JOver 41 years ago, Abba gave their last concert together. It wasn’t a live show for salivating fans, but a short set for Swedish TV. A highlight was their recent hit Super Trouper, a song about the endless sadness and sadness of being on tour.
“All I do is eat, sleep and sing / Wish every show was the last,” sang Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, their voices still beautiful together. The lyrics continue: “Faced with 20,000 of your friends, how can someone be so alone?”
Fast forward to 2022, and on May 27, Abba kicks off seven months of concerts in a purpose-built London arena. Or rather their “Abbatars” perform there, digital versions of the band created using state-of-the-art motion capture technology.
Now in their 60s, the band were physically involved in the development of their space-age alter egos. Clips of them covered in sensors went viral after the tour was announced last September, but the Abbatar are oddly aged, preserved in their late 1970s pop heyday.
As a lifelong Abba fan, although not a die-hard fan, I haven’t bought any tickets yet. I have trouble with the idea of a band playing live without being there. I’m also afraid it won’t move me, which would be a bit disastrous, because of the emotional moments I associate with their songs.
My earliest memory was of hearing Abba. I was two and a half years old. Super Trouper came on the radio when my grandma and I were tinkering in her kitchen; she helped me sing. The chorus was about someone “feeling like a number one”, which made her laugh as the song been No. 1 this week. She repeated this fact often later, which made it possible to date the memory.
Hearing his opening bars on a recent radio show to talk about my new book, I – mortifying – burst into tears. They propelled me to safety and warmth, wrapped in the memory of someone I loved dearly, who is no longer there.
For me, Abba’s music has always been imbued with a very human, raw and touching love. It helps that their songs are staples of wedding nightclubs, bringing all generations to the dance floor and forcing even the coolest kids to put aside their pretensions.
Abba’s lyrics are also often deeply melancholy, giving them an unusual weight in pop. In the twist of Knowing Me, Knowing You, the breakdown of a marriage is set aside. In the disco dazzle of Gimme! Give me ! Give me ! (A Man After Midnight), a desperate narrator struggles with loneliness.
But these songs are far from depressing. Complex melodies, harmonies and hooks envelop these lyrics, turning them into catchy masterpieces that feel oddly uplifting.
Many years after that fundamental memory, I worked on Abba’s UK exhibition, Super Troupers, first at the Southbank Center and then at the O2. I sifted through the band’s archives, including their touring costumes, many of which were handmade. I also loved the unassuming merchandising of their last tour, in 1980, in Japan. They all looked like quaint objects of cottage industry rather than a well-oiled commercial machine.
Abba had not toured often, having young children at the height of their fame (Agnetha also had a fear of flying, made worse when a private plane trip in 1979 encountered a tornado). They leaned heavily towards pop videos, directed by Swedish artist Lasse Hallström (later Oscar-nominated for my dog life and The rules of the cider house).
In a way, Abba Voyageshow is an extension of those beginnings, which makes me reconsider my concerns. Yet this time around, their efforts are much less handmade, much more high-tech.
After Abba’s unofficial split in 1982, they became an even larger business entity. Their greatest hits album of 1992 Abba Gold became the second best-selling album in the UK (it has moved 6 million copies to date, three-quarters of a million behind Queen’s career-spanning compilation).
In 1999, the Mama Mia! the musical began – it is now the sixth longest-running show in the West End – and its film adaptation and sequel were also huge hits. Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson have participated in the development of all these projects, preserving and extending their heritage.
When I dwell on Ulvaeus and Andersson’s cunning as entrepreneurs, I fear that the magic of Abba’s songs is waning within me. I wasn’t the biggest fan last year Travel album either, despite the love of the singles that launched the album. I’ve been accused on social media of spoiling people’s fun and not understanding the power of joy. I replied to these tweets by posting my saliva Guardian essay on the merits of Dancing Queen.
The magical feelings that I associate with Abba come up often. Earlier this week I listened to The Day Before You Came, a highlight from their gloriously chilling 1981 album, Visitors. I let myself be carried away by the desperate sighs of his synthesizers, lost in the unknowable fate of Agnetha’s narrator, and it was fantastic.
I find that I have friends who go to concerts who are giddy with excitement. I could see concerts as an opportunity for fans to be together, I realize, to enjoy singing together, side by side, in dizzying harmony.
If this experience means a lot to the people I know, I’ll be next in line. To paraphrase Super Trouper, you’ll be fine, because somewhere in the crowd there will be me next to you.
Jude Rogers is the author of The sound of being human: how music shapes our lives, published by White Rabbit