Australia's love affair with ABBA
In 1974, a group of four Swedish musicians took to the Eurovision stage and wrote history by bagging the first Eurovision win for their country.
In the years that followed, they became one of the biggest pop sensations in the world and made some of our most loved songs. They were extremely popular in Australia and it is thought that their early success in Australia catapulted their career into international fame! They have a cult following and are still adored by many generations and there is no group that has a more anticipated reunion. This group of course is ABBA.
Before meeting and forming ABBA, all band members had their own individual musical successes.
Leaving school to pursue a music career, Agnetha Fältskog at the tender age of 17 had her first number one hit with a song she wrote. Agnetha released a string of hits, five solo albums and was the most well-known of the group pre-ABBA. A song from her 1968 debut album (Agnetha Fältskog) was submitted to Melodifestivalen (Swedish national selection for Eurovision) however this song was rejected. Agnetha also played Mary Magdelene in 'Jesus Christ Superstar' in 1972.
Benny Andersson learned to play the piano as a child. Benny joined band 'Hep Stars' performing mostly cover songs in both English and Swedish, releasing several albums and becoming quite popular in the Nordic countries. Benny started writing songs for the band and further success was seen, and he also collaborated a few times with Björn after meeting. Benny wrote several songs for contestants at the 1969 Melodifestivalen, with the best result of second place. This is where he met his future wife, Frida.
Norway born Anni-Frid Lyngstad (Frida) also had some success singing traditional folk music as well as jazz and dance band music. In 1967, Frida gained national fame by winning a talent contest, however the several singles she released after this were not as successful. In 1969, Frida competed in Melodifestivalen and finished fourth.
Björn Ulvaeus was a member of folk band 'The Hootenanny Singers', that had huge success and were very well known in Sweden and the other Nordic countries. The band had an impressively long discography including an international release. So popular were the 'Hootenanny Singers' that one of their singles stayed in the Swedish charts for 52 weeks. Not to miss out on the Melodifestivalen action, in 1972, Björn co-wrote a single with Benny which came fourth.
Benny and Björn had crossed paths many times throughout their careers and eventually started writing songs together. They did have some success for others who had hits on the Swedish charts.
By 1969, Benny met Frida and Bjorn met Agnetha. With both girls were still working on their own solo careers, Benny and Björn got busy collaborating and working on other various projects. While in Cyprus on holiday together in 1970, the group started singing together.
Early success for ABBA
In 1972, the foursome released a single under the name 'Björn and Benny, Agnetha and Anni-Frid' (bit of a mouthful!) called 'People Need Love' which saw moderate success on the Swedish charts reaching the top 20. After this success, the group members decided to collaborate further and shortened their name to ABBA. Their manager also decided to promote the girls who had beautiful voices to lead vocals, which he hoped would be a success when coupled with the writing talents of the boys. He was right.
After some local success, ABBA was keen for a bit of international recognition, and in 1973, Benny and Björn were invited to submit a song for the Eurovision song contest. This is the year the rule dictating that foreign countries must sing in their language was relaxed (although temporarily until 1977). ABBA’s entry was 'Ring Ring' and performed their song at Melodifestivalen. However, success was not to be and they finished third.
'Ring Ring' however was a very successful song ABBA’s their homeland where it was released in both Swedish and English and reached number one and two on the charts. The video clip featured ABBA in some epic costumery adorned in lots of silver, platform boots, gigantic collars etc, which was very much in sync with the glam rock vibe at the times. The song also performed well in other countries in Europe as well as Africa of all places. The song eventually had success in Australia hitting the top 10 several years later after being re-released. The original release just made it inside Australia’s top 100.
Eurovision Song Contest
After the release of 'Ring Ring', ABBA decided to make their band a more permanent venture and the following year they decided to give Eurovision another shot. In 1974, ABBA had success at last at Melodifestivalen and was chosen as the Swedish entrant to Eurovision with their song 'Waterloo' which was performed in Swedish at the national final. 'Waterloo' almost wasn’t the chosen song as ABBA were considering an alternate entry.
The competition at Eurovision that year would be tough, with Netherlands and United Kingdom (represented by Brit/Aussie Olivia Newton-John) tipped as favourites. ABBA’s strategy was to stand out from the rest with their up-tempo rock song and crazy outfits. And stand out they did! They didn’t think they had a chance at winning, they were just happy to be there to gain some international exposure.
