Monday, September 10, 2012

Bringing ABBA To Emerson College

Following some turbulence in my romantic life, I took more than a bit of my frustration out on an Emerson College professor whose class I performed poorly in. He pushed me to do better and I'm forever grateful, but I'm forever embarrassed by how emotionally fueled my personality was that semester. Part of that fuel was expressed through the only two topics I chose to write about for that class: marijuana and ABBA. The former was a semester-long research project. The latter was an assignment pertaining to "a global commodity". Since my professor struck me as humorless at the time, I decided to inject some Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny, and Anni-Frid into his class. I can't remember what the assignment was, or what grade I received, but you'll notice it reads like a record company handout since so many of my sources were ABBA-authorized. It might not have wowed my "Globalization and Its Discontent" professor enough to give me a good grade, but hopefully it prompted him to take ABBA a bit more seriously. And considering how much those four amazing Swedes have done for me over the years, I'd say that's the least I could do for them.

Robert E. Jeffrey 5/1/06

Global Studies – FINAL

                                                  Made in Sweden For Export:

                                    The Effects of Trafficking ABBA

Human beings can be commodities, and when they are rich and famous and make you feel good inside, they can be as sought after and used and abused as drugs. And by that standard, ABBA were four highly valuable human beings, and remain so today. “ABBA” is the universally recognized acronym, coined by manager and Swedish entrepreneurial legend Stig Andersson (“The Winner Takes It All”), for Agnetha Faltskog, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Anderson, and Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad, the four members of one of the most timelessly popular music acts in the history of worldwide record sales. In 1979 they were believed to be the most successful band  in the history of recorded music (“20/20”), and by 2004 ABBA were given a first-ever award for sales of over 360,000,000 units of their albums, compilations, and singles (“Super Troupers”). Such a status places them in elite ranks beside Madonna and Michael Jackson and behind only The Beatles and Elvis Presley. ( But while the aforementioned are all musical icons whose personas are as well known as their music, ABBA are unique in their mysteriousness as human beings. British recording artist Eddie Reader described their image as being like blonde and red-head Barbie dolls in front of “ugly guys in the back” (“A For ‘ABBA’”), while many Australian fans were convinced after a lip-synched TV special in 1976 that the female singers were actually Swedish models miming someone else’s songs (Palm 287-291). These dehumanizing portraits are wildly indicative of the gross stereotyping surrounding such a furiously successful combustion of distinct talents, whose global popularity against Scandinavian humility has left them an ageless enigma of the music video era and a translation of innocence, purity, and joy in every market of the record-buying world.

                                                 The Origin of ABBA
ABBA was the result of five lives intertwining at just the right time in late 1960s Sweden. Bjorn Uvlaeus and Benny Anderson were famous in Sweden as members of the folk group The Hootenanny Singers and the Swedish Beatles knock-off The Hep Stars, respectively. While touring Sweden’s folkpark circuit to outdoor audiences, Bjorn and Benny met and formed an instant personal chemistry (“Super Troupers”). Neither could read nor write music; both were self-taught and both religiously memorized every note and lyric they created (“Dick Cavett Meets ABBA”). It wasn’t long before Benny and Bjorn formed the singing/songwriting partnership that would thrive for decades, and within the next few years the pair were achieving modest international success in early projects that included the English-language single “Santa Rosa Girl”, a Top 20 hit in Japan, and scoring the Swedish erotic picture The Seduction of Inga, a lucrative film in many world territories (, “”). In 1969, Bjorn met the rising teen singer/songwriter Agnetha Faltskog when they both appeared together in a Swedish television show, while Benny formed a relationship with respected folk/cabaret singer Frida Lyngstad, who at twenty-three had had a decade of experience in singing onstage. Everyone fell in love: Benny and Frida moved in together, and within two years Agnetha and Bjorn were married. (“The Winner Takes It All”) Amongst one another, they were friends, collaborators, and very simply two couples. But as Bjorn and Benny grew more ambitious with their collaborations, Agnetha and Frida began appearing on their records, first as background vocalists, and before long in the foreground (“Super Troupers”). However, the “fifth member of ABBA”, as he is so often dubbed, would be Stig Andersson, the group’s manager and co-founder of Polar Music, which was the Swedish recording company that “owned” ABBA. It was Stig, above all else, who recognized the power of the four combined talents at his disposal, and who was most relentless in the pursuit of ABBA’s unprecedented global success. (
The first English-language single to feature “the girls” on lead vocals with “the boys” (as they referred to each other over the years) was late 1972’s “People Need Love”, which was a Swedish Top 20 hit. (“”) The second, alternately Swedish-language single from “Bjorn and Benny, Agnetha and Anni-Frid” was early 1973’s  “Ring Ring”, which deviated from the four members’ experience in Scandinavian folk in favor of the more commercial early-1960s American-style pop, with a beat reminiscent of The Beach Boys and a lyric fitting for any “girl group” of the era. “Ring Ring” topped the Swedish singles charts for six consecutive weeks and the group’s debut LP of the same name was the nation’s best-selling album at the same time. (“”) However, at that time the only means of getting radio airplay outside of Scandinavia was to compete in the critically maligned Eurovision Song Contest, a competition that begins in each European country and whose finalists from each nation compete on television in a lengthy showcase broadcast all across the continent (“The History”). Despite the song’s massive national support, “Ring Ring” was not favored by the Swedish judges for the 1973 competition, and it would not be for another year that ABBA would be chosen as Sweden’s selection for Eurovision. It was on April 6th, 1974 that ABBA became the first Swedish act ever to win the Eurovision Song Contest with their legendary performance of “Waterloo” that the group had a true international breakthrough: “Waterloo” won the competition and, as was fairly standard for a Eurovision winner, topped the charts in nearly very European country. (Palm 210, 229-31, “ “) Said Bjorn of the event some twenty-five years later, “There was a feeling something really big had happened. And that the world lay at our feet.” (“The History”)

