“Love is the best thing to write songs about”: As Mamma Mia!, the musical, based on ABBA’s work, notches up its ten millionth customer, Björn Ulvaeus, who co-wrote the band’s songs, explains why the band broke up – and what they think about each other now. The Andrew Billen interview

As I was leaving the ABBA musical Mamma Mia! the first time…yes, yes, I’ve seen it twice, nor can I rule out a third visit…I asked my companion what the argument was against the proposition that ABBA were the greatest pop group so far.

After 24 songs, the case “for” certainly seemed strong that night. In the eight years after winning the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest with Waterloo, ABBA sold 350 million records, had nine No.1’s in the UK and ten more that made the Top Ten. They practically invented the music video. And just to name the song titles is to start humming their songs: Fernando, Dancing Queen, The Winner Takes It All, Take A Chance On Me… and on and on. The songs were bouncily unpretentious. Like their performers, they seem to wear silk jumpsuits.

Serious rock lovers of the era preferred the Clash and the Jam and, two decades later, it was still possible to mock ABBA’s fan base, as personified by Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge. Yet where are the Clash and the Jam now? Come to that, whither Alan Partridge? Despite the encumbrance of being Swedish, those clothes and those beards, ABBA live on. And they live on not least in Mamma Mia!, which, four years after its London opening, now has nine versions playing around the world and has just notched up its ten millionth customer (although I am not sure if this figure allows for returnees such as me). At every performance audiences end up on their feet singing, as if they are at a revivalist meeting, and the thing they are reviving is the Seventies.

When we meet in a Covent Garden hotel for morning coffee, Björn Ulvaeus is preparing to release 5,000 balloons over the Thames to mark Mamma Mia!’s triumph. Ulvaeus was one quarter of ABBA and, with his best friend Benny Andersson, one half of the writing talent. They had the songs. The girls, Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, had the voices and the looks.

Ulvaeus is now 58. Like ABBA, he is jolly, grounded, slightly ironical and hardly sounds Swedish at all. Like Andersson, he has a beard.

Although Fältskog and the darker Lyngstad could at least be told apart by their hair, there was something very clonish about the group, not only married to one another but mind-melded into the ABBA product. I ask Ulvaeus to help us out. Can he separate their personalities?

“Well, Frida is a very explosive redhead. She’s more mellow these days, but she used to be explosive. Agnetha: much calmer, much shyer and keeping herself to herself much more. And Benny is extremely, incredibly talented, a musical genius, and there is no end to his belief in himself. He knows that he can do anything.”

More confident than himself?

“Yeah, much more than me. But I can’t describe myself.”

Ulvaeus and Andersson may not have the resonance of Lennon and McCartney, but Mamma Mia! reveals how robust their compositions are. The playwright Catherine Johnson says that when she sat down to write the show she discovered that the songs dealt with emotional truth in dramatic forms.

She also noticed the group’s point of view matured as they went on, which laid the way for her to invent a story about two generations of lovers colliding on a Greek island: a tale of innocence and experience.

Can Ulvaeus give an example of a song that came from his life?

“An example is Knowing Me, Knowing You. I think we had just gone through, or were going through, the divorce, Agnetha and I, and I had this image of a man walking through an empty house with boxes, you know, and hearing to himself what had happened in those rooms and seeing what had happened in those rooms again for the last time.”

The Winner Takes It All was also about his divorce. A bitter, sad song, I say (although later a bad quiz show starring Jimmy Tarbuck).

“It is, I guess, I was sad at the moment. Although it was – how do you say? – an amicable divorce, there are times when you get bitter anyway because it’s a failure. Divorce is a failure.”

In those days Ulvaeus and Andersson worked jointly on the music and the lyrics, sitting together from 10am to 4pm. “It was like office hours and we were just banging away, just waiting for that dragon to come out of the cave.”

But for days nothing would come out?

“Only rubbish, then suddenly something would come up. Then you think back on all the other little ideas you’ve had and suddenly you think, ‘Oh, that thing fits with that’. It’s very rare that a song comes out whole at the same moment. Also, something that we very much learnt from The Beatles was that every part of a song should be good. A lot of people, when they come up with a great chorus, think that the verse is not that important, whereas we always thought that every little bit should be as good as it possibly could be.” With songs this solidly constructed, it does not entirely shock me that the teenage Ulvaeus’s first ambition was to be a civil engineer. I had heard that he was driven to success not by art, but in revenge for never being picked by the other boys to join their teams at sports. But he says his motives were even more prosaic.

“I had an uncle in the little town where I grew up, one of my father’s brothers, and he was very successful, the most successful man in the town. He had a paper mill. My father worked for his brother and, as the poor relatives, we would be invited for Christmas lunch and I would see everything that my cousin had and the luxury they lived in and this gave me, I think, a drive. I said, ‘Some day I’ll be even richer than that’. It’s very basic.”

He did not have to worry about money for very long. By his twenties Ulvaeus was a singer-guitarist in a successful Swedish folk group called The Hootenanny Singers. (“Oh, my God, these names are so ridiculous.”) In 1963 they had a hit, Jag Väntar Vid Min Mila. Which was about?

“A famous Swedish poet wrote a poem and someone put music to that. It means, I don’t know, ‘I am waiting by my mila’. A mila is where you make charcoal in the middle of a forest. It is not something you do in England.”

Not so much, I agree.

The Hootenannies were playing 140 gigs over the long Summer of 1966 when he ran into a rival band, The Hep Stars, whose keyboard wizard was Andersson. It was the night before Ulvaeus was to start his military service and the two ended up under a tree in the park playing Beatles songs into the morning. “So that’s how it started, and I think a year after that we wrote our first song together.”

