The Name of the Game

Is play!

ABBA! Europe! Roxette! Ace of Base! Neneh Cherry! Robyn! Avicii! Zara Larsson!

Sweden is the home country of all these popular musicians and bands. Also popular songs from stars like Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Backstreet Boys and Celine Dion, have been written and produced by Swedes. Songwriters and producers Max Martin (Karl Martin Sandberg) and Denniz Pop (Dag Krister Volle) have penned catchy pop tunes for Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Pink, Usher, Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync and even Bon Jovi. Producer Shellback has topped Billboard’s 2012 chart as the #1 producer and has written for Maroon 5. RedOne (Nadir Khayat) has written for Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga (Just Dance, Poker Face, Love Game, Bad Romance and Alejandro), Pitbull, and One Direction.

Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeuwas, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad – ABBA

ABBA is the most famous of them all. It’s a phenomenon no one would have predicted in 1982, when the band seemed to be heading for oblivion.

The little dancing queens discovered ABBA Downstairs @ The Maj.

Chiquitita and Fernando

Chiquitita and Fernando are “Sweden’s hottest musical export” along with their friends, ABBA, Europe, Roxette and Ace of Base. They constantly tour world-wide. How fortunate we were to be able to see them in the intimacy of the cabaret room Downstairs @ The Maj.

Chiquitita and Fernando

Chiquitita and Fernando were fabulously funny. Fernando impeccable at the piano and providing backing vocals for the inimitable Chiquitita. He was the perfect foil to her theatrical gestures and absolutely accurate 80’s dance moves.

Chiquitita and Fernando

Thirty-five years after ABBA hung up their white cowboy boots and pink hotpants and retired, their songs are more popular than ever.
Every year about three million ABBA CDs are sold, and the stage musical based on their songs, Mamma Mia!, has been a smash hit worldwide. This year it is returning to Australia for its third run.

Mamma Mia! the musical opened in London’s West End on April 6, 1999 – 25 years to the day after Waterloo had triumphed at Eurovision. It debuted in Australia in June 2001, playing for four years. We saw it in 2003. It was back for the 10th anniversary tour in 2009 and it’s back again later this year through to 2018. Time to see it again. Glitter is little Honey and little Isabelle’s favourite colour 🙂

Sweden’s victors after their success in the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton with “Waterloo”, sung by the two girls in the pop group ABBA – Agnetha Faltskog (Anna), second from left, and Annifrid Lyngstad (Frida).
The other group members, who composed the song, are Bjorn Ulvaeus, left and Benny Andersson, secong right. Centre is Stig Andersson, who wrote the lyric, and on right, in Napoleon costume, is musical director Sven-Olof Walldoff.

It was 1974 when ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest at the Brighton Dome with Waterloo. The song became a huge international hit and was the starting point of their legendary international career. Over 30 years after it won, Waterloo was voted the best Eurovision Song Contest song ever at the 50-year anniversary show Congratulations, in Copenhagen in autumn 2005.

Despite the huge success of Waterloo, ABBA took some time to establish themselves as chart fixtures. Follow-up singles Honey Honey and I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do had little success, but SOS re-established them in the charts in late 1975. By the end of 1976, the band had achieved superstardom with hit singles Fernando, Money Money Money and Dancing Queen.

In 1977, ABBA undertook their second concert tour, in Europe and Australia. Beginning on January 28 in Oslo (Norway) through March 12, 1977 (Perth, Australia), it was the first time the Scandinavian quartet performed their hits to massive audiences outside Europe. The Australian leg was to be the most memorable, with fan-frenzy scenes later immortalized in Lasse Hallström’s ABBA: The Movie, released in 1977.

The band take a bow after their final show in Perth, Australia, in March 1977. Photograh: Polar Music International

Unlike some international acts, ABBA did not bring a stripped-down version of their show to Australia to save on costs. It was the first of the big stadium tours that would follow. They had the latest sound system with them, amazing lighting, an incredible inflatable roof that went over the stage (which helped with the rain during the Sydney concert) and hydraulics on the stage so everything could go up and down. It was the beginning of what concerts have become now. And they had a 100-plus entourage with them.

All this came at a price — $9 per ticket! That apparently was a lot in 1977. Still, $9 in 1977 is about $36 today, and nowhere near the hundreds of dollars we pay for concert tickets these days.

Despite the $9 ticket price!!, tickets were sold out and as the tour dates could not be extended, the band agreed to play two shows in one day in Melbourne and (twice) in Perth!

Part of the 100 plus entourage on the Australian tour was a film crew making ABBA the Movie, featuring live footage, mostly filmed in Perth, the only indoor leg of the tour. Director Lasse Hallström would later admit he wrote the storyline on the plane to Australia, based around a journalist trying to interview the band on the Australian tour. Unfortunately that journalist was played by the now disgraced Robert Hughes, who’d later find fame in Hey Dad and infamy and jail time for sexual offences against children. So the movie will not appear on TV in Australia anymore. ABBA the Movie was enormous in Europe when it was released in late 1977. I remember seeing it at the cinema 🙂

In 1982, ABBA split up, but as it turned out, the music was far from over. ABBA have sold more than 370 million records – mostly after they split up. More than 60 million people worldwide have seen Mamma Mia! the musical which is still going strong in London after 18 years.

