It’s a quartet with one ‘Stockholm marriage,’ one legal union and one ambition: to conquer the U.S.
On a global scale, the Fleetwood Macs are mere Anglo-California dabblers compared with ABBA. The Stockholm-based group has surpassed Volvo as Sweden’s most profitable international enterprise and is, assertedly, the best-selling musical act in the world. But in the U.S. the four Swedes have accrued only a few hit singles—including last year’s Dancing Queen and the current Take a Chance on Me—and some TV guest shots. Aside from the softness of their rock, it may be the prosaic stability of their relationships that makes the ABBAs less promotable—so far—in the States than anywhere else in the world. The name is an acronym made of the first initials of the group’s two couples and is spelled in capitals to distinguish it from a popular Swedish canned seafood. The closest to anything fishy about ABBA is that keyboardist Benny Andersson, 31, and singer Anni-Frid Lyngstad, 32, have lived together 10 years in a “Stockholm marriage” (i.e., unblessed by clergy). The guitarist-writer, Björn Ulvaeus, 33, and songstress-sex symbol, Agnetha Fältskog, 28, have been legally married since 1971.
Only in legend, apparently, do Scandinavians have more fun. ABBA has left behind no tales of drug busts, trashed hotels or fulfilled groupies. “We don’t have to live up to the rock image of getting drunk in public,” says the bearded Benny. “We’re grown-ups.” The greatest scandal on record was an incident in which Agnetha, the most tempestuous member of the quartet, threw a herring across the room, hitting husband Björn square in the face.
No one buys an ABBA album for roman à clef hints of personal heartache (à la Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours) or attends a concert in hopes of catching an onstage breakup, but the group isn’t exactly hurting. In just five years, ABBA has sold 53 million records and grossed (including cassettes but not concerts or TV specials) an estimated $300 million. One date in a 6,200-seat London hall drew 3.5 million ticket requests. It was calculated that one Australian family in four bought an ABBA LP last year. And ABBA-mania is not limited to the free world. A single with the heretical title Money, Money, Money (It’s a Rich Man’s World) hit the Soviet Top Ten. In fact, Eastern Europe’s demand so exceeds its supply of Western currency that ABBA joined with a leading import-export corporation to barter LPs to Soviet bloc nations in direct exchange for oil, canned meats and vegetables.
ABBA burst onto the world full-blown in 1974 by winning a Eurovision song contest seen by half a billion viewers—with a pop tune called Waterloo. (They beat out, among others, their pal Olivia Newton-John but, as Benny says, “She’s a beautiful person—she would never hold it against us.”) They’ve since perfected the trademarked ABBA sound: catchy four-beats-to-the-bar melodies from Björn and Benny, chimelike harmonies from Anni-Frid and Agnetha. The English lyrics, written by the men, range from spoony (“Let’s get together/Every day will be better/I love you/I do I do…”) to loony (“At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender, oh yeah”). But when critics call ABBA’S bantamweight ’50s rock’n’roll “formulaic,” manager Stig Anderson counters, “I tell everybody—if there’s a formula, why don’t you go out there and find it?” It ain’t easy even for the originators. They spent most of 18 months producing their current LP, ABBA—The Album.
That supermeticulousness in the studio gives them an excuse to cut to eight weeks a year the touring they all came to loathe in their long solo apprenticeships. Traveling between one-night stands in a bus in the land of “white nights” made them even more appreciative of their nonrock life-style on Stockholm’s comfy suburban island of Lidingö. “With us, the family comes first,” says Björn, speaking for the group.
He and Agnetha live in an unostentatious nine-room house and eschew the Stockholm nightlife to babysit Linda, 5, and Christian, 8 months—whose conception was planned to mesh with group commitments. (Even then they cut it close. “When we finished The Album,” recalls Agnetha, “I was nine months pregnant lying on a slant board so the baby wouldn’t come too soon.”) Of their celebrity status, she says, “We explain to our daughter in a natural way what we do, and she isn’t impressed. She doesn’t even listen to our records.” Another reason for the couple’s lack of pretension is what the group calls “royal Swedish jealousy.” If they were seen by their socialist countrymen in a Rolls-Royce, they explain, “people would throw bottles at us.”
