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No thank you for the music

As Abba The Museum opens in Stockholm, we look back at the time when Swedes weren’t in love with the band

No thank you for the music

Text by Clive Morris

Forget David Bowie or the Sex Pistols – for some, the greatest music performance of the 1970s was when Abba stormed the Eurovision Song Contest with Waterloo in 1974, ushering in the disco era of white suits, platform boots, the Bee Gees and Saturday Night Fever. For a period, the world seemed to be dominated by the music and marital travails of the band’s two couples: Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad and Benny Andersson, and Björn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Fältskog, whose initials form Abba’s name.

But as Abba The Museum opens this month in Stockholm’s Djurgården island, it’s tempting to think that the band who sold more than 370 million albums worldwide (only Elvis, The Beatles and Michael Jackson have sold more) were instantly loved at home. In fact, while Abba topped the UK charts nine times, they only had three number ones in Sweden.

“They say it’s hard to be a prophet in your own country. It was a bit like that,” recalls Jan-Erik Ekblom, whose Golden Oldies Shop – the oldest collectors’ store in Scandinavia – was founded as the foursome were beginning to sweep the world in 1977. Today it specialises in Abba rarities. “If you liked Abba back then, it was not something you were proud of.”

Familiarity may have bred contempt. With their band members already known for their solo work in the 1960s – songwriters Björn and Benny were in the popular Hootenanny Singers and Hep » Stars respectively – Abba appeared manufactured, like a plastic X Factor band. Their 1973 song Ring Ring lost out in that year’s Melodifestivalen, the talent show that determines which act will represent Sweden at Eurovision. Yet Eblom thinks, “Waterloo is almost a rip-off of Ring Ring.”    

The band’s schlager sound (catchy, German-originated melodies practised by Björn and Benny’s previous groups) may have been a welcome novelty to the rest of Europe – who encountered the finished article afresh when Waterloo won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 – but Swedes were less impressed. With just one state-owned TV channel and the media dominated by the left-wing since the late 1960s, Abba were not flavour of the month. The progressive political music movement, known as ‘progg’, nursed a tight hold on all the arts and took against Abba. Leif Schulman was the Swedish correspondent for Billboard magazine at the time and remembers even Waterloo getting a chilly reception. “When Swedish Television (SVT) interviewed Abba manager Stig Anderson on the night of their Waterloo success, they said, ‘Last year you made a song about people calling each other, this year you do a song about how 40,000 people died.’” The reaction from progg musicians was even chillier. “They considered Abba’s music ‘too commercial’, and commercial was a bad word in Sweden in those days.”

Ingmarie Halling, who joined the group on tour in the late ’70s and is now curator of the museum, recalls: “One DJ played an Abba song on the radio and was called in to explain himself to his superiors. Abba was seen as a hit factory, where you made music just to make money. I don’t think that was the case – they were really honest and into what they were doing – yet that was the perception.”

Abba’s manager Stig Anderson was the Simon Cowell of his day. A controversial, larger-than-life figure, he actively enjoyed baiting the left-wing movement. “People are not as stupid as you think – they are even more stupid,” was one notorious quote that encouraged the view that Abba were puppets.

Yet Björn and Benny’s songs, written in English, certainly impressed abroad, and by 1977 they were arguably the most popular act on the planet. Halling was with Abba on their first major tour in 1977, in the wake of their 1976 greatest hits album, when they played across the world and entertained 160,000 people in Australia. “Arriving at Melbourne and seeing the people lining the roads from the airport to the city was unreal,” says Halling. “That had only happened once before, when The Beatles came.

“Alice Cooper was doing a concert there at that time and staying in the same hotel. He told us he was lying on his bed one afternoon when he heard chanting outside, ‘We want Alice! We want Alice!’ So he went to the window, only to find they were actually shouting, ‘We want Abba!’”

Their trip to London on the same tour saw two dates at the Royal Albert Hall – it was later revealed that some 3.5 million » people applied for tickets by mail, enough to fill the venue 580 times over. 

The reception at home didn’t quite live up to that. “They did one tour in Sweden in 1975 after Waterloo,” says Halling. “But it wasn’t completely sold out. On the world tours, they did a couple of shows in Gothenberg and Stockholm, but not too many. It was a bit of an uphill struggle. We have a problem in Sweden with being generous and applauding our own. I don’t know why.”

Ironically, perhaps, Sweden seemed to start embracing Abba at the time the band members themselves were at their lowest. By the time of their last album, 1981’s The Visitors, both Abba’s couples had divorced and they seemed burnt out by the constant touring. “When I talk about, say, being in Osaka, Japan – they can’t remember it because they didn’t do anything, it was just another hotel room,” says Halling. “Only the days off stand out, for instance when the Australian promoter took us out on an old fishing boat.”

