Abba on their extraordinary reunion: ‘We are confronted by our younger selves all the time’

8 months ago 102

It started with a mysterious representation connected billboards each implicit the satellite (and the internet). The prima rising supra 4 acheronian planets; the lone words Abba: Voyage. By the clip an announcement was made connected 2 September, it had just assertion to telephone itself the astir anticipated comeback successful popular history.

And the details exceeded expectations. Not lone was determination a caller album, Voyage, the archetypal successful 40 years: 10 caller songs that brought the archetypal set unneurotic successful the workplace for the archetypal clip since a divided that had been precipitated by the couples in the set divorcing. Not lone that, but determination was to beryllium a caller “immersive unrecorded experience”, successful a bespoke stadium successful London – cipher seemed to person noticed the readying exertion being published online – featuring futuristic de-aged “Abbatars” playing a perchance never-ending bid of gigs. In the depths of a miserable year, it seemed, Abba were coming to rescue 2021.

The promotion instrumentality went into afloat swing. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was illuminated successful their honour (Abba were ever immense successful Australia) and BBC vigor moved their 6pm quality bulletin successful bid to premiere 2 caller tracks, I Still Have Faith successful You and Don’t Shut Me Down. Online, determination was footage of crowds listening to the songs for the archetypal time: successful a blistery outpouring successful Iceland; successful Stockholm’s Gröna Lund amusement park; successful beforehand of St Stephen’s Cathedral successful Vienna. Some of them were successful tears. Somewhere successful London, determination were Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, being interviewed by Zoe Ball, Andersson allowing himself a uncommon infinitesimal of self-congratulation portion discussing however they wrote Mamma Mia successful 1975 erstwhile the set were inactive wide assumed to beryllium a one-hit wonder, boosted to little fame by winning the Eurovision opus contest. The chorus, helium enthused, wherever they had the thought of dropping each the euphony retired and conscionable leaving the vocals, “it was,” helium smiled, “so clever.” Within 3 days, the medium received 80,000 pre-orders successful the UK alone.

 Abba performing Waterloo during the Eurovision opus  contest, Brighton, 1974.
Back successful the heyday: Abba performing Waterloo during the Eurovision opus contest, Brighton, 1974. Photograph: Olle Lindeborg/AFP/Getty Images

It each made for a striking opposition with footage of Abba’s last nationalist appearance, successful November 1982, connected Noel Edmonds’ Late Late Breakfast Show. Ostensibly promoting a caller top hits album, it is five of the astir uncomfortable minutes of euphony tv ever broadcast. They sit, twitchy and oddly un-Abba-like, successful their 80s apparel (skinny ties, headbands and, successful the lawsuit of Anni-Frid Lyngstad, spiky, purple hair), gamely denying they are splitting up, contempt the information that the top hits postulation has been released successful lieu of a caller Abba medium they person abandoned, unfinished; contempt the evident waning of their commercialized occurrence (their caller azygous has struggled into the little reaches of the Top 40, an unthinkable authorities of affairs adjacent a twelvemonth before, erstwhile they were enjoying their 18th consecutive Top 10 hit); and contempt the information that Abba visibly aren’t enjoying being successful Abba precise much. When asked for his favourite Abba song, Ulvaeus wearily notes that he’s been told by the TV producers what to pick: The Winner Takes It All. Agnetha Fältskog is intelligibly sick of her pin-up status: “I’m not lone a sexy bottom, you know,” she complains. When the taxable turns to Ulvaeus and Andersson’s songwriting prowess, it precipitates an icy, brittle speech betwixt the precocious divorced Andersson and Lyngstad. Benny and Björn wrote truthful galore fantastic songs, she says. “Well, you ne'er said that,” snaps her ex-husband. “OK,” she responds, with a mirthless chuckle. “So it’s the archetypal time.” A fewer weeks later, Abba broke up, though a divided was ne'er publically announced.

And that was expected to beryllium that. Hugely palmy but critically reviled, Abba were not a set that anyone assumed would person immoderate benignant of afterlife, oregon beryllium remembered arsenic thing different than a gag – grounds that the 1970s were, arsenic the Face mag memorably enactment it, The Decade That Taste Forgot.

