For a band that made it big after a Eurovision Song Contest that also consisted of two couples that divorced while they were still together as a band, it’s pretty impressive that ABBA was as successful as they were in the 1970s and ‘80s. The Swedish supergroup became worldwide pop stars basically overnight, only to call it quits in 1982, shocking their masses of fans.
But despite the countless offers involving unthinkable sums of money, the band insisted they were done. After that, they gained a cult-like following and managed to remain as popular as they were when they had been making music. Then, several years ago, they announced their reunion. So, what happened to the members of ABBA, and why did they really break up? Their story is far more impressive than you might think…
Life Before ABBA
Before Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad became known to the world as ABBA, each one of them was already a Swedish pop singer. At the age of 18, Benny became a member of the Hep Stars, dubbed “the Swedish Beatles,” during the mid- to late- ‘60s. The group had 20 Top 20 hits and nine chart-toppers.
Benny met Björn, also 18, when the Hep Stars were playing at a party with Björn’s band, the Hootenanny Singers. The two men joined musical forces and started writing their own songs together. Eventually, the Hep Stars broke up due to the financial stress of making a movie (that was never released) as well as the typical reason that bands break up: The band members wanted to go their separate ways.
Four Stars, Two Couples
During his last weeks with the Hep Stars, Benny met Frida, and the two became an item. Frida, who had been singing since she was 13, was a pop and jazz singer who had even won a Swedish national talent competition in 1967 and signed a recording contract. Benny ended up producing Frida’s 1971 debut solo album, featuring the number-one Swedish hit, Min Egen Stad (My Own Town), with Benny and the other future ABBA members.
Björn and his wife Agnetha (they married in 1971) were on the track’s backing vocals. Agnetha was also already a Swedish star by the time she was 18, with her own 1968 self-titled album and her hit single, I Was So in Love, which topped the Swedish charts.
An Impromptu Live Performance
The two couples joined together and started making music in 1970… well, kind of. It was when they went on holiday together to the island of Cyprus. What started out as a fun idea to sing on the beach became an improvised live performance in front of United Nations soldiers who were stationed on the island. At the time, Benny and Bjorn were recording their first album, Lycka, which was to be released that fall.
Agnetha and Frida sang the backing vocals on several tracks. The idea was raised that they should all work together, which culminated in a stage act called “Festfolket” (which translates to “Party People”). Their show on November 1, 1970, in Gothenburg, didn’t get a big “wow,” but there was one performance that did…
Getting Invited to Eurovision
Benny and Bjorn’s single Hej, Gamle ma (Hello, Old Man), was the first recording to feature all four of them, and it made the most of an impression. Still, the lukewarm reception convinced the future foursome to shelve their plans of working together, for the time being at least. For a while, they focused on their individual projects.
By 1972, the two couples officially formed ABBA after Benny and Björn’s single, People Need Love, which featured Frida and Agnetha on vocals, became a hit. The success of that song led to an invitation to enter the Swedish division of the Eurovision Song Contest (which, for those who don’t know, is an annual singing competition for European countries that typically features amusing stage shows and costumes).
First Failing, Then Winning
To many in Europe, ABBA is known for their win at the Eurovision Song Contest. In fact, the contest even features their iconic 1974 win in its opening sequence. But the truth is that ABBA had a rocky start before their eventual victory. The four entered the contest in 1973 as Björn, Benny, Agnetha & Frida, placing third among all the Swedish contestants with the song Ring Ring.
A year later, this time using the name ABBA (an acronym of their first names), they entered the contest again with the song Waterloo. This time around, they won first place in the Swedish competition and then overall for Europe. It marked them as the first Swedish group to win Eurovision ever. Eventually, Waterloo was voted the best song in the history of Eurovision during the contest’s 50th anniversary.
The Dreaded “One-Hit Wonder” Label
In the beginning, ABBA was nearly destined to be given the one-hit-wonder label. After the worldwide success of their winning hit Waterloo, their first albums and singles didn’t chart. Also, their “cursed” song Ring Ring from their first Eurovision attempt was “pretty much ignored in the UK.” At that time, as Björn explained, they were still experimenting with their sound; they were trying to be more like a glam rock group.
It “was stupid because we were always a pop group,” Bjorn admitted. Their first European tour occurred in 1974-75 and featured some poorly attended shows. Because of the poor ticket sales, the band ditched their plans to play in the UK, France, Belgium, and Switzerland.
A Major Comeback
By the summer of 1975, ABBA returned to their roots and did gigs at small Swedish “folk parks,” as they had done before the success of Waterloo. Then, they released their third album, ABBA, which re-introduced them as an international success. S.O.S. and Mamma Mia were instant hit singles, which kicked off Australia’s lifelong love affair with the group. Mamma Mia was number one on Australia’s pop charts for 10 weeks.
