Abba was no overnight sensation, for a long time, before finding any success, they were not even Abba!
Keyboard player, Benny Andersson had started as a member of the very popular Swedish band, The Hep Stars that specialised in Swedish versions of international hits during the mid 1960s, during this time he also wrote some big Swedish hit records. Bjorn Ulvaeus was in a popular Swedish folk rock group, The Hootenanny Singers, and he first met Benny while the two bands were touring together. In June 1966, Ulvaeus and Andersson wrote, 'Isn't It Easy to Say', a song recorded by The Hep Stars.
Stig Anderson, the manager of The Hootenanny Singers and founder of the Polar Music label encouraged their collaboration, and in 1969 Benny wrote and produced their first hits for Brita Borg, and for The Hep Stars.
In 1969 Benny wrote a song for the Swedish competition to choose their country's entry for the Eurovision Song Contest; in a recount their composition lost out to another, but at the contest he met Norwegian singer Anni-Frid Lyngstad (Frida), who was competing with another song. As Benny's band was breaking up, he and Frida became a couple and at the same time he and Bjorn began working together more closely and in 1970 they recorded their first album Lycka, meaning happiness in Swedish. Bjorn had meanwhile met Agnetha Faltskog, who had already secured a Swedish No.1 as a solo singer. During the recording of Bjorn and Benny's album both Frida and Agnetha sang backing vocals.
After recording together the two couples launched "Festfolk", which translates as both, "Party People" and "Engaged Couples", in November 1970 in Gothenburg. It was not a resounding success but their song, 'Hej, gamle man' ("Hello, Old Man"), the first Bjorn and Benny recording to feature all four of them, was popular. They also performed some solo songs, but the generally negative reception dissuaded them from forming a full time group. Nevertheless "Hej, gamle man", credited to Bjorn & Benny reached No.5 on the Swedish charts.
The following year, Agnetha and Bjorn, now married, along with Benny toured together, while all four of them carried on recording. Stig Anderson, kept encouraging Benny and Bjorn to write another song for Eurovision. Their entry failed in 1971 and in 1972 their composition made third place in the Swedish heats before becoming a hit single in their homeland.
Bjorn on Benny's single 'She's My Kind of Girl' became a hit in Japan in March 1972 and two subsequent releases also did well; it was their first sign of success outside of Scandinavia. In June 1972 they released 'People Need Love' and it featured both Agnetha and Frida more prominently and it became a minor hit in Sweden reaching No.17; it also made No.114 on the Cashbox singles chart in America where they were billed as Bjorn & Benny (with Svenska Flicka), it was released in the USA through Playboy Records, which certainly did not help its chances.
In the autumn of 1972 the two couples decided to record their first album together, with both women sharing lead vocals on 'Nina, Pretty Ballerina' (a top ten hit in Austria) and included on their debut, Ring Ring, released the following year. This was the start of something the combined voices of Agnetha and Frida and the song writing ability of Bjorn and Benny had a certain magic, just how magical at this point no one could have imagined.
In 1973, the band decided to have another crack at Eurovision and entered 'Ring Ring' in the Swedish heats. Stig Anderson arranged for an English translation of the lyrics by Neil Sedaka and Phil Cody; this time they felt certain they had a winner, yet again it came third in the heats. Undeterred they released the album, Ring Ring and it was a hit in many parts of Europe as well as South Africa.
It was also in early 1973 that Stig Anderson, started to refer to the group as ABBA. It was a play on their initials and from 1976 onwards the first 'B' in their logo was flipped so their registered trademark from then on became, ABBA...
Despite the failure of 'Ring Ring' in 1973 the band and Anderson began planning for the 1974 competition. 'Waterloo' became their entry, with its Spectoresque 'Wall of Sound' production and Glam-Rock overtones it won the Swedish heats with ease and in April 1974 it also won Eurovison. The final was held in Brighton, England and 'Waterloo' won by six votes from Italy, which is not as convincingly as revisionists might have us all believe interestingly the UK gave nil points to the song.
