It started with a mysterious image on billboards all over the world (and the internet). The sun rising above four dark planets; the only words Abba: Voyage. By the time an announcement was made on 2 September, it had fair claim to call itself the most anticipated comeback in pop history.
And the details exceeded expectations. Not only was there a new album, Voyage, the first in 40 years: 10 new songs that brought the original band together in the studio for the first time since a split that had been precipitated by the couples in the band divorcing. Not only that, but there was to be a new “immersive live experience”, in a bespoke stadium in London – nobody seemed to have noticed the planning application being published online – featuring futuristic de-aged “Abbatars” playing a potentially never-ending series of gigs. In the depths of a miserable year, it seemed, Abba were coming to rescue 2021.
The promotion machine went into full swing. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was illuminated in their honour (Abba were always huge in Australia) and BBC radio moved their 6pm news bulletin in order to premiere two new tracks, I Still Have Faith in You and Don’t Shut Me Down. Online, there was footage of crowds listening to the songs for the first time: in a hot spring in Iceland; in Stockholm’s Gröna Lund amusement park; in front of St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. Some of them were in tears. Somewhere in London, there were Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, being interviewed by Zoe Ball, Andersson allowing himself a rare moment of self-congratulation while discussing how they wrote Mamma Mia in 1975 when the band were still widely assumed to be a one-hit wonder, boosted to brief fame by winning the Eurovision song contest. The chorus, he enthused, where they had the idea of dropping all the music out and just leaving the vocals, “it was,” he smiled, “so clever.” Within three days, the album received 80,000 pre-orders in the UK alone.
It all made for a striking contrast with footage of Abba’s final public appearance, in November 1982, on Noel Edmonds’ Late Late Breakfast Show. Ostensibly promoting a new greatest hits album, it is five of the most uncomfortable minutes of music television ever broadcast. They sit, twitchy and oddly un-Abba-like, in their 80s clothes (skinny ties, headbands and, in the case of Anni-Frid Lyngstad, spiky, purple hair), gamely denying they are splitting up, despite the fact that the greatest hits collection has been released in lieu of a new Abba album they have abandoned, unfinished; despite the evident waning of their commercial success (their new single has struggled into the lower reaches of the Top 40, an unthinkable state of affairs even a year before, when they were enjoying their 18th consecutive Top 10 hit); and despite the fact that Abba visibly aren’t enjoying being in Abba very much. When asked for his favourite Abba song, Ulvaeus wearily notes that he’s been told by the TV producers what to pick: The Winner Takes It All. Agnetha Fältskog is clearly sick of her pin-up status: “I’m not only a sexy bottom, you know,” she complains. When the subject turns to Ulvaeus and Andersson’s songwriting prowess, it precipitates an icy, brittle exchange between the recently divorced Andersson and Lyngstad. Benny and Björn wrote so many wonderful songs, she says. “Well, you never said that,” snaps her ex-husband. “OK,” she responds, with a mirthless chuckle. “So it’s the first time.” A few weeks later, Abba broke up, although a split was never publicly announced.
And that was supposed to be that. Hugely successful but critically reviled, Abba were not a band that anyone assumed would have any kind of afterlife, or be remembered as anything other than a joke – evidence that the 1970s were, as the Face magazine memorably put it, The Decade That Taste Forgot.
Today, talking via Zoom in their first press interview since the Grand Reveal, Ulvaeus and Andersson say they thought exactly the same thing. “In the beginning of the 80s, when we stopped recording, it felt as though Abba was completely done, and there would be no more talk about it,” Ulvaeus says. “It was actually dead. It was so uncool to like Abba.”
“We had a little company, the four of us together,” Andersson says. “Everything Abba earned went into that company and we split it four ways, no matter who did what. And then, when we said, ‘Well, this is it, guys, let’s do something else for a bit and then we can go back perhaps in a couple of years and see if we’re still alive’, that was that: we sold the company. We did not expect Abba to continue, I can promise you that.”
