Millions of fans have flocked to ABBA’s pop hits like “Dancing Queen” for nearly 50 years, but beneath the soaring melodies and feel-good harmonies lie searing stories of heartbreak. “The music of ABBA might sound happy, but deep within, it’s not happy music,” says group member Björn Ulvaeus. “Even when we were really quite sad, we always sounded jubilant.”
ABBA — named after its members— was formed in 1969 when four Swedish musicians who had become two romantic couples, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Benny Andersson, and Björn and Agnetha Fältskog, came together to form a band. Their breakout hit came in 1974 when the song “Waterloo” won the Eurovision songwriting contest. Sudden superstardom wasn’t an easy adjustment. “Fans would become really hysterical — banging on car doors,” says Agnetha, 70. “It was frightening.”
That wasn’t the only fear Agnetha developed: She also became afraid of flying and ABBA rarely toured as a result, but they continued to score hit singles. She and Björn, 75, had wed in 1971, and Benny, 73, and Anni-Frid, 74, married in 1978, but the couples grew apart. “They were all very stubborn and temperamental people, and you can imagine what it was like when they had differences of opinion,” Carl Magnus Palm, author of Bright Lights, Dark Shadows: The Real Story of ABBA, exclusively tells Closer.
After Agnetha and Björn had two children together — Linda in 1973 and Peter in 1978 — their marriage hit even harder times. “When I was at home, I concentrated on the children” while Björn wrote songs with Benny, says Agnetha. Before she’d leave to go out on the road with the band, “I tried to explain it to the children, but it was hard for them to understand. It’s difficult if your parents are famous.”
The marriages broke up before the band did. Björn and Agnetha divorced in 1980, and Benny and Anni-Frid followed a year later. Yet some of the group’s most emotionally rich songs, like “The Winner Takes It All,” came out of those splits. “It was fantastic to do that song because I could put in such feeling,” says Agnetha. “It didn’t feel wrong. I didn’t mind sharing it with the public. It was a mixture of what I felt and what Björn felt, but also what Benny and Frida went through.”
Still, by 1982, the group couldn’t go on. “The energy had gone out of the band,” says Palm. “They came together as two couples in love — that was the foundation — but when you’re left with four individuals, it wasn’t so interesting anymore.” Fans, however, never lost interest. ABBA has sold nearly 400 million albums worldwide, fueled by resurgences of interest from the use of the group’s music in the 1994 movie Muriel’s Wedding as well as the smash Broadway musical Mamma Mia! and its two movie incarnations. No one is more surprised than the band members.
“I thought we would be gone in oblivion two years after we split up,” says Björn. “I still don’t know how it happened.” The quartet reunited in public for the film premiere of Mamma Mia! in 2008 and have recently been working on new music in the studio. “That was so perfect,” says Björn of getting the band back together. “Suddenly, the realization came: This is kind of natural, but weird.” That’s not a bad description of ABBA’s lasting appeal. Says Palm, “It’s a very strange mix of happy and sad that they made their own.”
Scroll through the gallery below to find out what the members of ABBA have been up to recently!
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