Benny Andersson: “I have no idea why Abba’s music is still so popular”

Benny Andersson on Brexit, quitting drinking and becoming a father at 16

was an ordinary 16-year-old with no real clue what to do with my life. I didn’t know that I should be a musician or a composer. I am a self-taught guy, but I could already find my way around the piano. Then I got this offer from a rock band, The Hep Stars, who had lost their organ player. So I just slipped into it. I would tell my younger self, just keep on doing what you are doing. You don’t have to worry so much. Take it as it comes and everything will sort itself out.

The early 1960s was a great time to turn 16. I was listening to all the music from the UK. The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, The Who – those were the days! The Beach Boys could make such good recordings as well. Brian Wilson is one of my heroes, but it was definitely Lennon and McCartney who inspired me to write music. I was 19 when I wrote my first No 1. It was called Funny Girl. I still think it is a good song. Rubbish lyric but good melody. I thought maybe this is something I should spend my life trying to do. I haven’t had a reason to regret that yet.

My parents thought I needed a real job. In the 1960s, being in a rock band was not considered a real job. We were the biggest band in Sweden from 1965 to 1969 but they’d still say: ‘What are you going to do after The Hep Stars?’ There were a couple of years before Abba where all four of us needed to work to put food on the table and pay the rent. And I come from circumstances where we didn’t have much money in my family. So music has been good to me, but I know what it’s like to struggle.

Benny Andersson and his son Ludvig in 2014
Benny Andersson and his son Ludvig

I was very young when I became a father [he was 16 when son Peter was born]. Even if I thought I was a mature 16-year-old and was ahead of my friends at school, it wasn’t an ideal situation. It wasn’t great when I was out touring. I regret that. But it works now and has done for many years. Now my son is 53 and my daughter is 51. They say, ‘We are happy you did what you did. Because it means being able to live a decent life’. They don’t complain, but I don’t know. My younger son [Ludvig] is 35 and I was with him the whole time he was growing up. I loved being hands on. We do everything together. Now we are working on the next Mamma Mia! movie. My wife gets envious because she doesn’t see him as much as I do.

Abba came together organically. Björn met Agnetha and got engaged and at almost the same time I met Frida. They were solo artists, I had my band and Björn had his. Then Björn and I made a record called Lycka, which means ‘happiness’. For one song we asked our wives to come in for backing vocals and all of a sudden, wow. They sound good, we don’t! Björn said we should try to write pop music and sing in English. That was 1972 and we wrote People Need Love, which they do. It became a hit. After that, to make people realise us guys from the North Pole exist, we decided to enter the Eurovision Song Contest. All of a sudden, we had an audience that was not just in Sweden. That felt really good.

I have known Björn for 51 years and it is like having a brother. That friendship has been very important. We still talk every week. We are not very much alike. I am who I am, he is who he is, which is one of the reasons we are still such good friends. Relations within Abba have always been good, we are all good friends. We have met through the years to talk about things. We are good. Absolutely.

If you drink too much, too often, for too long, you get into trouble. I decided 16 years ago that I have to give it up. And I think it is probably the best decision I have made in my life. We wouldn’t be talking now. All of a sudden, you are fighting fit every hour of the day. It is the best thing I have done.

None of us thought when we quite in 1982 that our music would still be around 35 years later

I was never political as a teenager, but I am now. That comes with age. You realise everything is important. I am engaged, I have opinions and support people who share my opinions. I think The Big Issue is a great initiative, for example. We have street papers in Sweden as well. Top of my list is gender equality [Andersson has donated to the Feminist Initiative Party]. But it is pretty messy today with Brexit, Catalonia and Donald Trump at the wheel in America. The UK leaving the EU is like losing a friend. It is like your friend turning around and saying: “I don’t like you any more.” It feels bad for us. But let’s wait and see if it actually happens.

I don’t understand why Abba’s music is still so popular. I should hope it has to do with the quality of the songs. We were really thorough. None of us would have thought when we quit in 1982 that our music would still be around 35 years on but there is still as much life in the records as there was then. We were lucky. The music was kept alive by Muriel’s Wedding, which was a really good film. Then Erasure recorded a few tracks and had a big success. Then Abba Gold was released. And there must be millions of kids out there that don’t know about Abba but know the songs from Mamma Mia! There are a lot of things that this young guy could have a reason to look forward to. I am very proud of what we achieved with Abba, the music of Chess and we also wrote a musical in Sweden called Kristina, about Swedish immigration to North America in the 19th century. That was a huge success here – it is more of an opera really.

ABBA

Ending Abba didn’t feel any different, I just kept on doing what I liked to do. It felt good. I wanted to try to write music for the theatre and then Tim Rice showed up with an idea for a musical about chess. I said that was boring enough to get our teeth into! I formed a little band because I wanted to go back to my roots in Swedish folk music. We are now a 16-piece band, Benny Anderssons Orkester. We tour every two years, bring a dancefloor and play for four hours. I still get the buzz.

Benny Andersson’s new album Piano is out on Deutsche Grammophon

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