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With longtime songwriting partner Björn Ulvaeus, Swedish singer-producer Benny Andersson was the creative force behind the vocal group ABBA, which became one of the most successful pop groups in music history, selling over 370 million singles and albums worldwide. Andersson and Ulvaeus co-wrote the majority of the group's hits, including the chart-topping "Dancing Queen," "Waterloo," "Knowing Me, Knowing You," "SOS" and dozens of others, which were earmarked by the sparkling four-part harmonies of Andersson and Ulvaeus with singers Agnetha Fältskog Anni-Frid Lyngstad, who were also their respective spouses, and a lush, dance-friendly production style that put them at the forefront of the international pop scene in the 1970s. ABBA soon became massively popular throughout Europe, Australia and Latin America, with America coming somewhat late to the party in the mid-1970s when the group reached its creative apex with the No. 1 sensation "Dancing Queen." However, personal turmoil between the two couples and declining stateside interest in all things disco-friendly led to their breakup in 1982. Andersson and Ulvaeus transitioned to the theatrical world, penning the U.K. hit musical "Chess" and...
With longtime songwriting partner Björn Ulvaeus, Swedish singer-producer Benny Andersson was the creative force behind the vocal group ABBA, which became one of the most successful pop groups in music history, selling over 370 million singles and albums worldwide. Andersson and Ulvaeus co-wrote the majority of the group's hits, including the chart-topping "Dancing Queen," "Waterloo," "Knowing Me, Knowing You," "SOS" and dozens of others, which were earmarked by the sparkling four-part harmonies of Andersson and Ulvaeus with singers Agnetha Fältskog Anni-Frid Lyngstad, who were also their respective spouses, and a lush, dance-friendly production style that put them at the forefront of the international pop scene in the 1970s. ABBA soon became massively popular throughout Europe, Australia and Latin America, with America coming somewhat late to the party in the mid-1970s when the group reached its creative apex with the No. 1 sensation "Dancing Queen." However, personal turmoil between the two couples and declining stateside interest in all things disco-friendly led to their breakup in 1982. Andersson and Ulvaeus transitioned to the theatrical world, penning the U.K. hit musical "Chess" and co-producing the global smash "Mamma Mia!" which featured a number of their vintage classics. The band itself and their original singles also underwent a revival in the 1990s, thanks to films like "Muriel's Wedding" (1994) and covers by newer pop artists that sent their greatest hits collections back up the charts. Benny Andersson's central role in the mini-industry that sprung up around ABBA even years after its demise, made him one of the most successful songwriter-producers of the 20th century and beyond.
Born Göran Bror Benny Andersson on Dec. 16, 1946 in Väillingby, a suburban district of Stockholm, Sweden, he was the elder of two children by construction engineer Gösta Andersson and his wife, Laila. Both his father and grandfather played accordion, and Andersson followed suit at the age of six while also teaching himself to play piano. His initial musical education was a combination of Swedish folk and traditional songs and pop material by Elvis Presley and Italian singer Caterina Valente. Andersson began applying these influences to a variety of bands in the early 1960s, beginning with Elverkets Spelmanslag (The Eletricity Board Folk Music Group), which, despite its moniker, played pop instrumentals. He soon joined the Hep Stars, a pop-rock act that performed American pop songs like "Cadillac," which became their first No. 1 single on the Swedish radio charts. Andersson soon began writing original material for the group, reaching No. 3 with his composition "No Response" in 1965. The Hep Stars peaked in 1967 with a Swedish-language cover of "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream," shortly before tax issues and turmoil within the group led to a change in lineup, with Björn Ulvaeus of the folk group the Hootenanny Singers joining the act in 1969. Andersson and Ulvaeus left the Hep Stars that same year to begin a career as a songwriting and performing duo, often with assistance from Stig Anderson, a prolific Swedish songwriter who served as manager of the Hootenanny Singers and later, ABBA.
Andersson and Ulvaeus' first success was the 1968 single "Ljuva Sextional," which became a hit for singer-actress Brita Borg. The following year, Ulvaeus and Andersson met Agnetha Fältskog, who had enjoyed a great deal of success as a teen pop singer, and aspiring singer Anni-Frid Lyngstad, who would become not only their partners in ABBA but also their respective spouses. The duo also began working as house producers for Anderson's label, Polar Music, where they recorded their first pop single as the duo Björn & Benny, "She's My Kind of Girl" (1970), which provided them with a minor hit on Svensktoppen, the Swedish radio charts. They also produced solo material for their wives, scoring a No. 1 single for Lyngstad with 1971's "Min egan stad" ("My Own Town") that featured all four future ABBA members on backing vocals. Their first effort to record as a group came in 1970 as a quartet called Festfolk, which received largely negative reviews. However, a single by Björn & Benny called "Hej, gamle man" ("Hello, Old Man")" released at the same time was a Top 5 hit, which encouraged their efforts to remain together as a group.
In 1972, the quartet recorded the single "People Need Love," which featured Andersson and Ulvaeus on lead vocals and Fältskog and Lyngstad as guest vocalists, a move up from their previous status as background singers. The single, credited to Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid, reached No. 17 on the Swedish charts while also reaching No. 114 on the Cashbox singles chart in the United States, where its distributor, Playboy Records, had billed it as Björn & Benny (with Svenska Flicka). They further experimented with the group's sound during the recording sessions for their first album, Ring Ring (1973). While recording the song "Nina, Pretty Ballerina," they discovered that when all four members shared lead vocals, the result was an exceptionally pure, clean harmony. When applied to engineer Michael B. Tretow's production technique, which combined a powerful "Wall of Sound" approach with glam-rock beats, the end result was the unmistakable sound of ABBA, an acronym formed from the first letters of each group member's first name that became their official moniker in 1973. Ring Ring established the group as hitmakers throughout Europe and in South Africa, but they remained almost completely unknown in the biggest international music markets: the United States and England.
