Benny Andersson doesn’t like this at all. Or rather: he wishes he could talk freely. But he keeps his secrets. He stays clear of the tricky stuff. Not for his own sake, but for others, who have no voice.
The next moment, he states:
“I know what headline you should put on this: “I do not want any headlines!”
We sit on Benny’s Hotel Rival in Stockholm. The curved velvet couch next to the window is the one he always sits in when he is here. We drink good water and the sun filters through the green leaves on Mariatorget’s trees, a warm, golden autumnal light.
In the bar, a photo of Janis Joplin at Woodstock is woven into the carpet. The waiter stands at her breasts.
Benny is a Stockholm guy. He still seems like a boy. In some ways, his story starts in the Vällingby youth club when he, 15 years old, got involved with Christina. She was a pretty girl, and she sang so well. And she was 17 years old! A year later he became a dad.
What did they say at home?
“Well, it was as it was.”
But nothing like… “But Benny, you’re only 16 years old!?”
“Yes, that’s true. But then it was all fine. As I say, it was like it was.
Göran Bror Benny Andersson was going to be a father. He was 16 and shot into adulthood when his son Peter was born. Benny lived at home for a bit, but mostly he lived with Christina’s grandparents, with her and their son. Six people lived in a two-room apartment on Vitangi Street.
“It was OK”, he says.
This was to be a stark contrast to life as it came to be: world-renowned, huge record revenues, the building on Skeppsholmen, house by the canal on Djurgården, the gardens on Sörmland, boats, racehorses. One of the most successful Swedes ever.
His life has taken a strange turn or two, he thinks.
Doesn’t everyone’s life do that? Hasn’t everybody had their ups and downs? Moments that seem mundane and trivial, but which will forever alter their lives.
Benny Andersson often use the word lucky. That he has done nothing for it, for all that he has received. And experienced.
“I graduated from secondary school, I was 15 and practiced at Svenska Böstader, where my father worked. I used to meet a guy who I sometimes talked with a little. One day he stopped me and asked: “Can you play the organ?” “Yes, I said.”
Although he couldn’t.
The answer lead him through the cover band Elverket Spelmanslag to teen-girls’ idols The Hep Stars. The Hep Stars are not at the forefront of everyone’s mind today, but in 1965 they were massive, singer Svenne Hedlund was so cute.
Maybe it was Benny’s mother who gave him the courage to say “Yes”. Yes, instead of “No, I have never played the organ”?
His mother gave him what he believes is the foundation for a good life. Self-esteem. A sense that he would survive. And so she gave him a piano. And let him play.
There is a sadness. A quiet and thoughtful mood. A dark streak in the jovial appearance.
“A round face and beard “it makes people think you are happy and kind. Though it is of course not true.”
“No, of course not! Therefore, the life I have lived is ridiculous. It’s not me. It doesn’t exist. It’s not based on my merit. It is pure luck.”
There is the word again. Luck – or coincidence.
Benny grew up in Vällingby. He has talked quite often about his father and grandfather and the accordions they played. He inherited his musical roots directly from them.
He pauses. Breathes in.
“She is the one that made me feel that I was good enough. She gave me the most amazing start. His mother was a housewife in the 1950s. A creative woman. Headstrong. But she had nowhere to express herself. Like so many other women at that time. Trapped in a kind of prison.”
“She was at home when I came from school. I played on the piano at least four hours a day. Every day. I could play as much as I wanted. She never told me I disturbed her. She didn’t judge. She made me feel that what I did was good.”
First there was Christina and the kids. He toured with the Hep Stars. She followed him on the tours, and their daughter Helen was born in Tranås hospital.
The Hep Stars were a success. He was 18 years and father of two. But he was also a teenager on tour. If there is anything he regrets it’s that he left his children.
“I did it when Christina and I broke up. We have of course talked about this over the years, the kids and I, and concluded that most things turned out well in the end anyway.”
There was a time after The Hep Stars and before ABBA, when Benny didn’t know where life was going. It was an important period. It taught him not to take anything for granted. But as it happened, Waterloo in Brighton in 1974 started everything rolling. At full pelt.
