When ABBA quietly split up in 1982, amid crumbling personal relationships in the band, it seemed unlikely that they would ever make music together again. Choosing to bow out on a high, the Swedish pop icons made a conscious decision to disappear from the limelight while they were still in their prime – and left fans with both fond memories of their shimmering shoulder-pads, and an unmatched stream of timeless hits.
Though they’re now rightfully hailed at some of pop’s greatest songwriters, ABBA’s path to global superstardom wasn’t always a plain-sailing yacht ride around Mamma Mia!‘s Greek villa –with Eurovision near-misses, slow-burning singles, and solo careers all paving the way.
With the band having finally returned with two new songs – I Still Have Faith In You’ and ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’– and the announcement of upcoming album ‘Voyage’, due to be released in November, alongside a special digitally enhanced tour next year, this is their story in 15 classic tracks.
Hep Stars, ‘Isn’t It Easy To Say’ (1966)
Back in 1966, 18-year-old musician Benny Andersson was the bright-eyed young keyboardist of Hep Stars. With their pristinely blow-dried bobs and an alarming amount of corduroy on display, the boyband were sometimes nicknamed the ‘Swedish Beatles’. They were also one of the country’s most successful pop groups, covering rockabilly classics and playing packed-out shows for screaming fans. And during the summer of ‘66, they crossed paths with another of Sweden’s most successful bands – their folk-leaning counterparts Hootenanny Singers were throwing an afterparty and invited Hep Stars along. It was here that Benny first got chatting to Hootenanny’s Björn Ulvaeus, and the two musicians clicked immediately.
Later that year, they got together and wrote their first song – and the Hep Cats ended up recording the melancholy and slightly-tongue-in-cheek folk break-up ballad ’Isn’t It Easy To Say’ for their 1966 album. From here, a decade-plus songwriting partnership was born.
Agnetha Fältskog, ‘Jag var så kär’ (1967)
Years before joining ABBA, Agnetha Fältskog was also a songwriter and solo artist in her own right – and it all started with her debut single ‘Jag var så kär’. A slow, smouldering ballad that begs for forgiveness (“Say, you can forgive my harsh words when I left?” she sings in Swedish) the self-written track sold a whopping 80,000 copies in Sweden.
Soon after this, Agnetha entered another of her songs into Melodifestivalen – Sweden’s national competition for picking out their country’s Eurovision Song Contest entries each year. Though ‘Försonade’ didn’t make the final cut, her run of hits continued, and by the late ‘60s she was a national pop icon. “I remember hearing Agnetha’s first single on the radio,” recalled her future ABBA bandmate Björn in the BBC’s 2013 documentary Agnetha: Abba and After. “There was something so special about her voice and the fact that she had written that song herself – it was magic.”
The pair later met in a cafe and quickly fell in love; by 1969, they were engaged and continued writing music together.
Frida,‘Min egen stad’ (1971)
By now, Benny and Björn had formed a solid songwriting partnership, and begun entering their songs into Melodifestivalen. By now, the duo had fully set their sights on the international exposure (and glimmering shoulder-pads) on offer at the big, bright, campy pop celebration that is Eurovision, and back in 1969 the duo narrowly missed out on victory when their song ‘Hej, Clown’ came second.
While taking part, Benny met fellow contestant Anni-Frid Lyngstad, and two years later they were engaged. The Norwegian-Swedish singer, who released music as Frida, had recently signed to EMI after winning a talent contest at the label, and Benny ended up producing her self-titled debut album – during recording in Stockholm, Björn joined the sessions with his fiancee Agnetha, and both sang uncredited backing vocals on ‘Min egen stad’.
Though all four members of ABBA previously sang together on Benny and Bjorn’s track ‘Hej gamla man!’ a year earlier, this number one single scored Frida (and the other future members of ABBA) their first-ever smash hit.
Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid, ‘People Need Love’ (1972)
After the success of ‘Min egen stad’ the four-piece continued recording together, and a year later released ABBA’s unofficial debut single. Though it was released under their real names, ‘People Need Love’ features all four members as credited vocalists. Though Agnetha and Frida originally guested on the track to give a boost to Björn & Benny’s existing songwriting partnership, the song exceeded all expectations and charted in the Top 20 in Sweden – though distribution in the States was limited, it also enjoyed modest success there, and became the four-piece’s first US hit.