By the end of 1970 Andersson and Ulvaeus were performing together in Gothenburg alongside their singing fiancées, Fältskog and Lyngstad. They were Festfolket, soon to be reborn as ABBA, a palindromic acronym of their first names. In 1974 they beat Olivia Newton-John – representing the UK with Long Live Love – to win Eurovision. Previously, the tapes that the Swedes had sent to producers in the UK had been ignored. Now, within days, they were on Top Of The Pops. “Had we won in Bulgaria or somewhere, it would have been completely different, but we had the luck of winning in England.”

Does he remember what they wore that night? “Yes, we were wearing stuff that I couldn’t even sit in. I had to stand. We designed them ourselves. Remember it was the era of glam rock: Sweet, Gary Glitter. We thought that, to make an impact, we had to look as outrageous as possible.” Was the word “camp” around then? “No, never thought in those terms at all. Just trying to be as outrageous as possible. Camp came in later "But very few people realised that we dressed like that only for the first two years. Maybe three. Later we became much more sophisticated, but people don’t remember that.”

At least, I say, those early songs were good, nothing about charcoal burners. (He chuckles tolerantly.) And the videos were ahead of their time, some directed by Lasse Hallström, who would go on to make My Life As A Dog and Cider House Rules.

“Oh, very good. The reason was, we had huge demand from all over the world to come and do television, and Agnetha and I had our daughter, Linda, and didn’t want to travel, so the idea came up from that. And, of course, it was a huge success. The first one was S.O.S., the second one, Mamma Mia, and they were played all over, even in Australia.” The videos, however, with the boys and girls looking into each other’s eyes, mouth to frost-bitten mouth, acted out a lie about their marriages. Ulvaeus was not only falling out of love with Fältskog, he was also getting to the stage where he was dreading going home to her.

“A lot of people think that the divorces came about because of the stress of having to tour together and working together, but I don’t think so. I think, rather, the other way round. The fact that we were together on tour perhaps made the marriage last longer.

“We got married quite young and after ten years you find out, oh, you’re different and that you grow apart. It happens to so many people.

“Afterwards, we didn’t know whether we could go on as a group. Benny and Frida split up, you know, roughly half a year after that. The four of us decided we had so much more to give, but it was strange in the studio. When I used to ask my wife to do things, suddenly she wasn’t my wife. She was someone else. Yes, strange. But we had our burning ambition still, so this overcame everything, you know, because we felt that we had so much to give.”

He never thought of firing the ex and hiring another blonde?

“Absolutely not.

He was single for all of a week. Fältskog moved out directly after Christmas 1978 and he met Lena Kälersjo, an advertising copywriter, at Andersson’s New Year’s Eve party. He had, he jokes, been looking forward to playing the field for a little longer, since he was now so rich and famous and desirable, Fältskog did not remarry: “She could not find anyone as attractive as me! 

Does it sadden him that, unlike the two Bs, the two As did not have much of a career after ABBA dissolved?

“I know for certain, in Agnetha’s case, it’s her own choice. She wants to live a quiet life. And she doesn’t want to travel either.”

The press make her out to be a mysterious, reclusive figure.

“That’s not quite true. She is shy and very private, yes, but she’s not a recluse.”

Is she happy? “I think she is. We have a grandchild now, so I see her quite often. Linda had Tilda. She’s two-and-a-half now.”

After all the songs he has written about love, has he reached any conclusions?

“Well, one conclusion is that, if you want to write a pop song, love is the best subject. 

Better even than charcoal burners?

“Well, charcoal burners is not quite the right translation.”

I am sure it is an excellent song. But the rest are about relationships. “Mostly. There is a later one about the KGB knocking at a door. But it’s the most interesting thing, isn’t it? And you can look at it from so many aspects. It never wears out. It’s a constant source for lyrics. And the phases you go through in your life, you can use that. I’ve used a lot of that in my lyrics. Although at least 75 per cent is fiction, there is an element of truth in there as well.”

At this point Lena arrives having done a little light shopping. She looks a little like Fältskog. “But I cannot see that,” he says.

Has he written a song about a grandfather’s love? “I have not yet, no. I don’t think that’s very commercial.”

The songwriters he admires now include Robbie Williams and the four “Swedish guys” who write Britney Spear’s lyrics. “And I think that Eminem is brilliant. It’s not necessarily my bag, but I can hear that it’s deeply original.”

The success of Mamma Mia!, which he had originally thought of as little more than a chamber piece, has astonished him. On the back of it, he plans to bring to London a revamp of his Eighties Tim Rice collaboration, Chess (he concedes now he was never entirely happy with it as it was), and an English version of a musical he and Andersson wrote about Swedish immigration, Kristina From Duvemåla, which ran for more than three years in Sweden. But it is Mamma Mia! that is an institution now.

“And in the beginning we were so ridiculed by the critics,” he says with a sigh.

Can he remember the transitional moment when ABBA stopped being naff and started being genius? “I’m not absolutely clear whether it was during our career or after,” he says.

Incidentally, my friend’s answer to why ABBA were not the greatest pop group in history was: The Beatles.

“I would say so as well,” Ulvaeus says. The Beatles are god.”

But on a good night – and they are all good nights at Mamma Mia! – Ulvaeus’s mortal melodies run god close. Transcribed for ABBA World

The Times (London) · Tuesday, 29 July 2003 (Pages 14 & 15)

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