Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad had no children together, but Ulvaeus and Fältskog worked hard to give their kids a normal life. “Yes, and we had very, very good nannies to take care of them. I think we did it well – they’re very normal persons today.”
As for her children's children, they've seen granny’s old videos, “but we don’t speak about it often. We just live a normal life. I sing with them at the piano. But they are not aware of all things that has happened.”
Does it feel like another life?
“It does really,” she replied quietly. “It does.”
A couple of hours before my ABBA Museum experience, I have my own time-travel trip. In his studio on the island of Skeppsholmen, a short boat-ride away, Andersson is introducing Live At Wembley Arena. It’s a recording of an ABBA concert from 1979, now being released on double-CD for the first time.
The still shaggy-haired, still-spry 67-year-old pops some chewing tobacco in his mouth and presses play on a laptop. Wild cheering, clapping and whistling bursts from the speakers, accompanied by the portentous sounds of an old Swedish folk song, Gammal Fäbodsplan. Then out booms the arena-sized, synth-pop storm und drank of Voulez-Vous.
After it ends, the keyboard player holds his hands up. Compared to the well-known single version (Number Three, 1979), “you can hear the tempo is slightly faster – that was the adrenalin. And I was responsible for the counting.” Pause. “But it was too fast.” Andersson gives a what-can-you-do? shrug.
He plays Knowing Me, Knowing You. “Not so bad, right?” he smiles. Then we hear Andersson introducing I’m Still Alive, written by Fältskog. From the stage Andersson calls the woman his bandmate was in the middle of divorcing “Björn’s old friend, Agnetha the little blonde girl”. The description solicits all sorts of lusty yells from that windy north London arena. Hearing this 35 years on, Andersson rolls his eyes.
In her teens, pre-ABBA, The Blonde One was a busy songwriter, reaching Number One in the Swedish charts aged 17. Fältskog had 18 solo hits before joining the band. But presented with the alchemical magic of Andersson/Ulvaeus partnership, she had happily given up writing. I’m Still Alive, then, was a rare return to composition – all the rarer for never appearing on an ABBA album.
Andersson professes to not know why that should be the case, then says: “She wasn’t too keen on that. She wrote a song or two for the first albums, and then said, ‘oh, I don’t want to do that.’ I think she wrote it for the tour actually.”
Acknowledging the notably personal lyric, Andersson notes that Fältskog “is very personal. She writes good stuff. She does. But,” he adds, “there are a lot songs missing here. Because this was ’79 and we worked for another three years. We have to go on the road again,” he says, playfully. “No, I’m just kidding.”
Standing next to Andersson is another interested party. He’s Ludwig Andersson, producer of Live At Wembley Arena. He’s also Benny’s son with the Swedish TV producer he married in 1981, the year he divorced Lyngstad. "The Brunette One" now lives in Switzerland, with her British boyfriend, Henry Smith, 5th Viscount Hambleden, an heir of the founders of WH Smith.
A handsome, fair 32-year-old, Ludwig explains in English as smooth as his father’s how he received a hard-drive containing “a million gigabytes” of material, culled from all six of ABBA’s Wembley shows in November 1979. His task: assemble an album that faithfully captured ABBA live and, in audio form at least, ABBA mania.
“It’s a very difficult thing to do. You listen to six identical evenings – ’cause they are in many says identical,” he says. “And then after a while you end up questioning your judgment – who’s to say which is better than the other? So I tried to base my judgment on just a feeling.”
Methodically, Ludwig colour-coded each performance of each song with highlighter pen on sheets of paper. “So if I liked it I gave it a pink colour. And if it was OK I gave it a green. And if it wasn’t I gave it yellow.”
Then he applied a points system, with pink meaning five points. “And then the evening with the highest score seemed like the right one to pick.”
Was he tempted to cherry-pick all the pinks from across the six sell-out nights? He shakes his head. He wanted to take one night. “My thought was that it would be nice to have one uncensored evening for everyone who wasn’t there.” Notably, he concedes, himself. “I did it for me,” smiles Ludwig, “’cause I wasn’t born at the time. So I never really got to hear this. So I just did it so I could listen to all the live stuff.”
Did Ludwig go through a teenage phase of hating his dad’s music? “No!” he declares cheerfully. Honestly?
“It’s a good question, but I don’t have anything to compare it to. For me, it was never a moment where I felt like, ‘oh my father’s doing something different to the other guys’ dads – they go to work and they come home in the evening.’ Dad went to the studio and my friends’ parents went to the office.”
All four members of ABBA are still in regular, friendly contact, although it is Andersson and Ulvaeus who take the most active role in the stewardship of the brand. They were co-producers of the 2008 film of Mamma Mia!, the hit jukebox musical that moved from the world’s stages to become a giant screen success. Ulvaeus, meanwhile, is Executive Chairman of the ABBA Museum, while Andersson and his son have taken the most active role producing this new live album.
