Are you a dancing queen? Young and sweet? Only seventeen? The odds that you are all of the following are slim, but the odds that you are dying to know more about the Swedish pop group ABBA are high.
You may know ABBA’s music from Mamma Mia!, the musical that adapted hits like “Dancing Queen,” “Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight),” and eventually, in the sequel “Angeleyes.” Additionally, their recent tour with holographic members is taking the world by storm. This beloved disco group is made up of four members: Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. The four members were, incidentally, married, making divorce the end, or at least a momentary end, of the group.
But, what happened in between? How did they come together and discover music? How did the married couples choose the name ABBA? Let’s find out.
The group was in music long before their breakthrough in 1973. Benny Andersson was a part of the Hep Stars, a Swedish version of The Beatles. Björn Ulvaeus fronted the Swedish folk group the Hootenanny Singers. Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad was in various dance jazz bands since she was age 13. She also made her own band the Anni-Frid Four. Agnetha Fältskog grew to Swedish stardom from a demo recording that was sent to a larger record company, which led her to have a number one hit in Sweden at age 18.
Because the group was all in the industry, they met throughout their individual artistry. Andersson and Lyngstad met at the Melodifestivalen in 1969, a Swedish contest that would allow them to gain a hit song in their country. The winning song would go onto the Eurovision Song Contest, which could guarantee the winner international success.
The two became a couple at the same time that Ulvaeus and Andersson’s bands broke up in 1969. The men began to record with each other while Lyngstad joined them and often helped in the sessions. Also in 1969, Ulvaeus met Fältskog at a filming of a Swedish TV special, and married in 1971. The two were involved in their recording sessions, and thus, with Andersson and Lyngstad.
The band gained their first hit with the song “Hej, gamle man” but was credited to Björn & Benny because the two girls only sang back up. The song caught the attention of Stig Anderson who was the head of Polar Music and was determined to break the group into an international success.
ABBA: An Acronym and Palindrome
In 1972, the group finally came into a true quartet as their song “People Need Love” gave the women more importance, and the song was finally credited to all four of them as Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid. With greater success and more of Stig Anderson in the mix, the name ABBA was officially born.
When the group’s songs were all over Swedish radio, the media began to get annoyed with their long name. According to Billboard, a contest was held in a tabloid to pick a new name. The winning entry was the couples’ initials arranged in an acronym and palindrome—ABBA.
In a 1988 interview, it is revealed that the name was also a prominent fish factory name. Fältskog said, “We had to ask permission and the factory said, ‘O.K., as long as you don’t make us feel ashamed for what you’re doing,’ I think we did a good job.” And, a good job they did, as 1974 rolled around for the band, and they gained their international breakthrough.
Swedish television invited ABBA to contribute a song for the 1974 Melodifestivalen. Deciding to sing in English, which increased their chance of European success, they finally won both Melodifestivalen and the Eurovision Song Contest with their hit single “Waterloo.”
“Waterloo” became a top ten hit in large European countries like the UK, West Germany, Spain, and France. The single hit the seas charting in South Africa, Australia, and Canada. In the U.S., it entered the Billboard Hot 100 chart at six. Thus, blazing the trail for their first album and a trip to the states.
But, ABBA’s breakthrough was not always a consistent upward arrow. Their first European tour dates in Denmark, West Germany, and Austria did not sell out and because of lack of demand, they even had to cancel some shows. Yet, their second leg of the tour in Scandinavia was different as they played mostly sold-out shows.
ABBA released two more singles that got little airplay, but decent chart landings. However, it wasn’t until their singles “SOS” and “Mamma Mia” later in 1975 that they returned to major chart presence in the U.K. and the U.S. “Mamma Mia” also changed the direction of the group landing them the number one spot on the charts in the U.K. and Germany but a number 16 spot in the US.
In 1976, “Dancing Queen” was released from their album Arrival, and ABBA began to dominate the charts in Europe along with the United States, Canada, the Soviet Union, and Japan. It would be their only number one hit in the United States. From there in 1977, the group had their first sell-out world tour that started in Europe and ended in Australia.
The Australian leg of the tour provided much of the content in their film ABBA: The Movie. To coincide with the movie, they released their fifth anticipated studio album, ABBA: The Album.
Two years later, in 1979, Ulvaeus and Fältskog announced their divorce but claimed it would not affect the band. In 1981, Andersson and Lyngstad divorced.
A Long Break
Speculation about the divorces brought greater tension to the band, as well as, a struggle in the recording studio during the spring and summer of 1982. They took a break in the summer and returned in the fall where they released several compilation albums like The Singles: The First Ten Years. They also released new singles “The Day Before You Came”/”Cassandra” and “Under Attack”/”You Owe Me One” but none became heavy hitters.
ABBA never officially ended the group but their last performance together on The Late, Late Breakfast Show in December of 1982 marked the end. That was until their 2016 reunion.
In 1992, people came back to ABBA with the release of their new compilation album ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits. In 2008, the Mamma Mia! The Movie soundtrack brought a number one album on the US Billboard chart, bringing the group their first number one album in the US.
January 2016 marked the first reunion for the group. The entire band made an appearance at Mamma Mia! The Party in Stockholm. That June, they appeared at a private party that celebrated the 50th anniversary of Andersson and Ulvaeus’s first meeting in Stockholm. The group performed live singing “The Way Old Friends Do.”
Their manager Simon Fuller announced that ABBA would be reuniting to work on a digital experience. In 2021, the group released their new album Voyage and in May 2022, they launched their hologram performance tour in ABBA Arena in London.
Photo by Gus Stewart/Redferns