Though some of the lyrics admittedly come off like a manifesto for the nuclear family and draw on slightly dated gender norms (“Women always knew that it takes a man to get matrimonial harmony,” they belt out, “everybody knows that a man who’s feeling down wants some female sympathy”), the song’s overall sentiment – celebration, positivity and striving for a better world, with a ridiculously fun yodelling outro slung in for good measure – makes ‘People Need Love’ an archetypal ABBA ballad. Perhaps it’s no wonder that they stuck together as a four-piece after this, and began setting their sights on wider exposure with a winning line-up.
ABBA, ‘Waterloo’ (1974)
As the new four-piece tried to gain traction, they went back for another crack at Melodifestivalen but missed out on Eurovision yet again when their single ‘Ring Ring’ came third place. The public got behind the entry, however, and as well as scoring a Number One in Sweden, it charted highly in several other European countries. The wheels of the band were in motion. As coverage increased, a Gothenburg tabloid asked readers to vote on their favourite moniker to replace the group’s slightly cumbersome assembly of names. Fortunately the band decided against contenders like Alibaba and FABB, and settled on the snappy and effective ABBA – a palindrome made out of their first name initials.
And after getting the all-clear from a local fish factory of the same name, the newly-named band returned to Melodifestivalen for another crack with ‘Waterloo’ the following year – and finally they stormed to victory, and onto the Eurovision Song Contest. An upbeat pop banger that compares Napoleon’s surrender after the Battle of Waterloo to plunging headfirst into love, ‘Waterloo’ offered something completely different to the contest’s dearth of ballads, and brought silver platforms, glittery costumes and a smattering of choreo to Brighton Dome.
Thanks to a recent rule change, the Swedes were allowed to perform English lyrics, and ‘Waterloo’ ended up bagging Sweden’s first-ever Eurovision win. Though the United Kingdom awarded it ‘nil points’ on the night (wary of the competition, perhaps), they soon had a change of heart and it immediately shot to Number One in the UK – and beyond.
ABBA, ‘Mamma Mia’ (1975)
After ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’ breakthrough, the band went on a rapturous tour of Scandinavia, but struggled to sell out as many shows elsewhere in Europe – their first post-Eurovision single ‘So Long’ didn’t chart in the UK at all, while the swooning ‘I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do’ was shunned by the radio. Some even questioned if they were a bunch of one-hit wonders.
But still, the hit singles from their self-titled third began to steadily rack up – a Number One single for ‘SOS’ in Germany here, a South African Number One for ‘I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do’ there – and momentum carried on slowly building. Written at the last minute for third album ‘ABBA’, ‘Mamma Mia’ was never intended to be a single, and was written in Björn and Agnetha’s house in the Stockholm suburbs. When Benny and Björn started working on the backing track at the nearby Metronome, they began playing around with a marimba in the corner of the studio, and the song’s distinctive pulse was born. Chuck in a flourish of oboe and some garish guitars, and you’ve got yourself a prime example of ABBA’s intricately crafted but immediately effective pop gold.
‘Mamma Mia’ might’ve easily stayed an album track, but thanks to repeated airplay on Australia’s uber-popular music show Countdown, demand grew for a proper release. When the band’s manager Stig Anderson green-lit the impromptu single it shot straight up to Number One in the singles charts down under, and earned its place in the history books, staying there for 10 weeks. Keen to build on its surprise success, Epic Records released ‘Mamma Mia’ in the UK the following year, and it ended the band’s spell away from the number one spot. From here, they never really looked back – ABBA would go on to become one of the most successful pop groups in the world.
ABBA, ‘Fernando’ (1975)
Capitalising on the band’s surge in popularity, a number of record labels began doing a roaring trade in their own licensed ABBA compilations. The French label Disques Vogue released ‘Greatest Hits’, while the West German division of Polydor put out ‘The Best of ABBA’. Wary of fans snapping them up and importing them elsewhere, ABBA’s Swedish label Polar rushed out their own ‘Greatest Hits’ – and to sweeten the deal, they stuck in a brand new song called ‘Fernando’, taken from the band’s next studio album.
Well – it wasn’t entirely new. Back in 1975, Frida recorded a version for her debut solo album, with Swedish lyrics that try to console a sobbing mate who just got his heart broken. “Long live love, our best friend, Fernando,” Frida sang on the original, “fill your glass and raise a toast to it; to love, Fernando”. When it came to recording an English-language version, Björn Ulvaeus decided to start from scratch.
