Old Rockers Just Keep Rockin’ On!

ABBA was the pop phenomenon of the 1970s. The music was simplistic but insistent, and seemed a permanent feature of the times.

At the height of their success, Sweden reacted to its first homespun superstars more or less as it has done when they were merely mortal: with casual indifference.

“In Sweden you’re not treated in a hysterical way. People don’t tend to bother you, and you don’t feel like a pop star. It was really quite boring sometimes.

“We could see how stars were praised in England. People gathered outside their gates. We had people outside our gates, of course, but not many.”

Speaking was Björn Ulvaeus, who turned 40 last month. He has thinning hair, a second wife, and a mansion in the Oxfordshire countryside. And the enormous wrought iron gates at the entrance are deserted.

In 1982, the members of ABBA went their separate ways. It was a mutual decision made by Björn, his ex-wife Agnetha, Benny and his ex-wife Frida. The two girls embarked on solo careers, and the two chaps went into collaboration with Tim Rice on the musical Chess.

“ABBA never split up,” said Björn. “It was more the feeling of going into the studio and finding work wasn’t as fresh as it used to be. It sounded tired, and we had always said that when that happened we would take some time off.”

From 1974, when Waterloo won the Eurovision Song Contest, they sold some 140 million albums and 70 million singles around the world. In Britain they put 19 singles into the Top 10, and nine went to No.1.

But, said Björn, the songs did not always find favour with Agnetha and Frida.

“There were big rows, of course. There were times when the girls didn’t particularly like the songs, but in a few cases that proved to be a very good sign of a big hit.

“Pride was the essence of what we did,” he said, “especially in the beginning. We felt we had something nobody else had, and I think it showed in our work. People could see we believed in what we were doing.”

At the same time, it seemed too good to be true. The notion of “four young people in love who conquered the world with their music” was unusually wholesome for the pop world.

“People talked about our image,” said Björn. “They thought it was contrived. They thought we had a formula for the songs, like some commercial hit factory. There was no formula, and we never consciously adopted an image. We just dressed and behaved the way we liked.”

Both couples divorced during the group’s reign: Björn and Agnetha in 1979, after seven years of marriage, and Benny and Frida in 1981, after three years of marriage and a relationship going back as far as 1970.

Björn does not believe the marriages were sacrificed to the group.

“For Agnetha and myself, to this day I don’t think that was the reason. It was like any other couple, it just fell apart the way it does so often these days, unfortunately.

“It was very strange working together afterwards, but we both wanted to be friends, so there was no reason why that shouldn’t happen.”

Though the group never spoke publicly about their relationships, they faced increasing criticism of their financial affairs. A business empire was built up to sidestep the punishing Swedish tax laws.

“Other people who were successful perhaps did the same as we did, but quietly. The news from Sweden spread around the world, and it was all people ever asked about. No one wanted to know about the music anymore, only about the business.

“Eventually we sold out everything. About a year ago we decided not to have any interests like that at all. We just wanted to be known for the music.”

Björn has found anonymity in the English countryside with his new wife Lena, and their three-year-old daughter Emma. ABBA remains in limbo.

“We were a good format,” said Björn. “The two girls mixed wonderfully together. There are lots of reasons for doing another album.

“Who better would there be to do it with?” Transcribed for ABBA World

TV Star · 31 May 1985 (Pages 58 & 59)

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