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Abba once competed with Volvo to become Sweden’s No 1 export, and were one of pop’s most commercially successful acts from 1974 to 1983. Forty years after they broke up, the septuagenarians are back with a new album and are preparing to go on tour – with a difference.
What’s the name of the game this time? Avatars – or “Abba-tars”. The band will be touring as digital versions of their younger selves (see above), so no human Abba members will grace the stage. The “revolutionary concert residency” is expected to last four years and travel the world. Meanwhile, the real stars will probably have their feet up in Stockholm. Talk about a money, money, money making machine.
It’s a rich man’s world And woman’s. Blonde Agnetha Faltskog, 71, is worth a cool $200m; Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad, 75, has amassed more than $300m; Benny Andersson, 74, is worth $230m; and Bjorn Ulvaeus, 76, has a $300m fortune. Their forthcoming album, Voyage, has received a record 80,000 pre-orders in the UK alone, although not everyone is a fan. Spare us these “gurning sideburned garden gnomes… dressed in clothes Elton John would have thought de trop”, says Rod Liddle in The Sunday Times, describing Frida as “that brunette who always looked like a peevish supply teacher, belting out songs of unfathomable inanity”.
They’re forever super troupers to me. How did it all begin? First there was Benny, the beardy one from Stockholm, and Bjorn from Gothenburg, who were in separate teen bands but occasionally wrote songs together. By 1969 Benny had hooked up with Frida, a rising singer with two small children, and Bjorn was soon to meet Agnetha, who’d had a No 1 in Sweden at the age of 17. The foursome knocked around the Swedish folk festival circuit for the next few years and were taken under the wing of impresario Stig Anderson, who in 1973 dreamt up the palindrome Abba. A year later they’d adopted shiny silver glam-rock costumes and won the Eurovision Song Contest with an upbeat ditty called Waterloo.
After that, they couldn’t escape if they wanted to Quite. They had a dream and songs to sing. Although it took a few more years to crack the British and American markets, the money started rolling in: between 1974 and 1983, the band sold 150 million records. On their 1977 world tour, more than 3.5 million tickets were requested for two nights at Royal Albert Hall – enough to fill the London venue 580 times. Their manager, Stig Anderson, was famously wily with their cash and they made money through everything from art galleries to clogs. The video for their 1975 hit Fernando – which sold more than 10 million copies – begins with an image of a sunset taken from the pages of a magazine, says Ian Winwood in the Telegraph. “I can think of no other band whose presentational shoddiness contrasts so sharply with the exquisite brilliance of their music.”
When superstardom hit, were they having the time of their lives? Not exactly. In January 1979 Bjorn and Agnetha announced they were divorcing, but they still had to go ahead with a world tour in September that year. Benny and Frida got divorced in 1981, and both men promptly remarried. The band staggered through another year of recordings, but the magic was slipping through their fingers. Their last two singles – the ominous The Day Before You Came and Under Attack – failed to break into the UK Top 20, and the band performed publicly for the final time on The Late, Late Breakfast Show (live from Stockholm) on 11 December, 1982.
Were there no more aces to play? Quite a few, actually. Benny and Bjorn had a minor hit with the 1986 West End musical Chess, then a more lucrative collaboration with British playwright Catherine Johnson in 1999, producing the Mamma Mia! stage musical. This financial juggernaut has since been seen by more than 65 million people and made $4bn worldwide. A film adaptation starring Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried and Julie Walters was released in July 2008 – grossing more than $600m – and this was followed by a sequel in July 2018, which pulled in another $395m.
The winners took it all – but what were Agnetha and Frida doing for all that time? After Abba broke up, Agnetha retreated to the island of Ekero, in the Stockholm archipelago, and every so often released a solo album. She’d always suffered from stage fright and a fear of flying, and became reclusive and troubled after her break-up with Bjorn. Her second marriage in 1990 lasted just three years, her mother committed suicide in 1994 and a former lover turned into a stalker. Happily, she still lives on the island with her son, daughter and four grandchildren. Frida’s life was also marred by tragedy. Her daughter from her first marriage died in a car accident in New York in 1998, aged 30, and the Swiss prince she’d married in 1992 died suddenly in 1999. He left her an estimated $75m, some of which she put into the Mamma Mia! musical. She now lives in Zermatt, Switzerland, with her British partner, Henry Smith, 5th Viscount Hambleden.
But now we’re thanking them for the music all over again? Indeed. They started hanging out in Benny’s studio in 2018, while working on the idea for a virtual stage show. Agnetha recently admitted it was “such a friendly and safe environment” that, before she knew it, “I was really enjoying myself”. A few new songs became an album of 10, Voyage, to be released in November. Tickets for their virtual concerts, priced from £21 to more than £100, have been snapped up by fans this week for a tour that starts in May in a specially built arena in east London. The band were filmed using motion-capture technology, then an 850-strong team from the special effects company founded by George Lucas “designed and animated the de-aged avatars from the footage” says The Guardian. The “Abba-tars” will be accompanied by a 10-piece live band performing 22 of their greatest hits.