Fältskog and Lyngstad, alas, are nowhere to be seen. Nor did they turn up to the announcement of Abba’s return in London, instead releasing a couple of prepared quotes (“Such joy it was to work with the group again,” Lyngstad offered). They are, I’m told, deeply involved with the Voyage live show, but the assurance that they wouldn’t have to take part in promotional activities pertaining to Abba’s reunion was part of their reason for agreeing to it in the first place. “They didn’t take much persuasion, but we did have to tell both of them that they don’t need to speak to you, Alexis,” Andersson offers. “Not you personally,” he adds, hastily, “but the media.”
The 10 new songs on Voyage were written, in Ulvaeus’ words, “absolutely trend-blind” – deliberately ignoring whatever developments have taken place in pop over the years since the band’s demise, partly in order to capture Abba’s original essence and partly, Andersson concedes, “because in contemporary stuff, there’s nothing to feel I could hang on to, nothing I could emulate”.
“We decided early on that we’re not going to look at anything else,” Ulvaeus says of the current charts. “We’re just going to do the songs, the best songs we can right now. That meant writing lyrics I could get some of my thoughts of these past 40 years into, and add some kind of depth that, hopefully, comes with age and that makes it different from the lyrics I wrote 40 years ago”, which seems like a subtle way of suggesting that Voyage’s contents lean more towards the thoughtful, incisive Abba of The Winner Takes It All and their exquisite, agonising meditation on parenthood Slipping Through My Fingers than, say, the Abba who furnished the 1970s with Bang-A-Boomerang, Dum Dum Diddle and Put on Your White Sombrero.
You have to say that this “trend-blind” approach appears to have worked. I Still Have Faith in You and Don’t Shut Me Down were greeted with a peculiar combination of elation and a kind of collective sigh of relief: the former a big, bittersweet ballad in the vein of Thank You for the Music or The Winner Takes It All, the latter a fresh example of Abba’s idiosyncratic approach to disco, à la Dancing Queen. Perhaps their rapturous reception was potentiated by events of the preceding 18 months, a musical equivalent of the line that keeps appearing on posters outside West End theatres at the moment: “The show we all need right now.” We live in very uncertain times, and there’s a distinct sense that people want something comforting and reliable from entertainment. And here were Abba, 40 years on, sounding exactly like Abba, the way you remembered them from your childhood or your youth.
Ulvaeus and Andersson, who by default find themselves at the centre of all this activity, seem weirdly calm. If you believe in lagom, an untranslatable Swedish word that roughly means “just enough” or “everything in moderation” and informs an understatement and equability that’s supposed to define the national psyche, well, Abba’s songwriting team seem to be its living embodiment. They are pretty much exactly as you might expect from watching old Abba videos – Ulvaeus twinkly and avuncular, Andersson a little cooler and more businesslike – and are occasionally given to arguing among themselves about music: at one point the interview is briefly halted for a discussion about whether or not you could append the adjective “bubblegum” to Abba’s work (“How can you say that Dancing Queen is bubblegum?” Ulvaeus frowns).
They do not give off the air of men unduly worried about their band’s eagerly awaited virtual return to the stage. No, they didn’t mind the five weeks Abba spent last year at Ealing Studios in London to help create suitably realistic Abbatars; “being on a stage together, recording everything, singing those 24 songs or whatever it was, performing them as we would have done if there was a stage, but in front of 75 guys with computers and hundreds of cameras”. It sounds an odd experience for a band in their 70s, who last performed a gig in 1980, but they insist not. “We worked from noon to five, perhaps,” Ulvaeus says. “We would drop in and it was like going to work after a while, you know?”
And no, they weren’t perturbed by the process of “de-ageing” applied to the footage, so that the Abbatars look not like the members of Abba now, but Abba in their 1970s heyday. “You have to realise,” Ulvaeus says, “that we are confronted by our younger selves all the time on television, in pictures and all of that. Everyone asks us if it must have been very weird, but for me, I don’t think so. It’s completely natural. Everyone should have their own avatar.”
