The most commercially successful pop group of the 1970s, ABBA put Sweden on the map as a music mecca and influenced the sound of pop for decades to come. With their flamboyant fashion sense and two-couple membership, the quartet also became pop culture icons. However, it was their distinctive harmonies and intricate production (combining folk, pop, rock, and even classical) introduced on songs from their 1973 debut album, Ring Ring, that won them countless fans. It’s a sound that garnered the first Swedish win at Eurovision in 1974 with “Waterloo,” the title track from their second album and a song that topped the charts across Europe while reaching the U.S. Top Ten. ABBA went to number one in the States with 1976′s “Dancing Queen,” another worldwide smash. The hits kept coming through the early ’80s, including 1978’s “Take a Chance on Me” and the dramatic 1980 ballad “The Winner Takes It All.” Though ABBA disbanded in 1982, they remained in the pop culture consciousness for decades to follow thanks to popular compilations, licensing, and the success of Mamma Mia!, the Tony-nominated 1999 jukebox musical that was adapted for the big screen in 2008. As both a stage and film production, Mamma Mia! was a massive hit — the movie spawned a sequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again — attracting new audiences who were born long after the group’s split. ABBA unexpectedly returned to activity in the late 2000s, a comeback that culminated with the 2021 release of Voyage, their first album in 40 years.
The origins of ABBA date back to 1966, when keyboardist and vocalist Benny Andersson, a onetime member of the popular beat outfit the Hep Stars, first teamed with guitarist and vocalist Bjorn Ulvaeus, the leader of the folk-rock unit the Hootenanny Singers. The two performers began composing songs together and handling session and production work for Polar Music/Union Songs, a publishing company owned by Stig Anderson, himself a prolific songwriter throughout the ’50s and ’60s. At the same time, both Andersson and Ulvaeus worked on projects with their respective girlfriends: Ulvaeus had become involved with vocalist Agnetha Faltskog, a performer with a recent number one Swedish hit, “I Was So in Love,” under her belt, while Andersson began seeing Anni-Frid Lyngstad, a one-time jazz singer who rose to fame by winning a national talent contest.
In 1971, Faltskog ventured into theatrical work, accepting the role of Mary Magdalene in a Swedish production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar; her cover of the musical’s “Don’t Know How to Love Him” became a significant hit. The following year, the duo of Andersson and Ulvaeus scored a massive international hit with “People Need Love,” which featured Faltskog and Lyngstad on backing vocals. The record’s success earned them an invitation to enter the Swedish leg of the 1973 Eurovision song contest, where, under the unwieldy name of Bjorn, Benny, Agnetha & Frida, they submitted “Ring Ring,” which proved extremely popular with audiences but placed only third in the judges’ ballots.
The next year, rechristened ABBA (a suggestion from Stig Anderson and an acronym of the members’ first names), the quartet submitted the single “Waterloo,” and became the first Swedish act to win the Eurovision competition. The record proved to be the first of many international hits, although the group hit a slump after their initial success as subsequent singles failed to chart. In 1975, however, ABBA issued “S.O.S.,” a smash not only in America and Britain but also in non-English speaking countries such as Spain, Germany and the Benelux nations, where the group’s success was fairly unprecedented. A string of hits followed, including “Mamma Mia,” “Fernando,” and “Dancing Queen” (ABBA’s sole U.S. chart-topper), further honing their lush, buoyant sound; by the spring of 1976, they were already in position to issue their first Greatest Hits collection.
ABBA’s popularity continued in 1977, when both “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and “The Name of the Game” dominated airwaves. The group also starred in the feature film ABBA: The Movie, which was released in 1978. That year Andersson and Lyngstad married, as had Ulvaeus and Faltskog in 1971, although the latter couple separated a few months later; in fact, romantic suffering was the subject of many songs on the quartet’s next LP, 1979′s Voulez-Vous. Shortly after the release of 1980s Super Trouper, Andersson and Lyngstad divorced as well, further straining the group dynamic. The Visitors, issued the following year, was the final LP of new ABBA material of that era, and the foursome officially disbanded after the December 1982 release of their single “Under Attack.”
Although all of the group’s members soon embarked on new projects — both Lyngstad and Faltskog issued solo LPs, while Andersson and Ulvaeus collaborated with Tim Rice on the musical Chess — none proved as successful as the group’s earlier work, largely because throughout much of the world, especially Europe and Australia, the ABBA phenomenon never went away. Repackaged hits compilations and live collections continued hitting the charts long after the group’s demise, and new artists regularly pointed to the quartet’s inspiration: while the British dance duo Erasure released a covers collection, ABBA-esque, an Australian group called Bjorn Again found success as ABBA impersonators. In 1993, “Dancing Queen” became a staple of U2′s “Zoo TV” tour — Andersson and Ulvaeus even joined the Irish superstars on-stage in Stockholm — while the 1995 feature Muriel's Wedding, which won acclaim for its depiction of a lonely Australian girl who seeks refuge in ABBA’s music, helped bring the group’s work to the attention of a new generation of moviegoers and music fans.
In 1997, theater producer Judy Craymer commissioned playwright/screenwriter Catherine Johnson to write a musical-theater showcase for ABBA’s songs. Members of the band were involved in the development of Mamma Mia!, which opened on the West End in April 1999. A year later, it was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best New Musical. The Broadway premiere followed in October 2001, leading to five Tony nominations, including best musical, best book for Johnson, and best orchestrations for Andersson, Ulvaeus, and Martin Koch. A film version starring, among others, Amanda Seyfried and Meryl Streep hit movie theaters in mid-2008, and its accompanying soundtrack reached number one in over a dozen countries, including the U.S., Canada, and Australia. In 2010, ABBA were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Barry and Robin Gibb.
After a nearly 14-year run, the original Broadway production of Mamma Mia! closed in September 2015. The following January, all four members of ABBA attended Mamma Mia! The Party in Stockholm. That June marked the 50th anniversary of Andersson and Ulvaeus’ first meeting. Returning with most of the same cast from the 2008 film, a sequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, saw a worldwide release in 2018. Its soundtrack went to number three on the Billboard 200, topping the album charts in places as far-spread as the U.K., Australia, and Greece. Around that time, a reunited ABBA returned to the studio to begin work on their first material in over 30 years. In late August 2021, the band launched a website and social media accounts for Voyage, a new studio album and “avatar concert” residency in London involving motion-capture digital avatars of the quartet alongside a ten-piece band. The lead singles “I Still Have Faith in You” and “Don’t Shut Me Down” were released simultaneously in September; the latter song took the band to the top of Sweden’s singles chart for the first time since 1978. Stateside, “Don’t Shut Me Down” landed on Billboard’s Digital Song Sales chart (number 32) alongside renewed interest in “Dancing Queen” (number 19), while “I Still Have Faith in You” was nominated for a Grammy Award for Record of the Year. The Voyage LP followed on Capitol in November 2021. ~ Jason Ankeny & Marcy Donelson