Those lucky enough to visit the O2 in London before the outbreak of COVID-19 had the opportunity to visit ABBA: Super Troupers The Exhibition about the chart-topping Swedish pop sensation ABBA. A 14,000 square foot immersive experience charted their music, lyrics, creative process and influence from their small beginnings to their meteoric rise to fame. Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid (“Frida”) Lyngstad’s lives were also brought to the fore, revealing their personal journeys leading to the success of ABBA.
ABBA soared to fame after they won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 and continued to top the charts until 1982. To date, the supergroup has sold an estimated 380 million records, making them one of the best-selling artists of all time. Made up of the first letters of their first names, ABBA is one of the most commercially successful acts in the history of popular music.
Göran Bror Benny Andersson was born in Stockholm on 16th December 1946. His love of music came from his father Gösta (1912-73) and his grandfather Efraim, who taught Benny how to play the accordion at the age of six. He grew up surrounded by Swedish folk music and schlager – a happy-go-lucky style of music in Europe.
At the age of 10, Benny taught himself how to play the piano and by 15, he was performing in youth clubs. Benny’s first girlfriend Christina Grönvall was also musical and they joined Elverkets Spelmanslag (The Electricity Board Folk Music Group) in 1964. Christina and Benny had two children, Peter (1963) and Heléne (1965), however, they never married and went their separate ways in 1966.
Towards the end of 1964, Benny joined the Swedish rock group Hep Stars as a keyboardist. The band mostly played covers of popular international songs, however, he also began writing his own material. Hep Stars became the most celebrated Swedish pop band of the 1960s and Benny gained many fans as a teen idol.
In 1966, Benny met Björn Ulvaeus and they began collaborating on songwriting. Their first was titled Isn’t It Easy To Say, which was recorded by the Hep Stars. Benny also worked with the Swedish songwriter Lasse Berghagen (b.1945), including Hej, Clown, which he submitted to the 1969 Melodifestivalen – the competition to determine the Swedish Eurovision Song – and finished in second place. At the Melodifestivalen, Benny met vocalist Anni-Frid Lyngstad with whom he became a couple.
Björn Kristian Ulvaeus was born in Gothenburg on 25th April 1945, although he moved to Västervik when he was six. Björn originally contemplated a career in business and law, studying at Lund University after undertaking his compulsory military service.
From 1961, Björn was a member of the Hootenanny Singers, a Swedish folk-schlager band, which gained enormous popularity in Sweden. While touring with the band, Björn met the Hep Stars and struck up a friendship with the keyboardist, Benny Andersson. The two shared a passion for music and began helping out in the recording studios of each band. This led to many songwriting collaborations.
In 1969, Björn took part in a special schlager show for television, which is where he met eighteen-year-old singer-songwriter Agnetha Fältskog, who soon became his wife. Meanwhile, Björn continued to record and tour with the Hootenanny Singers as well as working for the Polar Record Company with Benny. They wrote several records, including the single She’s My Kind of Girl, which they released as a duo in 1970.
Björn and Benny also produced a cover of Omkring Tiggarn Från Luossa, which put the Hootenanny Singers in the Swedish radio charts for 52 consecutive weeks.
Agneta Åse Fältskog was born in Jönköping on 5th April 1950. Although her father Knut Ingvar (1922-95) was a department store manager, he held great interest in music and show business. This influenced Agneta, who wrote her first song at the age of six: Två små troll (Two Little Trolls). At 8, Agneta began piano lessons and joined her local church choir.
Having left school at 15, Agneta went on to develop her musical career. She joined a local dance band for a couple of years, however, it was the song Jag var så kär (I Was So in Love) that Agneta wrote after breaking up with a boyfriend that got her noticed. Retired rock and roll musician Karl Gerhard Lundkvist offered Agneta a recording contract at Cupol Records, which she readily accepted. Jag var så kär went on to sell more than 80,000 copies.
Throughout the 1960s, Agneta wrote and released many songs, becoming one of Sweden’s most popular artists. Her fiancé Dieter Zimmerman, a German producer, encouraged her to move to Germany where he promised she would achieve success. Unfortunately, Agneta did not get on with the demands of the German producers and returned to Sweden after breaking off her relationship with Zimmerman.
In 1972, Agneta was chosen to portray Mary Magdalene in the Swedish production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s (b.1948) Jesus Christ Superstar. By this point, she had met and married Björn Ulvaeus and in 1973, had her first child Linda Elin Ulvaeus. Their son, Peter Christian Ulvaeus, was born in 1977.
Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad
Princess Anni-Frid Synni of Reuss, Countess of Plauen (née Lyngstad) was born on 15th November 1945 in Bjørkåsen, Norway, the only member of ABBA born outside of Sweden. Her German father, Alfred Haase (1919-2009) had been a sergeant in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War, and fearing repercussions, Frida’s grandmother took her to Sweden in 1947. Although Frida remained close with her family, she was led to believe her father had died during the war.
Frida showed musical talent from a young age, encouraged by her grandmother who frequently sang old Norwegian songs to her as a young child. At school, Frida was asked to sing in front of her class and soon became known in the neighbourhood for her beautiful voice. At the age of 13, Frida became a schlager singer with the Evald Ek’s Orchestra.
“It was hard to believe, such a young person could sing that well. She was so easy to rehearse with and she was never shy onstage. The only thing I taught her was to sing out. In those days, she had a tendency of holding back her voice a little.”
– Evald Ek
In 1964 at the age of 18, Frida married Ragnar Fredriksson with whom she had two children: Hans Ragnar (b.1963) and Ann Lise-Lotte (1967-98). Frida sang with her husband in the Gunnar Sandevarn Trio and her own band, the Anni-Frid Four, however, the couple separated in 1968.
In 1967, Frida won the Swedish national talent competition, “New Faces”, which exposed her to a much wider audience. The following year, she met Agnetha Fältskog when she performed on Studio 8 and in 1969, met Benny Andersson at the Melodifestivalen, where she performed the song Härlig är vår jord (Our Earth Is Wonderful).
Frida’s first solo album Frida was produced by Benny, who was her fiancé at the time. The album met with considerable praise for her versatile voice. Through her relationship to Benny, who she eventually married in 1976, Frida became good friends with Agnetha and Björn Ulvaeus, which led to the formation of ABBA in 1972.
Before ABBA was officially formed, the two couples first combined their musical talents when they went on a joint holiday to Cyprus in 1970. Having been spotted singing on the beach together, the four ended up performing an improvised concert in front of the United Nations soldiers on the island. At this time, Benny and Björn were already in the process of recording their first album and invited Agneta and Frida to provide backing vocals on a few of the tracks. Their first “hit” as a quartet was Hej, gamle man about an elderly Salvation Army soldier, which reached number five in the charts.
As time went on, Frida and Agneta went from being backing singers to more prominent vocals. By 1971, they were regularly performing together as a quartet in Swedish folkparks. Meanwhile, the Swedish music manager Stig Anderson (1931-97) told Björn and Benny, “One day the pair of you will write a song that becomes a worldwide hit.” Anderson was determined to establish his record company Polar Music in the mainstream international market and believed working with Björn and Benny would be his breakthrough.
Stig Anderson met Björn when he began managing Hootenanny Singers in 1961. When Björn and Benny decided to pair up, Anderson was keen to manage them as well. Soon, he began managing Agnetha and Frida before eventually becoming the manager of ABBA. Anderson helped write some of ABBA’s earliest music and was often referred to as the fifth member of the band.
Although Agneta and Frida were becoming more prominent in Björn and Benny’s songs, it was not until June 1972 when they were officially considered to be a quartet. Their first single People Need Love was released under the name Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid. Despite only reaching 17 in the charts, Stig Anderson was convinced they would grow to be a big success.
In 1973, Anderson persuaded the band to enter Melodifestivalen with the song Ring Ring. The lyrics were originally Swedish, however, Anderson had them translated to English in the hopes it would become popular in the UK and USA. Ring Ring came third in the competition, therefore, they were not chosen to perform at the Eurovision Song Contest. Agneta would not have been able to perform anyway, since she was heavily pregnant with her daughter Linda. For performances, she was temporarily replaced by Inger Brundin, a friend of Frida.
Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid was a bit of a mouthful to say when referring to the band, so Stig Anderson began referring to them as ABBA, an acronym for Agnetha, Björn, Benny, and Anni-Frid. The group decided to officially rename themselves ABBA in 1973, however, they had to get permission from the Swedish company Abba Seafood AB. The company responded, “O.K., as long as you don’t make us feel ashamed for what you’re doing.”
The ABBA logo was designed by Rune Söderqvist (1935-2014), who went on to create most of the band’s album sleeves. The logo first appeared in 1976 and was henceforth used for all future albums. The ambigram, as it is called because it can be read in more than one direction, contains a reversed letter B to make it a “mirror-image”. This was also a representation of the two couples in the band: Agneta and Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid.