You get the impression that Andersson and Ulvaeus might always have been like this. They seem baffled by the suggestion that fame on the scale Abba achieved in the 1970s might have brought with it a degree of pressure: the only time they felt stressed, they say, was when they realised they were a song short for an album due in two weeks, a problem they remedied by the simple expedient of writing Super Trouper in an evening. “No, I’d say no pressure,” Andersson says with a frown. “I think living in Sweden helped; being Swedish helped. No fuss here. People recognised us, they still do, everybody does, but they never bothered us – no hysteria, nothing like that. It’s cool. We’ve been able to work here.”
And nor were they unduly bothered by the critical opprobrium hurled Abba’s way in their heyday. “You know, in Sweden, there was this progressive movement in music, and we were the enemies,” Ulvaeus says, “and personally I didn’t pay attention to all that – it didn’t mean shit to me, even if they hated us, because we got so much response from the whole world. Right from the start, we had contemporary colleagues, musicians, who liked what we were doing.” This is certainly true, and approval came from unlikely quarters, too: the Sex Pistols famously admitted their single Pretty Vacant was based on SOS, and a starstruck Sid Vicious once pursued Agnetha and Anni-Frid through Stockholm airport, much to their distress.
Quite aside from a natural tendency to lagom, Andersson and Ulvaeus have had a long time to get used to the idea of Abba’s return. Plans for the live show were hatched five years ago and the first of Voyage’s new songs were completed in 2018, although you could argue their return has its real roots in the early 90s, when Abba’s post-split popularity began to grow at a startling rate.
A jokey Australian tribute band, Björn Again, began to do surprisingly good business, progressing from playing colleges to performing at Reading festival at the behest of headliners Nirvana: today, Björn Again is a global franchise, with umpteen versions of the band performing in different territories. In 1992, Erasure had a UK No 1 with an EP of Abba covers. In 1994, Muriel’s Wedding, an Australian comedy film with Abba’s music as its backbone, became a global hit: so did The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, another Australian movie in which Mamma Mia played a pivotal role. Yet another greatest hits compilation, Abba Gold, was released in 1992. This time, it sold 30m copies: it’s currently the second biggest-selling album in British history. Somewhere along the way, critical opinion was vastly revised. Rather than a joke, Ulvaeus and Andersson’s oeuvre began to be spoken of in awed terms, as the work of the greatest pop songwriters of their era.
Both profess bafflement as to what happened – “It’s difficult to fathom, you know, I really don’t get it,” Andersson shrugs – but the truth is probably quite prosaic: a generation who had grown up with Abba’s music as young children, at an age when the alleged coolness or otherwise of music has no bearing on your tastes, had come of age.
As Abba’s posthumous star rose, the offers to reform started coming in: the most famous came in 2000, allegedly involving a potential payment of $1bn for a tour. According to Ulvaeus and Andersson, the offers never reached them. “Someone told us something about a sponsored tour, going on the road, doing a hundred gigs, but it was never put on paper,” Ulvaeus says. “But then, everyone knew we wouldn’t do it.”
The songwriters say they never once considered reanimating Abba, preferring to tend the band’s legacy through other methods: the wildly successful 1999 jukebox musical Mamma Mia!, its subsequent film version and sequel, a touring exhibition called Abbaworld and an Abba museum in Stockholm that comes complete with lifesize recreations of their studio, their dressing room and the cabin on the island of Viggsö where Andersson and Ulvaeus repaired to work.
In the absence of a reunion, speculation grew. On the rare occasions Abba’s four members were spotted together in public, it became a news story – the fact that four of them stood together at the launch of an Abba-themed Stockholm restaurant was heralded by Billboard magazine as “a momentous occasion which was captured on camera” – presumably because it was seen as symbolic of a thaw in frosty personal relations between two former married couples. Andersson says nothing could have been further from the truth. “We’ve been seeing each other through the years, meeting for this and that: we are friends. I mean, Björn and Agnetha have kids and grandkids together, so they have to be on speaking terms! I’m friends with Frida, too, so no problems there.”
