HIDDEN tracks

Music was Pete Paphides' first love. And at this rate, it will be his last.


Fri, 1st January 2010

We never thought in our wildest dreams that we would be gay icons.”

A reunion? Don’t talk to Abba about a reunion. Except, of course, when it comes to a group as well loved as Abba – whose original members are all still alive and well, it’s hard not to. To their credit, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus are aware of the protocol. “Don’t worry. I know you have to ask,” says Benny, a baby-faced 64, when he sees me edging towards the question. The last time I edged uneasily towards the same question in May 2002, we were in Abba’s Stockholm headquarters. “There’s no amount of money in the world that could persuade me to do that,” said Bjorn flatly.

Since that encounter, they’ve been politely rebutting requests to reform on a regular basis, not only from fans who hadn’t been born when Abba imploded – but from promoters who, according to Bjorn, offered “crazy” sums for a farewell tour – in one case $1 billion. On every occasion, the thought of “the looks on the faces in the audience as they realised we had grown old” meant that Abba had long faced their Waterloo. Eight years later, in the reception room of a well-appointed Knightsbridge hotel, there’s no reason to believe that Bjorn and his songwriting foil of four decades might react any differently. And yet, for one extraordinary moment at the end of our encounter, a realization will stir into life. A realization that, after all those stock refusals, there may be a way to turn the most longed-for reunion of the last three decades into a reality.

However, obliging as they are when it comes to talking about their pop star years, that’s not the reason they came here. Benny and Bjorn are in London overseeing rehearsals for the UK premiere of their most ambitious project. Abba fans might want to take a rain check on Kristina when it comes to the Albert Hall next month. On the face of it, Vilhelm Moberg’s 2,000 page epic about Swedish emigrants in the 19th Century isn’t the most obvious of contenders for the musical theatre treatment. Nevertheless, in 1995, when Kristina opened in Malmo, reviewers greeted it with a fervour that eclipsed anything that Benny and Bjorn had achieved with Abba.

Quite what British audiences will make of it when it premieres here in April is another matter. Bjorn points out that some pre-emptive concessions have been made. “We’ve cut the play down from three hours down to two hours… And, also, I approached Herbert Kretzmer, who did Les Miserables, to translate the lyrics into English.” Kretzmer obliged – although, even he couldn’t do justice to one of the few gags in the original version, a bilingual joke predicated on the similarity of the word “speed” and the Swedish term for breaking wind. “It’s probably for the best,” deadpans Bjorn, his 65 year-old frame a slip of what it was when he squeezed into that satin jump suit on the night of Abba’s Eurovision triumph. “We wouldn’t dream of making a fart joke at the Albert Hall.” Be that as it may, newly retitled highlights such as Burial At Sea, I Am Reconciled To My Fate and Miscarriage confirm that Mamma Mia 2 is very much not on the cards.

To Benny, it’s a welcome chance to show a British audience what he and Bjorn have been up to. “One reason we never cared about breaking America,” he says, “is that the English people treated us like their own” – although Bjorn adds that, “it did make us spoilt. With Top of the Pops, you could reach all of Britain. But in America, you reached a tiny audience doing these silly TV shows we didn’t want to do anyway.

I suggest that some members of the group flaunted their reluctance a little more readily than others. Benny’s ex-wife Frida seemed to thrive on the attention that pop stardom conferred upon her – but anyone who persists in believing that blondes have more fun might care to read Agnetha’s 1997 autobiography As I Am. “Sometimes it was awful…” she revealed, “No-one who has experienced facing a screaming, boiling, hysterical crowd could avoid feeling shivers up and down their spine. It’s a thin line between ecstatic celebration and menace.”

Was it really that bad? As her ex-husband and father to her two children, you’d think Bjorn would know, but he sounds unsure. “She didn’t seem unhappy at the time – at least not as far as I recall. It’s strange the way that history sometimes becomes rewritten and it becomes the truth.” He’s not just talking about Agnetha here. Such revisionism, he feels, also extends to the place Abba hold in the collective memory. “It’s not just people wanting to hear the songs. It has more to do with people wanting to be in some kind of mood that is fictitious. A mood of ‘the 70s’ that Abba represents, but is not rooted in reality. Because, for instance, we never thought in our wildest dreams that we would be gay icons.”

I put it to him that Agnetha might have had something to do with the whole gay icons thing. “But why?” counters Bjorn. “She’s a very heterosexual woman. [ital] I know. [ital]”

That’s not how it works, I tell him.

“How does it work, then?” he asks.

Well, it all goes back to Agnetha not looking happy. You could tell that she was suffering inside, but she carried on in the name of showbiz. Bjorn, however, remains unsure: “Hmm. It could be the outfits and the Eurovision.”

At times, Bjorn’s perspective on Abba’s legacy is so unknowing, it’s a struggle not to leap across the coffee table, where his fishcakes have just been delivered, and hug him. How could he and Benny have written Hi-NRG hymns to physical desire such as Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight) and Lay All Your Love On Me, and not think it might play out well with their gay fanbase? “We didn’t realise it at the time. We were just releasing another song, that’s all.”