Immediately released as a single in the United States, the song peaked at No.6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, in the UK and in many countries 'Waterloo' went to No.1 on the singles chart and they followed this success around the world with the Waterloo album, but just like in the UK, in America it failed to have much impact, making No.145 on the chart. With the relative failure of the single 'Ring Ring', issued as a follow-up in the UK, there was the fear that Abba may just be another Eurovision flash in the pan; especially as In late 1974, 'So Long' was released as a single in the UK and failed to even chart.
In the summer of 1975 Abba released 'I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do', which again received little airplay and staggered to No. 38. Later in 1975 it was included in their self titled album, ABBA, as was their next single, the brilliant, 'SOS' that made No.6 on the UK singles chart later, The Who's Pete Townsend declared this to be his favourite pop song. Any notion of a Eurovision one hit wonder was dispelled with the release of 'Mamma Mia' that made the top in Germany, Australia and the UK. In the United States, 'SOS' peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, while also picking up the BMI Award as one of the most played songs on American radio in 1975.
Despite all this the ABBA album generated three American hits, but only peaked at No.174 on the Billboard 200 album chart. In other parts of the world, notably Australia, Abba could do no wrong and topped the singles and album chart simultaneously.
In March 1976, the band's first Greatest Hits album came out, despite having had only six Top 40 hits in the UK and the United States. Despite this it became their first No.1 album in the UK and it included 'Fernando' who became their second No.1 in succession in Britain and in well over a dozen other countries around the world; it made No.13 on the Billboard chart.
Seventh months after the release of the Greatest Hits album the band's next studio album hit the shops. Arrival was another benchmark record in that it showed an increasing sophistication in both song writing and production. It includes the hits, 'Money, Money, Money', which only made No.3 in the UK, most people would swear it was a No.1, 'Knowing Me, Knowing You', a song covered live by Elvis Costello, and the sensational, 'Dancing Queen', undoubtedly among the ten greatest pop singles ever. Just how good? U2 covered it! 'Dancing Queen' also became their only No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Another fan of the band was Mike Oldfield who covered the title song of Arrival.
By January 1977 Abba were superstars. They also embarked on a huge tour, demand everywhere was massive and they could have filled London's Royal Albert Hall 580 times, such was the level of postal ticket requests. One of the Royal Albert Hall concerts was filmed as a reference for the filming of the Australian tour that became ABBA: The Movie.
In December 1977, they released the follow-up to Arrival, the ambitious fifth album ABBA: The Album. It was released to coincide with the debut of ABBA: The Movie and while it made No.1 in the UK and many countries it was not quite as successful as its predecessor. It had two No.1 singles, 'The Name of the Game' and 'Take a Chance on Me'; the album also includes the brilliant, 'Thank You for the Music', which remains one of the best-loved recordings. Another stand out was the album opener, 'Eagle', that lifted their song writing and production skills to yet greater heights.
By 1978, at the very peak of their fame, ABBA converted a Stockholm cinema into the Polar Music Studio, a state-of-the-art facility. The studio was later used by other bands, including, Genesis for their Duke album. They also recorded their next single, 'Summer Night City' at Polar.
In January 1979, they performed 'Chiquitita' at the Music for UNICEF Concert held at the United Nations General Assembly to celebrate the Year of the Child. ABBA donated the copyright of this worldwide hit to the UNICEF, which were considerable after it reached No.1 in ten countries. It was also in January that Bjorn and Agnetha announced they were to divorce, which caused a lot of press speculation as to the group's future.
To escape the media frenzy Bjorn and Benny decamped to Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas, a favourite studio of The Rolling Stones among others, to begin writing and recording Abba's next album, Voulez-Vous, that was released in April 1979. The title track of which was recorded at Criteria Studios in Miami, Florida, became another smash hit around the world coupled with 'Angel Eyes'. Aside from the title song, 'Chiquitita' and 'Summer Night City', the album includes, 'Does Your Mother Know', the beautiful, 'I Have a Dream' and the brilliant, 'Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)'. The album's success was helped by another massive world tour, including six sold-out nights at London's Wembley Arena.
