ABBA: the band whose biographical entry begins every pop music encyclopedia; the Swedish quartet composed of two couples -- Agnetha Faltskog and Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad -- whose first names supply the initials for the moniker. The men wrote the hook-packed, cotton-candy songs, the women sang them, and for several years in the 1970s they were the world's biggest-selling pop act. But by 1983 they were finished, the couples having split and musical tastes having changed.
ABBA's songs were ephemeral, lighter than air. With songs such as "Waterloo," "Dancing Queen," "Take a Chance on Me" and "S.O.S.," ABBA drilled melodies into the heads of anyone listening to Top-40 radio, like it or not. Still, if you'd given any reasonable pop music fan of the 1970s an opportunity to name which bands' music might be pertinent -- resonant, even -- at the dawn of the next century, it's a pretty good guess ABBA would not have been among the top choices. Or, for that matter, long-shot choices.
Of course, now ABBA is everywhere. Twenty-two of the group's songs are used in the Broadway-bound musical Mamma Mia! (coming to Washington's National Theatre next spring) and the music has also been featured in the films Muriel's Wedding and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Several years ago, the English pop group Erasure paid loving tribute with ABBA-esque, recasting ABBA songs for the modern dance floor. Several different versions of a tongue-in-cheek ABBA tribute band, Bjorn Again, travel the world.
Rising above time
So ABBA -- long embraced by middlebrow pop fans and gay male audiences, and long scorned by rock critics -- is both popular and newly hip. Timeless, it would seem, with its music never really disappearing from the landscape "for some strange reason," says Bjorn Ulvaeus, picking up the thread from his Stockholm home. "I'm the last one who can explain.
"Maybe because we had so many hits during the '70s, perhaps when [filmmakers and playwrights] try to illustrate the '70s with music, a lot of people would choose an ABBA song. Other than that, I really don't know. I thought when we split up, 'Oh well, they might play one or two songs a couple of times a year, but we will be completely forgotten in three years' time.'
"It was so different from all other stuff in the '70s; things were much darker, more somber," Bjorn continues. Even ABBA, he notes, explored a "much darker" side on its last three albums. One song from that period, the crescendo-stuffed "Knowing Me, Knowing You," is as grand a breakup song as anything Fleetwood Mac wrote around the same time. "The song itself is kind of uplifting," says Bjorn. Within the breakup is the determination to start anew.
Slagged off by hipsters, the band did earn credibility when Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten said he far preferred ABBA's music to most anything else. Elvis Costello also offered praise.
"We had some great fans during that time," Bjorn says. "We were a very strange [group to] compliment. The critics didn't like ABBA, but I remember we played Wembley Stadium, and we had [Led Zeppelin's] Jimmy Page [among others] at the party afterward -- people with great credibility, what we didn't have. It was really nice. They understood that we had the same serious attitude that they did about our music. It was only the critics that didn't understand."
New generations of critics -- those not demanding complex song structure or great lyrical significance -- have come around. And no less a rock star and songwriter than U2's Bono calls ABBA "one of the best pop groups that ever was." And there's Bjorn Again, with its verging-on-parody deadpan style.
Bjorn says, "In the beginning I had mixed feelings -- I thought that they were making fun of us -- but in the long run I understand it's more of a tribute." As for Bjorn Again's robotic stage shtick, he says: "You get that from [watching our] videos -- everyone did what they were supposed to do. But other than that, we were not like that in concert at all."
Not long ago, the members of ABBA were offered $1 billion -- that's right, a billion -- to reunite and tour. They're not idiots. They considered it.
"Of course, we discussed it, all four of us," says Bjorn. But as with the Beatles when John Lennon was still alive, the members rejected the idea. "I don't want to go into details, but we came to the conclusion -- for personal reasons, mainly -- it would not be the right thing to do. We've come too far to walk down that road again, and also, people should remember us for who we were. We were supposed to play a hundred concerts; we would play to tens of thousands, and they would all be disappointed. We wouldn't have had the energy."
Of course, when you turn down a billion bucks, that suggests you've accumulated a bit of cash over the years. In fact, the long-running rumor is that, at its peak, ABBA was the second-biggest corporation in Sweden, behind Volvo.
"That is not true," says Bjorn, with a laugh. "Some PR person dreamed that up, but it is still haunting me." Yes, Bjorn admits, he and his mates made a fair chunk of change. ABBA has sold a reported 350 million albums worldwide.
All four members are on friendly terms. Bjorn and Benny still write together. They collaborated with Tim Rice on Chess -- The Musical in 1984. They wrote a musical, Kristina Fran Duvelma, based on a Swedish folk legend, in 1995.
Looking back, does Bjorn see ABBA's kitsch appeal and camp value? He does.
"In the beginning especially," he says. "Our outfits were outrageous and make you cringe today, but those were the days of glamour rock, and there were more people than us that looked like that. The reason we have a great following in the gay community, people tell me, [is] glamour and kitsch."
"I hope so."