By the end of the year, ABBA had enough hits to create a Greatest Hits album, which was released in Sweden in late 1975 and to the rest of the world in 1976. The compilation also included Fernando, another international smash hit that reached number one in 13 countries as well as being Australia’s best-selling single of all time. It was clear now that ABBA was nothing close to a one-hit-wonder.
A Reality Show Kind of Film
After their last albums put ABBA firmly on the international map and established them as superstars, the band released their fourth studio album in 1976 named Arrival. The album is most notable for bringing the single Dancing Queen to the world – ABBA’s signature song and the only one to ever hit number one in the United States.
In 1977, they began a tour of Europe and Australia, bringing in a total of 100,000 and 150,000 attendees, respectively. They started filming ABBA: The Movie during that tour, which was a behind-the-scenes look at the story of an Australian DJ trying to interview the band during their tour. The film was more of a predecessor to scripted reality TV shows than it was a typical documentary. The film was released together with their fifth album, ABBA: The Album.
The Infamous Polar Music Studio
In 1978, Benny and Björn made a long-lasting contribution to the music industry when they purchased a former movie theater in order to build and establish the Polar Music Studio in Stockholm, Sweden. Considered one of the all-time best-recording studios, it was used by none other than Led Zeppelin to record their album In Through the Out Door.
Other artists, including the Beastie Boys, Celine Dion, The Ramones, and Genesis, recorded there as well until it closed and relocated to a new location in 2004. A year after reaching the milestone of creating the music studio, one of the couples in the group announced that their union was coming to an end.
When the A’s and the B’s Divorced
In 1979, fans were saddened to hear that the marriage between Agnetha and Björn was over. Their divorce started rumors and speculation about the group’s future. However, ABBA assured the media and their fan base that they were going to keep working as a group and that the divorce wouldn’t affect them. Still, the media relentlessly confronted them with the issue in interviews.
And so, to escape the press and concentrate on their music-making, Benny and Bjorn secretly traveled to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas to spend two weeks preparing songs for their next album. Their 1980 single, The Winner Takes It All, was widely misunderstood as being about Bjorn and Agnetha’s marital troubles.
Despite the Drama, They Stayed Together
Bjorn, who wrote the lyrics to that song, stated that they weren’t about his own divorce. There’s also the fact that Agnetha has repeatedly claimed that she wasn’t the loser in their divorce. In a 2013 interview with the Daily Mail, Frida said that the song was her favorite, and she revealed that Björn wrote it about them after the breakdown of their marriage.
“The fact he wrote it exactly when we divorced is touching really. It was fantastic to do that song because I could put in such feeling,” Frida admitted. Regardless of the song’s meaning and significance, the song was another worldwide hit and ABBA’s last top-ten single in the United States.
Break Ups and New Marriages
By 1981, the remaining A/B couple followed suit and announced their own divorce. It was now time for Benny and Frida to call it quits. Information surfaced about their marriage – that it had been an uphill struggle for years. There were also rumors that Benny had already met another woman, which proved to be true. Benny married a woman named Mona Nörklit the same year he got divorced from Frida.
That same year, Bjorn also remarried – to a woman named Lena Källersjö. Despite all the relationship drama, the band managed to stay intact. Despite all the drama that was going on between the A’s and the B’s, their two 1979 albums, Voulez-Vous and Greatest Hits 2, kept them in the limelight.
An Ordeal by Fire
They were going on another tour, too, which included America for the first time. According to Agnetha and her autobiography, As I Am (published in 1996), she described the tour as being less than optimal. “Björn and I agreed about doing this tour together, despite the divorce, so we had to form a new relationship with each other and work together in a new way. It was an unfamiliar situation for all four of us — an ordeal by fire.”
The members of ABBA rose above all their personal problems, though, and the tour was hugely successful. Aside from the tour, their album Arrival was their true breakthrough release in the US album market. It peaked at number 20 on the Billboard 200 chart and was certified gold by RIAA.
They Weren’t a Disco Band at First
The funny thing is that we associate ABBA with disco music, even to this day, but Voulez-Vous – their sixth studio album – was the band’s first serious venture into disco. The Quietus described the song Summer Night City as “a frenzied burst of manic disco… menacing where ABBA was once unthreatening.”
Reviews of the album pointed out ABBA’s new sound and made some rather unflattering comments, like “It was only a matter of time before they sidled into the Gibb Brothers’ disco penthouse.” Other articles pointed out the fact that the band was in crisis while they were making the album, so they could no longer rely on their original image of being a group of “amiable, committed couples making pure songs about life and love.” The result: “unfamiliar, disconcertingly sexy disco music.”