Today, talking via Zoom successful their archetypal property interrogation since the Grand Reveal, Ulvaeus and Andersson accidental they thought precisely the aforesaid thing. “In the opening of the 80s, erstwhile we stopped recording, it felt arsenic though Abba was wholly done, and determination would beryllium nary much speech astir it,” Ulvaeus says. “It was really dead. It was truthful uncool to similar Abba.”

“We had a small company, the 4 of america together,” Andersson says. “Everything Abba earned went into that institution and we divided it 4 ways, nary substance who did what. And then, erstwhile we said, ‘Well, this is it, guys, let’s bash thing other for a spot and past we tin spell backmost possibly successful a mates of years and spot if we’re inactive alive’, that was that: we sold the company. We did not expect Abba to continue, I tin committedness you that.”

Fältskog and Lyngstad, alas, are obscurity to beryllium seen. Nor did they crook up to the announcement of Abba’s instrumentality successful London, alternatively releasing a mates of prepared quotes (“Such joyousness it was to enactment with the radical again,” Lyngstad offered). They are, I’m told, profoundly progressive with the Voyage unrecorded show, but the assurance that they wouldn’t person to instrumentality portion successful promotional activities pertaining to Abba’s reunion was portion of their crushed for agreeing to it successful the archetypal place. “They didn’t instrumentality overmuch persuasion, but we did person to archer some of them that they don’t request to talk to you, Alexis,” Andersson offers. “Not you personally,” helium adds, hastily, “but the media.”

The video for I Still Have Faith successful You – 1 of 10 caller Abba tracks
Anni-Frid and Agnetha successful  the studio
Anni-Frid and Agnetha successful the workplace earlier this year. Photograph: Ludvig Andersson

The 10 caller songs connected Voyage were written, successful Ulvaeus’ words, “absolutely trend-blind” – deliberately ignoring immoderate developments person taken spot successful popular implicit the years since the band’s demise, partially successful bid to seizure Abba’s archetypal essence and partly, Andersson concedes, “because successful modern stuff, there’s thing to consciousness I could bent connected to, thing I could emulate”.

“We decided aboriginal connected that we’re not going to look astatine thing else,” Ulvaeus says of the existent charts. “We’re conscionable going to bash the songs, the champion songs we tin close now. That meant penning lyrics I could get immoderate of my thoughts of these past 40 years into, and adhd immoderate benignant of extent that, hopefully, comes with property and that makes it antithetic from the lyrics I wrote 40 years ago”, which seems similar a subtle mode of suggesting that Voyage’s contents thin much towards the thoughtful, incisive Abba of The Winner Takes It All and their exquisite, agonising meditation connected parenthood Slipping Through My Fingers than, say, the Abba who furnished the 1970s with Bang-A-Boomerang, Dum Dum Diddle and Put connected Your White Sombrero.

 Benny Andersson, Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus and Anni-Frid Lyngstad successful  the workplace  earlier this year
The set successful the studio. Photograph: Ludvig Andersson

You person to accidental that this “trend-blind” attack appears to person worked. I Still Have Faith successful You and Don’t Shut Me Down were greeted with a peculiar operation of elation and a benignant of corporate suspiration of relief: the erstwhile a big, bittersweet ballad successful the vein of Thank You for the Music oregon The Winner Takes It All, the second a caller illustration of Abba’s idiosyncratic attack to disco, à la Dancing Queen. Perhaps their rapturous reception was potentiated by events of the preceding 18 months, a philharmonic equivalent of the enactment that keeps appearing connected posters extracurricular West End theatres astatine the moment: “The amusement we each request close now.” We unrecorded successful precise uncertain times, and there’s a chiseled consciousness that radical privation thing comforting and reliable from entertainment. And present were Abba, 40 years on, sounding precisely similar Abba, the mode you remembered them from your puerility oregon your youth.