What does Benny think of current state of the music industry? “I have no clue,” he smiles. “I feel sad for everyone who’s actually a songwriter. They don’t get paid. Because of all the downloadings [sic] around the world that exist. Spotify, [and] things like Spotify – probably a good idea. It’s better than nothing. But otherwise I don’t know how they gonna do it. Because songwriters, they don’t go out on tour. They sit home and write songs. That’s not very healthy, I think. But otherwise, I think, yes, it’s very alive isn’t it? Thousands of new acts. It’s easy to come out – you do something, you put it up on your computer and it’s spread all over the world instantly. That’s nice.”
The album is released as part of the ABBA 40th anniversary celebrations. It was preceded by a lavish photobook documenting the band’s career. But what’s next? Nothing, he insists – there are no “lost” albums or demo recordings.
“There’s nothing. There’s nothing,” Andersson repeats. “While we were working we took away stuff that we didn’t want to use. We completed the things we thought was good enough. That’s it, there’s nothing. I think it’s a good way to keep your cupboards clean.”
And yet: with nostalgia still very much what it used to be, the clamour for an ABBA reunion continues. Around eight years ago, as Mamma Mia! madness swept the world, they were offered a $1bn payday to reform. They refused point-blank. “It is so silly when old bands go back on the road," said Ulvaeus at the time. “I would rather leave our fans with the image of us as we were. The best legacy is our records and videos.”
When I met he and Andersson in London before the release of the film, the guitarist staunchly stood by that quote. “Absolutely. I feel that way. They were talking about 120 gigs or something, and television, and sponsors, and commercials and what have you," he said with a grimace. "It would have taken 10 years out of my life. Just the stress. And leaving people disappointed all the time. Eeuuurgh. It was easy to say no to it. And we all felt the same.”
Andersson chipped in. “You say, ‘what about all the fans, all the people who couldn’t come to Wembley or wherever?’ I think we’re doing them a favour by not doing [a reunion]! I thinks it’s better that everybody remembers it as it was, when we had the energy.”
Now, in his lovely, wood-built studio in Stockholm, I mention to Andersson the excitement surrounding the return to the stage of Kate Bush.
“She’s wonderful!” he interjects. Her current run of concerts in London are the first time she’s performed live since, coincidentally, 1979. Considering the rapturous responses to Bush’s return, is there not a small part of him intrigued to see ABBA up there, again, too?
“I love her,” he replies, ignoring the question, “and she’s very, very special.”
“You should tour with her!” suggests his son.
“Yes!” chuckles dad. “If she needs a piano player …”
But that’s it – he’s still firm that there will be no ABBA reunion?
“Yes, absolutely,” he says.
And all four of them are in agreement?
ABBA: Live at Wembley is out on September 29
– In pictures: Abba, The Museum
– 100 funny jokes by 100 comedians
It only takes a single exposure, and in an instant, your whole day can change. The infection is rapid and feels potentially unending. One minute you’re minding your own business and the next you find that you can’t stop thinking, humming, or singing “Dancing Queen.“
“Friday night and the lights are low...”
No matter what you try, you can’t shake it. In fact, once you start thinking about ABBA, you’re a goner. Next thing you know, you’ve moved to this: “If you change your mind/ I’m the first in line...”
And like the lyrics to “Waterloo’’ remind us, you couldn’t escape if you wanted to.
What triggers this phenomenon isn’t always obvious, but it no doubt happens on a widespread scale.
When “Mamma Mia!,” a film based on the Broadway musical built around ABBA songs, was released, people left the cineplex belting out the tunes sung by stars Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth. The ABBA invasion began anew.
“Mamma Mia, here I go again/ My, my, how can I resist you?”
ABBA’s songs continue to endure as what scientists have dubbed “earworms’’ 37 years after the band’s first album was released. Like those little bugs, the tunes burrow into our brains and keep hitting the repeat button.
We wondered if it was possible to break down scientifically why the music is so irresistible. Because even those who profess to dislike the cheery pop of the Swedish masterminds can’t block its infiltration into their inner jukebox.
Of course, what makes ABBA songs catchy is to an extent what makes most music memorable, from Bach to the Beatles to the Bernie & Phyl’s jingle. But, says Daniel Levitin, author of “This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession’’ and associate professor at McGill University, there are some individual factors.
“For one thing, the way their songs are performed and produced, quite apart from the underlying composition, gives them an overall catchy sound,” says Levitin, a musician and former producer whose book, “The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature,” further explores the music-mind connection.
The multitracked harmonies of singers Agnetha Faltskog and Frida Lyngstad awaken the part of our brains in which our inner caveman is still enjoying a Paleolithic hootenanny with the rest of his clan.
