Whatever else John Cleese expected when touching down in Barbados for a brief holiday in January 1980, he probably didn’t predict that he would end up seated across a dining table from Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson of ABBA. He was no doubt even more surprised at how the rendezvous proceeded to play out.
The two-headed pop powerhouse behind what was then the biggest hit machine on the planet, Ulvaeus and Andersson were in the Caribbean for a 10-day brainstorming session. They’d swapped the Swedish winter for a luxurious stay at an old plantation complex previously occupied by their idol, Paul McCartney. There they toiled on what would become their seventh album, Super Trouper.
By chance Cleese, at that point riding high from Fawlty Towers, was also in Barbados with his daughter. The latter was – along with a fair chunk of the population of the planet earth – a huge fan of ABBA, then in their hit-making prime (the group are in the news once again having just announced two comeback singles and a “hologram” tour). So when Björn and Benny wondered if the Cleeses were interesting in joining them for dinner they readily agreed.
But the ABBA duo had more than small talk in mind. After half a decade of non-stop success, cracks were beginning to show. The previous year Björn had announced his divorce from Agnetha Fältskog, the band’s blonde talisman. The break-up had been amicable they insisted – yet the public sundering of their relationship was inevitably perceived as damaging to the quartet’s family-friendly image.
Further upheaval was to follow. Though the world did not yet know it, the clock was ticking on Benny Andersson’s marriage to ABBA’s other singer, Anni-Frid Lyngstad – from whom he would separate that November, having fallen in love with a friend of Fältskog’s.
Yet personal melodrama was the last thing on the minds of Björn and Benny when they approached Cleese. The songwriters were beginning to turn sour on life as chart slayers and in Cleese they saw an unlikely escape route.
Since winning the Eurovision with Waterloo in 1974, ABBA had conquered every pop market on the planet – with the significant exception of the United States. America’s indifference had been made painfully clear during an exhausting 1979 tour of North America, highlights of which included playing to a half empty 17,000 capacity arena in Minneapolis (chosen on the basis that the large Nordic diaspora would be sympathetic to four Scandinavians in sparkly jumpsuits).
In short they’d achieved all they reasonably felt they could and were fed up tilting at the windmill that a US breakthrough represented. They had an idea, however – a stage musical about friends kicking back together on New Year’s Day and reflecting on all had happened through the previous 12 months. They’d hashed out the title song, Happy New Year, on the flight out from Stockholm. Would Cleese be interested on coming on aboard as a writer?
Cleese had never laid awake at night dreaming of an ABBA collaboration and demurred on the spot; his lack of enthusiasm was unmistakable. Shrugging off the rejection, Benny and Björn called for the bill and soon afterwards jetted back to Sweden and the waiting Fältskog and Lyngstad. They would duly record Super Trouper, another global hit (aside from in the US, of course) entrenching their position as the world’s favourite pop group.
Yet the frustrations that had led Benny and Björn to approach a British comedian best known at that time for playing a catastrophic hotel manager did not abate. They would continue to bedevil ABBA even as the personal chasms among the band members grew wider – though there was never a falling out between the songwriting core of Ulvaeus and Andersson – and finally became too yawning to gloss over.
It all came to a head during the making of the band’s eight and final album, 1981’s The Visitors. Despite their reputation as purveyors of perky pop, darkness had long swirled within Abba’s music. The Winner Takes it All – Björn’s dissection of marital failure sang by his recently divorced wife Fältskog – for instance still rates as one of the most devastating break-up songs of all time.
The Visitors was bleak even by those standards. The fact was announced by the chilly cover image – the heating had considerately packed in the day of the shoot – of the four Abba members in a function room at their Polar studio complex in Stockholm, each seated apart and looking worlds removed from their band-mates.
“You had the feeling that ‘this won’t last very much longer,'” Polar employee Berka Bergkvist told Carl Magnus Palm in Bright Lights, Dark Shadows, his 2002 chronicling of ABBA’s rise and decline. “I remember talking with Björn about it, and he said, ‘We might not go on working with this forever. We’ve emptied ourselves of everything we’ve got to give.'”
One problem was that Björn and Benny were – as their approach to Cleese had suggested – jaundiced with life on the chart treadmill. They wanted to write musicals – or indeed, do anything other than churn out ABBA records.
“Our wildest dreams have become reality,” Benny had told Josepie magazine in 1980, 12 months before starting on The Visitors. “We have nothing left to prove. We have more than enough money to spend the rest of our lives in retirement.”
Rumours of an ABBA break-up had been in the air even before they went into the studio for The Visitors. Their hard-charging manager Stig Anderson – no relation to Benny – had acknowledged as much when the sessions for the album went on longer than anticipated and the Scandinavian media, which tracked ABBA’s fortunes with a breathlessness that would give today’s gossip blogs pause, wondered allowed if, in this record, ABBA had finally met their waterloo.
“Benny and Björn are adamant about coming up with new compositions that are not a copy of something they have already done before,” he said to Josepie in a separate interview in late 1980. “After everything they’ve done already, that’s definitely not an easy task. And it becomes more difficult with every album. Björn and Benny are worried about that too.”
One unfortunate complication was the fact that Polar had recently been upgraded to an all-digital facility. This in theory should have made for an easier recording process. In fact, the band pined for the warmth of analogue and found the new environment clipped and soulless.
ABBA in Paris, 1980
ABBA in Paris, 1980 Credit: APESTEGUY/SICCOLI
You could hear it in the music. From the chilly cover shot to austere ballads such as Like An Angel Passing Through My Room and Slipping Through My Fingers (Björn’s lament for the fact that the two children he’d had with Fältskog were growing up without him), The Visitors was ABBA’s long dark night of the soul record.
