Estimates of ABBA’s worldwide sales vary from 300–400 million, making them the second most successful band of all time, after The Beatles. They were the first mainland European act to become regulars on the British, American and Australian pop charts. This helped pave the way for many other European acts and established Sweden in the mainstream music industry.
The Swedish pop music group formed in Stockholm in 1972. The band name was comprised of the first letters of the member’s names: Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny and Anni-Frid (better known as Frida).
Stig Anderson, manager of The Hootenay Singers and founder of Polar Music, had encouraged Bjorn and Benny to write a song for the 1972 Eurovision Song Contest. Their contribution was ‘Say It with a Song’, which was performed by Lena Anderson. It won third prize in the selection rounds and was a hit in several countries. Stig was onto something here.
A single they wrote, called ‘People Need Love’, featured backing vocals by Agnetha and Frida and brought them some success in Japan. Stig released it as single ‘Bjorn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid’. It reached number 17 in the Swedish charts. The seeds of ABBA had been sown.
A year later, the group entered the 1973 Eurovision Song Contest with the song ‘Ring Ring’, once again coming third. In the studio, producer Michael B Tretow had been experimenting with a new production technique, called ‘wall of sound’, which was to become the whole new ABBA sound. The proto-group, still clumsily called ‘Bjorn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid’, released the album ‘Ring Ring’ in 1973. The album did well and the title single was a hit in many parts of Europe.
Stig was hungry to break into the UK and US markets. He was becoming tired of the lengthy band name, so – using an acronym of the first letters of their names – started referring to the band as ABBA. It was actually a bit of a joke as, at the time, there was a fish-canning company in Sweden with the same name. Although Stig decided that, as the fish-canners were unknown outside of Sweden, they would keep the short and far catchier name of ABBA. The band had to later negotiate with the fish-canners for the right to use the name.
On 6 April 1974, the group finally won the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton with ‘Waterloo’. The glam-rock inspired song, once again produced by Michael B Tretow, put them firmly on the musical map. Britain was now fully aware of the distinctive ABBA group and ‘Waterloo’ became ABBA’s first UK number one. It reached number six in the US.
It was with the release of their second album ‘ABBA’ (1975) and single ‘SOS’, a top ten hit, that they had truly made their presence felt in the UK. They were no longer considered ‘one-hit wonders’. So pleased were they with their success, that ABBA released a ‘Greatest Hits’ (1975) album, even although they had only had five Top 40 hits in the UK and US by that time. In January 1976, ‘Mamma Mia’ made number one in the UK.
From 1976 onwards, the first ‘B’ in their logo version of the band name was reversed on all their promotional material. The 1976 album ‘Arrival’ not only showed a new height of achievement in terms of song writing and studio work, but produced three huge hits, ‘Money, Money, Money’, ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, and ‘Dancing Queen’ (the latter arguably being their most enduring song).
Other European pop groups, keen to share in the limelight, quickly copied ABBA’s sound, as well as their two-boy/two-girl format. These groups included Brotherhood of Man and Bucks Fizz who both won the Eurovision Song Contest, in 1976 and 1981 respectively, perhaps validating this formula.
‘The Album’ (1977) was released to coincide with ‘ABBA: The Movie’ (1977), a feature film made of their Australian tour. Hits from this album were ‘Take a Chance on Me’, ‘The Name of the Game’, and ‘Thank You for the Music’.
By 1978, ABBA could only be referred to as a megagroup. Their trendy label, Polar Music Studio, converted an old cinema in Stockholm into their new state-of-the-art premises. Other well-known bands, such as Led Zeppelin, for their recording of ‘In Through the Out Door’, used the studio.
ABBA was moving into the arena of disco, which had exploded in 1977 with the Bee Gees ‘Saturday Night Fever’. ABBA released the single ‘Summer Night City’ (1978) and, after that, the album ‘Voulez-Vous’ (1979), both with a distinctly disco sound. The reaction to this album from the UK and Europe was not as strongly favourable as that of the US. However, singles from the album, ‘Does Your Mother Know’, ‘Chiquitita’, ‘Voulez-Vous’ and ‘I Have a Dream’, all found their way onto the charts.
In January 1979, the group performed ‘Chiquita’ at the Music for UNICEF Concert, donating all royalties for the song to the children’s charity, in perpetuity. Their best-known disco hit ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’ was featured as a brand new track on the ‘Greatest Hits Vol. 2’ (1979) album. Also that year, ABBA toured the US and Canada, playing to massive audiences.
Moving into the 1980s, ABBA’s style shifted to more personal lyrics and more pronounced synthesisers. Releasing the single ‘The Winner Takes it All’ in January 1980 sufficiently piqued public interest in the upcoming album for ‘Super Trouper’ (1980) to set the record for the most pre-orders ever received for a UK album. The single was allegedly about Agnetha and Bjorn’s marriage, which was going through a rough patch at that time. Another hit single from this album was ‘Lay Your Love on Me’.
ABBA released their final studio album ‘The Visitors’ (1981). Whilst this album showed a newfound depth and maturity, it was the start of their commercial decline. The group’s last hit single ‘One of Us’ was a global hit in December 1981.
The group was starting to show signs of personal distress with both marriages having ended in divorce. They came together in the summer of 1982 to record a new album, but settled instead for a double compilation album of past hits, with two new songs thrown in. ‘The Singles: The First Ten Years’ (1982) contained the new tracks ‘Under Attack’ and ‘The Day Before You Came’, which was the last song ABBA ever recorded together.
They had recorded two other songs earlier in 1982, ‘I Am the City’ and ‘Just Like That’. Of the two, only the former was ever released, on the compilation album ‘More ABBA Gold: More ABBA Hits’ (1993). Benny and Bjorn still refuse to release the latter single, much to the frustration of fans.
ABBA disbanded at the end of 1983, collectively deciding to take a break and pursue their individual projects.
COURTESY LIFETIME TV UK