In March 1980, Abba toured Japan, including six shows at Tokyo's Budokan. It turned out to be their last major tour as a band. In the summer they released the single 'The Winner Takes It All' that became their 8th UK No.1 (their first since 1978). Many people assume that it was a song about Bjorn and Agnetha's divorce, both have stated separately and repeatedly that it was not and neither party felt like they won. It was later re-recorded by Benny and Bjorn, with a slightly different backing track, by French singer Mireille Mathieuâ as "Bravo Tu As Gagne", with French lyrics by Alain Boublil.
The single was included on Abba's seventh album Super Trouper, which came out in November 1980. It was also the title of the second single to be taken from the album, which made No.1 in the UK, becoming the group's ninth and final UK chart-topper. The follow-up was, 'Lay All Your Love on Me', which made No.7 on the UK chart. Soon after the album's release Benny and Frida announced that they too were seeking a divorce.
At the time Benny and Bjorn were busy working on their next, and what was to be their final studio album, The Visitors. ABBA's eighth studio album was a far more mature album than any that had gone before and is more of a cohesive piece of work than some of their other records; it's one real hit single, the haunting 'One of Us', was also ABBA's final Top 10 hit in the UK. The fittingly entitled, 'When All Is Said and Done', was released as a single in North America and became ABBA's final Top 40 hit in the US.
In the spring of 1982, Benny and Bjorn had started work on more material in May and June the four of them recorded three songs but the band was unhappy with the result and so they took off for the summer planning to return to the studio later. The result was a double A-side, 'The Day Before You Came'/'Cassandra' and 'Under Attack'/'You Owe Me One', both of which are included on More Abba Gold, that followed Abba Gold in 1992, an album that topped the charts around the globe. And that was it, their collective career as a band was over. Pop has rarely seen anything like it. A band that crossed continents and was popular just about everywhere - rather like The Beatles.
After the band stopped working together, they never have officially split up, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus continued writing together as well as performing; among their greatest successes together was the stage musical, Chess, which they wrote along with lyricist Tim Rice, they also worked together on the stage musical and subsequent movie, Mamma Mia. Frida and Agnetha pursued successful solo careers, including Agnetha's 2013 solo album, A.
In May 2013 the first permanent museum dedicated to Abba opened its doors; it's a further manifestation of their legacy. Located in Stockholm, and backed by former member Bjorn Ulvaeus, the museum features the band's amazing stage costumes, instruments and other memorabilia. Some of the exhibits had formed part of theAbbaworldexhibition that toured Europe and Australia between 2009 and 2011, including being shown at London's Earl's Court. The museum features a 1970s disco dance floor allowing visitors to show-off their best moves, and the chance to audition to be the "fifth" member of the band.
ABBA's 19-song Gold collection was the first hits compilation prepared specifically for the CD format by the 1970s supergroup, and, appearing after a period of several years in which their music had been off the market, was a welcome addition to the catalog. It is still the simplest and most straightforward collection of the group's material that it is possible to buy.
Words - Bruce Eder
If it seems as though the familiar ABBA sound isn't present on this album, that's because there was no entity known as ABBA at the time that the earliest sides here were recorded. Growing out of an attempt by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus to record together with their respective companions, Agnetha Faltskog and Frida "Anni-Frid" Lyngstad, the first side cut here, "People Need Love," featured the two men singing just as prominently as the women, and was credited to "Bjorn and Benny, Agnetha and Anni-Frid." It was only after its release and the cutting of a further single, "Ring, Ring," that the more familiar sound of the quartet began to coalesce along with the idea of a permanent professional association.
Unreleased in the United States until 1995, this album is more of a generic European pop release than ABBA release; the music has several unusual attributes, including Andersson and Ulvaeus singing lead on several cuts, and also one original song, the moody ballad "Disillusion," co-authored by Agnetha Faltskog. Most of what's here is pleasantly upbeat Europop, with unusually good playing and a lot of spirit, all showing the influence of mainstream American and British pop/rock, including the late-era Beatles and early Elton John, and on the title track, Phil Spector-proportioned production.
Ring Ring was reissued in October of 2001 with extensive notes, state-of-the-art sound, and three bonus tracks: the single B-sides "Merry-Go-Round" and "Santa Rosa" (a smooth piece of California-style rock in the mold of the early Eagles) and the Swedish version of "Ring, Ring" (which charted number one in Sweden to the English version's number two spot).
