With the hit movie musical “Mamma Mia!” just out, based upon the light-as-air '70s pop tunes by ABBA, what do you really know about the Swedish group that existed for only a decade (1972-'82) but produced a slew of frothy pop songs?
Sure, everybody knows that ABBA is an anagram of their first names (Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn and Anni-Frid), and that the four were originally married couples — Agnetha and Bjorn, and Benny and Anni-Frid — and that they hurtled to fame with the song “Waterloo” at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, but here are six factoids we dug up on the Svenksa hitmakers:
1. Despite their reputation, ABBA's songs are dark odes to dysfunction, infidelity, gunplay and despair.
Well, maybe not entirely, but there's more than a little Swedish melancholy in those frothy little pop tunes. You might be singing along to melody so light you're in danger of going airborne. But pay attention to those lyrics: You're singing about cheating (“Mamma Mia”), lust (“Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”), jealousy (“Lay All Your Love on Me”), doomed love affairs (“The Winner Takes it All”), gun-toting freedom fighters (“Fernando”), casual hook-ups (“Dancing Queen”), and masochistic romantic surrender (“Waterloo”).
2. Gold records, matching jumpsuits, hot pants, world tours: Bjorn can't remember any of it!
Images of ABBA in their silver jump-suited '70s glory are all over the place these days, but Bjorn Ulvaeus, 58, who co-wrote ABBA's music with Benny Andersson, allegedly can't recall the details. Ulvaeus suffers from long-term memory loss and has tried hypnosis and even peering at old photographs of the group in all their platform-booted glory, trying to kick-start his memory.
3. ABBA fan John McCain, who endorses dancing and jiving, vows to “Lay a Little Love” on the group in the White House, if elected.
That's right, you might hear a gruff male voice singing, “You are the dancing queen, young and sweet, only 17,” on the Straight Talk Express bus. The Arizona senator told Phoenix radio station KZZP-FM that for inspiration he listens to ABBA's “Take a Chance on Me” before delivering a major speech. Chatting on his campaign bus, McCain went even further, telling the Austin American Statesman that ABBA fans got no respect. “Nobody likes them, but they sold more records than anybody in the history of the world, including the Beatles. But everybody hates them. You're a no-class guy if you like ABBA. Why does everybody go see ‘Mamma Mia!'? Hypocrisy! Rank hypocrisy! I'm not embarrassed to say I like ABBA, ‘Dancing Queen.'”
4. Don't mess with Benny and Bjorn's music!
The songs that Benny and Bjorn wrote sound airy and simple but actually are bolstered by sturdy songcraft and attention to recording detail. The two are so painstaking about ABBA's music that they even decreed that musicians in the road companies of “Mamma Mia!” are not to use Ovation acoustic guitars (a list of approved guitars is offered).
“Standing in the Shadows of Motown” author/producer Allan Slutsky didn't like ABBA's music in the '70s, but he came to respect Benny and Bjorn's work when he played guitar in the Philadelphia company of the show. “I came to appreciate what it is,” says Slutsky. “Certain songs, like `Super Trouper,' there's a lot more to it. I'm not saying it's my favorite music now,” he says with a laugh. “But there was a lot of craft in some of those songs.”
Benny and Bjorn retained control of the music in the film “Mamma Mia!,” and Bjorn quietly vetted Meryl Streep's singing voice (according to the actress). A rare instance of Benny and Bjorn allowing a song to be sampled was when ABBA fan Madonna sampled “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” in her song “Hung Up.”
5. Singer Agnetha Faltskog, 58, lives a reclusive life on a remote outlying island near Stockholm.
Fans were shocked when Agnetha emerged from her cottage in the woods to attend the Swedish premier of “Mamma Mia!” last week with her two children by Bjorn, her grandchildren and her latest beau, Bertil Nordstrom. In 1972, the year ABBA launched, Agnetha played Mary Magdalene in the Swedish stage version of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
6. Better go see that ABBA cover band, it's the closest you're going to get to the real thing.
“We will never appear on stage again,” Bjorn told London's Sunday Telegraph. “There is simply no motivation to re-group. Money is not a factor, and we would like people to remember us as we were. Young, exuberant, full of energy and ambition.”
Added Bjorn: “I remember Robert Plant saying, Led Zeppelin were a cover band now because they cover all their own stuff. I think that hit the nail on the head.”