ABBA 30th Anniversary Agnetha, 15 February 2005 Frida, 15 February 2005 Benny, 15 February 2005 Björn, 15 February 2005
“ABBA – ALL FOUR TOGETHER AGAIN!” – a phrase that ABBA fans had long thought they would never ever hear. But that’s what headlines around the world screamed earlier this year, after Björn, Benny, Frida AND Agnetha all attended the gala premiere of the Swedish production of the ABBA musical ‘MAMMA MIA!’ in Stockholm on February 12th, 2005.

But in reality, that’s not quite what happened. Much to the disappointment of fans and the media, although all four were indeed present, they were not together – the four arrived at Cirkus Theatre individually (Benny and Björn with their wives and family members), and sat separately inside – the two men towards the front and centre of the theatre, Frida in a box on one side, Agnetha on the opposite side.

Fans lucky enough to have tickets for the premiere were in the unique position of being able to approach their idols, all of whom were friendly and accommodating when asked for photos and autographs – until Agnetha became concerned with dozens of cameras and mobile phones being aimed at her from all over the theatre, putting up her hands in a “no more” gesture, which unfortunately became the lasting image of her attendance. The next day, Swedish newspapers put that photo on their front pages, using this momentary image as a sign that she was still the Garbo-esque recluse of legend, reporting that she had allegedly snuck out of the theatre at the end of the performance. But by all reports from those inside the theatre, she was happy to be there, and was even seen to be singing and bopping along to the songs.

At the end of the premiere, to the dismay of many, only Björn and Benny appeared on stage for the curtain call – and then only took a bow and received bouquets of flowers, making no speeches. Apparently, both women had been invited to take to the stage, but Agnetha had declined, and Frida reportedly also decided not to appear, in a gracious effort not to make Agnetha look like she was the lone hold-out.

According to unconfirmed reports, all four attended an after-show party backstage, where Agnetha and Frida were said to have been seen chatting and embracing, and all four were apparently photographed together. But there has been no confirmation that this happened, and no photos of this momentous event have surfaced.

This special night was the culmination of a year of excitement in ABBA circles, with 2004 commemorating the 30th anniversary of ABBA’s legendary win of the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton, England with ‘Waterloo’ on April 6th, 1974.

2004 began with two pieces of exciting news – the 30th anniversary of the Eurovision win (and the fifth anniversary of the world premiere of ‘MAMMA MIA!’) would see an exciting commemorative event in London (which of course led to much speculation of an “ABBA reunion”), and Agnetha would be releasing her first album since ‘I Stand Alone’ in 1987!

Yes, this time it was true – after four years of rumours and leaks, Sweden’s worst kept secret came to fruition. In April, Agnetha released her new album ‘My Colouring Book’, a collection of songs mostly from the Sixties, made famous by such singers as Cilla Black, Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark, Doris Day, Connie Francis (Agnetha’s long professed favourite), Sandie Shaw, Jackie De Shannon, the Shangri-Las and other legends of that era. The first single, ‘If I Thought You’d Ever Change Your Mind’ (a Cilla classic), had its world premiere on Swedish radio station RIX-FM on March 8th. Thanks to the internet, ABBA fans worldwide were able to share in this special moment as it happened.

The album was recorded over the previous twelve months, produced by Agnetha herself with Anders Neglin (who had transcribed to score for the ABBA songs for ‘MAMMA MIA!’) and Dan Strömkvist, after a long gestation period which saw her recording a number of demos, including some self compositions (none of which ended up on the album), and a delay after ABBA engineer Michael B. Tretow, who was originally producing the sessions, suffered a stroke.

