Toys of the 1970's
ABBA was one of the top musical groups of the 1970's, and for some time the #1 export product from their native land of Sweden, bringing more international dollars to their nation than even manufactured goods such as Saab automobiles.
ABBA consisted of two couples. Throughout the latter half of the 60's, Benny Andersson was keyboardist and primary songwriter for the Hep Stars, a Swedish pop group with mop-top haircuts and rock pretensions. The Hep Stars were popular with teenagers within the country but were virtually unknown outside their native land. Meanwhile, Anni-Frid 'Frida' Lyngstad was a lovely young German-Swedish singer who had been performing in nightclubs and cabarets since her teens and was just beginning to make a national name for herself. They met during a summer folkpark tour and became lovers.
Bjorn Ulvaeus was a guitarist and songwriter with a skiffle/folk group in Sweden called The Hootenanny Singers. One summer while doing work for a TV show he met Agnetha Faltskog, a pretty blonde who was also doing the folkpark circuit, and who had previously won the role of Mary Magdalene in the Swedish tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. They fell in love and were married in 1971.
Benny and Bjorn became friends after crossing musical paths so many times, and at some point decided to try to write songs together. They were encouraged by Stig Anderson, the Hootenanny Singers' manager who had created the Polar Music label, and the pair released an album called Lycka ('Happiness'). While not their breakthrough work, it did feature all four future members of ABBA together, as the guys' respective girlfriends recorded uncredited background vocals for the album.
As time passed the two couples worked together more frequently (Bjorn and Agnetha married in 1971), and soon the female contributors gained equal status as the collective became known as Bjorn & Benny & Agnetha & Anni-Frid. Their single "People Need Love" (b/w "Merry Go Round") reached number 17 in the Swedish charts. Heartened by their success, the team continued songwriting in earnest; an album titled Ring Ring (with title single) met moderate success in the European market.
After several studio sessions, manager Stig Anderson was tired of writing the foursome's names out every time a document required him to do so; on a whim he began to refer to them collectively as ABBA (the initals of their first names) and the quick, catchy name stuck. (Besides, Abba was also the name of a Swedish fish cannery, so that the group's new name resulted in lots of jokes.)
ABBA had enjoyed bronze-medal success in Eurovision, a pan-European song contest, and in 1974 they tried their luck again. This time they won easily with their song "Waterloo," and recognition in the United Kingdom - an important market - was assured. They had been wise enough to have a full album of material ready bearng the title of the song. "Waterloo" quickly went to #1 in the UK (#6 in the US) even though their follow-ups (including "Honey Honey") didn't do nearly as well. Their success was assured, however, with their next self-titled album ABBA, and its hit singles such as the lovely "SOS," "Mama Mia," and "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do."
What separated ABBA from their competitors was simply the high quality of their material; the group was formed by four outstanding musical talents, all of whom contributed to the sound as well as the songwriting. Agnetha and Ani-Frid were very accomplished singers, with wide vocal ranges and clear, lovely voices that blended in seamless harmony; Bjorn and Benny, while not so up-front musically, were skilled songwriters who knew exactly what they wanted when creating a song. All of this talent was backed up by competent studio work and experimentation, mainly at the hand of engineer Michael Tretow, who worked closely with the group to achieve their unique, layered sound.
In 1976, the group released their oddly-titled Greatest Hits album, which featured "Fernando," a song originally recorded by Frida (and written by Benny) and which proved to be a solid hit. Arrival followed, providing even more popular hits like "Knowing Me, Knowing You," "Money Money Money," and especially "Dancing Queen," which was their first (and only) #1 record in the United States. The next year Abba executed a multimedia extravaganza: ABBA: The Album was released alongside the cleverly-titled ABBA: The Movie, which featured the group's dazzling concert tour of Australia, where they were even more immensely popular than elsewhere. Two more hit songs resulted: "Take A Chance On Me" and "The Name of the Game."
The group began to take on more disco-inspired leanings, which was evident in the title single "Voulez-Vous" from 1979; their Greatest Hits Vol. 2 was also released, and the group toured the US and Canada, that year. 1980's Super Trouper yielded the international hit "The Winner Takes it All" (#1 in the UK); The Visitors from 1981 offered "One of Us."
"The Winner Takes it All," besides being a sad song in its own right, was unfortunately about Bjorn's and Agnetha's dissolving marriage. (Allegedly Bjorn had written the bulk of the tune one night while intoxicated and brooding.) "One of Us" was also sad and its lyrics dealt with being lied to, as well as the inevitable recriminations that follow a bad breakup. Indeed, fans' worst fears were realized in 1981 when Bjorn and Agnetha divorced; Benny and Frida, who had married in 1978, held on a bit longer, but were soon also calling it quits. ABBA as a functional unit held out only a little longer, but the work and the success eventually caused the foursome to break up all together. They were still phenomenally popular worldwide.
As time passed the individual members began to pursue other objectives. Agnetha and Ani-Frid both returned to solo careers; in recent times Bjorn and Benny have begun to work together again, most notably on Mama Mia, a musical whose storyline is built around various ABBA tunes, and which has found a great deal of success in the UK and America. The group received a posthumous boost in popularity from the 1994 Australian film Muriel's Wedding, whose daydreaming heroine (played by Toni Collette) finds solace in the group's music.
Though all four members are still more or less musically active and are in good health, so far ABBA have refused all offers to reappear together on stage or in the studio. Perhaps their time has come and gone; certainly musical tastes have changed. Still, there are many of us - perhaps millions of us around the world - who wish the radio still hummed with the effortless, feel-good melodies of Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny, and Ani-Frid.