Play every one of Abba’s albums in chronological order and the effect is something akin to having your emotional dimmer switch slowly turned down. With the bulk of 1980’s Super Trouper album written after Bjorn and Agnetha’s divorce, the group’s music changed to mirror their personal situations. The Winner Takes It All was written in a red wine abetted stupour of self-pity. “Usually, it’s not a good idea to write when you’re drunk,” says Bjorn, “But it all came out on that one. By the time I wrote, ‘The Gods may throw their dice,’ the bottle was empty.”

As Benny puts it, by the time they recorded their last song together, The Day Before You Came, “we were really in the dark.” Has any band recorded a more magnificent farewell to the world than The Day Before You Came? Abba’s swansong seems to harbour a pop mystery as enduring as the identity of the subject of Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain. What happened after this guy “came”?

Bjorn smiles enigmatically, but he’s not saying. “You’ve spotted it, haven’t you? The music is hinting at it. You can tell in that song that we were straining towards musical theatre. We got Agnetha to act the part of the person in that song. In retrospect, it might have been too much of a change for a lot of Abba fans. The energy had gone.”

For the remainder of the 1980s, Bjorn felt that “our music had fallen so out [of fashion], that people looked down on it.” In the early 1990s, when tribute bands such as Bjorn Again popped up, they merely compounded the uneasy feeling in Bjorn’s mind, that people were laughing at Abba. “I heard that they spoke with a Swedish accent between the songs, which made me pissed off. But then I spoke to people who went to the shows.” Bjorn’s features assume an almost Spock-like quizzicality. “They said that it’s a happy feeling and that people are enjoying themselves immensely.”

Years later, of course, we now know that irony is merely the first step on the way to a critical and commercial rehabilitation. It isn’t irony that has sold 28 million copies of Abba Gold and – thanks to Mamma Mia’s passage from Broadway to Hollywood – finally broken them in America. When Brian Higgins – the producer-writer behind Girls Aloud – set up his Xenomania hit factory, he said that “SOS was the benchmark song… we aspired to reach melodically.” “Funnily enough,” says Bjorn, “that was also the song that Pete Townshend mentioned when he came up to me in a restaurant one time. He said he thought it was the best pop song ever written.”

If challenged to do so, could Benny and Bjorn sit down and write a song like that now? “I’m not sure,” ponders Bjorn. “Look at the hookline of Poker Face by Lady GaGa. That could have been written in the 70s, but the way the song is put together is different. Do I like it? I love it.”

“I haven’t heard it,” says Benny.

Bjorn turns to him in surprise. “Poker Face? Lady Gaga?” he exclaims.

“No,” confirms Benny.

“Oh, it’s fantastic! You’re the only one!”

In 2010, our sense of what a great pop song should be tallies more with that qualities found in Abba’s music than any other group. If someone doesn’t “get” Abba these days, they seem rooted in a less enlightened era. A few years ago, I suggested to Roger Waters that Pink Floyd’s Animals bore certain thematic similarities to Abba’s final album The Visitors. Taking umbrage at the notion, Waters sniffed, “From the ‘My’ on the [the first line of] Waterloo, I was an ex-listener.”

“Well, he missed a lot of the good stuff,” says Benny, when the episode is relayed to him. “At least he knows it starts with ‘My’ – that’s something. Dark Side of the Moon is not bad. They made some wonderful records.” Bjorn seems rather more put out by Waters’ comments. “It’s a bit pretentious, isn’t it? That attitude of ‘I wouldn’t stoop so low.’”

Over at Earls Court, a mile from here, the presence of Abba World confirms that the imperious former Floyd frontman finds himself in a shrinking minority. Such is the love elicited by Abba these days that thousands of fans a week are paying £21 to see an exhibition that, among the karaoke opportunities and replica “Arrival” helicopter features, seems to revel in the defiantly workaday environs – the lifelike recreation of their manager’s office springs to mind at this point – that spawned deathless pop moments like Dancing Queen and Take A Chance On Me.

“It was a chance to clear out some stuff from the attic,” says Benny drily. “Have I been to see it? No. I lived it the first time.” No point, then, in asking if he would want to live it again? Probably not. But footage of Agnetha at Abba World, talking with surprising affection about her contribution to the group’s biggest hits, is fresh in my mind. Reunions can take all sorts of different forms. A lucrative world tour might be out of the question, but what about something altogether more low-key? I float the idea of a intimate one-off performance for invited guests and families, perhaps with a small orchestra, focusing on some of the more “mature” material from later albums. The whole thing could be filmed, and the rights licensed out to TV stations around the world.

Alluding to Super Trouper’s final song The Way Old Friends Do, Bjorn’s first response is seemingly in jest, “We could sing The Way Old Folks Do!” Benny, by contrast, seems deeper in thought. “Yeah, why not?” he nods. As if working through the logistics, he adds, “I don’t know if the girls sing anything any more. I know Frida was [recently] in the studio.”

And on her last solo album five years ago, Agnetha was in fine voice. “If you can sing, you can sing,” he concurs. Then a little later, “It’s not a bad idea, actually.” Alas, though, as the door to a reunion appears to open ever so slightly, so does another one. Benny and Bjorn have to rush back to the Albert Hall, where rehearsals are under way. In two weeks, Kristina premieres. And then what? Like the song goes, “If you change your mind…”