The release of ‘My Colouring Book’ of course attracted huge worldwide media interest, though at almost the last minute, Agnetha pulled out of planned promotion (including an interview on the prestigious Parkinson programme in London), allegedly due to threats of a new stalker. Eventually, she relented to a handful of phone interviews with newspapers around the world, and produced her own short documentary, ‘Agnetha’, where she was interviewed (switching between Swedish and English) and several clips for songs from the album were shown. But sadly it was too little too late – despite the anticipation, the album failed to make much impression on the world’s charts. In Sweden of course it was a huge success (selling over 100,000 copies), but in the UK, it entered the album chart at number 12, then dropped out within a few weeks. The two singles from the album, ‘If I Thought You’d Ever Change Your Mind’ and ‘When You Walk In The Room’, fared little better, and weren’t even released in such ABBA-loving territories as Germany and Australia. To date, the album has not yet been released in America.

Both singles including remixes of the featured tracks, which have proven popular with fans. At the International ABBA Day in April 2004, the Almighty remix of ‘If I Thought You’d Ever Change Your Mind’ was a dancefloor filler several times! A third single, ‘Sometimes When I’m Dreaming’, was planned, and a radio version remixed by Sound Factory was sent out to Swedish radio stations in December, but apparently didn’t impress anyone, and the commercial release was cancelled (but contrary to rumour, Agnetha was quite happy with the remix).

Agnetha was not the only ABBA member active during the year. In June, Benny Anderssons Orkester released their second album, ‘BAO!’, a collection of instrumental music and songs (with vocals by Helen Sjöholm, who had played the title role in Benny and Björn’s Swedish musical ‘Kristina från Duvemåla’) in a similar vein to the first BAO album released in 2001. As usual, Björn contributed lyrics to some songs. BAO took their annual August tour to several venues in Sweden, performing songs from both BAO albums, Benny’s previous solo albums, and even a couple of ABBA songs! – climaxing as always with a performance at Skansen in Stockholm. BAO will again be playing half a dozen venues across Sweden again this coming August.

Benny also popped up on one song on the tribute album ‘Funky ABBA’, by Swedish jazz trombonist Nils Landgren (who had played trombone on ABBA’s ‘Voulez-Vous’ back in 1979). He played piano on the bonus track ‘When All Is Said And Done’, sung by Viktoria Tolstoy, in a sparse version that enhanced the beauty and desolation of the song. The rest of the album featured jazz-funk-rap-fusion versions of ABBA classics, some quite radically different to their original versions. Poignantly, this was one of the last recordings at Polar Studios, which was forced to close due to exorbitant rental rates charged by the building’s owners, obviously intended to force the studios out. Björn lobbied to Swedish government to intervene to save such a historic site, sadly to no avail.

Frida has also been in the recording studio in recent times, despite her withdrawal from public life. In late 2003, she recorded two songs, ‘Lieber Gott’ (in German) and ABBA’s ‘I Have A Dream’, with Swiss entertainer and restauranteur Dan Daniell. Only 1,000 copies of the single were made, which were only available through a German ABBA fan club, with proceeds being donated to an orphanage in Russia.

In September 2004, Frida appeared again, this time singing the song ‘The Sun Will Shine Again’ on former Deep Purple keyboardist Jon Lord’s album ‘Beyond The Notes’. The song’s inspirational lyrics were written by Sam Brown (remember her late 80s hit ‘Stop’?), who also sang on the album. Jon and Frida performed the song on several television programmes in Germany, and Frida also sang the song at a Jon Lord concert in Cologne, which was filmed for DVD release. One TV performance was infamously marred when, during a rehearsal in front of a full audience, one ABBA fan yelled out “Sing live or go home” when it became obvious that Frida would be lip-syncing, which caused Frida much obvious distress. Rumour has it that Jon and Frida are working on a full-length album, her first since ‘Djupa andetag’ in 1996.