The reality wasn’t just that there was no financial incentive to reform ($1bn sounds like an astronomical amount until you factor in that Mamma Mia! has grossed $4bn in its stage incarnation alone), but that Abba had never been great fans of performing live. Their success had more to do with being pioneers of music video – most directed by Lasse Hallström, later to find Hollywood fame directing What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Cider House Rules – than slogging around the world’s venues. Andersson thinks they played fewer than 100 concerts during the 10 years they were together. Fältskog in particular found the gigs an ordeal: she suffered from stage fright (“No one who has experienced facing a hysterical audience can avoid feeling the shivers in their spine,” she told her biographer decades later. “It’s a thin line between celebration and menace”). Her discomfort was compounded by a fear of flying, sparked when the band’s private jet was hit by a tornado during their 1979 US tour.
All of which explains the appeal of an approach made in 2016 by Simon Fuller, manager of the Spice Girls and David and Victoria Beckham, and creator of Pop Idol, American Idol and its umpteen global spin-offs. “Simon came and he had an idea about us: we can go on the road but we didn’t have to be there ourselves,” Andersson says. “And we said, ‘Wow, do you think so?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’” A deal with Fuller to produce what the press release called “an extraordinary new virtual reality experience” was announced in 2016.
Abba started writing and recording again: initially, Andersson says, just two songs intended for the show, “because if we had gone out on the road, we would have had a couple of new songs – everyone has”. But “once we got started, that really got me cooking – you know, maybe we can do a couple of others, work on things that have been around for a long time, not knowing what to do with them.”
You may think there was a degree of trepidation involved in the four returning to the studio, perhaps fuelled by the sheer weight of expectation hanging over new material from one of the most successful, and now revered, bands in history. But – lagom again – both insist not. “It was just fun, really, to try and see if we could do something,” Ulvaeus shrugs. “I think everyone was completely aware that if what we did was not up to the standard that we all wanted, we would just forget about it. There was no pressure in that respect.”
“I think what I felt was Agnetha and Frida were so happy about doing this,” Andersson says. “And it’s sort of understandable, isn’t it? I mean, they haven’t been doing much for the last 40 years: they’ve done a couple of albums each, but they haven’t really been singing much, so doing this was … seeing them being happy about what we were doing, them liking the tunes. That was …” – he sighs happily – “perfect. It was exactly the same as it had always been. We came into the studio, the control room, I had made copies of the lyrics, we played the backing track, the girls sang along and asked questions, and then they took the sheets of paper into the studio and started singing. I have to tell you, when they came in the studio, I thought: maybe I should have asked them first, before we planned all this, if they can still sing. But after the first day, I didn’t need to worry.”
Nevertheless, the deal with Fuller came to grief. “We had to abandon it because he was talking about doing a hologram show,” Andersson says. “Have you ever seen a hologram show? You have to sit smack in the middle, you can’t have any lights, you can’t have anything going on, so we said, ‘No, we can’t do that’ … Simon Fuller wanted to do a TV show” – a BBC and NBC special was also announced – “and we thought, ‘What do we want to do a TV show for?’ That’s not the thing. Making a video is not the thing.”
Instead, they approached the George Lucas-founded, Disney-owned visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic, looking for help with a promo clip they were making for I Still Have Faith in You. “They said, ‘We can do this for you, and we can put it on stage, too,’” Andersson says. “So that’s how it started. Then we decided maybe three years ago that it was too complex to tour – the technology, the fine adjustments. So we had to decide to put it somewhere, and London was the first choice.”
The band’s forthcoming “concert residency”, set to begin in May 2022 in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, is, by all accounts, unlike anything a pop or rock band has attempted before. It involves the construction of an entire 3,000-capacity arena; the participation of film director Baillie Walsh and the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer Wayne McGregor; a 10-piece live band; and the ministrations of both Industrial Light & Magic and a staff of “800 animators from across the world” in order to create the Abbatars. It has cost a vast amount of money, much of it Abba’s own – according to the show’s producer Svana Gisla, Brexit and Covid have helped push it wildly over budget – but actual details of what it’s going to be like are maddeningly hard to come by. I talk to Gisla, her co-producers Ludvig Andersson (Benny’s son) and Walsh, and come away even more confused about the specifics of the show than I started.