“No-one can imagine the tension of such an event. Your skin crawls, your stomach knots up and your throat gets all dry. You want to run away from it all, at the same time as you’re standing there transfixed and spellbound. Believe me, it’s a real ordeal" Björn speaking about Eurovision.
Voting in the 1974 contest, had 10 awardable points from each country, one each from 10 jury members. Sweden finished first with a total of 24 points, ahead of Italy with 18 points and the Netherlands with 15 points.
Sweden had their first ever Eurovision win, and ABBA had brought it home for them. In the years to follow, Sweden have become an absolute powerhouse at Eurovision. In 2005 at the 50th anniversary for the Eurovision Song Contest, 'Waterloo' was voted the most popular winning song of all time. Over the years across many different polls, 'Waterloo' is consistently voted a favourite.
Life after Eurovision and rising popularity in Australia
As to be expected after ABBA’s Eurovision win, 'Waterloo' had wide-spread success across Europe, Africa, and hit top 10 in USA. 'Waterloo' also gave ABBA a big hit in Australia and New Zealand reaching fourth and third respectively in the charts.
'Waterloo' the album was released just before the competition, also had some further hits, including another hit 'Honey Honey'. The album reached number one in Sweden, broke the top 20 in Australia, and was successful in several other European countries. The band toured Europe, however, this tour was not as successful as they had hoped and sadly many assumed that ABBA were just another one hit wonder.
The following year ABBA released another album. This self-titled album was the beginning of the special relationship between ABBA and Australia. Multiple hits were released from this album including 'I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do', which became ABBA’s first Australian number one.
In 1975, the video clip for 'Mama Mia' was shown on ABC’s 'Countdown'. This single was never intended to be released in Australia, however after pressure from the show's host Molly Meldrum, it was released and went straight to number one. Without a doubt, 'Countdown' played a massive part in ABBA’s success in Australia. If Molly said, “Do yourself a favour”, people listened. Molly and ABBA would form a close relationship in the years that followed.
A third single from the ABBA album saw another number one with 'SOS'. In 1975, ABBA had number one singles for 14 consecutive weeks on the Australian charts. The album also made it to number one in Australia, selling even more copies than their own country. ABBA’s popularity in Australia was gaining worldwide attention and after this success, ABBA re-released their debut album, 'Ring Ring' in Australia, where it reached the top 10.
Keen to keep up the momentum with their success, in 1975/1976 ABBA released two greatest hits albums in different regions. 'The Best of Abba' was released in Australia going 22 times platinum. It went number one before it was even released and spent 16 weeks at the top spot.
The other compilation 'Greatest of Hits of Abba' was not released in Australia but contained 'Fernando' which was soon to see worldwide success. This compilation reached number one in the United Kingdom and went platinum in USA and sold over a million copies.
Abba’s 1976 album 'Arrival' with its iconic cover of the band in a glass helicopter, went eight times platinum in the USA and became ABBA’s most successful album ever. The Australia release of 'Arrival' contained 'Fernando', as well as other massive hits, 'Dancing Queen', 'Money, Money, Money' and 'Knowing Me Knowing You'.
'Dancing Queen' was a clever release as at the time as disco music was becoming increasingly popular. This is the song that gave ABBA had their first number one hit in USA.
'Fernando' and 'Dancing Queen' ended up being ABBA’s two best hits in Australia. 'Fernando' spent a whopping 14 weeks at number one and 40 weeks in Australian charts. As was customary at the end of every Countdown episode, the number one single for that week would be played. However, when it was number one for the 12th consecutive week, Molly decided not to show 'Fernando', much to the angst of ABBA fans! Even to this day, 'Fernando' remains as one of the highest selling singles in Australia – ever!
In 1976, ABBA did a promotional tour in Australia, and a TV special was aired. So popular, it had higher viewer ratings than the Moon Landing in 1969.
ABBA was becoming so popular in Australia, that at one time they had five singles in the top 40 as well as four albums.
