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Abba: Thank you for the music, Swedish pop giants!

Our three writers reveal why they still love the Swedish superstars four decades on

Published 15/06/2015

Super troupers: from left, Benny Andersson, Agnetha Faltskog, Frida Lyngstad and Björn Ulvaeus
Super troupers: from left, Benny Andersson, Agnetha Faltskog, Frida Lyngstad and Björn Ulvaeus
Dancing queen: Niamh Perry in the hit musical Mamma Mia!
Floor-fillers: Abba in their characteristic distinctive costumes

It's been seen by up to 54 million people worldwide and is one of only five musicals to have run for over 10 years both on Broadway and in the West End.

Next week, hit musical Mamma Mia! is returning to Northern Ireland, starring Co Down actress Niamh Perry in the lead role.

The 25-year-old Bangor girl plays Sophie Sheridan in this heart-warming tale of family and friendship, which is set to the timeless songs of Swedish pop band Abba.

The story takes place on a Greek island and centres on bride-to-be Sophie's quest to find her father from a choice of three potentials.

The film version of the musical was released in 2008 and went on to become the biggest grossing musical worldwide of all time.

Meanwhile, the stage show has become a global phenomenon, with 37 different productions having been staged in 14 different languages.

So what is it about Abba that makes their music still popular after 40 years?

Three Belfast Telegraph writers tell us about the band's enduring appeal.

'We would sing along to greatest hits like the Belfast Von Trapps'

Maureen Coleman says

It's a little known fact about my life but I used to be one half of a pop duo many moons ago. Along with my childhood friend Lucy, we would stage summer concerts in the garden of our holiday home in Co Donegal, charging our long-suffering families and the locals a few bob for the privilege of hearing us sing.

Well, I say sing ...

It didn't matter that neither of us could really hold a tune. We threw ourselves into our live performances with great gusto, seriously believing we were the "next big thing". Our dads would drape well-starched sheets over the washing line in lieu of stage curtains and then, lo and behold, we would appear, back-to-back, ready to belt out Knowing Me, Knowing You a la Agnetha Faltskog and Frida Lyngstad, those glamorous Abba girls.

My parents were both big fans of the Swedish chart-toppers and en route to Donegal every year, we would sing along to Abba's greatest hits on the car stereo, like the Belfast version of the Von Trapps.

The infectious choruses and simplistic lyrics meant the songs were easy to learn, so when it came to our "live performances", it was a no-brainer that Abba songs would figure in our repertoire (along with the odd Brotherhood of Man track).

We rehearsed and rehearsed until we were word perfect, choreographing dance routines to go with each song. Take a Chance on Me, Fernando and Money, Money, Money were particular highlights. I can still remember singing "In my dreams, I have a plan, if I got me a wealthy man, I wouldn't have to work at all, I'd fool around and have a ball." Not exactly flying the flag for feminism but still, I understand the sentiment.

And that's the thing about Abba, their music appealed to everyone really, because in some way, we could all relate to their tales of lost love, young love, heartache and ambition. I genuinely can't think of one Abba song that I don't like. The foursome were in a league of their own when it came to writing and recording perfect pop tunes, from the Latino-sounding Chiquitita to the heartstrings-tugging One of Us. Each and every tune was a pure piece of pop magic, with my own favourite being The Winner Takes It All. Now that was one song guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye - a song about the break-up of a relationship. It's all the more poignant as it was penned by Abba's Bjorn Ulvaeus, following his marriage split from Agnetha Faltskog. I wonder how many angst-ridden teens played that song over and over again in the wake of a love split.

Sadly, performing their songs for a handful of Donegal folk was about as close as I ever came to seeing Abba live. But there have been rumours of a reunion in recent years and I would move heaven and earth to bag a ticket for that gig.

My pop career may have stalled at a very young age, but Abba introduced me to a world of wonderful tunes. So Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny and Frida, "thank you for the music, for giving it to me."

'Everybody wants to sing a long with them'

Helen Carson says:

The Swedish supergroup Abba was the soundtrack to my childhood. Although, the first time I saw them perform Waterloo at the Eurovision Song Contest - it was a big TV event back in the day - I did think they looked ridiculous with their sparkly outfits and platforms. By 1974, their sequins and heels were well out of fashion.

Little did I know, none of their bad outfits would matter one jot once I fell under their spell.

