ABBA Photographic Reunion

There’s a fair bit in the papers today about ABBA’s “photographic reunion” when they appeared together overnight in Stockholm. Being ABC Local Radio’s resident “ABBA Expert”, I was asked to come on the radio in NSW and chat about this. You can listen to the audio below, or read my interview preparation notes below.

What’s the significance of this appearance?

It’s the first time they’ve appeared in public (all four of them) since the premiere in Stockholm of “Mamma Mia” in 2008. For the last thirty five years, all four members of ABBA have appeared in public together, but very rarely all four of them together. I was at the opening of Stockholm’s ABBA Museum in 2013, when Bjorn, Benny and Frida attended the opening. Agnetha wasn’t there, and the reason given was that she had already made plans to be in the UK to promote her latest album. Benny and Frida appeared together when ABBA were inducted in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame.  Frida and Agnetha appeared together when they received a Swedish music award.  There’s a video clip on Youtube of them on stage together, and it’s quite lovely to see Frida holding tightly to Agnetha (given all of the newspaper reports about Agnetha’s anxiety appearing in public).  My favourite moment from that appearance was when the presenter asked Agnetha and Frida what they talk about when they come together after such a long time. Agnetha replies, “mostly tonight it was about money!!”. And the reaction from Frida is hilarious – she can’t quite believe Agnetha was so honest.

So it’s not a sign the feud between them is over?

Was there ever a feud? I don’t know there’s any evidence of a feud. I think they just moved on with their lives. After a decade or so together, including as married couples, and then with divorces, they simply moved on. Agnetha is the one mostly commonly described as being reclusive. Her ex-husband Bjorn has reflected on that, saying he thought she would have been happy raising a family. He said she liked to sing and record, but touring wasn’t something she enjoyed. I think there’s probably evidence the Australian tour, in particular, freaked her out a little bit. There was also a particularly scary flight in 1979 in America, and after that I think she didn’t think it was worth it any more. I also think the idea of a feud comes from the fact there were divorces, and I also think this might be evidence of a bit of deep sexism. The idea there can’t be room for two fairly strong women in the same pop group without “cats fights” and so on. I think a key thing to remember is all four members of the group are now in their mid 60s to early 70s. For them, this whole thing was such a long-time ago.

So what is this new Mamma Mia franchise?

After the musical and the movie, comes a new incarnation of Mamma Mia. Basically, it’s theatre restaurant. It’s currently in Swedish, but they’ll be performing it in English during Eurovision this year, which is being held in Stockholm. By the way, last year’s winner, Mans Zelmerlow actually appeared this week at the Australian Open in Melbourne.

What are they all doing now?

Frida has been living in Zermatt, Switzerland for about thirty-five years. Occasionally she records duets, mostly for charity. She’s a Princess (she married a Swedish/German prince, who later passed away). And now she’s in a relationship with Henry Smith, one of the heirs of W.H. Smith. She has both a son and a grandson who are musicians. 

Agnetha has been living on the outskirts of Stockholm for the last forty years. Her daughter, son in law, and grandchildren live with her. She’s had a few relationships, including one rather disastrous relationship with a fan who became a bit of a stalker. She recorded and released a new album a couple of years ago, appeared on television a bit, as well as stage events like Stockholm Pride.

Bjorn continues to live in Stockholm. He’s become a fairly outspoken figure on atheism in Sweden, as well as the move for a cashless society.

Benny continues to perform music regularly. You see him on Swedish TV two or three times a year. His children and grandchildren have mostly followed a musical career also.

Muriel's Wedding - Goodbye Porpoise Spit

Muriel’s Wedding

A few friends have been noting of late it’s twenty years since the film, “Muriel’s Wedding” was released. I guess it was the article in the Sydney Morning Herald the other day which prompted most of the nostalgia.

For a lot of people, “Muriel’s Wedding” is a light-hearted comedy. For me, it’s actually a heart-felt comic-drama that has usually brought me to tears on the many, many occasions I’ve watched the film.

The first time I saw “Muriel’s Wedding” was at a cinema in Canberra. I was living in Wagga Wagga at the time. Of course there are many laugh out loud moments in the film. But there were also some very sad scenes in the film. In particular, the scenes surrounding the death of the mother. I’d lost my own “mum” at a young age, only a decade earlier. Co-incidentally, my “mum” was also called Betty, and in many ways, she was also neglected and abused by many parts of her extended family. The similarities upset me even now.

Months later, I was living in Sydney, and a couple of my very close relatives, Pat and Michelle, came to visit me. I took them to see the movie at the Cremorne Orpheum, knowing they’d “understand” the film in the same way I did, and they did. In the darkness of the cinema, I suspect they also shed a few tears.