Meanwhile, Swedes were starting to accept Abba. “It’s hard to pinpoint an exact time when it became acceptable to like Abba in Sweden; it was more of a gradual process I think,” says Carl Palm Davis, author of their biography Bright Lights, Dark Shadows. “The demise of the progressive movement helped. The climate had thawed quite a bit by the early 1980s, although the real acceptance of the band probably didn’t manifest itself until into the ’90s.”

He says a good barometer of a turnaround was Abba Gold, the 1992 greatest hits album. “It was at number one for four weeks, stayed in the charts for 41 weeks and sold hundreds of thousands of copies.”

Twenty-one years later, it remains the third biggest selling album in the UK after Queen’s Greatest Hits and The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper. The 1999 stage musical Mamma Mia!, made with Björn and Benny’s cooperation, has been seen by more than 42 million people, grossing US$2 billion worldwide (NOK11.65bn).

It’s all helped change the view of Abba, especially with younger generations. Karl Batterbee, who runs the Scandipop website, says: “Today a lot of Swedish songwriters write for One Direction, Britney Spears and Nicki Minaj. They were inspired by the melody-driven sounds they grew up with in the 1960s and ’70s, such as Abba.”

He says the popularity of the Melodifestivalen is in some senses about Abba. “Swedish bands like Alcazar and Linda Bengtzing are how you’d imagine Abba would sound these days. That’s a big part of why it’s such a cultural phenomenon.”

Mattias Hansson, managing director of the new museum, argues Abba’s sheer number of hits made Sweden come around. “No other Swedish band of that genre came close to Abba’s success back then,” he asserts. “You could see that at the time. It’s ironic that the progg bands have moved into obscurity, while Abba’s well-produced and slick, highly international approach is still alive. Now there is huge respect for Abba here as everybody can see what they achieved.”


What to expect at the museum

Ingmarie Halling, who helped Abba’s band members in and out of Owe Sandström’s outrageous costumes on tour in the late 1970s, is the curator of Abba The Museum in Stockholm. She put the collection together with input from all of the band, particularly Björn Ulvaeus.

A key part of the new Swedish Hall of Fame in Djurgården, Halling was inspired in part by her visit to Elvis’s home, Graceland. “Visitors will walk in the footsteps of the group, entering manager Stig Anderson’s office, their studio, rehearsal areas, dressing rooms and the stage itself. It’s like a behind-the-scenes documentary.”

Many items have already been on the Abbaworld touring exhibition, with items split between Australia and European countries. Now they are together in one venue for the first time. “The fans love the costumes, because they are so iconic and well preserved. We have them behind glass, but we have replicas the fans can get close to. On tour, the girls wanted them to be like the Elvis jumpsuit – easy to move and jump around in. Frida was taking dance lessons and was very much into that. Agnetha wasn’t quite as keen, so they found a choreography that worked for both of them.”

It’s not just costumes, though – for example, there’s a 63 Fender Stratocaster, used by long-term session musician Lasse Wellander on tours and on record, that’s now worth NOK225,000.

Visitors can also photograph themselves pretending to be on stage with Abba or wearing their iconic costumes. The pictures can be downloaded later from the website.

The museum’s managing director Mattias Hansson says there’s a more serious side to the museum, particularly The Visitors’ Room. “It marks the break-up of the couples, and the band,” he says. “The Visitors is the last record they ever did and is a 1980s monument to hard times coming. The room has recreated that feeling and I find it really touching.”

“This is an exhibition about four people who are alive and kicking,” says Halling. “We want them to be cool with it, as after a while this tends to be the official truth of Abba. Clichés are easily made and then it grows into something different. This museum shows it as it was.”


Group tour

Fancy a Stockholm pop pilgrimage? Sara
Russell, author of the Abba Guide to Stockholm, picks the famous foursome’s favourite spots…

Gamla Stan
“On the cobbled streets of the Old Town you’ll find colourful architecture steeped in Swedish history, as well as many charming boutiques, cafés and restaurants. One of the most famous portraits of Abba was taken in Stortorget square, next to the Royal Palace.
Pose like them next to the huge iron well with the gabled buildings in the background.”

“Djurgården is an oasis of calm, an island in central Stockholm where locals go for a bit of peace and quiet. After learning about Swedish history in the museums and braving the roller-coasters of amusement park Gröna Lund, you can indulge your Abba geekery by trying to spot the parts of the island where they filmed Abba – The Movie.”

“City Hall’s tower can be seen from almost anywhere in Stockholm and there are spectacular views to be earned by climbing its steps. This ornate waterside building is the home of the annual Nobel Prize festivities and, more importantly, it’s where Benny Andersson gave his first public performance at eight years old.”
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