Five minutes away—by Björn’s BMW—live Benny and Anni-Frid (called Frida by friends and fans). As for legalizing their liaison, Benny shrugs, “I don’t see any reason for getting a certificate of love. Marriage might be useful for people in property settlements, but we own things 50-50 now.” They have a three-story country-style estate where Frida’s two children from a teenage marriage (Hans, 15, and Lise-Lotte, 11) stay year round, and Benny’s issue (Peter, 15, and Helena, 13), from an earlier nonmarriage, visit on weekends. Not house-bound by young children, Benny and Frida find time for Stockholm discos and are currently taking a month-long Baltic excursion in a new $220,000 motor cruiser. They agree that they won’t have a child of their own, says Frida, “unless I get pregnant by accident.”
All four ABBAs got their training, Swedish-style, on the outdoor folk-park circuit. Björn, born in Gothenburg, scored big in the ’60s with Sweden’s answer to the Kingston Trio, the Hootenanny Singers. Agnetha emerged from the Swedish Bible Belt town of Jönköping singing sentimental ballads. A No. 1 hit (I Was So in Love) that she composed and recorded at 17 “fascinated” Björn, and when the two met while taping a TV show in a drafty studio, she recalls, “He took my hands in his to warm them, and we haven’t really let go since.”
Benny, a third-generation accordion player from Stockholm, was a pop idol with Sweden’s mop-topped Hep Stars. “We thought we were an up-to-the-minute rock group,” blushes Benny of the band that drove teens into hysterics, “but I realize now that we used to play a sort of country-Western with a German beat.” Frida emerged nationally by winning a talent contest and appearing on a TV extravaganza the night Sweden switched from left-to right-side driving. (The idea was to keep people off the streets, so Frida helped save an unknown number of lives while making her name.) She met Benny at a party and recalls “some months later I borrowed his Stockholm flat when he went to Paris. I moved out when he came back, but after two hours he came and got me. I moved back in.” Frida has the most dramatic ABBA background. Born in Norway’s icy port town of Narvik in 1945 to a Norwegian mother and a German army sergeant father, she was taken to Sweden by relatives when her mother died two years later. When ABBA became famous, Frida’s father—who had been presumed killed in the war—surfaced as a confectioner in Germany, and the two united emotionally in Sweden. “I carry around an inherent anguish which is very hard to get rid of,” says Frida, “but I don’t blame my father. I don’t think it was his fault.”
The creative nucleus of ABBA, Björn and Benny, met in 1966 and recorded as a duo, scoring a hit with a Swedish Harper Valley PTA. They became superstars only after the women joined them in the studio. Now, despite Sweden’s confiscatory income tax (85 percent in their bracket), the ABBAs have no plans to emigrate. Their conglomerate-like investments are so vast that one financial magazine called the group “a lyrical Paine Webber.” But those holdings aren’t the only reason they stay. “People respect your privacy here,” says Agnetha.
Still, there’s a hankering for something else. “If you play in northern Europe,” says Benny, “people do not react with such visible enthusiasm. In the U.S. we know audiences are much more responsive. They don’t mind showing you they like your performance.” One reason the ABBAs haven’t yet played the U.S. is that, having established themselves as a monster act everywhere else, they don’t want to begin again opening for someone else. Björn thinks it’s just a matter of better promotion and time. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have the broad appeal in the U.S. that we have in Europe. You’re the same kind of people—you come from Europe originally.” In the meantime their U.S. label, Atlanta Records, is stepping up the ballyhoo. “We’ll go to America,” proclaims Björn, “when you’re absolutely ready for us. That tour will be the highlight of our career.”