In the decades after ABBA — one of the most popular and influential groups in the history of the world — announced their breakup in 1983, journalists grew so tired of receiving the same skeptical answers about the group reuniting that they largely stopped asking. Which made it all the more surprising in 2018 when the group’s co-founders, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, confirmed that they had reunited with singers (and ex-wives) Agentha Falkskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad and recorded two new songs and were preparing some kind of virtual concert experience. The plans were delayed first by the complexity of the concert and then the pandemic — but last summer the entire enterprise roared back to life with a global telecast announcing details: Two new songs followed by a full album called “Voyage” in November! A groundbreaking virtual concert launching at a specially built arena in London launching in May! After a wobbly start, suddenly ABBA were back in a big way.
It’s been a long time coming. While ABBA were often dismissed as a kitschy pop act during their 1970s-early ‘80s heyday — two married Swedish couples dressed in matching outfits! — their image and at-times goofy lyrics camouflaged their indelible, deceptively sophisticated and complex songwriting and arrangements. Yet their reputation and respect grew exponentially in the years after their split as their music proved deeply enduring and the world caught up with its sophistication; the business savvy of songwriters Anderson and Ulvaeus ensured that it endured in the public consciousness via strategic placements in film and TV (particularly the 1994 film “Muriel’s Wedding”) and the ABBA-themed “Mamma Mia!” musical and film. During those years, all of the members worked on solo projects, and Andersson and Ulvaeus have continued to collaborate, most prominently on the blockbuster 1984 musical “Chess” — written with lyricist Tim Rice (“Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Evita,” “The Lion King” and more) — and of course the multimillion-dollar franchise “Mamma Mia,” based on ABBA songs, which has spawned a musical, two films and more.
Last year, Ulvaeus was named president of the international creators’ non-profit CISAC, a role he has used in no small part to fight for the rights of songwriters. And even though he started off this interview with Variety by exclaiming how tired he was of talking about ABBA, during a long conversation about CISAC and the inequitable treatment songwriters have long received from the music industry, he did speak quite a bit about the legendary group’s legacy, songwriting and recording processes — particularly their 1980 classic “The Winner Takes It All” — and their return. Ulvaeus and Andersson have already spoken at length about the album and virtual concert — you can read highlights from their August press conference here — but following is a loose conversation that most ABBA fans are likely to find entertaining and illuminating.
“Just a Notion,” the third song you’ve released from the forthcoming album, dates from 1978. How many songs on the new album are actually new?
All of them except “Just a Notion” are completely new, both lyrically and musically. We had that song, and I don’t know why we didn’t release it — neither Benny nor I can actually remember why we skipped it, because it’s not bad and those vocals are really good. So Benny did a new backing track, because [the previous one] sounded old, but the vocals are from 1978. That’s the only one, though.
Even though they’re new, the first two songs from the album, “I Still Have Faith in You” and “Don’t Shut Me Down,” are kind of timeless — they just sound like ABBA.
During the ‘70s Benny and I had our ears to the ground all the time, we would know everything that was happening: “What are the Bee Gees doing this time? What’s that sound? This is some new shit! We have to get it!” I always felt we were pop — we were right in the middle of the stream and creating what the mainstream was. But you only have so many years to do that, and suddenly you’re off to the side, slipping out of the stream, and others come in. Also, we slipped out slightly when we started writing musicals.
This time with ABBA, we decided early on: We’re not gonna look left or right, we’ll just write songs that we and the ladies like and record them as best we can, and then what happens, happens. We took an immense risk, obviously, we haven’t seen yet how the album will be received.
Are there more songs in the vault? It looked like you had cleaned it out for the re-releases and boxed sets in the ‘90s.
We thought we had cleaned it out as well (laughing), but realized this one was left. But now, I can guarantee you there’s nothing more.
ABBA songs are usually so fully realized, with complex melodies and arrangements and key changes and so many little details that only come from going over something again and again. How did you do that in such a short time?