Even the solitary hit, One of Us – written by Benny about his break-up from Anni-Frid and of course sang by her – exudes an uncharacteristic chill. In the background meanwhile swirled the spectre of the Cold War and the very real fear that Sweden would be on front line if the missiles came raining down.
Fans will defend The Visitors as an artistic leap forward for ABBA. But the truth is that it’s an unenthusiastic hodgepodge. The glum shadow of the East-West divide informed the title track – which addressed the treatment of Soviet dissidents (it was promptly banned in the USSR).
There are occasional attempts to cut loose but these, too, fail to land. Head Over Heels spins a slapdash tale of a middle-aged high society woman on a spending spree. In a disorientingly different vein, Soldiers is a dour condemnation of the military industrial complex and about as much fun as you’d imagine an ABBA condemnation of the military industrial complex to be.
Benny and Björn’s creative frustrations were, however, nothing compared to what their bandmates were experiencing. If Björn had come through the 1979 breakdown of his marriage seemingly unscathed – he had started seeing his future wife, Lena Källersjö , less than a month after the separation was formalised – his ex was doing less well.
Always shy, the sensitive Fältskog had buckled under the pressure to break ABBA in the United States. On that infamous 1979 US tour she’d wept almost every day, grieving for the time spent away from her daughter and son in Sweden.
“I’ve gone through an extremely painful depression,” she told Privé magazine in 1981. “The thought that I had to continue on my own, drove me crazy. Björn always took care of everything because we were very young when we got together and all of a sudden I had to stand on my own two feet. And it did affect me, when he met Lena. But when he remarried, I cried. It hurt. It hurt a lot and it was so weird that he had found someone else so soon.”
Benny and and Anni-Frid Lyngstad had also broken-up by the time The Visitors sessions were underway. Benny had come home from the studio one day and told his partner of nine years that he wanted a divorce – because he had fallen in love with someone else.
As with Björn and Agnetha, their disentanglement was sold as no big deal. If anything, it was suggested, it might help the longevity of
That was not the impression gleaned by a reporter who visited Polar during the recording of The Visitors. The strain of separating had, it was suggested, turned the previously outgoing Andersson into something of a nervous wreck.
“There’s a clear tension between the [Benny and Anni-Frid],” wrote the correspondent from Privé. “There’s nothing left of the fun and joyous atmosphere of the old days. Benny is very nervous. It’s clear that he has suffered the most….During the conversation with Benny, one gets the impression that it’s getting ever more difficult for him to find the motivation that’s needed to continue with the group.”
“Financially speaking, we no longer have any worries,” Benny had said to the interviewer. “And our dreams of becoming superstars have exceeded our wildest imagination. We love our musical creations and as long as we do that, we will keep on going. We will quit when we think it isn’t fun anymore. What we are doing now, is not a skilful job. I know that we sell a lot of records, and that we make an enormous amount of money, but in fact it doesn’t mean anything.”
Nor were relations smooth between the two female singers. Both strong personalities, they’d always clashed. With and Björn and Benny now openly struggling to put their heart into ABBA, tensions between the vocalists grew more divisive.
“That always happens when people are together.,” said Agnetha. “I am a fiery type of person who easily flies off the handle. But I easily get over it as well. Anni-Frid on the other hand has a thick skin, she can take a lot, until she boils over. But when we fall out, then we really do.”
The lack of enthusiasm was mutual. ” We are not a machine, but four ordinary people who have got ahead by working very hard and in the meantime are bringing joy to other people.” said Anni-Frid. “The moments that I’m fed up with it are getting more frequent.”
The Visitors topped the charts in the UK and Germany (and naturally stiffed at 29 in the United States). But it yielded just that one hit – the downtempo One of Us – and failed to build on the momentum of predecessors Super Trouper and Voulez-Vous. Not that any of the band seemed concerned.
In November 1981 – a fortnight before the release of The Visitors – Björn and Benny were to be found enthusiastically bending the era of West End impresario Tim Rice. Picking up the Cold War theme of the album, the three agreed to collaborate on a stage musical that would utilise a board game as a metaphor for the East-West divide. Three years later Chess debuted on the West End – and ABBA would be history.
“Suddenly the musical dream had become just that bit more real to them,” writes Palm in Bright Lights, Dark Shadows. “It wasn’t just some vague inclination they were going to explore some day when they had the time. In Rice they had an eager partner waiting for them to commit to the task. This did nothing to strengthen Björn and Benny’s resolve to go on working with ABBA.”
Agnetha and Anni-Frid were also counting down to the end. The latter recorded an LP with Phil Collins (who appeared to immediately regret his involvement and succeeded in having his vocals scrubbed from a track selected as a single). Fältskog, for her part, did what she had dreamed off throughout ABBA’s glory days: living simply in Sweden with her children, far from the crowds and the hubbub.
“I have tons of wonderful memories but I wouldn’t have the energy to do it all again,” Agnetha said shortly after the release of The Visitors. “I am 33 years old now, I want to concentrate on things that are far more valuable than success.”
Though a formal split was never announced, ABBA faded away – leaving behind nothing but the memory of their cheesy stage outfits, some Alan Partridge gags and one of the greatest pop repertoires ever committed to tape.
From the Telegraph
Love Abba? Want rare and out of print Vinyl Albums, 12″, 7″ Singles, CDs and Memorabilia?
Daily changing stocks at eil.com now
eil.com – the world’s best online store for rare, collectable and out of print Vinyl Records, CDs & Music memorabilia since 1987