As a shrine to pop’s cheesiest foursome opens in Stockholm, Emma Cowing explains why Abba’s songs will never be history
IT WAS only a matter of time. There’s been Abba the Movie. Abba the musical. Abba the seven-inch novelty wall clock (Benny’s at three o’clock, Agnetha at nine). Now, things are about to step up a white patent platform boot or two with the opening in Stockholm this week of Abba the Museum.
“We’re going to offer visitors a unique experience,” director Mattias Hansson says. “The museum will showcase Abba’s collected works in a contemporary, musical and interactive exhibition that allows the audience to get closer to their favourite band.”
Favourite band is right. For a group that broke up more than 30 years ago and haven’t performed on stage together since, Abba still attract an extraordinarily large and devoted following. They continue to sell more than two million records a year, their songs remain mandatory on every hen night in the land, while Mamma Mia! has become one of the most successful stage musicals of all time. It’s like they never went away, and indeed, for those who have had Take A Chance On Me stuck in their heads since 1978, they probably never did.
Alongside memorabilia and costumes, the exhibit at the new Abba museum that will perhaps excite fans the most is in a room dedicated to the Abba song Ring Ring. There, a chunky, red, 1970s-style telephone, to which just four people know the number, will be on display. Next to the phone is a sign telling visitors that if it rings they should answer it, as it will be a member of Abba on the other end.
“It will be a real phone call and they have all promised to call regularly,” Hansson tantalisingly confirms.
So if Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha or Anni-Frid do pick up the phone, we hope whoever is the lucky devil who gets to answer will remember to say thank you not just for the music, but also for the cheese.
Because really, over the years, Abba have given us more cheese than you’d find on an Iain Mellis staff outing to Cheddar Gorge. From the satin body suits to the bouffant-like hairdos, the cringe-worthy photo shoots (ever seen the one that involves all four members of the band swathed in nothing but six pieces of tin-foil, posing menacingly in front of a Swedish flag? It’s quite something), to the clunky lyrics (there is a reference to Glasgow in Super Trouper, mainly because it is one of the few things that sort of rhymes with “last show”), their gutsy, glam, resolutely cheese-tastic image has lasted the distance.
All this despite the fact that there has always been something a bit, well, not cool about liking Abba. Rolling Stone realised this when the magazine named them a top “guilty pleasure” a few years back along with Rush, ELO and Journey, while their detractors have compared their repetitive choruses to that other famous earworm of recent years, the Crazy Frog, and criticised their look as being something, much like smallpox and the Whig party, that is probably best consigned to history.
Rumours have swirled recently about a long-awaited reunion, with Agnetha telling a Swedish radio station in March that there was “a very, very small chance that we’ll do something together”, although it has also been suggested that getting together to creep about on stage now that they’re into the sixties may well ruin the kitschy, youthful iconography that has come to represent them.
But Colin Larkin, author of The Virgin Encyclopaedia Of Seventies Music, insists that Abba’s appeal is due not to their image, but to the quality of the songs. “They are catchy, magnificent pieces of music,” he says. “They probably own the word pop better than anyone else. Everything that’s spun off since has been about the music – it hasn’t been about them.”
Certainly, a greater proportion of the population than would probably like to admit to it still cannot tell Benny or Bjorn apart (Benny’s got the beard), or remember if it was Anni-Frid or Agnetha who got hitched to a German Prince (it was Anni-Frid who married Prince Heinrich Ruzzo Reuss, Count of Plauen, in 1992).
Ah, but the songs… Gimme Gimme Gimme, Waterloo, Dancing Queen, Mamma Mia, Honey Honey, Knowing Me Knowing You, Super Trouper, and SOS (Scotland on Sunday’s favourite, of course) – the list of mega-hits is impressive. Even if you’re not much of an Abba fan and have never knowingly sat down to listen to one of their albums, the chances are you will know all the words to at least five or six of their songs, just by a process of osmosis.
Indeed Abba Gold, which has been called rather meanly “the greatest hits album that will not die”, has sold 26 million copies and hit the number one no fewer than spot five times in the UK, most recently in 2008 following the release of the movie version of Mamma Mia!, itself based on the musical of the same name, and featuring a dungaree-wearing Meryl Streep belting out Dancing Queen.
While the range of merchandise – official and unofficial – attached to the band is extraordinary, from “Abba fans for Newt” badges, produced for Newt Gingrich supporters in the 2011 US presidential election, to the ever practical adult-sized, knee-high, machine-washable socks with Abba’s logo jauntily stretched around the sides, by far the most hotly pursued items of Abba-related memorabilia are the old and rare recordings of the songs themselves.
It is perhaps for this reason that another of the museum’s exhibits – where visitors can, says Hansson, “for a brief moment, become the fifth member of Abba,” appearing on stage with four life-size holograms you can dance and sing with – is expected to be so popular.
Because, really, if Abba has taught us anything, is it not that underneath, we’re all Dancing Queens? «