Aside from contributing lyrics to Benny’s ‘BAO!’ album, Björn’s main function has been overseeing worldwide production of the musical ‘MAMMA MIA!’. During 2004 the Spanish-language production opened in Madrid. An international touring version (in English) is now traveling across Europe, and has also visited South Africa – Björn was present for the Edinburgh, Dublin and Cape Town opening nights. He and Frida were there for the Madrid premiere, and both also joined Prince Charles at a gala performance for the Prince’s Trust when the London production moved to the Prince of Wales Theatre in May, after five years at the Prince Edward Theatre.

But before ‘MAMMA MIA!’ changed theatres, it celebrated its fifth anniversary at the Prince Edward, “coincidentally” on the 30th anniversary of ABBA’s Eurovision win (as you may remember, the world premiere was “coincidentally” on the 25th anniversary of the Eurovision contest). The double anniversary was commemorated with a gala performance, and in the weeks leading up to the day, there was much speculation that all four former ABBA members would appear together, in public for the first time since December 1982. Disappointingly to many, Agnetha chose not to attend (citing working on her impending album release and her well-known fear of flight), but Björn, Benny and Frida took to the stage during the curtain call, when all three made short speeches, and were presented with a special award marking worldwide sales of 360 million ABBA records by British producer Pete Waterman (of Stock, Aitkin, Waterman fame).

This auspicious event was commemorated in the television documentary and DVD ‘Super Troupers – 30 Years of ABBA’ (also known as ‘ABBA – The Reunion’ in some markets). The one and a half hour programme was essentially a repackaging of 1999’s ‘The Winner Takes It All – The ABBA Story’, with some new interviews and archival footage, framed around the impending double anniversary, narrated by Pete Waterman. Along with some previously unseen interview footage from 1999, Björn, Benny and Frida were newly interviewed for the programme (the DVD included extended interviews with Björn and Frida), while some interview footage from Agnetha’s own documentary was also included. At least this time we didn’t have to sit through Bono Vox and Malcolm McLaren being forced to say on camera that ABBA really weren’t that bad, or Paul Gambicinni babbling on and on and on, but we did have to sit through the false anticipation of Agnetha turning up, which seemed rather absurd two months after the event, when it was first shown on TV. The DVD also featured the full curtain call on stage appearance by Björn, Benny and Frida, including the now-legendary moment when Frida’s shoe was caught in a gap in the stage. “As you can see, I haven’t been on stage for a very long time!” she said.

The ‘Super Troupers’ DVD was not the only new release for the commemorative year. Universal Music Sweden celebrated the anniversary with several new releases.

First up was the long-awaited release of the 1979 tour television special ‘ABBA In Concert’. The DVD included the full TV version of the film (remastered and cleaned up, looking better than it’s ever looked), with a selection of bonuses including ‘The Way Old Friends Do’, which had been part of the special when first screened on TV in Japan and the USA, but never included on a commercial video release; the uninterrupted performance of ‘I Have A Dream’; and the never before seen ‘Thank You For The Music’, pieced together from available footage. Also included were new interviews with tour promoter Thomas Johansson, and director of ‘ABBA In Concert’ Urban Lasson, who revealed that only the songs planned to be included in the TV special had been filmed, to the disappointment of fans who had hoped for a full concert release.

Also to commemorate the anniversary, the “30th Anniversary Edition” of the ‘Waterloo’ album was released, including for the first time on a commercial release all four language versions of ‘Waterloo’, on top of the bonus tracks added to the 2001 reissue, plus a bonus DVD including ABBA performing ‘Waterloo’ at Melodifestivalen (the Swedish Eurovision heats) and at the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton, plus performances of ‘Honey, Honey’ and ‘Hasta Mañana’ from TV programmes in 1974. The Swedish version was packaged in a gorgeous fold-out digipak (apparently, only 20,000 were made), but the international release was repackaged in a soft plastic case, apparently because it was cheaper and easier to manufacture.