Since 1971, Andersson and Ulvaeus had tried and failed to produce a song that would capture top prize at Melodifestivalen, an annual Swedish music contest that determined the country's representative at Eurovision Song Contest, the prestigious Continental musical competition that had made international stars of singers like Lulu, Sandie Shaw and France Gall. They submitted "Waterloo," the title track from their second album, which took top prize at the 1974 Eurovision Contest and provided the quartet with worldwide exposure via the show's telecast. "Waterloo" would become their first No. 1 single in the U.K. and throughout Europe, as well as their first Top 10 song on the Billboard 100. The album itself, however, only reached No. 145 on the Billboard 200, which would begin a pattern for the group of hit singles, including "SOS" (1975), "Fernando" (1975) and their first U.S. No. 1, "Dancing Queen," balanced by low-ranking albums. ABBA's fortunes in that regard would not change until 1977, when Arrival became their first Top 20 album in America. For the next two years, ABBA was a consistent presence in the American Top 20 with hits like "The Name of the Game" (1977), "Take a Chance on Me" (1977) and "The Winner Takes It All" (1979), as well as lesser tracks like "Chiquitita" (1979), "Voulez-Vous" (1979), "Does Your Mother Known" and "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)" (1979).
But while the group's popularity throughout the world continued to skyrocket, tension between the quartet were beginning to take their toll. Ulvaeus and Fältskog announced their divorce in 1979, with Andersson and Lyngstad following suit in 1981. Their profile on the international music scene had also gone into a slow decline, with tracks like "Super Trouper" (1981) and "When All is Said and Done" (1981), from their final studio album, The Visitors, barely breaching the Top 40. Though ABBA remained exceptionally popular in the U.K., Australia and other countries, their tenure at the top of the charts had run its course. After struggling to produce three new singles, including "Just Like That" and "You Owe Me One," which appeared on a compilation album, The Singles: The First Ten Years (1982), the group gave their last performance at a TV studio in Stockholm shortly before Christmas that year. Though ABBA's popularity waned in the early '80s, the group enjoyed an extraordinary revival in the following decade with the release of ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits (1992), which sent "Dancing Queen" back up the U.K. charts to No. 16 and sold over 28 million copies worldwide. Their music was prominently featured in the Australian movies "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" (1994) and "Muriel's Wedding" (1994), while pop artists like Sinead O'Connor, Evan Dando and Erasure covered their songs during the 1990s. In 1993, Ulvaeus and Andersson joined U2 on stage in Stockholm to perform "Dancing Queen," which had been a staple of set lists for the band's Zoo TV tour. An Australian cover band, impishly titled Björn Again, enjoyed its own fanatical following for nearly two decades. Though not on Beatle levels of intensity, a public clamor for the band to reunite after what many felt was a premature end was a consistent theme for years.
While Fältskog and Lyngstad pursued solo recording careers, the two men began work on a musical called "Chess" with lyricist Tim Rice. Their collaboration was initially released as a double-LP concept album or album musical, which provided a thumbnail of the show's plot, concerning romance and intrigue at an international chess competition, to guide the listener between songs. Chess (1984) yielded two massive hit singles: the Top 5 "One Night in Bangkok," performed by actor-singer Murray Head, and "I Know Him So Well" by Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson, which topped the U.K. charts for four weeks. The theatrical production of "Chess" premiered in London's West End in 1986 and ran for three years, but its Broadway incarnation lasted only two months in 1988. Ulvaeus and Andersson later penned the Swedish musical "Kristina från Duvernåla" (1995), which ran for five years in Stockholm, but their biggest theatrical hit was unquestionably "Mamma Mia!" (1999), a romantic comedy of errors built around a songbook comprised entirely of ABBA hits. The musical premiered in London's West End in 1999 and moved to Broadway the following year, where it became the 10th longest-running show in the history of the Great White Way. Its success gave rise to productions in 16 different languages seen by approximately 42 million theatergoers, as well as a successful 2008 film adaptation starring Meryl Streep, Colin Firth and Amanda Seyfried.
While Ulvaeus was content to remain as a songwriter and producer, Andersson continued to perform during this period as the leader of the Benny Andersson Orkester (BAO). Andersson and Ulvaeus frequently collaborated on original material for the group's five albums in Sweden, which scored nine Top 10 singles on the Svenkstoppen, the Swedish radio chart, between 2001 and 2011. One single, "Du är min man" ("You Are My Man") (2004), set Swedish music industry records by remaining on the charts for 243 weeks. In 2009, BAO released its first international album, Story of a Heart, which compiled tracks from the band's Swedish releases along with five new songs written in English by Ulvaeus. Following ABBA's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, Andersson wrote the Swedish language musical "Hjälp Sökes" ("Help is Wanted") (2012) with Ulvaeus, as well as the score to the award-winning documentary "Palme" (2012), about Swedish prime minister Olaf Palme.
By Paul Gaita
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CAST: (feature film)
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