❉ ABBA are back and Carl Magnus Palm has the opportunity to tell their tale once again, writes Si Hart.
“While this new book is in no way as detailed as Palm’s previous biography of the group, Bright Lights, Dark Shadows this one does have the benefit of having a triumphant ending.”
After their triumphant return last year, it’s time to celebrate fifty years since ABBA first came together. ABBA’s official biographer Carl Magnus Palm is back to tell their story, a story that now, finally, has a happy ending.
I believe it would be fair to say that thirty years ago when ABBA released ABBA Gold for the first time, that no-one ever believed they would have quite a resurgence in popularity. Twenty years ago, the chances of their story having a happy ending seemed unlikely and even ten years ago, the Mamma Mia stage-play and films seemed to be the end of the story. Never did even the most ardent fan of the group ever believe that they would be brought back together for new music and no-one could have dreamed that there would be a technically incredible live show off the back of that new music. Yet, rather fantastically in 2022, ABBA are back and Carl Magnus Palm has the opportunity to tell their tale once again.
While this new book is in no way as detailed as his previous biography of the group, Bright Lights, Dark Shadows this one does have the benefit of having a triumphant ending. Palm is able to explore how ABBA returned for firstly two new songs, then an album and then a live show, exploring some of the hiccups along the way to Voyage. It’s an absolute joy to read this final chapter and you can sense that Palm is really enjoying writing a new end to ABBA’s story. He investigates the false starts and how the technology promised much but couldn’t deliver until they brought Industrial Light and Magic on board to produce the show and how it went from a touring show that was going to head around the world to the band building their own arena in London in order to make it happen. ABBA truly are back at the end of their story.
There’s probably a book just in the story of that happening, but here that merely is where the story of ABBA ends for now. Palm takes us right back to the beginning, exploring the childhoods and early careers of all four members of the group, looking at Benny’s early success in The Hep Stars, Sweeden’s answer to The Beatles and how at the same time Bjorn was having equal success in The Hootenany Singers. Both were hugely popular bands in the 1960s and both men agreed it was only a matter of time before their paths crossed.
One of the things I really enjoyed as a throughline in the book was how much the creative partnership between Benny and Bjorn really meant to the two of them. More than anything, this is their story; two creative minds coming together and enjoying the creative acts that came out of that.
There are some wonderful passages throughout that explore how they worked together on bringing some of the most well-known ABBA songs to life. There’s a very detailed look at how Dancing Queen came together for example. It’s interesting to read how the edits tightened the song up from its original conception and how losing the first verse but gaining the piano glissando and going straight into the chorus made the song something far more special.
The book celebrates the work of their engineer Michael B. Tretow and ensures that the work that he did to create the ABBA sound isn’t ever forgotten.
Of course, ABBA wasn’t and isn’t just Benny and Bjorn. Agnetha’s and Ann-Frid’s lives before, during and after their time in the group are explored as thoroughly as those of the men. The book doesn’t shy away from dealing with Anni-Frid’s tough childhood and the way that scarred her emotionally early on. It’s wonderful to read how her love of singing shaped her life from her teens and how going on to win a talent contest that brought her onto Swedish television and changed her life forever. Meeting Benny by chance in a restaurant and shortly afterwards on a radio show sparked a relationship between the two of them.
Agentha’s early life was more conventional and idyllic but like Frida, her love of music and singing was to change her life. By 1968 she’d recorded her first number one single and never looked back. By 1969 she’d appeared frequently on TV, and it was during the recording of one show where she had met Bjorn. The two of them fell in love and by 1970 when they became engaged the seeds of ABBA were sown.
The book explores the way the band came together in loving detail, with the many roads not taken and how the state of the Swedish musical scene put many barriers in their way. Throughout the book, Carl Magnus Palm does not shy away from the darker moments of their time together, when arguments and frustrations worked against them and as the story unfolds those fears turn to elation as their star rises.
Of course, we want to read the stories of the group at their height, the way we all remember them. Even then Palm doesn’t gloss over the shadows behind the glitter. Fame can be a double-edged sword and behind the smiles and outrageous costumes we see in the many photos beautifully chosen in the book, there’s the stories of Agnetha’s misery at being separated from her children as the band toured, the flight in bad weather that nearly ended the ABBA story years too early plus the inevitable rifts that formed in the two relationships over the years they were together. None of this is sensationalised and it is treated with as much respect as the positive side of ABBA and the elation they all felt as they won over the world with their music.
Some of the other major players in the ABBA story are covered too. As well as the impact that Michael B. Tretow had on their sound, the importance of Lasse Hallström, their video director is also much celebrated. His work on their memorable pop videos is discussed and the impact that they had around the world is covered as this was the main way many people across the globe actually got to see ABBA.
Stig Anderson, the band’s producer and “fifth member of ABBA” as he was often referred to is obviously much discussed too. Again, the book doesn’t shy away from showing that he was a man of deep flaws who was perhaps not the expert in business that he made himself out to be. Some of the most interesting parts of the book are the exploration of the sometimes-eccentric business deals he made and how ultimately that would drive a wedge between him and the band. That said, the fact that the last ABBA recording and appearance made together before their comeback was a song for Stig says something about the deep relationship that they had.
There have been many books written about ABBA that have taken a superficial look at the group, focussing on the relationships between Agnetha and Bjorn and Benny and Frida that never really delve deeply into the working of the band. This definitely isn’t one of them. This is a work that comes from a place of love and respect for ABBA but isn’t afraid to look beyond the story we all know. Carl Magnus Palm has written something that goes beyond that easy route and ABBA at 50 is all the better for that. Whether you know their story inside out or not; this is an essential book that really does give you the real story of ABBA.
❉ ‘ABBA at 50’ by Carl Magnus Palm was published by Palazzo Editions in the UK on 8 September 2022. for more background information on the book, visit the author’s website.
❉ Simon Hart has been a regular contributor to We Are Cult since its inception in September 2016 and he co-hosts Maximum Power: A Blake’s 7 Podcast: Follow @MaximumPowerPod.