ABBA's second (and U.S. debut) album contains the American Top Ten title track, as well as "Honey, Honey," a minor U.S. hit that deserved better. This album is rather unusual in the group's output, however, for the fact that the guys are still featured fairly prominently in some of the vocals, and for the variety of sounds -- including reggae, folk-rock, and hard rock -- embraced by its songs. The reggae number "Sitting in the Palmtree" is quite remarkable to hear, with its perfect Caribbean beat and those radiant female voices carrying the chorus behind the beat. "King Kong Song" is a good example of hard rock by rote, going through the motions of screaming vocals and over-amplified guitar (courtesy of Janne Schaffer), although even here, when the women's voices jump in on the choruses, it's hard not to listen attentively; the quartet knew what a powerful weapon they had, but not quite how to use it.
They get a little closer to their winning formula on the catchy, folky-textured pop song "Hasta Manana," which sounds like a lost Mary Hopkin number. "Dance (While the Music Still Goes On)" is on the money, as the embodiment of the Euro-disco sound that the group would move in the millions on their coming albums, although it also embraces a vague oldies sound, with a melody that somehow reminds this listener of both the Four Seasons' "Dawn" and the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby." Polygram remastering added no songs but was still a significant improvement over the original LP or earlier CD editions.
Waterloo was also reissued in October of 2001 in a digipack format with extensive new notes, even crisper state-of-the-art sound, and three bonus cuts, the 1974 remix of "Ring, Ring" and the Swedish versions of "Waterloo" and "Honey Honey" -- their presence, and the 24-bit digital audio, only serve to make a beautiful album even better.
Words - Bruce Eder
ABBA's self-titled third album was the one that really broke the group on a worldwide basis. The Eurovision Song Contest winner "Waterloo" had been a major international hit and "Honey, Honey" a more modest one, but ABBA was still an exotic novelty to most of those outside Scandinavia until the release of ABBA in the spring of 1975. "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do," a schmaltzy tribute to the sound of '50s orchestra leader Billy Vaughn, seemed an unlikely first single, and indeed it barely scraped into the Top 40 in the U.K.
But in Australia, it topped the charts, causing the Australian record company to pull its own second single, "Mamma Mia," off the album. This far more appealing pop/rock number followed its predecessor into the pole position Down Under and also topped the charts throughout Europe. "Bang-A-Boomerang," another big production, was less memorable and had less of an impact, but "S.O.S." brought ABBA back to big success in the U.S. and the U.K., pulling along the first two singles. Beyond these tracks, the LP-only songs showed off the group's eclecticism, from the crunchy hard rock guitar riff that propelled "Hey, Hey Helen" to the ambitious instrumental "Intermezzo No. 1," which showed off Benny Andersson and Ulvaeus' classical leanings and foreshadowed their bigger composing projects of the 1980s.
ABBA was a surprisingly effective synthesis of pop and rock styles, surprising because the non-English-speaking world had not produced such effective Anglo-American-style contemporary music before, at least for more than a song or two. (The 2001 reissue of ABBA, first released internationally and finally in the U.S., contains "Crazy World," a song from the sessions for the album later released as a B-side, and a medley of folk songs first heard on a charity album.)
ABBA's fourth album appeared after the group had arrived as major stars shows the quartet at the absolute top of their game. In addition to "Dancing Queen," which is probably their best-known hit (a number one single on both sides of the Atlantic), the record was filled with brilliant material, including the spirited "When I Kissed the Teacher"; the dramatic, achingly beautiful "Knowing Me, Knowing You" (yet a further hit); the pounding "Money, Money, Money" (still another hit off the album); and the playful "That's Me."