The Political Side of ABBA
In their last album, The Visitors, there is a noticeable contrast with their previous music. The lyrical themes are darker, for one. The title track was later revealed to be referring to “secret meetings without the approval of the totalitarian governments in the Soviet-dominated states,” wrote The 100 Greatest Bands of All Time.
The album also contained the now-obvious themes of shattered relationships and broken hearts. The most dramatic of all was One of Us, their final big hit. By the end of 1982, ABBA decided to take a break. Although ABBA never officially announced the disbanding of their group, it was long considered dissolved after a performance on The Late, Late Breakfast Show in Sweden that year.
Denying the Obvious Split
It seems that one reason for ABBA’s split was Björn and Benny’s collaboration with Tim Rice, a Broadway lyricist, on the musical Chess. ABBA released the music on an album before the debut stage show. The songs told the story of a love triangle between a Soviet chess master, an American chess master, and a woman who managed one yet fell in love with the other.
During interviews at the time, Björn and Benny denied ABBA’s splitting up, with quotes like “Who are we without our ladies? Initials of Brigitte Bardot?” Frida and Agnetha kept claiming in interviews throughout 1983-84 that they would come together for a new album. Meanwhile, internal strife between the group and their manager Stig Anderson escalated, resulting in the band members selling their shares in Polar Music in 1983.
It Was Clear by Now
Aside from a TV appearance in 1986, the foursome didn’t reunite publicly until they played at the Swedish premiere of the Mamma Mia! movie in 2008. Despite the lack of a disbanding announcement, the individual members’ endeavors before and after their final public performance, coupled with the collapse of both of their marriages and the lack of any activity in the following few years, made it clear: ABBA had broken up.
Amazingly, even though they weren’t together anymore, ABBA became huge during the ‘90s. As noted by Britannica, ABBA was pretty much inactive as a group throughout the late ‘80s and ‘90s, yet it was during that time that their status as pop icons turned them into a global phenomenon.
For some reason, ABBA saw a particularly strong form of ABBAmania in Australian popular culture. There’s even an Australian parody/ tribute group called Björn Again, which started in 1988 and to this day, continues to tour and play to enthusiastic crowds of dancing queens. Australia’s obsession with ABBA inspired two 1994 movies: Muriel’s Wedding and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
In the UK in 1992, the British dance-pop duo Erasure released an album of ABBA covers called ABBA -Esque, which topped the charts for five weeks. That same year, ABBA: Gold: Greatest Hits became the group’s best-selling album of all time, selling 5.45 million copies. It went on to become the longest-running, Top 100 album of all time.
Popularizing the Jukebox Musical
1999 saw the success of Mamma Mia! Which premiered in London’s West End. It was the first jukebox musical (where a body of previously released work is featured, often from a single artist) per se. But as Sarah Larson noted in The New Yorker, Mamma Mia! popularized the whole genre and turned it into the dominant modern musical format (whether you like it or not).
The show ran in 40 countries, on five continents, for 54 million people, and was made into the 2008 film Mamma Mia! The 2018 sequel, Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again, doubled down by bringing in Cher as the long-lost grandmother. Cher released a tribute album of ABBA covers, aptly called Dancing Queen.
An Abbatar Project?
After years of rejecting offers to do public reunions, including their 2010 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, ABBA finally returned to the studio together. In 2016, it was announced that the group would be reuniting in the form of a new “digital entertainment experience.” They were going to be featured as “life-like” avatars (dubbed “abbatars”) based on their late 1970s tour.
In 2018, they announced that they had recorded two new songs: I Still Have Faith in You and Don’t Shut Me Down. By January 2019, Bjorn revealed that neither of the songs was complete, yet he hinted at a final release that spring and the possibility of a third song.
Delays and More Delays
By September of 2019, Bjorn stated in an interview that there were actually five new ABBA songs that were set to be released in 2020. As of early 2020, Benny “confirmed” that the songs would be released in September 2020. In April 2020, Bjorn then stated that in the wake of the pandemic, the Abbatar project would be delayed.
As far as the public knows, five out of the eight new songs written by Benny for the new album have been recorded, and that there’s a new music video with never-before-seen technology that cost £15 million. The release date? Undecided. It looks like ABBA really knows how to keep the fans on the edge of their seats.
What’s in Store…
In July 2020, Bjorn told podcaster Geoff Lloyd that the new ABBA recordings are being delayed until 2021 and that the Abbatar tour would be re-scheduled for 2022. But we know the pattern by now. Apparently, the technology involved in the tour is quite complex. The truth is people will wait patiently to see ABBA perform holographically as their younger selves.