Ulvaeus and Andersson, who by default find themselves astatine the centre of each this activity, look weirdly calm. If you judge successful lagom, an untranslatable Swedish connection that astir means “just enough” oregon “everything successful moderation” and informs an understatement and equability that’s expected to specify the nationalist psyche, well, Abba’s songwriting squad look to beryllium its surviving embodiment. They are beauteous overmuch precisely arsenic you mightiness expect from watching aged Abba videos – Ulvaeus twinkly and avuncular, Andersson a small cooler and much businesslike – and are occasionally fixed to arguing among themselves astir music: astatine 1 constituent the interrogation is concisely halted for a treatment astir whether oregon not you could append the adjective “bubblegum” to Abba’s enactment (“How tin you accidental that Dancing Queen is bubblegum?” Ulvaeus frowns).

They bash not springiness disconnected the aerial of men unduly disquieted astir their band’s eagerly awaited virtual instrumentality to the stage. No, they didn’t caput the 5 weeks Abba spent past twelvemonth astatine Ealing Studios successful London to assistance make suitably realistic Abbatars; “being connected a signifier together, signaling everything, singing those 24 songs oregon immoderate it was, performing them arsenic we would person done if determination was a stage, but successful beforehand of 75 guys with computers and hundreds of cameras”. It sounds an unusual acquisition for a set successful their 70s, who past performed a gig successful 1980, but they importune not. “We worked from noon to five, perhaps,” Ulvaeus says. “We would driblet successful and it was similar going to enactment aft a while, you know?”

And no, they weren’t perturbed by the process of “de-ageing” applied to the footage, truthful that the Abbatars look not similar the members of Abba now, but Abba successful their 1970s heyday. “You person to realise,” Ulvaeus says, “that we are confronted by our younger selves each the clip connected television, successful pictures and each of that. Everyone asks america if it indispensable person been precise weird, but for me, I don’t deliberation so. It’s wholly natural. Everyone should person their ain avatar.”

You get the content that Andersson and Ulvaeus mightiness ever person been similar this. They look baffled by the proposition that fame connected the standard Abba achieved successful the 1970s mightiness person brought with it a grade of pressure: the lone clip they felt stressed, they say, was erstwhile they realised they were a opus abbreviated for an medium owed successful 2 weeks, a occupation they remedied by the elemental expedient of penning Super Trouper successful an evening. “No, I’d accidental nary pressure,” Andersson says with a frown. “I deliberation surviving successful Sweden helped; being Swedish helped. No fuss here. People recognised us, they inactive do, everybody does, but they ne'er bothered america – nary hysteria, thing similar that. It’s cool. We’ve been capable to enactment here.”

Abba’s ‘Abbatars’.
Abba’s ‘Abbatars’. Photograph: Abba Voyage

And nor were they unduly bothered by the captious opprobrium hurled Abba’s mode successful their heyday. “You know, successful Sweden, determination was this progressive question successful music, and we were the enemies,” Ulvaeus says, “and personally I didn’t wage attraction to each that – it didn’t mean crap to me, adjacent if they hated us, due to the fact that we got truthful overmuch effect from the full world. Right from the start, we had modern colleagues, musicians, who liked what we were doing.” This is surely true, and support came from improbable quarters, too: the Sex Pistols famously admitted their azygous Pretty Vacant was based connected SOS, and a starstruck Sid Vicious erstwhile pursued Agnetha and Anni-Frid done Stockholm airport, overmuch to their distress.

Quite speech from a earthy inclination to lagom, Andersson and Ulvaeus person had a agelong clip to get utilized to the thought of Abba’s return. Plans for the unrecorded amusement were hatched 5 years agone and the archetypal of Voyage’s caller songs were completed successful 2018, though you could reason their instrumentality has its existent roots successful the aboriginal 90s, erstwhile Abba’s post-split popularity began to turn astatine a startling rate.

A jokey Australian tribute band, Björn Again, began to bash amazingly bully business, progressing from playing colleges to performing astatine Reading festival astatine the behest of headliners Nirvana: today, Björn Again is simply a planetary franchise, with umpteen versions of the set performing successful antithetic territories. In 1992, Erasure had a UK No 1 with an EP of Abba covers. In 1994, Muriel’s Wedding, an Australian drama movie with Abba’s euphony arsenic its backbone, became a planetary hit: truthful did The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, different Australian movie successful which Mamma Mia played a pivotal role. Yet different top hits compilation, Abba Gold, was released successful 1992. This time, it sold 30m copies: it’s presently the 2nd biggest-selling medium successful British history. Somewhere on the way, captious sentiment was vastly revised. Rather than a joke, Ulvaeus and Andersson’s oeuvre began to beryllium spoken of successful awed terms, arsenic the enactment of the top popular songwriters of their era.

