Why did Abba break up? The darkness behind the return of the Dancing Queens

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28 March 2022

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It was the album announcement that thrilled the world, but why did it take 40 years? Swedish pop group ABBA have dealt with their fair share of torment, from failed marriages and suicide to a twisted affair with a stalker. Richard Kay reveals the reasons for the hitmakers’ hiatus.

Mrs Thatcher was in Downing St, Prince Charles was dating a 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer, and ABBA was enjoying the last of the band’s nine number-one hit records in the UK.

Yet almost 41 years after ABBA’s last hit album Super Trouper topped the charts in November 1980 (The Visitors in 1981 was nowhere near as successful), the enduring appeal of a quartet that embodied all that was fun and exhilarating in pop seems undimmed, as the extraordinary reaction to recent news of their reunion has proved.

Two new dazzling songs have been released already, a full album is due in November and a “cyber theatre” – a new global hub for ABBA fans worldwide – is being built at London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which will put on virtual shows from next May, featuring digital versions of each band member, reunited once again (albeit computer generated).

For while beautiful frontwomen Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad were the focus of the band’s success – and were made rich beyond dreams – stardom also brought them a measure of torment and tragedy which their male bandmates, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, have all but managed to avoid.

In fact, the disparity between their damaged lives – which saw both at times retreat into isolation and seek psychiatric help – with that of their ex-husbands (Benny was married to Frida and Björn to Agnetha) could not be greater.

ABBA at Waterloo station

While their music has endured, Benny and Frida (left), and Agnetha and Björn’s marriages were short-lived.

After the group’s break-up in 1982, Benny and Björn, who had penned all the smash hits, went on to enjoy even greater triumph and riches.

They wrote West End and Broadway smash Chess, and then, of course, there was the spectacular success of Mamma Mia! (while not their creation, the two were deeply involved with both the stage musical and the two films).

They also wrote lucrative hits for other artists, including the British band Steps, and have accumulated fortunes worth more than $388 million each. Now 74 and 76 respectively, they have always seemed entirely comfortable with their fame.

In sharp contrast, however, as the men continued their unstoppable rise, Frida and Agnetha have, for much of the past four decades, been largely absent from the limelight, instead falling from one misery to the next: fragile mental health, doomed affairs, a sensational relationship with an ex-stalker, a family suicide, and the death of a child and a husband.

But things weren’t always this way. When the band started out, they represented an unusual ideal. In the world of pop, where sex was as vital commercially as tuneful songs, having a band made up of two married couples was deemed risky.

Just a decade earlier, The Beatles’ management had deliberately downplayed the fact that John Lennon was married to his childhood sweetheart because of the fear it might damage the band’s appeal.

But by the time of ABBA’s breakthrough, when “Waterloo” won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, their clean-cut couple status was an essential part of their allure. Here was a foursome who sang happy songs on stage and then went home to continue loving each other.

ABBA winning Eurovision

ABBA accept their prize after winning the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest with “Waterloo”.

Agnetha, now 71, had been an angelic-looking and shy 19-year-old who had just performed her first solo single on Swedish television when she met Björn, five years her senior and then a member of a popular folk group.

They were instantly smitten and married two years later in 1971, the year before ABBA was formed. Two children, Linda and Peter, followed. But six years in, the marriage was in deep trouble. In 1979, at the height of ABBA’s fame, the couple split up and, at a stroke, blew away that wholesome image.

Within a week of their separation, Björn was dating Agnetha lookalike Lena Kallersjo, a Swedish TV presenter. Two years later, they were married and had two children together.

At the time, Björn and Agnetha described their break-up as a “happy divorce”, but she later confessed she had felt “mangled” and had needed counselling.

The pain of the split was immortalised in the hit “The Winner Takes It All”, and many fans have wondered over the years if Björn was being deliberately cruel in asking his ex-wife to sing the tragic lyric: “Tell me, does she kiss like I used to kiss you?”

By then, Agnetha was already finding the stardom and adulation hard to handle, which was only compounded by the guilt she felt at being apart from her children as ABBA toured the world. She began to develop a visceral dread of crowds, noise and open spaces.

Alongside the stage fright, she also found the devotion of ABBA fans alarming and suffered from dreams in which they set upon her and consumed her alive. A fear of flying plagued her after she was caught in an electric storm on a private jet. She was also not as socially at ease as the other three; her English was not as good, which added to a lack of public confidence.

After Björn came a succession of lovers, among them an ice-hockey star and a fashion designer, as well as psychiatrist Hakan Lonnback, the man initially enlisted to try and save her marriage to Björn.

She then had an affair with Stockholm detective Thorbjorn Brander, who had been assigned to her case after kidnap threats were made towards her children.

In 1990, Agnetha wed again, this time to divorced surgeon Tomas Sonnenfeld. At her insistence, the marriage was conducted in secrecy and only became public knowledge when they split three years later.

Around this time, Agnetha also had to cope with the suicide of her mother Birgit, followed a year later by the death of her father Ingvar. She kept it all a secret. Even her biographer was told her mother’s death was an accident. Those close to the star say things changed from this point. Her reclusiveness worsened.

Certainly, she must have been troubled, because it was now that the oddest chapter of her life began: an affair with a man who had been stalking her.