Growing up on the NSW North Coast – not far from the mythical Porpoise Spit – I “knew” those bitches who made fun of Muriel. I could name every one of them. And while I wasn’t Muriel, per se – though I did sit in my room and listen to ABBA songs – I knew the girls who were “Muriel”. They were also taunted, made fun of by the likes of Tanya.

Throughout my life, I’ve suffered with many of the self-doubts and low self-esteem that Muriel encountered. In lots of ways I’ve been much more fortunate than “Muriel”. I’ve had a good job which has allowed me to move to different parts of Australia. I’ve never had to work in a video store :) But like Muriel, I chose to “escape” the small-town narrow-mindedness of “Porpoise Spit”.

One of my favourite lines – for many reasons – from the film is when Muriel says “When I lived in Porpoise Spit, I used to sit in my room for hours and listen to ABBA songs. But since I’ve met you and moved to Sydney, I haven’t listened to one Abba song. That’s because my life is as good as an Abba song. It’s as good as Dancing Queen.” Though it’s ostensibly about a geographic shift, the line is also about a shift in a state of mind. I don’t dislike the North Coast, but I know I’m probably happier living here in Sydney.

Throughout the years, “Muriel’s Wedding” has remained with me.

Memorably, I was in the car with Pat a few years ago. We were doing a “blocky”. I should explain a “blocky” is what you do when you live in a country town and you’re feeling a little bored. You hop in the car and you drive around “the block” which is the main shopping district. As the song by ABBA, “Dancing Queen” came on the radio, without prompting, we began to adapt to a local setting the lines from the closing scene of “Muriel’s Wedding” where Muriel and Rhonda say “Goodbye Porpoise Spit”.

If, like me, you grew up on the NSW North Coast during the 70s and 80s, and were a little bit “not of the mainstream”, “Muriel’s Wedding” can mean so much more than a light-hearted comedy.

Attending the fan club preview of the ABBA Museum

ABBA Magazine

A few months ago I was asked to write a couple of articles for the magazine of the International ABBA Fan Club. A copy of the magazine arrived in the mail this week, and so I thought I’d share them here both for general interest, and as an online archive.


“If you’re in the ABBA Museum and you’re standing near the Ring Ring exhibit, you should answer the phone, as it’s probably going to be Frida” we were told by Ingmarie Halling from the ABBA Museum, soon to open in Stockholm. “And if you see the piano suddenly playing, it’s gonna be Benny doing it remotely”, she added.

The telephone call from Frida (or indeed any member of ABBA, as “they all have the number”, we were told) was inspired by a John Lennon exhibition in New York. When Frida heard that Yoko Ono would sometimes call the telephone there and speak randomly to people visiting the exhibition, she replied instantly that she would love to do that also.

That, and the bit about Benny playing the piano remotely is interesting for two reasons. First, it’s an indication the new museum will have some wonderful attributes, thanks to new technology. Second, that’s it a sign all members of ABBA seem to be fully behind this. Even though Agnetha has said she probably won’t be around for the opening (due to confliciting publicity commitments in the UK), she has indicated she has donated a number of items to the museum.

Ingmarie mentioned how all four members of ABBA had been interviewed for the exhibition, and how she was constantly checking facts to make sure everything was just right. She told us, for example, the lengths she went to trying to find out the real story about the transformation of the famous white piano from its previous brown colouring which has featured in the “archipelago room” of “ABBA World”. “Oh I can’t remember. There were so many pianos”, Frida reportedly told her with a laugh. All four members of ABBA have recorded parts of the audio commentary to accompany the tour.

ABBA Quiz Winners
ABBA Quiz Winners at ABBA Fan Day

I have seen ABBAWorld in both Sydney and Melbourne, In Melbourne it was very much about the global story of ABBA (with a lot of Swedish language material); in Sydney it was very much about the story of ABBA in Australia. I didn’t get a real sense of how the exhibition will be curated editorially for its final iteration, but it was clear from the way in which Ingmarie spoke, the project continues to evolve.

You could imagine having spent several years of your life working on this project (and before that many years working with ABBA when they were an active group), Ingmarie would be a little bored with the project. However, she spoke with such passion that it was fairly evident that wasn’t the case. She spoke, for example, about exercising her own personal creativity in the design of some couches which will feature in the exhibition, and how she approached some young designers in Sweden to further develop that idea. “When you visit the exhibition you’ll able to sit and listen to ABBA on couches which look like a stack of vinyl”, she told us. Along the way, Ingmarie also mentioned she has been writing a book that will go with the museum. “It’s the one book about ABBA I might be willing to read”, Benny reportedly said to her.