Australia reaches ABBA-mania with a tour
To the delight of Australian fans, ABBA touched down in Sydney on 27 February 1977 for a 11-show tour across four cities. ABBA was not prepared for the absolute mayhem that awaited them at the airport and were quite taken aback by the frenzied attention from 2,000 screaming fans.
“There was fever, there was hysteria, there were ovations, there were sweaty, obsessed crowds.” Agnetha, 1977
While ABBA held concerns they would disappoint their fans, this was not to be true, and over the next fortnight, ABBA was the most talked about thing in Australia. Keeping to an exhaustive schedule of shows (some days with multiple concerts), media events, they were also being followed around by a crew who was filming a documentary which was to be aired later in the year ('ABBA: The Movie').
On the night of their first Sydney show, torrential rain bucketed down threatening the concert. But ABBA still went on stage putting on a show to their adoring, if not soggy fans, even if poor Frida had a slip on the wet stage. ABBA performed hit after hit, with the encore including favourite 'Dancing Queen'.
The ABBA tour of Australia was a triumph. They had performed to over 150,000 fans, with many more waiting outside listening to their favourite songs. ABBA left Australia on a high.
Frida when looking back to the 1977 tour, "I've always had a soft spot for our fans in Australia and their wonderful support … It obviously does not matter from where you are in the world, if people love your music, it travels borders and captures hearts. It has a life of its own. We are immensely grateful."
1977 – 1981
Late 1977 saw ABBA release their next album 'ABBA: The Album' which saw success in some markets previously untapped and had strong sales in the UK. Two singles 'The Name of the Game' and 'Take a Chance on Me' charted well, but nothing like the singles from their previous albums. 'Take a Chance on Me' ended up being ABBA’s highest sold single in USA. However, sadly, ABBA’s popularity in Australia seemed to be on the decline with the album only peaking at fourth in the charts.
'Voulez-Vous' was released in 1979 with a more disco feel. This album also went to number one in the United Kingdom, and making it to fifth on Australian charts. Songs released were 'Chiquitita', 'Does your Mother Know?' (a big hit in the USA), 'Voulez-Vous', and 'I Have a Dream'.
In late 1980, ABBA released their next album that had a more mature flavour to it. 'Super Trouper' had several single releases, but none more popular than 'Winner Takes it All'. This song was written by Björn and sung by Agnetha while going through their divorce. While this song is obviously a painful song for Agnetha, she believes it was ABBA’s best ever song. The 'Super Trouper' album reached fifth in Australian charts, first in the UK and made it to the top 20 in the USA.
ABBA’s final album was released in 1981, 'The Visitors'. By this time, both couples had separated and this album had a darker feel to it, with the band trying out some new sounds. 'The Visitors' only made it to 22 in the Australian charts, but it did gain a little success on the UK charts. The most notable track released from this album is 'One of Us' and it was almost like they were saying goodbye...
ABBA and their legacy
It is said ABBA never formally split up, they just stopped making music together. While many variations of compilations were released, none were as hugely successful as 'ABBA GOLD – Greatest Hits' which was globally released in 1992. It showed that Australia’s love affair with ABBA was certainly not over.
'ABBA GOLD' sold a massive 30 million copies worldwide. Its success in Australia was extraordinary. It reached number one (of course), went 17 times platinum and still sits as the third best-selling album in Australia EVER! This album meant a resurgence in ABBA’s popularity.
When asked of the reason behind ABBA’s success, Björn once said “Millions of people happened to have the same taste as Benny and me and the girls. That’s the how I see it”.
Australian film 'Muriel’s Wedding' (1994) featured a daggy ABBA loving Muriel who struggles to find her place in the world. The film is backdropped with some of ABBA’s best hits, opening up their catalogue to a whole new generation of potential ABBA-fans.
'Mama Mia' is a musical (and two films) based on the music written by Benny and Björn. 'Mama Mia' is said to have been seen by over 65 million people and one of the highest grossing musical and soundtracks of all time, once again launching a whole new generation of ABBA fans.
At the height of ABBA-mania in Australia in the 1970s, as a tiny three-year old I was gifted a record player and my first album ('ABBA') as a birthday present from an aunt. ABBA has been a lifelong love for me, and while writing this article I relistened to songs that I have loved for decades. It was a joy. Thank you for the music, ABBA.