When ABBA was declared ‘the enemy’ in Sweden

The documentary ‘Against the Odds’ sketches the ups and downs that accompanied the band’s success. Though considered uncool in the 1970s, the most unlikely rock and punk rock stars were listening to them on the sly

Demonstration against the Eurovision Song Contest, on March 22, 1975 in Stockholm.
Ricardo de Querol

No one is a prophet in their own land, as they say. ABBA claims they never expected to win the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton, England, in 1974, with Waterloo, the song that lives on in our collective memories when other winners do not.

Surprised by their success, ABBA was also bewildered by the furious reaction it triggered in Sweden, culminating in a huge demonstration on the streets of Stockholm against the country hosting the following year’s contest: it is said that 200,000 people took to the streets, some armed with violins and flutes. The 1975 event did finally take place in the Swedish capital, but an alternative festival of folk, rock, jazz was staged alongside it in a bid to combat the commercialization of music. Faced with this backlash, Sweden neither participated in nor broadcast the Eurovision in 1976.

Like the Eurovision Song Contest itself, ABBA’s music was highly commercial, which was the worst thing you could be in the 1970s, a time when rock, in the shape of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and the Rolling Stones, boasted an artistic superiority and social relevance, although this status was already under threat from U.S. disco music. But in the 1970s, committed singer-songwriters, often inspired by a cause, were respected as there was a lot to protest about. Punk, with its raw anti-establishment stance, was around the corner. Against this backdrop, ABBA’s fresh, hedonistic and unpretentious pop was scorned. “Their tradition is that of commercial music;” said a scathing Swedish press. And, “They make shit, albeit luminous shit;” and most damning of all, “They are the enemy.”

All this is included in the BBC documentary ABBA: Against the Odds, a shocking account of the band’s ups and downs. Directed by James Rogan, it examines their five years together, from Brighton to the early 1980s, and winds up on the eve of their separation, which was never made official. They simply stopped recording and performing.

Before Eurovision, ABBA’s members were known to the Swedish public, but they were not stars. Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson had been in folk bands; Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad had produced a few solo albums. But seeing them on TV with those colorful clothes, the sequins and platforms, singing catchy melodies, well, their country gave them the cold shoulder. This didn’t just happen in Sweden, however: Waterloo was a very successful single, which became number one in the U.K., but the radio stations avoided playing it as it carried the stigma of Eurovision and its accompanying kitsch image in a Europe very different from today.

In their early days, the supergroup found a haven in Australia. They performed there for a New Year’s Eve show in 1975 and became an enduring glocal — global and local — phenomenon. Subsequently, they had a series of number ones in Australia that lasted until October — 42 weeks running — and embarked upon their first big tour. They then ventured in other directions, even venturing behind the Iron Curtain with a concert in Warsaw, broadcast to the whole of Poland.

The U.S. was a harder nut to crack, although they also had a night on TV with Olivia Newton-John. At that stage, they started to become influenced by the disco fever raging at the time, though that trend was also to run out of steam, meeting with furious opposition that triggered the Disco Demolition Night in Chicago in July 1979, when a mass destruction of disco vinyls was organized. The U.K. did finally come round to ABBA, and the group managed to fill Wembley Stadium for six consecutive nights in November 1979.

Abba in 1974: from left, Benny Andersson, Ana-Frid Lyngstad, Agnetha Fältskog and Björn Ulvaeus.
Abba in 1974: from left, Benny Andersson, Ana-Frid Lyngstad, Agnetha Fältskog and Björn Ulvaeus.Getty

The band had survived bad reviews, the pressure of fame and becoming tabloid fodder. Agnetha had it worst. In the interviews recovered in the documentary, it is clear the music was secondary to the women’s marriages, motherhood and even their butts, particularly Agnetha’s. The image of two perfect couples was shattered when Agnetha took her two children and left Björn behind after a BBC Christmas special in 1978. The band continued to perform, but did not survive more than a few months after Ana-Frid and Benny split in 1981.

The documentary ends there, but Abbamania was a growing phenomenon in the decades following the band’s breakup. Their best-selling album is the compilation Gold, released in 1992; seven years later the musical Mamma Mia! scripted around their songs premiered in London and was made into a film in 2008 with a stellar cast including Meryl Streep, Julie Walters, Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan. It is more common to hear their songs on the radio today, than in their brief performing heyday. Perhaps on the back of this, they got together again to record an album in 2021 called Voyage, which wasn’t bad but added little to their repertoire.

Quite possibly, ABBA were ahead of their time as their simple style was more widely accepted in the 1980s, a less politically driven era within the industry. Another point in their favor now is that they were well liked by those who were still children in the 1970s, and who are now mature adults, which perhaps explains their current currency. If they did not expect to win the 1974 contest, much less would they think that half a century later they would be honored and turned into avatars by AI for the Eurovision gala in Malmö. Nobody protested against them this time round on Sweden’s streets, which were filled instead with protests linked to the devastating developments in Gaza.

Perhaps the highlight of ABBA’s career was when members of the rock aristocracy from Led Zeppelin and The Who appeared in the VIP area of the London Wembley Stadium during the band’s six-night act. The documentary points out that even the Sex Pistols, the antithesis of everything ABBA stands for, would play the cassette tape of Dancing Queen over and over in their dressing room. So, it turns out that, even back in the 1970s, those you’d least expect were listening to ABBA on the sly.

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