For me, the appearance by Ingmarie was the most interesting and engaging part of the second (and main day) of the International ABBA Day I attended in Roosendaal. That, and the screening of a number of recent television appearances by ABBA members, notably one from Finnish TV where Bjorn and Benny were asked individually to describe the other. Bjorn has a good sense of humour, but never shows it much, according to Benny. They meet weekly, we were told, mostly to discuss business activities, such as licensing of the songs for movies, but not much outside of that.

Obviously the big “buzz” for this weekend was the forthcoming album release by Agnetha. The two tracks released so far were both sing-along dance-floor fillers, and it was interesting to hear short snippets of Agnetha talking about some of the tracks which will feature on the album. I spoke to a lot of people over the weekend who thought there was a chance we would get to hear the album in full. Unfortunately, we’ll all have to wait for a few more weeks.

For many years I’ve wanted to attend the International ABBA Day. Distance (coming from Australia) is a significant reason why I haven’t, even tough I know many Australians have made the trek previously. One of the main reasons I’ve wanted to attend is to meet some of the people I’ve known about for years and have corresponded with previously. Like many people, though, I’m a little shy. When I wrote this on a blog post to ABBA Village, the following day I had a lot of people come up to me, concerned, asking if I was okay. A couple of others told me they felt the same, and they were pleased I’d written about it. My advice is that if you are thinking about the day at some point in the future, and feel similarly shy in large groups, it’s important to make contact with people ahead of the event so you have some people you can feel comfortable with. I don’t mean that in any kind of mercenary way, it’s just a recognition that some people feel more comfortable in smaller groups than larger, and that if you have a smaller group within that larger group, you might find it a little easier.

Another great way to meet people was through involvement the quiz held on the first night put together by the wonderful Gary Collins. “We should have hung out with you”, I joked to the winner of the quiz. He was an English guy, I think his name was Tony, and he told me he was planning to visit Australia next year. I gave him my card and told him to contact me when he arrived. On the “main day” of the event, there was another quiz where the main prizes included an Agnetha promo signal and a notebook signed by all four members. The winner was a guy called Erik Liebstaedter who obviously knew the answer to the question which I think stumped many (including myself) about which released featured the first “reverse B” logo.

One thing I should mention is how fantastic the bar staff at the “After Party” venue were, as were the double-act who entertained us with some live performances of ABBA songs, including a Dutch language version of “Does Your Mother Know”. “They wrote it themselves, and it was in a Southern Dutch dialect”, Marco Dirven told me, as we walked back to our hotel.

At the end of the second night, a group of us got chatting with a young guy who had worked the night before but who was there the following night just to enjoy himself. “The ABBA Weekend”, he told us “is a great thing for Roosendaal, having so many people come from all parts of the world.” I mentioned to him my theory that, although it seems crazy on the surface to have this day in a small town in The Netherlands, it actually works. “If it was in Stockholm or London or Amsterdam, people would break up at the end of the night and go their separate ways, whereas here everyone sticks together”, I told him.


Attending the fan club preview of the ABBA Museum
Attending the fan club preview of the ABBA Museum

The idea for a permanent ABBA Museum in Stockholm had been around publicly since the end of 2006. The original idea was for the museum to inhabit the space now occupied by the city’s Fotografiska Museet [Photographic Museum]. When that did not prove to be economically viable, the organisers launched a number of short-term exhibitions in a number of countries, including two quite different exhibitions in Melbourne and Sydney, which, of course, I visited.

In Melbourne, the exhibition was very much about the global story of ABBA (with a lot of Swedish language material, and extensive coverage of the post-ABBA solo careers) while in Sydney it was very much about the story of ABBA in Australia. In Stockholm, it is very much the global story once again, though probably not as comprehensively covered as it was in Melbourne. “Melbourne was like the box set, Sydney was like The Best Of ABBA, and Stockholm is like ABBA Gold,” I have said to a number of people.

Along with a couple of hundred others, I was lucky enough to attend a Fan Club preview of the museum ahead of the official opening. It was lovely to see other fans I had met previously, including a few people who, like me, had travelled from Australia. On arrival, we were warmly welcomed by the Chief Executive of ABBA The Museum, Mattias Hansson, and the curator, Ingmarie Halling.

As we made our way around the museum there were, naturally enough, a few bottlenecks as people stopped to take photographs and experienced everything in a chronological order. I am not one for crowds, so I made a quick skim of the early parts and resolved to return later when the crowds had thinned. In all, I must have spent two or three hours in the space, and even then felt like I had only touched the surface.