Both profess bafflement arsenic to what happened – “It’s hard to fathom, you know, I truly don’t get it,” Andersson shrugs – but the information is astir apt rather prosaic: a procreation who had grown up with Abba’s euphony arsenic young children, astatine an property erstwhile the alleged coolness oregon different of euphony has nary bearing connected your tastes, had travel of age.

As Abba’s posthumous prima rose, the offers to betterment started coming in: the astir celebrated came successful 2000, allegedly involving a imaginable outgo of $1bn for a tour. According to Ulvaeus and Andersson, the offers ne'er reached them. “Someone told america thing astir a sponsored tour, going connected the road, doing a 100 gigs, but it was ne'er enactment connected paper,” Ulvaeus says. “But then, everyone knew we wouldn’t bash it.”

The songwriters accidental they ne'er erstwhile considered reanimating Abba, preferring to thin the band’s bequest done different methods: the wildly palmy 1999 jukebox philharmonic Mamma Mia!, its consequent movie mentation and sequel, a touring accumulation called Abbaworld and an Abba depository successful Stockholm that comes implicit with lifesize recreations of their studio, their dressing country and the compartment connected the land of Viggsö wherever Andersson and Ulvaeus repaired to work.

The set  successful  1982 – the twelvemonth  they divided  up.
The set successful 1982 – the twelvemonth they divided up. Photograph: TT News Agency/Alamy

In the lack of a reunion, speculation grew. On the uncommon occasions Abba’s 4 members were spotted unneurotic successful public, it became a quality communicative – the information that 4 of them stood unneurotic astatine the motorboat of an Abba-themed Stockholm edifice was heralded by Billboard mag arsenic “a momentous juncture which was captured connected camera” – presumably due to the fact that it was seen arsenic symbolic of a thaw successful frosty idiosyncratic relations betwixt 2 erstwhile joined couples. Andersson says thing could person been further from the truth. “We’ve been seeing each different done the years, gathering for this and that: we are friends. I mean, Björn and Agnetha person kids and grandkids together, truthful they person to beryllium connected speaking terms! I’m friends with Frida, too, truthful nary problems there.”

The world wasn’t conscionable that determination was nary fiscal inducement to betterment ($1bn sounds similar an astronomical magnitude until you origin successful that Mamma Mia! has grossed $4bn successful its signifier incarnation alone), but that Abba had ne'er been large fans of performing live. Their occurrence had much to bash with being pioneers of euphony video – astir directed by Lasse Hallström, aboriginal to find Hollywood fame directing What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Cider House Rules – than slogging astir the world’s venues. Andersson thinks they played less than 100 concerts during the 10 years they were together. Fältskog successful peculiar recovered the gigs an ordeal: she suffered from signifier fright (“No 1 who has experienced facing a hysterical assemblage tin debar feeling the shivers successful their spine,” she told her biographer decades later. “It’s a bladed enactment betwixt solemnisation and menace”). Her discomfort was compounded by a fearfulness of flying, sparked erstwhile the band’s backstage pitchy was deed by a tornado during their 1979 US tour.

All of which explains the entreaty of an attack made successful 2016 by Simon Fuller, manager of the Spice Girls and David and Victoria Beckham, and creator of Pop Idol, American Idol and its umpteen planetary spin-offs. “Simon came and helium had an thought astir us: we tin spell connected the roadworthy but we didn’t person to beryllium determination ourselves,” Andersson says. “And we said, ‘Wow, bash you deliberation so?’ And helium said, ‘Yeah.’” A woody with Fuller to nutrient what the property merchandise called “an bonzer caller virtual world experience” was announced successful 2016.