Because we spent so much time writing and recording. And during that time — ‘73-‘82, nine years — we may have toured [only] six months. Almost all the rest of the time we spent writing and recording, and we never went into the studio unless we had a full song — we might not have had the intro, that might have come later, but definitely the whole song in a definite form. And as you have seen, there are very few songs in the cabinet.
Benny and I have always wondered, how do people say, “I’ve written a hundred or two hundred songs this year.” Why not write two really good songs instead of 200 mediocre ones? That was our method. Suddenly, one day a very good bridge would turn up but nothing came up to go with it. So we’d save the bridge, and then two months later, we may have the chorus of all choruses — and Hey! That bridge is perfect! That’s kind of how we assembled the songs.
Do you think you’re good judges of your own work?
I think we are, because we only go by our own judgment — we don’t listen to other people when we’re recording and mixing and all that.
It’s deeply personal. It’s not for anyone else to say you should change this or change that. We never did that, so we never collaborated with anyone else because we would have found that very difficult.
Did people try? Like, “The Winner Takes It All” has the same music all the way through — the melody changes but the music doesn’t really. Did people say, “Hey, aren’t you going to put a bridge in there?”
(Laughing) No, they didn’t, actually! But that’s a great song — when we wrote it we were so deliriously happy, we played it all night long. And then, I think we made three different backing tracks before we ended up with the one — “Yeah, this is it!” Then I wrote the lyric afterward, and Agnetha came in that morning and I gave it to her, and she stood in the control room with us and she sang it through … and “Wow.” We knew that we had something extraordinary.
Why didn’t the earlier backing tracks work?
They didn’t flow, one or two of them didn’t have the flow that it needed and the dynamics that it needed — because the lyric and the story is in waves, and the backing track had to follow them. It was too insensitive. The first backing tracks were good but too on-the-nose, too insensitive.
I read somewhere years ago that in Egypt, you traded ABBA’s music rights for oil and food for Sweden — is that true?
(Laughing) Noooo, that’s just legend. The other myth is that our profits were bigger than Volvo’s —I never compared but I don’t think so.
Have you thought about revising any songs from the “Chess” musical as ABBA? “I Know Him So Well” would be such an incredible ABBA song.
And it would have, had we not gone on that break in ’82. That would have been an ABBA song, definitely, so would “One Night in Bangkok” and “Nobody’s Side,” songs like that. But we wanted to try something new, all four of us, so we went our separate ways and planned to do something together in the future, and it turned out to be 40 years (laughing).
Was Burt Bacharach an influence on you? You both make unusually sophisticated pop music.
Not really. Jazz was never an influence for us, it was more folk music and pop and rock and roll — plus French chanson and Italian ballads and even German schlager [pop]. We heard it all in Sweden, so that’s where something like “Fernando” comes from. It’s very European, more than Anglo-Saxon.
Were you always aware of the value of songs, or did ABBA’s manager, the late Stig Anderson, have a lot to do with it?
Yeah, he was our mentor, he was very important — but so were the Beatles! Before the Beatles, there used to be anonymous songwriters, like Lieber and Stoller behind the big star Elvis, but people never paid attention to those writers. But the Beatles, suddenly, “Wow they write their own songs — maybe we can too!” And a whole world of songwriters started, because of the Beatles. So Benny and I had started writing, and we were working with Stig, so it was natural for us to understand, yes, the core is the song.
But in those early years, before ABBA won the Eurovision song contest [with “Waterloo” in 1974], we had to go on tour in various [configurations], we had to write for other people, produce other people, we did this and that to pay the rent. But with “Waterloo,” suddenly the copyright money started pouring in, and we made the decision: “The only thing we’re going to do is write and record ABBA — nothing else.” The fact that we developed and became good songwriters came from us not touring, and just concentrating on the most important thing of all. I believe that’s why we’re sitting here talking today.