My daughter just called from her first Americorps project deep in the woods of southern Virginia. I miss her so much it makes my teeth hurt. She loves her “team” of fellow do-gooders, loves the challenge, the sense of accomplishment. She says she misses us and I’m sure she does, but she’s busy and excited and doing new things and meeting new people and having a great – if challenging – time.
She’s having boyfriend problems: he’s a year younger, a senior in high school, and he’s having a real tough time adjusting to her being away. He’s jealous and insecure, wants to hear from her everyday, whines and moans when she calls, pummelling her with clasic passive aggression. She’s sweet and sincere and doesn’t want to have to dump him, but he’s kind of forcing the issue (please don’t get me wrong – he’s a real nice, sensitive kid and we all like him).
For some reason, talking about all of this reminded her of the ABBA musical Mamma Mia!, which she saw and loved on her graduation trip to New York this summer with her uncle. Here’s a description of the show:
- “Mamma Mia!” is based on 22 songs from the ’70s Swedish disco group ABBA. The musical somehow pulls off putting together all the songs to make a linear story. The story takes place on a Greek island, where 20-year-old Sophie is due to be married.
Sophie is loved by her mother, Donna, but she is unsure who her father is. So, she looks into her mom’s diary, chooses three former lovers as likely candidates, and invites them to the wedding, thinking she will figure it out when she sees them. Donna’s reaction to seeing her old flames is interesting, to say the least.
The musical opened Oct. 18, 2001 on Broadway, a few months after the Sept. 11 attack on New York City. Louise Pitre, one of the principal cast members, says she believe “Mamma Mia!” was able to put a smile on Americans during a serious and heart-wrenching time.
A smash Broadway musical cobbled together from ABBA songs? Stranger things have happened – I think.
Not that I don’t like ABBA, in fact there are ABBA songs I love, and I had a great time talking with half of the ABBA brain trust, Benny Andersson, a few years ago.
The Swedish pop group ABBA was the world’s most successful in the ’70s –
selling tens of millions of records by combining lush group vocals and gorgeous
Euro-melodies with rock and disco rhythms. The group’s lyrics ranged from silly to touching, many reflecting the real-life romantic complications within the group, a la Fleetwood Mac: songwriter/producer/guitarist Bjorn Ulvaeus was married to and divorced from singer Agnetha Faltskog, and songwriter/producer/keyboardist Benny Andersson was married to and divorced from singer Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad during the life of the group.
ABBA was dismissed by many (especially in America) as Swedish cheese, but the group’s best songs (“Dancing Queen,” “Take a Chance On Me,” “Lay All Your Love On Me,” “SOS”) have aged well and stand alongside the Beach Boys and Phil Spector’s girl groups at the pinnacle of pop rock.
Born December 16, 1946, in Stockholm, Benny came from an accordion-slinging family and he picked up the squeeze box at age six. Piano and Elvis followed soon thereafter and by 13, Benny was in a rock ‘n’ roll band, the Hep Stars, which by the early ’60s was Sweden’s most popular, playing the latest hits from America, sung in English.
The group grew weary of covers, and out of desperation Benny wrote “No Response,” which rose to No. 2 and launched a songwriting career. Benny produced hits for the Fabulous Four and the DJs on the side. “I always enjoyed being in the studio once I found out the possibilities,” says Benny. “It’s a nice environment to be in.”
Bjorn, born April 25, 1945, in Gothenburg, played in a folk group, the Hootenanny Singers. Pop music circles being small in Sweden, Benny and Bjorn met and began writing and producing together by the late ’60s. On one project, they enlisted their girlfriends, Agnetha and Frida, Swedish singing stars in their own right, to help out on background vocals on what turned out to be a hit single “People Need Love.”
Benny admits that “the girls sounded 600 hundred percent better than we did,” and the seed of ABBA was planted. In 1974, the quartet (named “Bjorn, Benny, Anna and Frida” to capitalize on the their individual popularity in Scandinavia) entered the Eurovision Song Contest with the rousing “Waterloo,” and became the first Swedish group to win. Spurred by the show’s massive television audience, the song became an instant international hit. Having hit through Eurovision also carried a stigma, and it took the band about a year, and a name change, to be accepted as the real thing.
That acceptance came hardest in America. “We didn’t do well in America, did we?” says Benny. “Not compared to people who actually go there and do their interview stuff and work their asses off. We’ve done OK, a couple of platinum albums, but only one No. 1 single, ‘Dancing Queen.'” Success is relative, of course. ABBA did score 10 top 20 singles in America between 1974 and their breakup in 1982.
Benny took his production cues from America. “The biggest inspiration for me as a producer was definitely Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys,” he says. “There has always been a lot of vocals in American music. This is a tradition you had long before the Beach Boys. Wilson used vocals in a rhythmic way and added layer upon layer. Also Phil Spector, he’s another guy who makes as much sound as possible come out of the smallest speaker. We tried to do that with ABBA. The human voice is the finest instrument.”
Benny is most comfortable producing his own work. “If one guy writes a tune and another guy comes in to produce it, it takes a long talk to correspond the feelings between them. It’s a lot of responsibility, which is why I think it is nicer to stay with the song I write myself. I would never let anyone else produce what I write. It isn’t necessarily the best way to do it, but at least it comes out the way I wanted to do it at the time.”
Benny is proudest of “Dancing Queen” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” which
he says “are both good songs and well produced, although I have done
plenty of corny things as well.”
Benny has mixed feelings about the advance of technology in the studio. I just bought a [Solid State Logic] 9000 console and you touch a button and it does what you want. Now it’s easy to work yourself step-by-step forward, and in that respect I think it’s good. In the ’60s and ’70s, when you had to do a mixdown, there were three guys trying to concentrate on fifty different things. You’d always miss something.”
ABBA has lived on in recorded form through the ’90s, with two collections charting in the U.S. and eight (including two No. 1s) charting in the U.K. Agnetha and Frida had several solo hits in the ’80s, and Bjorn and Benny co-wrote the musical Chess with Tim Rice in 1984, which produced Murray Head’s punchy electro-pop ditty “One Night in Bangkok.”
In 1992, Erasure released an EP of ABBA songs, ABBA-Esque, which shot to No. 1 in the U.K. And now, of course, there is Mamma Mia!
Okay, that distracted me for a while from missing my daughter.