Of course, you see the costumes, the gold records, the photographs and so on. You also get to see some of the recreated spaces from the story of ABBA, including the offices of Polar Music and the famous island shack in the Stockholm Archipelago where Björn and Benny composed many of their songs. These are lovely spaces, indeed.

There are also some wonderful intimate touches in the new museum. A few weeks ago, speaking at the International ABBA Day (see other article), Ingmarie told us about her design ideas (such as the one for the resting place that looks like a pile of records) as well as the little red telephone that the members could ring. “You want to start a riot?” I asked a friend as we stood near the telephone during the Fan Club preview on Friday. “I have an old fashioned ring tone on my phone. You go over there, stand next to the phone, and when I play the ring tone you answer it,” I joked with him. Of course, we did not do that as it would have been cruel, but it gave us quite a laugh.

Much of the interactivity from the previous ABBAWORLD incarnations is there, too, including a sixty-second electronic ABBA Quiz (I got 12 out of 12 correct), and the ability to sing along with holographic images of ABBA and later download a video of your performance to name a few.

When you know so much about something before actually experiencing it, there is always the risk you will be disappointed. I was not. The museum has clearly been put together with care and an eye for detail. I liked it very much and would recommend it to anyone visiting Stockholm.

Due to the obsessive nature of fandom, ABBA fans can sometimes be very harsh and judgmental. As I walked around, I heard a few complaints about things which were ‘missing’ but, by large, I heard mostly praise from those attending. I overheard Ingmarie say with a smile to a colleague, “It seems to work.”

Rather than concentrate solely on ABBA, the museum has a longer-term focus on the success of Swedish music more generally. Apparently, that is something all members of the band were keen to see when agreeing to support (and invest money in) the initiative.

It will be interesting to see the museum expand over the next few years, as it takes on the broader remit as a celebration of Swedish music more generally. I also think it is great we now have a new ‘home’ for ABBA in Stockholm and can imagine it will become an important location for fans to celebrate major anniversaries, birthdays and so on. After a long time coming, good luck to the museum and all of those who have made it possible.


Agnetha: Abba and After (BBC Special)

Often when you read articles about today’s female pop stars, they’ll say they spent their childhoods standing in front of a mirror (with a hairbrush as a microphone) singing along to songs by ABBA. In the latest “ABBA Special” (Agnetha: ABBA and After), Agnetha Fältskog summons up some similar imagery, describing how, as a young girl living in a small town in Sweden during the 1960s, she would sit and lip-sync songs by Connie Francis. I knew she was a fan of the legendary American singer, but I’d never thought of her devotion in these terms before.

A few years later, and already composing her own songs, and performing with a local band, Agnetha was “discovered” and her career was given a boost by Little Gerhard who was described in the special as “Sweden’s answer to Elvis”. He’s still alive (and appears in the special) which surprised me, because I thought he was a much older man, and may not still be with us. To set the scene, the documentary features lots of great outdoor shots of Stockholm from the late 1960s, which I enjoyed very much.

The documentary then goes on to detail some of Agnetha’s early solo career, before very quickly transforming itself into the story of ABBA, as seen through the prism of Agnetha. The singer, Gary Barlow describes Agnetha’s voice as being “the sound of ABBA”, and Bjorn all but says they gave all of the good songs to Agnetha until Frida started to complain. Benny is more circumspect saying they sounded best when both women sang today. Nonetheless, the documentary re-inforces the view sometimes expressed that ABBA was Agnetha, and that Frida, Bjorn and Benny were merely there to support her career. There’s a joke in ABBA circles that ABBA stands for “Agnetha backed by Anni-Frid”. I can see the humour, but also feel a bit of pain because Anni-Frid (Frida) is actually my favourite member of the group.

Frida doesn’t appear in the documentary, though explanation is given as to why, since both Bjorn and Benny are there. In ABBA fan circles there’s been a discussion about this, with some people justifying the absence of Frida by saying it’s a documentary about Agnetha, and Frida’s presence would have taken away from the central focus on Agnetha. I don’t buy that argument for one obvious reason: the greatest amount of the documentary is focussed on ABBA, not Agnetha. After the earlier mentions of Agnetha’s solo career, it’s not until 46 minutes into the documentary (after discussing ABBA for most of the program) that it returns to Agnetha’s new solo album. In the remaining ten minutes or so they skip over the next twenty or thirty years of her life rather quickly.

Memorable quotes from the program include the narrator’s description of Australia as being “optimistic, beautiful and yet conservative” and Ingmarie Halling (from the ABBA Museum) who says (without any sense of irony), “the media made her into a Garbo, but Agnetha just wanted to be alone”. Also memorable is the uncomfortable shocked look on her face when Gary Barlow asks her if she would perform their duet together live on stage.