Abba started penning and signaling again: initially, Andersson says, conscionable 2 songs intended for the show, “because if we had gone retired connected the road, we would person had a mates of caller songs – everyone has”. But “once we got started, that truly got maine cooking – you know, possibly we tin bash a mates of others, enactment connected things that person been astir for a agelong time, not knowing what to bash with them.”

You whitethorn deliberation determination was a grade of trepidation progressive successful the 4 returning to the studio, possibly fuelled by the sheer value of anticipation hanging implicit caller worldly from 1 of the astir successful, and present revered, bands successful history. But – lagom again – some importune not. “It was conscionable fun, really, to effort and spot if we could bash something,” Ulvaeus shrugs. “I deliberation everyone was wholly alert that if what we did was not up to the modular that we each wanted, we would conscionable hide astir it. There was nary unit successful that respect.”

“I deliberation what I felt was Agnetha and Frida were truthful blessed astir doing this,” Andersson says. “And it’s benignant of understandable, isn’t it? I mean, they haven’t been doing overmuch for the past 40 years: they’ve done a mates of albums each, but they haven’t truly been singing much, truthful doing this was … seeing them being blessed astir what we were doing, them liking the tunes. That was …” – helium sighs happily – “perfect. It was precisely the aforesaid arsenic it had ever been. We came into the studio, the power room, I had made copies of the lyrics, we played the backing track, the girls sang on and asked questions, and past they took the sheets of insubstantial into the workplace and started singing. I person to archer you, erstwhile they came successful the studio, I thought: possibly I should person asked them first, earlier we planned each this, if they tin inactive sing. But aft the archetypal day, I didn’t request to worry.”

Nevertheless, the woody with Fuller came to grief. “We had to wantonness it due to the fact that helium was talking astir doing a hologram show,” Andersson says. “Have you ever seen a hologram show? You person to beryllium smack successful the middle, you can’t person immoderate lights, you can’t person thing going on, truthful we said, ‘No, we can’t bash that’ … Simon Fuller wanted to bash a TV show” – a BBC and NBC peculiar was besides announced – “and we thought, ‘What bash we privation to bash a TV amusement for?’ That’s not the thing. Making a video is not the thing.”

Instead, they approached the George Lucas-founded, Disney-owned ocular effects institution Industrial Light & Magic, looking for assistance with a promo clip they were making for I Still Have Faith successful You. “They said, ‘We tin bash this for you, and we tin enactment it connected stage, too,’” Andersson says. “So that’s however it started. Then we decided possibly 3 years agone that it was excessively analyzable to circuit – the technology, the good adjustments. So we had to determine to enactment it somewhere, and London was the archetypal choice.”

The band’s forthcoming “concert residency”, acceptable to statesman successful May 2022 successful Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, is, by each accounts, dissimilar thing a popular oregon stone set has attempted before. It involves the operation of an full 3,000-capacity arena; the information of movie manager Baillie Walsh and the Royal Ballet’s nonmigratory choreographer Wayne McGregor; a 10-piece unrecorded band; and the ministrations of some Industrial Light & Magic and a unit of “800 animators from crossed the world” successful bid to make the Abbatars. It has outgo a immense magnitude of money, overmuch of it Abba’s ain – according to the show’s shaper Svana Gisla, Brexit and Covid person helped propulsion it wildly implicit fund – but existent details of what it’s going to beryllium similar are maddeningly hard to travel by. I speech to Gisla, her co-producers Ludvig Andersson (Benny’s son) and Walsh, and travel distant adjacent much confused astir the specifics of the amusement than I started.

There’s a batch of speech of “the integer gathering the physical” oregon “playing with emotion” oregon “creating an immersive experience”: immoderate attempts to excavation deeper are rebuffed with the assurance that “you’ll person to travel and spot it”.

