Abba’s legacy is there for us all to hear, in their amazing catalogue of hit records and skilfully created albums that are packed full of hidden gems. Their albums have sold around the world in their hundreds of millions, and with the success on stage and on screen of Mamma Mia! the appeal of Sweden’s most popular export seems guaranteed.
Abba, from winning Eurovision in 1974, have become been one of the most influential bands of the last four decades. They are, to the 1970s, what the Beatles were to the 1960s – both groups dominated pop music like no other contemporary artist. Great song writing, from Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, wonderfully performed by a band, fronted by the beautiful Frida and Agnetha, all added up to one thing – the perfect pop band – arguably the greatest ever.
May 2013 – with the Eurovision Song Contest having taken place in Sweden, Agnetha releasing a new album, A, and a permanent museum opening in Stockholm, the Abba legacy is as strong as ever.
Perpetually intertwined with the Eurovision Song Contest, Abba are perhaps the most celebrated winners in Eurovision history. Their rendition of ‘Waterloo’ at the 1974 contest is the pivotal moment that Abba was launched onto the word’s stage, and a moment in pop consciousness that has been referenced at every subsequent Eurovision.
However, there is an assumption that Abba’s journey to Eurovision victory was seamless, as if it was their destiny to win the honour from the moment they turned their talents to it. That assumption is wrong. Prior to ‘Waterloo’, Benny and Björn had been almost unrelenting in their attempts at getting a composition through to the final stages of Eurovision. In fact, those early failures were instrumental in the formation of Abba.
Benny wrote his first song for Swedish Eurovision consideration in 1969. It failed to make much headway, but it was at the contest that he met his future wife and band member Anni-Frid Lyngstad (Frida), a Norwegian who had been competing with another song. They became a couple just as Benny and Björn were becoming closer collaborators, and also around the time that Björn had partnered up with established singer Agnetha Fältskog, who already had a Swedish No. 1 under her belt. The foundations of Abba had been formed, but that momentous Eurovision win was still some way off.
Benny and Björn, now working together, tried again and again to secure an entry into the Eurovision Song Contest. Their 1971 attempt failed to make much progress, and in 1972 their song came just third in the Swedish competition. After the four members of Abba finally recorded their first album together, Ring Ring, they entered the title-track for Eurovision consideration with renewed confidence. Despite eventually becoming a fan favourite, it failed to make it through to the final stages of the competition, again coming in at third in the Swedish heats.
In 1973, the year the band’s name became finalised as ABBA, Benny and Björn began writing and recording a song in preparation for the next year’s Eurovision. That song was ‘Waterloo’, from the album of the same name, and it flew through the early stages of the competition, securing their first official entry for Sweden, and ultimately storming the 1974 European finals (despite England, that year’s Eurovision host, awarding the song nil points). After winning the contest, ‘Waterloo’ went onto to become one of the best-selling singles of all time, selling nearly six million copies, and charting at No. 1 in many countries, including the UK. In terms of Abba‘s worldwide success, winning Eurovision was where it all began, but that crucial win was not as swift and simple as most believe.
The band followed Waterloo with 1975’s ABBA, an album which contains two of their best-loved songs, ‘SOS’ and ‘Mamma Mia’, yet surprisingly missed out on the UK top 10. After that it was No.1 albums all the way, starting with their first Greatest Hits collection, which despite coming so early in their career spent over two years on the charts. Next was 1976’s Arrival, a studio album that was famously panned by Rolling Stone upon its release, despite containing the pop perfection of ‘Money, Money, Money’, ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Knowing Me, Know You’. The Rolling Stone Album Guide offered a new, positive review of the album in 2004.
ABBA: The Album was initially released in 1977, but only made available in the UK in 1978 due to insufficiently pressed copies coupled with unprecedented pre-orders. It coincided with the release of ABBA: The Movie, a film that has gained something of a cult status amongst pop music fans. 1979’s Voulez-Vousfollowed, featuring the wildly popular title-track. Almost every song contained on this album is celebrated, with seven of the ten tracks being released on singles (although some were as B-sides).
After another Greatest Hits – Greatest Hits Volume 2 in 1979 – Super Trouper was released in 1980, featuring the immense ‘The Winner Takes It All’, and went on to become the UK’s biggest selling album of that year. The last album recorded during the band’s time together was their eighth release, The Visitors in 1981, an album that is considered to contain their most progressive and sophisticated collection of songs, including the massive hit ‘One of Us’. Although no new studio albums ever emerged after 1981, Abba compilations continued to be released, including ABBA Live in 1986, featuring selections of live performances from the group’s 1977 and 1979 tours.
The band may never have officially split up, but the two couples did (Björn and Agnetha divorced in 1979, and Benny and Frida followed suit in 1980), and each member of Abba has gone onto enjoy a varied and respectable, post-band career. The ‘Abba Legacy’ is not just about Abba the band!
In early 1983 Benny and Björn began working with Tim Rice, writing songs for the musical project Chess. It was not until1986 that Chess opened in London’s West End, before opening on Broadway soon after, followed by productions around the world that are still running. Both Björn and Benny have been heavily involved in the stage musical, Mamma Mia, which had its debut in London in 1999. Like Chess it has played in just about every major city in the world. In July 2008 Mamma Mia! had its premiere as a movie in which Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Julie Walters had starring roles.
Frida and Agnetha pursued successful solo careers. Frida’s 1982 release Something’s Going On, recorded during the final months of Abba‘s activity, showcased a more rock-orientated sound, highlighted by the fact Phil Collins played on and produced it. Agnetha also continued as a solo singer, albeit one who has famously shied away from public attention, and has remained particularly successful in Sweden. A Year after Frida’s Something’s Going On, her Wrap Your Arms Around Me made No.18 on the UK album chart. 2013’s English language album A, which features a collaboration with Gary Barlow, confirms Agnetha still has one of pop’s greatest voices.
Abba’s 1992 compilation Abba Gold continues to be a huge selling album – something like one in four homes in Britain owns a copy. It’s not too surprising that the songs on it have been covered so extensively. In fact Abba, like the Beatles, attract more cover versions of their songs than just about any band. Among the covers versions are Richard Clayderman playing, ‘Dancing Queen’, ex-Sex Pistol‘s front man Sid Vicious doing ‘Take A Chance On Me’, Erasure’s take on ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’ and ‘Voulez Vous’ by Culture Club. Among the more obscure covers is Leather Nun’s, ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’ and The San Francisco Gay Man’s Chorus’ version of ‘Does Your Mother Know.’