Once upon a time, Abba’s story was lost in the mists of pop’s past. The mere mention of their name would raise a smirk. The satin jodhpurs. The shiny teeth. That glistening, wedding-disco sheen. Those catchy tunes full of hooks, those huge No 1s. How dare those four Swedes come over here and take over our charts?
Then everyone woke up. But of course: Abba were huge because they were one of the greatest groups in the world.
Next week, Abba: Super Troupers launches at London’s Southbank Centre, an ambitious, immersive exhibition that continues the critical rehabilitation the group have enjoyed in recent years. It is narrated by Jarvis Cocker, a long-time fan of the band, and takes the audience through nine rooms that tell the story of the group in revealing detail.
An admission at this point: I’m the exhibition’s writer, and have put together scripts for Cocker and the hosts that guide visitors through the exhibition. As a result, I have been plunged into Abba-world for the last month, from the early days of the band as individual artists in the 1960s, through the white heat of their Eurovision Song Contest success, to globe-gobbling fame, then the dissolution of their marriages and their perfect pop unit, before they split for good in 1982. Throughout that process, their talent as performers and composers has become even more obvious to me than it had been before, and even more thrilling.
“Abba were loved, to my mind, because once in a while in the music world, there is some connection between people that has magic,” says Ingmarie Halling, director of the Abba museum in Stockholm, with whom the Southbank Centre has been working to develop this exhibition. Halling is not just a corporate figure: she was the band’s makeup artist and costume assistant from the mid-1970s, and one of Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad’s best friends, working with the band on their international tours, photoshoots and videos. Some of the museum’s archive is used in the show, and glorious things gleam among the artefacts: a gold cape of Frida’s, stained with rain from their 1977 Australian tour, a hand-painted pair of Benny Andersson’s cowboy boots, an old school report of Björn Ulvaeus’s which shows a B grade for singing.
But this isn’t an exhibition where punters stand reverently contemplating captions on walls. These rooms are more like installations, zoning in on vital moments in the story of their success. We’re taken to a recreation of the hotel suite in the Brighton Grand where Abba celebrated winning Eurovision in April 1974 (it had been booked by their manager, Stig Anderson, and in an amazing coincidence, was called the Napoleon room – you may remember that he had quickly surrendered in the first line of Waterloo’s lyrics). Then you walk through a wardrobe on to the stage at the Folkpark summer circuit in Sweden, where Abba played their first gigs together as a band.