                                                               Dancing Queen
                                                       Making ABBA Records
From their first album in 1973 to their last original single in 1983, ABBA’s work methodology was the portrait of regimented discipline. Bjorn and Benny would stay in an isolated cabin, for hours or days, with little to no rest, playing piano (Benny) and guitar (Bjorn) and “singing some nonsense words in English, just to have some sounds on which to hang the melody. Their quest [was] for the strongest possible melody”. (Palm 219) “Out there you can concentrate on one thing. No unwanted calls, no studios,” says Bjorn. “We write, eat and have a beer or something a bit stronger every now and then”.  (Palm 219) Drawing inspiration from their roots in traditional Scandinavian music and a perennial fascination with American and British pop-rock acts, the pair would often travel in between creative sessions to seek out new inspiration; the bulk of their 1979 Latin-flavored, disco-esque Voulez-Vous album was written in a short period of time following an excursion to Barbados and Miami. Convinced that only the most inspired songs would last in their mind and thus not require being written down on paper, only the very best concoctions to come out of their sessions would make it into the next phase of creation, which took place in the studio and included the vital participation of Frida and Agnetha.
In the recording studio, the group worked on every album with Stig Andersson, Polar Music sound engineer Michel B. Tretow, and a limited number of other musicians to bring the music to life. All four members of the group would arrive in the early hours of the morning and depart fourteen to eighteen hours later. Over the course of that time, Bjorn and Benny would both perform on guitar and piano, respectively, and work with Michel the layering of their work and the work of other musicians to create a Phil Spector-esque “wall of sound” without the advantage of a full orchestra. (“The History”) Stig Anderson wrote the English lyrics to many of the group’s early hits , but increasingly Bjorn took over lyric writing as the group became more self-defined and successful (Palm 285). Although the lyrics initially revolved almost solely around matters of the heart, the songwriting became increasingly sophisticated and the lyrics more mature over the course of ABBA’s only decade. As unconventional as his lack of music-writing prowess was Bjorn’s signature trait as a lyricist: all of his words were written either after the recording was complete or during the process of recording. “Very often, the song and the recording suggest a very certain kind of lyric. And that, you don’t know before.” (“Words and Music”) Although the lyrics initially revolved almost solely around matters of the heart, the songwriting become increasingly more sophisticated and mature over the course of ABBA’s only decade.

Frida and Agnetha, meanwhile, would be exercising their vocal ranges to the max. Many of ABBA’s signature classics, particularly “Dancing Queen”, require an almost supernaturally good vocal range, and over the course of ABBA’s reign, Bjorn and Benny’s perfectionist standards of quality control assured that Agnetha and Frida demonstrated their possession of such a trait. “British record producer Pete Waterman said in the 2004 ABBA documentary Super Troupers that “people mustn’t underestimate [Agnetha and Frida because] they can sing. They must have been incredibly disciplined. “Dancing Queen” has a two octave range for the singers—it’s unbelievable! You’ve got a guy telling you to sing in tune, on, time, and in English [for up to] five hours—they must have gone home hating the men!”  It should be noted, though, that although ‘the girls’ are credited solely with providing vocals to the group, all four members have emphatically declared  the degree to which Agnetha and Frida participated in the writing and production process, as theirs was indeed a collaborative union, and one which resulted in recordings of the utmost quality. “If you were to take all of the individual pieces of an ABBA song apart and then try to put it back together again, there’d be only one way how, and that’s the way they’d already done it” (“Super Troupers”, “Abba—The Movie”). 