Although Ring Ring failed to get ABBA to the 1973 Eurovision Song Contest, Stig Anderson was determined to enter the band the following year. On 9th February 1974, ABBA performed the song Waterloo in Swedish at the Melodifestivalen and won the hearts of the nation and a position in Eurovision. On 6th April 1974, ABBA performed Waterloo, this time in English, at the 19th Eurovision Song Contest, held in Brighton on the south coast of the United Kingdom. With 24 points, ABBA became Sweden’s first-ever winners of the competition, seven points above Italy in second place.
Waterloo became popular throughout Europe, topping the charts in both the United Kingdom and West Germany – ironically, the UK did not give Sweden any points during the competition, nor did Greece, Monaco, Belgium and Italy. Even the United States was enthralled by ABBA, with Waterloo reaching number six on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. ABBA’s next single Honey, Honey, however, did not do so well and people began to speculate that the group would be a one-hit-wonder.
From November 1974, ABBA embarked on a tour of Europe, starting with Denmark, West Germany and Austria. Unfortunately, many of their concerts were cancelled due to lack of demand. Things improved when the band travelled through Scandinavia. Most of their concerts in Sweden and Finland were sold out with audiences reaching over 19,000.
In 1975, a new single SOS put ABBA back in the UK charts and their album of the same name saw success in Germany and Australia. The single even received attention in the USA where it peaked at number 10. The song that solidified their success in Europe was Mamma Mia, a number one record in Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom. In 1976, their new single Fernando went to number-one in at least thirteen countries and stayed in the charts for a record 40 weeks. This record was not beaten until 2017 when it was overtaken by Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You.
ABBA eventually reached number-one in the USA with Europop song Dancing Queen, released in August 1976. The song was written by Björn, Benny and Stig Anderson during the summer of 1975 and when Frida first heard it she allegedly cried. “I found the song so beautiful. It’s one of those songs that goes straight to your heart.”
Speaking about the single, Agnetha said, “It’s often difficult to know what will be a hit. The exception was ‘Dancing Queen.’ We all knew it was going to be massive.” Years later, Dancing Queen is still an internationally popular song. In 2000, it came fourth in Channel 4’s The 100 Greatest Number One Singles and in 2015, Dancing Queen was inducted into the Recording Academy’s Grammy Hall of Fame.
“Dancing Queen is beautifully produced: catchy and euphoric, the perfect backdrop for a song that encapsulates the carefree bliss of youth.”
– Tim Jonze, The Guardian, 2016
ABBA self wrote an operetta titled The Girl with the Golden Hair, which they performed during what they considered to be their first major tour. The tour began in Oslo, Norway in January 1977 followed by Gothenburg, Copenhagen, Berlin, Cologne, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Essen, Hanover and Hamburg. The European leg of the tour ended in the United Kingdom with concerts in Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester and London.
Following the success in Europe, the tour continued in Australia with eleven concerts. This leg of the tour was captured on film by Swedish director Lesse Hallström (b.1946), who directed the majority of ABBA’s music videos. The clips from the tour were pieced together to create a drama-documentary called ABBA: The Movie. Half fiction and half reality, the film follows a Radio DJ across Australia in an attempt to get an in-depth interview with the group. With many missed chances and several run-ins with the band’s protective bodyguard, the DJ eventually gets his interview after a chance encounter in a hotel lift.
By 1978, ABBA was one of the biggest bands in the world and began to plan their first tour of North America. Unfortunately, the pressure that came with fame had an adverse effect on Björn and Agnetha’s relationship and they announced they were getting divorced at the beginning of 1979. Nonetheless, the band were determined not to let it affect their band’s future, however, Björn and Benny had to secretly travel to the Bahamas to concentrate on their songwriting and escape the press.
ABBA travelled to the USA where they released their sixth studio album, Voulez-Vous, in April 1979. Popular songs from the album include Chiquitita, Does Your Mother Know and I Have a Dream. The tour of North America officially began on 13th September 1979 with a full house at Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton, Canada.
“The voices of the band, Agnetha’s high sauciness combined with round, rich lower tones of Anni-Frid, were excellent…Technically perfect, melodically correct and always in perfect pitch…The soft lower voice of Anni-Frid and the high, edgy vocals of Agnetha were stunning”
ABBA at Edmonton, Canada, 1979
After four sold-out concerts in Canada, the band performed a further 17 in the United States. The final show, due to be held in Washington DC, was unfortunately cancelled after a flight from Boston in severe weather conditions left Agnetha emotionally distressed. Agnetha had a fear of flying, which is why the band only managed a couple of tours outside of Europe.