ABBA also came together again (almost) in the short film ‘Our Last Video Ever’, which premiered during the Eurovision Song Contest preliminary final in May. The eight-minute film, set in Stockholm in 1974, starred a puppet version of ABBA auditioning for a sleazy record company executive, played by British comedian Rik Mayall. Dialogue was mostly culled from the lyrics of ABBA songs, and four ABBA songs were also included: ‘Take A Chance On Me’, ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Waterloo’ and ‘The Winner Takes It All’. All four ABBA members appeared in short cameos, each on screen for just a couple of seconds.

Excitingly, Agnetha and Frida were seen together in the same shot, but it was later revealed that this was pieced together with digital green-screen trickery, because Frida was not available to travel to Sweden when the bulk of the film was shot. The film also included several famous Swedish actors, virtually unknown outside Sweden. At the end of the film the puppets and their manager enter an elevator, encountering the real ABBA in a bit of digital trickery placing them in the elevator scene from ‘ABBA – The Movie’. “Good luck” they say. “Not a chance” the puppets mutter under their breath. In September, the film was released on DVD as ‘The Last Video’, with bonuses including a behind-the-scenes documentary and the original clips for the four ABBA songs featured.

Universal Music UK commemorated the Eurovision anniversary with the re-release of ‘Waterloo’ on 7 inch vinyl single, individually numbered picture disc single, and CD single, quite bizarrely released the weekend of the 2004 Eurovision Song Contest in May, rather than the anniversary of ABBA’s win in April (and also weirdly in a reproduction of the 1974 West German single, which still credited group member “Anna-Frid” and reversed the group photo). Controversially, the picture disc was limited to 2,000 copies (later extended to 2,400), the majority of which were snapped up by a few people and listed on eBay at inflated prices within hours of appearing in record shops.

A ridiculous number of other re-releases flooded the market during 2004: ‘ABBA GOLD’ was re-released for the umpteenth in the UK, this time in a gold cover and with an accompanying DVD, which for no apparent reason omitted ‘The Name Of The Game’; the albums ‘ABBA’ and ‘Arrival’ released as Sound+Vision packs, with DVDs including three promotional clips to the singles from the albums; ‘The ABBA Story’, a new compilation released in a hardback book format with the notes translated into various languages for the countries where it was released; DVD “singles” of ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Waterloo’; a Sound+Vision Deluxe version of ‘The Definitive Collection’, with the original double CD and DVD packaged together; Reader’s Digest re-released their four-CD set (first released in 1993) as ‘The Ultimate Collection’, so far in the UK, Mexico, Sweden and Australia – the four CDs cover ABBA’s entire career, though the tapes used were the 1997 remasters, thus with errors such as the strange alternate mix of ‘Lovelight’ and the sudden volume rise at 1.00 in ‘I Let The Music Speak’, among other audio errors; Spain and Korea both released locally-compiled compilations: ‘Todo ABBA’ and ‘The Best Of ABBA’ respectively, and there are rumours that more countries may release similar compilations of their best-known local hits. Dutch and German cast recordings of ‘MAMMA MIA!’ were also released, and a Swedish version has been hinted at.

The year finished with a very special release – Universal Music Japan released nine-CD box set of ABBA’s eight studio albums, in miniature replica LP sleeves (strangely, mostly reproducing the UK Epic albums), including the bonus tracks from the 2001 reissues, and a 10-track bonus disc of rare, though all previously released songs. The ‘30th Anniversary Original Album Box’ has recently been made available in Europe.

In the March 2005 issue of the Official Agnetha, Benny, Björn, Frida Fan Club Magazine, Marko Söderstrom of Universal Music Sweden announced that during 2004, ABBA sold 3.5 million records around the world, including 400,000 copies of ‘ABBA GOLD’ in the UK alone. An outstanding feat for a group that ended 22 years ago.