The following year ABBA was #1 in the American charts. Anni-Frid, Benny, Bjorn and Agnetha. And Stikkan Anderson. They all lived on an island in the archipelago. Spent the summers together and worked together. They tried not to tour too much because they wanted to be close to the children. And to not have anything interfere with their songwriting.
“The life that I have received is not a life that you can choose. I mean, you can not figure it out. To be born with a talent is nothing to boast about. But I think it is a duty to administer the gift you received.”
How do you do that?
“By working. Spending as much time as possible composing so that the results are the best that can be achieved. And by making the right choices. And not to move your money to Jersey. You have to decide on which side of the fence you want to stand. Sweden is one of the most successful countries in the world. We can afford to be there. But it has become a society where the word solidarity has been obliterated. It means nothing anymore. Greed has taken over.”
Benny gets upset in his own way, in a kind of restrained manner. It is obvious that it’s heartfelt.
“Greed is the worst of the deadly sins.”
A year ago there was a buzz when it transpired that Benny was the “secret” donor to the Feministisk Initiativ political party. Gudrun Schyman told the radio that the party didn’t get any ballot papers for the EU elections. Benny called her up and asked what kind of help they needed.
“I like to make a difference for democracy.”
During the years with ABBA and Stikkan Anderson, it irked sometimes when Stikkan spoke for the whole band and said things like “all members of ABBA are against the wage-earner funds, and against the high tax burden in Sweden”.
“He had a penchant for saying “we” when he meant ‘he’. We had a number of serious conversations with him: “Stickan, don’t say ‘WE’ when it’s actually ‘YOU’ who wants to buy Saxon & Lindstrom. Do not say “We” when you are against employee (wage-earner) taxes. “Yes, yes,” said Stikkan. I promise.”
“But it made no difference.”
Is there any problem with having as much money as you have?
“Not at all! But if one has money, it should be shared. For example, one can start by paying one’s taxes!”
ABBA’s breakthrough came in 1974, in the middle of the left wing movement. Typical of the comments made by Swedish music critics of the day was a response to the question…”What do the music people think about ABBA?” (a headline in which newspaper Dagen Nyheter’s Mia Gerdin commented: “Glorified shit”.
“Carefully manufactured international junk music,” said Tommy Rander, one of Aftonbladet’s critics. “Their music is too calculated and does not feel spontaneous. The music will be a cold, unfeeling, targeted product that is commercially marketed.” “Their lyrics are dismal in their banality. But it’s professional,” Christer Eklund said, editorial director of Swedish Radio’s youth editorial board (and saxophonist on the recording of Waterloo!).
“He was probably disappointed when we wouldn’t allow him to play as he wanted.”
Looking back, the comments seem almost like caricatures of the left’s criticism of ABBA. But at that time it was serious.
How did it feel?
“We did not bother too much about reviews, because we had our audience. On the other hand, no one wants to be critically ravaged like that. In public. But my recollection is the fact that many of our records were received pretty well.”
Although it was the 70s not everything had political overtones.
“Musically, most progressive music was worthless. Except for Hoola Bandoola Band and the National-teatern. But I miss today not to have been a part of the movement. I would have liked to have been politically involved even then. To have taken part in the Vietnam protests, for example. But we were somewhere else. When the roller-coaster started, after Waterloo, it was all we could do to just get going and hang on. Chances like that come in at a snail’s pace and disappear in a flash! We were hot stuff suddenly, and went into some kind of career-focused tunnel vision.”
They were number one in the world actually.
Grandfather Ephraim Anderson was treasurer of Byggettan (a trade union). Both he and dad were Social Democrats.
“One time I sat in the same TV studio as Olof Palme, he said he wanted to say ‘Hello’ from my grandfather. He had just come from Nässlingen in the Stockholm Archipelago, the island that my grandfather helped the union to buy, in order that ordinary workers had the opportunity to afford a small summer house. Grandpa had been dead for 20 years, but Olof Palme had his eye on his ideals. Palme was superb! Incredibly capable, with incredible charisma.”