“If you look at the evolutionary biology of the species and the chemical reactions we have to events in the world, for tens of thousands of years when we as a species heard music we heard groups singing it, not an individual and not an individual standing on a stage,” says Levitin. “So the ABBA model of the multiple voices or the Edwin Hawkins Singers singing ‘Oh Happy Day’ is much closer to stimulating these evolutionary echoes of what music really is, fundamentally — closer than, say, Frank Sinatra or Miley Cyrus.”
In other words, if a caveman encased in ice were to be thawed out, revived and immediately given a full iPod, he would respond more immediately to ABBA or a gospel choir than, say, free jazz. He might eventually dig Ornette Coleman, too, but the presentation of “Knowing Me, Knowing You’’ would sound more familiar.
The glossy production and compositional patterns of Sweden’s fab four (or shall we say “fabelns fyra’’?) also set off different neurological reactions that have medicinal powers. In the most upbeat of the group’s songs, like “Money, Money, Money,” the simplicity of ABBA’s lyrics makes them easy to sing along to. In addition to the fizzy melodies, that participation, says Levitin, gives listeners “an even more powerful hit of happy juice in the brain from dopamine.”
With sad songs in general, and in ABBA’s case specifically with tracks like the more contemplative “The Winner Takes It All,” listeners’ brains produce an opposite but equally enjoyable reaction.
“You get the comfort hormone of prolactin when you hear sad music,” says Levitin. “That’s the same hormone that’s released when mothers nurse their babies. It’s soothing. And sometimes it’s lyrics and sometimes it’s music. I think it’s most powerful when the two are well-matched and you get what I would call an emergent property where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Structurally, ABBA’s songs, like most enduring pop songs, generally offer a straightforward verse-chorus format that satisfies our need for order.
“Whether they sat down and counted and said, ‘This can’t be nine measures; it has to be eight,’ they probably didn’t, but they probably wrote eight because in Western music, we are used to that balance,” says Jon Aldrich, associate professor and founder of the songwriting department at Berklee College of Music. To illustrate, Aldrich hums the melody of the sing-songy “shave and a haircut,” leaving out the “two bits’’ conclusion. “Don’t you want to hear the rest of it? You want to finish it, so with an eight measure or a 16 measure or even a 12 or a 24, the listeners feel balance and resolution.”
And the main piece of the brain puzzle is the simplest of all: repetition, repetition, repetition. In the grand tradition of everyone from Beethoven (and his hook-filled Fifth Symphony) to the dude who wrote “Who Let the Dogs Out?,” ABBA songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus recognized the power of telling us something as often as possible. Like the Beatles before them — think “She loves you/ Yeah, yeah, yeah’’ — they also recognized the importance of making that something not so complicated: “Gimme, gimme, gimme a man after midnight...”
“If you really want to know what makes a song powerful, I would say look at how the memory works,” says physiologist Harry Witchel, a senior research fellow at the Medical School of the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom who ranked “Waterloo’’ as the all-time No. 1 Eurovision song contest winner for the BBC. “Memory works either through strong emotions or through repetition — that’s how we normally teach. And ABBA songs allow for both of those things to occur.”
We hear the words repeatedly, start to sing along, relate to the words and tunes emotionally with either a happy or sad reaction, and thus an earworm is born. He adds that the simplicity of the lyrics, the small number of syllables in the hooks, and the consistent backbeat all factor into the insidious nature of the tunes. That’s how they extend their tentacles into a large swath of the public.
In “Musicophilia,” his book about music and the brain, Oliver Sacks supports this claim. “There are, of course, inherent tendencies to repetition in music itself,” he writes. “Our poetry, our ballads, our songs are full of repetition; nursery rhymes and the little chants and songs we use to teach young children have choruses and refrains. We are attracted to repetition, even as adults; we want the stimulus and the reward again and again, and in music we get it.”
All of these elements are in no way unique to ABBA, says Levitin. Berklee’s Aldrich, who’s written or sung such regionally memorable jingles as “It’s time to Stop & Shop’’ and “Tweeter, for times like these,” agrees. “If you study it intimately, you will find there’s a tremendous amount of repetition in song style and form that really hasn’t changed much at all in 70 years,” says Aldrich, citing Tin Pan Alley scribes like Cole Porter and even classical composers like Handel as using similar approaches.
Phyllida Lloyd, director of “Mamma Mia!” and a veteran opera director, doesn’t need a scientist to explain why ABBA songs are so infectious.
“I think it’s a combination of things,” says Lloyd. “I think it’s genius melodies by Benny Andersson and really quite deceptively complex and intricate orchestration. They were sort of masters of studio production, and they used every gizmo in the book at that time available to man, including a very ornate use of vocal harmony and words used partly as orchestration.”
Lloyd is living proof that an inability to shake ABBA has no long-term side effects. Having had one or another of the songs in her head for the past 10 years as she shepherded “Mamma Mia!” onto both Broadway and the big screen, Lloyd says her sanity is perfectly intact.
“You wouldn’t think so, would you? Questions ought to be asked,” she says with a laugh. “I find that you just don’t tire of them.”