During 2004, Benny’s pre-ABBA career also hit the spotlight with a number of releases: The Hep Stars career was celebrated with the double disc compilation ‘Cadillac Madness – 40 Years – 40 Hits’, including all their hit singles and a selection of album tracks (some written by Benny and Björn, including their first ever joint composition ‘Isn’t It Easy To Say’), plus two newly recorded songs (without Benny). Two books were also released – ‘Cadillac Madness – den otriliga berättelsen om The Hep Stars’, a Swedish-language book by long-time Hep Stars fan Dan-Eric Landén and renowned ABBA biographer Carl Magnus Palm, which detailed the colourful history of Sweden’s most popular group of the 1960s; and ‘Benny’s Road To ABBA’ by Carl Magnus Palm, essentially an English translation of ‘Cadillac Madness’, focusing more on Benny and extending the story to the beginning of ABBA.

Agnetha’s pre-ABBA career was also commemorated at the end of the year, with the six-disc box set ‘Den första åren’ (The First Years), gathering her five Swedish albums originally released by Cupol between 1968 and 1975, including the legendary ‘Elva kvinnor i ett hus’ (Eleven women in one house), plus a sixth disc of singles, b-sides and other rare tracks 

A budget compilation of songs from Agnetha’s two Polar post-ABBA albums, ‘13 Hits’, was also released in Sweden, around the same time as the box set.

Alongside the aforementioned ‘Funky ABBA’ album, a couple more tribute albums were released during 2004. Germany released ‘abba forever’, a compilation of previously released cover versions of ABBA songs from around the world, including several unique German recordings. And towards the end of the year, Britain’s ITV television network broadcast ‘ABBAMANIA 2’, a sort-of sequel to 1999’s ‘ABBAMANIA’ TV special and album, this time featuring ABBA songs sung by the stars of many of the UK’s top TV dramas, such as ‘Coronation Street’, ‘Emmerdale’, ‘Casualty’, and ‘The Bill’.

On top of all that, a number of new ABBA books were also released during the past year.

Top of most fans favourites list was ‘ABBA Fotografien 1974-1980’, a huge 600-page book with almost 1,000 photographs by German photographer Wolfgang “Bubi” Heilemann, originally taken for Bravo magazine. The vast majority of the photos had never before been published, and the accompanying text was in both German and English.

For the first time, a book about ABBA originated from the United States: ‘ABBA GOLD’ by Elisabeth Vincentelli is one of the highly acclaimed 33 ⅓ series of books about classic albums, an long-denied honour for ABBA to be included in such a series. The book detailed the creation of ABBA’s most successful album, detailing the songs included, the fortuitous release of the CD on the cusp of the ABBA revival, and how that album has changed the perception of ABBA in the wider world.

Late in the year a new biography, ‘ABBA Unplugged’ by Karl French, appeared. The book tells the story of ABBA, loosely framed around the release of each album, which occasionally leads to discrepancies in the ABBA timeline.

And just recently released is another American book, ‘Vanilla Pop: Sweet Sounds from Frankie Avalon to ABBA’, which features an extensive chapter on ABBA and their music.

But it’s not over yet: 2005 promises more excitement on the ABBA front.

The top of everyone’s expectation list is the highly anticipated released of ‘ABBA – The Movie’ on DVD. During 2003, the Swedish Film Institute completely restored the film, and hosted a limited number of screenings of the restored film at the end of that year, shown for the first time in Sweden with the original stereo soundtrack. This restored version of the film will form the basis of the DVD release, tentatively scheduled for release during the second half of 2005. At this moment, Universal Music Sweden is cleaning up the film for digital transfer, working on digitally remastering and mixing the sound for surround sound systems (in conjunction with Benny’s Mono Music), and investigating potential bonus material. Word has it that ‘ABBA- The Movie’ will be one of the first released as a hybrid DVD incorporating the new HD-DVD format, to be launched in September. But don’t despair! The DVD will be compatible with current DVD players.