                                                       The Worldwide Distribution
Being of typical Scandinavian backgrounds, ABBA were not privy to engage in “rock star behavior” such as drug use and casual sex with groupies. They were two couples in their late twenties and early thirties, all with children, and were far more content to record music in their beloved homeland than to travel about the world seeking fame and fortune. As such, they were critical to the popularization of what today is known as “the music video”. Polar Music first hired future Swedish film icon Lasse Hallstrom to shoot a pair of “promo clips” for “Waterloo” and a special remix for American audiences of “Ring Ring”. The clip for “Waterloo” effectively recreated the group’s triumphant Eurovision performance, while “Ring Ring” showed off the Nordic beauty Frida and Agnetha through the use of colorful, outrageous costumes that were as utterly bizarre as they were sexually provocative. The marketing paid off: “Waterloo” went Top 10 in the US, where Eurovision did not mean a thing, and inclusion of subsequent promo clips on various music TV shows in America resulted in a string of eight consecutive Top 40 hits over the next four years. (“”)
Even more telling than the crossover appeal of ABBA in America thanks to music videos was the unbelievable reception spawned by their “exported images” to Australia. By 1976, ABBA was on its way to becoming the top-selling band of the decade, but its success in this nation was outweighing virtually very other continent. Between the first week of July, 1975 and the first week of January, 1977, ABBA spent a staggering 42 weeks atop the Australian singles charts with six number one songs from their third and fourth albums, 1975’s ABBA and 1976’s Arrival, respectively (“”). A greatest hits compilation released in between would be the best-selling album of the 20th Century in Australia, and the group’s “Fernando” remained tied with The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” as the longest-running number one single in the country (fourteen weeks) as of 2001 (Palm 292). ABBA finally subsided to the pressuring of Australian television markets begging for an exclusive program, ABBA made a promotional visit to Sydney to film the TV special The Best of ABBA, which had the group miming to an assortment of hits in an array of their most famously outrageous costumes. ABBA was stunned by the response: the program was viewed by more than half the continent’s viewership, earning higher ratings than the landing on the moon seven years prior. The group decided to include Australia on a two-continent world tour in 1977. (Palm 287-292)

ABBA’s arrival in Australia in 1977 to tens of thousands of fanatical adults and screaming children has become a legendary pop cultural image, and one thankfully frozen in celluloid, in Lasse Hallstrom’s early film ABBA – The Movie. Hallstrom was commissioned by the group to film live concert sequences and document their tour of Australia. On the plane ride from Sweden it was decided that this “rockumentary” would be guided along by the insertion of a fictional Australian radio journalist trying to net an interview with the unreachable group. (“Abba – The Movie : Bonus Interview Disc”) The film actually shows little of the group in private, and lots of their fans in public declarations of love: a classroom of Australian ballerinas dancing to “Ring Ring”, a father complaining of his young daughter’s infatuation, and many proud mothers and grandmothers offering praise for the group’s “wholesome” image against the dark 1970s rock landscape. (“ABBA - The Movie”) What little one sees of the group offstage reveals just how little they like being offstage in a foreign land. “You just eat, sleep, and go onstage, and nothing more. It kills creativity in a way that I don’t like,” said Bjorn in ABBA – The Movie. Frida, on the other hand, has called the life offstage while touring with ABBA “lonely” and “boring”, what with being cramped up in hotel rooms and unable to interact as a human amidst millions of screaming fans, but that “it’s fantastic to be onstage. I really love that.” (“ABBA – The Movie”, “The Winner Takes It All”)

            Two years after ABBA made their lone tour journey through Australia, the same exercise was performed in America. Although manager Stig Anderson was reportedly irked that Americans had yet to embrace ABBA quite as passionately as had been done by European listeners, Thomas Johannsen, promoter of all of their tours, says that “wasn’t about the money, they wanted to [connect via performance] with [American] fans, bottom line”. In fact, he points out that ABBA’s top financial priority in staging the show was to insure the best possible technology in sound and lighting while keeping ticket prices as low as possible. “They were very concerned about ticket prices, they wanted everyone who wanted to come to afford tickets…because that’s the way they are as human beings” (“ABBA In Concert”) However, it was this tour that ultimately confirmed the end of touring for the group: during a trip from New York to Boston, Agnetha was so traumatized by a violently turbulent plane ride that she has hardly ever flown on airplanes since, and ultimately has remained “isolated” to her native land (Palm 414-418, “Super Troupers”). In 2000, as Mamma Mia! was taking off, the group was actually offered $1 billion to stage a reunion tour. All four members declined, later offering that, having already achieved financial success and not wanting to tamper with their pop legacy, they would only reunite—and Agnetha would only travel—if the cause was something far greater than even an exurbanite amount of money. (“Super Troupers”)

