Monday 22 July 2019

Mamma Mia here Abba go again! How did Sweden's Fab Four become so influential?

Abba are making a musical comeback with the release of two new songs and an 'avatar' tour project. But did Sweden's Fab Four ever really go away? Lauren Murphy explores the legacy of one of the most influential groups of the last four decades

The real deal: Benny Andersson, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Agnetha Faltskog and Bjorn Ulvaeus
The real deal: Benny Andersson, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Agnetha Faltskog and Bjorn Ulvaeus
Jessica Keenan Wynn, Lily James and Alexa Davies in Mamma Mia, Here We Go Again!
Niamh Perry starred in the stage show Mamma Mia!
Dancing queens: Abba tribute band, Abbaesque
Kai Crean, Amanda Lane, LA Halvey and Colm McEneaney of Abba tribute band, Waterloo. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Hold the Alan Partridge jokes. Wipe all thoughts of blonde wigs, spangly platform boots and spandex disco pants from your mind, and please, quit with the Muriel's Wedding references.

Abba may have become a byword for cheesy pop to some, but it's time Sweden's fab four got kudos for maintaining one of the most enduring legacies in modern music.

You could argue that Agnetha, Anni-Frid, Bjorn and Benny were simply the right band in the right place at the right time, yet their popularity has refused to wane since they first burst onto the world stage at Eurovision in 1974, two years after first forming.

Four decades later, and there is still a captive audience for the Abba songbook. Just look at the success of stage shows like Mamma Mia! (and its subsequent film adaptations, the second installment of which is released on July 20), the ongoing popularity of Abba tribute bands worldwide and the excited reaction to their recent announcement that two brand new songs and a hologram/avatar tour (the band will be harnessing the latest virtual-reality technology, and using digital avatars to perform their new music) were on the way.

Kai Crean, Amanda Lane, LA Halvey and Colm McEneaney of Abba tribute band, Waterloo. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Kai Crean, Amanda Lane, LA Halvey and Colm McEneaney of Abba tribute band, Waterloo. Photo: Caroline Quinn

The million dollar question remains, however: what exactly is it about Abba that has sustained several generations of fans, influenced countless other bands and musicians and left a lasting impression on the 20th century's cultural blueprint?

April 6, 1974 is a date that Paul Sheridan will never forget: the night that he first set eyes on Abba as they shimmied their way to Eurovision glory with 'Waterloo'.

"Bear in mind that 1974 was still right in the middle of the glam-rock era," recalls the RTÉ TV producer. "Abba were on halfway through, and they came on dressed in the glitter and the platform boots and the star-shaped guitar; I just thought, 'God, this group are amazing!' They were just so... different."

Sheridan has been an ardent fan of the Swedish band ever since, even during what he calls their slightly 'uncool' period after splitting in 1982.

"Up until about 1991, it was like the public had all but forgotten about them," he admits. "For most of the '80s, it was deemed 'uncool' to say that you bought Abba records, and you weren't hearing their records on the radio or on TV. But then, around 1992, Erasure decided they were going to put out a cover of four of Abba's big hits, which started the revolution going again for the new generation of fans. It was like The Beatles 10 years before; I always say that Lennon/McCartney were to the '60s what Bjorn and Benny were to the '70s. All their hits, even now, are still memorable. If you said to anyone even now, 'Can you name 10 Abba songs?', the majority of people could."

Sheridan has made the pilgrimage to Stockholm and the Abba Museum many times over the years, but has never met any of the band, despite coming close via his job in RTÉ.

Dancing queens: Abba tribute band, Abbaesque
Dancing queens: Abba tribute band, Abbaesque

"About 15 years ago, Bjorn was about three feet away from me in the corridors outside the Late Late studio, and one of the researchers said to me, 'Go out and say hello, Paul, you love this guy! Introduce yourself!' - and I just thought, 'No!'," he laughs. "I couldn't do it. I didn't want to appear as a groupie; it would have been so wrong of me to do that, I felt, and I thought it was only right to wait for an introduction. So I thought, 'Don't go up to him', because he might think, 'Who is this strange person?' and that would shatter my illusions forever."

Bangor native Niamh Perry, on the other hand, has come closer to Abba than most. The actress and singer - who first came to prominence in BBC talent show I'd Do Anything in 2008 - has played the role of Sophie in Mamma Mia! twice. Now aiming to branch out beyond her work in musicals, she recalls her time in the show with great fondness.

"The songs have never and will never grate on me. When I came back to London after nearly two years on tour, it'd feel weird when I'd get in a cab or walk into a bar and Abba was playing; it instantly made me feel like I was about to miss my cue," she laughs. "I was definitely an Abba fan [before joining the cast], but my appreciation for their amazing lyrics and epic melodies only grew from performing them every night."

Perry first saw Mamma Mia! as a 14-year-old in Dublin in 2004; little did she know that four years later, she would be in one of the lead roles in the West End. In 2014, she returned to the international tour to play Sophie - the young girl about to get married, but determined to figure out which one of her mother's ex-boyfriends is her real father. That tour proved particularly fortuitous for personal reasons, too: she met her husband Ollie Hannifan, a guitarist on the show, on it, and the pair were married just over a month ago.