Dutch forklift driver and ABBA fan Gert van der Graaf, 16 years her junior, had been obsessed with Agnetha since childhood and stalked her for two years. She complained to the police, but in 1997, they started a romantic relationship.

“It was a very intense attention from him and, after a while, I felt I could not resist anymore. I wanted to know him,” Agnetha later said.

Within two years, they had split up, and by 2000, Agnetha was seeking a court order to have him deported to the Netherlands. Three years later, Gert was back in Sweden stalking Agnetha, and she was forced to seek court protection.

After the disaster of this dalliance, she moved deeper into the Swedish countryside, building a house around a private courtyard garden. To many, she was following the pattern of Greta Garbo, another Swedish star who found fame a burden.

Indeed, during an interview Agnetha once even uttered the Garbo-esque phrase: “I want to be alone.”

Neighbours say she barely exchanged greetings with them and for years Agnetha did not sing or even listen to music. She shut herself away from the outside world.

But then, to general astonishment, she released a record in 2004, a collection of 1960s covers, and embarked on some limited publicity for it, saying she yearned to find lasting love. The album, My Colouring Book, spent 25 weeks in the charts in Sweden, then it – and she – dropped back out of public view.

But in 2005, that all seemed to change when a 20-year friendship with businessman Bertil Nordstrom blossomed into a relationship. Sadly, though, that romance too ended.

Some have suggested rivalry with the sophisticated Frida contributed to Agnetha’s insecurity and unhappiness.

“Frida and I had opposite backgrounds, temperaments and personalities,” Agnetha admitted in a rare show of candour.

“We could get furious and tired with each other, so we had our moments.”

ABBA with gold records

We could get furious and tired with each other, so we had our moments.

At the same time, Frida, now 75, was said to be envious of Agnetha’s classic Swedish blonde glamour.

Yet for all her success, Frida’s life has also been marred by sadness and the miseries of the past. For her, it began long before ABBA.

Frida always knew she was the product of a wartime love affair. Her mother, Synni, was seduced in 1943 by a Wehrmacht sergeant, Alfred, with a sack of potatoes – a gift of immense value in Norway in a time when food was scarce. They had sex shortly afterwards, following a naked swim in a lake. Alfred, a pastry chef in civilian life, said he told Synni he was married. “I think she regarded our relationship as I did,” he later recalled.

The affair continued until 1945, when Frida was born and Alfred was shipped back to Germany. For teenage mother Synni, the stigma was intense. People in the street would shout “German whore” at her and shunned her. Soon after, the new mother, baby and grandmother fled to Sweden. Synni took a job as a waitress, but at 21, she died of kidney failure. Frida was just two years old.

Brought up by her grandmother Agny, the future superstar endured a forlorn childhood. She was told that she was the daughter of a German soldier who had drowned when his ship sank on its return to Germany.

Were it not for ABBA, Frida might never have known the truth. In 1977, Alfred’s niece, an ABBA fan, read an interview with Frida in which she said she was the illegitimate offspring of a German soldier. A meeting was arranged and Alfred arrived with a bouquet of flowers.

They looked over old photos and compared physical characteristics. But the reunion proved to be short-lived and beyond Frida’s emotional capabilities. “It would have been different if I’d been a child,” she said.

ABBA on stage

“But it’s difficult to get a father when you’re 32 years old.”

For years afterwards, she was prone to bouts of depression.

Her own ABBA story began in 1969 when she met Benny. Frida had already been married and divorced, and she and Benny each had two children by previous partners.

After a lengthy engagement, they tied the knot in 1978. But it was not to last and they separated in 1980. Benny took up with Swedish TV personality Mona Nörklit, to whom he has been married since 1981 and with whom he has a son, Ludvig.

Like Agnetha and Björn, Frida and Benny claimed theirs was a “happy divorce”. In truth, Frida was devastated at being left for another woman.

ABBA could not continue. The magic was dimmed, and so, after 350 million record sales, the bandmates went their separate ways.

For many years after ABBA’s break-up, Frida looked for family happiness. She briefly moved to London before settling in Switzerland where, in 1992, she married a member of one of Germany’s royal houses, becoming Her Serene Highness Princess Anni-Frid of Reuss.

But tragedy was never far away. In 1998, her daughter by her first marriage, then 30, was killed in a car crash in New York, and the following year, Frida lost her third husband, Prince Heinrich, to cancer.

For months she disappeared from public life and later spoke of how her faith in God had helped her overcome the trauma.

But in recent years she seems to have found contentment, living happily in the Swiss mountain resort of Zermatt with WHSmith heir Viscount Hambleden.

For decades, rumours of an ABBA reunion have swirled throughout the pop world but no amount of money could persuade the supergroup to make a comeback. Twenty-one years ago they reportedly turned down an astonishing $1 billion offer from an Anglo-American consortium to reform for a series of concerts.

Digitally de-aged avatars of the band will appear in their virtual comeback concerts next year.

Now, to the delight of fans, they have had a change of mind – albeit a studio reunion rather than a live one. Many will wonder why but, given their ages, perhaps it was now or never.

And in a little over two years, the ABBA story will reach its golden jubilee – 50 years from the moment they first captured the world’s attention on stage at the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton.

ABBA in the suits to create their digital avatars

Thanks to the comeback announced this month, there may be another chapter to add to the legend of pop’s most unassuming and enduring stars.

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