There’s a lot of talk of “the digital meeting the physical” or “playing with emotion” or “creating an immersive experience”: any attempts to dig deeper are rebuffed with the assurance that “you’ll have to come and see it”.
“The word is ‘avatars’, so you’re creating new versions of Abba, right?” says Walsh, who made his name directing Massive Attack’s acclaimed videos, went on to work on Alexander McQueen’s groundbreaking fashion shows and has directed a series of documentaries about everyone from Oasis to Daniel Craig. “So we literally filmed Abba, then Wayne McGregor took all their movements and extended those movements into younger body doubles, so you’ve got the soul of Abba in these younger bodies, and we blend them all together, but it’s not in 3D. They gave me this building where we would do a live concert that isn’t holograms, that people are going to want to come to again and again, with a flat screen. That was my biggest challenge: how can we make this experience immersive, a live experience, with essentially a flat screen?”
So when you go into the venue, you’re going to be watching a giant screen?
“We don’t actually want to reveal that, really, I’m sorry to say,” Walsh says. “If we describe how we’re doing something, it’s as if we’re showing behind the curtain too soon. It’s irrelevant how we’ve achieved what we’ve achieved. I want you to come and cry.”
What is clear is that it’s all incredibly complex – complex enough to give its creative team sleepless nights, worrying, as Ludvig puts it, “that you might fuck it up – is this going to be taking it too far? Is this pushing it too hard?” Indeed, it’s so complex that Ludvig wonders aloud if his father and the rest of Abba would have said yes had they known what it would entail. “I think had they known – had anyone known – what we were looking at, or what eventually it was going to turn into, there may have been a different answer back then.”
“The tech side, the possibility of doing something nobody has ever done before, that was so tempting and hard to resist,” Ulvaeus says. “This project has been meandering, but it has a kind of role and a direction, and it’s going to be wonderful to see what it becomes. It will be, I think, an experience that no one has ever had before.”
The 10-piece live band will perform on stage and interact with the Abbatars. James Righton (best-known to indie music fans as frontman of the now defunct Mercury prize winners Klaxons, and to the wider world as Keira Knightley’s husband) was working on a solo project at home when he got a call “completely out of the blue” from his friend, film director Johan Renck, another producer on the Voyage project. “He said Abba were doing a reunion and there was new music. I was gobsmacked. And then he said, ‘Would you want to be a part of it?’ And you say yes, don’t you? There’s no maybe. I had a meeting with the producers, had a Zoom call with Benny, which was surreal, and found out” – his voice takes on a slightly incredulous tone – “that I had to find the band. I had to reach out to people I knew, and in hushed tones, say, ‘Abba are reforming and they need a band, do you want to audition?’”
Whatever it is, exactly, the Voyage show is already a commercial success: demand for tickets after the initial September announcement was such that the website crashed. Andersson hopes it will have the lifespan of a West End theatre show – the lease on the property is for four and a half years and, as he chucklingly notes, “the stars of the show will never tire”. There are vague plans to build other theatres in other cities. Svana Gisla talks about it being a gamechanging event for pop music. “When the show opens, everyone else is going to try to jump on the bandwagon and do it. But I think this only works because Abba are involved. If you try to do it posthumously, artists aren’t able to give permission, consent or creative input. It just becomes a film.”
The weird thing is that, their creative input to the show notwithstanding, Abba have already ceased to exist again, other than in the virtual world. Both Andersson and Ulvaeus are insistent that there will be no more music: they wrote two songs that didn’t make it on to the album, but they were left unfinished, and are going to stay that way. “This is it,” Andersson nods. “It’s got to be, you know.”
Then his mind wanders back to the Abba seated awkwardly on the sofa of Noel Edmonds’ Late Late Breakfast Show. “I didn’t actually say that ‘this is it’ in 1982,” he says. “I never said myself that Abba was never going to happen again. But I can tell you now: this is it.”
On the other side of the Zoom screen, Ulvaeus vigorously nods his assent. “Yeah,” he says, quietly.