Hearing the latest Abba tune was always important to my sister Dawn and me. The day Money, Money, Money was released I saw it on TV as I was off school sick.

I had the joy of telling Dawn how gorgeous Agnetha and Frida looked in their fringed flapper-style outfits - and what a great tune.

My mum always bought us the latest Abba album to play on our stereo. I can still smell the new vinyl as it was put onto the record player - Dawn and I gripping onto the LP sleeve, which always had all the lyrics on it, so we could sing along.

And that is, perhaps, the joy of Abba songs - everyone wants to sing along with them. From the unforgettable and unmistakable piano introduction to Dancing Queen to the staccato keys of Money, Money, Money, the four-piece that was Abba just came together, bringing their own special alchemy to the 1970s music scene. It's almost as if a High Priest of Pop combined all the musical magic in the universe to produce this perfectly-formed, seamless supergroup with their catchy lyrics and fantastic genre-defying songs that weren't rock 'n' roll, punk or anything else. They weren't considered cool, yet there was no shame in being an Abba fan.

The successful songwriting duo of Ulvaeus and Andersson easily rivaled Lennon and McCartney, producing a string of hits and number one singles, all of which are timeless classics to this day.

Mostly, though their songs are linked to so many of my fondest childhood experiences - listening to their music on my Sony Walkman when my dad drove us to his parents' house in Co Fermanagh, in the living room on our massive stereo which was cutting edge at that time, crowding round the TV with my sister to see them on Top of the Pops. Latterly, Abba tunes were guaranteed floor-fillers at weddings, but the music enjoyed a revival when tribute bands dug out their white suits and flares and brought back our favourite Swedish popstars in all their glory.

To this day some of my favourite songs are by Abba, such as SOS, Name of the Game, Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! and, of course, Mamma Mia. It's pop at its most perfect.

'It wasn't cool to like Abba, but I thought they were geniuses'

John Laverty says:

Agnetha Faltskog was my first, I suppose. Prior to her, 'desire' meant hoping a girl you liked would move into the same street. Ms Faltskog will never know the effect her long blonde hair and tight outfits were having on my adolescent hormones, although I'm sure she'll be well aware there were millions more just like me.

It was 1974, the year Waterloo won Eurovision and topped the charts. I wouldn't have thanked you for the music, though. Not then. People think it was success all the way after Waterloo. It wasn't. Follow-up single Honey Honey didn't even crack the UK top 100, and the less said about Bang-a-Boomerang the better. But the appropriately titled SOS kick-started Abba's musical renaissance, and suddenly they started to sound as good as their stunning co-lead singer looked.

In those days, however, it wasn't cool to like the Swedish quartet. Most of my mates played safe with Bowie prior to boarding the punk bandwagon. But I thought Abba were musical geniuses and still do. Dancing Queen (their only US number one), remains the world's most dependable floor-filler, while the haunting lead-in of Name of the Game still sends shivers up my spine, nearly four decades after its release.

Having said that, their cleverest (and second-best) song, to my mind, is also one of their least successful; The Day Before You Came. The sentiments - someone attempting (and, frustratingly failing) to recall how they were feeling, what they were thinking, the day before a life-changing arrival - are delivered so brilliantly (by Agnetha), they invariably had would-be songwriters across the globe weeping in awe and frustration. Yet it only got to 32 in the UK charts.

Under Attack, their final official release (pedants, take note: Thank You For the Music was a re-release), fared little better, but even with the group fractured and finished, they still conjured up some musical/lyrical magic ("I'm nobody's fool and yet it's clear to me, I don't have a strategy. It's just like taking candy from a baby ...")

But The Winner Takes It All is the indisputable masterpiece. It remains, however, almost impossible to hear without seeing Agnetha's pale blue mascara being ruined by genuine tears as she articulated her own, real-life implosion (honestly, by that stage of my life, I only wanted to hug her).

Abba live on, of course, and I don't mean via the Mamma Mia! musical. Their influence remains colossal. For instance, despite Madonna's huge haul of original number one hits, her biggest sale came with Hung Up, which sampled Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight).

And (whisper this) that iconic guitar riff from the Pistols' Pretty Vacant that all you non-Abba fans head-banged to in the Seventies was actually stolen from SOS.