“I work every day. I do it to make use of what I’ve been given in life. To be “genuine”. I don’t feel a fraction of ‘ABBA Benny’ or ‘Hep Stars Benny’. It’s not me. I want to get on with the music. I haven’t done a big musical project in 15 years, not since.”
I have my orchestra, and it’s wonderful. It is a great pleasure to be with the whole band and the camaraderie between us. When we tour, we go off with our spouses and children. We live well, eat well, hang out and play. But I long to get my teeth into something that is really difficult. Something that I almost can’t handle!
What is it with ABBA, what is it about the music that just continues and continues to play, world over? Why does it endure? There are of course many answers. Many suggestions have been touted “the mixing, production, musicians”.
But Benny’s answer is: “Disguised melancholy. If you play the music purely, without any embellishment, for example just on a piano, something else suggests itself. It´s not as joyful as it seems. Perhaps that is it, but in reality I have no idea why.”
At a table at a party, he found himself next to a woman named Mona.
“It took me a quarter of an hour to realise that I was sat next to a woman who would change my life.”
[Just] 15 minutes?
“Yes, I don’t know how it happened. Something hit me. It was as if I had no choice. We talked non-stop for about eight hours, but I have no idea about what! I was married to Frida then, and not interested in playing about, so it took three or four months before Mona and I were a proper couple.”
The divorce between Frida and Benny turned into more column inches in newspapers. Now both ABBA couples were divorced. The band’s days together were numbered.
“Personally, I believe that it was ABBA who sustained life in the relationships and not vice versa, as most people probably think.”
Mona and Benny have been together for 30 years now.
“I like Mona,” he says with a smile. She means a lot to me. I’ve been fortunate to meet a woman who opens up the world for me…who is wiser than me. Mona has changed my whole way of looking at reality. She has helped me open my eyes.
Previously I was so focused on my own world, my ABBA world.”
Benny will soon go and fetch youngest grandchild Viola, aged 3, from nursery.
“She is really stunning,” he says, objectively and holds his arms towards his chest as if the girl already was in his lap. “So clever, so funny! So nice. Take a look!”
In the picture on his iPhone, Viola wears the dress Madicken’s sister Lisbet wore in the movie. She got the dress from costume designer Inger Elvira Pehrson. Yes, he knows “everyone”.
“Yes, I know a lot of people. But my really close friends number not very many, five or six.”
As we talk, a guy with a ponytail comes running towards us with a pad: “I’ve really enjoyed your hotel!” Benny writes his autograph and says ‘Thank you’.
Benny hasn’t drunk alcohol for nine years.
“It’s the best thing I’ve achieved for myself. If you notice that you don’t feel like yourself if you don’t have alcohol in your body, then it is time to stop.”
Some can drink. Others can’t.
“If I hadn’t stopped I would probably not been sitting here today. Alcohol is a kind of filter that gets in the way of reality. Now it’s gone, it’s nice. But “life is not as simple as teetotaler groups have you believe”, Sandemose said.”
Benny’s little white car is just outside the lobby. It holds just a German Shepherd and two people.
An elderly gentleman knocks on the car window: “Do you remember me? I drove you home 40 years ago. Early one morning. You said you’d buy me coffee.”
“Next time we meet, I promise that there will be refreshments. I need to go to the kindergarten now”, Benny said to Lundberg, which is how the old man introduces himself. Lundberg is not sure what Benny says. But he nods.
Name: Göran Bror Benny Andersson
Employment: Pop genius, composer, accordionist, professor, honorary doctorate, art collector
Born: December 16, 1946
Lives: Djurgården, Stockholm
Favorite Composer: Johan Sebastian Bach
Reads: Right now Sara Stridsberg “extremely talented and incomparable storyteller.”
Best Award: Elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “With Elvis, Beatles, Stones, Carole King, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson ..! We are the only non-Anglo-Saxon band!”
Owns racehorses: “Too many”. Four in England, five in Sweden.
Art Collection: Consists of primarily Swedish 1900-century paintings and contemporary artists.
His career in numbers: Record sales since 1972: more than 375 million albums worldwide. Mamma Mia!: The film alone pulled in over 4.8 billion. Platform boots from the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton in 1974 sold at Bukowski for Skr 22,000.