After a long flight home, ABBA continued their tour with twenty-three sold-out gigs in Europe, six of which were held at the Wembley Arena in London. The following year, Agnetha braved the flight to Japan where they performed eleven concerts. This trip marked the end of their foreign adventures.
In July 1980, ABBA released the single The Winner Takes it All and found themselves back at the top of the UK charts. Although the lyrics are about a divorce, the band claimed it was fiction and not connected to Björn and Agnetha’s divorce. “One thing I can say is that there wasn’t a winner or a loser in our case. A lot of people think it’s straight out of reality, but it’s not.” (Björn) In 1999, The Winner Takes it All was voted Britain’s favourite ABBA song and, in 2006, Britain’s favourite breakup song.
Super Trouper, another UK number-one, was released towards the end of 1980. Originally, it was going to be called Blinka Lilla Stjärna (Twinkle Little Star, in Swedish), however, the name was changed to reference a brand of spotlights used in stadiums called Super Trouper. The song became ABBA’s ninth number one in the UK, putting them in fourth place for the most UK chart-toppers in history. At the top were The Beatles, Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard. ABBA remained in fourth until Madonna released her tenth number-one single in 2000.
ABBA during the TV special Dick Cavett Meets ABBA in April 1981
The year 1981 was a mix of good and bad for the members of ABBA. In January, Björn married Lena Källersjö and their manager, Stig Anderson, celebrated his 50th birthday. In February, however, Benny and Frida announced their divorce. They admitted their relationship had been crumbling for years and Benny had met another woman, Mona Nörklit, whom he married later that year.
In April, ABBA returned to the United States for a special interview with the US talk show host Dick Cavett (b.1936). This coincided with the release of their final studio album The Visitors. According to Björn, the tracks on the album referred to current and personal affairs, including the threat of war, failed relationships and ageing. One track, When All is Said and Done, fittingly became ABBA’s final Top 40 hit.
ABBA did not know at the time that The Visitors would be their final studio album. At the beginning of 1982, they were busy writing songs and planning a tour, however, by the summer, they had only recorded three songs. Realising they were struggling, ABBA decided to take a break from songwriting and produce a special album of their existing singles in time for Christmas. The album was titled The Singles: The First Ten Years and went to number one in the UK and Belgium.
In November 1982, ABBA travelled to West Germany and the UK to promote The Singles. On 11th December, they appeared through a live link on Noel Edmonds’ The Late, Late Breakfast Show, for what ended up being their last performance together. ABBA never officially announced the end of their group but decided amongst themselves to have a break. Fans have hoped ever since that ABBA would reunite but Björn crushed those dreams in 2008 saying, “We will never appear on stage again … There is simply no motivation to re-group. Money is not a factor and we would like people to remember us as we were. Young, exuberant, full of energy and ambition.”
Despite ABBA dissolving, Björn, Benny, Frida and Agnetha’s careers were far from over.
Benny and Björn continued writing music despite no longer performing themselves. Together, they collaborated with the lyricist Tim Rice (b.1944) on their first stage musical Chess. The concept album was released in October 1984 and the track I Know Him So Well, sung by Elaine Paige (b.1948) and Barbara Dickson (b.1947), shot to number one in the UK. The show eventually opened in May 1986 at the Prince Edward Theatre in London.
In 1985, Benny began working as the producer of Genesis, a brother-sister pop duo from Sweden. Many of their songs were written by Benny and Björn, including the track Mio My Mio, which was used in the film Mio in the Land of Faraway based on a book by Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002).
Benny began writing and performing music alone, releasing his first solo album in 1987. The majority of the music was performed by Benny on his accordion. Two years later, he released a second solo album. At the same time, Benny continued to write music for other artists and composed the introduction melody for the 1992 European football championship.
Björn and Benny collaborated on another stage musical during the 1990s, resulting in the award-winning Mamma Mia! Based around twenty-four of ABBA’s songs. Success continued with the film version in 2008. Mamma Mia! The Movie is currently the best selling film musical of all time and the biggest-selling DVD ever in the UK.
Today, Benny performs with his own band, Benny Anderssons Orkester (Benny Andersson’s orchestra). The band is made up of sixteen musicians and has released five albums so far. Benny’s son Ludvig (b.1982) has followed in his father’s footsteps by forming his own band, Atlas.
Björn married music journalist Lena Källersjö in January 1981, towards the end of his career with ABBA. The couple have two children, Emma Eleonora (b.1982) and Anna Linnea (1986). Emma was born around the time Björn and Benny were working on the musical Chess, however, Anna was born after the family had moved to the United Kingdom, where they remained until 1990. Björn and his wife currently live in Stockholm.