“That lyric is so banal and I didn’t like it,” he says in the book 1000 UK #1 Hits by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh. “I was in my summerhouse one starry evening and the words came, ‘There was something in the air that night’ and I thought of two old comrades from some guerrilla war in Mexico who would be sitting in the porch and reminiscing about what happened to them back then and this is what it is all about. Total fiction.”
Björn’s imagined musings gave ABBA one of their best-known songs, and set down the foundations for their hit-packed fourth album ‘Arrival’ – also featuring ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, ‘Money Money Money’ and ABBA’s biggest smash hit of all time.
ABBA, ‘Dancing Queen’ (1976)
It’s a bold move to open any song by smashing headlong into the second half of its chorus, but when it came to ‘Dancing Queen’, the four members of ABBA knew they had a hit on their hands strong enough to warrant it. Frida wept when she heard the demo tape. “We all knew it was going to be massive,” Agnetha later said
Like all of the greatest pop songs, ‘Dancing Queen’ is both uplifting and bittersweet – Frida and Agnetha’s futuristically doubled-up vocals sing of whirling around a nightclub for the first time as a wide-eyed 17-year-old, but there’s a subtle hint of sadness for the memory of that euphoric feeling slowly fading. The song soon became beloved to the LGBTQ+ community – perhaps thanks to its lyrics, which in ways mirror the experience of setting foot inside a queer space for the first time, and this is perhaps the band’s biggest gay anthem.
ABBA, ‘Super Trouper’ (1980)
By 1980, ABBA were fully-fledged superstars – but behind the scenes, the two relationships at the core of the band were crumbling. Björn and Agnetha had divorced a year earlier, and their two married bandmates were heading down the same road. Both break-ups happened at the height of their fame, and keeping up appearances took its toll. Perhaps it’s no real surprise that ABBA split up a year after Benny and Frida’s divorce in 1981.
Named after a brand of spotlight, ABBA’s seventh studio album is possibly their most personal – and the title-track lays bare the toll of gruelling world tours, and the pressure to show up every single night with a sparkling grin. “All I do is eat and sleep and sing,” Frida sings on the first verse, “wishing every show was the last show”.
ABBA, ‘The Winner Takes It All’ (1980)
That same album also produced ABBA’s best break-up song: ‘The Winner Takes It All’. While many songs about love falling apart have anger or intensity at their core, this one is fuelled by sheer resignation. It’s almost harder to swallow that way, charting an all-consuming love that has faded into flat nothingness. Though Björn’s denied writing the song about his own break-up – the couple had children together, and “there wasn’t a winner or a loser in our case,” he later told The Guardian – the choice to have his ex sing the vocal lead lends the song a certain significance.
Agnetha later admitted that she found lines such as “Tell me does she kiss / Like I used to kiss you?” gut-wrenching to sing, but also told The Daily Mail that it’s her favourite ABBA song – though it doesn’t exactly mirror her own story. “Björn wrote it about us after the breakdown of our marriage,” she said. “The fact that he wrote it exactly when we divorced is touching, really. It was fantastic to do that song because I could put in such feeling. I didn’t mind sharing it with the public. It didn’t feel wrong. There is so much in that song. It was a mixture of what I felt and what Björn felt, but also what Benny and Frida went through.”
ABBA, ‘One of Us’ (1981)
Though the writing seemed to be on the wall for ABBA, one more studio album followed: ‘The Visitors’. To call it a ‘mixed bag’ would be an understatement: thumbs-in-pockets musical theatre number ‘Two For The Price of One’ recounts a railway station cleaner’s attempt at having a threesome with mock earnestness, while ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ explores the fierce protectiveness of motherhood. The title track charts life in a totalitarian state with menacing precision, and shows a new political side to the band, while ‘I Let The Music Speak’ embraces the theatrical (perhaps slightly too much).
‘The Visitors’ is also home to ABBA’s final Number One – the self-eviscerating ‘One Of Us’. The lyrics are written by Benny and Björn and performed by Agnetha and Frida (by now their exes), a fact that gives the crueller digs a barbed tension. “One of us is crying, one of us is lying,” sings Agnetha, before a suspenseful pause, “in a lonely bed / Staring at the ceiling, wishing she was somewhere else instead.”