The thought of that makes me smile, as does the memory of Agnetha in white Spandex, circa 1976.

  • Mamma Mia! will run at the Odyssey Arena, Belfast from tomorrow until June 20

Celebs reveal songs they spent their Money, Money, Money on

Ralph McLean (44) is a TV and radio presenter and lives in Ballymoney with wife Kerry and children Tara (7) and Dan (6). He says:

I'm slightly too young to remember Abba winning the Eurovision Song Contest, but I do remember them being constantly on the telly and on Top Of The Pops. You couldn't grow up in the 70s and 80s and not be aware of Abba.

Abba's singles are brilliant. Behind the glitz and glamour, the hair and scandals there was some seriously powerful music. I remember the scandals - you were always finding out who was romancing whom, and why. The tabloid stories have all faded away now, but their songs have stood the test of time. People still request them at weddings and dance to them - and that's the sign of a brilliant band.

People think of Abba's music as happy, but there is a lot of depth and poignancy to their lyrics and that's what makes them magical."

Favourite Song: Slipping Through My Fingers

Harry Hamilton (49), aka Flash Harry of the Queen tribute band, lives in Lurgan with wife Heather and daughters Brooke (18), Lucy (17) and Tianna (13). He says:

The moment Abba won the Eurovision Song contest in 1974 is a vivid memory even though I was only nine-years-old. I loved their music and was given the single Take A Chance On Me as a gift from a girlfriend on my 13th birthday.

Mind you, I never really got into the fashion and certainly never wore flares.

Sadly, I never saw Abba in concert even though I recall them gigging until the early 1980s."

Favourite song: Winner Takes It All

Tracey Rodgers (47) is director of Belfast's Style Academy model agency. She lives in Belfast with husband Stefan. She says:

Abba were considered a bit naff when I was at primary school - all the cool kids liked Showaddywaddy.

I didn't see them win Eurovision, but I remember just about every show after that talked about Abba being the best winners of all time. Their music was everywhere, but I just wasn't interested in them, though my dad played one of their albums all the time. Now, of course, I have their greatest hits on CD. I think I probably did like them back then, but just wouldn't admit to it.

I love the film Mamma Mia! and have seen it so many times. My husband and I even went to see it when we were on holiday in Portugal recently. Meryl Streep is brilliant in it."

Favourite song: Honey, Honey

Pat Jordan, who is a previous Belfast Telegraph Woman Of The Year in Fashion winner, owns and runs Jourdan boutique in Belfast. She says:

When Abba first hit the scene we played their music all day, every day in the shop we had at the time in Church Lane. Back then Church Lane was the Carnaby Street of Belfast - the newspapers wrote articles about it.

I never saw Abba play live, but I knew all the words to their songs. Their costumes were very theatrical, however, so didn't have a big impact on the high street.

Absolutely everyone was wearing blue eye-shadow, though - sales went through the roof overnight.

There was one trend that did catch on, strides or wide-legged trousers were popular and they're back in fashion now as flares. Everything comes back into fashion if you wait long enough. We also sold the thigh-high PVC boots with block heels. If you wore those in the shop on a busy Saturday you could lose half a stone in weight.

Favourite song: Winner Takes It All

Julian Simmons (63) is a presenter and broadcaster for UTV and lives in Belfast. He says:

I missed most of Eurovision the night Abba won as I had to go to a party. But it was on at my friend's house when I went to pick them up, so I heard Waterloo. After the first few bars, I knew they had won. Abba never really looked back from that.

I've always followed their career and watched the documentaries about them, but unfortunately I never got to see a live show.

There were all sorts of scandals within the band such as marriage break-ups, but I managed to gloss over all of that. It was all about the music for me.

Favourite song: Fernando

Lynda Bryans (51) is a TV presenter and lecturer. She lives in Belfast with her husband Mike Nesbitt, Ulster Unionist Party leader, and their two sons, PJ (19) and Christopher (17). She says:

I grew up immersed in the Abba era - I remember watching them on Eurovision and I was totally blown away.

Waterloo was such a great tune and the women were so beautiful - I thought Agnetha was gorgeous. We wore flares and platform soles, but I never thought I could get away with the woollen skull cap Agnetha wore. We all wore the powder-blue eye-shadow though."

Favourite song: Waterloo

Interviews: Kerry McKittrick

Belfast Telegraph

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