ABBA has a major revival in Australia in 1994 thanks to the dramedy Muriel’s Wedding. The writer and director of Muriel’s Wedding, P.J. Hogan, scored major music points when he won the rights to use the Swedish band’s catalog for his 1994 film. Twenty-three years later, one of Muriel’s most memorable scenes remains the whimsically digressive talent show dance sequence, wherein new gal pals and ABBA superfans Muriel (Toni Collette) and Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths) flip the finger to the mean girls who tormented them and perform a delightful choreographed rendition of the group’s Waterloo.

While ABBA had achieved huge commercial success from the late 1970s to the dawn of the 1980s, by the end of 1982 ABBA had essentially dissolved, along with their mainstream cool. Ten years later, P.J. Hogan approached songwriting duo Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus to ask for film rights, thinking it’d be an easy pitch. They said no — and not just because Hogan, armed with absolutely zero budget for music rights, had asked to use the songs for free.

“They said no because they’d had a bad experience with another filmmaker who had promised not to make fun of them or their music,” Hogan recalls, citing a Swedish filmmaker who had been granted permission to use Dancing Queen with the proviso that he would treat the song — their biggest hit — with respect. Then they saw the movie and found out they’d been lied to.

In the fallout, the duo issued a blanket “no” to filmmakers. Hogan was persistent, adamant that Muriel’s Wedding could not be made without their music. His final plan: To fly to Stockholm and smoke them out. “I had their address, so I was going to camp outside their offices until they saw me and make my case in person that I’m not that filmmaker and they would be proud of the movie. It’s a hymn to ABBA! Muriel loves ABBA, and I love ABBA. So my producer, being very smart, bought the ticket but sent a photocopy of it to Benny and Bjorn. And the day before I was going to get on the flight, they said, ‘Stop him, you’ve got the rights.’ …They did not want this crazy person hanging outside their office!”

Hogan laughs about his audacious plan in hindsight, but it worked. “They gave me the rights for nothing. Dancing Queen, Fernando, Mamma Mia!, Waterloo — the entire songs, for nothing! And they gave us original mix tapes, with vocals split off from the instrumentals,” Hogan says. “All they asked for were points in the movie, and because none of us thought we were going to make any money, we were happy to give them. And that ended up being a very smart move.”

The happy ending: ABBA’s 1992 compilation album Gold: Greatest Hits (we have 🙂 ) was gaining traction during Hogan’s pitch, and it would eventually become the band’s highest-selling album. In 1994, the bump from Muriel’s Wedding — along with another Aussie ode to ABBA, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, that same year — would revive interest in the group, particularly in the U.S. where Muriel’s Wedding became a cult hit. Hogan beams about the effect. “I think it helped ABBA, and the film would not be Muriel’s Wedding without them. They now had the respect they deserve, and they’d always had trouble in the U.S. market,” he maintains. “Of course, Mamma Mia! ended all of that.”

In a pre-Mamma Mia! world, Muriel’s Wedding offered one of the best uses of ABBA songs with the Waterloo dance. Muriel and Rhonda’s sequence — choreographed by Aussie legend John “Cha Cha” O’Connell — is a GIF-able burst of fun and fashion, the kind of narrative indulgence that some might say would never make the final cut today. It remains one of Hogan’s, Collette’s and Griffiths’ favorite scenes. “I remember that white jumpsuit!” laughs Collette. “I looked like a little dumpling. It was like all jazz hands and Mardi Gras. It was musical theatre in a dramedy, and it was the most elated Muriel had ever been in her life. It was such a jubilant moment.”

Collette and Griffiths rehearsed the Waterloo dance sequence for weeks and shot it in ten hours, but they still managed to find moments of improvisation. One in particular stands out to both Griffiths and Hogan. “My greatest work in Muriel’s Wedding is when I stand in front of Toni and she moves my hair to find the camera,” jokes Griffiths. Hogan explains, “We hadn’t rehearsed with wigs on, and Toni realized that Rachel’s big curly Frida wig was completely blocking her face, so Toni reaches over, moves the hair, and stares straight into the camera. That just made me laugh out loud on set, and that’s in the film. That happened in the moment, and I’m just thankful Rachel didn’t break up when it was happening.”

Then came Mamma Mia! the film adaptation of the ‘jukebox’ musical based on ABBA’s back catalogue of 22 songs, including Dancing Queen, Take A Chance On Me and The Winner Takes It All.

Benny Andersson, Agnetha Fältskog, Frida Reuss and Björn Ulvaeuwas at the premiere of Mamma Mia! in Stockholm, Sweden
Meryl Streep, Agneta Fältskog, Frida Reuss and Christine Baranski at the premiere of Mamma Mia! in Stockholm, Sweden
Pierce Brosnan and Anni-Frid Lyngstad

With ABBA songs and a star-studded cast, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the film was a hit. Oscar winner Meryl Streep headed the cast playing single mother Donna Sheridan. Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård play the three potential fathers of Donna’s daughter Sophie, played by Amanda Seyfried. Add Julie Walters and Christine Baranski and what more do you need? Certainly not Nicole Kidman who was considered as the lead for the film before Meryl Streep sent a hand-written letter to Björn Ulvaeuwas and Benny Andersson saying how much she had enjoyed Mammia Mia! the musical. They realised that was the age group they should be casting from. And Meryl Streep said yes straight away and that was the ‘open sesame’ for everything.