Erasure, ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’ (1992)
Instead of departing with a bang, ABBA never really announced their split – after struggling through a handful of recording sessions, they simply drifted off in separate directions. Benny and Björn began collaborating on a Cold War-era musical called Chess, Agnetha embraced synth-laden ‘80s pop with her solo record ‘Wrap Your Arms Around Me’ and Frida’s Phil Collins-produced solo album ‘Something’s Going On’ embraced hints of rock and punk. Ducking out of the spotlight before their shimmering costumes fell out of fashion, the band ended on a high – but some underestimated ABBA’s commercial pop music, and viewed ardent fans of the band with a fair amount of musical snobbery. It took another decade before the group’s immense songwriting talents and the true extent of their influence on music came into clear focus.
ABBA’s resurgence arguably began with Erasure, who celebrated five of the band’s biggest hits with ‘ABBA-esque’. Campy, dance-inspired reworkings that pull the likes of ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’ in a clubbier direction, the EP crucially stays true to the original structures, replacing intricate flourishes of instrumentation with grinding synths, robotic bleeps and ostentatious Tardis-wails. Three months layer, the release of the compilation ‘ABBA Gold’ shot songs like ‘Dancing Queen’ straight back into the charts.
Björn Again, ‘A Little Respect’ (1993)
Australia has always had a particular soft-spot for ABBA, it seems: two Aussie cult films – The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wedding – reignited interest in their music two decades later. Mopping up Aussie demand for Swedish pop, the Melbourne-formed tribute band Björn Again also began doing a roaring trade in the late 80s, working their way up from local boozers to national tours. After Erasure’s covers EP took ABBA’s music back into the clubs, the band answered back with their own tongue-in-cheek release ‘Erasure-ish’. Today, they’re a regular staple at Glastonbury.
And Björn Again weren’t the only troupe to enthusiastically adopt ABBA – as the decade went on, an increasing number of drag acts also began paying homage to their music. “We were very proud that we’ve been chosen by the community,” Björn later told Gay Times, adding that the LGBTQ+ community’s support were responsible for ABBA’s second surge in popularity after splitting up in 1982. “It was the gay community who underpinned the comeback.”
Cher, ‘Fernando’ (2018)
After the band’s popularity gradually increased for a second time, it’s undoubtedly the smash hit jukebox musical Mamma Mia! that fully cemented their status as beloved pop treasures. Adapted from a stage musical of the same name, the all-singing-and-dancing romantic comedy starred icons such as Meryl Streep and Julie Walters, and saw the likes of Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan doing their best to belt out the band’s succession of anthems. Campy, great fun, and relentlessly cheerful, the film became one of the most successful of all time – despite a critic at the New York Times memorably comparing Brosnan’s singing voice to “a water buffalo”.
10 years later, many of the original’s stars reassembled for an equally ridiculous sequel, Mamma Mia! 2 Here We Go Again – and following the unspoken advice that every film on earth can be improved by casting Cher, they invited her along for the ride and had her belt out ‘Fernando’ as the mother of Meryl Streep’s character Donna. The band’s very own Benny co-produced the recording, and Björn also approved, remarking: “She makes Fernando her own. It’s her song now.” Naturally, Cher ended up releasing an entire ABBA covers record called ‘Dancing Queen’ – a fitting celebration.
ABBA, ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ (2021)
Mamma Mia! was also responsible for another major feat: getting ABBA together in the same room. When the band attended the first film’s premiere in 2008, it was their first public appearance in 22 years. Though their reunion kicked the rumour-mill into gear, Björn shut speculation down. “We will never appear on stage again,” he told The Sunday Telegraph. Though the rest of the band were similarly unsure about the idea of performing, Agnetha – who stepped back from the public eye completely for over a decade – was open to the idea of recording again. By 2016, all four members of ABBA had performed together at a private party to celebrate 50 years since Benny and Björn’s first meeting, and announced plans to tour virtually at some point in the future with a holographic show based on their 1970s iteration.
And two years later, in April 2018, a joint statement announced two brand new ABBA singles: ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ and ‘I Still Have Faith In You. They ultimately came out this year along with news of ‘Voyage’ – ABBA’s first full-length album since ‘The Visitors’ – and a holographic tour.
Neither single tries to emulate the shape of pop today; pulling from the intricate mid-tempo gold of ABBA’s heyday, ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ seems to make sense of why the band took so long to regroup. “When I left, I felt I’d had enough / But in the shape and form I appear now I have learned to cope,” they sing, ”and love and hope is why I am here now.” It’s a nostalgia-steeped banger that makes sense of the break-ups that divided the band, and celebrates the joy of healing from the pain, each member seeing ABBA’s greatest moments in a clearer, fonder light.