"We are one of many Mamma Mia! marriages," she smiles. "We had a big crowd of our tour family at our wedding, which was amazing - and the Mamma Mia! international tour band played a set at our wedding with all of our West End pals singing a floor-filler each. Naturally, we ended with the Mamma Mia! finale, to keep our mums happy!"

The magic of Abba has stretched far beyond the pop realm, too. Kieran McGuinness of Irish indie band Delorentos cites them as a huge influence on the band's songwriting, and has fond memories of being raised on a diet of Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha and Anni-Frid.

"My first memory of Abba is when we were little, on Saturday mornings in our old Toyota Starlet on the way to swimming," he recalls, smiling. "My mam would put on Abba Gold every week, and we'd listen to the tape all the way there and all the way back - half-singing, half-chatting. We'd arrive around the time 'Ring, Ring' was starting, and we'd get home around the time of 'Voulez-Vous'. My parents mostly listened to classical music at home on CDs during the day and talk radio in the morning - so Abba was 'our' music, one of the few pop music albums in the house. The songs were happy, simple, and singalong, and inextricably linked to fun."

He says that his memories of that album remain profound - none more so than when it came to writing music of his own. Delorentos songs like 'Petardu' and 'Home Again', as well as 'In Darkness We Feel Our Way', from their recent album True Surrender - all songs "with this outward upbeat feeling, but masking a melancholy heart" - are indicative of this style of writing and singing.

"I realised later that this was the way that Abba also wrote; there was often a depth and subtle melancholy in their songs and harmonies," he explains. "Abba also affected the way I thought about bands. Pretty much every band I loved - from Pink Floyd to Arcade Fire and from The Clash to Fleetwood Mac - all had more than one singer, and felt like the band could have different moods and styles in its music. Delorentos have definitely been influenced by that."

McGuinness says he's even passing on his love of the band to his four-year-old daughter. "Recently, she's discovered Abba and now listens to Gold from YouTube playlists, bluetoothed through the car stereo," he smiles. "The method of playing it has changed - but the love of 'Dancing Queen' hasn't."

Matt McClean, who has played the role of Benny in Ireland's longest-running Abba tribute band Abbaesque for many years, shares similar sentiments on the genius of the band's songwriting - even though he says he was "more of an admirer than a fan" before he came on board. "They're very, very clever songs; it's probably been said a hundred times, but for any musician they're a joy to play," he agrees. "Nothing repeats itself, everything is thought-out and nothing is obvious, musically. They sound like chirpy, happy, singalong songs on the surface - but when you dig slightly deeper, they're quite complex. Benny and Bjorn were quite clever musicians, and when it came to arrangements, they were bordering on genius, really."

McClean has played in numerous countries with Abbaesque, but the reaction is usually the same, no matter where they go. "For the most part, we get treated as if we're the actual band itself," he laughs. "But people are very familiar with you in a really nice way, because they've seen you perform on stage and they've listened to Abba records since they were a child... So they'll often come up to you backstage, as if you're a long-lost friend they've never met before."

The singer says he is open to the idea of the hologram tour, but he wryly recommends that people continue to come and see Abbaesque, too. "Obviously, they look at the likes of us and other tribute bands around the world, and it must stick in their craw a bit," he laughs. "So you can't begrudge them going out and wanting to do it."

Part of the appeal of any tribute band is its ability to keep fans of various generations happy - something that Amanda Lane is familiar with in her day-job, too. When the Dubliner is not touring Ireland as Agnetha in tribute band Waterloo, she is running the Starmaker stage school in Blackrock, Co Louth.

"It's timeless music," she enthuses. "Everybody of every age likes Abba. We do lots of functions and parties as well as normal gigs, and you'll see all ages up dancing - because everybody knows every big Abba song. That's the great thing about it, and that's why their music has lasted, I think."

Her stage school charges have been similarly enamoured with the Abba shows and songs they have performed in the past. "The kids love it," she says. "Once it's anything to do with musicals, they're on board - and Abba songs are so catchy, so they love that they can sing along to it."

No matter who you talk to, it seems that people's love of Abba is not just based on nostalgia or a hankering for a different musical era - but a genuine admiration for one of music's most timeless bands.

"It's unknowable; it's just that magic fairy dust, in a way," says McClean of their enduring appeal. "Benny is on record as saying that he can't understand why nobody else has replicated what they've done - they didn't seem to think it was that big a deal when they were doing it, they just thought they were writing well-crafted pop songs. But on another level, the songs are about very human experiences: being at a nightclub, breaking up with your partner... feeling alone, feeling happy, feeling adventurous... all these emotions that everybody can relate to.

"And people also know the story of the two couples marrying and splitting up, and they recorded all the way through that; and that impinges on the music, so you have all the sad break-up songs, too, like 'The Winner Takes it All'.

"I guess that's why people still love them. They're just very human songs."

'Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again' is out on July 20

Irish Independent

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