Arrival was reissued in October of 2001 in a 24-bit digital transfer, in a handsome gatefold package with two bonus tracks added on. The upgraded sound puts the piano on "Dancing Queen" practically in the room with the listener, and the rhythm guitars by Bjorn Ulvaeus and Lasse Wellander on "Knowing Me, Knowing You," "When I Kissed the Teacher," and "Dum Dum Diddle" are up very close. The other big beneficiaries are Rutger Gunnarsson's muscular bass playing throughout the album, which never sounded sharper or more effective, and Benny Andersson's keyboards everywhere, which have real presence. Wellander's power chords over the chorus of "Knowing Me, Knowing You" are some of those dramatic musical effects that this group played for maximum effect, which gave their music a raw power that their detractors usually overlooked; in the new edition, it's impossible to ignore. What's more, the sheer impact of the bass drums behind the choruses on "Tiger" will be pretty impressive to any noise freaks. And all of the voices are in very sharp relief; every iota of richness is now on display. So one can now fully appreciate what Frida Lyngstad was hearing when she found the playback of the backing track on "Dancing Queen" beautiful enough to cry over the first time she heard it.
The two bonus cuts are both choice additions: the lost B-side, "Happy Hawaii," is a soaring, rocking dance number that got left off the album, and the chronologically related single "Fernando" had been recorded during the making of the LP but not included on it in most of the world. The latter is a profoundly beautiful song that, with its use of flutes and a folk-like melody, is a sort of disco-era follow-up to Simon & Garfunkel's "El Condor Pasa."
Words - Bruce Eder
ABBA's fifth album was a marked step forward for the group, having evolved out of Europop music into a world-class rock act over their previous two albums, they now proceeded to absorb and assimilate some of the influences around them, particularly the laid-back California sound of Fleetwood Mac (curiously, like ABBA, then a band with two couples at its center), as well as some of the attributes of progressive rock. That they did this without compromising their essential virtues as a pop ensemble makes this album seem even more extraordinary, though at the time nobody bothered to analyze it.
The Album was simply an incredibly popular release, yielding two British number one singles in "The Name of the Game" and "Take a Chance on Me" (which made the Top Five in America, their second-best showing after "Dancing Queen"), and achieving the quartet's highest-ever showing on the U.S. LP charts, reaching the Top 20 and selling a million copies in six months. The opening number, "Eagle," dominated by synthesizers and soaring larger-than-life vocal flourishes, is followed by the more lyrical "Take a Chance on Me," with its luminous a cappella opening. The whole album is like that, effortlessly straddling hard rock, pop/rock, dance-rock, and progressive rock -- though the hits tend to stand out in highest relief, there are superb album tracks here, including the driving, lushly harmonized "Move On" and "Hole in Your Soul," which provides guitarist Lasse Wellander with a beautiful showcase for his lead electric playing.
The second side of the album is dominated by material from a "mini-musical" called Girl with the Golden Hair that Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus wrote for the concerts on their just-ended tour intended to be used in a dramatically coherent storytelling context. Two of its songs, "Thank You for the Music" and "I Wonder (Devotion)," are less exciting than the straight rock material found elsewhere on the album, though the former became a popular concert number for the quartet, while the latter is the kind of lushly melodic, moodily reflective song that could easily have graced a Barbra Streisand album of the era. The closer, "I'm a Marionette," however, is a startlingly bold attempt to recast the influence of Kurt Weill in a hard rock mode, ending The Album on a high note, musically and artistically.
That it took nearly a year to record Voulez-Vous is an indicator of the creative and personal box in which the four members of ABBA found themselves at the end of the '70s. Their sixth album coincided with the marital split between Agnetha Fältskog and Bjorn Ulvaeus and the massively shifting currents in popular music, with disco, which had been on the wane, suddenly undergoing a renaissance thanks to the 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever. Thus, about half of Voulez-Vous shows the heavy influence of the Bee Gees from their megahit disco era. This is shown not just in the fact that the backing track for the title song was cut at Criteria Studios in Miami, where the Bee Gees had cut Main Course, Children of the World, and most of the rest of their disco-era music, but through the funky beat that ran through much of the material; yet the album still had a pair of soft, lyrical Europop-style ballads, "I Have a Dream" and "Chiquitita," both of which proved as popular as any of the more dance-oriented songs, and were reminders of Fältskog's and Ulvaeus' roots, in particular, in popular folk music during the mid- to late '60s.