Mamma Mia! received mixed reviews but made $609.8 million at the box office, from just a $52 million budget. Next year is the tenth year anniversary of the film – can you believe that?!? Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! isn’t just a line from one of ABBA’s hit songs, it’s also going to be the name of the hotly anticipated sequel of the original musical movie.

The sequel, which is already in production, unites many of the first movie’s stars, including Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, Dominic Cooper, Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters and Stellan Skarsgard. This time around there are also a wealth of names aboard to play various characters’ younger selves. Lily James is Young Donna, while Hugh Skinner is Firth’s Young Harry, Jeremy Irvine is Brosnan’s Young Sam, Jessica Keenan Wynn is Baranski’s Young Tanya, Alexa Davies is Walters’ Young Rosie, and Josh Dylan is Skarsgard’s Young Bill.

And, just like the first movie, original members of ABBA Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus have signed on to provide music and lyrics and oversee everything as executive producers.

So why have Abba’s songs developed a massive afterlife that puts them among pop’s all-time greats? In a nutshell, the chirpy, catchy surface sound draws you in, and once you’re in you feel secure because the iron grip of the song’s structure leads you by the hand.

After ABBA’s initial popularity, the next Swedish mega-hit was Europe’s The Final Countdown, released in 1986.

Another Swedish pop group, Roxette, formed in 1986, and achieved international fame in the late 1980s, when they released their breakthrough album Look Sharp!. Their third album Joyride, which was released in 1991, became just as successful as its predecessor.

Marie Fredriksson and Per Gessle – Roxette

Last year, after 30 years, Swedish pop rock duo Roxette have announced the joyride is over, citing the health of singer Marie Fredriksson 😦

Ace of Base released The Sign, the fourth single off their multiplatinum debut album in October 1993. The song has become the band’s most enduring legacy, and it remains compelling evidence that Swedish people are great at writing catchy pop songs.

From ABBA to Icona Pop, from Roxette to Robyn, Sweden’s reputation for pop superiority has spanned decades, and it continues today. But the arrival of Ace of Base helped usher in the Swedish Music Miracle, a period of time from about 1990 to 2003 when Sweden’s musical exports were at their economic peak. A 1999 report from Sweden’s Ministry of Finance found that royalty payments to Sweden from foreign markets were twice the U.S. per capita figure. Today, according to other reports, Sweden is the third-largest music exporter in the world behind the U.S. and the UK. Sweden is the world’s leading exporter of music, in relation to GDP. In 2003, Swedish music exports began to decline, but behind the scenes, the country’s pop talent has remained active. In May of 2012, half of the top 10 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 were written or produced by Swedes.

Interest in music is wide-spread in Sweden. Access to instruments and classes are provided through music schools run by various local municipalities so many children try their hands at different types of instruments to finally find which ones they’re naturally good at.

For those who can carry a tune, many start out in choirs. According to Sveriges Körförbund (the Swedish choir union), roughly 600,000 Swedes sing in choirs, and the union represents about 500 choirs. While these numbers may not seem staggering at first glance, they actually make Sweden the country with the highest number of choirs per capita in the entire world. Sweden’s strong choral tradition comes from a deep-seated culture of singing folk songs, especially around Midsummer and major festivities like Christmas.

Since 1997, the Swedish government has awarded its Music Export Prize in recognition of international musical achievements by Swedes. Past honorees have included Swedish House Mafia, Robyn, members of ABBA, The Hives, The Cardigans, Max Martin and Roxette.

Many Swedish artists take full control of their creative process – from songwriting to owning their own labels and marketing themselves independently – and pop rock sensation Robyn is just one example. She founded Konichiwa Records in 2005 to cover all aspects of her music career such as media management, recording contracts, and her creative process.


Sweden’s annual Melodifestivalen is the most watched TV programme in Sweden, with roughly 4 million viewers out of almost 10 million residents unleashing their inner music critic while voting. More importantly, the winner of Melodifestivalen goes on to represent Sweden in the annual Eurovision Song Contest – the world’s most watched non-sporting event. Sweden has won the Eurovision Song contest six times 1974 (Waterloo, ABBA), 1984 (Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley, Herrey’s), 1991 (Fångad av en stormvind, Carola), 1999 (Take Me to Your Heaven, Charlotte Nilsson), 2012 (Euphoria, Loreen) and 2015 (Heroes, Måns Zelmerlöw).

Bra jobbat, Sverige! Well done, Sweden! Sweden has also hosted the Eurovision Song Contest six times.

Richard and Per Herrey of Herreys (1984), Carola Häggkvist (1991), Måns Zelmerlöw (2015), Loreen (2012) and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA (1974)
© Frankie Fouganthin

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