Björn explained the process of creating the avatars: “They photographed us from all possible angles, they made us grimace in front of cameras, they painted dots on our faces, they measured our heads.” There has also been talks about a possible third entry to the Mamma Mia! film franchise. If it’s anything like the last two, it will be a hit.
Agnetha: Life After ABBA
Three decades after ABBA unceremoniously split and abandoned a half-finished album in 1982, Agnetha gave her first major interview, talking about her loves and losses over the years. Since 1982, Agnetha has hit the headlines, mostly for all the wrong reasons. The press loved to divulge information about her two broken marriages and various failed love affairs.
There was also a car accident in 1983, in which Agnetha was thrown out of the window of a bus on a solo tour. And who can ignore her accumulation of phobias, her mother’s suicide in 1994, and the relentless attention she has received from stalkers? In fact, one of them even ruined her album release in 2004 when his threats caused all future interviews to be canceled.
That’s a Hefty Fortune
It appears that the only people who were shielded from the ABBA legend are Agnetha’s three grandchildren, the children of her and Bjorn’s daughter Linda, who’s an actress. Their son Christian is a computer programmer and has no children. After ABBA, Agnetha ditched smoking but adopted new fears, like her phobia of flying. After therapy, she’s now able to fly for “three to three-and-a-half hours, no longer.”
Agnetha noted that the press has always written that she’s “a recluse and a mysterious woman, but I am more down-to-earth than they think.” She lives on a farm with her dogs and lives a normal life, as she says. The modest former ABBA member, though, has an estimated fortune of $200 million.
According to Agnetha, the money “helps, but I don’t think about it much… You can go shopping, and if you see something very special, you can buy it.” While she admitted to being somewhat of a hermit for a few years after ABBA, she explained why. “I was so tired once ABBA was over and just wanted to be calm and with my children.”
She described how she had married, been in ABBA, had her children, and gotten divorced – all within ten years. “I wonder how I managed it,” she admitted, “but I was young.” Agnetha looks back on her ABBA days with mixed emotions, not so much with rose-colored glasses, so to speak. In general, she found it hard to deal with such global fame.
It Was Frightening
She described how their fans would get really hysterical and bang on car doors. But they were also very nice as well, she added (God forbid she sound ungrateful for all the adoration). She said that sometimes they could hardly leave their hotels due to all the crowds. “It was frightening, but we had so many people taking care of us.”
Agnetha also admitted to having dreaded going on stage. Performing live, as she said, was not her favorite. “I am more of a recording person; I prefer to be private. I didn’t mind doing videos, even if they came very close with the camera. I can take that, but walking on stage in concert and singing live, that is a bit difficult. And I don’t think we sounded or looked very good.”
No Talking Beforehand
Agnetha also revealed that they had no professional dance help. They did it all on feelings, as she explained. So, their concerts were different every night – nothing was formalized. She said that she and Frida didn’t talk beforehand about what they were going to do.
They had been described as not being friends – as being in competition all the time – but according to Agnetha, they had something concrete between them on stage. She admitted that there were some bad feelings between them when they grew exhausted with their heavy schedules, but they consisted of “little niggles” and differences of opinion. In other words, nothing serious.
On Tour with the Kids
Tours were never drawn out for ABBA; they were often 14 days on and 14 days off. It was a schedule that helped Agnetha when she had her children. Did the separations from them hurt? “Yes, but I didn’t feel guilty. I didn’t have any choice.” When she was at home, she concentrated on the children. Her daughter was with them in California, and her son was with them in London.
Long before Agnetha was in ABBA and a mother, she was a teenager in a pop trio called The Chambers with her friends Lena and Elisabeth. She then became a singer with a dance band, and when the group’s leader sent a demo to a recording label, they were only interested in Agnetha. At 17, she released her first solo track in Sweden.
A Stalker to Remember
The teenage Agnetha was a girl who drove men crazy, and even Swedish journalists would make creepy remarks to her during interviews. It was only a matter of time before stalkers became a staple in her life. The worst was a Dutch truck driver named Gert van der Graaf, who was 16 years younger than her. He settled himself a quarter of a mile from her home on the island of Ekero in Stockholm.
When things turned sinister, the police raided his cabin, which included a shrine dedicated to Agnetha. He was still threatening her in 2004. It only makes sense that the former pop star has grown secluded and weary of too much attention. Still, she has an open heart and mind. “I want to give everyone a chance,” she stated.
Agnetha said that she still sees Björn every now and then when the kids have birthdays. But Bjorn moved to London and started a new life. He and his wife are grandparents, too.