A lot of the documentary features lots of repeated, staged quotes and cliches. Oddly enough, Bjorn who usually the most guilty of that shows some honesty around the relationship breakup. Previously he’s been on the record saying he couldn’t understand why Agnetha wanted to stay at home with their children, at the same time they were being asked to travel for promotional visits. “Why not? We have a nanny” he said in one previous documentary. In this program he says he understands her point of view now, and that that brings you to the obvious conclusion about what was the right thing to do, though he doesn’t explicitly say as much.

As I watched the documentary yesterday afternoon I thought it was a nice program, though nothing special.

Anni-Frid Lyngstad

Early Frida

Winter has arrived exactly on time in Sydney, with cold, wet and rainy conditions for much of the day. Although things cleared up later in the day, I still spent much of the day inside watching television, listening to radio, listening to music, and watching internet stuff. With that background, here’s one of my all time favourite Youtube clips, featuring Frida from ABBA’s first ever television appearance. In 1967, she was married, had two children, and sang on a small-scale in the town of Eskilstuna about 90 minutes from Stockholm. It’s a very sweet clip.


Agnetha Fältskog – A

Three songs have emerged as favourites for me, as I’ve listened “properly” to the new album by Agnetha Fältskog over the last couple of weeks.

The first single, “When you really loved someone” is one of those great pop ballads about love gone wrong. The video tells the story of an older, wiser woman offering advice to a younger woman who is going through the traumas of a relationship break-up. As the video features a 70’s/Swedish looking couple, you can’t help but think it’s a song for Agnetha’s younger-self who perhaps spent a lot of her life regretting her own relationship break-ups over the years. As I travelled over the last few weeks, it was a song that came into my head many times. The chorus, in particular, is very catchy.

I’m hoping “Dance your pain away” will be the new song to be released as a single. There’s a 70’s feel to this one also, in the disco beat and in the strings. There’s also a musical flourish half way through which reminds you of ABBA”s “Does your mother know”. There’s not a lot to the lyrics, describing someone who discovers their partner “in the restroom with another one”. Rather than walk out and cause a scene, the person is advised to dance their pain away. Even though the lyrics a little “weird” (no one would actually say what she says in real life, and the d-d-d-dance bit is a little forced), it has a killer chorus. I also genuinely “believe” the performance, in the same way you can hear the desperation in her performance in “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme”. It’s very catchy and great fun, and it’s a song I’ve been playing over and over.

I’ve also been playing the following track on the album, “Bubble” over and over again. Even though both tracks are quite different they follow nicely. I love the way “Bubble” goes from a very simple stripped back lyric and musical presentation to something very big and bold all within a pop song that’s only a few minutes long.

Were it not for the fact it’s Agnetha, there are some songs on the album I wouldn’t normally like. Although tracks like “The One Who Loves You Now”, “Past Forever” and “I Should Have Followed You Home” (the duet with Gary Barlow) have nice melodies, they’re a little “wimpy”, a little “sacharine” for my tastes these days. Nice songs, but not really “me”. I love the whistling (very Peter John and Bjorn-esque) in “Perfume in the breeze”.

As I’ve listened to “A”, two other albums have sprung to mind: Agnetha’s 1975 solo album, “Elva kvinnor i ett hus” (Eleven women in a house), and Frida’s 1996 “comeback album”, “Djupa andetag” (Deep breaths).

“Elva kvinnor i ett hus” is one of my all time favourite ABBA-releated releases. The album contains a good variety of pop songs, which are sung well, and which are held together by the idea the album is about the lives and experiences of eleven women who live in a house. Remarkably, since it’s almost forty years later, Agnetha’s voice doesn’t sound all that different now than from when she recorded this album.

“Djupa andetag” is another of my all time favourite ABBA-releated releases. In common with “A”, “Djupa andetag” was very much a come back album for Frida. Also in common, the lyrics were often about being older, wiser, and stronger. Both albums have been written and produced by the same team. This gives the album a “consistency” which is perhaps lacking from some of both of their 1980s which were tended to be a “grab bag” of good songs from a range of song-writers, although they were usually produced and recorded by the same team.

The bottom line is this a wonderfully consistently good album, and one which I’m really enjoying listening to very much, even if I do skip a couple of tracks from time to time.

The thing which has amazed me about this whole experience is how Agnetha has gone from the so-called “recluse” who avoids appearances in public and who fears flying, to someone able to re-engage fairly strongly with the promotional experience. “I want the name of the therapist she’s been seeing”, a friend joked the other day. It’s nice to have her “back”.