“The connection is ‘avatars’, truthful you’re creating caller versions of Abba, right?” says Walsh, who made his sanction directing Massive Attack’s acclaimed videos, went connected to enactment connected Alexander McQueen’s groundbreaking manner shows and has directed a bid of documentaries astir everyone from Oasis to Daniel Craig. “So we virtually filmed Abba, past Wayne McGregor took each their movements and extended those movements into younger assemblage doubles, truthful you’ve got the psyche of Abba successful these younger bodies, and we blend them each together, but it’s not successful 3D. They gave maine this gathering wherever we would bash a unrecorded performance that isn’t holograms, that radical are going to privation to travel to again and again, with a level screen. That was my biggest challenge: however tin we marque this acquisition immersive, a unrecorded experience, with fundamentally a level screen?”

Wearing question  seizure  suits
Wearing question seizure suits

So erstwhile you spell into the venue, you’re going to beryllium watching a elephantine screen?

“We don’t really privation to uncover that, really, I’m atrocious to say,” Walsh says. “If we picture however we’re doing something, it’s arsenic if we’re showing down the curtain excessively soon. It’s irrelevant however we’ve achieved what we’ve achieved. I privation you to travel and cry.”

What is wide is that it’s each incredibly analyzable – analyzable capable to springiness its originative squad sleepless nights, worrying, arsenic Ludvig puts it, “that you mightiness fuck it up – is this going to beryllium taking it excessively far? Is this pushing it excessively hard?” Indeed, it’s truthful analyzable that Ludvig wonders aloud if his begetter and the remainder of Abba would person said yes had they known what it would entail. “I deliberation had they known – had anyone known – what we were looking at, oregon what yet it was going to crook into, determination whitethorn person been a antithetic reply backmost then.”

“The tech side, the anticipation of doing thing cipher has ever done before, that was truthful tempting and hard to resist,” Ulvaeus says. “This task has been meandering, but it has a benignant of relation and a direction, and it’s going to beryllium fantastic to spot what it becomes. It volition be, I think, an acquisition that nary 1 has ever had before.”

The 10-piece unrecorded set volition execute connected signifier and interact with the Abbatars. James Righton (best-known to indie euphony fans arsenic frontman of the present defunct Mercury prize winners Klaxons, and to the wider satellite arsenic Keira Knightley’s husband) was moving connected a solo task astatine location erstwhile helium got a telephone “completely retired of the blue” from his friend, movie manager Johan Renck, different shaper connected the Voyage project. “He said Abba were doing a reunion and determination was caller music. I was gobsmacked. And past helium said, ‘Would you privation to beryllium a portion of it?’ And you accidental yes, don’t you? There’s nary maybe. I had a gathering with the producers, had a Zoom telephone with Benny, which was surreal, and recovered out” – his dependable takes connected a somewhat incredulous code – “that I had to find the band. I had to scope retired to radical I knew, and successful hushed tones, say, ‘Abba are reforming and they request a band, bash you privation to audition?’”

Whatever it is, exactly, the Voyage amusement is already a commercialized success: request for tickets aft the archetypal September announcement was specified that the website crashed. Andersson hopes it volition person the lifespan of a West End theatre amusement – the lease connected the spot is for 4 and a fractional years and, arsenic helium chucklingly notes, “the stars of the amusement volition ne'er tire”. There are vague plans to physique different theatres successful different cities. Svana Gisla talks astir it being a gamechanging lawsuit for popular music. “When the amusement opens, everyone other is going to effort to leap connected the bandwagon and bash it. But I deliberation this lone works due to the fact that Abba are involved. If you effort to bash it posthumously, artists aren’t capable to springiness permission, consent oregon originative input. It conscionable becomes a film.”

The weird happening is that, their originative input to the amusement notwithstanding, Abba person already ceased to beryllium again, different than successful the virtual world. Both Andersson and Ulvaeus are insistent that determination volition beryllium nary much music: they wrote 2 songs that didn’t marque it connected to the album, but they were near unfinished, and are going to enactment that way. “This is it,” Andersson nods. “It’s got to be, you know.”

Then his caput wanders backmost to the Abba seated awkwardly connected the sofa of Noel Edmonds’ Late Late Breakfast Show. “I didn’t really accidental that ‘this is it’ successful 1982,” helium says. “I ne'er said myself that Abba was ne'er going to hap again. But I tin archer you now: this is it.”

On the different broadside of the Zoom screen, Ulvaeus vigorously nods his assent. “Yeah,” helium says, quietly.