WE'VE seen that girl, watched that scene and we’re still digging the dancing queen, even though we are no longer young and sweet and well past 17. After the stage show, the film and the tribute bands, stand by for Abba The Museum.
Frankly, it beggars belief that he needs to. Leaving aside my personal devotion to Abba, there’s no arguing with the numbers. Abba have sold more than 370 million records – mostly after they split up in 1982. More than 55 million people worldwide have seen Mamma Mia! the musical which is still going strong in London after 14 years. The star-studded Mamma Mia! movie is the sixth highest-grossing film and the fastest-selling DVD ever in Britain.
And lest we forget, Abba are still the only group to go on to make an international career after winning Eurovision.
They say you should never meet your heroes as they usually disappoint.
I’ve found this to be the case a few times but I really, really did not want it to be true of Björn. So I am delighted to report that in person Mr Ulvaeus is extremely amiable and unpretentious, which is no mean feat when you are one of your country’s most successful exports ever. He also looks exceedingly youthful for a man who turned 68 last week and has the twinkliest eyes.
The museum, which is on Djurgården island in central Stockholm, will be fully interactive, allowing visitors to dance with holograms of the band and “play” Abba melodies on a self-playing piano. “I have mixed feelings about becoming a museum piece but if it’s happening I’d like it to be right,” says Ulvaeus. “It’s amazing what we did together.”
Indeed so. Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson and their respective wives Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad produced some of the most memorable pop music ever. “We were the opposite of today’s manufactured groups,” says Ulvaeus.
“Benny and I were in different bands and happened to play at the same gig in 1966, just as we were going off to do our Swedish military service. We discovered a friendship and started to work together. And then we met the girls. And guess what? They happened to be great singers, one a soprano and one a mezzo. Benny and I didn’t go out looking for that. It just happened that we fell in love with two fantastic girls. The fact they could sing was a bonus.”
Benny met Norwegian-born “Frida” a few months later. She and Agnetha began singing on the boys’ songs and from 1972 the foursome were releasing records as Björn, Benny, Agnetha and Anni-Frid. Their manager Stig Anderson thought the name unwieldy and began referring to them in his notes by their initials – ABBA. “We had a competition to find us a name but there wasn’t much to choose from so we stuck with Abba,” says Ulvaeus. “We never had cool names like Roxy Music in Sweden. I mean, I was in a band called the Hootenanny Singers and Benny was in the Hep Stars.”
Eurovision was a conduit to an international platform but it took them two attempts to be chosen to represent Sweden in 1974 in Brighton. Their winning song Waterloo and their outrageous satin and velvet outfits chimed with the glam rock trend. Even so the critics were amazed when Abba proved to be more than a one-hit wonder.
“It was natural to us to be considered uncool. Then we split up and thought, ‘Well, that’s the end’. The surprise for us was when we started to come back.”
Both couples separated during their decade as superstars but continued working together. Agnetha moved out just before Christmas 1979 and a week afterwards Ulvaeus met Lena Kallersjö at Benny’s New Year party and married her a year later.
After years hidden away on an island Agnetha is releasing a new album this month. Has he heard it? “I have. It’s very good,” he says, a little crisply. And what about relations between Agnetha and fiery Frida whom Ulvaeus has just described to me as “an explosive redhead”? Did they squabble over who got to sing which song? “If they did I didn’t see it.” Oh, come on. “They were always very professional and we were very democratic about how we divided the songs. It was Benny and me who got the occasional leftover.”
Abba lyrics are so on the money it’s easy to forget Ulvaeus was writing in a language that is not his own. He says he read everything he could in English to expand his vocabulary and learn the language’s rhythms. He and Andersson are protective of Abba’s back catalogue. When Madonna wanted to sample a snippet from Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, they insisted on hearing what she had in mind before saying yes. So when Judy Cramer approached them with the idea of building a musical around their songs, they were sceptical.
“Benny was not on board at all. I thought it could be a fantastic experiment. Judy had wanted to do a TV special in the Eighties but it never happened because the script was no good. So we said you can use any Abba song but don’t change the words and the story has to be more important than the song. We planned for it to run maybe for a year in a small theatre and could have stopped it at any time. Then [producer] Cameron Mackintosh heard about it and here we are.”
I ask him what he thinks of the Abba tribute bands, mentioning that I saw Björn Again some years back and it was joyous.
“Do they really talk in fake Swedish accents?” he asks. They do, which is wrong now as he hardly has any accent after living in Henley-on-Thames for six years in the Nineties.
“Well, I prefer to take it as a compliment, even if they’re taking the mickey. As long as they respect the music.”
Our time is up and Mr Ulvaeus is due elsewhere. He stands up and shakes my hand, eyes still twinkling.
Thank you for the music, Bjorn. And thank you for being a gent.