Whilst Björn was in the UK, he set up an IT business with his brother. Later, he became an owner of NoteHeads, a Swedish online music composition company. Back in Sweden, Björn began working with Benny on the production of Mamma Mia!
Björn is a member of Humanisterna, a nonprofit organisation working for a secular society and human rights. He is a “cash-free campaigner” and has reportedly lived without using any physical money for over half a decade.
Today, Björn continues to write music and has been awarded The Special International Ivor Novello Award alongside Benny.
Only a year after ABBA disbanded, Agnetha released her first post-ABBA solo album. Wrap Your Arms Around Me immediately went to number one in the charts in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Belgium, and Denmark. Her second album was less successful, however, in 1987, Agnetha released the album Kom följ med i vår karusell (Come Join Us On Our Carousel) with her son Christian and was nominated for the Swedish music prize Grammis.
In 1987, Agnetha travelled to California to record her fourth studio album, however, decided to have a hiatus from recording after its release. For the next few years, she devoted much of her time to astrology, yoga and horse riding. In 1990, she married a Swedish surgeon, Tomas Sonnenfeld, but they divorced three years later.
The mid-1990s were a difficult period for Agnetha. In 1994 her mother committed suicide by jumping from a balcony and, the following year, her father died. A brief relationship with a Dutch forklift worker, Gert van der Graaf, ended in a court restraining order after he continued to stalk her long after the relationship ended.
Agnetha returned to music in 2004 with a new album called My Colouring Book. The majority of the tracks were covers of songs from the 1960s, however, she managed to top the charts in Sweden. Reviews in British newspapers suggested that “time hasn’t diminished her perfect voice,” (The Observer) and “Agnetha Fältskog has a vulnerability that gets under the skin of a song.” (The Guardian)
Agnetha’s latest album, A, was released in 2013 and includes a duet with Gary Barlow (b.1971). Over 600,000 copies were sold in the first two months after the release and reached number six in the UK charts. The same year, Agnetha was awarded the SKAP 2013 Kai Gullmar Memorial Award and performed live for the first time in 25 years at the BBC Children in Need Rocks 2013 concert in London.
The successes Agnetha has achieved are remarkable not just for her talent but because of her fight against hidden mental health issues. Her aviophobia made it difficult to tour with ABBA and she would always travel by bus when she could. Unfortunately, experiencing a bus accident on a Swedish motorway in 1983 put her off that mode of transport, too.
Other things Agnetha struggled with was stage fright, fear of crowds, fear of open space and fear of heights – all things that made being a pop superstar very difficult. Agnetha needed therapy following her split from Björn and the deaths of her parents worsened her depression.
Today, Agnetha lives with her son, near Stockholm and her daughter lives nearby.
Princess Anni-Frid Synni of Reuss
Before ABBA had split up, Frida was already working on her first post-ABBA solo album. Produced by Phil Collins (b.1951), the music had a rockier tone and was a success across Europe and the United States.
Frida continued releasing successful albums until 2005 when she decided to have a hiatus from music. By 2010, however, she was producing music again.
In 2013, Frida helped organise the opening of ABBA: The Museum in Stockholm, however, she reportedly stated she wanted to “let ABBA rest”, crushing any hopes of a reunion.
After ABBA split up, Frida moved to London before relocating to Switzerland with her new boyfriend, Prince Heinrich Ruzzo of Reuss, Count of Plauen (1950–1999), who she eventually married in 1992. In 1988, Frida became a grandmother for the first time when her daughter Ann Lise-Lotte gave birth to Jonathan Casper. Sadly, Ann died in 1998 from fatal injuries after a car crash. Frida’s husband died the following year.
Today, Frida lives in Sweden with her current boyfriend Henry Smith, 5th Viscount Hambleden (b.1955), a descendant of the founder of WHSmith. Frida is involved with many charities and environmental issues.
Posing together with the actors from the motion picture Mamma Mia! The Movie on 4 July 2008
Despite having split nearly forty years ago, ABBA is still reeling in the success of their many albums and Mamma Mia! In 2017, a blue plaque was erected outside Brighton Dome to commemorate their 1974 Eurovision win.
The last public appearance of all four members of ABBA took place on 20th January 2016 at Mamma Mia! The Party in Stockholm. A few months later, it was revealed the band had reunited to work on a digital entertainment experience. The idea involves life-like avatars or Abbatars that will “perform” their songs. In 2019, Björn revealed they had written five new songs that will feature the Abbatars, due to be released in 2020.
Now, all we can do is wait and see what ABBA do next.