Re-releases of Frida and Agnetha’s Polar albums are also on the cards for this year. Frida’s three albums – ‘ Frida ensam’, ‘Something’s Going On’ and ‘Shine’ are scheduled for release on May 2nd, while Agnetha’s albums ‘Nu tändas tusen julejus’ (Swedish Christmas songs, recorded with her then seven-year-old daughter Linda), ‘Wrap Your Arms Around Me’ and ‘Eyes Of A Woman’ are planned for release before the end of the year. All are expected to include bonus tracks (pending approval and rights issues) and brand new artwork, complementing the original look of each album.

Meanwhile, in August this year it seems that Björn will perform on stage for the first time in over two decades, joining with the two surviving members of his pre-ABBA group the Hootenanny Singers at the 40th anniversary Västervik folk music festival in his hometown (it’s one of those “special” occasions, you know). And as mentioned earlier, Benny will be touring Sweden with Benny Anderssons Orkester during August.

Two new books are also on the horizon, with an April release date: ‘Abba – The Complete Guide to their Music’ by Carl Magnus Palm is an entry in the long-running series of books detailing the complete discography of well-known groups or solo artists. This book, though simple in concept, promises to be a handy companion to any ABBA collection. ‘ABBA: Ihre ganze Geschichte’ (Their Complete Story) is a German translation of the controversial Dutch book ‘ABBA On Speaking Terms’ by Frédéric Tonnon and Marisa Garau. An English version of this book has been long rumoured, but seems increasingly unlikely.

And what of the future for ABBA? And Those Artists Formerly Known As ABBA?

Rumours persist of Agnetha recording a follow-up to ‘My Colouring Book’, and there’s also been talk that her ‘Agnetha’ documentary will be released on DVD, including promotional clips for the songs from ‘My Colouring Book’ and possibly ‘I Stand Alone’ as well. It’s also been rumoured that Frida will record a whole album with Jon Lord, and there have been hints that there could also be more archival releases from her solo career. But there’s been nothing definite as yet on any of those plans.

Benny continues to record and perform with his Orkester, as well as producing other music for his Mono Music label. He is also contributing to an album of songs from the Benny and Björn songbook by Swedish opera singer Anne Sophie von Otter, who a few years ago recorded ‘Like An Angel Passing through My Room’, with Benny accompanying on piano.

Recent news hints that the English translation of Benny and Björn’s musical ‘Kristina från Duvemåla’ will debut within the next year or so, probably somewhere in the US before a Broadway or West End premiere. And there’s also been talk of a translation back to English of the Swedish version of ‘Chess’, which played in Stockholm in 2003. Occasionally, the subject of a new Benny and Björn musical project surfaces, though less often as ‘MAMMA MIA!’ seems to take up more and more of Björn’s time.

And of course, the outrageously-successful ‘MAMMA MIA!’ continues its relentless drive across the planet. Though the Toronto and Australasian productions will finish before mid-year, an Italian version playing in Milan has been hinted to open later this year, and a Chinese version for Shanghai has also been mentioned in future plans. The Japanese and Korean productions recently opened in new cities. The US tour continues after almost five years, with dates already extending into next year. In London, New York, Las Vegas, Utrecht, Hamburg, Stuttgart, and the touring productions, ‘MAMMA MIA!’ shows no signs of slowing down, tickets currently selling till late 2005 and into 2006.

Universal Music Sweden has long had plans for a new ABBA live album, which will most likely be a compilation of performances rather than a complete single concert, but a vast improvement on the universally panned ‘ABBA LIVE’ album from 1986. There have also been hints at a new ABBA box set, and other exciting new releases. But of course, such releases are dependant on the approval of the former ABBA members.

And despite the wishes of fans or the media or insane billion-dollar offers, it’s not likely that we’ll ever see a reunion of the four former ABBA members. The title of ‘The Last Video’ last year was an obvious message from them to us. But regardless, we fans continue to follow the careers and the lives of Agnetha, Frida, Benny and Björn, and continue to love the music that ABBA produced during their ten amazing years together.

April 2005

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