Those two songs, plus "Angeleyes," "Does Your Mother Know," and the title cut, were all Top Five singles in England, although only "Chiquitita" was even a Top 40 hit in America, where the album's sales peaked at a modest 500,000 or so. Voulez-Vous, which originally appeared in America on the Atlantic label, was reissued by PolyGram in an upgraded remastered form on CD in 1999, and then in a further upgrade by Universal Music in digipack form with extensive historical notes and full lyrics in the fall of 2001, with three bonus cuts. "Summer Night City" only reinforced the stylistic connection of the sessions with the Bee Gees, while the undeservedly overlooked "Lovelight" was a non-LP B-side to "Chiquitita" and "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)" was the hit that emerged immediately after the LP, to coincide with the quartet's upcoming tour.
The sound on the 2001 reissue makes it superior to any prior edition, all of the vocals coming through with startling clarity and details, such as the crunchy guitar on "Does Your Mother Know" punching through like it's in the same room with you. Coupled with the opulent packaging, it's the obvious choice for anyone looking to buy this record.
Words - Bruce Eder
Commercially, Super Trouper, ABBA's seventh album, was another worldwide blockbuster. "The Winner Takes It All," its lead-off single, released several months in advance of the album in most territories, was a smash; for example, it was the group's 14th consecutive Top Five hit in the U.K. and their eighth number one there. The title track was also a British chart-topper (their last), as was the album, their sixth. "Lay All Your Love on Me" made the U.K. Top Ten, and "On and on and On" was released as a single in some countries, hitting the Top Ten in Australia. (Typically, American success was more modest, though the album went gold, and "The Winner Takes It All" was a number one adult contemporary and Top Ten pop hit.)
Musically, Super Trouper found ABBA, always trend-conscious, taking account of the passing of disco and returning to the pop/rock sound typical of their early albums. Only "Lay All Your Love on Me" employed a dance approach. The title song had the kind of martial beat and pop sound more in keeping with the group that had broken through with "Mamma Mia" and "S.O.S.," and "On and on and On" paid homage to one of their chief influences, the Beach Boys, with an arrangement reminiscent of "Do It Again."
Lyrically, there was a distinct sense of world weariness and melancholy, from the divorce lamentations of "The Winner Takes It All" to the dissatisfaction with touring expressed in "Super Trouper" and even the nostalgia for a simpler time in "Our Last Summer." For performers on top of the world, the members of ABBA were putting an unusual amount of what sounded like real unhappiness into their pop music. "Elaine," a non-LP B-side, and "Put on Your White Sombrero," an outtake. Both were excellent songs.
Words - William Ruhlmann
ABBA's final album was recorded during a period of major personal shakeups, principally in the decision by Benny Andersson and Frida to follow the same route to divorce that had already been taken by Bjorn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Faltskog. Both male members of the group would soon remarry, but at the time, despite all of these changes in their circumstances, The Visitors was never intended as ABBA's swan song -- they were to go on recording together. That may explain why, rather than a threadbare, thrown-together feel, The Visitors is a beautifully made, very sophisticated album, filled with serious but never downbeat songs, all beautifully sung and showing off some of the bold songwriting efforts.
The title track is a topical song about Soviet dissidents that also manages to be very catchy, while "I Let the Music Speak" sounds like a Broadway number (and a very good one, at that) in search of a musical to be part of, and "When All Is Said and Done" is a serious, achingly beautiful ballad with a lot to say about their personal situations -- even "Two for the Price of One," a lighthearted song sung by Bjorn Ulvaeus about answering a personal advertisement, offered several catchy hooks and beautiful backup singing. "Like an Angel Passing Through My Room" ended the original album on a hauntingly ethereal note, but not as any kind of larger statement about the quartet's fate.
The intention was to keep working together, but Andersson and Ulvaeus' growing involvement with their stage project, Chess, prevented any further work together by the group beyond three songs, "The Day Before You Came," "Cassandra," and "Under Attack" -- they're all present as bonus tracks on the 2001 remastered edition (in gatefold packaging), along with the orphaned B-side "Should I Laugh or Cry" from the same sessions as The Visitors, and only add to the appeal of the original album.
Words - Bruce Eder