                                                           Thank You For the Music
                                   The Continued Worldwide Consumption of ABBA
From the moment ABBA went global, ABBA was rich. Very rich. In addition to singles successes, all of their albums and compilations from 1975’s Greatest Hits  to 1980’s Super Trouper topped the United Kingdom charts for at least three weeks and went gold or platinum in the United States. However, ABBA’s lucrative business deals around the world often overshadowed their artistic achievements during this period. In addition to records, ABBA were sold to the public in the form of posters, buttons, t-shirts, dolls, and even pillows. Wanting to concentrate solely on the creative side of their work and the family side of their personal lives, all financial matters were left to manager Stig Anderson. “We are diversifying into oil business (sic), financing and property business, and that is all my headache, and why I look so tired” (“20/20”). The group was more than happy to point out that they graciously paid back 85% of their high earnings in taxes. Said Benny, “All four of us feel that Sweden is the best country in the world. The taxes are high, certainly, but the money goes back to the people”. (Palm 418) However, beyond ABBA’s demise, the group broke away from Polar Music one by one, and by the end of the 1980s had all become entangled in a series of high-profile financial scandals in Sweden that suggested Stig’s business deals may have resulted in forms of tax evasion. In 1989, Benny, Bjorn, and Agnetha sued Stig, claiming they were being grossly denied the royalties they had earned. “At the end of the day it was hard to escape the conclusion that, morally, ABBA were entitled to more than three percent on their extraordinary sales. An out-of-court-settlement was agreed in July 1991, [but it all] constituted a breach of loyalty of the kind that Stig never allowed to be mended” before his death in 1997. (Palm 474-82, 490-99, 515)

            By 1986, it was quite apparent that the future of ABBA was unlikely at best, and from a commercial standpoint the group had reached their nadir with the unbelievably weak-selling compilation ABBA LIVE .  In 1989 “the ABBA catalogue of music was sold to the publishing arm of the multinational record company Polygram and it has been suggested that [the price] was way too low”. (Palm 490-2) However, thanks to Polygram, in 1992 ABBA enjoyed an unexpected revival that would usher in a second phase of their career.  That September, ABBA: Gold, a nineteen-track singles compilation presented in a subtle black and gold display without a picture of the troupe on the cover, topped the album charts in Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Australia, a decade after the release of their last album (Palm 503, The collection would go on to sell an astonishing 25 million copies worldwide (“Super Troupers”). It was recently ranked as one of the Top 10 Bestselling British Albums of all time (website), and in the United States it has been certified six-times platinum, making it by far their most successful release in the country. (

            Today, Agnetha Faltskog, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Anderson, and Frida Lyngstad all live quiet lives in Scandinavia.  Frida and Agnetha have sporadically released solo albums, all of which have been modestly successful. Bjorn and Benny would write the English language musical Chess along with Tim Rice in the 1980s, and the Swedish-language musical Kristina in the 1990s (“The Winner Takes It All”). ABBA, however, lives on.  In 1999, Bjorn and Benny gave their blessing—and became personally involved in the production of—a West End musical featuring a story by playwright Catherine Johnson and many of ABBA’s most recognizable singles (Palm 517-19). Mamma Mia! has since gone on to become an international phenomenon, breaking theater box office records in the US and UK, and going on to be staged in a multitude of alternate languages, always to smashing success (“Super Troupers”). Since 2002, Universal Music has continually released and re-released ABBA’s promo clips, concerts, and theatrical specials on DVD in every territory of the world, and sales have been consistently impressive in every territory (“”). 
            While four human beings have been content to live the quiet life in Scandinavia, avoiding continued pleas to reunite on stage or on record, the rest of the world continues to thrive upon the ten years of recordings that they did leave behind. Said Frida in a 1980 interview, “The most important thing is that we know by now that we have made very many people happy with our music. That’s something that means a lot to us.” (Words and Music) Thanks to the work that they put into their product, the deliriously successful effects of ABBA music remain as potent and globally recognizable as ever before, and if history keeps repeating itself, “ABBA” will never, ever go away.

                                                Works Cited


Palm, Carl Magnus. Bright Lights, Dark Shadows: The Real Story of ABBA.
            London, Omnibus Press: 2001.


ABBA – In Concert
ABBA – The Movie. Universal Music Video, 2006.
Super Troupers. Universal Music Video, 2005.
The Winner Takes It All. Universal Music Video, 2002


“20/20”, US Television, Summer 1979
“A FOR ABBA”, British Television, 1993
“Dick Cavett Meets ABBA”, Worldwide Television, Spring 1981
“Words and Music”, Worldwide Television, Spring 1980


“ABBA: The Worldwide Chart Lists”

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